03.06.1999 - 08.06.1999
DAY 23 WED Motorcycles and cars roaring beneath our window kept us awake last night, the price one pays for staying in a cheap hotel.
A very long drive along the A4 took us through northern Italy and into Switzerland. After miles of rather drab Italian scenery we drove through a long tunnel beneath a sepia-toned mountain and emerged on the other side to be greeted by a panorama of soaring green mountains swathed in a diaphanous white mist. It was as if the world had suddenly switched from black and white to colour.
The Swiss border guard waved us over to a parking space and told us that we would have to purchase a highway sticker which would entitle us to travel on Swiss highways as often as we liked. This would have been fairly good value had we done much driving in Helvetia and was certainly preferable to paying a toll every few miles as we had done in Italy, however the Swiss folk did most of the driving once we reached Basel. Nobody was interested in examining our passports so once we had bought a compulsory breakdown triangle in a nearby service station we sped off towards Bellinzona.
We were both in high spirits as we drove between towering mountains and through unbelievably long tunnels, though the latter were not well lit and required intense concentration from yours truly . Margaret thought it would be more of an experience to stay overnight in a small town rather than a city so we tried to find a place to stay in a village whose name I cannot now recall. The few villagers we met seemed surprised that anyone would want to stay in their home town and told us, in effect, that their hamlet was too uninteresting to warrant a hotel.
We had no idea of Bellinzona’s size and parked the Peugot in a sidestreet on the outskirts of town so that we could avoid being caught without a parking spot in the town centre. After walking a kilometre or so we arrived in Bellinzona proper and were immediately glad we had left the car where we had. The Swiss in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino appeared to speak even less English than their Italian-speaking Italian brothers and we had great difficulty in understanding the instructions of a policeman who patiently tried to direct us to the tourist office. Finding a cheap hotel was a lot easier than actually getting to it. A second policeman directed us with some difficulty to Rocca Street on a hill overlooking the town centre and, to our amazement and relief, we found it without getting hopelessly lost.
Our home for the night was a mustard coloured hotel run by a Chinese family whose Italian was a lot more polished than their Chinese or, more to the point, their English. The man who led us to our room may have been an ethnic Chinese but responded more readily to Margaret’s halting Italian than he did to my fluent Mandarin. Our room was more like a dormitory and we were able to pick from a selection of five beds. Margaret quickly staked her claim on a bed which faced the balcony and provided a stunning view of the quaint old town below, a large castle on the right and an imposing green mountain in the background. We (or rather I) didn’t have time to admire the view as our car was still parked on the other side of town. After a quick beer I left Margaret staring at the mountain and set off to retrieve our auto.
Finding the car was easy, getting it back to the hotel was a lot harder. How was I to know that the main street closed in the late afternoon? A none-too-friendly policeman helped me do a ten point turn and gave me incomprehensible instructions on how to get to Rocca Street. After twenty minutes of driving I found myself at the end of an extremely narrow road at the top of an alp. I was so high I could make out the Eiffel Tower hundreds of miles to the northwest! Another ten point turn and I was on my way down the mountain.
I finally found the street and spotted Margaret waving from the balcony of the hotel. Unfortunately there was nowhere to park and I was forced to drive several times round the block in the hope that a vacancy would become available reasonably close by. Alas it was not to be and I was forced to park in a council car park in town.
Around 6pm we had dinner in a Migoria supermarket as suggested by Jono and Maryann. After weeks of pasta it was nice to have fast food for a change. Perhaps ‘slow’ food would be a more accurate description of the service as we had to stand at the counter for at least ten minutes while our weisswurst was cooked. I shovelled down my food at lightning speed and raced back to the carpark to feed the meter with another coin. Later in the evening a spot became available just down the road and Margaret planted herself in the empty slot and aggressively waved away would-be parkers while I raced back into town to get the car.
After dinner and after we had managed to find a place for the car we strolled around the city streets. This didn’t take long as Bellinzona is a very compact little city. Much to our disappointment we found that the various castles had closed so we had to make do with climbing a steep, cobbled lane to a point which overlooked the town. Margaret rang Christian in Basel from a booth at the railway station, a simple task made complicated by the fact that Swiss phones don’t take coins. Clouds darkened the sky without warning and hurled torrents of rain on our heads for exactly five minutes before clearing as abruptly as they had arrived.
As I write: Twilight has fallen and a heavy mist has turned the mountains into mere silhouettes. The castle on the horizon is illuminated in gold and all is quiet, apart from the nearby church whose bells are tolling. Margaret insists that they are playing “Figaro”, but it sounds like random clanging to me.
DAY 24 THU For the first time since our trip to Pisa Margaret drove and I navigated as we sped down the autobahn towards Basel. If only we had adopted this configuration from the start! Margaret behind the wheel is a totally different creature to Margaret the passenger. We drove through many tunnels, the longest of which was the sixteen kilometre St Gotthard. Tunnel driving is very unnerving as the lighting is dim and the lanes narrow. Fortunately there had been a major accident in a tunnel a few weeks ago and everybody kept to the speed limit.
We arrived at our rendezvous point (a large road-spanning shopping centre/service station like an Italian Auto-grill) on the outskirts of Basel after a very pleasant journey and wandered around looking for my cousin Christian. I recognized him immediately. He didn’t seem to have changed at all since I last saw him in 1986. After exchanging greetings we hopped in our car and followed him at high speed to his home in the city. It was virtually impossible to lose sight of his car, a flying saucer Citroen painted an almost psychedelic orange and maroon. We were jolly glad that we hadn’t tried to find the house on our own as the streets of Basel proved to be a maze.
Nelly and Christian live on the ground floor of a large apartment block, the other three floors being occupied by other members of the family. We were allocated part of the fourth floor with our own bedroom, bathroom and balcony. The same area had been occupied in previous years by Mum and Dad, Christopher, Jeremy and, I think, Jono and Maryann.
Nelly arrived home from work shortly after our arrival looking even younger than she had when we last saw her in the eighties. After a chat we set off on a tour of Basel. The buildings lining the narrow streets, though old, were well cared for, especially the Town Hall or Rathaus. From the area outside the cathedral we gazed for the first time on the Rhine as it flowed at great speed beneath us. Switzerland, we learned, had been suffering serious flooding which had turned the normally green water brown.
Back at the apartment we were introduced to Nelly’s brother Roberto and his wife Terry from the floor above. Terry is fluent in five languages and, befuddled by champagne, I chatted with her in all five . In the evening Christian, Nelly, Margaret and myself ate dinner in a local restaurant. My baby horse steak was most enjoyable.
Bruno called in at the apartment around 11pm and we sat up talking until midnight. We had only planned to stay in Switzerland for a few days but were forced to make drastic amendments to our itinerary when we learned that Nelly and Christian had worked out an itinerary of their own involving trips to most of the country’s more interesting attractions. Nelly had gone so far as to take a week off from work to be with us. Bruno had done the same but, due to the fact that I had sent him e-mail messages with different dates, had arranged his holidays for the wrong week. Was I ever embarrassed!
DAY 25 FRI The weather channel on the Fluri TV this morning showed live pictures of alps shrouded in mist and it was decided that it would not be a good day to go mountaineering. Nelly provided a very satisfying breakfast, even producing the Swiss version of our beloved Vegemite which we squeezed onto our toast out of a tube.
Christian suggested that we drive into Germany, a mere five minutes away. We bundled into the Citroen and sped of at high speed. Wherever we went in Switzerland we drew stares of amazement, admiration and/or amusement. Christian had customised the maroon and orange station wagon to the point where it had no door handles or locks It took me several days to work out how he opened the doors, a secret I will not divulge even under torture.
Our first stop was at the Rhine Museum where we examined photos and replicas depicting the history of commerce on the great river. Christian and I pressed many buttons activating some quite intricate exhibits and it was only with great reluctance that I was persuaded to step outside. The Rhine up close was an impressive sight. Due to the recent floods the river was flowing so swiftly that boats were forbidden to travel on it, thus bringing Basel’s river trade to a grinding halt. A short walk took us to a promontory where the borders of Switzerland, France and Germany met. We wouldn’t have known had it not been for a large and not terribly attractive sculpture emblazoned with the flags of the three countries.
A short drive took us through a border post and into Germany. No-one wanted to look at our documents, which surprised me as several cars had been pulled over by the Swiss border guards. A longer drive took us through the Black Forrest, fabled home of Hansel and Gretel and a rich chocolate cake of the same name. We could easily imagine the two kids getting lost amongst the close-packed trees, though it wasn’t anywhere near as creepy as the fairytale suggested.
Somewhere in the middle of the forest we stopped for lunch. Fortunately for us we were travelling during the latter stages of the artichoke season. Had we arrived a few days later we would have not had the pleasure of trying to decide between such delicacies as curried artichoke on toast, weiswurst with artichoke sauce, braised artichoke and chips, etc. All four of us elected to have some form of artichoke dish, which brought a sparkle to the eyes of the waitress who was, no doubt, anxious to exhaust the gasthaus’ stockpile of artichokes in preparation for the pumpkin season.
Crossing the road on the way back to the car we were startled to see a dozen chooks and a rooster running towards us in a state of high excitement. I assumed from their guttural squawks (they were German fowls) that they were irresistibly attracted by the odour of artichoke rising from our clothes. At the last moment they veered to the left, having seen the chef with their lunch of artichoke leftovers.
After driving for ages through Le Forêt Noir, otherwise known as Schwarzwald, we came to a small village containing an amazing cathedral. The church of St Blasien appeared rather nondescript from the outside but on the inside was like no other church we had ever seen. A dozen blindingly white pillars supported a white cupola which stretched over rounded white walls, giving an overwhelming impression of whiteness which, when juxtaposed with the blackness of the forest outside, served as a metaphor for the coexistence of good and evil within the confines of temporal existence. Or perhaps not.
Eventually we left the Black Forest and reached Laufenburg on the Swiss-German border. We drove across the narrow stone bridge between the two countries and parked on the Swiss side. Once again the border guards had failed to check us out, so Christian kindly walked us over to the German side again so that we could get our passports stamped. The German guard, Hans, seemed nonplussed that we would want him to see our passports, let alone stamp them. After rifling through his drawers for several minutes he produced a rubber stamp which he thumped with gusto on our pristine pages. The resulting imprint looked suspiciously like a clown juggling balls but we were happy. On the other side of the bridge the Swiss guard, Hans, was equally surprised. His stamp looked a bit like a choo-choo train. I think ours were the only passports seen on either side that day and certainly the only ones officially stamped.
Back in Basel we were joined by Roberto and Terry for a supper of assorted Swiss and German cold meats with artichoke sauce. Rubber faced Roberto had Margaret in stitches even when he wasn’t talking. Nelly persuaded me to have an espresso before I went to bed as a means of overcoming my insomnia. We were sceptical but it actually worked!
DAY 26 SAT We slept in later than usual today as we expected the weather to be really bad. While I was having my shower Christian knocked on the door and told us that the weather in the mountains was perfect. After a hurried breakfast we clambered aboard the Citroen and drove out of Basel towards the alps. After driving through the beautiful countryside for several hours we arrived at the foot of the Schilthorn. From way above our heads we heard the screams of someone in mortal terror. A cable car had been specially equipped to allow people of unsound mind to leap into space while bound by the ankles to an elastic rope. It had always been an ambition of mine to bungee jump in the Swiss Alps and I was most disappointed when Margaret refused to give me permission.
To reach the top of the Schilthorn we had to catch a series of cable cars and it was with an increasing sense of excitement that we paid our $86 each and boarded the first car. The higher we rose the more breathtaking were the views of the valley below. Nelly found a post in the middle of the car and gripped it with a desperation born of an irrational fear of heights (what’s the scientific term?) And she calls herself Swiss! At each level a screen showed the outside temperature. By the time we reached the top it had fallen to 8o, which didn’t stop me from pulling off my jumper and shirt and bearing my hirsute though buxom chest to the icy wind.
From the viewing platform at the peak we had a panoramic, 360o view of the alps. The snow on the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau to the east shone brilliantly under the sun while to the west the mountains were dark and covered in storm clouds slowly rolling from France into Switzerland. Christian had told us that the Jungfrau was not particularly spectacular (by Swiss standards) and that it was likely to be crowded with Japanese tourists which is why we found ourselves lunching in the revolving restaurant made famous in one of the lesser James Bond movies. As the alps slowly circled us hardy Swiss ravens hovered in the air around the platform, glancing covetously at our artichoke flambe and strudel.
After lunch we descended to Murren, a village straight out of a picture book or off the top of a tin of Swiss biscuits. We encountered very few tourists as we strolled along the village street. So picturesque and perfect was Murren that I began to suspect that it was purely for show. It wasn’t of course. The window boxes with their brightly coloured flowers and the gardens of multi-coloured tulips were very real; it was like being in heaven only without the hymns.
From the Schilthorn we drove to Interlaken, a fair sized town full of tourists but lovely nonetheless. Christian and I resigned ourselves to visiting every souvenir shop in town while Margaret and Nelly sought suitable gifts for those back home. I let myself go and bought a Swiss pipe for a mere twenty dollars. Good value when you consider that it was still in use after six months. I also bought a solid beer mug with a transfer of Interlaken on the front for seven dollars. We hadn’t eaten for a couple of hours so Nelly suggested we try some of the local specialities. I can’t remember what the regional speciality of Interlaken was, but I’m sure it was excellent. I wandered aloud whether the restaurant would sell me one of it’s very covetable beer glasses and, to my pleasure, they produced one with a smile. Christian added a tip of unknown size as we left.
DAY 27 SUN Sunday is family day for the Fluri clan so at 10am Nelly, Christian, Bruno, Yvonne (Bruno’s lady friend), Georgette (Nelly’s charming mother), Andrea (Bruno’s equally charming mother), Margaret and myself joined Roberto and Terry on their balcony for their traditional brunch. A couple of hours later we walked to Yvonne’s apartment a few streets away for a sumptuous Chinese lunch. The conversation was conducted in English and German which was almost as confusing as the English/French/German conversation at brunch though somehow we never felt left out. Bruno played us a video of one of his trips to the Alps which included hilarious pictures of Japanese tourists walking on the Jungfrau in high heels while wearing plastic bags on their heads.
DAY 28 MON On the road again, destination St Gallen. Our first stop was at the Rheinfall which is one place we would have missed had we followed my original itinerary. As the name suggests, the Rheinfall is a waterfall on the Rhine which was more of a maelstrom than usual due to the recent heavy rain falls. Normally one could take a boat out to the little island in the middle, however the power of the river had turned the Rhine into a berserk washing machine and the boats weren’t operating. A fine mist of spray floated over the falls and dampened everything it touched, fogging my glasses and making me very angry.
Several of the observation platforms had been closed and sandbagged, their wooden seats submerged beneath the torrent. The roar of the water made it hard to talk so we walked in silence grinning inanely at other tourists. Workmen hastily erected a fence along the path around the lake to deter half-witted foreigners who climbed down the bank to walk on the edge of the whirlpool. We all reckoned that the flow of water must at least equal the record set in 1965.
From Rheinfall we drove to Stein-Am-Rhein, a beautiful old town whose fifteenth century houses were decorated with colourful frescoes and the ubiquitous window boxes of red geraniums. Close to the river we had to walk on temporary wooden footpaths which had been built over the flooded streets.
A rather long drive took us to St Gallen, birthplace of my mother, Elsbeth Fluri (according to a plaque in the main square). We walked around the city centre and explored the ornate cathedral while Christian smoked his ever-present pipe outside. Christian was thrilled to find a shop which sold his favourite footwear, spring-heeled sandals! They might be an appropriate fashion statement for people who drive maroon and orange flying saucers but I could never see such a bizarre fashion catching on in Australia.
We had a general idea of the location of mum’s house but getting there involved some hair-raising driving from Christian. The house turned out to be much more attractive than its pictures had suggested and, after the obligatory snap of Margaret and myself standing out front, Margaret sneaked into the yard and onto the verandah to take a photo of the valley below.
From St Gallen we drove to Bern, the tiny nation’s tiny capital. We parked just outside town and walked across the bridge spanning the Aare River which nearly encircled the town. Earlier on Christian had told us rather cryptically that people didn’t need umbrellas in Bern. He was right, the pavements were arcaded (a bit like cloisters) just as they had been in Montagnana. Very colourful and often garish statues stood in the middle of the main street at hundred yard intervals, the most outlandish being that of the baby-eater of Basel (very, very sick). Nelly and Margaret examined every shop window along the street and I thanked my lucky stars that they were all closed. At Christian and Nelly’s suggestion we sampled the local cuisine at a little restaurant. I can’t remember what we ate but it was excellent, I’m sure. Boy, those Swiss can eat! I was beginning to look like a blimp and even the usually lean Margaret was beginning to swell (though barely noticeably, I hasten to add!).
Once Christian had demonstrated the use of the open air urinal near the famous clock tower it was time to depart. We drove home on the autobahn at high speed with Nelly screaming what I took to be Swiss obscenities from the back seat. Christian’s retorts were short and to the point and delivered with the guttural harshness of a Zurichmann. Even I became a bit nervous as night fell and with it a heavy rain. Christian did not reduce speed and operated the wipers only when his vision became totally obscured. Needless to say we arrived back in Basel without incident, thanks to Margaret’s special crucifix.