Can we just live here, please?
29.06.2007 - 03.07.2007 13 °C
The little Swiss climber on the Price is Right just doesn't do it justice. On the train ride in, 7 hours from Luxembourg, Neal and I marvelled and turned our heads at the mountains - one after the other, each one taller and greener and metting in valleys filled with little towns and typical Swiss chalets. So strange to see them, like up north in Quebec - except here they are everywhere, bulging with flowers, impeccibly clean and kept. Getting off the train at Interlaken West, we were stopped by the colour of the rivers, running between the lakes that border the city. They were the clearest blue, yet running cloudy, filled with glacier minerals and looking clean enough to tip into and drink. I never quite got over the colour, no matter how many times we stopped just to touch and see.
Our B&B was just down the street from the station. I was a bit wary of train-pratical accommodation, like the scary little two-bit place Debby and I stayed at in Rome. But this one, B&B Rugenpark, was exceptional. The owner greeted us by name, with two big glasses of iced tea. She picked out Neal's accent and told us of her time in Galway, introduced us to the resident pup (was it Buddy? Or Manny? He sneakily stole someone's cake while we were there, but he was too affectionate and beautiful to scold), and took us up to our room. It was wonderful - white linen, bright windows, and a huge balcony all our own. "You can't quite see the Jungfrau," she said. "It's still cloudy." So we looked and saw the greenest, highest mountains and wondered what the largest of all could possibly look like. So with map and restaurant guide in hand we headed out - across the rivers, where we stopped and stared, then into the typical Swiss town. At some point I turned around, curious to see Jungfrau, and there it was. Like a picture. It looked impossible. It wasn't among the other mountains, but high above them. Covered in snow. Far back behind them. I pulled Neal's sleeve and we stared and stared and wondered if we weren't mistaking it for clouds. But no, there it was, unmoving. It was almost unreal.
Neal and I went to a small restaurant that the B&B owner recommended, and spent a small fortune on cheese fondue, sausage, rösti, and white Swiss wine. It was all delicious, especally the wine, which the Swiss aparently keep to themselves. Then it was back out to stare at the rivers, point at the mountains, and spot the skydivers here and there in the sky. Everyone seemed to glow with a kind of outdoors healthiness - like they'd just returned from yet another long hike and a hearty meal. So we nodded and smiled and made our way back to the hotel, ready to get a good night's sleep and set out hiking ourselves.
Breakfast was a feast - toast and Nutella (which we get at home - but it's still wonderful!), with cold cuts, cheese, preserves, fruit, and wonderful, wonderful coffee. After a quick stop for a bottle of water and some snacks (more chocolate, of course), plus a run-though of our hiking itinerary, we made our way to the train station - first to Interlaken Ost, then around the mountainside, then up the Grindelwald gondola to the first bit of hiking trail. The views were amazing - mountains and snow and valleys and houses, one after the other, unable to fall it in the camera lens. We got off and started to walk, at our reular fast pace, and were out of breath in no time - first Neal, then me, lagging behind. "It's the air," I said Neal. And so we slowed, took deeper breaths, making up for the thinner oxygen. But we were passed time and again by people way older than us, clad in backpacks and looking the picture of typical health. The people, like the place, were clean and cleansed and hearty. And so we trotted along, happy to be passed, knowing age is mind over matter and wishing for the same.
Just down the path we could hear clanging - not a rhythm, but a chorus. Cuh-clank, cuh-clonk. Cuh-clink. And then there it was, a field of dairy cows, each with its own cow bell, nodding into the grass or walking about. They were making what should have been an awful ruckus, but instead was a kind of Alpen symphony. So out came the camera, and the jiggling of buttons, until I finally figured out how to hit record. Only when I got home did I realize my camera doesn't have sound, but here is the old-time movie version with cue cards:
Neal: Here we have a field of Swiss cows.
Cows: Moo. Clink-clank.
Neal: That one over there is Joe. He's the leader.
Cows: Moo. Moo.
Neal: Do I have to keep talking?
Me: Yes! Say something about the mountains.
Neal: The mountains are nice.
Cows: Clank, clank, moo.
Me: Up there is Jung-Frau-Jock. We'll be headed there tomorrow.
Neal: It's "Young-frow-yock".
And so we continued through the mountains, going through village after village, wondering how in the world people got all the way up here and passing a few weary souls (mostly backpackers) who'd been climbing for hours to bring groceries up to their hostel. Still, there were frighteningly steep roads carrying cars up and down, and we followed the signs till we were barely able to walk, finally flagging a man to have Neal ask him, in English-German, how to get back down. And that's how we ended up walking down a dirt staircase for almost an hour, with my pitiful knee (the one I mucked up years ago before heading to Spain - the one that's never hurt me since) protesting at every step while getting quickly out of the way of the occasional group of dare-devil downhill BMXers. At the bottom, finally, we found ourselves in a valley - miles and miles away from where we started. So we walked, and took in the view - the bottom-to-top version of what we'd seen along our hike. Then we found a bus back to the train, and headed for a bite - the first in 5 hours since we started walking without a break. It was wonderful, if a bit too ambitious, at least for me. But where else could you see anything like it?
I even stopped for a pic just for Gelli, as Neal explained where it was from:
And this wasn't originally for Gelli, but what the who:
Plus a sign warning of cartoon cows:
And the Canadian flag, according to the Swiss:
The next day we headed up Jungfrau to the Jungfraujock - the lookout point on the glacier. The price was enormous; without rail passes, we were both paying full tickets up. But it couldn't be missed, and we reasoned were were here, and perhaps we wouldn't be back, and that's what credit cards are for. So we set out early, back to the train, then another, then another - 2 and a half hours' worth till we reached the top. Along the way we went from trees to tundra, and still there they were, the elderly hikers, walking up steep hills and across narrow paths, not even out of breath. And so we stared and pointed and wondered until the train went underground and, for an hour, all we did was wait as it chugged up the cog-railway to the peak - with a stop or two for a lookout. The crowd in the train was enormous - and it was worse at the top. But, like magic, we were up where we'd been pointing for days - a little spot of a lookout, surrounded by glacier and snow, blusteringly cold on the open-face side and warm enough to go sleeveless on the ground.
From the top we saw the cities, the Swiss countryside, and out past the mountains into France. But it was on the glacier itself that we stayed longest. They had a rappel line, dog sledding, a small ski hill with a t-bar lift, sliding, hiking, even a giant inexplicable snowball in the middle of it all. In the sun it was warm and comfortable, but when the clouds went by the temperature dipped and I was glad for my wool sweater. It was incredibly bright, an Neal asked at one point if the sled dogs were green, and so we shared my sunglasse and took turns squinting and going just a tad sunblind.
I'm not cold! Honest!
Then we braved the crowds again (including the large Indian family who'd never seen snow, or revolving doors, apparently) to catch the ice castle (just a hole in the ice, really) before deciding we were hungry and not prepared to pay $6 for a cookie. So down we went, back on the train, stopping halfway for raclette and beer and watching the rain come rolling back in, this time to stay. So we headed back to the B&B, went for a quick swim at a nearby lake (well, a swim for Neal and watching the swans for me), then napped awhile, dressed, and headed back out in the pouring rain for supper.
The next day we walked in the rain, along the shore, finding ourselves at the dead-end of a rocky dock in a small gale, having to brave the swan couple hidden in the grass (those things can be nasty!), then crossing back to the lake again, wet and damp yet elated still at the rivers and the colours and the scenery.
They may be cute - but they have ulterior motives!
Yet we'd made up our minds - Zermatt was not to be. It was booked and on the list, but the rain was relentless and we'd been barely keeping ahead of it since Paris. We weren't equipped to hike the muddy paths in the rain, yet we weren't prepared to leave Switzerland so soon. But Marseille promised us the sun and they had a room free for an extra few days. And so we left early, not quite convinced we should go, but needeing to get out of our damp sweaters and admitting that Switzerland was harder on the wallet than wed expected. Still, it was the highlight, the most beautiful place I've ever been, and as the mountains receded in the train and the fields of sunflowers came into view, I knew we could come back to hike 50 years later and still fit right in.