Swiss Castles: A Visit to Tarasp

Photo courtesy of Nina Froriep
Photo courtesy of Nina Froriep

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.

View from the castle
View from the castle Tarasp

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.

The old chapel, with a painting by artist Not Vital
The old chapel, with a painting by artist Not Vital

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.

Photo courtesy of Nina Froriep
Photo courtesy of Nina Froriep

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/

Intersectionality Externalized

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 bee-100928_1920fairy’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, IMG_0680the 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.

IMG_0686The 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 binary-1607196_1920points 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.

The poppy promise

 

 

Complex Heroines

Always a move ahead
Always a move ahead

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.

 

The Kindness of Strangers

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.

Underway by boat to the trailhead
Underway by boat to the trailhead

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.IMG_4491

You have to write alone. But once in a while, it’s good to come out of your shell and gather impressions.

Then and Now: Walensee

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.

IMG_4199The 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. IMG_4192After 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

Doorway in Quinten
Doorway in Quinten

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.

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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 IMG_4224trial 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?

Of Caves and Graves

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.

Lion's 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.

dinner in the cave

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.

Pinkus syn

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.

Graves

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.

 

Freedom and Blue Skies

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:

IMG_0554

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.

IMG_0542
Village of Elm. Taken from my hotel room

 

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 Tschingelhörnerawaiting. 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 Martin's Holeand 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.

Segnes Pass Lodge

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.

In the mountains above Flims
In the mountains above Flims

How I lost my way (in the #Swiss #Alps)

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.

cheese plate representation
cheese plate representation

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,

Rapperwil market
Rapperwil market

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.

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View from Rossberg

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 IMG_4429her 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.

IMG_4439In 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.

Honest.

 

Of Origins and Onerous Ascents

IMG_0490Writing about travel, because it broadens the mind and deepens the story.

Oh, it really wasn’t that onerous. But it was hot, and the 500-meter ascent (a third of a mile) of the mountain of Mythen took place in little over an hour.

It’s summer, and time to explore Switzerland, the home of my fictional heroine, chemistry prodigy Peppa Mueller. Though Peppa is apolitical, she’s proud of her homeland, especially after further misadventures land her in the political chaos of Ireland and Northern Ireland during the height of the 1950s IRA campaign.

Switzerland officially began with a written agreement, a pact, between representatives of rural communities in 1291. Their names are recorded: Werner Stauffacher, Walter Fürst, and Arnold Von Melchtal. The country of Switzerland is called Schweiz in the native Swiss-German dialect, and the state that Werner Stauffacher came from was called Schwyz, so plainly, the country is named after that first kernel. Schwyz and the states from which the other men came were collectively known as “forest communities.” Each of the leaders brought ten men. We’re not talking a huge, well-equipped army here. I imagine a mostly illiterate group of clannish men, with pitchforks and scythes as weapons. Then, as now, the Swiss just wanted to be left alone to tend to their cows and fortunes.

Schwyz and the other two states, Uri, and Nidwalden, are tiny, even for Switzerland, which is itself the size of New Hampshire. They’re known as the inner part of Switzerland. Though the landscape is mountainous, the mountains pale in comparison to the western and southern parts of the country. “Big” Mythen, which I climbed, is 1811 meters, (almost 6000 feet), but in the western state of Graubünden many peaks are over 3000 meters. Mythen is composed of a big peak and a smaller one; the big one rises starkly out of the still wooded landscape, a tower of reddish rock. The ascent, built by a local man in 1864 for the sum of 3000 francs, consists of steps hewn into the rock. Since a few accidents took place, the ascent has been additionally secured with chain railings. It’s steep, but safe, though I wouldn’t recommend it in rain. The Swiss Alpine Club designates it as T3.

IMG_0498

Once at the top, there is, as always, food and libation to be had. The hospitality is not as warm as in a family-run establishment, but it’s cozy enough, and has the usual wine, local cheeses, and homemade fruit pie (Kuchen). The lowlands lie spread beneath, dotted over with the crystalline sapphire blue of various lakes.

View from Mythen

A brief rain squall drives us all inside, where I notice the heraldic emblems on each chair. Apparently, all the donors of the association that manages the restaurant have their own family crests. The surly little man running the place tells me that everyone has a family crest. His own family has been in the area since the sixteenth century.

Heraldic emblem on chairback
Heraldic emblem on chairback

I get ready to descend, noting that the bathrooms cost exactly one franc. Since I don’t have a coin of that denomination, I’m looking forward to reaching the thick old forest that surrounds the peak. After a lovely wander through pines and thickly mossed rocks, I head down to the town of Schwyz (in the state of Schwyz). A few examples of lovely architecture grace the old town.

Door, town of Schwyz
Door, town of Schwyz

Who Shall Carry the Burden?

Writing about travel, because it broadens the mind and deepens the story.



Pr Figure 10

Who shall carry the burden of the buildings? Cool nymphets, graceful thin androgynous men, buxom belles with their curly tresses curving around their breasts, groaning older men with broad chests and fierce beards.

Pr Figure 3

They are stone, but their faces speak: seduction, indifference, a poised pride. They are everywhere, buttresses, doors, windows. Perhaps once they were the only ones who could dare express emotions. After suffering through Word War 2, and losing an estimated 77,000 Jews, the Czechs were liberated by the Russians.

Pr Figure 1

I’m a tourist passing through, so I’m making inferences here. The men and women in their fifties sometimes have a muted air about them. They avert their eyes, make no attempt to communicate. There’s not even the indication that I’d have to try a different language, a shrug, a smile of bewilderment. Just nothing. As if it’s dangerous to be a witness to anything, to make any kind of acknowledgement.

What was life was like under the Communist state? We seek out the dusty Museum of Communism, inexplicably marooned inside the belly of a building dedicated to one of the mainstays of capitalism, gambling. The sign outside tells us we’re entering a Casino, giving the impression that the museum itself is somehow a Casino exhibit. The apathetic cashier, just doing her job, transports one back to the that era, even before one sees the posters.

Casino

It’s already occurred to me that the reason most people over thirty don’t speak English, is because English was the language of subversion. In retrospect, it’s amazing it took me so long to arrive at that conclusion. The Czech Republic didn’t achieve its freedom from the USSR until 1989, when it became the country of Czechoslovakia, which split again into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. The hidden museum, with the printed signs that predate the advent of laser printer, and its hodgepodge of items, has a wealth of information about life in Communist times. Posters were a means of disseminating propaganda. The first one here creates a link between Nazi collaborators, implying they are the current critics of the Communist regime. Athletes and labourers were feted; they were the anonymous heroes of the workers’ revolution.

Athlete poster

 

“A socialist man should be satisfied with a modest income while conscientiously fulfilling his work tasks, improving his knowledge of communist doctrines, co-operating with state bodies, and being observant as to whether someone in his environment does not disturb the state order.”

Ah, yes, the interrogation room. If one heard too much, said too much, one might end up there. The Nationals Safety Corporation, formed in 1947, included the non-uniformed State Security, the secret police. Lest the population question the need for constant vigilance, civil defense drills were held. These drills were an opportunity for instructors to declaim the mercilessness of the West, which was willing to use any weapon, including poison gas, against the Communists.

Gas Mask

Posters showed that America oppressed its own population, especially the blacks.(ok, that last part was true). Uncle Sam should be flicked off the globe. Villagers could work with the secret police to uncover evidence of any traitors, spies, and collaborators.

New York poster

The stone of the buildings had become the state, the men and women like mute statues, straining beneath the weight of its portals, of its authority, of its power.

 

Pr Figure 4The figures in stone are still in place in the Art Nouveau buildings; the former Socialist workers of Czechoslovakia live in a democratic society today, but some walk with petrified faces, mummified souls. The wages of living in a police state are high. Perhaps some will never fee free again.