Because I’m half Swiss, I like to organize, although perhaps my methods are eccentric. Readers tell me that they’re intrigued by my references to various botanicals, or Swiss culture, or Irish politics, and would like to learn more. For a fast-paced read, I omitted many cultural and scientific details. I’ll be blogging about them instead. Each book in the Falcon series has its own posts that describe places I travel to for background research, and plants that feature in the books. The Inspiration blogs are general, ranging from music I like to write by, to my thoughts about religion, animals, and other topics. You can either browse all posts, or click on each category. If there’s anything you’d like to know about in particular, drop me a note through firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter: @GabrielleAuthor.
I’ve always been interested in buildings as whole, though I photograph mostly portals—windows and doors. Buildings are a visible externalized carapace for a person, a way of judging their social status, their hopes and aspirations, their peculiarities.
Castles, of course, are more than just personal expressions. They were built to proclaim the power of their owner, and to defend his accumulated wealth. These days, money hides in electronic strings of ciphers, in unseen places, available only to those who have the codes. But historically, castles put their owner’s wealth on display. Mad King Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein castle in Bavaria still has shelves of clunky golden objects, graceless and overly ornate, calling attention to their heft of precious metal. Ludwig was the last king of Bavaria; it too tired of regal extravagance, choosing to opt for more democratic model.
Older castles can have complicated histories. Castle Tarasp, which I visited recently, is one of those. It still stands in the Swiss canton called Grisons in English, and Graubünden in German. Built in the 11th century by nobility from Milano, it stands guard over the area surrounding the resort village of Scoul. Its genesis is common—rich and powerful men, perhaps out of favor, looking for a new place to establish themselves. After the line of Tarasp died out, the castle became part of the holdings of the church, and then was passed back and forth to various members of nobility.
The first unusual owner was an Austrian prince and his descendants. That doesn’t sound so strange—except that Graubünden, where the castle is located, had already joined the Swiss Federation. Can you imagine the Alamo having remained under Mexican rule, while the rest of Texas joined the United States of America? To top it off, the Austrian rulers were Catholic, while that part of Switzerland was predominantly Protestant.
Six-hundred men of arms were garrisoned in the castle, and an artificial lake protected it from attack on the south—on the north, the hill rose higher, giving the castle a protected flank. After the castle was reassigned to Graubünden, as part of Napoleon’s reorganization of Europe, it was abandoned and forlorn. The canton sold it to the only interested party for a paltry sum. For half-a century, the castle endured a succession of owners who had no interest in taking care of the decaying edifice. They took what they could of value, and sold it, leaving behind an empty husk.
Here comes my favorite part of the story. At the beginning of the 20th century, a certain Dr. Ligner drove one of the first automobiles to Graubünden, anxious to take to visit the thermal baths. Dr. Ligner was from Dresden, in the east of Germany, and he’d made a fortune on his mouthwash recipe. Finding his trip impeded by Graubünden’s automobile ban, he was forced to hire a farmer and his ox-cart to pull the car along. During his journey, he asked about the once majestic, crumbling castle, and learning of its plight, made an offer for it. Dr. Ligner threw himself into the project, acquiring tapestries and medieval furniture, and restoring the inside. He died before he was able to move in, and the estate went to a close personal friend, and stayed within that family.
Until last year, that is. Now, in a bizarre twist, a world-renowned sculptor Not Vital (please note; his name is an authentic Swiss one, and no reflection on his energy level), purchased the castle. Mixed with the old wooden stools and leaded glass are bright, metal abstract sculptures, and Andy Warhol lithographs of cows. Unclear what purpose the castle serves for the eccentric Not, whom the New York Times profiled in 2013. There, it was written that “in recent times, Vital has begun to emerge as a major artistic philosopher of habitat and material life.”
Artist and bon-vivant Julian Schnabel wore a bathrobe to parties. Heaven knows what Not wears in the castle, at private soirees. After getting an intriguing glimpse of a tall and commanding man in a hat during our tour, I received confirmation that Not was indeed visiting the premises. He’s a man interested in many things, with different residences on various continents.
May the castle continue to be reborn under the auspices of various owners. I hope that history survives, side by side, with the startling innovations of its present owner.
If you enjoyed Nina’s photos, you can follow her on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ninafroriep/
My title sounds like an Orphan Black episode, but actually refers to the Hive in London’s Kew Gardens, which is a surreal representation of the lives of bees.
I’ve always found bees comforting, with their furry small bodies, like a fairy’s teddy bear. The susurration of their explorations brings to mind lazy warm days. They prefer the small knotted blossoms of oregano and pendulous flowering swathes of butterfly bushes to overbred flowers like cactus dahlias, with their scimitar petals, and red tea roses, an adman’s wet dream.
Bees only sting when threatened. As a child, I fished them out of the swimming pool filter, and let them air-dry on my finger, before they flew off. Bees have had a hard time adjusting to our evolving world, and their numbers are shrinking. They’re vital for pollination. In Switzerland, where personal lawsuits haven’t become routine, bees are kept next door to us, in the park belonging to an insurance agency.
The day the editor-spouse and I visited Kew, the park was filled with strolling mothers and excited children. It’s a challenge these days for botanical gardens like Kew, as well as zoos, to lure children away from the tempting screens that bring the world to their homes. The Hive meets the challenge, drawing children to it. It’s described as “a unique, multi-sensory experience designed to highlight the extraordinary life of bees. A feat of British engineering, it stands 17 metres tall, set in a wildflower meadow.”
I stood within the hive, giving myself over to its complexities. I felt moved by the panoply of sounds and the spatial design. It was like a visit to the Rothko chapel in Houston, with subtle ambient music instead of stillness, sunshine rather than dark. But I wanted to look up at the oculi, the sky unencumbered by metal, the clouds scudding by. I sat, titled my head back, made myself comfortable, and listened:
After some serious drifting, I started noticing what people around me did.
Adults entered the Hive and migrated to the periphery, standing against the metal lattices. Many wore serious expressions, and stillness settled over them.
The children, who came and went in giggling groups, met in the middle to look down. The hive is accessed by steps, and built on a high platform. In the center, you can look through the transparent floor a flight down, to the people clustered below on the unimposing cement base. Nothing fascinating to me. But the kids came together naturally, leaving their parents standing soberly at the edges. They wriggled around on their bellies, made room for each other gracefully. What did they seeing? Would they still be in the middle if there were no people below?
I remember how we loved to climb trees, hide in the leafy heights, spy down on unsuspecting grown-ups. Unobserved and out of reach, we briefly had the power balance shift to our side. Do the kids think about the bees, as the lights on the hive change in response to the movements of the actual hive outside, and the humming music ours out of the speakers.
Or all we all still just observing each other?
The hive was like the internet, connecting us through a thousand points of intersection, bringing what’s on the inside to the outside, exchanging the private for the common sphere. A structure that was built to symbolize the life of bees became the embodiment of human interconnectivity, the social understanding that guides our behavior. If we’re all observing each other, can we even imagine what’s past the top of the dome, what lies beyond?
Let us hope to leave the hive, and to return, bringing exquisite messages and the bright songs of flower petals.
Peppa’s dangerous quest to prevent further use of the lethal Compound T leads her to Ireland, where she joins an IRA splinter-group, “The Heavy Hand of the Harpist.” The genesis of the name is the alleged British historic practice of persecuting harp players in the seventeenth century.
“The Heavy Hand of the Harpist” never existed, but many other paramilitary groups did. Irish rebellion wasn’t just about the carnage of the IRA. There were antecedents.
Paramilitary groups went by a variety of names at different times in Irish history. In Ulster, the north of Ireland, the Peep O’Day Boys were an early precursor to the B Specials, the dreaded Protestants that volunteered to guard Northern Ireland in the 20th century. In the nineteenth century, Catholic agitators were known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood; later that group turned into the political party Sinn Féin, and the associated military group, the IRA. (For a more comprehensive list visit here.)
The Irish Nationalists, mostly Catholic, agitated for Home Rule from 1870 onwards. Various legislative efforts were proposed, but failed, the last one due to the onset of World War I. Ireland finally won its independence from British rule in the war of 1919 to 1921, which began with the Easter Rebellion. Though Ireland now had independence, the six counties of Northern Ireland were still part of the United Kingdom, and the IRA continued to fight to unite the island. However, once the Irish government was established in Dublin, it began cracking down on IRA activities. The Offences Against the State Act, Section 30, forbade the carrying of arms in Ireland, something that rankled Brian, the psychopathic former IRA member in The Falcon Strikes.
There really was a Border Campaign in the year of Peppa’s visit, in 1958. Until the beginning of the Troubles in 1968, 1957 was the most active year of the IRA’s campaign after the establishment of the Republic, with 341 incidents of terrorist activity recorded, according to the book Soldiers of Folly. As mentioned in my novel, The Border Campaign, also known as Campaign Orchard, really did spare Belfast from terrorist attacks. It’s theorised that either the IRA was aware of infiltrators, known in the vernacular as touts, or they feared being unable to protect local Catholics from retaliation. There were also groups that splintered off from the IRA during that time, the best known of which was Saor Uladh, founded by Liam Kelley.
In the troubled late sixties, splinter groups proliferated on both sides. Though British Army troops stationed in Northern Ireland were battling the various IRA groups who wanted them gone, they had a dim view of the extreme Protestant factions as well. Occasionally, those were imprisoned along with their Republicans enemies, though naturally they were kept in different areas.
For paramilitary groups, the fighting was not just about idealism, justice and revenge.
The struggle for identity through unity often draws men to such groups. Neglected, poor, uneducated, maybe one of many children, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. The illegality, secrecy, and danger form a bond between those who join. Even Peppa, my rational fictional heroine, develops a soft spot for Donal, the young man who inducts her into the “Heavy Hand of the Harpist.”
I also find the Irish conflict deeply affecting. The You Tube music video by the Irish group Pox Men brings tears to my eyes, though the music is rough, the dialect incomprehensible, and the scenes jumbled. Something about it…maybe it’s the old man with the mustache who sleeps through the secret meeting, and then, shaken awake, grabs a gun like a lynx pouncing on a rabbit.
But despite the rousing theme, the music video ends with a funeral. Just like The Falcon Strikes.
The true tragedy is that the bitter Ulstermen, those murderous Protestants that used the “Loyalist” moniker, seemed no better off than their Catholic counterparts.
If they had been better off, they’d have had something to lose; as it was, the grinding wretchedness of their lives made them susceptible to manipulation, same as any poor people who see their jobs vanishing.
Before I visited Belfast, as a roaming Swiss-American, I had the Northern Irish neatly divided into the roles of the oppressors and the oppressed. A man I met told me the streets used to vibrate with the tread of the dockworkers going to their jobs at the dawn’s light; they were Protestant. Even without education or connection, you could get a job at the docks.
I visited Belfast in 2015, and after my B&B cancelled at the last minute, my husband and I ended up staying at the beleagured Europa Hotel, which has the dubious distinction of being the most bombed hotel in Europe, courtesy of the IRA. Jerry and I booked Paddy Campbell’s Black Cab tour, which took us around west Belfast.
With our driver we toured Falls Church, the quintessential Catholic neighborhood, and Shankill, a Protestant stronghold that was the home of Ulster Defense Association extremist Stevie McKeag. Neighborhoods were separated by the 18-foot-high “peace wall”, to discourage warring factions from crossing over into each other’s territories. Both neighborhoods had two-story narrow townhouses with small, barren courtyards. Both neighborhoods had murals of their respective heroes. Both neighborhoods gave the impression of poverty, meagerness, and limited options.
The Catholic Falls Church residents decorated their desiccated meagre properties with artificial flowers. There were many images and statues of the Virgin Mary. The Catholic’s hero, Bobby Sands, is depicted with long hair, and the amiable air of a hippy bard. Despite his welcoming grin, he starved himself to death in the Maze Prison. One felt the grief of the older women, mothers of their lost sons.
The Protestant neighborhoods, represented by Shankill, venerated a high-kill count, in the person of Stevie McKeag, aka “Top Gun”. They also seemed to like pit bull dogs. I would say there was a more macho presentation. Sandymount had a huge mural of William of Orange looking superciliously down at pedestrians.
There was nothing suggesting luxury or privilege though. It seemed to me we had the impoverished shorn-headed descendants of Roundheads and Scots fighting with the monetarily and politically deprived, yet alluringly poetic, descendants of the Irish. I was told that in prison, the IRA made an effort to educate themselves, while the extremist Loyalists were known for being more interested in bulking up in the weight room.
It seemed neither side had many options.
While in Belfast, I found a book called Rooms of Time, Memories of Ulster People, composed of collected oral histories. Bakers bread was a luxury, and meat for meals was rare, often reserved for the head of the family, to keep up his strength. Women washed by hand, and it took an entire day Starch for ironing was prepared by peeling and grating potatoes, and then boiling them. Heat for the entire house came from one large fire, and spread to the upstairs via a central chimney. Since siblings slept packed together in a bed, at least they stayed warm. Kids played football with a blown-up pig’s bladder; for further entertainment, they would swing off the cross bars of the lamp posts.
Many elderly people had warm recollections of their childhood, with milkmen coming several times a day, and meals made from scratch. There wasn’t much of a safety net though, other than the church, and family. Maybe this…
Against a background of poverty and a lack of education, prejudice thrives and scapegoats will always be found.
I thought my character, Peppa, might be unlikable sometimes, until I saw Jessica Chastain portray an ambitious lobbyist in Miss Sloan. In comparison, she makes my analytical, occasionally arrogant heroine look like a cuddle-bunny.
Jessica Chastain gives a galvanizing performance, all pale face and wide staring eyes, angles and porcelain. She could be the supercilious Dr. Strange’s twin. Yes, she is shrill. She’s supposed to be. The New York Post states in their one-star slam: “Heavy-handed message movies don’t come more harrumphing than “Miss Sloane,” a clunky dramatization of the gun-control argument liberals still don’t understand is being conducted solely among themselves.”
The reviewer is missing the point completely. What the film is asking us, the audience, is whether we will accept lobbyist Miss Sloane as a heroine, whether we can pardon her manipulativeness and desire to win at all costs, given that the outcome is exposure of corruption. Just watching her, as she shames members of her team that don’t measure up and uses a vulnerable woman to whip up public sentiment against the gun lobby, is an experience that is acutely uncomfortable. We understand that she avoids all intimacy, and that every encounter is reduced to a transactional experience. I actually admire director John Madden for resisting the temptation to reveal a back-story that will make us empathize. We only know she had to lie all through her childhood, and that she has insomnia. He keeps us, as well as the fictional characters who come into contact with Miss Sloane, in the dark about the anguish that makes her so focussed on winning, so brilliant but unbearable.
Without divulging all the twists and turns, as she says, she holds the trump card. Her triumph is also her undoing. Like the scorpion, she stings so hard, that it seems she poisons herself.
Or is she looking for release?
Enigmatic and compelling, admirable and distasteful, Miss Sloane is at once broken and magnificent.
Solitude is a writer’s prerogative, and as my feet wander the earth, my brain wanders the terrain of my creations. It mostly works out. This last week was a challenge, with a painful falling-out with someone dear to me, and the supportive editor-spouse traveling to the land of his birth, to ponder on his origins and connect with his tribe. As usual, I packed my hiking pack, made some snacks, and got underway, ready to challenge myself with a difficult route. A funny thing happened though.
I was on the train which runs along the Walensee, the place I wrote about in my previous post. As I sat there, waiting for my stop, I heard voices—English speaking voices, some with American accents. It looked like a group was going on a hike. I curiously asked, and was invited along to the Zurich Outdoor Meetup excursion. Solitude is a prerogative, which also becomes a habit. I declined. I listened to everyone laugh and chatter. The leader asked me again to join them.
He made it easy to say yes to a route I’d already taken. (I don’t like to repeat routes or plots.) Well, this time, I wasn’t complaining about the crowd; I was part of the crowd. Two young American accountants from Zurich chatted easily with me; then I had an interesting talk with a doctor about how important it is for patients to assume some responsibility for their own well-being. It made me think again about differences in culture.
Like my heroine, Peppa Mueller, I’m Swiss in character and expectations, yet attracted to the ease and friendliness of Americans and other expats. The loose jokes, the voices ending on an uplift, the gangly ease of it all, creates a breezy feeling, sparkling like the lake of the water itself.
You have to write alone. But once in a while, it’s good to come out of your shell and gather impressions.
I wrote this at Easter; the companion trip will be posted above. It’s interesting that in this post I complain about all the people around, and in the next post, I join a group and completely enjoy myself.
Just because the weather is warm, and no snow lies on the ground at 800 meters, where I live, doesn’t mean the places I want to hike at are snow free. I used to try hikes in March or April, only to be turned back by snowfields. I hate hiking in snow. It’s not the discomfort so much. The stuff is slippery. A misstep on a moderate slope turns into a quick slide into the valley below. Also, the snow covers paths, vastly increasing the chances of getting lost.
That’s why I have my go-to places early in the season. One of them is the path on the sunny side of the Walensee. That side of the lake has steep towering cliffs that rise to form the Churfirsten, a mountain chain that divides this part of Canton St. Gallen from the Appenzell.
The Churfirsten side of the lake also has no roads, since it’s too steep to build on. The biggest village, Quinten, which is about the half-way point, is accessible by foot, mountain bike, or ferry.
It’s Good Friday and the weather is more than good when I reach Walenstadt, the village at the mouth of the lake that’s the starting point for this hike, which is described as 7 hours. (Those who wish to do less can hike until Quinten, and the take the boat across the lake to the railway in Murg.) I take the main road towards town, passing the pretty painted house to my left, and continuing on until I come to the square with the town hall building. There, I turn left and follow the road along the lake, passing this old grocery store, now closed. After the harbor, there’s a big recreation area. A well-marked trailhead to the right has signs to Garadur and Quinten. The wide path is gravel, and easy to navigate. Now the ascent begins, up, up, and up to 800 meters, at Garadur. The farmhouse has a tap where I refill water. Garadur itself no longer has the beehives and big organic flower garden, but it’s still a place of peace. Meadows alongside the farm lead to the edge of the cliff, where far below, the lake shimmers in the sunlight.
The first glimpse of the pebbly beach occurs 45 minutes after leaving Garadur, but it will be another thirty minutes along the shore line to reach Quinten and the small harbour. There’s an almost Mediterranean feel to the air today, with the fresh blue of the sky and the brilliant turquoise water, and the wind making tiny wavelets. The air is dry and crisp.
Quinten’s two restaurants are open and packed. Apparently many people
had the same idea I did; the trial is crowded too, by my standards. I haven’t had my visit in the woods to relieve myself. The little artisan stores tucked into houses are opened too, offering local wines, made in quantities too small to be exported, and jams. Little figs the size of fairy fists are popping out in the trees; they can only thrive in this protected microclimate. Gardens are bright with hellebores and lilac scents that air. I pass through Quinten, hoping to leave the crowds behind, but get only intermittent respite. After about an hour, I wind down the trail towards some more open meadows. . Now I’m close to the beautiful falls, and cross the bridge to continue on.
The first clue that I’ve reached civilisation is the Restaurant Burg Strahlegg. Fat fluffy chickens wander around, pestering diners. After this, the road is paved and open to traffic, although normally there isn’t much. As I pass beaches and the Burg itself, which is a ruined fort, there are more cars than usual, which turn into a plague of black SUV’s. Still, there are periods which are traffic free, and quiet. I pass through the long winding tunnels, and soon can see the town of Weesen ahead My destination, the Flyhof, is right outside of town, seven minutes from the outermost bus stop. In the 12th century, when the venerable building was built, it was part of the women’s cloister. It’s undergone many changes since then, but the walls, thicker than my outstretched arm, and the timber cross-beamed ceiling speak to its historic antecedents. My single room has leaded glass panels and a wide wooden sill that serves as a table.
I eat early, since I’m alone, and dressed in the next day’s hiking clothes, and a pair of old felt slippers that I carried. My meal, with generous wine, costs more than my room, but it’s worth it. A thick fresh chunk of Atlantic cod grilled and accompanied by German asparagus is heaven. Many restaurants make the mistake of not draining the asparagus completely, and then covering them with Hollandaise sauce, which gets diluted from the water, but not this one. They may have grilled the asparagus, and the sauce is swirled on the side, along with some raspberry vinaigrette. Because I covered a seven-hour trial in much less time today, I splurge and get a strawberry-rhubarb crumble. If you don’t like rhubarb, you should pass, but to me, the sour, moist rhubarb blends perfectly with the sweetened sour cream topping, and there’s a glass of an Austrian Chardonnay, Unplugged, to finish.
A wonderful hike and dinner, which for some reason I finish with reading a memoir about a man’s military service in Rhodesia and South Africa. He seems to have had fun, but I wonder why it is that violence and oppression can masquerade as a rewarding profession. I keep reading though, in the quiet old former cloister by the peaceful lake. I never claimed it made sense, did I?
Writing about travel, because it broadens the mind and deepens the story.
Our first day in Prague, we’re able to leave our BnB on the sixth floor safely, though this might be the world’s oldest elevator. The building we’re staying in is swank, but somehow disjointed, with a giant stair case entrance, and huge stairwells with stained glass windows. We wander along the river. Building after building displays intricate beautiful stone work, reflecting the fashion of the early twentieth century. The Art Nouveau facades are peach, sage-green, ivory, and occasionally, Pepto-Bismol pink. Curlicues writhe around windows, tall doors are ornamented with knockers. The shops have signs in Czech; not until we reach the tourist part is there information in English. Unlike cities like Munich, there are no bikes or mopeds, but traffic doesn’t seem especially heavy. The Charles Bridge is predictably crowded; we save walking it for another day and continue on to the Old Town, Staré Město, where the city hall, currently undergoing renovation, glowers behind the scaffolding. Its tower is rusty-colored and has a Game of Thrones feel. Nearby, the ornate doors show lion’s heads. Looking carefully, I notice one of the lions has something in its mouth.
Right. Don’t get on the bad side of the ruling class.
Our culinary adventure starts when we pass a place called Terroir. I love the concept of terroir. Soil and weather conditions combine to give grapes from each locale a unique flavor. Later that concept by was broadened by locovores to apply to vegetables and fruits. Terroir repudiates the idea of industrialized factory farming. We have to take a look inside this place.
We choose to sit in the wine cellar, surrounded by many bottles of fine French vintage. This early in the evening, we’re the only ones there. It’s magical and private; the thick walls of this twelfth century walls enveloping us in silence and shadows. The atmosphere lets us concentrate on my tasty sea bass and exquisite wine. I get a Chardonnay from Burgundy that’s so creamy on my tongue, it seems to spread. The carrots are thin slivers of taste explosion, and pureed parsnips add a nutty sweetness. Even better, the editor spouse and I can hear each other without having to lean over and raise our voices. We spend a relaxed couple of hours chatting intermittently with the sommelier about French elections.
Europe’s largest ghetto was in Prague, and before World War 2, 55,000 Jews lived there. Exploring the ghetto is a fascinating experience. Instead of the twisty small streets and miserable dwellings, we see broad streets lines with shops, the houses the usual gorgeous Art Nouveau style. We visit four of the synagogues on the tour, all four of them very different. What unites them is that none seem to be used regularly for worship. I reread my Rick Steves travel guide, and now a few facts jump out at me. The ghetto was razed in 1897, and the original 220 buildings replaced by 83 buildings. This was a good time for Jews, who had thrived economically with the more tolerant conditions. In the Spanish Synagogue, there are vitrines displaying the industrialist tycoons, glassmakers, writers, and artists of the Belle Époque. The very first man whose photograph I study died in Terezin, the concentration camp. It makes me unbearably sad. He probably enjoyed his prosperous respectability, never dreaming what was in store.
Of those 55,000 Jews in Prague, 10,000 survived the Holocaust. Pinkas Synagogue is a reminder of that. The names engraved on the wall by hand, of each person who perished, is poignant. The tracery of letters, black and reddish, form a startlingly beautiful weave over the plain beige sturdy walls. A sacred atmosphere is created out of this web of memory, the monumental loss of life somehow elevated, not trivialized, in this list. There are only 1700 registered Jews in Prague now, according to Rick Steves. Do they live in the gorgeous buildings surrounding the synagogues? Perhaps not, because the houses of worship are no longer a place where the living congregate. They have turned into memorials.
The graveyard itself is massive, but more in bulk that in actual area. For more than 300 years, Jews were only allowed to bury their dead in this area, so bodies were buried on top of other bodies. Gravestones are crowded, or lean to the side, or have the only their tips poke out of the ground that’s covered them with successive interments. The stones, blackened with moss and lichen, reflect back the patterns on the mottled bark of the tall trees growing here and there. The stones seem to replicate the haphazard nature of personality; forced into community, there are some that lean together, huddled, supported by each other, while others seem to draw back into whatever space they can find in the crowded monuments of the dead. The area is bleached of life, except for the green of the leaves, and yet the emptiness and absence feels full. The passage of time, the idea of many lives, these abstruse concepts seem to vibrate in the air and make it heavy.
The Belle Époque was a period of gaiety, the Can Can in Paris, the beautiful women and flowers in Mucha’s paintings evoking the idea that style can obscure the dread that underlies so much of life. The grand gold and saffron colored houses still line the streets, offering high-end fashion, coffee, apartments for the well-off. Life goes on.
But we will not forget the graves.
Last week I hiked up to the Segnés Pass, 2627 meters. It wasn’t a pretty sight, me scrabbling up those last few meters, grappling with my sticks in one hand, scrabbling for a handhold with the other. At the pass itself, there’s an old military barracks that’s been repurposed as a simple guesthouse. From it, a young man watched me with concern, and offered help. “I’m alright,” I said, faintly embarrassed.
And I was. Because I saw this:
Altogether, my hike was more than six hours, an elevation of 1200 meters on foot, and the same down again. Why do I do this?
To answer the question, I need to tell you a bit about how I grew up. Like most households, mine was run by my mother. As a venerable old person, she lives a tightly circumscribed, almost cloistered existence. Shifts in temperature distress her; she makes minute adjustments in her curtains and windows to control her environment. Last time she was to travel, she cancelled because the heat was turned off in her apartment, and she didn’t want to return to a cold home.
In other words, she’s like a beautiful hot house flower. Precious orchids thrive in glass houses, which could be a prison of sorts. It was for me. As a child, I had insomnia, and my dreams were marked with images of flight. I like nothing better than to see endless sky and distant vistas spread out before me.
Freedom. Freedom to go where I want, when I want. The freedom that comes from knowing I can take some discomfort. Maybe I’ll be sweaty, maybe it will be windy, I might even have a blister. I can handle it.
My hike begins in the village of Elm. In October of 1799, villagers bore witness to the hunger and desperation of General Suvorov’s Russian army, fleeing the French under the command of General Molitor. Starving and barefoot, the 17,000 Russians, Tartars, Kalmucks, and Cossacks resorted to boiling goatskins taken from the villagers, and bolting them down, with the hair still on. Despite Suvorov’s efforts to maintain discipline and order, some soldiers killed livestock and ate it raw. The villagers, forced to accompany them as guides for the mountain crossing, fled under the cover of dark, leaving the soldiers to make their own way. Over 2000 of the emaciated, weakened men perished in the same range I’m about to hike.
I intend to climb well-fed, and I know where the pass is.
I’m staying at the Hotel Segnés so I can get an early start the next day. Dinner is whatever’s on offer, which happens to be a tasty lasagna, with a big fresh salad, and dessert. For a Swiss meal it’s a bargain, which is a good thing, as Elm doesn’t offer a variety of restaurants.
I’m up by six and fed before eight. Since I don’t want to hike more than 7 hours, I’m taking the cable car part of the way up, through the Tschingel ravine, named after the Tschingelhörner, the hornlike peaks where I’ll be crossing over into the canton of Grisons. (Graubünden). The majesty of the dark and gloomy ravine is marred by an ongoing silly recording broadcast loudly in the cable-car.
I escape the cable car and head up. The “horned gods” are awaiting. I draw closer and closer to the Martin’s hole, a circular break in the peaks. The church in Elm is lit by sun pouring down through the opening twice a year. Legend has it that Martin was watching his sheep, when a giant climbed over from the neighboring canton, with an eye for some mutton. The brave shepherd fought for his flock, and flung his shepherd’s crook at the intruder. Instead of hitting the giant, the crook flew into the stone wall and shattered it, creating a hole. Much thunder ensued. Presumably the sheep were saved, hopefully not for General Suvorov’s starving army.
As mentioned before, the old army barracks is right at the top. There, I spend close to an hour chatting with Patrick, the young Austrian who serves me soup and warm tea. The simple stone hut isn’t much of a tourist draw, and not busy. Patrick has arrived for his three month stay fortified with books. He’s just finished a book by the Dalia Lama. I suspect he likes the freedom up here, and the quiet.
Then I’m off to the other side, Canton Grisons. After a tricky descent, which is secured with some wobbly chains, but is still very steep, I arrive at a flat high plateau. Streams spread out like a web over the short grass and isolated clusters of brilliant blue gentians. As I descend off the plateau towards the Swiss Alpine Club hut Segnés, the flowers become numerous. There are thousands of yellow buttercups interspersed with white yarrow and more gentians. Some wild pinks and the orange of hawkweed dot the grass. I follow the famous Flims waterway down to Foppa, where I catch a ski-lift down to Flims itself.
Writing about travel, because it broadens the mind and deepens the story.
If David Sedaris can do confessional, so can I. This all starts with a visit to my doctor, a stand-up kinda guy. I haul out the six different remedies for my sluggish digestion for show and tell, and he sets me straight. Exercise induces peristalsis. That, and fibre. Additionally, he suggests artichoke -based drops for my gallbladder.
I already eat a fairly healthy diet, thanks to the editor-spouse, who works from home and relaxes by making huge dinners. However, I do indulge in fatty foods, and I’ve slacked off on the exercise since I came back from Annapurna Base Camp last year. So the artichoke drops don’t have to work even harder, I resolve to eat less fatty food. I plan a five-hour hike across the Rossberg’s three different peaks in Canton Schwyz. (see last week’s post for more on Schwyz).
The night before, I arrive a little before ten at night in my hotel, in the pretty little town of Rapperswil, on Lake Zurich. I’m tempted by the sumptous array of cheeses I see, and order a small plate. Turns out I’m supposed to choose my own. After intensive descriptions of five, my head is spinning. “Just chose one of each type. One kind of blue cheese, one soft cheese, and one hard cheese,” I say.
I’m sitting down, reading Tana French and sipping a nice Yvorne, a Swiss white wine from the Valais, when a shadow falls across the table. The cheese plate.
I’ve borrowed a photo from Pixabay, because I didn’t have the presence of mind to take one. Multiply what’s on the photo times six. Yes, the thirty or so morsels are only thumb size, but that’s a hell of a lot of cheese. I point that out. “You said you wanted one of each,” the implacable young man says. “
“No, I wanted one of each type,” I wail. He doesn’t answer. His gaze is on me, intent, still fairly friendly. A lot of the cheese is soft and runny. I imagine the effort it must have taken to cut it; to arrange it on the wooden board.
I’m going to need another glass of wine to get that down. But tomorrow, I’ll hike five hours.
The next day the market is in full swing outside the hotel. There’s lots of greenery, but I can’t very well travel with a backpack full of salad. I chose a nut croissant,
I’ll be hiking five hours after all.
Except that I don’t follow routes that well. I make it to the top of the first ridge, enjoy the view, eat only half my croissant (oh I’m so good) and proceed to the next peak. Or maybe not. Somehow, I’m going back down. By the time I realize this, I don’t see another path up, and I hate retracing my steps.
Then I come to the metaphorical crossroad, so to speak. I see a path going back up. Way back up. I also see a sign informing me that the farmhouse five-minutes away has homemade ice cream.
I’ll give you three guesses on what wins out.
At least I’m supporting local farmers. Mrs. Gehren invites me into her kitchen, as it’s getting cooler. As I eat my ice cream, made with milk from the neighbor’s cows, an elderly biker comes in. He orders a coffee and asks Mrs. Gehren for a nut croissant (Nussgipfel). Since she doesn’t have one, I give him mine. That saves me the guilt from throwing away the uneaten portion, since I’m now consuming ice cream. Typical Swiss fairness—he offers to pay me for it, which I decline. In meantime, she comes back with a big portion of strawberry cake, which she discovered. He eats that too. He’s all skin and muscle. When I ask him about his Swiss Alpine Club pin, he says he used to do a lot of hiking, but now his knees are not up to it, so he took up biking. He’s seventy-nine. Yeah, when you’re like that, you can eat two desserts, and he probably doesn’t need artichoke drops either.
When the world ends, the hardy Swiss will still be puttering away in their all-weather gear, taking refuge in the alps, and building gadgets from scratch. In the apocalypse, my money is on them.
In meantime, I head back to the railway station, grazing on cherries from the orchards. I make a quick stop to buy some honey from a roadside box. But I’m saving that caloric expenditure for another day.