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.

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.

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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

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