The Swiss Alps: Wengen Town, Snow Sport Heaven

By: Aubrey Lampkin

Last time I talked to you guys, I was in Koh Samui, Thailand, blathering on about something to do with life being a beach and spending much too much time gushing about my dishy scuba instructors. I just reread that. Yikes! I guess I really needed a vacation. (The trouble with getting published is that your words are immortalized and can then come back to haunt you.) So, in Thailand, when I wasn’t busy acquiring a new palette of sun freckles, trying not to die on my moto-bike, recovering from dengue fever, drinking Singha or brushing up on my French, I managed to teach eight yoga holiday retreats and get my dive master certification. Overall, mission accomplished.

Nearing the end of 2008 in Samui, my generous employers at  made me an(other!) offer I couldn’t refuse for the new year: a week in the Swiss Alps followed by Malta (Gozo) and possibly France and Morocco, teaching yoga and guiding my students in local activities such as snow-boarding, skiing, scuba-diving, surfing, rock climbing and so on. So, after a nourishing six-week holiday trip home to New York City, Connecticut and Los Angeles to catch up with loved ones, I was on a plane to Zurich to teach my first yoga-ski holiday in Wengen, a quaint ski town in the German Swiss Alps.

PLANES, TRAINS AND SNOWMOBILES
I never imagined I’d visit a country as clean, efficient, modern and thoughtful as Japan until I arrived in Switzerland (or perhaps it’s just that everything seems efficient after living in Thailand). Zurich Airport alone felt more like a scene from Gattaca than an international terminal. Upon landing at our gate, we were escorted onto the airport’s Sky Metro, which swished us along to baggage claim. Sparkling clean with subtle low lighting, the shuttle’s announcements in German, French and English were made in such a soothing tone, I was reminded of my mother reading to me at bedtime. There were even goat noises playing in the background and a projector briefly flashed an image of a beautiful Swiss miss strolling on a lush mountaintop to get us in the mood. I was. A few minutes later, we were at baggage claim and our luggage had already made a few rotations on the belt.

After collecting my bags and making my way to the lower level train station (within the airport), I bought a ticket to Wengen. I needed to find an information desk to find out which platform to go to, but strangely could not. “Ah ha,” I thought, shocked to have found a fault in the system. Just then I was directed to the Railway Center and Travel Agency (a.k.a., information desk) where I was greeted by a young trilingual woman, who printed out a copy of my train itinerary (similar to an airplane boarding pass) with platform numbers and departure/arrival times for my three connections. Yes, this place reeks of elegance, exclusivity and efficiency. From the airport’s grey granite floor tiles to the soft hand towels in the airport bathroom, Switzerland is the epitome of luxury and big money. But, in the most inoffensive way, of people who’ve had it their whole lives and who simply know no other way. Coming from America, I found myself thinking, “So this is how the other half lives.” No wonder Switzerland is a euphemism for craftsmanship and cashola.

TAKING THE TRAIN TO WENGEN
The train ride to Wengen was as smooth as the piste right after it’s been groomed. There was a distant hum like the sound of a knife being sharpened. Passengers all sat attentive and erect as if in church, quietly fondling their latest handheld devices. Even the occasional piece of graffiti I saw from the train window looked well designed and planned, like an artist was commissioned to draw it there. Every so often, a food vendor glided by in a black vest and bow-tie selling refreshments. Just like Metro North.

When I arrived at my second-to-last railway connection (I had three connections in three hours), I got off the train and froze at the top of a steep staircase to my next platform. This was the first time there hadn’t been elevator or escalator access and I was dragging two very heavy bags. Before I had a moment to come up with a plan, a Swiss man came up to me, swept up my luggage and asked where I was going. This man proceeded to carry my bags down the steep set of stairs, along a hallway, up another staircase (struggling against the weight of my bags) and all the way onto my train, where he placed them in a luggage rack, briskly turned to leave, wishing me a happy holiday and disappearing. He wasn’t even getting on my train.

Standing near the door on my last train, preparing to get off at my final stop in Wengen, I couldn’t help but notice my reflection in the foggy full-length train window. I was carrying my enormous backpacker’s backpack my mom bought me for a requisite trip through Europe on summer break that I took with my best friend when I was 19. Now, 10 years later, I was embarking on yet another series of trips through Europe carrying the same backpack – after having just visited that same friend from college in Darien, CT to meet her new twin baby boys. The irony was not lost on me. I arrived at my final destination at 9pm that night. The sky was dark and I was escorted to my hotel, The Alpenruhe, by electric cart up a series of snowy winding lanes. FYI: There are no private cars allowed in Wegnen, though some hotels are granted small electric vehicles to taxi visitors with luggage to and from the train station.

WILLKOMMEN, BIENVENUE, WELCOME
Waking up in Wengen is like waking up inside a snow globe or a 3-D IMAX movie about mountain climbing. Peeling my curtains open at sunrise, I was met by a perfect little winter town all covered in snow staring back at me; traditional wooden hotels with v-shaped roofs, pastel painted shutters and smoke spirals rising from delicate chimneys, both children and adults sledding down the hills bundled up in snowsuits, locals hiking around with ski poles carrying their equipment, all greeting each other as they pass in a melodic mix of German, French and Italian. You sort of expect Julie Andrews to appear and start belting out The Hills Are Alive.

Wengen (pronounced Vengin) is a mountain village ski resort in the Bernese Oberland in central Switzerland, forming the political commune of Lauterbrunnen. Tucked at the base of the monstrous Eiger mountain (incidentally, the inspiration for North Face apparel), there are also breathtaking alpine views of Mönch and Jungfrau mountains. Accessed by the funicular train line, Wengen is about 4,180 feet above sea level and has approximately 1,300 year-round residents. (This number grows to 5,000 during summer and to 10,000 during the peak winter tourist season.) Host to the Lauberhorn ski races since 1930, Wengen is one of the top meccas for skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, hiking and sledding in the Swiss Alps. Which is why thousands of visitors keep coming back year after year and its community of ex-pats can’t seem to go home. Wengen is also linked to the massive Jungfrau ski region, home to its neighbors Grindelwald (which you can ski to) and Mürren (which you take a train to across the valley).

Skiing and snowboarding is great everywhere here, as you’d imagine. You’ll find every level of slope you need, usually with fresh powder and groomed to perfection. Whether you’re a novice or advanced, I’d highly recommend booking at least one session with the local . If you’re a beginner, they’ll give you the technical skills you need to navigate the bunny slopes and if you’re more advanced, they’ll guide you to the best trails for your level and give you the inside scoop. Plus, it’s a great way to meet people. You can sign up for group classes or private lessons with the enthusiastic instructors.

MOUNTAIN FACTS
Resort elevation: 4,180 ft (1,274 m)
Top elevation: 7,611 ft (2,320 m); Jungfrau: 9,747 ft (2,971 m)
Base elevation: 4,180 ft (1,274 m); Jungfrau: 1,920 ft (584 m)
Number of lifts: Wengen: 19; Jungfrau: 45
Number of runs:Wengen: 47; Jungfrau: 81
Average annual snowfall: 17.4 ft (5.3m)

THE ART OF TRAVEL
My first taste (literally) of where I travel, is always informed by the local tap water. I have a crazy little experiment I like to pull off wherever I go. I taste a drop of the local tap water (government-advised or not) just to communicate to the immune system, Hey, here you are! Are you gonna be okay with this? And also, because I don’t want to pull a Charlotte York in Mexico, especially while I’m teaching yoga. In this case, tap water in the Swiss Alps makes Poland Spring taste like tap water in Thailand, which, well, tastes like sh** because it is (literally speaking, again). Swiss Alps tap water tastes like if Jennifer Aniston were to snowball you Smart Water after a love session in the desert. Plus, it naturally comes out ice cold. I like to think that my foolish experiment is similar to that of those who dosed themselves with small amounts of cyanide to acquire a resistance to it over time, only to kill their enemies by drinking from a shared poisoned glass (if I were to be dramatic about it). In any case, I haven’t had a problem yet — and I’ve experimented with some questionable water. Sometimes, you just get a little bored after spending extended amounts of time alone in hotel rooms and airports … moving on …

Being on the road again for me is probably like being home for most people. I love the people-watching, observing the idiosyncrasies of foreign cultures, eavesdropping on languages I can’t understand, the adrenaline rush of not knowing what where you’re heading is going to look like (kind of like a blind date, not that I’ve ever had one) or even how to get there. And then somehow figuring it all out. But living in hotels full-time can quickly get old, like when the housekeeper (who you now know by name, along with her children) walks in on you at an inopportune moment or having to eat out every meal (exciting at first, annoying after a while). But slipping into those fresh-pressed white sheets at the end of the night, with the knowledge they’re going to be changed again in the morning, is almost as nice as slipping into your lover’s pressed white button-down shirt for bed (if only). I used to dread eating and traveling alone. I can’t say I love it now, but I’ve been able to find peace in it.

DINING IN WENGEN
 doesn’t have the best pasta in the world, but after a long day on the slopes and after a week of eating bratwurst, pizza or pasta can be a welcome treat. Plus, they have their own brick oven so the pizzas are actually very good and they have quite a selection. Located directly across from Wengen’s own Club Med (totally out of place in this non-corporate village), Da Sina has a restaurant portion (the pizzeria) and a separate bar portion, Sina’s Pub. The restaurant is cozy and quaint set with simple decor, wooden tables (mostly occupied by large parties) draped with the requisite red-and-white checkered Neapolitan tablecloths, jugs of house Chianti (delicious for $17) and friendly wait staff.

DINING AT: THE BAEREN HOTEL
Almost every hotel in Wengen (there are 24 in total) offers some kind of dinner menu. Most offer typical Swiss-German fare a-la-carte and also a prix-fixe menu, usually ranging between $40 and $50 per person.  offers the best dinner menu and ambiance by far. Located just under the tunnel next to the train station, The Baeren serves only traditional Swiss-German fare ranging from meats, fishes, pastas, desserts and an impressive wine list and beer selection. It is always one of the busiest dinner restaurants in town, so book ahead of time or wait to be seated, while enjoying a glass of local wine. I had a deliciously stewed beef tenderloin with German pasta and roast vegetables with a glass of their Swiss pinot-noir for about $40. I was particularly impressed by the little piece of quiche they served on a silver spoon right after you order (“compliments of the chef”) and by their house-made herbed butter. Really gets the taste buds going. Wait staff is aloof and curt, but that is to be expected from most Swiss-Germans. It’s a cultural thang; they probably think we’re strange for trying to be friendly and warm. Expect to spend about $50 to $60 per person for a full meal, but it will be worth it.

DINING AT: THE BERNERHOF HOTEL
 doesn’t have the best ambiance, though there is a nice view of the main road if you manage to get a window table (best to book in advance). But, they do have the best cheese and beef fondue in town (for the beef, you need to order about three hours in advance). The basic cheese fondue set is only $20 for two people and the basic beef fondue set (think Japanese shabu-shabu with glass noodles) is also $20, but for one person. They also have very nice house wine and friendly and cute waiters.

DINING AT: THE EIGER HOTEL
 restaurant, located directly across from the train station, also has lovely local fare, beautiful ambiance and sweet wait staff.

The Co-op supermarket or the local bakery Vincenz are the places to go to grab a quick sandwich or fresh piece of quiche during the day for about $5 on your way back from the slopes. And don’t forget: A bar of Toblerone is cheaper than a cup of coffee here.

DRINKING AT: THE TIPI BAR
Drinking in the Swiss Alps (or any ski town, for that matter) can be just as big of a sport as the skiing. I had my first glimpse into said apres-skiactivity one afternoon following a day of boarding at the  next to the train station in Lenk. Dozens of ski- and snowboard bunnies still dressed in full ski gear convene there every afternoon to eat, drink and be merry. Very merry. In the mere hour I was at Tipi, I was offered (and drank): one Swiss beer, two mulled wines, two shots of Jagermeister (or ‘medicine’ as they like to call it) and a partridge in a pear tree. Be careful — remember you’re at a great altitude. And altitude makes you drunk faster and more dehydrated. Drink tons of water with your booze .. and otherwise.

DRINKING AT: THE ROCKS BAR
Make your first watering hole stop in Wengen town at The Rocks Bar, located directly next to the post office in a little breeze-way in front of the main cable car to Mannlichen Mountain. The Rocks Bar (the Cheers of Wengen), always offers sports footage playing on flat-screen TVs, Internet access and a meeting place for all the locals and ex-pats smack in the center of town. Ask for Alex (a friendly British bartendress and 12-year Wengen resident) or Jeremy (the owner). They will not only serve you the best draught Swiss lager (Rugen Brau), warm mulled-wine (Glühwein) and ‘special coffee’ in town, but will give you the best local advice and recommendations for Wengen. (Alex made me feel like a local in a matter of days, and for her generous hospitality, I am forever grateful.) Rocks is also the only non-smoking bar in town, please you or not.

DRINKING AT: THE TANNE BAR
For a little more mood and ambiance, try the Tanne Bar located just down the road also near the center of town. This cozy, dark little bar is probably the most romantic in town without any pretense – except for the occasional drunk (and often offensive) Swiss-German who breaks into glass-shattering song.

DRINKING AT: THE FALKEN HOTEL
Nestled inside  is my favorite bar in town. Partly because the Falken Hotel evokes visions of Fawlty Towers (‘Basil!’) and is the oldest hotel in Wengen, but mostly because of their part-time resident piano-player, . Having shared stages and recording studios with legends like The Blues Brothers, Eric Clapton, BB King and Stevie Ray, Al Copley plays a mix of classical, jazz and ‘boogie woogie’ piano (and, if you’re really lucky and he’s in the mood, he also sings). Al’s audience captivation style has been compared to the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, but that’s as far as I’ll go with that. You just have to see for yourself. Just don’t expect to have an early night if you go. The man mesmerizes until the wee hours.

DRINKING AT: THE BLUE MONKEY
If all the other bars have closed and you just can’t bring yourself to go home, head to the Blue Monkey ‘Club’ next to Sina’s Pizzeria and across from Club Med. It’s a dingy, smoky basement dive bar/club with a bad DJ. But you won’t notice any of those things by the time you actually end up there.

WHERE TO SLEEP
In Wengen, you have your choice of about , backpacker-style dorm houses (mostly inhabited by ski instructors) and private houses (mostly occupied by locals and year-round ex-pats). For about $100 a night for a single room ($200 a night for a double), I stayed at the , which is a modern, 24-room tuck-away at the top of one of the hills with spectacular views and a five-minute walk to the center of town. The Alpenruhe is a nice mid-level hotel choice in Wengen and has a delicious continental-style breakfast included every morning.

For further advice on hotels, skiing or absolutely anything else visit the local tourist information office located in the center of town. If they don’t have the answer, they’ll get right on the phone to someone else to get it for you. These ladies can also probably tell you how many children you’re going to have and when they will be born.

NEXT DESTINATION
After a couple weeks of high-altitude yoga, snowboarding, eating and drinking in Wengen, Switzerland, you’d think it would be hard to say goodbye to this beautiful Swiss Alps neighborhood – and it is. However, I’m now off to Malta (Gozo, to be exact) for more  holidays. This time, yoga/scuba and yoga/rock-climbing! Stay tuned!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Aubrey was born in Norwalk, Connecticut in 1979. In 1986, her family relocated to Tokyo with her father’s company. Aubrey lived in downtown Tokyo for the next five years where she attended the International School of the Sacred Heart, made friends from all over the world and traveled in Asia, Australia, Africa and Europe, catching the travel bug. Aubrey is currently living in Koh Samui, Thailand acquiring her scuba dive-master certification. She proudly owns more swimwear than actual clothing now – and, most importantly – hasn’t seen a BlackBerry or used the acronym ‘ASAP’ since leaving her corporate job in March, 2008.

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