The second country of our tour Romantic Villages of the European Alps was Switzerland. The weather during our whole stay there was cloudy, rainy, and overcast. Not exactly the kind of weather you want when visiting the Alps. I have a personal theory about why the mountains looked so much bigger there. The valleys are so steep and narrow that the mountains are close to each other. So when I looked across the narrow valley and the huge mountain filled the sky, it was closer to me than standing on a mountainside in Colorado. It’s a matter of perspective.
The road from Stresa, Italy up over the high mountains toward Switzerland wound back and forth, like the jeep trail near Telluride called Black Bear Pass. Back and forth, zigzagging its way higher and higher, the road went up into the clouds. Our tour bus driver was fabulous so there were no scary moments on the ride. We stopped at a little store atop Simplon Pass, but the scenery was just clouds. Even with the cloud cover, the scenery looking down at the green high mountain meadows and waterfalls seemingly falling from the clouds was amazing. We stopped for lunch in Zermatt, Switzerland where you can see the Matterhorn, the most famous alp. Alas, no luck; the clouds hid it from us.
The Swiss are very good at building tunnels; consequently, their highways have lots and lots of them. We went through 49 tunnels in 37 miles on one trip, with one tunnel being several miles long. With such mountainous terrain, tunnels are a good way to get places, especially considering they don’t have to snowplow the roads in them.
We stayed in the town of Interlaken, Switzerland. It sits on a narrow stretch of land between two lakes. Since the mountains around there have so much limestone in them, the rivers and lake are tinted green. Interlaken is a lively town that was easy to get around in, with lots of stores and parks. With the high mountains around Interlaken, the sky was full of paragliders giving tourists an awesome flight. Since I couldn’t think of one good reason to jump off a cliff while tethered to a total stranger, I didn’t try it.
We rode the local funicular to the top of the mountain ridge where on a clear day, we could have seen the Three Giants, the highest peaks in Switzerland: Eiger, Monad, and Jangfrau. Through overcast skies, we could vaguely see their outlines and they were massive! From that height, the vista of the lakes, the town, and the surrounding valleys was fabulous. If the Three Giants had been visible, they would have probably taken my breath away. We had dinner on the mountain; the pizza was great.
The term “alp” doesn’t only mean the mountains, although the mountain range is called that. An alp is also a highland meadow. The Swiss farmers graze their cows in the alps, or highlands far above the valley floors, in the summers while they raise hay in their pastures in the valleys. The highland meadows have different vegetation than the valleys so the milk tastes differently than when the cows are kept in the highlands. Alpen butter is very sweet and alpen cheese is very rich, so it’s of higher value. Small villages are scattered across the alp pastures where people live while tending their livestock. The highland villages are mostly closed up during the winter months when people move their livestock back down to their farms on the valley floor.
We visited the farm of a Swiss farmer who raised beef cattle. Most of his cattle were in his alp pastures, except for three cows who were about to calve. His cows calve in the late summer and fall so the calves are big enough to go to the alps in the summers. If he wants to fertilize his hay pastures with anything more than manure, he must get permission from his neighbors and the community council before he can do so. He didn’t seem to mind the long process since it’s the way things have been done for generations.
Our visit included tour of a wood carving museum where we got to carve cow figurines. The wood form was precut so that we mostly just rounded out the corners and painted our finished products. Then we had a meal with a Swiss family. The family we ate with were not really Swiss (he was German and she was Canadian), but they had lived there a while and were familiar with local customs. We enjoyed a traditional dish of noodles, potatoes, and chicken covered in a cream sauce. ¬¬-They lived in a house that had a breathtaking view of the lake and the mountains behind it.
We had a lecture from a Swiss native who told us all about the Swiss way of life. The Swiss are governed by a national council of several people who enact community rules. Community councils determine what goes on in their individual villages or towns. The councils know everyone’s business and if someone isn’t toeing the line, he/she gets a visit from the council members to find out what’s going on. To become a Swiss citizen, you must live there at least 12 years and the community as a whole gets to decide whether they want you to become one of them or not. You better keep your nose clean or you’re out!
As mentioned in a previous blog, males in Switzerland must own a firearm, know how to use it well, and be ready to use it for the good of the community. Our lecturer, a man in his 60s, said he had to prove his adeptness at shooting every 5 years. If he fails the test, he has to take a refresher course to improve his shooting skills. Everyone must have a bomb shelter included with their house or pay taxes to use the community shelter. Living in such a volatile part of the world makes them prepare for anything.
We took a trip up a valley called “The Land of 72 Waterfalls” to visit the Trummelbach Falls. These falls have carved a groove into the cliff face that is so deep that it’s almost like an underground waterfall. A staircase climbs through a tunnel alongside the falls so that visitors can see the 12 individual cascades as the water tumbles to the valley floor. The power and beauty of nature is very evident at this place. Following that, we traveled on a cog railway to the highest rail station in Europe. There, we were on the shoulders of Jungfrau, but again, the clouds hid its face. We had a wonderful lunch in front of huge picture windows so we could see out at the clouds. Occasionally, the clouds parted just enough to see the rocks and snowfields of the adjacent peaks, eliciting excited murmurs from all of us. Another cog railroad goes through a miles-long tunnel to reach an observatory higher up, but we didn’t visit it.
Switzerland was a very clean country, with little or no graffiti noted anywhere. The countryside is clean and farms are neat. The scenery must be breathtaking when it’s clear and I’m sad that we didn’t really get to see it that way. On the day we drove away, it dawned clear and on the way out of town, we finally glimpsed the Three Giants in the rearview mirror.
As we left Switzerland, we traveled through Lichtenstein, a country of only 62 square miles. We walked through the old town square of Vaduz, the capital city. The palace of the royal family sits on the high bluff that overlooks the city. We paid 3 Swiss Francs apiece to get our passports stamped there, which brings me another point. We didn’t show our passports at any of the borders. The European Union has eliminated much of that, but I missed getting my passport stamped to prove I’d been to all those countries.
Since next week is Halloween, next week’s blog will be about a spooky experience I had in the fortress above Salzburg. It was eerie! That will be followed by a blog about our German and Austrian experiences. The week after that, I’ll talk about some of the interesting people we met on our trip. Some of their stories brought tears to our eyes.
Wholesome Stories about small-town people searching for what they lost