Monthly Archives: March 2011

My Olympic Obsession

I have to admit, I am becoming slightly obsessed with the Olympics. Last week marked 500 days before they start, a date marked by the erecting of giant Olympic rings at St. Pancras station, the tickets going on sale, and a slightly crap-looking countdown clock appearing in Trafalgar Square (which, in typically British fashion froze on the same day). I’m starting to worry that if my current levels of excitement carry on for the next four hundred and ninety-odd days I’ll be exhausted by the time they actually kick off.

London Olympic Stadium

The main stadium...not quite as lovely as Beijing's

It’s been building slowly for quite a while. My earliest Olympic memories, from 1984, when I was 9, are all Athletics-related, thanks to my Dad being a big fan of the sport, and the big British successes (Daley Thompson’s memorable Decathlon win, and the epic battles between Steve Cram & Seb Coe in the 1500m, and Tessa Sanderson vs Fatima Whitbread in the Javelin). I carried on mostly watching the Athletics over the next few years, and it wasn’t until Sydney in 2000 I started to watch a much bigger range of sports.

By the time the vote took place in 2007 to decide whether or not London would get to be host the obsession had well and truly kicked in – on the day the announcement was made I spent a big chunk of the afternoon at work sharing a pair of headphones with the only other colleague who was interested listening to radio trying to find out if we’d won, and when the vote finally came through we both screamed, getting us some filthy (and rather confused) looks from the rest of the office.

By the time Beijing came round in 2008, I watched as much as I could – my interest obviously being helped by the best modern performance of the British team, including in more obscure sports (who knew I could I could get so excited by Taekwondo or Modern Pentathlon?). I even managed to get enthusiastic about sports with no British interest, like Handball (more fast-paced and exciting than Football) and Water Polo (admittedly helped here by the fact this one wins my vote for the fittest men). In fact by the end of it I’d watched at least a little bit of every sport except the Volleyball (and only because the BBC never seemed to show any of it).

After a break in following the build up while I was away travelling, I’ve been following the news closely ever since I got back, devouring every update I can find, from the high-profile stuff like what they’re going to do with the Olympic stadium afterwards (as an Athletics fan I am VERY glad they’ll be keeping the athletics track) to the bits of little interest to anyone but Olympic-geeks like me (the anxious wait for host-nation places for the Brits in sports which we’re still working out how to play, like Handball).

I’ve now made three pilgrimages out to Pudding Mill Lane to watch the progress in the Olympic Park (there’s a fantastic close-up of the main stadium and aquatics centre from the nearby elevated Greenway, best viewed from the temporary cafe there which also, helpfully, does the finest bacon sandwich I’ve found in London), and will be back again over the coming months to watch, intrigued to see if the main stadium will continue to look so dull, continuing to be angry that the temporary seating around the aquatics centre have ruined the view of Zaha Hadid’s gorgeous curving roof, and desperately hoping that the massive 115 metre high Anish Kapoor sculpture/viewing platform next to the stadium turns out to be as beautiful as his previous beautiful installations for the Tate Modern and Kensington Gardens and not as ugly as the drawings suggest.

London Olympics 2012 Aquatics Centre Swimming Pool

The Olympic swimming pool: lovely roof, shame about those seats

The main focus for my excitement right now is applying for tickets. Obviously I want to go and see as much as is possible, but it’s turning out to be both confusing and frustrating. Applying for Glastonbury tickets is like child’s play in comparison. That just takes lots of mindless but frantic clicking and refreshing. This is more like playing 4-dimensional chess. While blindfold. And not being able to see what the other player is doing.

Being interested in too many sports is the first problem, as there are far many things going on each day. Take Sunday 5th August for example. Do I want to try to watch the Men’s Pommel Horse final in the Gymnastics? Or the Cycling Sprint finals? Or the chance to see Ben Ainslie win his 4th consecutive gold medal in the sailing down in Weymouth? Obviously I want to see all of them, but they’re on simultaneously. Each time I think I’ve worked out a combination of events to apply for, I find I’ve left no room to apply for a sport I want to see. Or that I’ve chosen two consecutive sessions that are on opposite sides of London, which will be impossible to get between thanks to crowded public transport and slow security.

Then there’s the issue of how many to go for and at what price. The complexities of this issue are discussed in a lot more detail by my favourite London blogger, Diamond Geezer, here – and it’s well worth a read if you’re thinking of applying, as it covers all the potential pitfalls as well as the detail of the process. But basically any over-subscribed event becomes a lottery, and any under-subscribed event you’ll be guaranteed tickets. When you apply for tickets, you are committed to paying for ALL of the events you applied for, if your name comes up for each one. This is a potential nightmare – if I apply for too much (assuming I won’t get loads because they will be too popular) and get them all it could cost me thousands. If I apply for too few (to be more financially cautious) and get none I’ll be furious.

Then there’s the price issue – obviously applying for higher price tickets will give me a better chance of success, and a better view, but equally they risk breaking the bank (the best Athletics tickets are £450 for most events, for example). Despite building a rather impressive spreadsheet (yes, I am really that much of a geek) the permutations have been doing my head in.

I’m finally getting close. I think I’ve decided to apply for some higher priced tickets for my favourite sports (Gymnastics, BMX & Athletics), mixed up with cheaper tickets for qualifying rounds for a wide range of more obscure sports. The Athletics has been the hardest of all to choose – it annoys me as someone who’s been a fan of the sport all my life that these will be some of the hardest to get because of its status as the premier Olympic sport (to all those people applying for tickets for this: I ask you where were you when I was getting drenched in the rain at Crystal Palace on the wettest night of last summer watching the British Grand Prix???). But I’m praying that everyone else applies to see the 100 metres or the bits with major British interest like the Heptathlon or Triple Jump, leaving me to get good seats to see my favourite athlete, the American Allyson Felix, try to finally beat her long time rival, the Jamaican Veronica Campbell-Brown to gold in the Women’s 200 metres. They’re both incredible athletes, and Felix has three consecutive world championship golds – but has lost out to Campbell-Brown in both Beijing & Sydney. Should be an incredible race if they’re both there, and I desperately hoping to be there to see it.

I still haven’t worked out what to apply for yet (thank god the organising committee has given me 6 weeks to work it all out) and my current work-in-progress wish list would come to well over £1000 if I got everything I apply for – although increasingly I’m starting to think I’m quite prepared to pay that for this once in a lifetime opportunity to see the Olympics in my home city.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

When I found out that the revolving restaurant from the James Bond Film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was to be found in a resort just one valley away from where I was skiing I knew there was no way I could miss it. I mean, revolving restaurants are cool at the best of times (in a slightly cheesy 70s kind of way, but cool all the same). But a revolving restaurant at the top of a mountain is even cooler. And one that’s starred in a Bond film too? I had to see it.

James Bond Revolving Restaurant Schilthorn Switzerland

"Piz Gloria", the revolving restaurant atop Schilthorn

Getting there from Wengen turned out to be quite an adventure in itself – first of all we took the mountain railway all the way back down into the valley to Lauterbrunnen. From there, a funicular took us back up the other side of the valley, from where we jumped onto yet another train, heading towards the resort town of Mürren. We got off half way, and then took a chair lift up to a ridge, then skied down to a valley, up a second chair lift to the next ridge, and then skied down a beautiful, wide run all the way down to Mürren and the start of the huge cable car. This cable car takes you up to another mountain, with gorgeous views over the wide, main ski area. At the peak, called Birg, we then changed cable car yet again for the final leg, up to the peak of Schilthorn, the 2,970m high mountain that dominates the resort, and to our final destination, Piz Gloria, the revolving restaurant that sits right at the top.

Bernese Alps viewed from Schilthorn

View from the top

Once you get out of the cable car, there’s a little exhibition explaining the history of the restaurant, and it turns out that not only was it featured in the film, but that it was actually built especially for it. That’s quite some investment for a few short scenes, there can’t be many other iconic buildings like this that were just created for one film, can there? There’s also a little cinema showing the film (which we skipped – even though I’ve only seen the film once I figured I could always watch it again when I got back home). Then it was time to head upstairs for the views – and they are spectacular. We were incredibly lucky to have yet another really clear day, and it turns out that the mountain is the perfect location for a revolving restaurant, for the mountain sits out on its own, unconnected from any mountains close to it in height, and separated by valleys from the higher peaks all around, giving a fantastic, wide open 360 degree view across the Alps.

007 view from piz gloria revolving restaurant

View of the Eiger, Jungfrau & Monch from inside the restaurant

The view of the beautiful trio of the Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau was far better than from Wengen in one direction, and in the other we could see all the way down to Interlaken and the wide plains in the distance. It was all quite stunning. After taking time to take dozens of photos, it was time to head into the restaurant itself for a nice warming coffee. They take their Bond seriously here – the 007 motif is plastered all over every window, and the restaurant menu contains a heavily Bond-themed selection of cocktails and desserts. All pretty cheesy but fun, and the views made the long journey all worthwhile.

Diana Rigg Bond themed dessert schilthorn switzerland

Bond-themed dessert

Unfortunately due to my lost confidence, and my friend Ed having a dodgy knee, we decided not to ski down the long lack run into Mürren, and instead took the cable car back down to Birg for a hearty lunch of big curly swiss wurst and a beer (my teenage years living in Germany have definitely left me with a love of Germanic sausages, mmm), before taking the long cable car / walk / funicular / ski / button lift / ski / chair lift / ski / train / funicular / train all the way back to Wengen.

Funnily enough, even though I did less skiing that day, it was probably my favourite of all my days in Switzerland. The mountain views have always been one of my favourite things about skiing, and the views from Schilthorn are the best I’ve seen in Europe. We didn’t spend that long skiing there, but I actually much preferred Mürren to Wengen, even if it is a bit smaller – the ski area was more open, and seemed to have a much wider variety of runs across different mountains and ridges than in the resort we were based in, where most of the runs are down one side of the same ridge.

It was only after we’d got back to London that Ed realised he’d also been skiing recently in yet another resort featured in a Bond film – the airport in Courcheval is featured in Tomorrow Never Dies, which made me think perhaps I should check out the other resorts that have also featured in the films – Cortina in Italy (featured in For Your Eyes Only) and Berngarten in Austria (For Your Eyes Only) – although it turns out that sequence was actually filmed in Canada.

You can see all of my photos of my Swiss ski trip here.

The Top of Europe

You’ve got to love the Swiss. Only they would be crazy enough to build a railway tunnel through one of the highest mountains in Europe just to take you to a lovely view. But I love the fact that they did, because it makes a fantastic half-day out from Wengen if you happen to be there for the skiing (or walking, if you’re there in summer).

Trains at Kleine Scheidegg station on the Jungfraubahn switzerland

Kleine Scheidegg - start point of the Jungfraubahn

Based on my visit though, it would appear that the trip to the highest railway station in Europe is of little interest to skiers – as I was the only one on my train. Maybe they think they’re getting a good enough view from the slopes, maybe they’re enjoying the skiing too much to take the time out, whatever the reason, I think they’re mad, it was a trip I wouldn’t have missed for the world.

St Bernard dog on a railway platform

Aw, cute


Being the only skier didn’t mean I was the only tourist though – in fact the train was quite full with an entirely different group of tourists, who it appears to come to the area just to visit the Jungfraujoch – Chinese & Japanese tourists. I first encountered them at Kleine Scheidegg station (where you have to change trains if you’re coming up from Wengen). It was pretty early in the morning, as I wanted to have a full afternoon of skiing, and so there weren’t many skiers around – but the platform was full of these tourists, mostly being photographed clustered around a stereotypical St. Bernard dog (complete with mini barrel around his neck).
Jungfraubahn tunnel through the Eiger

The tunnel through the Eiger

The journey up to the Jungfraujoch – the saddle between the neighbouring Mönch & Jungfrau peaks – takes quite a while, as the rack railways climbs steeply, up past the highest ski lift at Eigergletscher before entering the tunnel through the Eiger and continuing its steady ascent, on the way pausing for a while at two stations. The first, Eigernordwand, gave me a chance to get out and wander out to three huge windows cut right into the legendary North Face of the Eiger. 64 climbers have died since 1935 attempting to climb it, and today the windows have a dual function – as well as allowing tourists like me to get a view across the valleys, it’s also the start point for missions attempting to rescue climbers in trouble. The next stop, Eismeer, has spectacular views out over the Lower Grindelwald Glacier – from where you used to be able to ski all the way down to the town of Grindelwald, until it retreated in recent years.

Lower Grindelwald Glacier, switzerland, from Eismeer station

Lower Grindelwald Glacier, from Eismeer station

Finally we arrived at Jungfraujoch station, which at 3,454m high is the highest in Europe (and cheekily named ‘the Top of Europe’ in their marketing materials, which it clearly isn’t). For such a remote and beautiful location, the complex itself is surprisingly tacky – there are several very touristy restaurants, and an ‘ice palace’ carved into the glacier, full of cheesy ice statues of polar bears and the like. These distractions didn’t detain me for long, for I was only really there for one thing – to get outside and see the view.

Corridor cut through Ice at the Ice Palace, Jungfraujoch

The least tacky bit of the Ice Palace


Jungfrau

The Jungfrau

It didn’t disappoint – with the Jungfrau and Mönch rising up on either side, and impressive views out towards Wengen and on towards Interlaken, and best of all, from the open platform at the top of the observatory you get a truly spectacular view over the start of Europe’s longest remaining glacier, the Great Aletsch.

Konkordiaplatz the start of the Aletsch Glacier

Konkordiaplatz - the start of the Aletsch Glacier

Right behind the Jungfraujoch, three small glaciers converge at the massive Konkordiaplatz, at which point the ice is estimated to be a full kilometre thick. The scale of it is ginormous – it covers a whopping 120 square kilometres, and bends away into the distance on its long, 23 kilometre descent towards the Rhone Valley. I’ve only seen tiny glaciers before elsewhere in the Alps & in the Andes, but this one is a monster, and it’s one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen.

Aletsch Glacier, by MrUllmi on Flickr

Further down the Aletsch Glacier (by MrUllmi, on Flickr)

I stayed far longer than planned, it was so breathtaking, and headed back down amazed that so few of the people visiting Wengen or Grindelwald for the skiing make the effort to go up, especially when you consider that the cheapest way to visit by far is if you’re already skiing. Non skiers have to pay €133 return from Interlaken, which must be one of the most expensive train fares in Europe. Skiers with a 6-day ski pass for the area pay a massively reduced rate – about €40, which is still pretty pricey considering the distance, but easily worth it.

You can see all of my photos from my visit to the Bernese Oberland here.