Geneva, at the conclusion of a fabulous holiday.
Switzerland’s Summer Splendor
By John Sherman Mills
Photographs by Thomas I. Petersen/
As a wide-eyed boy on my first trip to Disneyland, I stood in awe of the Gargantuous "snowy peak" that I would soon learn was called the "Matterhorn." I promised myself then that I would be standing here now- braced to set out on an alpine adventure that would climax on the icy granite slopes of this magical mountain known the world round.
There is much to do between our starting point here in the heartland of this fascinating country and our final destination in Zermatt at Switzerland’s southern border. It's mid-June and the summer sports activities of this high-altitude playground are in full swing. Joined by my friend Tom, I'm impatient to get going and "conquer" my first mountain, Mt. Rigi.
We set up our "base camp" in a cozy bed & breakfast in this picturesque lakeside town. Fortunately for city slickers like us, reaching Rigi's top- and those of many other dramatic peaks- has been made quite easy. In 1887 the tracks of a cogwheel railroad line were amazingly laid up to Rigi's 6,000-foot summit. Today, trekkers like Tom and I have only to get a ticket and jump aboard an antique rail car. As if pushed back into our seats, we begin our ascent at a bewildering grade of 65 degrees. The valley floor quickly disappears behind us and we soon find ourselves in an expansive verdant meadow awash with the delicate colors and fragrances of Edelweiss, Gentian Ella and Asters.
A well-designed feature of rail lines such as Rigi's is that there are several optional stops during the ascent. You can disembark and hike leisurely along countless trails that meander among velvet green pastures. We opt for the crunchy gravel pathway that's a manageable 3-hour walk leading through thickets of Norway spruce up to the craggy summit. Here awaits an exhilarating panorama of the breathtaking Santis Alps. This will be the first of several days enjoying unhurried hikes on sun-drenched, pristine slopes.
Nighttime finds us back at our room on Kapellgasse Street in the heart of historic Lucerne. Meticulously maintained and preserved, the Swiss consider Lucerne as one of the country's most beautiful towns. The architecture of its quaint streets echoes the city's rich Baroque and Renaissance Heritage. The warmth of the midsummer evening allows us to stroll the gas lighted streets. Eventually we chose one of many enticing sidewalk restaurants embracing the banks of the Ruess River and nearby waterfront.
Afterwards we ferreted out some great places to mingle with "the natives," like the Widder Bar & Cafe at Steinenstrasse 2. Gregarious English-speaking crowds seem somehow amused by our American accents and jokingly inquire if Britney Spears lives in our town. A couple of favorite local hangouts are the Bläch Bar in the Hotel Flora at Seidenhofstrasse 5 and the Halu Disco at Geissensteinring 14.
You need at least two days here just to poke around the museums in Lucerne- treasure troves of armored suits, trophies, weapons and artifacts from the Middle Ages. Near the Lion Monument is the Swiss Transport Museum, the most comprehensive exhibition of its kind in Europe. Interactive displays range from antique cars to future space stations. Ironically, the IMAX Theater in this complex presents “Extreme2002,” a large format documentary on the daring types of sports activities we will be seeing later in the trip. Lucerne also has a myriad of tempting specialty shops and boutiques featuring precision timepieces, art, jewelry and, of course, Swiss chocolates.
Not to be missed here is the 6-hour cruise around Lake Lucerne. The quay is just footsteps from the end of the city’s most fabled landmark, the Kapellbrucke wooden bridge, a 600-foot long covered structure first constructed in the 13th century. The impressive 200' steamer the "Stad Lucerne" glides along a shoreline graced with one magnificent villa after another. The steep hillsides jutting above the lake are dotted with luxurious estates, elegant summer residences and sumptuous private spas. Every few minutes you pass a thundering cascade, tumbling hundreds of feet into Lucerne's crystal clear waters. Practicing for the upcoming Rotsee-boat races, ten muscle-bound guys swiftly overtake our ship.
Leaving the Lucerne area we follow a ribbon-like two-way road that skirts the southwest edges of Mounts Pilatus and Brienzer Rothorn. Both peaks tower some 3000 feet over the valley floor. Abruptly Lake Brienz appears before us; its azure blue surface reflecting the snow covered Bernese Oberland Mountains behind it. Here in the geographic center of Switzerland is one of Europe's favorite summer getaways. Known as the Swiss Riviera, Lake Thun and Lake Brienz afford nearly every aquatic recreational activity imaginable…and unimaginable. Water skiing, wind surfing, swimming, boating, fishing, and jet skiing, of course, have always been popular here. The approach of the millennium, however, has ushered in a treacherous new genre of outdoor activities called “Extreme Sports.” These include bungee jumping into waterfalls, whitewater rafting the severest of Switzerland’s rapids, sheer vertical rock assault and previously unconsidered ice climbing. Within the last two years this region is also now the international center for Human Powered Vehicle races. Really bizarre inventions- looking like contraptions from a Jules Verne novel-compete for record speeds over the water, on the ground and in the air. For Tom and me, the swinging gondola ride up to an observation platform over 4000 feet above the Luttschine Valley was excitement enough!
We discover Interlaken, the summer Mecca for Europe’s international jet set. This little city cradles dozens of intimate, five star hotels. Ready to meet the demands of this sophisticated clientele are a host of world-class restaurants. Horse drawn carriages clomp up and down Hohewegstrasse, carrying elegantly dressed passengers to their desired destinations. One of these is the world famous Casino Kursaal. Here you cannot only try your luck with slots and cards, they also have a unique game called “Le Boule,” a Swiss twist on the game of Roulette.
But the attractions here in Interlaken are hardly just for the rich and famous. A young crowd gravitates to this place for their summer holidays and the intensity of the nightlife in this small Swiss village rivals that of Zurich and Bern. The hottest places are the discotheques, such as Johnny’s, Hollywood and the Metropole. You may be in the center of Switzerland, but the dance beat is definitely American.
Aare Café, the Schnadis and the Steren offer exemplary fares of the finest in Swiss culinary arts. Typical offerings include Geschnetzeltes nach Zurcher Art (thin-sliced veal with a cream sauce), Zurcher Leberspiessli (liver strips with sage seasoning, spit-roasted and served with beans), and Ratsherrentopf (mixed grill on a bed of rice or noodles). The premium wines of Germany, France Spain and Italy are available in an unlimited selection. It’s more economical to order Swiss white wine, which has a light, effervescent quality.
About an hour drive down the valley is a village that captures my heart, Thun. This is considered to be the most original town throughout Switzerland and indeed, I feel dropped back into medieval times. The old quarters remain just as they were in the 13th century. Above all the gabled houses rises the formidable and intimidating Kyburg Castle. I feel like there’s a king, knight or lord peering down on us from its keep, scrutinizing our every move. An uncontrollable curiosity overwhelms us and we scurry up the winding, narrow streets to the city’s crest. We’re delighted to discover that this fortress is now a historical museum and we can climb its circular stone stairways to the tops of its four skinny turrets. From this lookout we are completely encircled by the commanding Bernese Alps.
We still have yet to see thee mountain and the roadway beckons us to head southward. It is soon that the valley floor comes to an end and we’re confronted with the necessity of taking the car-train that runs through the Lotchberg Tunnel. This incredible subterranean cavity, completed in 1913, runs for 9 miles. With extreme trepidation I drive our car up a rickety metal ramp onto a rusty triple-layered flatbed rail car. Other autos follow and take their directed places below and above us. We lock ourselves inside our Fiat and the train starts moving. The next thing we realize it that we’re moving through total darkness at a hand-wrenching speed of 45 miles per hour! The rumbling and grumbling must be a 130 decibels as we’re swept beneath some 6000 feet of solid granite. We are deposited in yet another gorgeous valley and eagerly set off for the town of Tasch.
I may be mistaken in labeling Tasch a town. It seems to actually be one enormous parking lot holding a thousand autos, trucks and RV’s. Vehicles are not permitted in Zermatt, the city that is situated at the very base of the Matterhorn. My adrenaline kicks in as we tumble aboard a small train which arduously creeks its way some three miles up a wooded hillside. I jump off the train and there at the end of Zermatt’s main street the Matterhorn looms authoritatively. I sense it looking at me as if it had been waiting impatiently for my overdue arrival. I freeze in my tracks, mystified and mesmerized by its triangular magic.
This natural, enigmatic pyramid has a long history of captivating the spirits of people. For some the attraction has been fatal. The countless stories of tragedy and triumph are retold in the Alpine Museum situated at the foot of the mountain. It’s an eerie feeling to be in such close proximity to all the ropes, pick axes, gizmos and gadgets of previous mountaineers.
In 1865 a British illustrator Edward Whymper was the first person to reach its jagged top. Four of his companions, however, were killed during that expedition. “Mt. Cervin”, as it is officially called, would forever more be known as the “Killer Alp.” The climb remains exceptionally risky, because its high slopes are extremely steep and uniquely concave and covered with snow year-round.
Hundreds of expert climbers accept the challenge of the Matterhorn each year. Arrangements with experienced local guides can be readily made in advance over the Internet or at one of the rental stores. For Tom and me the method of viewing this 15,000-foot giant is the tried and true rack railway that runs up the face of its neighboring Griffelberg. This is the highest open-air railway in Europe and accesses a convenient lookout during the summer. Cable cars on other routes make skiing, tobogganing and snowboarding available virtually 365 days a year. Equipment rentals are available at shops on Bahnhofstrasse .
(We were in Zermatt for only two days. The weather was perfectly clear. We have been told we were truly lucky.)
Our time here in the shadow of the Europeans’ favorite natural landmark is inexplicably wondrous and unforgettable. We complete our summer vacation in Switzerland with joyous memories and the hope that we will one day soon return.