Our block was eerily empty in late August when my husband and I left for Europe. In the face of the latest Covid-19 surge and threats of the Delta variant, our New York neighbors had decamped to bucolic spots in upstate New York, Martha’s Vineyard and Maine. We sought a different kind of rural refuge – on the other side of the Atlantic. Our first stop in what we hoped would be a ten-week sojourn was Wengen, a carless village in the Bernese Oberland region of Switzerland.
This would be our fifth summer visit to a ski resort overhanging the verdant Lauterbrunnen Valley. Our scheduled trip for 2020 had been canceled when Switzerland closed its borders. Until it reopened, on June 28, we weren’t sure we would be able to go this year either. And after barely leaving our neighborhood for the previous 18 months, we had a severe case of wanderlust.
In many years of foreign travel, we have come to expect the unexpected. We left Phuket, Thailand four days before the 2004 tsunami, were in Paris during the 2015 terrorist attacks and returned from Southeast Asia ten days before New York’s March 2020 shutdown.
I don’t get my jollies from being in harm’s way. But having already lost precious time to the pandemic, we were trying, with what seemed like reasonable limitations, to resume our passions from the “before times.” By limiting ourselves to rural areas on our upcoming trip, we expected we would be safer than in New York City.
Still, along with the giddy excitement that normally accompanies packing, was the sense of striking out into a radically altered world – one that requires new, previously unimaginable, precautions. On our iPhones, for example, were health passes for France and Switzerland – proof of our vaccination against Covid. My suitcase contained several cloth masks, a stack of N95s and home tests (sold six to a box) for Covid; if nothing else, we might need them as we prepared to reenter the United States in early November.
Our flight to Zurich was uneventful, and the airport deserted when we landed early on a Saturday morning. From there we immediately boarded a train that would take us, after three changes, to Wengen, which sits at an altitude of 4,180 feet.
Having occupied the same apartment on two previous visits, we looked forward to arriving at what, in the context of recent events, seemed like a sanatorium. Light and airy, it had comfortable beds, a well-equipped kitchen and panoramic views of the Jungfrau. As my husband threw open the French doors and stepped out onto one of our three balconies, he said, “I can feel 18 months of tension start to leave my body.” We fell asleep to a symphony of cowbells.
In the light of day we noticed something different: The owner’s substantial collection of books and videos had been removed, and the shelves where they were previously stored left empty. This, we later learned, was a Covid-related protocol, though it seemed odd with so many of the owner’s possessions still in place. The previously well-stocked spice cabinet had similarly been stripped bare, but all the kitchen equipment, along with the throw pillows on the couch, were still in place.
Though the concept was to cocoon in the Alps, and we did plenty of that, each time we ventured out we took note of Covid-related controls, or in some cases contradictions. As one would expect, masks were required on trains and to enter stores, with dispensers of hand sanitizer widely available. And none of the shops were crowded.
Cable cars, on the other hand, tended to be as jam-packed as the New York City subway during rush hour, with no attempt at crowd control. That was disappointing since several of our favorite hikes involve taking some mode of transportation to the highest point on the trail and descending on foot. Fortunately, most such rides took less than five minutes. And what awaited us at the top was a reminder of why we had come.
On the first clear day we went up on the Männlichen cable car and hiked the Panorama-and-Romantic Trail, which winds gently along a mountain ridge to Kleine Scheidegg. The snowline was deeper than usual at this time of the year and the waterfalls more dramatic. An assortment of wildflowers – anemones, bellflowers and lupines – had prospered from the summer rain. Against the backdrop of the Eiger, the Mönch and the Jungfrau, grazing cows released the scent of clover (no wonder the milk here tasted so sweet), the echo of their bells reverberating off the mountains.
Hikers of all ages, most of whom seemed to be European, passed us on the trail, and we exchanged greetings. But whereas in the past we might have compared notes with other travelers, on the trails and during transit, in the time of Covid we all kept a respectful distance. Noticeably absent – and something we did not miss – were the tour groups one normally sees in this region.
Mürren, another of our favorite starting points for hikes, seemed profoundly affected by their absence, with some restaurants and hotels closed. Situated on the opposite side of the Lauterbrunnen Valley from Wengen, it attracts a lot of day-trippers, and fewer were coming.
To get there took us about an hour and involved taking three different conveyances, starting with a virtually empty train down to Lauterbrunnen. But after that we were jammed like sardines into a cable car that connects to an equally crowded, quaint, single-car electric train.
On another occasion we might have immediately continued on one of the other cable cars that take visitors farther up – to Allmendhubel, or to Schilthorn, which was the backdrop for the 1969 James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. This time we took the path less traveled: 35 minutes downhill to Gimmelwald.
Situated at an elevation of 4,485 feet, on a ridge overhanging the valley, Gimmelwald is a hamlet with a population of about 130, most of whom are farmers, work in the tourist industry or do both. Travel guru Rick Steves, in his guidebook to Switzerland, turned it into a legend, writing that “Gimmelwald, though tiny, with one zigzag street, offers a fine look at a traditional Swiss mountain community.”
According to Steves, Gimmelwald’s residents, in a defense against development, played up the risks of avalanches in the surrounding terrain. Indeed, avalanche barriers (and several waterfalls) line the path that leads from Mürren to Gimmelwald. And compared with Mürren uphill, and Wengen, across the valley, Gimmelwald remains relatively untouched.
Back in Wengen, we were a social unit of two, interacting with others only when we shopped for food at the small supermarket and grocery store in the village. As on past trips, we prepared most of our own meals, focusing on regional ingredients: Alpine cheeses; dried meats; and fresh vegetables cultivated in small gardens along the mountain slopes.
Even with limited human contact, there were times when our Swiss refuge felt like sensory overload. After 18 months of confinement and lack of stimulation, this change of venue was a reawakening.
Deborah L. Jacobs, a lawyer and journalist, is the author of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home and Estate Planning Smarts: A Practical, User-Friendly, Action-Oriented Guide. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.