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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Brünig Bahn & Harderbahn - Day 5

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