Europe

Gimmelwald Village, Switzerland: A Journey Back in Time

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The tiny farming village of Gimmelwald is located at an altitude of 4,500 feet, in the heart of Bernese Oberland in Switzerland. It sits on the top of a precipitous cliff – midway between Stechelberg, in the Lauterbrunnen valley floor and the village of Mürren, at 5,413 feet. There are only two ways to get to this mountain village. You can take the up-hill cable car from Stechelberg to Gimmelwald or hike you way along a beautiful mountain trail between these two places. The other option is to take the cable car from Stechelberg all the way up to Mürren and then hike down along a mountain trail to Gimmlewald.

We arrived – rather descended on Gimmelwald, hiking the way down from the village of Mürren. As we approached the village, at a distance we could see the cluster of chalets on a narrow terrace facing the sheer rock face of Schwarzmönch (“Black Monk”) which forms a part of the UNESCO world heritage Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn site. Beyond that were the three peaks of Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau.

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This traffic free village had narrow streets lined with charming flower laden chalets, barns and guest houses – beautifully decorated with installations, shrubs and flowerpots brimming with spring flowers. In addition to a quaint drinking water trough dispensing mountain spring water, there was a beautiful little cheese cottage selling aged (read smelly) alpine cheese.

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And there was Esther’s unmanned “Honesty Shop” that ran on the honor system in which you dropped money in a box with a note on what you have picked up, without anyone checking on you. You got local handicrafts, trinkets, snacks (local delicacies) and drinks in the shop.

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A short distance uphill from the cable car station was another charming old, flower decked Cheese Hut (no longer in use), built on stills to keep mice away.

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We found Gimmelwald to be largely untouched by the trappings of modern life. With less than 150 residents (none of whom seemed to be out on the streets), 25 farm houses and a few guest houses, the village seemed to pop out from an era long gone. Everything seemed to have come to a stands still, wrapped in total silence.

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There are no supermarkets or big shops in the village. However you can buy cheese, fresh milk, yogurt, eggs, sausage and bread from one of the many farm houses, directly from the producer. It just couldn’t get any better. And there are only a couple of restaurants in Gimmelwald, including the one with a limited menu, in the Mountain Hostel.

Now a few words about this amazing Mountain Hostel will be in order, for a description of Gimmelwald be incomplete without that.

The Mountain Hostel – a backpacker / budget travelers’ favorite has 50 beds in large dormitories. There are no private rooms. It is a great place to stay, if you are young (at least at heart, if not in body); if you don’t mind roughing it out, bedding in with strangers, putting up with a symphony of snoring in the night and sharing toilets in the basement. And then the benches located in the front at the edge of the cliff provide mind boggling views of the mountains. It is hard to come by a location like this.

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A big sign here said: “Mountain Hostel was built in 1563 and used by two families as their home. They kept their cows and goats in the basement barn. In 1939, the house was turned into a hostel by Lina von Allmen. Petra and Walter Brunner bought this place in 1996. They put their heart and soul into the renovation”.

So much for the history of this amazing Mountain Hostel

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This is where I had stayed many years back and had loved every moment of it. Minnie, my 11-year old daughter and I would have loved to stay a night here. However I was sure that Nina, my wife wouldn’t be particularly amused, putting up at a whacky backpacker’s den.

There are however more comfortable options available in Gimmelwald in terms of a couple of small hotels, home stays and B&Bs. And then, the village also has a big barn built in the mid 90s – a member of the ‘Switzerland Sleep-in-Straw Association’. In summers, when the cows move to higher pastures to graze, visitors can rent out “beds” for a unique “sleep-in- the-straw” experience. We had done this earlier in another village near Maienfeld and it was simply amazing.

Just behind the village are lush green pastures, thickly carpeted with wildflowers and dotted with little barns beautifully stacked with logs. The wood needed for heating has to be aged for a couple of years to burn well. Hence in many places we found wood stacked in neat piles – something that could easily pass of as installation art.

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If you are an avid hiker or are into extreme sports, Gimmelwald is a great location to base yourself because just beyond the village lies some of the most scenic hiking trails. While this area has some of the most challenging adrenalin fueled, heart thumping trails and climbs in Switzerland (the Via Farrata and the climb between Gimmelwald and Tanzbödeli for example), it also offers various leisurely and easy hikes for families, the elderly and in general, for those like me with fear of heights. And all the trails are well marked and you wouldn’t get lost.

The 3-4 hour hike from Gimmelwald to the Tanzbödeli takes you through the Sefinental Valley and then up along a steep climb via Busenbrand to Busenalp. From there, it is a further uphill hike to the Tanzbödeli plateau, offering magnificent views of the mountain vistas all around.

The 1.25-mile long Via Ferrata (“path of iron”) cliff trail between Gimmelwald and Mürren is no child’s play. This cliff-side trail has sections that have ladders and steps drilled into the cliff face that you need to negotiate. In large sections, you have metal staples drilled into the cliff with a safety cable running above it, to which you have to harness yourself with carabineers clipped to the safety cable. Needless to say, you also have to wear a helmet.

In my view this is for serious mountaineers. For over half the route, you are making you way forward, literally hanging over a 3,000 foot sheer drop. And that is not all. There are three terrifying canyon crossings, one by zip-line, one over a single high wire with supporting wires to hold on to and the last one over a long and narrow hanging bridge. The entire trip takes about 3 to 4 hours.

For the less adventurous like us, there are two hiking routes up to Mürren. There is also a three-hour hike from Gimmelwald to Chilchbalm, providing an endless panorama of alpine vistas, forests, caves, rivers mountain villages, pastures and alpine flora. And then you have the option of hiking downhill for three hours to the Trummelbach falls in the Lauterbrunnen valley. I have described about the Trummelbach in another post.

Farming and summer tourism are the only two economic activities in Gimmelwald. In most years, the farms don’t break even and farmers have to depend on government assistance. As additional sources of income, they take in borders / paying guests and sell local handicrafts and farm products such as fresh eggs, milk, yogurt, cheese, sausages and bakery items to visitors. The villagers are incredibly hard working but poor and they will have it no other way.

Gimmelwald’s population has dropped significantly in the last century – from 300 to about 130 residents. I am told that because of chronic shortage of labor, many foreigners – particularly Americans – work as volunteer farm hands in Gimmelwald in the summer. The volunteers get to stay free in a farm house in one of the most beautiful spots in the world, with free fresh meals thrown into the package. In return they gave a helping hand to the local farmer; working in his farm, cutting grass, making hay and tending to cows and goats.

Best of both worlds indeed!

When we arrived in Gimmelwald, there was hardly anyone in sight. It felt as if just before we arrived, the inhabitants had suddenly abandoned the place without leaving any trace behind. The very few people we saw, that too fleetingly, were visitors like us and the three men silently seated in the shadows under the portico of the otherwise busy Mountain Hostel felt like apparitions. The place was desolate.

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We had been to even more remote villages of Switzerland earlier and most of those seemed to be deserted as well.  However, what struck us about Gimmelwald was its intense stillness, as if it was frozen in time and the clock had stopped a hundred years back.

At the same time, the village and its surrounding areas offered stunning views of the mountains, ridges and valleys and sure enough, soon the sense of desolation and melancholy gave way to a sense of tranquility, enabling us to connect with nature and with ourselves. We felt the sense of surrender, of just letting go and the exhilaration that comes with that.

Despite the passage of time, we found that Gimmelwald had largely held on to its old ways. Going there, it felt as if we had stepped back in time.

Gimmelwald is not a “happening” or “rocking” place. It is laidback, it is dream-like and it feels forgotten in time. It has remained un-spoilt, authentic and timeless and is not overrun by tourists; the villagers have ensured that it remains that way.

Now, if you are looking for a typical tourist hotspot – a place for excitement, amusement, fun, fine dining and “tick box site-seeing”, or if you are easily given to ennui, the best thing to do once you reach Gimmelwald is to get back.

On the other hand, if you are the kind that revels in silence and solitude, if you love to lose yourself in the lap of nature and let go, the best thing to do once you reach Gimmelwald is to simply do nothing.

Once you get there, you would not want to get back. You would just gaze at the mountains; simply let the mind go blank and feel world gently go by. And your spirits would soar….

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