Friday, 21 August 2009

Day One in The Alps

No swine flu here or rather schwein flu. I feel like breathing twice as fast to stockpile enough clean air to last me after our return to Blighty.

It feels like paradise. Who needs a mosquito ( or worse - tourist ) infested tropical island, preceded by a hideous passage through Heathrow, when you can have heaven on a plate here in Switzerland. The sun has just risen over the mountain tops. Light wisps of cloud are swiftly disappearing from the horizon, the azure water of Lake Thun is sparkling and everywhere is an abundance of green lushness.

Window boxes bursting with immaculate blood red geraniums provide a burst of colour amongst the fairy story wooden chalets. Every scene looks like it has been plucked from the pages of a Hans Christian Anderson book.

Breakfast on the terrace of our hotel comprised a gourmet selection of wonderful smoked and air dried meats, pungent cheeses and our favourite seed encrusted bread rolls. The boys delight in ordering heisse milch for their hot chocolate. Never did a small bowl of stewed plums with yoghurt taste so good.

And here I am basking in the glorious sunshine , cooled with a delightful mountain breeze, tapping away at my Mac trying to capture a smidgeon of the loveliness in words which really can’t do it justice.

This morning promises a browse amongst the streets of Thun. The boys have a trip to the Swiss Army penknife shop planned and at some stage we’ll stop for a coffee which only the Swiss prepare to perfection - stuff the French and their brown soupy brew. Maybe it’s the spring water, maybe it’s the accompaniment of a sachet of sugar adorned with alpine views - the same as its ever been for decades.

This is one theme I’ll keep referring to - ‘the same as its ever been’. We’ve only been coming here as a family for 3 years but my husband holidayed in Switzerland for most of his childhood and the restaurants and cafes are still identical in appearance to the way they were in the sixties and seventies. The same brown and orange lampshades and patterned carpets. Trendy decor updates have been eschewed in favour of preserving the status quo which lends everywhere an air of comfortable familiarity year after year. It seems , fortunately, that the Ikea mentality has passed them by. Functional and well made fixtures and fittings survive the torrid ‘out with the old and in with the new’ fever that has swept Europe in the last 20 years. I would imagine that the boys could return in ten years time and have lunch in the cafe with the same crochet tablecloths and smoked glass tabletops that they see now. What a lovely thought.


I’m thinking of hiding in the cupboard in the bedroom designed to accommodate suitcases when not in use. The trade off between discomfort v. solitude swings toward the latter at the moment. We have just spent the hottest day of the year driving to Berne where H and FIL carry out their annual pilgrimage to the bank. Most people these days communicate via internet or phone but FIl being old fashioned likes to make appointments in person and needs to take H with him. Meanwhile me plus kids are given an hour ‘off’ to stay out of their way and entertain ourselves elsewhere. I head to a department store where we browse amongst the sweet ( their choice) and haberdashery departments ( my choice). On leaving the store youngest son announces that he needs the toilet. We’ve just passed one next to the ribbons and buttons but why mention it then when you can wait until you’ve left the store and so have to re-trace your steps back up to the 5th floor ?

40 minutes in and now that the sugar high has worn off, spirits are sagging. Time to stop for an ice cream. The streets are packed with interesting boutiques and myriad delightful shopping experiences but the only experience we’re about to have is another stop to buy yet another Coke. H and FIL meanwhile have finished their business at the bank and are looking for us. No peace for the wicked. FIL needs the toilet so it’s back to the good old 5th floor. The staff are beginning to recognise us.

No-one wants to stay in Berne except me , ever the frustrated shopper. FIL now needs feeding and the boys want to swim. Another hour in the car back to our apartment with my knees tucked up under my chin as I get the guest spot in the middle seat of the back of the car to break up hostilities.

I suggest that H and FIL go and have a nice quiet relaxing lunch by the lake whilst I take the children swimming ... again. They seem to think this is a great idea and who wouldn’t ... except me.

So you see the cupboard under the eaves of our apartment’s bedroom is looking like a definite improvement. Everyone's been fed, watered and enjoyed the opportunity to empty their bowels or bladders. With any luck and if I’m very good and well behaved I’ll get to go up to the local Co-op later to buy replacement beers and snacks because of course they’ll all need feeding in about another hour.


The perfect day in myself. The boys have gone off to do things in boats. This means I can take photos with abandon without the usual groans. First stop is a back road up into the mountains behind Sigriswil but I don’t get very far before having to stop to take pictures of the ludicrously beautiful church whose simple spire juts up into a pure blue sky. Feeling brave I venture further up the mountainside on a single track with no passing places. The only real danger, other than meeting a tractor en route, is that once up there I may never want to come down again. Pulling over alongside a water trough I find a curious metal door built into the rock. Presumably one of the many hiding places that the Swiss hid their arms during the war. The view from up here is breathtakingly beutiful and the peace and quiet leave me gasping. The serenity up here is food for the soul. I drink it in hoping to fill up my tanks.

I manage the drive into Thun without incident remembering to drive on the right. Straight to my favourite shop Krebser An odd choice for many people maybe but for me it is heaven. Books, art materials, wrapping papers, cards and all in one place. Not only that but downstairs is a place to drink coffee, dispensed from a machine but perfect nonetheless. I open the window to let in a cool breeze and find the river Aar racing past below . I have now gone to heaven.

On to Steinmanns where I indulge in a cake . I have no idea what it is or even what it tastes of but each layer packs a punch and is better than the last, crisp buttery pastry, chocolate nuttiness, creamy mousse and then some sort of cake oozing with liqueur. How clever - cake and booze ... what a fabulous way to get drunk.

Back to the car via the Swiss Army penknife shop where I try out a pink model complete with nail clippers. Hmmm , maybe later in the week.

Can the perfect day get any better ? Yes , at the Schloss Hunegg where they’re hosting a Steiff Teddy Bear exhibition. This brings out the child in me. Cabinet after cabinet stuffed with whimsical bears and animals , every shape and size. Enormous working panoramic models, bears in cars, Noah’s arks, trains, windmills, climbing trees. I stifle a squeal of delight. The only problem is how to resist the shop downstairs lined up wit row after row of smiling teddies. One in particular stand out a mile. A pleading little face and thankfully a small (ish) price ticket, the deal is done and he and and I retire to the garden for the perfect cup of coffee and a photo shoot.


Embarrassingly, I find myself 2,500m above sea level on the peak of the Stockhorn, amongst serious European climbers all wearing appropriate boots and walking sticks, wearing a daft pair of rubber flip flops.

The boys give me the heeby jeebies by pretending to fall off the cliff tops whilst I cling to pitiful clumps of grass and try to conquer my fear of heights. It’s not a full blown phobia but I do need a good hour to acclimatise myself to the extreme altitude and convince myself that we will all return back down to earth alive. I have visions of losing it and conjure up a wheeze that will get me down the mountain with minimum loss of face - a feigned heart attack and a stretcher ride down in the cable car. Thankfully it doesn’t come to that and within a short time I’m skipping down the steps like a mountain goat ... in my trusty flip flops.

The best lunch so far - Rosti with mushrooms (good choice) and a large stein of beer (bad choice). The boys are in heaven when their carafe of Coke arrives to wash down their pommes frites. The heat of the day catches up with me the lager and sun don’t mix well especially as the heat of the cable car is near roasting temperature. Still , there’s the lake halfway down to look forward to. What a gem. The camera can’t do it justice and certainly can’t capture the sound of the distant Swiss cowbells nor the smell of the woodsmoke from the fire slowly roasting a rack os Bratwurst by the water’s edge.

En route home we stop at an antique shop where I discover a handful of exquisite Sheerenschnitten pictures depicting the typical alpine scenes. What an unexpected treat.


Today’s Tages Post at the breakfast table shows a large icon of the sun on the cover. A good sign. I don’t think we’ve ever had such fine weather on any family holiday EVER.
Plans for the day include a trip to Thun to buy Theo his Swiss drumsticks, maybe a bar of two of chocolate and possibly my pink Swiss Army penknife. The boys are cavorting about in the pool which I can see from the breakfast terrace of the Solbad Hotel whilst I tap away at my keyboard, occasionally looking up to glimpse the snow-capped Jungfrua, Monch and Eiger in the distance. Perfect. Incidentally, I'd never realised how clever the Toblerone logo was . Have a look at the picture on the right ( Today I hav mostly been eating..). Toblerone is produced in Berne whose symbol is a bear. If you look closely at the picture of the mountain on the wrapper , you'll see a cleverly hidden bear.
Our shopping trip to Thun proved very productive. Highlight of the shops had to be the Cat Lover’s shop where a sleeping puss called Cherry lay squished into a cardboard box on the counter. Our own puss is now the proud owner of a Swiss flag cat collar. Cake in Steinmanns where we had difficulty choosing . Ended up with a mixed plate of tiny cakes and patisserie to accompany our coffee. I found the perfect scrapbookers Swiss Army penknife complete with USB stick, scissors and pen amongst other tools. Not only that but I also found a pair of proper scissors to try out my own Scherenschnitte and a couple of sheets of the special black paper. Seem to find examples of this traditional paper craft wherever I go now - they even had some in the cat shop.


Almost too hot for comfort today - temperature up in the 30’s. After breakfast on the terrace, a beautiful lakeside drive in the comfort of the air conditioned car and a stop at Brienz for lunch . Must remember to visit this place next year - the Wildbach Hotel, conveniently perched on the lakeside opposite the Giessbach Falls and the perfect place to take a dip in the icy lake after eating.
I’ve stopped taking photos - they just don’t do the place justice. Every shot turns out looking like a picture postcard.


Last day today - too bad , I’m just starting to feel relaxed. Went up the Niederhorn today. The drive there was nerve wracking but stunning - hairpin bends around craggy rockfaces with 1000m plus sheer drops to ground level on the other side. Standing atop the muntain peak within touching distance of the clouds and surrounded by the sound of silence does the soul good. You can only look around and wonder at the marvel of nature. I breathe deeply and soak it all in, reluctant to ever leave. And finally I realise what holidays are all about. Not the ‘glamour’ of travel or change of scene and not the amnesty from cleaning and cooking ( although that is a bonus) . It’s time to think and reflect and take stock. Life is so busy these days that you never get the chance just to stand still and let your mind wander.


Driving back through France where every motor way rest-stop smells like a urinal and every village and town is utterly spoiled by a rash of hideously gaudy advertising placards on the outskirts. I’ve never quite ‘got’ FRance and don’t suppose I ever will. For a start it’s full of Brits and the food actually leaves a lot to be desired. I suppose there’s always the cheap wine so one 1 out of 3 aint bad.

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