Take a train, take a photo

In the space of an hour I crossed from France to Switzerland to France to Switzerland again. It would’ve been shorter if it weren’t for the fact that Switzerland obscures the presence of France, and France fails to advertise its presence at all. With our hire car eventually returned in a space smaller than – well – a hire car and the assistants nonchalantly watching with a shrug and a keen eye for scratches, it clearly felt like France. Then efficiently down an escalator Dad and I re-entered Switzerland, which was doing its best to imitate France.

Faring Dad well in the tobacco-scented chaos, my train left a minute or two late from Geneva Airport into the city, where I met up with Caroline and encountered more scandalous mayhem queuing for a train ticket. Onwards to Lausanne, where our train was one of only a handful not encountering a delay of five minutes or so. Heads will roll for this, I thought. Perhaps this French-speaking corner of Switzerland is attempting to be more like La Republique, I mused. But with no Orangina.

Michael Portillo would have been as pleased as pink pants to find that the trains were running like clockwork the following day. A good job too as we took eight train journeys (and missed a ferry, oops) to maximise rail pass value and soak up an array of succulent Swiss scenery. The kind of scenery where cows chew happily away to produce creamy chocolate and flavoursome cheese, luring visitors to revel in a pleasant cliché or two.

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swiss02Indeed, many visitors were lured by the smells of the Cailler chocolate factory in Broc; so much so that we skipped the long wait times and went straight to the chocolate tasting (i.e. shop) instead. One bar later we were getting off the train in Gruyeres, straight opposite the fromage factory and down below the castled old town. Undeniably cheesy with a touch of theme park, it is nonetheless a fine spot in which to amble and eat a random picnic from the Coop.

For me, the fifth, sixth and seventh train journeys of the day broke new ground, shifting south from Gruyeres through a scenic valley to the main street of Montbovon. From here, train number six was as delightful as a lime green blazer and yellow trouser combo. Outside, the landscape became increasingly mountainous, idyllically scattered with wooden chalets bathed in baskets of red geranium. Inside, the train was a treasure of wood panelling, art deco lamps and antiquated buffet service. At some point, somewhere, everything became Germanic. Guten tag Gstaad.

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Forty minutes in Gstaad was enough to gauge that this was another kind of Gruyeres, the Swiss theme park of gold bullion, creative offshore accounting and thousand dollar sunglasses. There were few cuckoo clocks in sight and even the vending machine at the station offered gourmet meats and diamond-encrusted olives pooped out by a rare Tuscan unicorn which belongs to Her Majesty. The supermarket water was cheap enough though and – I’m sure with more time and exploration – there would be plenty of opportunities to penetrate beyond the slightly false exterior and into nature.

swiss04Retracing some of the route back into the French speaking side of Switzerland, train seven rolled and lulled its way to snoozeville, climbing up through a hole in the rock to emerge way above Lake Geneva. The descent was disorienting as the lake shifted from left to right and eventually lapped at the foot of Montreux. What better way to stretch the legs than to walk along the lake shore in the early evening sunshine, ambling towards a Legoland castle jutting out into the water?

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Turns out it was a magical castle that disappears from view only to re-emerge further in the distance the closer you get to it. It may have been a mirage or a hallucinogenic vision created by too much train travel and ice cream. Michael Portillo would’ve had a private boat tour in some reconditioned U-boat; by time we reached the Chateau de Chillon, we missed our ferry back. Oops. Train number eight it is then.

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swiss06Following an epic day cruising the rails of eastern Switzerland, the next day – Sunday – proved a quieter affair. I mean, it did start with a train, the Lausanne metro transporting us to a dormant university campus and close to more lakeside ambles. Lausanne was emerging to life in its dog walkers and cyclists and rowers and barbecue in the park chefs. It was still rather quiet, in a Canberra-like kind of state.

The parkland serenity of Lausanne was in stark contrast to the triathlon taking place on the streets, an event that seemed to go on for like forever. It was still finishing up after another walk from the edge of the Lavaux vine terraces back into the city. Ice cream and midges accompanied the stroll past small parks, gravelly bays and waterfront homes. More people were out and about this afternoon, topping up tans and a healthy constitution. And still the triathletes finished, not at all concerned about being drug-tested as they sauntered past IOC HQ.

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Lausanne proved a good base to spend a few days in Switzerland and I am sure it could offer an agreeable life. There’s probably more to see and more that can be done (just ask our AirBnB host!) but, crucially, did it pass the ‘I could live here test?’ Well, probably…like if you were placed here for work or study or something. There could be far worse spots in which to dwell, even if you don’t like trains or triathlons.

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After vaguely bestowing some half-arsed compliments to a city that I spent a few days in (hey, this is rigorous Lonely Planet stuff here), Monday was an opportunity to get out of said city and use up our other all-inclusive travel day. Just the three trains and three ferries but these proved more than enough to recover the rail pass expenditure two-fold.

swiss08The trip from Montreux up to Rochers-de-Naye would cost an arm and a leg in itself. Better than cramp and a heart attack that would be the inevitable result of trying to make this journey on foot. Old and old at heart alike were more than happy to board the open air carriages, passing the raffish suburbs of Higher Montreux, up through clusters of chalets and expensive hotel restaurants commanding views of the lake, into pine forest under deep blue skies and out into open meadows way up high. At around two thousand metres in height, panoramas of Switzerland and France abound.

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There are plenty of opportunities to take a photo of the approaching train as you wait upon the platform for the ride down. A ride down that pauses somewhere and you see a couple of friends from Canberra on the other train going up! An occurrence almost as random, as bizarre as the Nolan sisters ordering spaghetti bolognaise and chips at a swanky hotel nearby.

Swank is in the air in Montreux, which is a pleasing-on-the-eye, sun-kissed kind of affair seemingly designed for lakeside promenading (as opposed to scrambling frantically for a ferry near a mysteriously disappearing chateau). Today, there was no major rush for our next connection, with time just about right to eat the world’s most expensive bagel and soak up a little of the shoreline ambience. And then, having covered every piece of rail in the area, it was only fitting that we should now take to the water.

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The ride on the lake to Lausanne offered an alternately sunny and hot or shady and cool experience in which to marvel at the mountains, to peer up and pick out the bulbous summit of Rochers-de-Naye, and to appreciate the tumbling green steps of the Lavaux. At Lausanne, an efficient interchange swept us, alongside the omnipresent youngsters of the Wessex Youth Orchestra, on board to a ferry to cross over to Evian, and back again into France.

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Evian was more charming than I remember from my one previous visit here. There was great ice cream, crepes and Orangina-au-wasp, pretty shops and houses, a Carrefour full of oddments, little in the way of French litter and dog poop, and – of course – a tap pumping out free water from an ornate unicorn’s mouth or something. Here, an amalgam of curious tourists and mischievous restaurateurs gathered to fill bottles, supping on cool refreshing water that tasted just like water.

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There’s also a free, old-fashioned funicular in Evian and on this trip there was no way we were going to miss out on such a thing! The Wessex Youth Orchestra were also keen; if only they had brought their instruments along we could have had a jaunty rendition of Climb Every Mountain and even less air in which to breathe. They then followed us to an overlook and we buddied up again on the way back down. Key take outs were that not all yoof are horrendous, I don’t miss the awkwardness of those years, thank god we didn’t have phones and social media when I was their age, and where the hell is Wessex anyway?

As the orchestra diminuendoed their way back across to Switzerland we lingered for dinner and a later sailing that coincided with dusk. Leaving France for the fourth time, it was rather sedate and beautiful: the triple-pronged peaks of an Evian bottle fading in the sky, the lights twinkling on around the shore, the calm of the water interrupted by birds and the chop of the ferry. The scene like an ending from some movie, or perhaps the closing credits of a Great Continental railway, bus, funicular, cog train, metro, foot and ferry journey.

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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.

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

A to Z Europe Photography Society & Culture Walking

Cream

I grew up in Devon, England. On paper it may sound idyllic for Devon surely conjures images of rolling green hills and tinkling rivers, bobbling their way down to the sea past thatched cottages and fields of sheep and cow [1]. The image is ingrained on a can of Ambrosia custard, a can which may be spotted overflowing from a pile of black bin bags in a grimy back lane of Plymouth, Devon, as I endeavour to find the shortest route home from school, avoiding the dog mess and scary people hanging around the dreary Thatcher-era jobcentre. The can is eventually collected by a wearily underpaid and grizzled local, transporting it by diesel truck to a stinking pile of garbage, where seagulls scavenge for bits of leftover pastie and people scavenge for usable second hand furniture and car boot trinkets. When it comes to custard cans, what you see is not exactly everything that you get.

That is not to say the custard can is a total fabrication, and the idyllic Devon does exist in spades, particularly once you get out of some of the more run down parts of its towns and cities. Within fifteen minutes of that cobbled back alley I can be on the edge of Dartmoor, with the rolling hills spanning ever higher until they become barren and sparse, topping out with crumbling rocks that eventually give up pushing their way out of the earth and tumble downwards over the steep hillside, like a very very slow moving volcanic eruption of granite. Here lie rocks that I once had the dubious pleasure of measuring for a geography field trip on the kind of day where misty rain sits stagnant in the air and soaks you to the bone. Still, it was so worth it to learn that there was some correlation between the size of the granite rocks and their position on the hillside [2].

By now you may be thinking this is all rather nice but what has any of this got to do with the letter C? It all seems to be a bit D like, rambling on about Devon and Dartmoor. And while there is something to be said for a double D it is not conducive to the order and logic that you have set yourself with this quite possibly pointless time-wasting task of writing something about each bloody letter of the alphabet like you are some magic floating pencil on Sesame Street. However, to you naysayers I pronounce that it is a truth universally acknowledged that when I return to Devon from wherever I have been lately I make a beeline for one thing: cream. Thick, yellow dollops of local clotted cream, with jam and scones and tea, or treacle tart, or ice cream and raspberries, or, well, just about anything. This exercise is not solely restricted to Devon, and the county of Cornwall can also be cleverly incorporated. Cornwall, custard cans, cream, coagulated coronaries. That’s clearly more like it.

Though I could lovingly list out the top ten cream tea moments or some such, I want to first draw out an expanded definition of creaminess, without degenerating into smutty innuendo too much. I think creamy can be appropriately used as an adjective to describe the landscape of Devon and Cornwall as it can nowhere else, in its cosy seaside villages, its wooded river valleys and rolling quilt of comforting green hills. In a Fifty Sheds type way [3], you can definitely have a ‘creamy’ experience, squeezing through tight country lanes to go for an invigorating stride in the countryside, butterflies and bees milling about in the dappled sunlight as tits and warblers penetrate the air. This is a rich and verdant landscape that produces, and is thus encapsulated, in that dollop of smooth, silky heart attack.

Creamy collage

Incidentally, I love how, being at the extremes of the country, Devon and Cornwall have taken cream to the max by making it ‘clotted’ or, if you like, ‘extreme cream’. I think there is an embodiment of local spirit and independence here, the fact that some bumpkins have done something a little against the grain, taking unpasteurised cream and simmering it and skimming the very richest part off the top for themselves. They have undoubtedly created something to be targeted in future obesity campaigns and crackdowns by Brussels Bureaucrats as writers to the Daily Mail letters page would have us get in a flap about. But I don’t think they will get anywhere, for locals will resist in a barrage of fine Westcountry accents: “Arh sod it, a lil bid a cream wownt urt yer now, willett?”

If I was to pick one spot in Devon that is particularly creamy to me (though I should caution, not in a cream my pants sense) it would be the small village of Noss Mayo. It’s only a short jaunt from Plymouth but another world entirely; a cluster of cosy coloured cottages cascading down a narrow wooded valley to meet the gently bobbing boats on Noss Creek. Here lies a starting and finishing point for a fairly easy yet delightful walk that captures an archetypal, timeless Devon. There are country lanes rising past fields of sheep and hay and dotted islands of buttercups. There is the coastal headland, from where you can look far down to splintered rock fingers reaching out at the shimmering blue water. There is the estuary and river, which is fringed with copious, flourishing woodland, and then the creek itself, upon which sits a perfect pub. The only thing lacking – ironically – is a cream tea, which the pub never seems to offer, though a cider is recompense, especially since it too handily begins with a C.

Noss Mayo

For a full on Devon Cream Tea there are some fond memories past, but for a regularly reliable, convenient experience in a still quite blissful setting it would be hard to beat the endeavours of the Badgers Holt Tearooms on Dartmoor. At something of a tourist honeypot on the River Dart, here they simply make the cream the star, with scones and jam mere portals for the thick pale yellow cream piled high in a china bowl. A similar experience more off the beaten track – though I cannot vouch for its reliability having only been there once – was found at the Fingle Bridge Inn, visiting a few years back with my brother and his partner on one of our once regular cream-seeking excursions.  We would go on these day trips for a good walk and some sightseeing, though secretly we all knew it was mostly about the cream tea and the other things were just diverting time-fillers!

Alas such creaminess is rarer these days. Being based in Australia will do that, where a Devonshire Tea frequently comes with squirty cream from a can (I kid you not!), and variations of ‘Australian style’ clotted cream are more milk-like than anything else [4]. The problem is the antipodean distaste for bacteria, by way of unpasteurised milk products, which I assume are considered a risk to the unique flora and fauna of this nation. So, rather than enjoying a fine cream tea and letting microbes run riot through the wild streets of Vaucluse, we destroy the country by pillaging its resources and selling them all on the cheap to China. Times have moved on. It is, after all, the Asian Century.

A redeeming feature of Australia is that they do generally make good use of cream when it comes to a Pavlova. In fact, the Christmas just past provided a perfect example, confirming that you can never have too much cream on a Pavlova because there is fresh fruit involved and that is healthy, right? Other countries too do not fare so badly. In Slovenia, there is Bled cake, which practically involves three inches of whipped cream sandwiched between two light pastry layers. In France there are any number of pastries involving some intricate creamy surprise; or think of Crème de Chantilly atop a Mont Blanc size ice cream. And in Switzerland there is La Crème de Gruyere…

 Gruyere

Gruyere is noted of course for another dairy based product, which itself could form an entirely different and probably more entertaining entry under the letter C. And true to form I will fondly remember the fondue in the immaculate medieval town square and the odd, and thus very Swiss, self-guided tour though the cheese factory [5]. Gruyere feels a bit like a concocted Swiss fantasy, designed atop a hill to lure cheese eating tourists. Surrounding mountains are not as grand as elsewhere, but offer a teaser of what lies beyond, a more manageable scene of hills and lakes, vines and meadows, rather than the eye-goggling and neck bracing spires and hulks of the high Alps. It has its requisite fill of castles and churches, courtyards and window boxes, cafes and gift shops. It is, then, perfect coach tour day trip territory.

It was partly a result of arriving early to miss most of the hordes that my brother and I found ourselves with time to spare before it could be deemed acceptable to eat lunch and drink wine. It must have been before eleven or something. Having explored all that the town had to offer, walking from one end to the other, even down a little out of the way to a church, and climbing town walls, and still with time to kill, we headed to a cafe that looked like it was kind of open maybe; well, at least the waitress let us in though without much of a welcome. A coffee was a good call (now there is another C I could write about with very much less detriment to Australia). This was nothing special in itself, very un-Australian in fact, which makes sense given we are in Switzerland remember. But it did come with a little chocolate cup, filled with this Crème de Gruyere stuff.

At this point the mind plays a trick as it’s naively thinking, hmm, this could taste a little weird, I mean Gruyere cream, Gruyere is a cheese, right, and this is cream from it or something, like the dregs once all the lumpy bits have been squeezed out?! I doubt if this is anywhere near true, but that’s what the mind associates with Gruyere. The stupid mind needs to stop being so lazy in its word association and just think that, well, actually, it’s just another product from those very well cared for, loved and happy cows chewing those lush meadows with the flavours of 31 different grass, herb and flower species or something. It only turns a little cheesy when you buy too much to take home and it gets neglected after a few days because you have been snowed under eating far too many other treats, many of which are also dairy based. Calcium deficiency cannot be a problem here.

Anyway, it was a delightful little nugget in a delightful setting, which is often the case with the best cream based experiences. Perhaps this stems from being able to appreciate a direct link between your surroundings and the produce in front of you; in fact there may even be cows mooing in the background as you collapse with a blocked artery and the ambulance arrives. The cows keep on mooing regardless, continuing to produce a very basic ingredient that is turned by man into all sorts of delight. I think good cream is a result of good country, happy, contented animals and people with respect for traditions and tasty food. Traditions such as jam first then cream, or cream first and…or… well, who cares, just whop it on there and shove it in your mouth me lover. That’s how we do it in the Westcountry.


[1] Lately, some of these tinkling rivers have grown to large brown lakes, cutting off Devon from the rest of the world and, sadly, inundating many homes

[2] Smaller rocks had managed to flee further down the hill. I think. The mist made it hard to tell, not to mention the 25 years that have since passed.

[4] One notable exception is from a small dairy in Tasmania, whose name I am not going to mention for fear of their products always being sold out when I look for them.

[5] Completing the clichés that day were a mountain cog train ride and chocolate factory tour. It was thus an amazing day.

Links

Oo-ar, it’s ambrosia: http://www.ambrosia.co.uk/range/ambrosia-devon-custard/

Dartmoor granite, tors and clitter: http://www.dartmoor-npa.gov.uk/learningabout/lab-printableresources/lab-factsheetshome/lab-geologylandforms

The Ship Inn, Noss Mayo: http://www.nossmayo.com/

Badgers Holt: http://www.badgersholtdartmoor.co.uk/

The Fingle Bridge Inn: http://www.finglebridgeinn.com/

La Gruyere: http://www.la-gruyere.ch/en/

Mastering the art of Jannery: http://www.chavtowns.co.uk/2005/02/plymouth-the-janner-textbook/

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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…

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