You can only get there by cable car, a nearly vertical elevation of 5374 feet above sea level, the last stop on a chugging train that traces the ridge of the Alps. Mürren, population 450, sits precariously on the lip of an 800 meter cliff, offering its visitors panoramic views likely to be unmatched anywhere.
We’d taken the train from Salzburg, Austria, a six-hour trek through gorgeous countryside and distant mountains that powered through the micro-country of Liechtenstein without fanfare. We changed trains in Zurich and continued south to Interlaken, the resort community that most tourists use as their launch pad into their exploration of the Jungfrau region of Switzerland. But we’d already spent time in a couple larger cities on this trip, Munich, Germany and then Salzburg, and it’s nice to counterbalance visits to bigger cities with smaller towns and villages.
Too many cities in a row can become a grind. Energy and enthusiasm can begin to evaporate despite one’s best efforts. European travel is often work. Catching trains, hauling luggage, interpreting signs, asking directions, troubleshooting a dozen other unexpected issues that can spring on any given day. You work for it, which is what makes European travel so rewarding. But I wouldn’t recommend a trip that took you from, say, Dublin, Ireland, to maybe London, then the Chunnel to Paris, and then perhaps the train to Brussels. That’s a lot of big cities, a lot of crowds, cars, museums, busy restaurants, cabs, and potential chaos.
My wife and I have learned after doing this several times that the best way to enjoy Europe is to spend time the smaller, quieter towns, acting like buffers between the big, busy cities. Paris is great, of course, but you’ll love it that much more if you also spent a night in any number of quaint, beautiful French towns that are so abundant: Evian les Baines, St. Jean de Luz, et cetera, et cetera. When we did the well-traveled Venice-Florence-Rome string, we made sure to insert a three-day detour to cozy Vernazza in the Cinque Terre. These stops are like the beautifully-placed silences in the melody of a piece of classical music.
So back to Mürren. We were tired after a long day of train travel, and while it would have been easier to check in to an Interlaken hotel and drop our bags on the floor and ourselves on the bed, we knew that with a little more time and effort we could get ourselves up into the Bernese-Oberland Highlands of the Jungfrau region by way of cable car. Eighteen minutes later, ears popped, we land in the small village—not much more than a train station—of Grütschalp, and then it’s a narrow-gauge train to the Mürren station, followed by a walk, heavy backpacks grinding into our spines, into town, which is really just a paved pedestrian walkway weaving through a few bed and breakfast-style hotels, a couple stores and restaurants, and…well, that’s pretty much it. For the next three nights, this is home.
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The afternoon we’d arrived the village was socked in by fog, giving the area an almost eerie quality. Where, exactly, were we? It felt like, at this elevation, we were lost in the clouds.
We checked into our hotel, really just a wood-framed chalet with perhaps eight rooms. You leave your key hanging from a peg on the wall when you leave. We were happy to drop our bags, to step out of our sneakers for a while and regroup. The room had a nice balcony coming off the bathroom, of all things, but stepping out onto it only solidified our feeling that we were in the middle of nowhere, a string of chalets in a ghostly mist. The air felt cool and we pulled on sweatshirts. After 90-degree Austria, it felt good.
There isn’t a whole lot of nightlife in Mürren, and in fact there’s no night life at all. It’s pretty simple. For dinner, we went downstairs and ate in the hotel restaurant, intimate enough to feel like we were guests in someone’s house. We ordered wine and ate rösti, a personal skillet baked with potatoes, cheese, bacon, and herbs, and then more wine. While we waited for dessert, Christine ran back up to the room to get a jacket so we could take a short walk. We’d done a lot of sitting on this long day.
When she returned, she seemed excited. The dessert hadn’t come yet, so it wasn’t that.
‘What?” I said.
“You’ve got to come see this.”
I pulled the napkin from my lap and stood. I signaled to the owner that I’d be right back. Christine led me out the front door, opening to Mürren’s only true street. Across from us were a few chalets, brown siding and green shutters and white trim, but beyond, the curtain of fog had had deteriorated to reveal—massive in scope—the Alps, a wall of snow-crowned kings, stern and glorious. With this context, we were oriented at last to our surroundings, that Mürren sat on a shelf enveloped by these giant, sparkling jewels. Not to overstate it, but we were awestruck, stunned into a long silence that the Alps seemed to be demanding.
After dessert we took our walk, the face of three dramatic peaks swallowed us: Junfrau, Mőnch, and the 13,000-foot Eiger. Opposite them, the hillside swept upward and disappeared into the lingering fog, the haunting melancholy of cowbells clanging from somewhere within. The air was thin and clean, our heads clear. We passed iron farm equipment sitting long-forgotten in the ground, the occasional natural mountain springs where we refilled our water bottles, stoops where old work boots had been repurposed as planters. The dusk collapsed onto us in a gray veil, the sun’s last rays burning the tips of the jagged mountaintops that loomed above.
Soon we surrendered to our room, tired in the best way. We had two more full days in front of us: breakfast, a morning hike up into the hills or perhaps down into the next village, Gimmelwald, maybe some ping pong, definitely time to read our books. The panorama of the Alps ever-present. Two hundred years before, the poet Lord Byron toured Switzerland and the Alps, and wrote in his journal, “I love not man the less, but nature more.” There were big European cities in our future, to be sure, but right now—here, tonight—was just this.