Sunday, 29 January 2012

Das Matterhorn I - Day 6

The stunning Swiss Alps is the highlight of any visit to Switzerland as its pristine snow covered slopes appeal to both skiers and tourists alike. Amongst the numerous alpine resorts, we chose Zermatt as it offers one of the most varied forms of mountain transport and is overlooked by the Matterhorn – an iconic symbol of Switzerland. The map below shows the different attractions which we had visited during our short stay in Zermatt. (credits to Zermatt.ch Link for the map)
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Hotel Tannenhof

Being an alpine resort, accommodation in Zermatt is generally expensive although it was one of the few places in our trip where summer was considered as a lull season. We came across Hotel Tannenhof after we were unable to secure two rooms at Le Petit Hotel due to a delay in making our reservations. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise as Le Petit Hotel later cancelled all its reservations to carry out renovations during the summer season and we did not have to face the dilemma of settling for the next cheapest hotel (which charges twice the rate!) or stay at a cheap hostel which did not receive particularly favourable reviews (such as only having one toilet on the ground floor).

Located along Hinterdorfstrasse, the hotel is located in the oldest neighbourhood of Zermatt but the main street and other star attractions of the town are within walking distance.
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The bulk of the hotels in Zermatt are not equipped with lifts and Hotel Tannenhof is no exception. The friendly propertior lent us a much needed hand with our luggage as we hauled our baggage up three steep flight of stairs to our room on the second floor (the first storey is referred to as the ground floor). The wood panelled rooms are clean and well-maintained with the warm lighting lending a cosy ambience to the room. In addition, one of the rooms also has a small balcony that overlooks a quiet street and offered a glimpse of the Alpine mountain range.
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Breakfast was a simple affair and was served in a buffet style in the dining room on the ground floor. A continental breakfast with items such as croissants, cereals and bacon were offered and the propertior also provided a personal touch by offering freshly prepared pots of tea/coffee for each table.
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A flat screen television set in the reception area provided weather updates and operational status at the different peaks and facilities (left).

Hotel Tannenhof eschews the modern card readers for the rooms and guests are issued with a key attached to a bulky keychain. An additional plastic RFID tag allows entry through the main door during the late hours of the evening. It is also interesting to note that the sugar packets also bear the Zermatt emblem which features the Matterhorn (right).
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Klein Matterhorn & Matterhorn Glacial Paradise

The first destination for the day was to visit the Matterhorn Glacial Paradise which is located at Europe's highest cable car station at Klein Matterhorn. The cable car station is located at the southern end of the town and is a leisurely 15 min stroll from our hotel.

Matterhorn. One word says it all as we were instantly awed by the sight that greeted us the moment we reached the main road, Bahnhofstrasse. Standing at 4,478m above sea level, the iconic peak towered over the traditional Swiss wooden houses and the lush green slopes.
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The Matterhorn Museum located near Hotel Zermatthof pays tribute to the past attempts made to conquer the Matterhorn. The first successful attempt was made by Edward Whymper in 1865 but not without a painful cost - 4 of his fellow climbers plunged to their death during the descent (top left).

Wolli the sheep is the official mascot of Zermatt and cut-outs of this adorable character can be found scattered the alpine town (top right).

Traditional handwritten direction signs in Zermatt (bottom)

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Morning street scene along Oberdorfstrasse. Zermatt only has a resident population of 5,720 (as of Dec 2010) and half of the jobs in town in hotels or restaurants to support the local tourism industry.
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The walk eventually brought us alongside River Vispa, where we took in views of the silky white water of the rapids and followed the signage to the cable car station across the river.
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A giant information board at the entrance to the cable car station shows the operational status of the various mountain transportation and facilities. We noted that the second section of the main route to Klein Matterhorn was closed but an alternative was available via Schwarzsee Paradise. We were also rather thrilled at prospect of being to experience the -3°C temperature and 34km/h wind that was reported at our intended destination.
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As with the other private mountain railways, Swiss Pass holders are able to enjoy a 50% discount on the usual adult fares for ZBAG operated routes. The first part of our ascent to Klein Matterhorn involved a ride in an aging Von Roll aerial tram from Zermatt (1620m) to Furi (1867m).
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View of Zermatt from the aerial tram en route to Furi. Zermatt lies at the end of the Mattertal (Matter Valley) in the canton of Valais.
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A Von Roll aerial tram descending from Furi to Zermatt with the Mattertal in the background. The aerial trams are adorned in a striking red and white livery to promote the Matterhorn Glacial Paradise which is located at Klein Matterhorn.
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The next section of our ascent involved a 23 minute long cable car ride from Furi to Trockener Steg. New CWA cars are used on this sector, which had also been extended to complement the aerial tram service between Zermatt and Furi.
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Different liveries on the Matterhorn Express CWA cable cars used on the Furi-Trockener Steg cableway.
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View of the Swiss Alps shortly after leaving Furi (1867m) towards Mittelstation (2324m). The drop down windows installed on the sliding doors of the gondola allowed passengers to obtain photos of the surrounding scenery with ease.
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We had our first close-up look at the Matterhorn near Schwarzsee Paradise (2583m). Schwarzsee lake also reportedly offers a postcard view of the Matterhorn's reflection in the lake but we decided to skip a stopover at this station due to time constraints.
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After Schwarzsee Paradise, the cableway descended towards Furgg (2434m). At this point, there was a distinct change in the surrounding vegetation where the sparsely vegetated slopes soon gave way to the barren rocky slopes of the Alpine tundra.
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In the last segment of the cable car ride, we were able to chance upon a glacial lake formed from the meltwater of the Oberer Theodulgletscher. Whilst shrouded in clouds, the Matterhorn provided a dramatic backdrop to the alpine landscape.
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Trockener Steg is situated at an elevation of 2939m above sea level and is located at the edge of the snow line. Passengers can also transfer to the Furggsattel Gletscherbahn chairlift where the other end of the line ends within the borders of Italy.
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The unmistakable form of the famed St Bernard dog immediately caught our attention as we stepped out of the cable car at Trockener Steg and its handler also wasted no time in trying to get us interested in a photo with his dog against the stunning alpine peaks for CHF10. He also proved to be rigid and inflexible when we offered to pay him directly to allow us to obtain a photo of the dog, as he cited that only the company's camera could be used to take a photo of us together with the dog, with the payment being made to his company at Zermatt upon collection of the photos. Eventually, he allowed us to obtain photos of the dog in exchange for payment that would be used to purchase food for the dog.
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The cableway between Trockener Steg and Klein Matterhorn was delayed by both environmentalists and the citizens of Zermatt over various issues and construction only began in August 1976. The cableway was completed 3 years later and was opened in December 1979. Manufactured by CWA, the two 100 passenger gondolas used on the line had to be flown in from Täsch before they are attached to the hangar frames and hung onto the overhead track cables.
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(Clockwise from left):-

The control panel of the CWA aerial tram. The cableway is manually operated and an onboard digital scale helped to ensure that the total load is within the safe operating limits.

The aerial tram at Trockener Steg station, which is also referred to as the valley station of the line.

The CWA aerial tram is capable of carrying 100 passengers and 1 operator with a total load of approximately 8080kg.
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Passengers were treated to spectacular views of snow-covered peaks and glaciers during the journey. Unfortunately, it remained a challenge to obtain photos through the tinted glass as the cabin is not fitted with openable windows presumably due to the strong winds and low temperatures at that altitude.
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Formed through centuries of snow accumulation, glaciers leave their indelible mark on the landscape as they carve through steep mountain valleys and stir the hearts of many a traveller.
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The scenery became increasingly dramatic as the aerial tram proceeded into the steeper sections of the route. With only three supporting towers along the 3.7km long line, passengers had an unobstructed view of the Unt. Theodulgletscher which had remained frozen even in summer.
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Approaching Klein Matterhorn station which also holds the distinction of being the highest cable car station in Europe at an elevation of 3820m. The construction of the station proved to be exceptionally challenging as workers had to battle extreme weather conditions and the thin atmosphere at the altitude. The concrete used to build the station had to be mixed with warm water and antifreeze before being transported by helicopters to the site in specially insulated tanks.
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An access tunnel burrowed through the mountains linked the cable car station on the northern face to the ski area and Glacial Paradise located on the southern face of the peak.
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A multitude of signs at Klein Matterhorn reminding skiers to keep to marked slopes due to the risk of crevasses and the real danger of altitude sickness. We however, did not feel any ill effects which might be as a result of having acclimatised during our hour long stay at Trockener Steg earlier.
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The largest summer ski runs in Europe are located at Klein Matterhorn and skiers can choose from a variety of courses to match their individual skiing skills. The ski runs were closed on the day of our visit due to the presence of crevasses along the ski run along with poor visibility conditions.
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The general volatility of weather in the mountains meant that the blue skies quickly gave way to an impenetrable gloom within moments as the low level clouds were swept in by the gusty winds. Visitors can also head up to an observation platform which offers views as far as the Mediterranean on a clear day.
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After savouring the cold and the harsh biting winds, we decided to head back into the warmth of the enclosed area and had lunch at the restaurant which was co-located with the souvenir shop. At CHF18.50, the Rösti dish with cheese and bacon was cheaper than we had expected at such a location and the quality did not disappoint us either. Compared to the rösti we had at Mount Pilatus, it was not as dry, while the cheese and bacon resulted in a unique blend of taste and texture to the savoury dish.
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The Matterhorn Glacier Palace is accessible by elevators leading to the entrance of the ice tunnel located 15 metres below the glacier surface. A series of ice tunnels and caverns had been carved out of the glacial and visitors are able to view the various ice sculptures that are scattered throughout the venue. Despite the lack of wind gusts in the glacial palace, we found it challenging to admire the exhibits in the bone numbing cold.
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The ice sculptures in the glacial palace are changed every year and are based on a wide variety of themes.
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Visitors who are not too keen on skiing down the perennial ski slopes can also experience a brief rush of adrenaline by sledging down an ice slide in the glacial palace.
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The beauty of the large irregularly shaped ice crystals that line the surface of a natural crevasse were highlighted by several strategically located multi-coloured spotlamps.
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Given our fair share of photos taken during the ascent in the morning, we only took a few photos on the way down and spent the bulk of the journey time admiring the views.
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35.8 kilometers of track, hand and counter cables which weigh over 300 tonnes connect the Klein Matterhorn station with Trockener Steg. Shortly after breaking through the thick layer of fog, the Theodul Glacier stretched out below the cableway with Trockener Steg being faintly visible in the distance.
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Approaching Trockener Steg station. Despite being described as a valley station for the final segment of the cableway route to Klein Matterhorn, Trockener Steg is in fact a minor peak in the Pennine Alps. The ski run visible at the bottom of the photo was created and sustained using a costly IDE Snowmaker which produces high quality artificial snow using a proprietary Vacuum Ice Maker (VIM) technology. This technology generates a high vacuum pressure to induce the triple point of water (where all 3 states of water co-exist) where an ice-water slurry is formed. Water is then extracted to produce man-made snow.
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An interesting advertisement billboard at the ground floor of the cable car station. Pigs might not fly, but they could most definitely enjoy the spectacular alpine scenery from the comfort of a chairlift!
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We chanced upon an electric bus while crossing the bridge from the cable car station, and jumped onboard to save us the hassle of walking to the Gornergrat Bahn station which is located at the other end of the town.
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In a bid to maintain the pristine mountain air in the alpine town, Zermatt is demarcated as a car-free town and vehicles which run on combustion engines are also prohibited. As such, the local buses (E-bus) in the town are also operated by electric buses that are custom-built locally. The Green Line, or Linie Bergbahnen, provides a useful link from the bus stop located outside the depot near the cable car station to the town centre where the train stations for MGB and Gornergrat Bahn are located.
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The basic interior of the E-bus is outfitted for the convenience of skiers who frequent the service. Bench seats provide ease of movement for skiers who are carrying bulking skiing equipment and the Jacob's plate flooring provide a non-slip surface even when slippery with melted snow and slush.
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Being electric-powered, the bus sounded rather similar to some of the trolleybuses which we had ridden on before and the soft purr of the electric motor was largely being drowned out by the music from the onboard loudspeakers.


Next Post: Das Matterhorn II - Day 6 & 7

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Interlaken's Twin Lakes - Day 5

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Interlaken's Twin Lakes - Day 5

Lake Thun

Our original plan was to take a bus to Interlaken West Bahnhof where we would be able to transfer to our Lake Thun cruise at the adjacent pier, but the bus schedules were unfortunately not in our favour and the journey time was deemed to be too long. Thankfully, we found out that there was a train departing soon which would bring us on the short 3 minute hop to the next station.
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Lake Thun and Lake Brienz arguably define the soul of Interlaken as the numerous lakeside activities and spectacular scenery breathe life into the town. Moreover, Interlaken also takes its name from its geographical position between the lakes (inter lacus in Latin), and thus a visit is never complete without a cruise on at least one of the two lakes. After a careful study of the ferry schedule and that of connecting buses, we managed to come up with a plan which allowed us to cover significant parts of both lakes in the most time-efficient manner.

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MS Bubenberg at the Interlaken West pier. Built in 1962 at Bodan Werft, Kressbronn, she can carry a maximum of 800 passengers and is interestingly powered by a pair of Detroit Diesel 8V92 marine diesel engines. The pier is situated at the end of a nearly 3km long canal to allow vessels to dock right beside the train station and provide seamless connectivity between the different forms of transport.
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A wall mural depicting Adrian von Bubenberg at the staircase leading to the first class area on the upper deck. Famously remembered as the hero of the Battle of Murten in 1476 where he prevented the defeat of the Switzerland from the troops of Charles, Duke of Burgundy, the Bernese knight and general was also the mayor (Schultheiss) of Bern in 1468-1469, 1473-1474 and 1477-1479 (left).
Wood panelled restaurant of MV Bubenberg. A small ticket office doubles as a counter selling official BLS memorabilia (right).
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We initially took up outdoor seats at the bow but shifted to the stern when we noted that the vessel was actually reversing out along the canal for the first 10 minutes of the journey.
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Framed against the rugged mountainous landscape, BLS's sister ship MS Stadt Thun was photographed working the ferry services in Lake Thun.
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A restored paddle steamer Blümlisalp on Lake Thun. BLS operates the paddle steamers on special thematic cruises as well as selected trips on Lake Brienz and Lake Thun during the summer season.
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After a leisurely 50min cruise, we arrived at our destination, Beatenbucht which houses the funicular railway that leads up to Beatenberg where passengers can further transfer to a gondola lift to the summit station of Niederhorn.
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Beatenberg

From Beatenbucht, one option is to take Service 21 along the coastal road back to Interlaken. However, we chose to ride the Beatenberg funicular up the hill and return on Service 101 along the hilly road to add further variety to the trip.

A MAN articulated bus outside BLS Beatenbuchton working service 21 in the direction of Interlaken Ost (left).
Various signs at Beatenbucht promoting the various recreational and transport options available in the area (right).
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The Thunersee-Beatenberg Bahn (TBB) is a 1200mm narrow gauge funicular railway opened in 1889 and links Beatenbucht on the banks of Lake Thun with the village of Beatenberg which sits at an altitude of 1120m above sea level.
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We were given free rides with our Swiss Passes, and simply had to push through the turnstiles which the person-in-charge had unlocked specially for us.
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It was a pleasant surprise that there were no other passengers on our trip and we were thus able to 'charter' the entire car to ourselves. The Beatenberg funicular uses cars manufactured by Gangloff and feature a glass roof to further enhance the ride experience by providing an extra dimension to the wide glass windows at the ends and sides of the cabin. The cars are similar to that used on the Harderbahn except that they operate without drivers and have higher capacity with four compartments that can carry up to 90 passengers.
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We were treated with magnificent views of the lake along the ascent to Beatenberg village. The 1,695m long funicular overcomes a vertical distance of 556 metres and has a maximum gradient of 41%.
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We decided to forgo the ascent to Niederhorn upon arriving at Beatenberg due to time constraints and that Swiss Pass Holders were only entitled to a 50% discount off the ticket price instead of another free ride. We nearly missed the connecting PostAuto service 101 back to Interlaken West as we had overlooked our itinerary and thought that we had added in more buffer time! As it was a relatively rural service where onboard payment is accepted and is the norm, we were required to produce our Swiss Pass upon boardingfor verification.
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We were able to enjoy views of the lake from an elevated perspective along some stretches of the journey as the bus slowly wound its way downhill.
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The Citaro series had often been associated with a passenger friendly low floor design where there is zero step from the front of the bus to the rear of the bus. However, Mercedes Benz introduced the Citaro LE version at the same time when the v2 bodywork was offered where it is only low floor from the entrance to the exit of the bus. Passengers would have to climb an additional 2 steps to move towards the rear of the bus. As a result of the reduced headroom after the exit due to the steps, the manufacturer created a distinctive 'hump' to restore the headroom towards the rear of the bus. The regional operator had also specified a more powerful 12 litre diesel engine instead of the 6 litre engine that is common on the standard versions and the engine sounded almost identical to an OC500LE.

The photo below shows the Citaro LE Ü from the rear which shows the steps after the exit. As the seats in the front portion are mounted on a platform rather than on the floor, it is classified as a suburban/interurban Ü series. Moreover, overhead luggage racks are also installed for the convenience of passengers.
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Interlaken West Bahnhof Spotting

Upon returning to Interlaken West Bahnhof, we decided to make use of the opportunity to obtain photos of buses at the adjacent bahnhof and trains that were travelling through the nearby level crossing.

We managed to photograph the Citaro LE Ü that we had taken earlier departing back to Beatenberg on service 101. Note the hump at the rear half of the bus which identifies it as a LE version.
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In addition to the usual slate of PostAuto services, the mountainous background provided an excellent backdrop to frame well lit photos of the articulated buses in STI's fleet. STI is a regional operator that operates service 21 to Thun from Interlaken Ost along the north banks of Lake Thun.
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Being a centre for tourism, Interlaken is not spared from the presence of these ubiquitous road trains that are used to operate city sightseeing tours.
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Horse carriages are also available for hire for visitors who seek a more authentic form of transport for their sightseeing needs.
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As mentioned in previous posts, the Swiss transport system is unique chiefly due to the way that it integrates together different disparate operators across the country. However, one feature which is often overlooked is that foreign transport operators are also an integral part of the country's transport network. It would be akin to considering operators like Causeway Link as part of Singapore's public transport network. Deutsche Bahn (DB) operates five daily trips between Interlaken Ost and Berlin via Basel and also serve to supplement the SBB Interlaken Ost-Basel Intercity trips.

The truly amazing part is that standard rail tickets and Swiss Passes are valid for travel on the Swiss sector even though it is operated by a foreign operator. The ticket inspectors on such trains are from SBB and work only the Swiss sector.
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We were also very pleased to be able to photograph a rack of BLS 'old-school' train that was passing through the level crossing. The train is helmed by a Re425 electric locomotive which was introduced into service 47 years ago in 1964.
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Lake Brienz

The next part of our plan involved riding a PostAuto service 103 to Iseltwald where we would be able to connect with a ferry for a short cruise on Lake Brienz to Interlaken Ost. A Solaris Urbino 12 soon turned up with a female driver at the wheel. She was initially unsure if our Swiss Passes were acceptable for travel and apologised for the delay as she quickly looked up her manual for confirmation with incredible efficiency.
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As we had no prior expectations of the route, it proved to be an interesting ride as the bus passed through a narrow rural road which runs next to the lake. It was also fun to hear the famed PostAuto horn for the first time as the driver sounded it before driving into a particularly blind corner. It is mandatory for other road users to give way to PostAuto vehicles when the distinctive horn is sounded, but it is often only used to warn approaching vehicles or as a last resort.

The driver demonstrated exemplary driving skills and road courtesy behaviour by voluntarily giving way to other smaller vehicles along narrow road stretches. The climax of the ride came at the end of the ride when she executed a very challenging multi-point U-turn at Iseltwald where spatial orientation and precise control of the 12m long vehicle is essential to avoid damage to the surrounding traditional timbered Swiss cottages or to the bus (see video below).


We allowed ourselves to relax and soak in the ambience of the traditional Swiss village setting while waiting for our ferry.
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The village lies on a delta at the south bank of Lake Brienz in the Bernese Oberland and is popular among backpackers and skiiers in the Jungfraujoch region.
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Brienz approaching the pier at Iseltwald, with the turquoise waters of the lake being reflected on the underside of her clean hull. We originally thought that we would ride on a paddle steamer, but we had actually read the timetable wrongly as it was not yet the peak summer season and the steamer only operates on weekends.
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Lake Brienz was more scenic than Lake Thun as the entire north bank is a ridge, which provided a stunning backdrop against the villages lining the lake.
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Bönigen village located on the southern bank of Lake Brienz. The river Lütschine empties into Lake Brienz at Bönigen, and is being fed by the tributaries of Schwarze Lütschine (black Lütschine) from Grindelwald and Weisse Lütschine (white Lütschine) from the Lauterbrunnen Valley.
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After calling at Bönigen village on the south bank, the vessel reversed into Aare River to call at the landing stage adjacent to the Interlaken Ost bahnhof. We also had the opportunity to a number of ferries from BLS's Lake Brienz fleet that were tied up at the pier.
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COOP and Migros operate the two largest chains of supermarket across the country and apart from retailing, they also operate restaurants which are often co-located with the supermarket. We had our sights set on having dinner at the COOP restaurant located opposite the Interlaken Ost bahnhof and immediately headed there as they were scheduled to close at 1830hrs.
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It was arguably the cheapest sit-down meal we had in Switzerland (by local standards), with the chicken schnitzel set with salad bowl costing CHF13.40 and the vanilla cream coronet at CHF2.50.
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Lötschberg Base Tunnel

The first two legs of the journey from Interlaken Ost to Zermatt were on the BLS network; hence we were anticipating BLS trains and in fact hoped to ride on one of those old trains which we had spotted. Both trains turned out to be IC 2000 double deck trains that were operated by SBB, due to agreement for SBB to operate long-haul services on the BLS network, while BLS concentrates on regional trains and the Bern S-bahn.

As Interlaken Ost is the terminating for all services including the SBB double deck services, we had no problems finding our choice of seats and decided to lug our luggage to the upper deck to enjoy a view of Lake Thun. Unfortunately, we were spoilt by the natural beauty of Lake Brienz and the unfavourable lighting conditions in evening did not present the beauty of Lake Thun at its best.
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Our Intercity train passed through Leissigen village and do not call at any of the intermediate stations between Interlaken West and Spiez.
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After a short 18min ride, we disembarked from the train at Spiez and was pleasantly surprised to note that we only needed to do a simple cross-platform transfer to our next train to Visp - yet another sterling example of Swiss efficiency and the emphasis on seamless connectivity for passengers.

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A large part of the journey between Spiez and Visp is through the Lötschberg Base Tunnel that cuts through the base of the Swiss Alps 400m below the original Lötschberg Tunnel. The 34.57km long tunnel is also currently the world's longest land tunnel (before the completion of the Gotthard Base Tunnel in 2016) and there are approximately 21km of track without passing loops and trains that are more than 7 minutes late are either routed via the old tunnel (incurring further delay) or must wait for the next available timetable slot in the LBT.

Owing to different track gauges, we were not able to enjoy a cross platform transfer at Visp to our final connecting train that is operated by Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn (MGB) to Zermatt. However, platform announcements were made to inform passengers of the platform where the connecting train to Zermatt would be departing from as we alighted from the train.
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Our train was a 4-car Stadler Komet EMU which was introduced in 2007/08 period, and consisted of low floor sections which allowed passengers with luggage or bicycles to board the train with ease.
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It is interesting to note that full panoramic windows are only fitted at the high-floor sections of the train, and the adjacent car is fully high floor and not fitted with any doors.
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We attempted to obtain photos of the beautiful scenery along the rail line, but reflections from the interior light posed a huge challenge with the darkening sky outside the train cabin. Thus, we eventually gave up and enjoyed the view, leaving the photography for our outbound journey from Zermatt two days later.

It was surprisingly not as cold as we had expected to be when we stepped out of the train into the sheltered train station. Visitors were greeted by a wall feature with the word 'Welcome' written in different languages which attest to the universal appeal of this Alpine resort town.
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Although Zermatt is relatively compact and we had a general idea of the location of our hotel, it was not an easy task as every building in the town seemed to be constructed in the same Swiss Alpine style which had highly sloped roofs and timber features. We sought the help of a kiosk in the station concourse which acted as a one-stop information centre about the various accommodation options. A digital map was also provided and using it as a guide, we eventually managed to find our hotel where the elderly propertior had been keenly awaiting our arrival.
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Next Post: Das Matterhorn I - Day 6

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Brünig Bahn & Harderbahn - Day 5