[I promised you an account of our Swiss trip; it follows. As you read slowly through the narrative and gaze longingly at the accompanying pictures, savouring each vista and relishing every encounter, you shall journey into the mountains of Switzerland, catch a glimpse of swiss hospitality, experience the pleasures of a misty hike, and understand the balance between Tourism-Agriculture-Nature the Swiss have achieved.]
That Friday, as I placed our bags into the car booth, it occurred to me that we were doing what was so typically European: leaving office early on a Friday, packing bags, and driving out for a weekend holiday. Dad used to tell me about such trips we made in Ghana in the late 70s: come Friday, we – dad, mom and a four year old version of me – would start out, along with a few of his Dutch colleagues, for a nearby beach resort. Looking at those photographs as a teenager, I would wonder if I would ever get to live like that. Now that I do, I still miss the aura that surrounds those old memories; the past, like an old photograph whose edges get fuzzier each year, has always seemed more enchanting than the present.
We weren’t going to a beach resort, but to the mountains in Switzerland. Our last trip to this region was in the winter of 2002, when we walked along a snow-covered trail carrying umbrellas (it was snowing) until my toes froze and we had to take the mountain train for the remaining distance. In summer the Bernese Oberland landscape is vastly different; I looked forward to this one.
At the Swiss border, in Basel, the bored customs official waved us through – an unusual gesture. Most often, we were stopped and asked for our passports. On some occasions the passport check was followed by a few questions: where are you headed? Why? Carrying any food products? The last question, which surprised us initially, was to identify people who buy food products in neighbouring countries and sell them at a higher price in Switzerland. Last year, on our way to Venice, we were carrying a bag full of rations and vegetables we needed for our week’s stay at the cottage where we intended to cook; by good fortune, the check on that day involved only passport verification.
After Basel the landscape changed – green meadows dotted with thick sloping roof cottages, with patches of pine trees adding a darker shade of green – and so did the music – Bhupinder made way for The Very Best of Eagles. At Interlaken, a city which takes its name from its location in between two lakes, Brienz and Thun, we left the highway and began our ascent into the mountains. Half an hour later we reached our hotel Staldten, which was situated at the apex of a hairpin bend a few kilometres from Grindelwald. It was almost 9 pm, and darkness was setting in, but there was enough light for a photo of the hotel from the parking lot situated opposite. As I framed the picture a train passed above us, and the chill in the air suddenly brought to mind something I had missed while packing: a jacket. The summer heat in the plains can be deceptive; this region seemed to be in a different climate zone.
The hotel, a largish cottage with a restaurant in front and a few rooms at the back, appeared to be a family-run place. A plump blonde girl welcomed us with her rudimentary English laced with a Swiss accent, and led us to our room behind the restaurant. It was a small room with a window that opened into a backyard, and the hillside that faced us was thick with vegetation. I opened the window to let in some air; instantly, the roar of the nearby mountain stream came rushing in.
After resting a while we drove to the nearby town of Grindelwald. It was dark outside, and lights from houses on nearby mountain slopes glimmered like low-hanging stars in the sky. The well-lit town centre, with its signs for hotels and restaurants, was surprisingly empty for a summer Friday evening. We parked opposite some restaurants and walked over to check the menu: typical German cuisine, with little vegetarian choice. I enquired and learned there were a couple of pizzerias ahead. The short walk to the nearest pizzeria took us past shops displaying sports wear, camping equipment, cameras, Swiss watches and knives. At one window with cameras we looked at the price of a Canon EOS 300D. The label read 990 Swiss Francs; much cheaper than a year and half ago, when I purchased the same model.
The pizzeria we entered was empty, but we had barely seated ourselves when a large group entered. They looked for a place suitable for all to sit together, and finding none, one amongst them asked if we could shift to another side. We agreed, following which they wouldn’t stop thanking us. Every other person, crossing us on their way to the seat, stopped by to express their gratitude. They were Germans, of course.
The long drive had left us hungry. Colours, with her sharp presence of mind on any food related matter, remarked that we ought to order before the large group did, unless we didn’t mind waiting until midnight for our pizzas. I took her hint, and our order arrived before hunger could consume us.
* * *
I woke up next morning to find an overcast sky. From the window, I spotted a layer of mist rise above the trees on the mountain.
At breakfast, the courteous middle-aged lady led us to a table she’d kept ready for us. Coffee? she asked. No, orange juice. Over breakfast I browsed through a hiking brochure that contained an overview of the possible hiking routes. We decided to take a bus or cable car to a place named First, and then hike to Waldspitz via BachAlpSee. We’d seen a picture of BachAlpSee in our guidebook: a group picnicking on the green meadow next to an alpine lake, with snow-covered peaks towering ahead. A place one wouldn’t want to miss; but then, don’t most travel brochures evoke similar emotions?
We checked out soon after breakfast. Before leaving, I enquired on how to reach First from Grindelwald; the lady went inside and came back with a more detailed brochure. Then, with the charm and expertise of a travel agent selling me a trip, she explained that since there was no bus to First, I should park in the lot next to the church at the end of town and take a short walk to the cable-car station, and on the way back we could either take a bus from Waldspitz or the cable-car from Bort. “You keep the brochure – it has nice pictures” she said with a warm smile. “And wish you a nice stay in Switzerland !”
We drove again to Grindelwald – this time in full view of the surrounding mountains, with vast expanses of green and clumps of white where low-hanging clouds hid among trees – and parked in the same lot as the previous evening. As we were parking for the day we had to purchase a ticket. At the vending machine I dropped a coin into the slot, but it simply rolled out. On closer examination, I found the electronic display showing an “Ausser Bettrieb” – out of order – sign. A young man with Chinese features standing behind me remarked that the machine at the other end was out of order as well. None of the cars had any ticket on them; it meant we would get a free day at the parking lot.
I bought a jacket in one of the sportswear shops, and we then walked towards the cable car station. The rain-washed street was flanked on both sides by wooden houses with dark, sloping roofs and balconies decorated with colourful flowers; shops displayed Swiss knifes, watches and postcards with alpine views; a mountain loomed up ahead and the air had a slight chill; there were tourists all around, carrying cameras, hiking equipment, or kids that refused to walk – it was a scene you would find in any Swiss alpine resort.
At the cable-car station in Grindelwald, the lady at the ticket counter explained all possible transport options (although her job was only to sell cable-car tickets). “Take care in this part of the hike,” she said, pointing to a map she had spread out. “It is a stony path – nothing dangerous, but just be a little careful while walking.” I thanked her and collected the tickets. The hospitality you encounter in Switzerland makes the experience more memorable. No wonder this country offers the world’s best hotel management courses.
As the cable car ascended the sky cleared a little, but at First the mist brought down the visibility to no more than a few metres. Outside the cable-car station at First, we spotted outlines of a sign indicating different paths: our initial destination was BachAlpSee, around an hour away.
It wasn’t cold, and that made the mist acquire a quality of mystery and filled within us a sense of adventure. Beyond a few metres of our path and parts of the surrounding green meadows, we could barely see anything. Soon we heard bells – cowbells – in the distance; a few minutes later cows materialized out of the mist.
“Do you know why the cows here have bells tied to their necks?” I asked Colours.
“Why?” she enquired, expecting an earnest reply.
“So that hikers don’t bump into them on misty days.”
The mist had a slippery character: it would come and go with a speed that left me fumbling with my camera to capture clear moments in between. After a while when the mist lifted, we found ourselves surrounded by miles of green meadows and hills, with taller mountains in the distance. The path wound through the green hillside spotted with dried up flowers, and below us we saw the mist rising once again.
The green hillsides all around us seemed part of a natural landscape, but they were in fact cultivated. I was surprised when I read this on a previous visit to Switzerland. It was a signboard at a cable-car station that explained how nature, agriculture and tourism were dependent on each other:
“The cultivated landscape created by man increases the natural variety and individuality of the mountain region. A rural, cultivated landscape is attractive to visitors and a reason why many guests return year after year. The open landscape, cleared of forest, is a pre-requisite for attractive ski runs; its maintenance needs a local workforce.
The patterns of agricultural work and tourism are complementary. Tourism provides additional sources of income for the part-time farmer. Tourism makes an important contribution to the preservation of mountain agriculture. Where once there was only forest you now find flower-decked meadows and a landscape divided by hedges and clumps of trees.”
This unique blend of tourism, agriculture and nature had achieved the right balance necessary to keep this ecosystem thriving in an organic manner.
It progressively got colder as we walked, and when we reached BachAlpSee the wind made it worse. It wasn’t the warm, picnic weather we had seen in the photograph (and the clouds obscured the Alps), but nestled among the green hills in a remote place two thousand metres above sea level, this small lake carried a charm I associated with stories about Himalayan lakes. Shaped like an oyster, the lake had a bluish-green colour, and the surrounding mountains made it seem like a source for streams flowing down from here. But there probably were other streams feeding this lake at the far end.
I walked down to the edge and found the water warmer than I had expected. There were no signs forbidding swimmers; perhaps on warmer days people did take a swim. The place was remarkably free of tourists – I saw only about half a dozen people around us; some were sitting and munching sandwiches, and some others, like me, were taking pictures.
We spent around ten minutes at the lake before the cold wind led us away from this calm, beautiful location towards our next destination: Waldspitz. This time we chose the narrow, unmarked path on the other side of the valley we had climbed. The route was labelled blumenweg: at the right time in summer, the path wound through hillsides covered with bright flowers. Presently most of them appeared burnt and dried, and a few fresh ones that were left had little impact on the vast green that dominated the landscape.
It was a wet, muddy path scattered with stones. Soon the mist caught up with us again, and so did the cows. We spent the next hour slowly walking through the mist listening to rhythmic clink of the cowbells, and these two elements formed the essence of the hike. In between we would stop to absorb the surroundings, and on one such occasion we were startled by a rooster’s scream. Looking ahead, we saw the outlines of a barn slowly emerge through the mist, a barn with a portico where a cock and a few hens were strutting around. The barn had an electrified fence around it, and our path led straight into this fence. “Waldspitz”, a board said, pointing below the wire that ran across the fence. We bent carefully and crossed to the other side (although Colours, a good twelve inches shorter, found it much easier than I did). Inside, we walked past a dog that silently watched us with hungry eyes. The path soon joined a marked trail, and brought us much-needed relief.
When we reached Waldspitz – a “village” with a single cottage that housed a restaurant – we were both tired and hungry. The next bus was an hour away, which left us enough time to fill ourselves with hot vegetable soup followed by Rösti (potato) with tomato and cheese. The cheese, like most cheese I’ve tried in Switzerland, smelled strange, but after a while I found I had finished half the plate with little difficulty. Did I get used to the smell, or did my hunger make me ignore it? Only my next encounter with Swiss cheese will tell.
The bus ride to Grindelwald, winding through a narrow road surrounded by pine trees, took forty-five minutes. Grindelwald was hot – the car indicated twenty-four degrees Celsius – and after picking up some cool drinks we started towards Lausanne.
[Have you, like me, wondered how the memory of a place creates a more intense sense of attachment than the act of being physically present in the place? Do you, like me, sometimes live more in memories than in the reality that surrounds you? Do you go about collecting experiences, just as I sometimes do, not for the experience in itself but for the memory it allows you to go back to later? Are you, like me, afraid that memories you would long to recollect someday would be erased as time goes by? And is that why you, like me, blog, collecting these pieces of memory you could later look at? If you answered yes, I would be least surprised.]