Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Swiss Time

A photo album of the Swiss adventures of the Borths family. I promise I didn't scan any postcards and claim the images as my own. Switzerland is just that gorgeous.

After driving North, my parents settled into their 12th century castle/hotel while I returned to the lab to churn out an abstract for next year’s Society for Vertebrate Paleontology meeting. While I plugged away on Jurassic mammals, my parents explored Rhineish castles including a magnificent, Romantic vision of towers and stone that is still owned by the family that built it in the twelfth century. They also explored Bonn (Rick Steves’s claim that it’s one of the best pedestrian shopping districts in Europe encouraged them to linger in the former capital longer than last time everyone visited). They also saw the Cologne cathedral in the daylight (a must to appreciate the stained-glass) and saw the Roman mosaics. We then gathered downtown and ate at one of Bonn’s kölsch brew houses and said good-bye to Germany for a couple of days.
Lake Tun ready to unveil a lake monster.

We drove south to Basel, a city on the French/Swiss border. We dropped off the car and caught a train to Interlaken in the heart of the Swiss Alps. I knew the Swiss portion of the trip would involve a great deal of train-time and I was looking forward to getting some serious reading, journaling, and blogging done. Unfortunately none of this came to pass. Once we crossed into Switzerland, it seemed like a crime to look away from the windows (which they keep impeccably clean). The castles and placid lakes marched by, followed by vineyards and finally the mountains. This is the fourth time I’ve seen them in the last year and they never fail to astound me. Other mountains – the Sierra Nevadas, the Alaskan ranges, the Wasatch – are impressive, but the Alps exude a special majesty. They sit at the cross-roads of Europe. People have been exploring their forests and peaks since cavemen were wandering the continent. The villages and trains that nestle into their slopes reinforce the massive scale of the landscape.

Traveling through Switzerland is a testament to the creative and technical power of Engineering over the last century. Tunnels that slice through unclimbable mountains, bridges that span impossible chasms, and cog-railways that drag the train uphill are regular features of any commute across the small, mountainous country. While the place has been neutral since all that construction work began, the Swiss engineers built with war in mind, ensuring every tunnel and bridge is equipped with explosives that could turn the entire country into an impenetrable mountain fortress at the touch of a button. The Swiss Army, famous for their practical cutlery, has jet hangers bored into mountain sides, and artillery hidden in barns along the border. Got to protect those banks.

Our first meal in Interlaken was eaten early since we’d skipped a solid lunch on our drive to get to Switzerland quickly. Mr. Steves recommended a smoky dive that offered authentic Swiss cuisine. They served fondu, but we were hoping for rochlette. Then I saw the meat options. They served “Pferdesteak” that is “Horse Steak.” I love horses. I dream of riding through the badlands on a sturdy, dependable animal who wants nothing more than to run through the grass.

But I’ve always been curious about their flavor. Now I know. The steak was served rare with a “hot stone,” a slab of granite that was stored in the oven until they served it to me over the head of a local artist and this friend the town drunk. You cut off pieces of the steak and cooked it to perfection on the stone. It was accompanied by four condiments: a herb butter, garlic sauce, cocktail sauce, and a curry sauce. I tried them all, but none was necessary. The meat tasted like lean, grass-fed beef. There wasn’t a trace of white fat, but the muscle had plenty of juice to make it one of the best pieces of meat I have ever consumed. It was all washed down by half a liter of Raugaubrau, the Interlaken blonde beer.
Lord Byron was a fan. So am I. I don't think the guys locked in the dungeon would have appreciated the view though.

The next day we ventured first to Lake Geneva and the Château du Chillion, a 13th century castle that still sits on a small peninsula in the lake, making it nearly impossible to conquer. Much of the interior has been maintained faithfully with only minimal interference from those meddling Romantics. We then traveled across the small country and high into the mountains to Zermatt where we saw a perfect profile of the Matterhorn, the mountain that defined the idea of “craggy peak.” It’s almost unnatural, more an imaginative fantasy than a real geological formation.
A Medieval tapestry of the gospels giving the great hall a little historical context.
Personally I think it looks more like a tooth than a horn, but that could just be the mammalian paleontologist in me talking.

We ate a cheese plate, drank Swiss wine and took in the view. The next day we rode to the top of two of the tallest mountains in the region. We enjoyed breakfast at the Schilhorn in a rotating restaurant. Unfortunately, the view was wasted on us since the clouds and rain decided to follow us uphill. As we rode the cable cars and cog railway up and down we caught glimpses of the magnificent view shrouded in cloud. In a panoramic theater in the restaurant they showed clips from “On Her Majesty's Secret Service” a Bond flick shot in the mountain lair that became the restaurant in 1969.
Dad feeling like a Bond villain on the Schilhorn. There's a view out there, you just need to be patient, or rig up a weather altering machine that may also lend you world-dominating power.

Then we rode into the valley, up the mountain meadows and through the Eiger to the Jungfrau which features the highest train station in the world and an opportunity to check out one of the largest glaciers on Earth. More views. I was kind of OD-ing on impressive heights and quaint towns. The best part of this adventure was getting to walk across the glacier, letting the observation station disappear into the distance until the sound of crunching snow and ice and the white expanse dominated my senses.

The view from inside the Eiger (Ogre), one of the most difficult ascents in Europe (if you're on the outside without the assistance of a cog railway).

An astronomical observation station at the peak of Europe.

Dinner was in Grindelwald, an Alpine town that is home to hundreds of ski instructors who boisterously rode down the mountain with us, heedlessly shattering the Teutonic mass-transport code of silence. Their work ended the weekend we were in town so they were celebrating at a street festival with cheap beer while we consumed more cheese, wine and röstti (Swiss hash browns) at a tavern with yet more incredible mountain views.
Bern in all her quaint glory.

On Sunday we left the Alps for Bern and Zurich. Bern is one of the best-preserved and most beautiful medieval towns in Europe. It’s also the Swiss capital. It was a bit of a trip down memory lane for my Mom and Dad since he worked there about a decade ago. Mom, Josh, and I visited when I was in second grade. My primary memories involve sliding down a glacier in my snow pants, seeing a freeze-dried baby mammoth, and feeding the Bern bears. The bears are the official mascots of the Swiss capital (“Bern” as a word is related to the German word “Bär”) who contentedly sit in a pit along the banks for the Aar river, catching vegetables thrown by tourists and locals. It could be a sad scene as you watch the caged wild animals gaze up at the ogling humans, but they seem to have plenty of obstacles in their cages to keep themselves occupied, and no one taunts or injures the creatures.

We also spent some time by the Aar at a microbrewery after watching a presentation on the history of Bern, complete with a rotating relief map and audio-animatronic, French soldiers. We stopped by the Gothic church that was stripped of its figures and saints during the Reformation, then caught our train to Zurich.

We dropped our gear off at the hotel and headed for the National Museum, which I previously visited in November. Knowing we didn’t have a ton of time, I gave a whirlwind tour of what I thought of as the highlights (the oldest wheel, Roman gold, and a battle diarama). The tour was cut even shorter by a temporary exhibit that seemed to explore Swiss popular culture. It involved TVs and books set up in historic rooms playing the Swiss equivalents of Howdy Doody and Johnny Carson. We didn’t get it, and most of the permanent exhibits on the last 500 years of Swiss history were cluttered with the temporary exhibit. So the Borths family headed out after maybe 40 minutes in a museum. I think this is the exception that proves a rule.

We then stopped by the Fraumünster church to spend some time with a series of ethereal stained glass windows created by Marc Chagall depicting Creation, Jewish patriarchs, and the Crucifixion then visited the Grossmünster, the church across the river from the Fraumünster, where we contemplated the explosive personality of Huldrych Zwingli, a Swiss Reformation leader who began his ministry in the twin-domed Grossmünster.

Our final stop was the Restaurant Kronenhalle, a Zurich institution established by a bustling Frau and her art collector son. The restaurant became a favorite stop for artists such as Chagall, Picasso, and Miro. Their work now decorates the restaurant’s walls. There is a lot to be said for spending more than a few seconds with a work of art. As I ate my mean, I contemplated the images in my view while re-hashing the trip with Mom and Dad. The combination of our attentive, personable waitress, fantastic food (including fresh chocolate mousse scooped from a foil-covered bowl), and art made it one of the best dining experiences in a trip dominated by fantastic food and drink.

Marching bands celebrating spring really should barge in to more establishments.

As the sun set, we walked back along Lake Zurich to the hotel and sampled the hotel bar’s options, declaring the trip a success. The next morning my parents caught their plane back across the Atlantic. I'll see them again in another couple of months, though this likely marks the last time we will spend so much quality time together for a very long time. I traveled the familiar train tracks north to Germany where claws, and further adventures awaited my attention...

The photos of lovely Switzerland again.

1 comment:

Tim said...

Wow. We're visiting Switzerland. End of discussion.