A Cuckoo Clock Town on the Back Side of the Moon
Murren is one of those places where when you’re there, you can’t imagine a world beyond it. Yet once you leave, you wonder if it actually existed. You wonder if maybe you dreamed it or entered some pocket in the atmosphere that launched you into the twilight zone.
High in the mountains, away from cars and the busyness of “normal” life, on my final stop in the Alps, I discovered the clarity I’d been seeking since I arrived in Europe this Winter.
I guess I had to come to this cuckoo clock town on the backside of the moon, at the end of my journey, for everything to finally make sense.
It all began inside of a cable car in the village of Lauterbrunnen, along with a gang of tourists clad in ski attire, their plastic boots awkwardly clanking against the metal floor.
We ascended and the valley below became rapidly miniaturized.
At the top, snow blanketed the rooftops of traditional wooden cabins.
The snowy white Alps surrounded me from all directions, making me feel trapped and swaddled all at once.
People skied down the narrow streets with well-packed snow, ending at their hotels or an Alpine hut for cheese fondue.
Murren felt like a place untouched by time.
I checked into my hotel, Hotel Eiger, a fourth generation run family business directly facing the mountains. It appeared elegant, though entirely welcoming, with a familial warmth emanating from every corner. Old family photos hung on the walls, and guests sat on tufted leather sofas drinking aperitifs in the lounge, and couples bundled in blankets on the balcony and gazed at the mountains.
I chatted with the staff, mostly young European foreigners who came to Switzerland to earn better wages. A server from Portugal came for one season and ended up staying fifteen years.
One morning over breakfast I met another American, traveling through the Alps with his 92-year-old uncle. Apparently the uncle had been to Murren, and stayed at Hotel Eiger, nearly every year for over fifty years. The owner Adrian, whose family opened the hotel more than 100 years ago, told me that this man knew relatives even he hadn’t met.
While at every other stop on this European Winter tour I had full days organized by tourism boards, in Murren I had freedom. I wandered the small town streets, climbed up into the forest, and slid down snowy hills on my bum. I took time for myself. I relaxed. I practiced yoga. I slept.
Though feeling the need to “see” something, I organized a trip to Jungfrau, one of the most famous destinations in the Alps, known as the highest railway station in Europe.
Other guests at Hotel Eiger warned me not to go. An older Swiss man, wealthy hotelier in Mexico, and former Playboy manager, who I had cocktails with one evening told me it was a snooze.
He asked me about my blog and told me stories of playing tennis with Bill Cosby and getting world famous travel magazines to cover his resort in Mexico by offering them free rooms. He encouraged me to follow my dreams and offered advice like I was his daughter.
Despite the warnings I went to Jungfrau the next day. The railway company had supplied me with a free ticket, normally two hundred Swiss francs round trip from Murren, and I figured I ought to at least see the most famous attraction in this part of Europe.
To reach Jungfrau station I took the cable car from Murren back down to Lauterbrunnen, and changed there to take a train up to Kleine Scheidegg, with gorgeous ski terrain.
In Kleine Scheidegg, we changed again to the “scenic train” that took us to Jungfrau. The train went through a black tunnel and played images of Jungfrau from television screens. Tourists surrounded me, chatting in languages foreign to my ears. The announcements came in English, German, and three different Asian tongues.
Occasionally we stopped to stare at mountains through glass windows. After the first stop I waited inside the train. The entire journey took about two and half hours.
At the top I walked out to the main viewpoint where tourists rapidly snapped photos. Perhaps if you’ve never seen mountains before it’s impressive, but the novelty escaped me as I had seen better views skiing in St Anton or hiking in the Cascades as a kid.
Though admittedly, when a place becomes a tourist attraction, I often find that it becomes dull by default. How can one possible explore and feel the energy of a place surrounded by others who merely want to capture it on camera? How can you feel nature without the willingness, and opportunity, to get your feet dirty?
Inside I found a stand selling Swiss watches and a Lindt candy store. People took selfies beside statues and snow globes inside of the Ice Grotto. It reminded me of the tourist traps I found in Thailand and Vietnam. I wondered how I was going to write about this experience without insulting Jungfraujoch, who had supplied me with the free ticket.
Lately I had been feeling like I was in a tourist trap of my own making, simply by working with tourism boards and sponsors.
On the ride back down from Kleine Scheidegg, I met a guy from Liverpool who was there skiing for a week through an all-inclusive package marketed towards backpackers. The thought of being around people my own age was desperately appealing. He asked me about my lifestyle and if I ever longed for a relationship with someone. I laughed and told him I hadn’t had a relationship in four years.
“Wow, impressive, how do you do it? I have the worst taste in women,” he said.
“Well, it’s not that I don’t fall for people, but because of my lifestyle there’s always a clear expiration date.”
“Doesn’t that leave you jaded?” he asked.
“Yoga helps,” I grinned.
He asked me out for a beer, but I told him I was going back up to my village with no cars. And when I got back to Murren, a real place with real people, I felt so happy to be there.
That night, sitting alone in my room, I had a thought that made me laugh out loud. A thought that told me everything I needed to know about my purpose here in Europe. A thought that reminded me what truly lived inside my heart. A thought that told me everything I needed to know about how to move forward.
And the next morning, I got on the train, I left Murren, and I did exactly that.
Thank you to Jungfraujoch for the ticket to Jungfrau, something I had to see for myself, and thank you to Hotel Eiger for sponsoring my stay and welcoming me into their home.