Everyone knows this.
The Alps are one of the great mountain ranges of the world. They stretch from Austria and Slovenia right through Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Germany and France. I can’t provide exact numbers (although a quick Google search gives me 700 miles), but they go on for a long way. You would think they’re easy to spot, considering they’re tall and snowy, and tall.
Yet they continually eluded me.
When I landed in Zurich, we had a string of overcast days (“it was so sunny just last week!”), a splattering of rain and general miserable European summer weather. No mountains to be seen, apart from a mischievous peek or two on our trip to Sonogno. In Bern, they remained tantalisingly distant – shimmering over the tree-tops like a beautiful, miraculous mirage. By the time I’d finished my meal at the terrace restaurant, though, they were gently covered by a blanket of cloud.
In Lucerne, the promise deepened. They were closer, more dramatic, drifting beyond the lake like colossal prehistoric dreams. The one sunny day we had while I was there, I was working on my project. In between interviewing people, taking photographs, visiting various project locations, I’d shoot quick glances in their direction – to make sure they were still there.
On my last day in Lucern, I decided that if they were playing hard-to-get, I would just, well, go to the top of the highest peak in the area, even if it meant visiting a mountain named Titlis. Also, I was under the (sadly mistaken) impression that most tourists went to Pilatus on the famous Golden Round Trip.
Alarm bells tolled gently when I boarded the train to Engelberg – it was packed with a large number of Americans asking each other every five minutes whether they’d reached. If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, calmly walk out, find the nearest roadside cafe and spend the day reading and feeding pigeons. Do not, like I did, squirm into a corner seat, and push up the volume on your ipod. If you do, listen to the Stones. Jagger can distract you from a nuclear meltdown.
Which is exactly what this trip turned out to be. A meltdown of everything I held dear and precious in the world, including my sanity.
Engelberg was swarming with tour groups led by little men holding long yellow flags for the faithful to follow. Why didn’t I jump on the next train out of there?
I don’t know.
It was probably a latent self-destructive, sadomasochistic streak egging me on. Also, I was still convinced that the view from the top would make this all worthwhile. Never mind the cloud-swollen sky; the weather forecast website I’d checked that morning said it would clear by the afternoon. I had put my faith (and 43 Swiss Francs) on it.
At the cable car centre, we were herded (there is no other word for it) into small gandolas that stopped somewhere half-way up, then we were herded into a bigger box, and then herded into the last, largest cable car that was famous for revolving a complete 360 degrees, offering passengers an “exciting panoramic experience”. Except we couldn’t see two inches beyond our noses. So there I was, squashed between a continent of Indian, Chinese and American tourists (collectively known as the Killer Combo), with a view like this ~
Needless to say, it was worse when we got to the top.
I have admired the Swiss for their quiet, understated ways and tastes. Until now.
Poor Titlis (apart from being haunted by that name) had been turned into a rip-roaring, rollicking amusement park – complete with tacky souvenir shops and a restaurant serving Indian food and vast helpings of chicken nuggets and fries. The only potentially cool element in this house of horrors was a deep glacier cave – ruined by psychedelic disco lights and jukebox anthem music including Europe’s The Final Countdown. When I finally moved beyond little sporadic bursts of hysterics, I actually began to enjoy myself. Damn the mountains and enjoy the spectacle.
The Alps were probably having avalanches from laughing.
After having cleansed myself of bad traveller karma for a lifetime, I hastily headed to Valais, a region in the southwestern part of the country that my mountain-loving boyfriend had mentioned. I was to stay in Brig, and explore some of the smaller off-shoot valleys accessible only by local bus.
Brig is a stop-gap place with a lovely medieval town centre. When I arrived, it was bustling with people enjoying a late sunny afternoon, but now suffering from a mild form of demophobia, I hurried out and away from town. I didn’t know where I was going but a distant bell tower seemed a logical, and appealing, enough destination. It turned out to be an old church with a cemetery gathered around it. The graves were clean and well-tended, filled with flowers and small holy statues – most of the people, I noticed, had lived a long life well into their 90s. It was a beautiful place to be laid to rest; on three sides of the valley, white mountains kept their guard like solid, unrelenting angels. Later, I walked across to a pub dotted with locals, and while enjoying a perfectly chilled beer, the church bells rang, echoing mightily across the land.
The next day, I woke up to an undecided sky. Yet there was no waiting around to be done, and I hopped into a train to a town called Martigny – to see an exhibition of a private collection of Impressionist artworks at the Fondation Gianadda. Among the Monets, Renoirs and Boudins, a painting tucked away in the corner captured my imagination – Odilon Redon’s “Le Barque”.
It doesn’t show up clearly here, but the colour of the sea was nothing less than magical.
Yet I digress.
My bus trip for the day took me through the Saas Valley past a string of small villages to Saas-Fee, where despite an icy drizzle and the ever-present threat of cloud cover, I could see the mountains. Somewhat. I was happy though, this was better than anything I’d encountered so far.
My last day in Valais turned out to be a gift wrapped in pretty handmade paper and placed under a tree. Gorgeous blue skies, warm-honey sunshine, and the spirit of adventure in the air. I took a train to Sion, the canton’s capital city, and discovered that the bus to Arolla (the last village in Val d’Herens) wasn’t for another hour and a half. It was the most charming place to be stuck in – Sion is full of friendly people who say “Bonjour” to strangers and smile as though they’re really happy to see you. It has a pedestrianised central plaza, and a small castle (nothing as brooding or dramatic as, say, Edinburgh) perches over the city like an extravagant plaything. Tiny winding roads are rendered smaller still by tables spilling out of restaurants and cafes – it’s a place where you would like to read Camus and drink coffee all day.
When I got on, the local bus was crammed with about three people. I almost wept with joy. After about the fourth stop, I was the only passenger. Brigett told me that Val d’Herens was famous for being “scenic”. She was wrong. It was beyond stunning. High mountains, higher than I’d ever seen, rose on all sides, beyond which were more milky-white peaks stretching out like an endless petrified ocean. Along the way, where the tarmac road ended, we were halted for roadworks, so Maurice (the bus driver), Stevan (the driver of the van behind us) and I, spent an amiable ten minutes chatting in broken French and English. They seemed most amused, and bewildered, by what I was doing – an Indian girl travelling alone taking pictures – but we parted friends.
Arolla is made up of a cluster of wooden cabins and small hotels. When I arrived the town population was bumped up to a grand total of six and included the restaurant owner, a German couple and two Spanish walker dudes.
I had a hot chocolate in a place as close to heaven as I’d ever be. The next time I returned, I vowed, I would be out walking those slopes, no matter how difficult or precarious. It was the only way to get close to the mountains.
Gone were the crowds, the traffic, the entire messed-up world. Mountains make you feel physically small, an inconsequential speck of dust, yet they fill your mind and expand it until you are everything you see around you. It is liberating.It had been worth the wait. You see, with mountains, it’s the same what they say about great art, music, literature – when it’s time, they find you.
Image © Cyrille