oh Switzerland!

I’m back! First of all I would like to say sorry for the lack of posts this last week, it was almost as though my writing reserves had run dry after the whirlwind that was November. But in a flurry of central European countries and rickety trains the inspiration has picked back up, and I think that the time is finally ripe to gush about my favourite country so far – glorious Switzerland!

We arrived through the southern border, our train gliding through the misty fields of northwest Italy, the flat frozen landscape giving way to the Alps that rose up ahead, huge giants wreathed in mist, waiting for us. The cool night air stung our throats when we first tasted it in Lugano, and as we wound our way up the hill behind the train station the city appeared far below us, glittering through the clear winter air, curved neatly around the black expanse of water which stretched out, reaching darkly towards the mountains. The mountains were visible only by their impenetrable blackness against the bright starry sky, and the odd orange light, floating hundreds of metres above the city.

We wandered down to the lake in the night, and stood awestruck on a wooden pier as white swans glided silently below us, their white necks just slightly inclined towards us, giving away their feigned nonchalance at our presence.

In the daylight we saw the huge mountains that rose around us, and a white mist was hanging just above the still water of the lake, filling the valley and causing the sun’s rays to bounce off each mountain, making a strangely bright white light and wreaking havoc with the photos.

I think it was that morning that I fell in love with Switzerland. We played on a children’s playground, laughing and trying quite sensibly to make the swing do a full loop. This attracted some very disapproving looks from a mother in a matching mauve ensemble and her daughter in pink, who were both playing on the climbing frame very passively.

A day later we caught the Wilhelm Tell Express up to Luzern, and spent the entire ride sitting with our noses pressed against the glass as the train corkscrewed through the bowels of the mountains and rocked steadily alongside glassy lakes. Luzern passed in a haze of heissi marroni and more swans, and beautiful reflections of the purple sunset in the water below the bridge. Everything was clean and clever, well designed and attractive, and everything worked. It was a welcome change from the laidback systems of the Spanish, where the method to the madness is not always evident.

We took the steepest cog railway train in the world up to Mount Pilatus, an experience that I won’t be forgetting anytime soon. It was a little unnerving to see the track rise up like a rope though the windscreen, and to see the ground dropping further and further below as we were hoisted up the mountain.

The view from the top was amazing, the kind of beauty that pricks at your eyes and catches your breath. We could see the tips of the Eiger, Jungfrau and Mönch mountains rising above the rest of the Alps, a glittering world of white high above the villages, which shone in the sun and reflected the bright blue sky above. From the other side of the summit the green fields stretched away towards the horizon, interspersed with blue lakes and quaint villages, and always those hills, straining towards the sky. The cool autumn days were wonderfully crisp, the sky above us always unbelievably blue, apparently very rare so late in the year. We knew that we were lucky.

We woke up one morning in St Gallen to a winter wonderland. The frost was falling outside, tiny specks of silver blown softly by the wind, and the white fog was rising with the sun, giving view to the sea of rooftop balconies outside. The trees on the far hill were white and frozen, the icy frost encasing them in a hard shell, but they looked fragile, almost fluffy in their white delicacy. We ate cheese and meat for breakfast with crusty hot bread, in true Swiss style.

The trains that we took that morning whipped silently through the frozen world and as the sun rose higher in the sky it glinted off each window that we passed, flickering and fast, like camera flashes off the glass. We hiked a mountain that day, walking purposefully and with a definite spring, our feet finding the beaten track between the long grass that brushed at our ankles. The cool air burned our lungs and our bodies warmed us from within as we climbed, shedding layers and smiling as our breath puffed ever faster. At the top we sat on wooden benches and drank huge glasses of sour cider, cold and delicious after the walk. I sat quietly and held my glass close as I admired the view, true Heidi land laying before us, the houses and the mountains just like the pictures in my fraying book. I loved the landscape in Switzerland, I loved the people and I loved the food.

Oh the food! We ate like kings, spoilt for choice and each time greeted with unrestrained hospitality by each member of Oli’s family that we stayed with. I spent much of the time deciphering Swiss German, but happily so as I always had some sort of new food to occupy myself with. We ate raclette cheese in Aarau, delicious truffle and garlic cheeses bubbling underneath the grill, poured thickly over waxy new potatoes.

There was fondue in St Gallen, crusty hunks of bread dipped in more amazing cheese, a medley of crossing forks and clinking glasses of wine. The best red brotwurst was at the markets in Solothurn, served on a paper plate with a floury bun and yellow mustard, and so piping hot that we ripped at it with our teeth, too impatient to wait for it to cool. I tried pffeffer and spätzli for the first time, sour venison soaked in wine for days and served in a wonderfully brown gravy with the spätzli, which as far as I could tell was like muddled dumplings, some sort of delicious batter mix boiled into little lumps of heaven.

There was always a block of chocolate floating somewhere in our backpacks, and Sugus lollies and Lindt Lindor balls loose amongst the socks. Even now we still have a tube of Switzerland’s amazing Thomy mayonnaise in the day bag, always at the ready for any mayo-requiring situation. You may scoff, but they occur surprisingly often!

It was almost reluctantly that we left through the east of the country, knowing that we should make the most of our rail passes and curious to carry on into Eastern Europe. But we left part of ourselves in Switzerland I think. And if there was one other country in which I would truly love to stay forever, I know that I could be very happy in Switzerland, smiling out of train windows as the blue lakes whip past, green mountains circling steadily above.

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