Oeuf to France

The annual plume of unseasonal warm air making its way up towards the British Isles from North Africa (aka fake summer) coincided with a trip to France. In some ways it was a shame to miss out on such glorious weather in Britain over Easter – how I would miss the opportunity to pop to Tesco in my shorts to battle for the last bag of charcoal and three packs of sausages for a fiver. Or negotiate the single track roads to Cornish coves whose hillsides are coated in cars charged eight quid for the privilege. But France would be nice.

fr02Indeed, the weather didn’t bring too much to grumble about and my shorts proved a justified inclusion on the continent. There were countryside ambles and meanders through parks, Easter egg hunts in the garden and trips to the market. All the usual trappings of life on the French-Swiss border in Ville-la-Grand, snow coating distant peaks while spring was springing all around.

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Out of town, a morning amble around Lac du Mole took us slightly closer to the snow. Yet here the sights of ducklings and the sounds of randy toads were ample testament to the fact that things were hotting up.

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It was good to be out, within flirting distance of the mountains, the sight of which always entice you to explore more. However, the primary rationale for this particular outing wasn’t really to survey mountain tops and randy toads. It was – of course – the proximity of the lake to a patisserie; a roadside stop that could be a Little Chef or a Costa Coffee in the UK, but here was brim with fondant artistry and crème extravagance. As opposed to despondent mediocrity and frothy incompetence.

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While there was gateau and – naturally – cheese aplenty, this was also a trip featuring roast dinners, toads in holes and homemade lasagne; a franglais stew to cater for cross-cultural cravings. I find ice cream works in any language, whether this is whipped in Walsall or churned in Chernobyl. Both places where you’d hope not to find yourself buying ice cream to be honest.

fr06Annecy, on the other hand, is a gem of a place to take in an ice cream or do whatever you should please. From the hive of construction that is Annemasse station, a pleasing hour long train ride delivered my nephew Guillaume and I to what has been described as the Venice of the Alps, largely on the count of a canal infiltrating a few of the streets and – possibly – gondoliers wailing about their need for Walls Cornettos.

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Passing through France almost every town or village you come upon proclaims itself as a Ville Fleurie, going on to illustrate this with an intricate arrangement featuring a cast iron cow and a cluster of geraniums in the middle of a roundabout. Annecy would live up to Ville Fleurie and then some, at least in its medieval centre chock full of flower boxes and civic blooms. The suburbs could well be as grimy as Walsall for all I know, but in the midst of town, much is done to attract and charm.

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fr09The waterways and the flowers and the daytrippers milling about eating ice cream largely find their way towards the jewel in the crown that is Lac d’Annecy and its quite dazzling surrounds. Clear, glacial water hosts an array of boats, encircled by forests, villages and rapidly elevating peaks. It’s a popular spot to row or cruise or be a hoon on a jetski. Or even pedalo for half an hour in a large figure eight. Everybody loves a tourist.

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fr10bThe frequent sight of tourists eating ice cream impels one to wander the streets like a tourist to seek out an ice cream. Heavily topped cornets increase in frequency back near one of the canals, and a large queue meanders from the serving hatch of Glacier des Alpes. Patience may be rewarded with sublime ice cream but neither Guillaume nor I had much patience and opted for a perfectly satisfactory version nearby. Safe from the clutches of any devious gondoliers.

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Leaving Annecy, storm clouds were gathering over the mountains and the very fine weather would break the following day to deliver a period of wind and rain. Preparation for my return to England – and the frequently damp northwest of England to boot. Unlike in the northwest of England, the weather front passed here and left a glorious late afternoon and evening, ripe for a walk across to Switzerland.

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A recurring spectacle across my trip this year – both in France and the UK – was the sight of rapeseed flowering in the fields. A swathe of lurid yellow regularly interrupting the tranquil patchwork of green, unable to be contained within its boundaries and peppering nearby hedges and springing from cracks in the concrete. Insatiable and seemingly inevitable around every corner, in places stretching as far as the eye can see. Only the mountains appear to stop it.

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fr13And so, the last evening in France turned out as sunny as the unseasonably warm sun that was soon to fade away in Great Britain; to be replaced by a storm so irritating it was awarded a name (Hannah), heralding a permanent return to long trousers. One last slice of gateau would compensate for the impending doom, and cap off a very fine Easter; my first in the northern hemisphere since 2006. So, fake summer or real, it was undoubtedly one that will go down in history.

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Frictionless

When I get back to Australia I know I will get the question along the lines of “how are things in Britain these days then?” It’s a subtle way of probing what the actual bloody hell is going on with all that nonsensical Tory schoolboy jostling otherwise known as the British Exit from the European Union. And I guess I’ll answer something along the lines of “well, everyone is pretty much fed up of hearing about it all the time”. Because, you know, what better way to deal with impending doom than pretending it isn’t happening (see, for example, Climate Change).

Still, let’s not get all Project Fear with needless stuff like evidence and statistics and what not. Britain will be fine, because Britain is great and we can be great again because we are Britain, which is just great. So goes the leading argument for leaving. Which is bizarre when you think about it, because it relies on untainted optimism. SINCE WHEN HAVE THE BRITISH BEEN OPTIMISTIC?!!!

Anyway, it’s all great, because being great, I’m sure I will still be able to travel without much friction to Europe on my Great British passport which is changing colour because we can change its colour, wow! I can’t believe I was ever sceptical.

Yes, frictionless travel to Europe. People will continue to queue to get on the plane even though they have an assigned seat and the inbound flight hasn’t even landed yet. The size of hand luggage will continue to take the piss and be contorted into overhead lockers without any regard for anyone else. Buses will continue to transport people from the terminal to a plane twenty metres away, just to add an extra half hour on this seamless journey. And we’ll all get to France with Easyjet scratchcards and no intention at all to even consider speaking French. Nothing will change.

Ah, France. I got there eventually. Actually Switzerland, but then followed by a frictionless border crossing (okay, some speed bumps) to France. And, just for a change, Ville-la-Grand, where my brother and his family have recently moved. It’s a lovely spot, fringed by woodland and the park and bike paths and a slope to the markets and a decent walk to schools and the cheese shop also known as the supermarket. And from one supermarket you can even see Mont Blanc and other assorted mountains on a fine day. It’s grand.

The weather wasn’t very continental on the first day there. Bloody Europe, I should’ve stayed at home. With murk, drizzle and rainy spells it was much like Great Britain, but we still managed to head out for a couple of hours and not gaze sombrely out to sea from a car park eating soggy cheese and pickle sandwiches. While a downpour hammered on the car roof in the car park, it quickly passed, and we were able to amble around the pretty lakeside village of Nernier in the dry. C’est la vie.

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fra02The next day was a more promising affair, with clouds breaking and a touch more warmth back in the air. And so into the Alps, for a destination that was as much about a lunch opportunity as it was scenic nourishment. The Cascade du Rouget plunges down from the mountains, fed by snow melt and discarded Evian. Today, at the end of a long hot summer, it was a relative trickle but an impressive sight nonetheless. Liquid oozing at the mercy of gravity, the annual fondue went down pretty well too.

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fra04The nearby flowery towns of Sixt-Fer-a-Cheval and Samoens provided a touch of post-lunch ambling, ticking down time until the bakeries re-opened. They were relatively quiet on this weekday in September, a palpable air of towns that are winding down from the summer and slowly putting in place preparations for winter. Jigsaw wood piles, puffed up bodywarmers, freshly greased raclette machines. All the essentials of an Alpine winter.

But let’s not put away those Decathlon shorts and tops and sporty sandals just yet. For there are glorious end-of-summer days in which to revel. Blue skies and temperatures nudging the thirties and – finally – a taste of this legendary heatwave of 2018. Until I depart the EU and face the chilly murk of Bristol Airport of course. Great.

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Time for countryside ambles across borders, the sun dappling through the trees of brookside meanders and lighting the fields around. Busy gardens glow amongst shuttered windows and wooden beams, while rows of vines and apple red orchards are bursting for harvest. Lingering lunches alfresco provide a pause to enjoy the fruits of the summer or, more typically, the cheesy potato-bacon-salad combos. And an urge to try to counteract the heftiness of fromage propels me to borrow a bike and cycle to Switzerland and back.

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The final day in France – and very likely my last day in Europe before Britain decides it is better off without it – was surely a reminder that the motherland will always be inferior in the weather stakes. Attention turning to the BBC forecast, mutterings along the lines of 17 degrees and cloud looking “not too bad” for next week show how quickly I adjust; my expectations lower and tolerance of shorts wearing does too.

But an evening flight provides ample time to soak summer up while it lasts, so why not catch a train to Evian to do more than just drink expensive water? I came here last year, from across the lake in Lausanne, and was reasonably enamoured by its character and ambience. Today, a chance to take Mum and a useful local French speaker to enjoy its lakeside ambles and distant views of higher, craggier Alpine peaks.

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Evian’s not the most exciting of places but possesses requisite continental charm. Of course, the plastic-polluting water bottle company is a dominant theme and I believe there are spas in which you can bathe in the minerals extracted from unicorn sweat filtered through kryptonite. The actual source of water is there for all – including many a local restaurant owner and German coach party – to top up bottles. And the free funicular is a little treat for Portillo fans and youth orchestras from Wessex alike.

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Basking in such glorious weather it seems a shame to be departing. The mountains so clear that they literally beckon your name and urge you towards their valleys and peaks. But it turns out we have to leave, not because the alleged genius that is Boris says so, but because there is an Easyjet ticket which has my name on it. A ticket that also has a seat allocated, making the spectacle of hundreds of people queuing at the gate even before the plane is there even more preposterous. In an era of pure preposterousness, this takes the tea and biscuit.

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Europe Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography

Hors Categorie

If there’s one thing that does have enduring popularity in France it’s months of summer holidays frolicking around the republic, sampling local cheeses and drinking grapes. Some flock to thank the beaches, others wade nonchalantly within Monet waterways, while a large portion head to the hills wrapped in Decathlon. I bring my own Kmart chic to the mountains, but am happy to regularly indulge in the joie de vivre as much as the next Thomas, Ricard or Henri.

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alps01Just when you think you have pretty much seen the French Alps, another gorgeously picturesque valley road veers upwards, speckled with chalets and cyclists, leading to a modest resort town and an inevitable col de something or other once mentioned by Phil Liggett late at night. Saint-Francois-Longchamp is not only pleasingly French sounding but possesses all the jagged scenery and cowbell fields you could hope for. And plenty of those wooden chalets in which to stay avec famille.

There is a sameness to this landscape – it could be virtually any other high valley in the French Alps – but in no way whatsoever is that a bad thing. From the doorstep, footsteps can lead into sunny pastures surrounded by lofty peaks or, equally, the local piscine and boulangerie. All are recurrent, welcome sights.

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alps03As things tended to go, footsteps to the boulangerie were typical first thing, followed by a longer walk somewhere someplace prior to or incorporating lunch. Warm afternoons were generally more leisurely before fun, games, and dinner. Dinner obviously incorporated cheese in several forms… another sameness which is in no way whatsoever a bad thing.

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alps07Trips beyond Saint-Footlong-Champignons included the short climb up the hairpins to the Col de la Madeleine (HC). By voiture this was okay; an electric powered bike might have been doable; but pure pedal power seems like pure crazy. Especially from 1500 metres below in the valley of the Arc. I think if I even remotely made part of this climb without dying I would reward myself with trois boules of ice cream. But I didn’t, so just had the ‘two’ instead.

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Elsewhere, a couple of days of the week in Such-Fancy-Longpants were spiced up with a functioning chairlift. This dangled a steady stream of holidaymakers upward towards Lac Blanc and Lac Bleu. Not all the way up though…the final kilometre or so requiring a little zigzagging and pausing at opportune times for photo breaks.

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alps10The lakes were small placid affairs, ideal for observing the evolution of tadpoles to gourmet cuisine. Marmot whistles vied for attention with miniscule mosses and macrobugs, while the number of baguettes being simultaneously munched beside the water reached epic proportions around one. But then, you could see the appeal; they really were rather charming spots to eat and wile away a couple of hours up high.

Back down in town, summertime life continued with a chunder incident in the pool, horses on the loose, dog walking en masse, and people with shiny balls competing for the finest patch of gravel. The thud of Petanque was only eclipsed by the thud of the Beaufort on the table.

alps11Despite so much to enjoy it was perhaps the final morning where life in the Alps peaked. From the Col de la Madeleine once more, a cloudless sky provided the obligatory view of a glimmering, gargantuan Mont Blanc. It was a steady companion along a gravel track with views over valleys and peaks as far as the eye could see. I had probably been in some of those, and eaten some of their cheese before.

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Pausing at a boarded up wintertime ski spot, a few clouds had started to gather around the mighty massif as they almost always do. Air currents and convection and all that type of stuff; handy for obscuring prominent peaks and flying toy planes. A beacon and turning point, to head for home and leave that poor solitary walker to finally enjoy some peace and quiet!

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You don’t really think of France and burgers and beers, but lunchtime at La Banquise 2000 feasting on the aforementioned was a dream. It kind of seems wrong, but there’s something immensely satisfying about eating a slab of beef coated in melted local cheese and accompanied with the most amazing chips as scrawny people in Lycra huff and puff their way to a mountaintop.

My polka dot jersey would clearly need to be expandable to cater for these breaks, to adjust to the experience of summer holidays in the Alps and everything they entail. At least, from here, the only way is downhill, gravity assisted with extra vigour all the way back to the valley and towards Geneva.

 

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Remain?

I was naturally curious to gauge the reaction of arriving in Europe on one of those British passports. A snide eye roll, a tutting sigh, a stale baguette in the face? But no, such was the tardiness of Easyjet that Geneva airport was practically closed (and, yes, I know, not in the EU). So with haste it was through the Swiss border and across into France.

France. Dawning on a beautiful late summer’s day on which some of its citizens were semi-productively shuffling off to work while those who worked in Switzerland – courtesy of a public holiday – were not. The French also had school, which by a happy coincidence meant a child free day to venture into the Alps with relieved parents Monsieur Alain et Veronique. And inevitably eat cheese.

La Clusaz was a suitable lunch venue, reached via a scenic ride up a valley and into the green pasture chalet-dotted world that is so typique. Quiet streets recovering from the summer holidays led down to a clutch of shops and restaurants. Being lunchtime, the shops were closed and the shop owners in the restaurants, one of which took us in for some lazy refuge. A beer, charcuterie, fondue, tarte aux myrtilles. All inescapably inevitable and delicious.

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I guess if we were keen, had bikes, several blood transfusions and some special Coke cans, we could have worked it off heading up to the Col de la Colombiere. But it was much easier to appreciate from car, rising up from Le Grand-Bornand through some of those chalet-dotted villages, alongside rustic farms and into a precipitous wilderness. Marmots whistled, cyclists huffed and puffed, and the only lump of cloud in the Alps stubbornly hovered and clung to the mountaintops above.

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Descending from here was every bit as if not more fun than the climb. While I’d appreciate the distinct lack of a need to pedal on a bike I’m pretty sure I would lack the bravery. The car itself had plenty of natural momentum to hurtle down the straights and sweep round the bends. Villages and dreamy views flew by. And then we were back into the valley. A big valley with towns sprawled out and “traffic furniture” in profusion. France was leaving school and work, and we had a pick-up of our own to get back for.

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Our school pick-up was without too many a problem. By contrast, another tardy Easyjet plane resulted in another late night pick-up from the airport, as the parents decided to join us for the weekend. Well, a long weekend, since the next day was Friday and the kiddies were still in school. Ahead was the prospect of another tantrum-free sojourn into the mountains, all being well.

fr04And what a lovely tour it was, revisiting some vaguely familiar territory but under glorious skies instead of disappointing murk. First stop was Carrefour, which was a little less lovely, but suitably stocked with bread and meats and cheese, staples that can be lumped together and taken up to the top of a hill in scenes reminiscent of a Peppa Pig episode in which they have a thoroughly middle class picnic.

The hill in question was situated in the Plaine Joux area, topped with wooden tables and lazing meadows, peppered with cows, and surrounded by mountains. If you didn’t want to idle in the sun, several trails could take you to the top of other hills, down into valleys, across farms, or simply round the corner to marvel at the vista in the other direction.

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Down there somewhere in the Vallee Verte, past the evocative Onnion, and wedged into the mountains sat the Lac de Vallon. Placidly reflective, partly in shade from the looming hills, blissfully quiet, it was a pause in the return home. A final beautiful moment before the weekend proper and the chance of greater mayhem. A mayhem that was admittedly delightful, barring one or two moments.

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fr12And so there were walks to parks and more picnics, bouncy castles, lego blocks, hearty lunches, tickle monsters, bustling markets, outdoor petanque, selfies, tired parents and doting grandparents. Oh, and a bit of a premature gateaux anniversaire for a certain someone. It was the final family flourish before saying, again, au revoir. Goodbye. Leave.

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Driving Europe Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography

Nuage magique

In further news not westcountry, here are some more pictures and jumbled words from a recent trip to the Geneva suburbs of France and the French bit of Switzerland. Family connections make such trips possible and while this can raise some minor irritations – think early starts, couch sleeps, tricky post-dinner cheese decisions – there are more positives than negatives. Like family fun at six in the morning, afternoon naps on a comfy couch when all is quiet, and fulfilling post-dinner cheese decisions.

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In addition there is the location, which provides access to two countries and cultures and some very hilly ground. I feel like I have at one explored much and touched only little over multiple visits. New settings emerge like the sun through the lake cloud, while old haunts linger, much like the lake cloud. Thus, in conclusion, the lake cloud is very variable and largely unpredictable in late autumn and sets the tone for the disposition of the day. Linger in cold dreariness or bask in pleasant, warm sunshine. Just be prepared to deal with it one way or another…

1. Disconnect sensory and logic-processing synapses

It looks like a pile of gloom. It sounds like a pile of gloom. It smells like a pile of gloom. It is not necessarily a pile of gloom, though it could be actually. Or maybe not. What is dark and leaden at the start of the 61 bus ride can be clear and airy at the end of it. Now, I know the 61 bus ride feels like an eternity for some, but not so long to make this transition conventional. You think there is no way under the (non-existent) sun that this pile of gloom will shift today, and it does. In the twinkle of a traffic light, your body which was in winter is now firmly in autumn and possibly just absorbing a residual hint of summer.

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Fr03Of course, this is marvellous given such abysmal expectations. You find yourself beside the lake in Geneva all sapphire and topaz crystal. Leaves are ablaze with afternoon sun. A walk up into the old town warms the body further, despite its narrow cobbled streets in the permanent shadow of expensive jewellery shops and even more expensive solicitors. The Saleve – which didn’t exist before – punctures the horizon from the Promenade de la Treille. Children play merrily, students philosophise lazily, lovers embrace amorously. Where is the gloom? None of this makes sense.

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2. Ascension

There is wisdom to be had in the words of Yazz and the Plastic Population. It may take many hairpins and navigation through the inside of a big damp cloud, but go up and you may just end up above the weather.

It was looking doubtful climbing up to a car park in the shadow of Les Voirons, a lumpy ridge rising to highs of 1400 metres. Only in the last few kinks of road did the mistiness glow bright and dissipate. Even then, occasional wisps of cloud hovered over the road surface, as if a smoke machine was spewing out its final puffs from a distant eighties dance-pop-funk performance.

In the clear air, churned up tracks through the forest conveyed a sense of truffle hunting, rabid dogs, and people with shotguns. After piddling about along these tracks for a little while, the only way was to ascend, bay-ay-beee. Up through millions of discarded leaves, into a clearing and views of the sea; a brilliant white sea lapping at the shores of craggy peaks and ice-capped spires. The very top of the Saleve a small desert island floating in this blinding ocean.

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Fr06There was something very satisfying about being above the cloud, in brilliant blue skies, knowing that it was well miserable down there. As if you had stuck two fingers up to the weather and, for once, outsmarted it. Haha, yes weather, you are no match for altitude, mwahahahaaa! All your stupid cloud is doing is reflecting the sun and making me incredibly warm, so that I can cope in a T-shirt. And in making the valleys disappear, you accentuate the purity of the view, the drama and scale of the stunning panorama of the Mont Blanc massif. Yeah, screw you, cloud.

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3. Just eat

Sunday lunches are often best when they are lingering affairs, embellished with hearty food and infused with wine. They are the perfect antidote to grey skies and uninspiring temperatures, a strip of crispy crackling in a pile of over-boiled cabbage. Perhaps in the case of this particularly Sunday lunch it was the heat from the Raclette-melting contraption (it probably has a local name, like raclettesiennierre-de-montagne-lardonass) that generated just enough upward convection to part the clouds towards the end of the day.

Fr09Cue some reluctant shifting of our own lardonasses for a welcome amble in the nearby Swiss section of countryside. Golden light casts a serene glow on everything and everyone. A crispness in the air is refreshing and helps to dilute the strong odours of cheese. The cloud has gone again, and – in such endless skies reaching to the stars – it is hard to believe that it will so easily return.

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4. Try a different country

Okay, so perhaps Switzerland has all of the sunshine, what with millions of fancy penknives slashing at the cloud and all. So, with a free day out to use up courtesy of my rail pass I was able to penetrate deeper into the country and seek out its sunnier spots.

Fr11First, with cloud embedded deep into the valleys, I had to escape up once more. From the town of Vevey, a gleaming commuter train elegantly curves its way past chalets and chateaus to the suburb of Blonay. Here, a change of train (waiting on the other platform, naturally) shifts into a steeper grade through forest and occasional hamlets to Les Pleiades. Nothing much is at this terminus, apart from open meadows, scientific contraptions, and labourers preparing for the winter. But it is a spot well above the cloud, which sits snugly in its lake-filled indent, a luminescent glacier of cotton wool.

Numerous jet trails pierce the clear blue sky and it is warm again. This is the sunny side of Switzerland, all rolling green meadows and dotted villages. Happy to linger, I gradually stroll down, passing a small fromagerie and a couple of holiday chalets a louer. A barn sits empty, the cows having descended for the winter, the sound of their bells occasionally echoing up the valley. I move down too, only from what seems an alpine summer and back to a winter by the lake.

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My original plan was to hop on a boat cruise from Vevey, a sedate and civilised way to soak up the charm of the Riviera towns and the drama of the rising mountains. While some hazy breaks hinted at a clearing it was still predominantly grey; not quite the scene I had pictured in which I lazed contentedly on a wooden deck, the lowering sun illuminating the surrounding mountains. So instead – with free travel at my fingertips – I jumped on a train for twenty minutes to Aigle.

One of the problems with free travel and chronic indecision is deciding what to do with the free travel that you have decided to buy. At Aigle, two tempting options wait and time, really, for only one. Platform 13 and a train to Les Diablerets, Platform 14 Leysin. Both equipped to move upwards and no doubt deliver another hearty dose of gorgeous Swissness. One leaving in four minutes, the other in six…time barely sufficient for decision-making.

Jumping on the first to depart (Les Diablerets), the carriages immediately turned into a tram and clunked through the streets of the town. I caught a glimpse of the chateau on Aigle’s edge, and promptly jumped off at the first stop. There would be no time to visit that as well as Les Diablerets, so I crossed a road and caught the following train to Leysin.

Fr14With the sun now out in Aigle there was less imperative to climb, but the train relentlessly lumbered upwards. Surprisingly there was deception in that valley sunshine, as it became clear once up high that a layer of haze hovered at around 800 metres. The sunny valley was no longer visible, despite it being sunny when down there. What kind of sorcery was this?

Leysin itself appeared to possess charm and utility, no doubt bustling in winter and thriving in summer. In early November things were a little devoid of life apart from clusters of students, neatly attired, mostly Asian, receiving an expensive Swiss education in a school with a view. A few joined me on the train back down, through that mysterious haze which was only visible from above.

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In time-honoured tradition I hopped off the train a couple of stops early, prior to it reaching Aigle level. I had noticed on the way up the glimmering terraces adorned with rows of vines, golden in the peculiar autumn sunshine. The chateau would be visible below, and there must be a walk down, because a carriage of younger schoolkids disembarked here on the way up.

Fr15I have no idea how all those schoolkids assembled on the platform, such as it was: two square paving slabs dangling over one of the walls cascading down in giant steps towards the valley. What looked like some kind of drainage channel passed steeply under the rail track; the only other person to disembark informing me that this was the road-cum-path. And despite this initial steepness, it was a glorious walk, mostly following the small chemins used to transport grapes and labour. Occasional houses adjoined the route, each proudly displaying the name of the vigneron and date of establishment. One or two tempted with open doorways, while outside a couple of workers toasted a hard day’s winemaking with a crisp glass of white.

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Fr17With the light lowering in the clear (???) sky, there was barely chance to visit Aigle’s picturesque chateau before it would be cast into shadow. While sunset time was a little way off, the narrowing of the valley and the proximity of gargantuan mountaintops meant that it would soon kiss this part of the world goodbye. Darkness would return, and with it, the infamous foggy shroud of dank.

5. Suck it up, cheese boy

There is only so much successful blue sky strategising that one can manage, and fortuitous decision-making will eventually turn sour. While I loved practically everything about an overnight stay up from Vevey in the village of Chexbres – king-sized bed, amazing shower, big screen TV with 832 channels in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Cornish, Swisshornian – the balcony view was not one of them. Beyond vine terraces and tightly packed village roofs floating in the mist a sparkling blue lake had disappeared.

With a midday checkout I dawdled for as long as possible for things to clear but today was not going to happen. On top of the low cloud, some medium level cloud and then some high cloud, with a few spots of rain and little hope of sun. I faced a cloud lasagne with bits of Switzerland oozing through the layers. Suck it up, cheese boy.

Still, the setting – in the heart of the Lavaux wine region – was very pretty, just that more subdued than the previous afternoon in similar terrain around Aigle. Wine has been grown here for donkey’s years, probably with the use of donkeys on the steep-sided terraces, frisked by slavering monks gagging for their next tipple. Today, a few mechanical contraptions – steep narrow-gauge rail tracks like fairground rides, convoluted water sprinklers, grape conveyor belts – have evolved, but much must still be managed and picked by hand.

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A network of chemins provides gentle and mostly traffic-free walking across appellations, between villages, and – occasionally – directly through the rows of vines themselves. It’s such easy and serene walking that you can comfortably end up strolling all the way into Lausanne. I practically did in the hope that the sun would shine as the hour lengthened. And, towards the end, the milkiest hint of sunlight filtered through the cloud levels, briefly giving the impression of a vast lake below, and high mountains beyond.

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A large patch of blue sky greeted me as I arrived back into Geneva’s train station. It seemed – from my limited recent experience – uncharacteristic that Geneva would be clear while further up the lake it remained damp and grey. Little of the day remained to enjoy it, but the light illuminated the final 61 bus ride back to Annemasse. And it provided a salient reminder that there is only so much you can do to predict, manage, and deal with the infamous wintry shroud of Lake Geneva.

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Swiss day out

The number 61 bus from Annemasse Gare to Geneve Cornavin seems to pass as one of the longest short journeys around. I don’t know what it is about it…perhaps the trundle through France, with its oil-stained Renault workshops and flashing green pharmacie signs? Or maybe the sombreness of being beneath a Leman gloom cloud, omnipresent in early November? Though a seamless (at least then) border crossing sweeps you into a more sanitised array of Swiss shops and streets, the rattling and bending and last-gasp stopping continues apace. Stylishness and affluence glides in, bag ladies and yoof dribble out. No-one, ever, stands up for anybody else, achieved (for those rare species without tablets and phones) through an accomplished display of middle-distance gazing, looking at nothing or no-one in particular.

The journey only takes forty minutes or so, which is considerably longer than the one hour, thirty six minutes and forty nine seconds it took me to travel almost all of the Piccadilly line (from Oakwood) to Heathrow, which in itself was longer than the flight duration from London to Geneva. But this bus feels the longest trip of the lot, and it is with relief and excitement that you find yourself at the virtual terminus of the Swiss railway network (not to mention round the corner from Manor).

Looking for something to do – for lake cloud to escape and bendy buses to flee – I availed myself of a Lake Geneva – Alps Regional Pass. It took some finding, for there is nothing the Swiss seem to like more (well, apart from chocolate, cheese, and referenda) than a convoluted array of rail passes, network zones and travel conditions, all in French, German, English and occasional Italian. I could get a Swiss Card for a half-priced fare, or a one-day whole-of-SBBCFFFFS roamer, or a Zug Snausserhorn Goldenpass or maybe a Cloud Cuckooclockland permit, with 70% discount on VIP chocolate train seats instead? What is certain is that no Swiss person will ever pay a full fare and that – despite such ticketing intricacies – the trains will still run like a well-worn cliché involving clock mechanisms.

It’s not just the timeliness of the trains, but the efficiency of connections, something which never fails to evoke wonder amongst travellers bred on a discombobulated British rail system or faced with a practically non-existent Australian one. Connections to other cantons and cities and major towns, but also to tiny villages, hay sheds and pieces of rock in the middle of nowhere. Like Montreux – upon glittering Leman shores – to Rochers de Naye, some two thousand metres in the sky.

RDN01Lake cloud which started to fragment in Lausanne had virtually evaporated by the time I reached Montreux, for my seven minute transfer to platform 10 and the Rochers de Naye train. Departing exactly at 09:47 as planned, the two cogwheel carriages made no bones about it and immediately veered sharply upwards, through a tunnel and out onto sun-filled plateaus coated with luminous autumn foliage and expensive views.

Riviera homes for bankers, third rate Swiss pop stars and dairy farmers alike slowly passed by, and occasional stops in the middle of nowhere allowed regulars to jump off to reach their hidden retreat in the woods. While some stations resembled the genuine thing sited in proper villages, other stops were little more than a plank of wood or a metal gate. Here, the train would briefly pause on a 50% gradient, before rolling a tad backwards in a disconcerting motion accompanied by a grinding shriek of metal on metal. You could almost smell the sparks as Sepp hopped off and waved a cheery goodbye to Michel, brown envelope in hand, as though this was the most normal thing in the world.

With altitude the ‘suburban’ stops fade and only walkers and the curious remain at this time of the year. Many of the walkers disembark at the Col de Jaman to walk up the nearby bulbous lump that is the Dent de Jaman. The curious – such as I – stay seated, dedicated to reaching their highs the easier way.

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One final climb through a pitch black tunnel makes the dazzle of reasonably fresh snow all the more blinding. Such is the drama of the journey, the top station is a touch underwhelming. A few views are spoiled by ski infrastructure, while building work distracts from an overpriced and bitter coffee in the cafe. A couple of goats offer mild amusement but the jardin alpin is closed for the season. Fortunately there is a higher viewpoint from here, up a short series of switchbacks, from which Switzerland – and France – is on view.

And what a view. A long way down, Lake Geneva cuts a swathe like a bloated boomerang westwards. Beyond lumpy outcrops and hills forested dark green and charred red, the lakeside towns – Montreux, Vevey, Lausanne and others – portray one elongated urban jungle. Occasional tower blocks, cranes, churches, chateaus can be picked out, while the curvature of the rail line up from there resembles some kind of herculean bobsleigh run. The alternate side of the lake sits hazily desolate, hemmed in by the pile of Haute Savoie dents, cols and monts. On the horizon, the thin line of the Jura hovers above the remaining cloud, still seemingly enveloping Geneva.

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RDN06And that is just the westward view. In all other directions, a sweeping panorama of snow-capped peaks and plunging valleys reaches out into the distance. The behemoths of the Bernese Oberland pierce the sky, pointed and rutted and sharpened and sculpted. Pillars of rock – too precipitous to catch the snow – endure; like resistant teeth in a seven year old’s mouth. This raggedy snowline fades into darkly forested slopes and meadows tinged brown by the passing summer.

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There is still warmth in those upland valleys, a sun-trap that allows for wearing of T-shirts, particularly when walking uphill. Keen to take advantage of this unexpected vestige of a rapidly fading summer, I embarked on a circular walk pieced together with my Rochers de Naye leaflet and snatches of online maps for crucial moments of decision and misdirection.

Following a ridge gradually down from the viewpoint, I reached a junction: one way back through a small valley to the top station, or another down alongside a rock face to the Col de Jaman. Somewhere within this hulk of rock the train burrows through, while humans have to inch their way around on slate ledges and avalanche rubble. The route understandably prefaced with warnings involving sturdy footwear, slipperiness, and crumbling pieces of mountain made it an easy decision: lunch on a sunny patch of grass with a spectacular view, before heading back up the valley.

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RDN09Thus it was that I found myself down to a T-shirt (and trousers!) while walking through snow. The snow had obviously thinned as the day had progressed, but remained thick enough to obscure the last part of the trail up to the top station. Warm, slightly breathless, low on water…I could see the appeal of taking the train now, which again emerged out of its tunnel to taunt me. It was heading down, and – after safely completing my walk – I was to join it.

RDN11I could have plunged all the way back down to lake level but – determined to make the most of this wonderful weather (not to mention my expertly discovered rail pass) – I paused at the Col de Jaman station. Walkers were still setting off to conquer the lump nearby and close up it didn’t seem too bad. Switchbacks yes, but nothing that would cause undue alarm for someone with sturdy footwear and good heart. Maybe on another day, but today I was content to bathe in the sunshine accompanied by the remainder of my giant Raclette pretzel bought from the kings of Cornavin.

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My final stop on the way down was somewhat spontaneous and turned rather fortuitous. I had made a note of Glion on the way up, purely because of the splendid views down to the lake and across to surrounding mountains, sweeping their way into the Valais. The foliage too – on this lower south facing terrace – was something to cherish in the eruption of autumn. Through the leaves and branches, glimpses of glassy water would emerge, encircled by the mountains rising upwards through the valley haze.

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RDN16The outlook was so alluring, the late afternoon light so enchanting, that I set off walking and carried on without really knowing where I was going. I assumed – given the gentle downward gradient of the lane I followed – that I would end up somewhere by the lake, from which an efficient and comfortable Swiss train would be waiting. Few cars bothered me, while occasional grand houses and health retreats sprung up on the slopes between the trees. At a kink in the road, passing two farmhouses, the view again opened out to reveal the colourful wooded hillsides tumbling down towards the lake, with a hint of winter looming upon the distant Dents du Midi.

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For all the fun of the train I was glad to complete this final part of the descent on foot, each turn revealing a looming mountain, glimpse of water or avenue of bronze. Merrily marching, time whizzed by and before long I did indeed reach the outskirts of Montreux, a feat achieved more through instinct than design. A long straight balcony of a road continued to descend, each house and villa passed with a tinge of envy and click of a camera. A churchyard offered one final panorama as the sun started to graze the tops of the peaks to the southwest before dipping beyond. In such a setting, even I might be tempted to attend Sunday service here.

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No doubt if I had stayed on the train descending all the way to Montreux I would have had such a simple and effective connection that I would be back in Geneva by now. Instead, arriving at the station on foot I managed to miss a train by a matter of minutes. The next was a whopping forty-five minutes away, an incredulous amount of time given Swiss standards. However, despite gathering weariness that comes with a 5:30am start and a ride on the 61 bus, I inched on down to the lake shore, feeling fortunate in the end to have missed that train…

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Such was the beauty of the day, the charm of the late afternoon, the ambience of the evening as the last light faded I was tempted to stay for some dinner and catch a late train back. Perhaps if I did I would not have had to – shockingly –stand in the vestibule of a railway carriage, at least until Vevey. It turns out (relative) congestion sometimes exists in Switzerland too.*

No such problems back in Geneva, with a seat on the 61 to push through the darkness and over into France, eventually. Some of the people – enduring a long, hard day of low-taxing money making – were quite probably on the same bus as me this morning, staring absently into the middle distance. Their laborious daily commute was my stroke of fortune, a crucial cog taking me to the top of a mountain and back. An unappreciated, maligned link in a great continental railway – and now bus – journey.

* I should add, trains can run late as well. On another journey of mine the train was once running four minutes late departing Lausanne. The conductor was beside himself with contrition and pleaded to the gods that this had not caused any inconvenience to anyone whatsoever.

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Show and Tell

ch13What started in the Alps finished in the Alps, with the cloud from four weeks back seemingly, stubbornly, static. It would wait until the day after I would leave to clear and then reveal deep blue skies under which spectacular chains of icily jagged mountaintops glow. I know this for I have been blessed many times in the Alps with such weather and its associated gargantuan views (plus I checked the webcams once I left just to be really irritated). Alas, this year it was not meant to be and I had realistic expectations of a few days in Switzerland; whatever the weather I would do my best to make full use of my Tell Pass – a golden ticket allowing access to many mountain trains, cable cars, chairlifts and the stock standard complex of railways conquering central Switzerland. I think I got my money’s worth…

Trip 1: Zurich Airport-Lucerne-Engelberg

‘Engelberg Humdinger’ would likely have been the hilarious title of this blog post given perfect weather. In planning a few days to end my trip (seeing I was flying out of Zurich), I was seeking a reasonably accessible spot in a mountain valley with various lifts up into the high country and opportunity for blissful Alpine walks. Somehow I came across Engelberg which appeared to fit the criteria, tucked into a valley south of Lucerne and encircled by mountains reaching up in the sky to 3,000 metres or so.

Arriving into Zurich, the weather was warm and bright enough and the train zipped through comfortable commuter towns and villages chock full – I assume – of affluent bankers and cuckoo-clock makers. In an hour, Lucerne emerged as pretty as a picture, the train looping alongside the river and parking itself close to the shores of its beautiful, far-reaching blue-green lake. No time for sightseeing but enough time to grab a salami pretzel sandwich from my old friends at Brezelkonig and hop aboard the Engelberg express.

Fringing the lake at first and then meandering into a valley, mountains began to increase in stature and presence and nomenclature…somewhere up there is the Stanserhorn, accessible via a cable car and deserving of pronunciation in a zany butch German accent. Finally, through a long, dark tunnel, up and up the train goes until it emerges into Engelberg. The sun now down for the day, the last glow of purple sky illuminates jagged mountain apexes, while a valley cluttered with wooden chalets curves along to their base. This fits the bill.

Trip 2: Engelberg-Trubsee-Titlis

ch01The next morning dawned clear and calm and I was incredibly excited about that. Thirty minutes later, eating a steadfast breakfast involving bread and cheese and cold cuts, much of the blue sky had filled in. However, there was enough hope – and predictions that this might be the best weather day – to attempt the trip up to Mount Titlis, summiting at 3,239 metres.

ch02Now, this may sound like the start of some intrepid adventure: hiking through wild meadows, scrambling across rocks, crawling under ice caves, and braving perishing blizzards. However, this is Switzerland and I had my Tell Pass, which comfortably took me almost to the top. First, a gentle cable car up to Trubsee (1,796m); here, the valley was still visible and pockets of sun endured. Next, a larger cable car swung its way up into the clouds at Stand (2,428m), each sway accompanied by a huge oooooooh-aaagghhhh from the hundreds of Asian tourists packed in. Finally, the last stretch takes place in – get this – a cable car that rotates 360 degrees. It’s kind of fun, weird, and in no way whatsoever disconcerting.

ch03The top – or the top of the cable car (3,028m) – was a little James Bond like, though not quite as James Bond like as the Schilthorn. Despite being up here fairly early in the day I was not alone; indeed, those hundreds of Asian tourists were now happily engaged in various conformist and non-conformist photo poses. Many selfies transpired, several of which were taken with the aid of some extendable stick-like gadget which holds the camera phone out at a distance without the need for arms. It’s fair to say that whoever invented this contraption is, like the loom band man, now extraordinarily minted.

ch04The altitude made walking a little difficult at first but I ventured out onto the slushy snowy ice-like material covering the ground, avoiding people posing for selfies and looking for a view. There was a view. Then there wasn’t. Then there was again. Then a little hole appeared over there, then it filled in again, but another hole formed elsewhere. A few times I stood above the weather, above the clouds where nothing could be seen below. Then, more extensive holes in the cloud would appear and snatches of a mountain range, glimpses of a valley, and snippets of a glacier would emerge. Given I was not expecting to see beyond my nose, it was exhilaratingly breathtaking.

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ch07Beyond the hordes of seemingly photogenic tourists, a groomed track led to some other overlook that was rarely visited. Only a kilometre round trip, but it was hard walking. Any downhill dips involved a gentle slide into some slush, hoping that the snow was not particularly deep or covering some unknown crevasse. Slight inclines uphill were arduous and oxygen-sapping. A couple of Aussies coming back advised me to stick to the path which I was planning on doing anyway thank you very much. They had gone ‘off-piste’ and sunk up to their waste. They were probably in thongs too. Not following their footsteps, I ended safely at an overlook, looking over nothing much other than cloud below. However, around and above, a large patch of blue sky had appeared and, for a few minutes, I found myself in a pleasantly warm, quiet and calm, summer winter wonderland.

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By the time I made it back to the safety of the cable car complex, cloud had started to fill in more extensively and any gaps were infrequent. Completing every other distraction (including a stroll through an ice cave, a chairlift over some crevasses, and a walk across a suspension bridge spanning a poop-inducing long drop), I headed back down. Now mid-morning, many people were still coming up and I was not sure what, if anything, they would now see.

Trip 3: Engelberg-Lucerne-Vitznau-Rigi-Goldau-Lucerne-Engelberg

I was hoping the weather would hold so that I could engage in one of those lovely Alpine walks involving meadows and flowers and lakes and cows and probably strong hard cheese and salami for lunch; I had spied a couple of small lakes, joined by a fairly even trail and a cable car for the uphill bit which seemed ideal for the job. It would have started from Trubsee, where I waited for 15 minutes to see if the heavy rain now falling would abate. It did not, and all the bad weather was coming over the mountain and falling here. Distant, somewhere I think towards Lucerne, was a large patch of blue sky, but it had no intention of coming this way. So I sought it out instead.

ch08Not for the first time I found myself in Lucerne and this time taking a boat (included in the pass of course) to Vitznau. I had made this trip before, in the glorious, warm, late September sunshine of 2012, and it was stunningly beautiful. Today it was just fairly beautiful, a tad cooler and covered by white cloud with the occasional brighter spot as the sun threatened to emerge.

ch09Previously I had 50 minutes to spare in Vitznau before the return boat trip; today, I could go further, taking the mountain cogwheel railway up to Rigi Kulm. This is proclaimed as the first such railway in Europe and it retains a classically elegant air. Trundling up, any views of Lake Lucerne fade away into haze, and small hamlets, forests, meadows and waterfalls compete for attention. Occasionally, schoolkids on their way home hop off at random points. This sure beats the school bus.

Rigi Kulm stands at a modest 1,798 metres above sea level, but the information leaflet proclaims that you can see thirteen lakes from here and points as far as Germany and France. While of course this was not so much the case today, there was a gap in the sky and some overhead sunshine that reminded of the warmth brought by summer. It was sufficiently balmy for an ice cream and I even managed a brief Alpine walk with the cows, down to a lower cogwheel station where I caught the train down the other side of the mountain, to Goldau. All the while, mountain tops flitted through the haze as Lake Lucerne disappeared under the weight of clouds, occasionally billowing up and over one side of the mountain like steam from a kettle.

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Goldau took me back to Lucerne which again took me back to Engelberg, where the roads were still fairly wet and everything was a tad sodden. All in all, I had done well today. Very well indeed.

Trip 4: Engelberg-Brunni

After yesterday’s extensive escapades I was actually keen to minimise my travel today and stick within the valley and perhaps hop on a chairlift to undertake one of those Alpine walks I may have mentioned already. It looks so obvious on the fold out map of Engelberg: walk up the valley, jump on a cable car here, do a circular walk on this plateau, come back down, have some lunch, go back up somewhere else and have another walk back down into the valley to round off the day.

Breakfast time and Engelberg had disappeared. There was nothing to see from the window apart from a vision of grey-white. Drizzle floated haphazardly in the air. The one other couple chomping breakfast at the same time as me also stared out of the window with a sullen look of inevitable despair. Helpfully, in the corner, there was the Engelberg TV channel showing various webcams atop mountains and cable car stations. Turns out the cloud reached 2,000 and 3,000 metres as well. Still, we can be nothing but hopelessly optimistic having spent a small fortune to stay in Switzerland; carry on regardless, looking for small trinkets of hope – a brief whitening of the greyness of the cloud, a murky dark fleeting vision of some trees over the other side of the valley – that may herald a turnaround in the weather.

ch10Indeed, things had cleared a little by time I had got myself ready to stroll up the valley. That is to say, stuff was at least visible, including the steadily tumbling river, the dark foreboding forest, and the occasional cosy glade. A golf course, treacherously criss-crossing the river at cunningly placed intervals, held some appeal, particularly as the drizzle had briefly ceased. A man was out blowing leaves around his chalet in Wasserfall, a sure sign that things were to clear, right? But at Wasserfall, water fell, and the Furenalp cable car I had hoped would propel me to a sunny walk seemed a pointless endeavour.

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Instead I walked a different way back to Engelberg and in the hour or so taken, the sun had peeked through and delivered instant warmth. Furenalp was now probably bathed in sun but I was no longer anywhere close. An alternative route up into the hills presented itself closer into town, via the Brunni cable car.  And while the initial rise presented some hopeful sun-glazed valley views, the top was shrouded in murk. I could wait it out in the cold, or go back down and eat lunch. I was hungry and pork schnitzel, chips and salad in the Co-op restaurant sated me greater.

Trip 5: Engelberg-Furenalp

Retiring for an hour or so back at my hotel, I watched the loop of Engelberg information on the TV channel. Sunny pictures with happy families frolicking in rivers; beautiful people getting expensive spa treatments to a backdrop of dazzling snow-capped peaks; webcams showing nothing much at all. Except, hang on, Furenalp. There was a shadow, as if it was above the clouds.

Chasing the sun once more – or at least the potential for something clear – I hopped on one of the hourly shuttle buses and then the cable car. This was a less extravagant operation than Titlis. One small cabin travelling up every half hour or so, or, to be honest, just on request from the dear lady sat in the kiosk. I was the only soul, the wire shooting up towards a large rock face and into the clouds. Only, thanks to the webcam viewed now quite some time ago, there was a chance I would make it above them. The ride was something quite spectacular, rising steeply in line with the rocks, grazing pine forest and revealing hidden crevices where pools from weeping cascades formed. At some point the world disappeared and, out of nowhere, the top station emerged.

ch12It was wet, windy, cold and cloudy. There was nothing to see, apart from a closed restaurant that would be amazing on a sunny day. Determined to make something of it I walked a little. The rain had stopped and, occasionally, visibility would increase to something like 50 metres. The trails were not that well marked though, and, as the clouds billowed in and obscured any landmarks I made the decision that I did not want to be that stupid English tourist who goes missing and requires an intensive search and rescue effort. Sometimes, we must come down to be able to go up.

Trip 6: Engelberg-Brunni again

Breakfast time again. Engelberg had disappeared again. I had some of that pretzel like bread with salami, egg and cheese again. I was leaving today, eventually for Australia. But I had lots of time before my evening flight, and wondered what I could exactly do with it.

Appropriately dawdling in my room, Engelberg TV in the background, it was as I was squishing dirty pants into my luggage that the loop of webcams came on. Titlis, no. Stand and Trubsee, no. Furenalp, no. Brunni lower station, no. Brunni top station, er, maybe I guess.  After the next round of adverts with blue skies and happy people, the webcams again, and more hope. A small lake. Some shadows. Enough to take a chance…if nothing else to kill some time.

And so, for about thirty minutes I had a dose of Switzerland that I had yearned for all along. The final chair lift ride up to the top station of Brunni was a delight, the warming sun coming from my right. Long shadows of cows formed on the succulent pasture below, their occasional moos and tinkling bells the only sound. Views of peaks and, just now and again, glimpses of the top of Titlis across the other side of the still shrouded valley. I wish I could have lingered longer, but travel requirements meant I needed to leave. And the chair lift down was infinitely less delightful now, as the cold, grey cloud enveloped everything around once more.

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Trip 7: Engelberg-Lucerne-Alpnachstad-Pilatus-Alpnachstad-Lucerne

So, farewell Engelberg, I am sure you are fantastic in a proper summer and provide an excellent base for so much that is around. I had one other target on my Tell Pass list and, filled with hope that the Brunni blue skies could extend as the day progressed, I returned to Lucerne. From here, it was once more onto a boat and out onto the lake, this time heading in a different direction to Alpnachstad. At Alpnachstad, the base of the steepest cogwheel train in the world, conquering gradients of up to 48% to Mount Pilatus (2,128m) – Lucerne’s mountain.

Now this experience is as much, if not more, about the journey as it is the destination; particularly today when the summit was, yawningly predictably, cloaked in the clouds. Each single carriage train is built for the job, separate compartments rising with the slope in a staggered series of steps. Looking up through the driver’s window the track rises stupendously steeply; looking down out the back and you are left wondering quite exactly how this gravity defiance all works. I assume something to do with the cogs, steadily clicking out a rhythm at a gentle, sleep-lulling pace.

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At the summit complex I found myself – not for the first time – looking at the postcards with all the stupendous views. But I wasn’t upset or dejected or even that frustrated that no such scene presented to me today. It was a shame, I would say to myself, but nonetheless I had a really enjoyable time. I mean, there’s much to like about a walk out to a viewpoint to admire the shifting fog of clouds, plenty to ponder while navigating the slippy rocks with a (thankfully fenced off) drop on either side, and ample satisfaction from a cup of coffee and chocolate brownie back in the warmth. Plus, there is still the sheer wonderment of the trip back down to come.

Trip 8: Lucerne-Zurich Airport

ch17The remaining few hours of this trip in Europe were whiled away in perhaps one of its most elegant, picturesque, and sumptuous small cities: Lucerne. It had been a conduit, hub, and pretzel provider for the past few days but now, as the sun gently began to filter through the late afternoon cloud, it offered a healthy last dose of European je ne sais quoi. Thus the time skipped by alongside waterways and through cobbled streets, admiring window boxes brim with flowers, crossing old bridges, dodging cyclists, and fleeing from specific corners where the thousands of smokers seem to gather.

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I had been in Lucerne before – in 2012, in hot sunshine – but it was just as charming, and even more comfortable to explore on this much cooler, cloudier day. Like last time, I made it up to remains of the old town wall and castle, where snatches of Lake Lucerne and distant mountains appear through the gaps in the ramparts, yonder the old rooftops and leafy trees scattering down towards the water. The top of Pilatus was still shrouded in a haze, but certainly much of the murk had lifted. Probably upon boarding the train to Zurich, the top would emerge, a final tease of a farewell to what could have been.

Somewhat lethargic and bored of weather angst, part of me was ready for it to be over. But – with an impending trip cooped up in an airplane to cover half the globe – I was also reluctant to leave. Tomorrow it may be brighter and, if not, I could always easily return to the UK where the Indians were having a summer or something, though Britain First were probably getting a bit upset that the Indians had stolen the summer and posting something with grammatically flawed menace on Facebook for people to like. A shamelessly opportunistic emigrant and immigrant, my own tomorrow was a long way off, but I knew that when it came, it would emerge with blue skies and a nice flat white. A scene from which I could happily savour the numerous journeys I had just had the fortune, the pleasure, the freedom of travel, to experience.

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Ou est l’ete?

fra01Apparently, Canberra experienced quite a few nights in a row below -5 degrees, plummeting to -8 on one occasion. In my last week prior to escaping to the northern hemisphere this felt bearable, safe in the knowledge that I would be heading into summer. Another comfort came from the days, which were utterly gorgeous, clear as crystal and with a hint of spring in the still, sunny, wattle seed air. Such an embarrassment of blue sky riches seemed excessive and, pottering around Red Hill for one last time before the trip, I yearned to bottle just a little of it to take with me.

There was plenty of blue sky above the clouds, I assume, on the longest Sunday ever. Commencing at 3am Sydney time it finished around 11pm Zurich time. This equates to 28 hours, and that’s just the part for which I was, alas for the large majority, awake. Still, it is a means to an end and Zurich was warm with thunderstorms gathering and had giant pretzels readily available for an evening snack.

From Zurich the next day I enjoyed the calm seamlessness of Swiss rail to transfer to Geneva. Heavy overnight rain had given way to cloud and drizzle, with a spot of blue sky emerging to engineer hope, followed by a windy squall to dampen it all. Little was different by the time I rocked up in Annecy, much to the dismay of the French bus station man who was unable to sit down on the wet benches and so instead decided to regale me with tales of the summer holiday travels of his entire lifetime in this area oblivious to the fact that I could barely understand what on earth he was babbling on about. Which part of je ne comprends pas do you not understand?

Things lifted as the last part of my journey took place in English in the comfort of a car and with brightening skies…south to Albertville and then up into the mountain valleys of Beaufort and, finally, after a disjointed 48 hours, Areches. If ever there was an archetype for Quaint Alpine Village Design Course 101 this was it: a central church from which ramshackle chalets radiated up and down the slopes; village life decorated with flowers and fountains, vegetable gardens, and hens wandering the streets; the boulangerie tucked away on the narrow main street alongside the delicatessen; and, should all be quiet, the sound of cowbells emanating from the green meadows around.

The view from our digs could embrace this all and, bathed in sunlight the next morning, my fears that the worrying weather of the Tour de France was a settled summer pattern dispelled like the morning clouds over Le Grand Mont.

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fra03A little walk nearby through forest and alongside a tumbling stream felt like it was going to be the first of many, the dappled sunlight a joy but doing little to dry out the oft muddy track. Sunshine was maintained through to lunch time and a picnic baguette in Le Planey avec les familles. A picnic baguette that was wonderful in the main due to the Beaufort within. These cheeses always seem to taste their very best consumed in their area of origin. Like the fish and chips by the sea effect.

Le Planey possesses one of the two summer chairlifts that are sporadically open in the area. Today it was ouvert (apart from a break for lunch, understandably) and propelling people up to around 1900 metres. Views of the mountains and valleys are easily on offer from here, although the very highest, Mont Blanc of course, was now penetrating into the slowly greying sky. It’s no Red Hill, but it sure is pretty.

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It was not long after descending that the rain arrived; first a few spots nothing more than a minor irritant, then a steady downpour beating out a consistent rhythm on the trees and chalet roofs. On the plus side, it is good weather to hunker down in a cosy restaurant and eat dishes that involve one or more of the following: cheese, potatoes, cheese, bacon, cheese, onions, cheese, wine, cold cuts, cheese, and a splash more wine. And thus through the magic of sharing I was able to partake in the Savoie triumvirate of Fondue, Raclette, and Tartiflette all in the one sitting. Cue inevitable X-rated cheese shot.

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fra06The remaining few days involved plenty more rain and plenty more frustration at the ever-changing cloudscape that could be comfortably viewed from the living room window. There was also, of course, plenty more cheese, the making of which could be viewed in Beaufort, upon dashing from the marketplace to the co-operative in undoubtedly the heaviest deluge of the week. Drying off in the elevator, I swear cheesy aromas had been deliberately piped into it. Either that or a pair of smelly old socks had been inadvertently lost in the escape hatch.

fra07There were further forays into nature to be had and – indeed – further bursts of occasional sun. A trip to the beautiful Lac de Saint-Guerin was a race against time before the sunny pocket was once more filled. Briefly, just briefly, it dazzled in sheer Alpine loveliness, that is turquoise water, bright green meadows dotted with flowers, dark green coniferous forest, and rising, rising, mountain peaks. Peaks from which brooding grey clouds return to deliver their annoying life-giving wateriness once more.

The other chairlift opened on the Thursday and I took that in the dry, walking quite steeply up to a spot called Tete de Cuvy. Nearing 2000 metres here, the table d’orientation promised 360 degree views with Mont Blanc as a centrepiece. But, you guessed it, little is on view when in clouds like this. In the effort-reward ratio stakes, it was a walk that veered a little too strongly into the effort column, so moan moan, grumble grumble.

I shall quit grumbling about the weather even though this is a genetic predisposition of Britishness for which you must please understand. Because, you know what, Areches was a lovely spot with some lovely moments. Yes it was chilly and quite probably colder than Canberra on descending the chairlift, but, at a lower altitude, the sun had poked through for a little while. It was peaceful and calm and glowing and pine-fresh fragrant and all those nice things that occasionally come together into a wholesome whole. I may have been clinging on for dear life on a cold steel coat hanger swaying down a mountain, but it was indeed well worth clinging on to. Hell yeah, I may even let one hand loose to take a picture as I descend, adrenaline junkie that I am.

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fra10Safely back in the valley, I was able to calm myself down with a coffee and cake, before the family rejoined and we set off on an afternoon amble in this Alpine idyll. Relatively clement conditions accompanied a meander though the Areches ‘suburbs’, zigzagging their way up the slopes in a series of hairpins, giving way to larger plots and bigger views and farmland pastures with cows. The cows, I hasten to add, were sat down, giving further credence to their weather forecasting expertise.

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Their forecast was more a medium range one, for the late afternoon and evening cleared to the clearest it had been and I even wore sunglasses back to the village for a final Tartiflette*. The skies gave hope for one final morning before departure; I could picture gargantuan panoramas under deep blue skies, the white of the Mont Blanc massive shimmering into the air, a landscape of lakes and ridges and rocks and valleys. But the cows were right. Il pleut. Someone really has stolen the French summer. All one can hope is that the 2014 vintage leads to such green pasture to provide the most spectacular fromage yet.

* though I predict Angliflette avec Reblochon de Tesco could be on the cards.

Europe Food & Drink Green Bogey Walking

Plymouth – Bristol – Geneva – Perth – and so on…

For once, Devon did not farewell me with blue skies and fluffy white clouds and fluffier white sheep scattered on a carpet of rolling green. Darkness and wind and menacing cloudbursts accompanied the passage of dawn along the A38 and onto the M5. My final footsteps on English soil, for now, were along the sodden tarmac of Bristol airport, urging the cattle onto the plane and out of the rain and towards Geneva. In the tumult I dropped my passport – no, even scarier, passports – without knowing about it. Somewhere between aisle 2 and 3 I reckon, recovered by the air stewards and pronounced out loud. Call button pressed, gratitude expressed.

frawa01Geneva and its French environs were more bronze in grey lake cloud, a backdrop to stock up on cheese and cake and final family time. A bright and brisk Saturday morning was fine for some neutral ambling in the stylishly rustic Swiss countryside, dodging blade runners and cross country concrete skiers and tractors and little boys fleeing on scooters. Dinner was tartiflette, but then dinner usually is tartiflette!

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frawa03The Sunday was a lazy Sunday French style, involving hours of food grazing and gorging on cheese in various states, matching with wines from different parts of the country and conversation from different parts of the planet. From very young cousins to the more senior-oriented, a splendid afternoon and a fine way to say goodbye, even if such times make that even harder.

frawa05Not quite the end for me and my exploring however as my very last day in Europe involved spending a lot of time on a bus which should have been a train to propel me to the visual feasts of Annecy. Wandering the lanes and streets as a grey cold gradually lifted, soaking up a very different ambience, a very different backdrop to where I would soon be heading. From Rue des Chateaus to Quiche aux lardons et fromage, past outdoor stalls selling musty old sausages and caravans of unpasteurised cheese, alongside riverside paths lined with shuttered houses and glowing red leaves, this was the time to soak it all up.

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It was also the time to marvel in the landscape of this part of the world which is unlike any I would soon encounter. Escaping the town proved something of an uphill challenge but soon enough I entered the absolute golden delight of the Foret du Cret du Maure. Now sunny and warming up, strenuous work ensued in an effort to find an overview of Lac d’Annecy and not get lost. Thanks to my phone and maps I didn’t get lost, but apart from a few snatches through the trees, a lake view escaped me. Still, having really enjoyed the subtle, colourful transition from summer to winter over the past few months it was quite wonderful to end it in such a dense explosion of green and yellow and red and brown.

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frawa07Back down at lake level the water was much more visible and, now in the latter part of these shortening days, glowing in the clear afternoon air. This is not a landscape I will see for a while, the lake as clear as a coral sea, the mountains snow-capped white as a pristine beach. An aspect warmly regarded with coats and scarves and hats strolling along a genteel, contented promenade…

…the local time is 5:30pm and the temperature is 35 degrees. So said someone several many hours later in a different hemisphere and season. Welcome to Perth, where the international terminal currently leaves much to be desired. Still, it is Australia and I can be welcomed in with my Australian passport that so nearly went astray. There is a new government but, apart from being significantly warmer, much appears the same as I left it. Taxi drivers still wittle on aimlessly about the toll road or monarchy or carbon tax, everything is still ridiculously expensive, and Perth is still some urban lifestyle paradise masquerading as a city.

frawa09And so to the beach, or to several beaches, or stretches of one long beach over the course of the next two weeks. With a coffee or book or a huge plate of calamari, accompanying a stroll along the waterline, never far from the mind and just fifteen minutes from the body in a car. Goodness me, these Perthites are blessed with their ocean frontage. What is great about it mind is that it is rarely built up; no graffitied Gold Coast hotels casting morning shadows, no regimented wooden loungers and parasols for hire and cheap fake watches for sale, and plenty of space for dunes and parkland between the sea and the expensive show off homes.

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frawa12With baking days and arid winds it seems I have missed Spring completely. There is little sign of the much heralded wildflowers of WA on sight around the city’s parks and reserves; even Kings Park, which remains a delight whatever time of day and year, seems fairly subdued as it accepts its fate of another hot, dry summer. However, there are remnants of suburban Jacaranda lining the streets; having spent springs past in Canberra I had totally forgotten about Jacaranda, and how its elegant green leaves burst into purple flower, transforming quiet streets into a flurry of colour and giving them the smell of a new age essential oils and pointless candles shop.

Not every day has involved lolloping on the beach or sniffing trees, as I gradually reorient myself with the more mundane Australia – from work interludes to soulless shopping malls, from slower internet speeds to expensive, but lush, mangoes. A sign that I have been away a long time is in currency, where I say to myself…oh gosh…that Heston Blumenthal Christmas Pudding is twenty-five quid…blimey…oh wait twenty five dollars, that makes it, well, still quite expensive, but, you know, when shopping for essentials for a trip back across Australia you need a Heston Blumenthal Christmas Pudding with you, along with Marmite, Hellman’s Mayonnaise and Heinz English Recipe Baked Beans. Adjusted much?

frawa13And yes indeed part of my time has involved planning the next steps of this journey through life, at least the next few weeks or so. There is an excitement about returning east, tinged with melancholy of letting go of this isolated idyll of the west. Perth and I have become good friends this year and I feel like we will see each other again sometime in due course. And here I leave even better friends who introduced me to my good mate and nurtured and shared and entertained and sledged and made the whole Perth experience easy to fall in love with. So I prefer to think it’s not farewell old chap nor au revoir, but a very Australian see ya later.

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Australia Europe Green Bogey Photography Walking

Journeys

If I was Alain de Botton I would have a superbly incisive sentence about journeys with which to begin this piece. Nothing like ‘a journey is the means by which one moves from A to B, whereby A is the current position and B the intended or end position’. [1] Of course, it could become more scholarly when we propose that A equals birth and B equals death, or less so when A is North Finchley and B is Golders Green. Both can apply, for as well as being like a box of chocolates, surely life is one big journey with lots of little trips, some of them circular, others there and back again, over hills, down dales, up side streets and along back alleys. And we are all passengers on the choo-choo train of happiness that is life.

Like everyone on this planet I have been on thousands of trips within my bigger life journey, many of them unremarkable, others slightly more interesting. It would be impossible to relate them all, almost as impossible as discussing 27 trillion topics at a rate of one topic a day (over a four day working week) for one hour [2]. But I’d like, in this potentially rambling expedition of words, to give you a flavour of the mundane and the spectacular that is involved with a journey.

When I think of mundane journeys my mind instantly arrives in London and a world of commuting. I was not unique in this regard, obvious when I was to look around at the number of people squished onto one carriage of a Northern Line underground train doing the same thing. I’m not sure so many people were travelling from Finchley Central to Hanger Lane via Tottenham Court Road, but odds are there was someone else enduring this madness. It was a long trip, there and back again taking around two and a half hours out of my day. The plus sides were the opportunities to read, complete the Sudoku in Metro, and stare in the middle distance trying to avoid eye contact with anyone whatsoever (as etiquette dictates).

Often by Archway I was bored and ready to get off, to breathe the, ahem, fresh air of inner North London. I had stared at the underground map and memorised the order of stations countless times already. I knew when the very proper automated voice was about to utter something informative like ‘the next station is Tottenham Court Road, change here for the Central Line’. And, when she did, I knew where to get off so I would have the shortest route to make the connecting Central Line train, and to position myself on the platform where I would stand the highest chance of getting a seat. On this train, things livened up again after Shepherd’s Bush, where the underground would go overground and you would learn whether you had made the right choice to leave the umbrella at home today. Or not. [3]

It is a journey that sounds rather boring and often it was. But that glosses over the sheer diversity every day: different people getting stuck in the doors in a last minute dash to board (and thus not to have the indignation of waiting 2 minutes for the next train); cancellations and shutdowns due to adverse weather [4]; automated announcements enlivened by a surprisingly witty retort from a bored driver who happens not to be on strike for a change; the occasional good (or bad) fortune that you might bump into someone you might know; and the quest of listening to music before an era of noise-cancelling headphones.

In truth, the tube is anarchy masquerading as mass transit and it becomes a riot at the stations. I love the labyrinthine network of tunnels where people stride purposefully in different directions (or bumble along and get in the way when you want to stride purposefully yourself). I love the adventure of seeking some mysterious portal and having to cut through an endless flow of suits and briefcases to plunge into it and down a spiral staircase to a cavernous tunnel where an archaic train might or might not turn up. I love watching people run frantically for the train, and like it even more when they miss it. I love it when people don’t stand clear of the doors to let people off, simply because I can tut in moralistic superiority. And I love the rumble of a train approaching, and the warm or cold air it thrusts before it like in some soot-laden Dickensian wind tunnel.

It sounds like I love the underground but it’s more a rollercoaster romance. At first, the novelty of using the tube and living the big city dream makes it seem fresh and exciting. After a while, it’s more of a routine, with good and bad days. Before too long, familiarity begins to breed contempt, accentuated by something unfortunate like the Central Line being closed for track work for months on end. Sick of this, you begin to dally with others…alternatives like the admittedly dreadful amalgamation of two buses navigating the North Circular and interchanging at Brent Cross. Bizarre combinations of bus, overland train, walk, bus just to mix things up. But you end up coming back and, with a little distance and history, appreciate the marvel of the underground that still somehow manages to work today.

If we are talking about transport systems that work there is an inevitability that the word Switzerland will come up. Through the power of language I can try and take you on a journey to Switzerland, using multiple forms of transport to get to one particular high point. It actually starts in Slovenia and its capital city Ljubljana, which boasts a fine old town surrounded by the best in 60s socialist tower block architecture. View both from the castle if you can, and go on a boat trip along the river if you fancy a sedate snooze.

A hire car out of here and a circumnavigation of ring roads takes me to the airport, a place that is small but nicely formed. Airports are fun places hey. I used to quite like airports when a holiday was involved, as it was the first chapter of a vacation, a place where anticipation could bubble and good moods spread. Maybe I’m more desensitised nowadays; a touch middle class blasé about it, scarred by 5:30am flights out of foggy Canberra and transit walks at god knows what hour through Bangkok en route to London. Going off on another sidetrack, am I the only irritating global jetsetter who struggles to distinguish between Bangkok and Singapore and Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur international airports? Perhaps it’s the jetlag haze but they are all so marvellously big and white with shiny glass and sweeping curves and tropical house plants and long, long travelators peppered with pharmacies and electronics shops.

Anyway, Ljubljana International Airport is not like that. But it does have a flight that leaves fairly early for Zurich. Here begins a procession of train journeys that operate to the minute and connect with each other in perfect unison, a process that has probably been described once or twice as being like clockwork. The timings even allow sufficient chance at the station to grab a giant, salt-spotted, shiny pretzel with melted Raclette cheese oozing into its folds and crevices. And then forever I was in love with Pretzel King.

With pretzel relief, an hour or so passes quickly along the pleasant green valleys and slightly industrious-looking towns on the way to Bern, where an eight minute transfer across the platform puts me on a train heading to Interlaken. Now the hills loom higher and rocky peaks approach in the distance, while the valley alongside narrows and begins to fill with deep turquoise lakes. Interlaken sits between a couple of these lakes (hence its name [5]), and awaiting here is a smaller and older proud red train that is somehow going to find a route through the land mass that rises to the south.

It does so of course along a valley, this particular one the Lauterbrunnen Valley. But a mere crevice in the massive massifs of Jungfrau, Monch, Eiger and Schilthorn, its sheer walls provide countless opportunities for waterfalls to plummet fast and furious, even in September. The only way up these is to walk along the few accessible folds, or connect across the street to a cable car, which is still part of my one way ticket from departure to destination. With each metre in ascent, the cable car provides an increasing sense of the scale of the land, as the higher valleys and mountain plateaus open up, dotted with clusters of wooden chalets, spewing with bright green fields and dark coniferous forest. And all the time, huge peaks dominate their way up into a white meringue of snow and clouds.

Atop the cable car there is somehow another single track line that has been built along a plateau, and a one carriage train awaits. It starts to seem a bit bizarre dragging my luggage on wheels as day trippers and sightseers jostle for prime window positions. Where on earth am I going? The train seems to know, and it chugs its way intermittently through forest and meadow, revealing snatches of the three mountain sentinels capped by Jungfrau now to the east, terminating where I terminate, in the small mountain village of Muerren. Finally it seems Swiss public transport can take me no further, and the sound of my luggage wheels as they negotiate the narrow roads and concrete pavements inform the whole village of my arrival.

You venture all this way, on this wonderful journey, and it comes as a little surprise to be greeted by a cheerful British woman with a well-to-do clipped accent and general air of welcoming bonhomie [6] who is to put you up in a quaint loft room, provide you wifi, and feed you ample breakfasts over the next few mornings. She also offers tips for extending this particular journey on this particular day, so remarkable that it is to end with a flourish.

There is one final train ride, this time upon a smart funicular rising up several hundred metres to Allmendhubel, primarily just a nice spot for a small pension to provide food and drinks and gaze out at the panorama. Those several hundred metres upward are handy though, saving legwork for a wonderful, looping descent back to Muerren, dipping into and out of a couple of smaller valleys, as the omnipresent peaks impose closer and closer. Out of their large shadow in the warming afternoon sun bask the grassy green valleys, dotted with wildflowers, small wooden chalets and happy cows, offering a soundtrack of cowbells essential to any Swiss idyll. As I stop and stare and have the urge to throw my arms up in wonder and sing The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music, I remember that a bag of bacon Frazzles has accompanied me on this journey today. Puffed up with altitude, a gift from Britain via Ljubljana, they are munched to supreme satisfaction.

J_swiss

Trains, planes, automobiles. But some of the very best journeys can only be capped off by foot…and a bag of crisps.


[1] Such insight reminds me of Sir Ian McKellen’s secret to acting as outlined to Andy Millman (Ricky Gervais) in an episode of Extras. See http://www.wimp.com/goodactor/

[2] For details of such madness, see http://www.hamishandandy.com/topics/

[3] Moral of the story: NEVER leave the umbrella at home

[4] Any of: flooding rain, ice, snow, wind, too much sun, drizzle, fog

[5] Just goes to show, it’s not just the Australians who have a penchant for place names that state the bleeding obvious.

[6] The surprise not being a cheerful Brit, but just that it was a Brit.

Links

London Underground: http://www.tfl.gov.uk/modalpages/2625.aspx

Mind the Gap: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OxJKvYBNgo8

Ljubljana: http://www.visitljubljana.com/

Swiss trains, the catchy multilingual SBB CFF FFS: http://www.sbb.ch/en/home.html

Muerren or Murren, it’s all the same: http://www.myswitzerland.com/en/muerren.html

If you’re frazzled: http://www.britishsupermarketworldwide.com/acatalog/Smiths-Frazzles-Crispy-Bacon-Corn-Snacksx48-BOX.html

A to Z Europe Photography Society & Culture Walking

Icefields

Despite being composed of perishing frozen particles there seems to be an inherent allure to the presence of snow and ice. I wonder if Eskimos feel the same way.

Maybe this romantic view is nourished in temperate climes, where snow falls are but an irregular memory of childhood. Something scarce is prized, and I can sombrely recall that when winter rain sweeps in to Plymouth, turning to snow pretty much everywhere but Plymouth, it delivers a fresh pile of disappointment. In Australia, no such disappointment because there really is no such expectation, with only the tiniest, highest pockets of land periodically subject to frozen weather. Still, at least they are generally reliable.

Away from Australia (and Plymouth) I have had the fortune to brace myself for arctic conditions, ghost through flurries of snow, and marvel at sweeping icefields, like a crow from atop a very big wall. Even just across the ditch, in New Zealand, one can appreciate the aesthetic value added by the white stuff, which has carved out its valleys and shaped its lofty mountain spires; peaks on which snow and ice still perches precariously and sweeps down graciously until it feeds into crystal clear rivers of melt water. Ninety-nine percent water and one percent fish, so it is said.

Such attractions are not without peril however, particularly if you decide to sled bungee flying fox BASE jump black raft off them. And because of their allure, they are incredibly popular, the two west coast glaciers – Fox and Franz Josef – a mandatory stop for coach tours, campervans and Apex International drivers everywhere. Indeed, in high season the walk to see the crumbly, dirty dust-coated moraine of Fox Glacier is an orderly procession of ages and nations. The old and overweight defy impending heart attack. Chinese and Japanese and Korean visitors dutifully file their way along for picture stops, wrapped up against the cold. British visitors do the same, basking in shorts. Youngsters scramble without fear over rocks and creeks, and Aussies stride nonchalantly along in thongs. Somehow here the grandeur and spectacle of the landscape becomes a little diminished.

Crowds bustle about just as much on a beautifully clear summer’s morning in Chamonix, France. Here, in an ever narrowing valley at the foot of Mont Blanc, glaciers creep down towards the pine forests bordering the town. The mechanic shrills of souvenir marmots cut through the Gallic hubbub, as people wait for lifts to take them to precipitous heights. Indeed, the Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi takes them up some 2,807 metres in 20 minutes. It’s an alarming rise that leaves you a little breathless, literally and then metaphorically once you are confronted with the dazzling ice world around. Up here the crowds seem less intrusive, limited as they are through access, muted by an oxygen depleted sense of drunkenness, and made minuscule by the perspective of being near four kilometres above sea level; most of the Alps seem to be on view, stretching across three countries in a series of rocky turrets and icy hollows. A rare, and staggering, European wilderness.

 I_alps

Anyone would think I don’t like people given my desire to experience such places without being part of an inevitable tourist procession. Well, let me say that first I quite like some people and secondly I cherish the chance to share some of these places with them. In fact, some of the more memorable moments of life are the random conversations you have with random strangers in random places. Like waiting with like-minded photo seekers for cloud to never clear from mountain tops in the Cascade Mountains, or trying to translate the feverish sighting of marmots from Italian to French to English to a Japanese visitor heading down a mountain railway in Switzerland. It turns out most people are just like you and me, the common bond of the experience overshadowing any differences at that point in time. A smile is a smile in any language.

In fact I’m not immune to being part of a bigger tour group…sometimes it is nice to let someone else take control and just go with the flow, especially when having decisions to make equals indecisiveness. Plus longer tours over days and weeks provide a fascinating ethnographic experience [1]. At the start individuals unbeknown to one another mutter polite greetings and eye one another with caution. A few break the ice with time-honoured inquisitions of where do you come from and where have you been. Barriers break on the first good walk or, more likely, the first few beers. By the end of the night you are BFFs with Darlo from Wonthaggi and within a week you cannot imagine not being with this same group of people, getting on this same bus, stopping at viewpoints, eating meals and sharing a beer or two practically every day. Yeah, cliques may form and these may or may not include the rejection of people initially embraced as BFFs, but the group dynamic remains in a fluidly socially cohesive melting pot of fluctuating hormones and alcohol.

And this, my friends, is an encapsulation of a Contiki tour, albeit a description that is unlikely to be used by their marketing department. For those not in the know, a Contiki tour is a particularly popular way to see the world for 18-35 year olds, especially Australians who have 14 days to see every country in Europe [2]. With a core populace of 18-35 year old Australians there tends to be a significant emphasis on end-of-day drinking, but not without a range of energetic activities and processional sightseeing stops in the day. The relevance of a Contiki tour, and justification for my written meandering, is that I did one once. It was in Canada, with the blue and white bus traversing an incredible stretch of road called the Icefields Parkway. Finally, back on topic.

The Icefields Parkway links the Canadian Rocky Mountain towns of Jasper and Banff. I would love to go back since I cannot recall every instant and every stop, this before the days of blogging and digital photography. And I would love to have my own wheels and take my own time this time around. I seem to remember that along this road, around every corner, there is a panoramic view which you wouldn’t find out of place in a Rocky Mountains 2002 calendar. Bulky grey mountains laced with white rise up from all angles, as glaciers stream downwards, melting into rapids and falls and filling the most incredible blue green lakes. Huge swathes of fragrant pine forest fringe the lakes and valleys, a dark cover for elk and moose and bear.

It turns out the easiest way to spot a bear is to look for the cars and caravans parked beside the side of the road and the coaches slowing to a crawl. Once closer, a telltale sign is the sight of someone with a very big lens snooping around the undergrowth, fringed by other enthusiastic amateurs decorated with silver compact zoom cameras and, I guess now, iPads and iPhones and Surfaces and Robots. No-one seems to figure that the bear might just be interested in the hands and arms and torsos holding these devices, so long as you can get a good shot to post on your wall [3]. The other approach to spotting bears is to have a really nice picnic in a wicker basket and hang about in a national park with an uptight ranger. By contrast, moose spotting is much easier given they are generally roaming loose aboot hooses.

Apart from bears, other highlights of the Icefields Parkway are fluid, from the glaciers to waterfalls and rapids and lakes. During my trip, a ride on the Athabasca Glacier on some huge wheeled contraption afforded an opportunity to walk on ice and clear the head. The wonder of glacial till (or flour) culminates at Peyto Lake, with its incredible colour and picture postcard viewpoint. More subdued but serene is Lake Louise, with a fine grand hotel and gardens at one end, and wilderness beyond, with the seemingly impenetrable Lefroy Glacier a barrier to further exploration. And dotted along the road, at turn-ins and parking stops, are any number of rivers and falls and forests for bears to lurk within.

 Canadian Rockies

(Picture credits here go to my brother. I think I had an old film camera and do not have any pictures in electronic format)

The end of the spectacular Icefields Parkway trip came at Banff, another well-kept resort kind of town. Here, the Contiki tour pulled out all the stops, with a three night layover in some rather charming mountain style lodges. Of course these provided a good opportunity for house parties and sleepovers, but it was nice to wander a little down the street and run into random elk crossing the road. There were also some optional extras – probably sky diving and white water slaloming but I just went on the day trip to Calgary. My abiding memory of Calgary was the raised walkways linking buildings and malls so that people can avoid the metres of snow piled up below over the long winter months. You see snow may be alluring, but I guess it would be a real pain in the arse to live with for half of the year.

The Icefields Parkway was just one part of the trip in Western Canada but probably the most spectacular. I came to realise that Canada and Canadians were rather special and this endures today in friendships, a love of maple syrup and fondness for movies starring John Candy. I wish I could remember more about it, but time hazes memories and written records are scarce. I think back to Canada and it was the first time, apart from those snows that only seem to entrance childhood, that I witnessed the astounding impression that ice can make. It’s perhaps no wonder I have been drawn back, to the Alps of France and Switzerland and peaks and lakes of Slovenia, the High Sierras of California and Cascade Mountains of Washington, the upside down Alps of New Zealand and even the rounded Snowy Mountains of Australia. I am quite happy to enjoy the pleasures of a beach and the proximity of the coast, but what invigorates me, what takes my breath away, are mountains. Mountains that are even better served with ice.


[1] Excuse my sociologically geographical anthropological research terminology that I used once when I did some stuff like about something

[2] Today: breakfast in Paris with a coffee and chocolate stop in Belgium, before reaching Amsterdam for some lunch / clogs / drugs / rooting, and then onto Berlin to buy some wall and drink oversize tankards of frothy beer with serving wenches. Optional sky dive over Denmark.

[3] I’m entirely culpable of this, though I tend to favour pictures of cakes which are typically a lot safer.

Links

NZ glacier country: http://www.glaciercountry.co.nz/

New Zealand highs: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/2013/02/on-high-ground-te-anau-to-franz-josef.html

Aiguille du Midi: http://www.chamonix.net/english/sightseeing/aiguille_du_midi.htm

Le Massif Massif: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/2008/08/fromage-foray.html

Life is a Highway: http://www.contiki.com/

Entrancing on ice: http://www.icefieldsparkway.ca/

Smarter than average: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPbLJnbRTF8

A to Z Driving Europe Food & Drink Photography USA & Canada Walking

Mountain Views

I love mountains! This may be because usually they offer a lookout or two and, frequently, a good, feisty walk or a spectacular trip on a masterful feat of railway engineering. Some are close to home, others far away. Green, red, white, blue; snow-capped, sun-baked, forested, bare; cut by water, ice and wind. Mountains just sit there and beg to be looked at!

Below are a few images from mountains and high points I have captured and cherished. Click on an image to open a slideshow view…

Australia Europe Galleries Photography USA & Canada