Here’s my dilemma: I have too many good photos from the Berner Oberland for one post.
This has little to do with me and my photography skills. It has everything to do with the extreme beauty of the area. Never before have I been anywhere as dramatic and scenic as this alpine region smack in the middle of Switzerland. We spent almost an entire week here, and it still wasn’t enough. Every day was different, and we kept moving, but even then, I can’t pretend that I am a fountain of definitive photography knowledge on the area.
But what I did learn, I’m putting here, so hopefully there are a few kernels of insight.
In full disclosure, I ran out of time (and money) in the valley to shoot the following areas: Interlaken, Brienzsee, Thunersee, Jungfraujoch, Shilthorn/Piz Gloria, Schynige Platte, Gimmelwald, Grindelwald, First/Bachalpsee and — tops on my Unfinished Business List — Hinteres Lauterbrunnental.
That’s a ton. In fact, if you are reading this because you are researching a vacation in the area, it may sound like I didn’t see any of the big sights. Not true. There’s just simply that much to see and shoot in the Berner Oberland.
This post covers the following subjects:
- The Lauterbrunnen Valley
- The Jungfrau
- The Jungfraubahn
Part 2 will cover:
- The Eiger
- The Mönch
- Staubbach Falls
- Swiss life
- Cows, cows, and more cows.
I’ve included a Google Map of these places — and where I took these images — at the bottom of this post.
Photographing the Lauterbrunnen Valley…
The only way I can describe this area is to compare it to two places I’ve never been (how stupid is that?) — imagine Yosemite Valley with the Himalaya plopped on top of it. Hyperbole? Not really. The town of Lauterbrunnen, at the bottom of the valley, sits at an elevation of 2,608 feet. In addition to having the 1,000-foot-tall Staubbach Falls dumping huge volumes of water on its head, the town is overwhelmed by the 13,642-foot Jungfrau, which soars over the valley just 4.5 miles away. Basically, in the distance between Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge, the Jungfrau rises 11,000 feet higher than Lauterbrunnen, the equivalent of nine Empire State Buildings.
Capturing the beautiful colors and textures of the Lauterbrunnen Valley is easy — capturing its massive scale is extraordinarily tough.
There are three ways to approach this potato — (a) from the valley floor, (b) from just above Lauterbrunnen, and (c) from the top looking down.
I’ve always felt the latter fails to do a place justice photographically speaking, but if you have to get that all-incompassing wide-angle shot from the top, the terminus of the Männlichen lift above Wengen is the place to go (see photo at the top of this post — that’s the view from the Männlichen looking over the Lauberhorn to the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, rather than down into the valley).
A far better option to capture the scale of the Lauterbrunnen Valley is along the cog-railway route from Lauterbrunnen to the town of Wengen. The first view opens up shortly after leaving the Lauterbrunnen train station. The railroad bends uphill, crosses the Weiss Lütschine River and reveals a magnificent view of Staubbach Falls, the town’s chapel, the valley cliffs and the snow-draped Alps in the distance (first photo in this section).
The other priceless view of the valley opens up just before the train reaches Wengen. Make sure you are seated on the right side of the train just after the Wengwald train stop. The view (above) lasts for only 20 seconds or so, but it encompasses the falls, the massive cliffs, the summits of the Breithorn and Jungfrau, and a magnificent foreground of Swiss chalets and emerald pasture. Since you are shooting from a moving train, be sure to have a faster shutter speed. I even went so far to shoot on a motordrive to increase the chances I’d have the right cropping when all was said and done.
Photographing the Jungfrau…
I will admit that I missed a key component to the “Jungfrau’s experience” — at more than 100 CHF roundtrip, we opted to skip the Jungfraujoch, the high-altitude train station situated on the saddle between the Jungfrau and the Mönch that is marketed as “The Top of Europe.” It was sacrificed at the altar of 6 CHF bottled water and all the other gouge-jobs speckled across this beautiful country. We’d just had enough of doling out the cash, and ultimately figured we had plenty to enjoy underneath the Jungfrau.
Frankly, I have never seen a mountain more domineering than the Jungfrau. It’s sheer volume, scale and steepness brought an instant dose of humility. Ultimately, I found dozens of great vantage points to shoot this peak, even during early morning strolls outside our hotel in Wengen, where I snapped this shot. Ultimately, the best place to capture the rugged and imposing soul of the Jungfrau is right underneath it, where trails bisect lush meadows (above image), quaint little trains chug by on the Jungfraubahn and Wengenalpbahn, and traditional Swiss huts are overwhelmed by the mountain’s scale. We took the train to the Eiger Glacier station and hiked down to Kleine Scheidegg and Wengenalp. With our daughter it took the better part of a day, but at every turn, a new face to the Jungfrau was revealed.
The other “must” for shooting the Jungfrau is from the Mürren side of the Lauterbrunnen Valley, particularly in the town of Mürren itself, where you face the narrowing chasm of the Lauterbrunnen Valley and the sheer western wall of the Jungfrau. The quaint little choo-choo ride from Grütschalp to Mürren is also great for the precision art form of hanging-out-the-window photography. (Or, you can walk the trails in the area, too, and get the same killer views with better foregrounds … we had a baby on board).
Photographing the Jungfraubahn…
At certain points on the trip, I found myself wondering if certain attractions are more about the Swiss engineering than the natural features of the land. Few tourist draws demonstrate this better than the Jungfraubahn, which burrows into the face of the Eiger, hangs a sharp right, burrows through the guts of the Mönch and pops out at the Jungfraujoch, a snow-and-ice clad saddle at 11,332 feet. There, a whole tourism infrastructure of amusements has been erected, including an observatory atop a rock outcrop called The Sphinx.
The Jungfraujoch is the tallest railway station in Europe, which begs the question: there’s a railway station higher than this? (Yes. The Tanggula Railways Station in Tibet is a ridiculous 16,627 feet high). More incredibly, the tunnel and railway were built between 1896 and 1912. I think lightbulbs were also a rather novel new invention at that time.
Well, Swiss engineering aside, the Jungfraubahn is really a beautiful train to look at, and its bright red trolley cars chugging underneath the burly mountains is really one of the most romantic — and iconic — images of Europe. All along the hiking path between the Eiger Glacier train station and Kleine Scheidegg, there are great views of the Jungfrau, Mönch and Eiger with train tracks running in the foreground, and since the train goes by roughly every 10 minutes, its photographically like shooting fish in a barrel. What makes it such a striking image is the bright red of the train cars contrasted with the various shades of green and blue in the landscape. You get bonus points if you can somehow capture the wildflowers, too, but I was unsuccessful.
The train + landscape shot is easy pickings. But getting the story behind the train, and the sheer madness of its existence, is another matter. I managed to photograph the fleeting moment of a tourist smiling out the window of the train as it chugged out of the Eiger Glacier station with a tilt-shift (above left). Pure luck, but it was about the closest thing I got to capturing the excitement of the Jungfraubahn.
Part 2 will include more on the area, including the Eiger and cows.