Lac Léman and Beyond

As the train descends the mountain towards the lake the sun burns pure blood red, catching in the mist. Trees flow down the steep slope to the lakeside. The warm glow of evening light bathes the scene in liquid: simultaneously sultry, soft and smoky. Who knew Switzerland would be this warm?

The train has made its way down the glimmering tracks from Zweisimmen, high in the “Pre-Alps”: vertiginous, lush, magnificent. They soar all around and about, and leave the chest empty. The air is pure and still, but stolen from you with each new vista, each new favourite view laid before you.

At Gstaad train station, just next to the toilets; there is a Gruyère cheese vending machine.

At times the train runs alongside, almost in direct contact with, the road beside. Cars trundle past, oblivious, while tourists gawp. They’re on their way to the cheese town; a town of alien, crane and tower: Gruyères. It’s quite the hike up to town from the station, and the smell of ordure pervades, but the pilgrimage must be made. The souvenirs must be bought and the photographs must be taken. How else can we know that any of this is real, and not just another cheese dream?

The return trip is accompanied by the fading of the light; a falling sun guiding the way back down.

Montreux itself is nothing like the Switzerland you’d expect: there are no chocolate box chalets here, no rolling verdant landscapes, no snow-capped mountains. There is the lake, and there is opulence, and there is grime. Not the insidious grime of lesser countries, but the honest grime of lives lived in the hustle and bustle of trying to make ends meet. Wares spew forth; the well-to-do float past in a fog of scent; money is wired, and international calls are connected. Freddie looks on, glorious.

The air looks sweaty, the heat haze rising from the lake mixing with the lustre of the lakeside hotels. No sign of the grand hotel on this water; no sign of smoke: Only tourists. The lakeside; promenade and stages all set for pleasure and music. Couples meander through the pathways, hand in lingering hand. The sound of children – laughing, playing, and rampaging – the only intrusion to the peace.

The view across the lake is marred by a plastic chair upended on the foreshore. It sits incongruously amidst the pebbles and the lapping waves. A paddle steamer chugs past, its precious cargo several scores of giddy tourists. A tree fills the view with green, as cloud hangs in the air beyond, girdling mountains with a pale blue blanket. France is improved greatly by being viewed from this vantage.

We thought a boat trip to France would be a fun day out, as if Switzerland no longer had anything to offer. The train to Lausanne was efficiency and speed: precision. The fun stopped not long after the train did. Lost, confused in a city so hurried after the shock of the still mountains; such horror after the languor of Montreux: stasis and argument ensued. The street was thronged, the funiculaire was a crush, the queue waiting for the boat was interminable, uninformed and techy. We were failing.

But then there was the water: cool respite after the horror of this international city. Our goal was Evian, via the fresh, cold lake air. Only one of those things restored us. We should never have left the Swiss side: Evian was shut for the season, and we felt as welcome as a nasty head cold. We took to wandering aimlessly, child on my back, before throwing our hands up in the air: Back to the lake.

Back to the refuge: both kinds. Syrians, their stories written out in a dozen languages approach with caution: They see our child and hope that we will understand their plight. A few Francs won’t get them far, but it is all we can do to salve our filthy, sodden consciences. They need more than this. But this is Europe now, and this is the price we pay for our affluence and our foreign adventures.

While waiting for the boat to Evian, a man struck up a conversation with me about Swiss military. He reported in great detail that the Swiss had no Generals; that if ever one were needed, say in a time of war, then a General is appointed for the duration of the conflict. Once the conflict ends, so does their tenure. No objections. To date there have only been four Swiss Generals, two of which were appointed in the twentieth century. Once his tale was recounted he disappeared in to the crowd.

That matter of fact attitude of the Swiss makes their joyful caprice all the more surprising, when it pops up. Looking down across Montreux is Les Pléiades, a mountain accessible only by funiculaire. It is worth the trip. At the peak there is an exhibition, Astro-Pléiades, looking to the stars, at our tiny place in the universe. Come at the right time of year and you find yourself amidst a sea of daffodil. It is a truly magical place, perfect for entertaining an exuberant toddler on a bright, hot afternoon.

My favourite memory of Switzerland took place on top of this mountain: A pot of cheese steams and bubbles between us; potatoes, gherkins and bread for dipping; velvety smooth mountain cheeses, the slightly harsh tang of Kirsch, the crunch of pickle; our daughter tucking in to a plate of chips.

Our last afternoon took place on the shore of the lake itself, skimming stones in the water as the sun burned high overhead. The Riviera a million miles away from the bustling commerce of Switzerland’s cities: A blissful afternoon in a fascinating country. It is this memory of Switzerland my mind comes back to: a cooling breeze tempering the hot sun; the gentle, repetitive sound of water lapping rock.

I could spend a happy lifetime riding trains in Switzerland. That they are clean, efficient and modern draws no breath of surprise from anyone. They are a joy to use; they can take you almost anywhere in this mountainous country with as little effort as putting on a pair of shoes. What may they lose in high prices they make up for in spades by being precisely on time, at every step of their journey. If only the rest of the world would take notice of this; it makes life much easier. England take note.

Our journeys may have been limited to Vaud, Valais, Fribourg and Bern, but the spell was truly cast. We were able to see the effect neighbouring countries have on the character of each canton: French bordering – and influenced – cantons differ greatly from German. I’d assume that they differ again from Italian: I can’t wait to find out how. It may take us years to explore them all. Such a shame.

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