Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Mürren, Switzerland 2/8 - 2/11

We left Chamonix early Friday morning and began our journey to Mürren, Switzerland. There were no direct trains between the two, so we needed to make four train transfers. For some unknown reason, the Mont-Blac Express train was not departing from Chamonix town center. We took a bus from the town center to Vallorcine where we caught the Mont-Blanc Express train down to Martigny, Switzerland. This brought us to a total of five transfers. From Martigny we transferred to a regular Swiss train and departed for Brig, Interlaken Ost, Lauterbrunnen and then finally on to Mürren. With a recovering stomach from food poisoning, a morning of beautiful views was more than welcome, even with all the transfers.

Route to Mürren.
One of the many towns outside Chamonix that seem to dangle from the steep mountain sides.
Riding past Lake Thun just outside Spiez, Switzerland

Mürren sits above the village of Lauterbrunnen, which is the main train station hub to several surrounding mountain villages reachable by train. It is the last town reachable by cars. We transferred from the main train and hopped on a suspended tram up a mountain cliff. The tram had a unique under-storage compartment for luggage. We transferred from the cable tram to an old train that traveled along the cliff edge to the village Mürren.
Mürren and surround sights and mountain villages
Passenger cargo and town supplies are transported under the cable suspended tram.
Video of luggage transfer from tram to train.

Our last two transfers were full of skiers because Mürren sits amidst a ski area.

Mürren is located in the center of Switzerland at the northern edge of the Alps. It is a traditional mountain village dating back to 1257 with spectacular views of the mountains Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau. Once trains were built to easily reach Mürren and other surrounding alpine towns, the region quickly developed into a popular skier and hiker destination. To this day, the town has a small population of 400 and yet it has 2,000 hotel beds for the summer and winter tourists.
It felt as if we were stepping back in time.

Once we stepped out of the Mürren train station, we discovered that our roller suitcases were going to be a challenge along the snow covered roads. Since the roads do not need to be cleared for cars, they remain covered with snow during winter. That made it great fun to ski or sledge (the British word for sled) through the town. We later learned that hotels offered large sledges to transport luggage. Thankfully our hotel was not too far from the station.
Skiing around town instead of driving - our kind of town.
These village roads are part of the ski runs of the mountain.
Roller bags do not work well with snowy roads.

We stayed at Hotel Edelweiss, which was quaint and had an amazing view of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau from our balcony. The atmosphere was homey especially in the evening when a teenager came in and played the popular songs on the piano. We have to admit that we were not impressed with the hotel restaurant's dinner, but we enjoyed the simple complimentary breakfast.
Taking in the view.
View from our hotel room.
We did not have to worry about anyone catching us walking around our hotel room naked.
Out on our balcony.
Our favorite part about breakfast in Europe were soft boiled eggs and pastries.

On our first full day, Saturday, we woke up to a blanket of fresh snow. In the morning, the mountains were socked with clouds with low visibility on the slopes. With all the freshly fallen snow, not even the poor visibility could put a damper on our day. Shortly after an afternoon break in a mountain hut along a ski run, the clouds began to lift and we were able to take in the mountain view. In the evening we enjoyed strolling through the village and slegding down the streets. We stumbled into the community center where half the town was celebrating the victory of two Special Olympics Winter Games medals by the locals. It was a warm and welcoming celebration with refreshments and a live traditional Swiss band.
Mountain hut that rents beds to adventurous outdoor enthusiasts.
We ate at its restaurant on the ground floor.
Clouds lifted in time to enjoy the ski route down to Lauterbrunnen
Instead of watching out for cars in town, you have to look out for sledges.
These sledges are way cooler than what we have back at home.
Curling game at the community center

On the next morning, Sunday, we had to face a hard decision. The clouds had cleared and there was still plenty of fresh snow on the ground - a prefect day to ski or sight see. We could either explore other parts of the mountain by snowboard or visit the Jungfraujoch (Top of Europe), Europe's highest railway station. It was a hard decision but we chose sightseeing. We traveled down to Lauterbrunnen to buy the tickets up to Jungfraujoch and were floored by the train ticket cost - over 150USD per person! We sighed, handed over the money, and hoped the trip up to the Top of Europe would be quick enough that we could squeeze in some snowboarding in the afternoon. Getting to the top station was a nice journey. The views were spectacular all the way up, and even while the train made its way through mountain tunnels, there were several stops to look out through mountain windows. The Jungfraujoch offered tourists a few actives; nice vistas, a glacier cave, shopping, and a few lunch options. After a self guided tour of the sights, we enjoyed a fondue lunch overlooking the glacier ice field covered in freshly fallen snow.
A pit stop to look out the vista windows as we traveled inside the Eiger mountain.
Excavators found Scrat with his acorn.
Glacier cave.
Traditional Swiss lunch with a view.
View down towards Lauterbrunnen as we are heading back to Mürren.

While leaving the Top of Europe, we were a bit disappointed with our decision. The visit to the Jungfraujoch took nearly all morning and afternoon, leaving us no time to snowboard. The views at the top and the self guided tour of the visitor's center were all nice but overall the experience was not worth the cost nor the missed day of skiing. On a train back down to Lauterbrunnen, we met an old lady from New Zealand. We shared travel stories about skiing around the world. We learned that her husband passed away and this was her first season skiing without him. They had met through skiing and their stories reminded us a lot of our own relationship. Even though our last day did not turn out like we planned, we were really glad we met this lady and shared stories. We spent that evening sledging the steeper streets of Mürren, taking a stroll to a nearby town, and enjoying a good dinner at a new restaurant. 
Looking North from the Top of Europe
Nice view but not worth the cost

As most travel destinations, we wish we could have stayed longer. There was so much more of the mountains to explore. Mürren is well known for its backcountry ski terrain, but the weather conditions and lack of time did not permit us to explore very far. The weather also held us back from trying ice climbing. If we ever make it back here during the summer, we consider hiking, camping, biking, glacier trekking, and canyoning - plenty to keep us busy. Hopefully we will stay longer next time.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Chamonix Mont-Blanc, France 1/31 - 2/8

We arrived in Geneva, Switerland, and caught a shuttle bus to Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, a world famous mountaineering town. I had been there once before in '99 and was excited to make it back to snowboard its breath-taking mountains. Just like my prior trip, we had arrived in the town in the evening, during a storm and had to wait until the morning to see just how beautiful the area is.
One hour shuttle bus ride from the airport to Chamonix.

Chamonix-Mont-Blac is a mountain town in valley surrounded by towering mountains. It is home to the first winter Olympics and France's oldest ski resort. Cham' continues to attract tourist from around the world. The town has adapted to the tourists and offers plenty of shopping, restaurants and a free local bus stopping at the many gondolas around the valley. Since English is the default international language, getting by without fluent French and using English made our stay easy. There is one caveat: even though most tourists are not French speakers, we did notice that the local French prefer visitors to adhere to French mannerisms and conduct in restaurants. We noticed a waiter get pretty annoyed at a loud Brazilian group.
Center plaza of downtown.
Very cool street art
In search for a dinner spot in Old Downtown Chamonix
Ski Areas in relationship to Chamonix Valley

We rented a studio apartment for the week through Airbnb. It was roughly a third of the price of a hotel room. The apartment was located one block from the northern edge of downtown and steps away from a local service bus stop. Our place was quiet and cozy and allowed Quarup to work remotely. It had underground parking (available to us if we had brought a car), basement storage locker for our snowboards, reliable internet, and a washer in the unit - parfait.
The mini kitchen and dinning area made a great office.
Video conference time.
Warm and cozy inside.
Making ourselves at home.

On our first day we decided to take it easy. We were jet lagged plus it was raining in the valley. We spent the afternoon exploring Chamonix's downtown area. Many shops downtown catered to seriours outdoor enthusiasts, selling high quality outerwear and plenty of backcountry ski equipment. One shop (Zero G) catered just to snowboarders and even rented high end backcountry splitboards for women! Finding a place back home that rents high end splitboards is extermly rare but a place that rents women's backcountry splitboards is unheard of.
We ran into a familiar face at Zero G - my professional snowboarder cousin, Danny Davis.
On our second day in Chamonix, we woke up early, got our ski gear on, and walked to the nearby gondola in anticipation of a full day of riding. There had been non-stop precipitation (either snow or light rain in the valley) since we arrived and we were not surprised to hear avalanche control bombs going off in the distance. We know the mountains must have received a lot of snow. To our dismay, we learned that Chamonix received too much snow and they wouldn't be opening most of the resort areas all day, despite all the avalanche control preformed during the morning.
Each red light indicates that a ski lift is not running.
Each yellow light indicates a lift is on hold.
No green lights.

We made the best of the situation and went to the Saturday Farmer's Market. It was a treat for our eyes, noses, and mouths. Flowers, salami, cheeses, olives, mulled wine - my mouth waters just thinking of the fragrant cheeses that filled the air. We didn't hesitate to pick up a few french delicatessens and flowers to brighten up our studio apartment.
Red tulips to match our studio apartment.
Local salami
Local Alpine Cheese
Mulled wine to keep us warm while shopping.

Unlike North America, Europe does not avalanche control the entire resort areas. European resorts only ensure that the trails (piste) are safe to ride on. We signed up to ride off-piste in a guided group for our third day. Chamonix, France was still undergoing avalanche control procedures so our guide drove the group to the Italian side of Mont Blanc. The ski towns of Courmayeur, Italy and Chamonix, France are connected by a tunnel below Mont Blanc. Unlike Chamonix, the weather on the Italian side of Mont Blanc was bright and beautiful.
The Italian side of Mont Blanc
We didn't care much for the large guided group but we had a wonderful time chatting with people in the group from around the globe. Everyone is passionate about skiing and snowboarding and traveling, which led to quickly connecting.
Italian lunch with the  half of our ski group.

Overall we were a bit disappointed with the off-piste guides because they didn't take our group to any interesting ski off-piste areas. The next day we decided to take things into our own hands and explore the ski slopes on our own. The French side of Mont Blanc was partially open so we spent the day on the Western side of Chamonix at Brévent-Flégère  We were cautious on the off-piste and primarily stayed on the trails. The snow was plenty, the views were gorgeous, but the higher up we went, the winds howled creating unsafe white out conditions.
View of Aiguille de Tour from Brévent-Flégère funicular.
Funicular between Brévent and Flégère
We escaped the howling winds for lunch at the highest restaurant in the vicinity. Unlike in North American resorts, lunch is definitely worth stopping for in Europe. There are real restaurants on the mountain with freshly prepared meals, not cafeterias with reheated greasy food like back in the States.
Mulled Wine and the daily hand written menu.
Local specialty Tartiflette for lunch.
We had yet to explore the South East mountains that hover over Chamonix but fate had a different plan for us. The relentless snow kept the higher elevations of the mountains under high avalanche danger. We had hoped to do a backcountry snowboarding but the snow and low visibility would have been unsafe. We tried to make the best of our situation and planned to visit a local glacier cave accessible by train. Yet again, the high avalanche danger stopped the mountain trains from leaving the town station.
Extremely glad we brought our snow boots
View from our studio balcony. The nonstop snow blocked the view of the background mountains.

Thankfully we were in France and decided to enjoy the amazing French food. Each afternoon and evening we were able to enjoy delicious local food. One of our favorite resturants was Le Panier des 4 Saisons. We were in heaven enjoying their homemade foie gras.
A local French Alps cheese dish named Tartiflette
We pushed our luck a little too far with an Asian inspired restaurant. I took down my guard and ordered the restaurant's featured sushi platter. Typically, I am very picky about where to eat raw fish but this restaurant was highly rated by lots of British we chatted with, so we decided to go for it. I wound up with the worst food poisoning I can remember. On our last full day in Chamonix, I spent my time in the apartment, steps away from the bathroom while Quarup worked remotely. It was not the note on which we had hoped to leave France, but at least I had a full day to recover before the long train ride to Murren, Switerland on Friday, February 8th.