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Published: February 12th 2014
Motorhome News from Switzerland. Part II
12th September 2013 From Grimentz in Switzerland, On Her Majesty's Secret Service -
to Verdun in France, in search of memories of those who gave their lives that we should find peace.
Here we are again. Turning up like a bad penny just when you thought you'd heard the last of us. We want you to join us this time as we take to the Swiss mountains, so get your boots on and bring a hat and a pair of gloves, it might get cold. We're off for a gentle hike or two with a bit of added grey haired nomad excitement thrown in for good measure, and then we'll be making a dash for the lowlands to the north to escape the cloud and rain. What's the point of being in the mountains if you can't see them? But our plans are, as ever, cast only in jelly. The only stones we were to encounter on this journey were the many white crosses of remembrance in Verdun, France.
Where were we then? Ah! Yes. Grimentz, Switzerland. Probably somewhere half way
up a mountain.
Early one morning we drove from delightful geranium-drenched Grimentz the few miles to Zinal at the foot of the valley, flashing our five euro Tourist Tax cards for the ski-lift up to the ski-station at Sorebois. At the top dense cloud shrouded the peaks around us and light snow drifted across the valley, prompting us to abandon our plans to climb further up. We opted instead to take the long walk down the winding track, brightening our day as shafts of sunlight shone through all too brief breaks in the cloud affording us wonderful views of the shimmering Zinal and Moming glaciers across the valley. But with poor visibility, more rain and cold nights forecast for the coming week we also thought better of moving further up on to the high ground at Zermatt and Saas-Fee as originally planned. As always when you've learned the tricks of motorhoming, there's a Plan B somewhere in Janice's notebook and we retraced our tracks back down into the Rhone Valley and on to the pretty town of Brig in time for tea.
It's Friday the 13th and I'm reminded of our dear friend Penny up there in the
wilds of Teesdale. Penny has never in her life done anything the easy way. There's a Lotschberg tunnel from Goppenstein to Kandersteg which cuts an hour or two off our journey north from the Rhone Valley into the Bernese Oberland. But in our innocence we chose the long route, via the Grimsel Pass instead. "It will give us some spectacular views," Janice suggested.
She's right again, isn't she, though I noticed she had her eyes tightly closed most of the time as we zig-zagged endlessly up the steep incline towards the top, precipitous drops to right and left as we turned, first left, then right, chugging ever upwards in second gear to the snow-bound summit at 7000ft - and I saw little of the spectacle for fear of running out of road on the hundreds of sharp hairpin bends! It's a little less steep on the northern side; the one those mad, mad cyclists choose to test their resolve each weekend. Next time we venture this way we'll pay the toll and go through the tunnel. The road beyond passes to the north of the Brienzer See just east of Interlaken, its turquoise water shimmering in the
midday sun between the hazy blue mountains; a delight to compare with Lake Garda surely; without the crowds, the pasta - and the Chianti, of course. We're now official members of the Penny Club - but I guess we've always been well qualified.
Late in the day we finally arrived at Grindelwald with fond memories of a celebration dinner on our fifteenth wedding anniversary ten short years ago, in a fine restaurant overlooking the north face of the Eiger, watching in awe the tiny dots of light from climber's hammocks as darkness fell. That was Grindelwald, 'a delightful small village', Janice wrote in her diary that day I recall. To our dismay, 'that delightful small village' we remember is lost forever as predicted by Murphy's Law, drowned in a sea of new buildings, Oriental and American tourists swarming like bees around the edelweiss, busy with traffic, busses and tractors, new hotels, restaurants and disruptive roadworks. Not quite the picture so fondly remembered. It was Friday the thirteenth. We should not have returned. But we did remember a campsite from way back then however; a little gem beyond Lauterbrunnen along the next valley. Lauterbrunnen, with its jaw-dropping views
of snow-capped peaks is the world's deepest U-shaped valley, of sheer cliffs, verdant pastures and cascading waterfalls. The campsite was a little delight on this day of superstition, still as fine and friendly as our memories foretold.
Around about this time of year they bring the cows down from the mountains and celebrate the event in style all along the valleys here. It's a bit like that ancient pastime of well-dressing in the Peak District back home, but here it's the cows that get the treatment in what appears to be a highly contested manner. In a small enclosure beside the road we discovered a jovial crowd of villagers, chasing an agitated herd of cows around a paddock. They were decorating the cows with huge elaborate bells, clanging away as the cows stampeded around in circles trying to shake off the Christmas trees tied to their heads. I don't think the cows were too impressed by the look of it, but what can you do if you're a cow and someone plonks a tree on your head?
We're on an errand and it's a long way up to the top. 10,000 feet up to be precise. You might
remember it if you're a James Bond fan. James found his way all the way up to the top, to Piz Gloria, on Schilthorn, 2970 metres above sea level. If he could do it, so could we. A cable-car leaves from Stechelberg a short walk down the road from our campsite, scaling the sheer cliff-face on the sunny western side of the valley. Groups of young things were paragliding from the lift stations way above, down to the meadow beside the cable car station. Paragliding was not around when daughter Suzanne and I went gliding back in the 80's. The problem with gliding seemed to us the long wait between flights when others needed help to get airborne. That doesn't happen with paragliding; you just go up a hill and chuck yourself off. Simple.
Some of the World's most spectacular mountains surround the restaurant and visitor complex on Schilthorn, sweeping through a complete 360 degrees, giving breathtaking views in more ways than one for the air is indeed thin at that altitude; the heart pounding, jaw dropping, gargantuan white-topped peaks of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau and Mt Blanc there in the distance; towering monuments, glaciers, cirques
and valleys, all in a long line to feast the eyes in wonder. Be sure to put Schilthorn on your list of places to visit before the bucket hits you. There can be few more spectacular sights within your grasp in one lifetime - except perhaps a few in Norway or The Rockies. If you should share our luck you'll have the same crystal clear cloudless skies.
If I remember correctly, James came down the mountain wrestling with someone-or-other on the top of the cable-car. We were not about to try that. On our way down we stopped off at Murren to take to the trails for a couple of hours of climbing up - and half an hour of walking down, to savour the last moments of those magical magnificent views! Murren has retained its old charm despite raging tourism; its saviour the complexities of access. Murren, like Wengen, can only be reached by cable car or train; there is no surfaced road access. For us, the true delight is the walking more than anything. The old legs are still working well surprisingly enough with the help of a pair of good Lekki walking poles; essential on the
ups and rather helpful on the downs.
Rain returned in the night as forecast, leaving the mountains completely shrouded in thick cloud. It was a different world out there; grey and uninviting, with a chill in the air to dampen the spirits. Hiking in this weather would not be fun; heads down, merely exercise for the sake of it without the fine Swiss views we came for. With only one week left before our return ferry home we decided to head north to the lowlands, back through Interlaken towards the Swiss Jura, an area not previously visited, out alongthe narrow lanes, past sleepy cows on green rolling pastures and the rural cheeseries of Emmental. Somewhere on the road from Thun to Burgdorf and beyond to Solothurn we came across delightful flower-bedecked villages of huge farmhouses with overhanging shingle roofs and rainbow-arched sofits, a dozen or more shuttered windows giving the impression of a house large enough for a family of ten or more. Perhaps that's how it is in this rural community of Niederosch. I seem to remember reading of families of several generations living together under one roof - with the cows in the adjacent barn in winter.
...and the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau
And then we did it again. Another hairy drive. Upwards, upwards, up to the viewpoint above Weissenstein, beyond Solothurn where stunning views were promised in the trusty guide book. It's just a wiggly green line on the map. That's always a challenge.
'We shouldn't be here," I heard Janice cry from the passenger seat as we took the thirty-fifth twisting hairpin almost vertically in first gear. Where have I heard that before?
"Dead right we shouldn't," I replied; heavy breathing, hands shaking, heart thumping, another rain-soaked road, swirling cloud masking the tarmac ahead, inner curves of hairpins rising sheer, racking the revs, up again, another bend, another hairpin. Those haunting memories of Sintra's cobbles in Portugal and gravel on that hairy track in Norway returned once again. The viewpoint at the top was totally obscured by swirling grey cloud when we finally arrived, totally exhausted and shaking, and visibility was down to little more than a few metres. We don't learn, do we? Trust the trusty guide book indeed.
But there's always a bonus. The road dropped steeply down again, through the clouds to thin autumn sunshine on shapely green hills fringed
The cable-car - up!
with mixed woodland; ash, beech and maple, smartly edged fields of maize bereft of hedges, contented cattle on verdant slopes; everything neat and tidy, planned and executed with pride. They don't do disorganised in Switzerland; just clean, pristine, almost sanitised. Don't get me going on the subject of national culture.
Stately firs lined the road on rain-washed Jura hillsides as we dropped down to the border, to a picture of France we know and love so well; villages seemingly deserted, faded shutters, a scattering of grey dust, the welcome glow of a decade or two of neglect, and the first hint of autumn in the stately poplars. This is indeed great hiking country and we would have loved to walk the gently rolling hills, but not in the rain. There are many equestrian centres here for those of you with a passion for horses, but that's not good in the rain either - perhaps it's time for plan C!
And so we came to Burgundy, the Franche Comte, and Luxeuil les Bains; a pleasant spa town steeped in history and renowned in the joint treatment of Phlebology, Gynecology and Rheumatology it tells us in the good
book. A remembrance service was taking place outside the Mairie when we passed, huddled up under our umbrellas, commemorating the town's liberation by American forces in 1945. All of the French Services were represented, their regimental flags displayed with honour, alongside a number of American Veterans in uniform of the World War II era and a suitably attired Jeep on parade for good measure. The Mayor sought me out for a brief handshake on passing, assuming no doubt that I was one of the silent crowd old enough to have been a Veteran of the war. This was to be the beginning of a new chapter in our rain-swept journey as you will discover.
Janice's sister was holidaying with her husband near St Dizier within a few hours drive, and familiar company seemed a good option to wandering aimlessly in the rain. We stayed a couple of days with them, chancing our luck in the odd moments of sunshine between showers to walk a little and seek out a few of the local birds - those of the feathered variety you understand. It proved a welcome break from routine and the opportunity to play catch-up on family
With the events of Luxeuil les Bains engraved on our minds, we took the often considered opportunity to visit Verdun to the north, passing en route through the Voie Sacree, 'The Sacred Way', so named because of the vital role it played as a supply route during the First World War. The road was used during the period of the Battle of Verdun in 1916, to provide armaments and supplies to some 436,000 officers and men and their 136,000 horses at the front. There's now a marker stone every km of the route, each one topped by a tin helmet in recognition of the road's contribution to the war effort. In search of further enlightenment we headed for The Verdun Memorial in the village of Floury along with many other motor-bound tourists, only to find it closed for maintenance without any explanation or apology, in true and typical French style. Left to our own devices we later learned of 'l'enfer de Verdun', the 'Hell of Verdun' where nearly 800,000 French, American and German troops lost their lives in battle.
There are indeed many beautifully maintained monuments to honour the dead here across the open fields and wooded slopes around Verdun. Visitors today walk the gravel stone paths with bowed heads and silent lips, absorbed in the intense horror that so many young lives should be wasted; the lives of brothers and lovers, sons and fathers, lost. There are no winners in war. Remnants of the trenches are still preserved, now grassy banks among fresh birch woods and ferns. Gone now are the mud-soaked boots of brave men, the sweating horses pulling laden gun carriages, the barbed wire, the cries of pain for home for so many; so many that were never to return.
Next year, 2014, marks the 100th Anniversary of the outbreak of The First World War and it seemed appropriate we should immerse ourselves in a little more of the history of that tragic war. Close by we came to the National Cemetery at Douaumont and 'L'ossuaire de Douaumont', containing the remains of 130,000 unidentified French and German soldiers set on the rise beyond the long lines of 15,000 white stone crosses, each adorned with a red rose; the largest French military cemetery of the First World War.
American troops are remembered here too at a number of sites. The striking Doric column of the Montfaucon American Monument at Butte de Montfaucom d' Argonne stands as a tribute to the many lost souls from across the pond who fought so valiantly on the battlefield. It commemorates the American victory during the Meuse-Argonne offensive which marked the end of the war in November 1918. But little is more memorable than the largest US military cemetery in Europe, the WWI Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery nearby. A carillon sounded playing the American National Anthem as we arrived, dramatically enhancing the simplicity of this poignant site of remembrance. 14,246 white marble crosses mark the graves of US servicemen; every one the likes of you or I, a life lost forever and loved ones left to grieve. An altogether humbling experience, an opportunity for quiet contemplation in the solitude of this truly lovely setting.
We shall leave you there on this occasion; a little wiser and certainly deep in thought, lest we should forget.
David and Janice
The Grey Haired Nomads
A few more pictures will be added on our return home. Please come back.
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