Oh Switzerland, you are a siren to my soul. This place was simply beautiful. The scenery seemed to get more breath-taking with each country we visit.
Gimmelwald: Buns of Steel and Teddy Roosevelt
On a train toward Gimmelwald, I was reading through one of our information packets about the town and nearly fell out of my chair. Have you ever had that feeling of impending doom awaiting you and there was really nothing you could do about it? Well, that was me. I had just read a statement indicating that the only thing to do in Gimmelwald was sit on a bench and wonder why you were sitting on a bench (or something like that). I asked Kathy if she had planned something else for me to do on this trip other than sit and her response was “You need to learn to just slow down and sit and you should have read the packet earlier when I gave it to you”. Sit in the middle of nowhere staring at a bench…for 2 DAYS! Me? I’d rather be sitting at the table in Italy trying to fight off Paulo’s advances. Talk about having a near hissy fit, Switzerland was definitely going to experience its first. But to go ahead and spoil the ending, no sitting nor hissy fits were to be had. Walking through the doors of our hostile, my prayers were answered. It was full of lively hikers, friendly and engaging. Petra, out host, was pouring drinks and serving pizza while fellow residents created quite the clamor. This was not what Kathy had imagined (another spoiler alert: she later enjoyed the place, too).
How we actually got to our hostel is another tale in itself. The connections were tight since we had stayed the morning in the Cinque Terre and we had made each connection until the last train. 11:00 at night and we were stuck in the middle of nowhere in a train station with a couple engaging on what I think was either a make-out session or mortal combat, two “little old men”, and your stereotypical ragamuffins. One option was to wait for the bus which would make us miss the cable car to our hostel, and the other option was a taxi. I approached the taxi driver (this is not where the buns of steel comes into play). Having just lit his cigarette, the driver was ready for his stranded prey. A few exchanges resulted in the knowledge that a) the only way to our hostel was by a cable car because no regular vehicle could make the trek, b) he could get us to Stechelberg, the town below Gimmelwald, and c) it would cost us approximately $80. Kathy and I exchanged glances. After pouring on the southern charm and being damsels in distress (we really were!), he would take us there and ensure that we made it before the last cable car. And boy was he serious! He grabbed our packs, threw them in the trunk (no, we weren’t thrown in the trunk along with them), and he drove 100km/hour around curves and within the towns where 40 km was the evident limit. He drove, I asked him questions about his life (we even talked briefly about politics), and Kathy prayed for our lives. Turns out his name was Walter, he had been a night taxi driver for 8 years, spoke German and a little English, and was quickly liking us. He was a jolly man and stuck to his word, only charging us $60 for what would have been a $95 trip. At the cable car, we gave him hugs and he planted the biggest kisses on our foreheads. Alas, we had to part ways. The hat never made it to the cable car…a casualty of travel, it has become.
Segue back to the Mountain hostel.
The residents were such a welcomed change from the typical tourist scene. They were adventurers who didn’t want for much but to hike the Alps and recooperate with a low key evening. I met so many different people and the initial ice breaker was never “What’s your name?” but rather “Where are you coming from?” or “Where have you been?” Both of our nights there were spent in conversations over food, self-prepared in the community kitchen or pizza from the bar. The closest grocery store was a 50 min hike away in the next town. While the hostel was full of hikers, it was also full of flies (the title of this post should be “Lord of the Flies”). They were everywhere! Eventually, by the second day, you just let them land and stay on you. It was a losing battle. We shared a room with 14 other girls and a bathroom with all the hikers. It was a bit weird at first sharing a shower and toilet with guys but after a couple rounds of teeth brushing, near nakedness (not on my part), and never having to put the seat down (aren’t these guys great!), I got used to it.
For the two days we were in Gimmelwald, we hiked (Daddy, you would have loved it). It’s still surreal to have actually hiked through the Alps. The only sounds to be heard were the rocks and sticks crunching beneath our feet, the sweet song of cow bells, and the rush of waterfalls. Occasionally, birds or bugs would make their contribution.
Our first hike was about 5-6 miles and took us through relatively even terrain. I felt like I was in “The Sound of Music” (of course we ran through the mountains, arms in the air, singing “the hills are alive”). Since the hikers have the right of way, we passed through people’s pastures which housed the local cows. You would have thought we had never seen cows before! I thought they were beautiful (until I managed to swipe dung on my ankle–my smelly companion for the rest of the hike). We traipsed through a flower trail, stopped for hot chocolate, and experienced the pain of an electric fence. Initially, Kathy grazed the fence with her sleeve and felt a surge. I touched a portion with my finger and after having felt a jolt, I grab the bloody thing because only God knows why. Thank goodness I was grounded (physically and obviously not mentally). I felt the current from my fingertip through my neck vein across my chest to my leg and ending through my ankle vein (and I’d absolutely do it again). Towards the latter part of the trail, we crossed under a waterfall where we set up shop for lunch. We bought our groceries early that morning and since that town was the starting point for our hike, we just took our groceries with us. Having carried our groceries and lunch while hiking allowed for some almost disturbing photos later on. There are several post-Gimmelwald shots where I look like I’ve taken steroids. My arms are quite jacked. Necessary to fight off the mountain lions and fellow hostel dwellers.
Our hike on the last day was mostly uphill and took us to the top of a mountain, down through the valley, and across the edge. It was an 11 mile hike with a break mid-trek for a lunch of Rosti (basically a Swiss version of hash browns), a warm cup of coffee complete with Toblerone chocolate, and a table overlooking the valley with the snow capped mountains high above us. We hiked with one of the girls from our hostel who was a Christian from NC and had traveled several places in her lifetime. She was a joy to have along with us. The trail took us through some of the most enchanting parts of the mountains. The nature was so plush and green, you’d think you were in a movie. There were a few “scary” parts of the trail, made so by the lack of hiking boots and poles. It was a near straight drop down to the valley with only a foot diameter path to maneuver and nothing to grab onto. The hike was difficult and Teddy Roosevelt’s “Speak softly and carry a big stick” was my battle cry (who knows why I couldn’t have had something more “Braveheart”- or “Lord of the Rings”-esque running through my head. It was better than Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” from the previous day’s hike, I guess). By the end of our two days here, we had quite the workout which manifested in me with what I call “Crispin leg”. Crispin is the dog of the couple who hosts our Bible study. His back leg just starts a jumpin’ and shakin’ when he’s still. I was surprised at how much energy I had after the hike. If I were staying another day, I would hike to the top of Schilthorn where a portion of the James Bond movie “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” was filmed. It’s supposed to be beautiful and, based on our views, I can certainly believe it.
A side note: For those shoe-shopping, I highly recommend Clark’s. I am going to write the company and tell them how awesome their shoes are. These babies have been everywhere and even kept me stable while hiking the Alps.
We arrived into Lausanne via bus and were supposed to meet Marie at the platform. For those of you who may not be familiar with Marie, she interned this past spring at the FSU Career Center where Kathy works, and she invited us to stay with her family on the last leg of our trip. I can’t stress how amazing she was to us.
We missed each other at the the train platform somehow, so Kathy and I slipped into a cafe above the station to use their wifi to connect with Marie. When Marie arrived in the cafe, it was such a blessing. Kathy and I had managed through the previous countries but we were experiencing some difficulty with the French language. Switzerland has three regions where German, French, or Italian is spoken. Lausanne is in the French speaking region. Marie would be our translator throughout the entire trip ranging from ordering foods to asking and giving directions.
From the train station, Marie took us to her flat. It was absolutely precious! I am now calling my town home in Tallahassee my “flat in the city”. She let me hang my soaking wet clothes ALL over her bathroom (my clothes did not dry overnight and had managed to soak the entire contents of my bag). She also gave us some time to gather our wits before showing us her home of Lausanne.
Lausanne is the capital of its canton. A canton is similar to a state in the US and Lausanne is in the Vaud canton. The city was preparing for a music festival so it was a bit busier than usual.
Marie was a wonderful host. After navigating and planning the past two weeks of traveling, we were treated to the most special two days full of authentic and tourist experiences. She made us feel at home and like part of her family. We visited the church and the town center, Olympic park, the lake (Lake Geneva if you’re from France and Lake Lemon of you’re from Switzerland), and went shopping. We had lunch at the top of a department-like store where the food was much like a buffet or cafeteria style service. My favorite part was the dessert Marie ordered which was this creamy chocolate filled tart. Basically I was biting into a better-than-Nutella filled baby pie. Give me a moment for my insulin levels to return to normal after that thought. Ok. We also learned that the last portion of the wine in the bottle is called “the love” so whoever has the last bit gets the love. Oh and the bottom of the bottle must be kissed. I’m definitely bringing this tradition back home with me. Another kissing tradition is the three cheek kisses given to friends as a greeting. Women kiss both men and women, but men only kiss women. Also, the French do 2 or 4 kisses. I’m not sure the states are ready for me to bring this tradition back. I might get myself in more trouble than I’m willing to bargain for if I start puckering up to some Tallahassee folks.
We walked along the lake on our way to Olympic Park. The view of the lake was sensational (basically every sight in Switzerland is sensational) and there must have been at least 2 dozen swans paddling near the shore. Needless to say, there were many pictures and much high pitched squeals.
Switzerland is like the administration ring leader of the Olympics and there is a park with statues, plaques, and banners commemorating the games. The actual building was closed for renovations until 2013 but we were able to tour the grounds.
Following the Olympic park, we stopped by a fancy chocolatier and Kathy treated us each to a truffle. Marie promised us that we could find quality chocolate for much cheaper elsewhere. You’ll see she was SO right later on.
We dressed for dinner and picked up Marie’s boyfriend Kader from work and headed to the house where we would meet her family and spend the night. Her family does not speak English and we do not speak French, so Kader and Marie translated for us. They were so gracious translating our questions and comments. They both must have been exhausted making the French-English and English-French switch but neither complained nor made it seem like a fuss.
Her family took us to a restaurant where we had traditional fondue. This was my first experience with fondue and I loved it! Our meal was entirely cheese-soaked bread washed down with white wine. Again, Kader and Marie were great translators for Kathy and I and for her parents. We truly were able to communicate and the evening was simply marvelous. We shared stories about our trip and ourselves and we learned about her family and their lives. Marie’s father is a farmer who raises cows for their meat. We had the best time showing him pictures of the cows we saw in the Alps (he was such a good sport looking through the photos. It never crossed our minds that he sees cows everyday). We learned about the significance of the different sized bells, how his farming schedule works, and learned more about Marie through their interactions. They are a lovely family. (Susan, next time I am in SC, I’d like a tour of your’s and Doug’s farm!)
The next morning, Marie’s mother fixed a beautiful spread of bread and croissants, jams and honey, cheese and butter, milk, juice, and coffee. We then ventured out to explore the City of Gruyere (yep, just like the cheese). The town is picturesque with stone walkways, old doors dating back to the 1600s, and with a castle. We had lunch at a local restaurant where we tried the cheese and a dessert that Marie quoted as being authentic Swiss. Basically it’s meringue cookies with a really thick cream (like the consistency of honey) that is spread over the cookies.
Also in Gruyere, there was a museum dedicated to the works of H.R. Giger, the designer of the movie “Alien”. It was so weird (and awesome) walking through this Medieval castle and finding an “Alien” museum complete with alien vertebrae chairs, weapons, models, and a cafe complete with “Alien”-themed food.
We next toured the chocolate factory which brought us through the history of chocolate in Europe and finished with a bar of all the free chocolates one’s sweet little soul wanted. Words escape me. I sinned to the hilt having indulged in such gluttony. They seduced me with their Venus drink and I spent all my money on boxed chocolates and chocolate gustatory pleasures!! I need to go to confession after that experience…I ate 20 pieces of chocolate. I also had my chocolate personality checked and I am a “ChoCocooning”. Don’t ask me what it means just know that I had to suffer through a grueling 5-piece chocolate assessment to receive that classification.
We slipped into the mall which is quite similar to those in the states with the exception that the local grocery is located in the Swiss mall. We grabbed some chocolates (I know what you’re thinking) and some wine for Marie’s family.
We spent the evening with Marie’s family enjoying Racelette, an authentic Swiss dish of cheese melted in an iron griddle then slid onto your plate to cover potatoes and pickled vegetables. This was my favorite meal mostly for the fellowship we had. We sat for a couple hours which was highly needed as the “go getter” inside me was and is in need of a good long rest.
Prior to dinner, Marie showed us the farm, equipment, stables, and we even tasted some of the apples from one of their fruit trees. They had 2 cows that were 2 weeks shy of being taken to the bigger farm, so we got to pet them! I would also like to add that I successfully dodged the cow-pies this time. Her das so had 3 hens for their provision of eggs and a couple of cats who took a real affinity to Kathy.
It’s hard to believe we’re headed home now and the only desire not fulfilled is to put on my highest heels and my brightest dress. Living out of a bag for three weeks with the only alternative to black is white clothing has become a little depressing. Perhaps I’ll go downtown, look at the 2000 photos from the trip, reflect, and pretend In in Europe again. Or more realistically, I’ll throw on my lab coat, check on my mice, write, and wish I was in Europe again. It’s been such an amazing time, full of opportunities for growth and change. I certainly have done both.
Lastly, thanks for following along with us as we toured Europe. We’ll post some of our favorite photos periodically but I’d love the opportunity to chat about our travels with you in person. Looking forward to it!
Much love and triple cheek kisses,