22 October 2008

The Lion of Lucerne

Our next destination was Lucerne, but before I write about the city, I want to introduce you to my favorite monument, the Lion of Lucerne. In his book A Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain calls the Lion "the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world."

The Löwendenkmal - The Lion of Lucerne

The Swiss have been politically neutral for centuries. They also have a history of supplying mercenaries to foreign governments, and dignitaries trusted the Swiss Guards not to turn against them with shifting politics.

In 1792, after trying to escape the French Revolution, King Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette and their children were hauled back to the Tuileries Palace in Paris, which was stormed by an angry mob of blood-thirsty Parisian revolutionaries. More than seven hundred Swiss officers and soldiers died there, unaware that the royal family was already gone.

The Lion of Lucerne was designed by Danish artist Bertel Thorvaldsen, and carved into the sandstone cliff of an old quarry in 1820 by Lucas Ahorn, a German stone-mason.

The Latin inscription HELVETIORUM FIDEI AC VIRTUTI means "To the loyalty and bravery of the Swiss". You'll also find the engraved names of the dead and of the saved officers of the Swiss guard, as well as the death toll among the Swiss soldiers (DCCLX = 760) and the number of surviving soldiers (CCCL = 350).

Because Mark Twain is more gifted with words than I, here is his description of the Lion:

"The Lion lies in his lair in the perpendicular face of a low cliff - for he is carved from the living rock of the cliff. His size is colossal, his attitude is noble. How head is bowed, the broken spear is sticking in his shoulder, his protecting paw rests upon the lilies of France. Vines hang down the cliff and wave in the wind, and a clear stream trickles from above and empties into a pond at the base, and in the smooth surface of the pond the lion is mirrored, among the water-lilies.

Around about are green trees and grass. The place is a sheltered, reposeful woodland nook, remote from noise and stir and confusion–and all this is fitting, for lions do die in such places, and not on granite pedestals in public squares fenced with fancy iron railings. The Lion of Lucerne would be impressive anywhere, but nowhere so impressive as where he is."

-Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, 1880

I think Twain is right. Somehow, standing before that pool of water in the unnatural stillness that is rarely found in the presence of a multitude of tourists, you can almost feel the lion's anguish. Because it touched me, I wanted to share it with you. And it doesn't have to be soldiers who died 200 years ago, but stop for a minute and remember those who have died defending others.

14 October 2008

and there I met a boy with long eyelashes...

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

European Adventure Travel Day 4:
Zermatt to Interlaken, Switzerland

Morning in Zermatt. J and I woke up and stumbled around our tiny room, trying to keep from waking the snoring mountaineers, then we went down to a real Swiss breakfast of muesli, yoghurt, bread, jam, cheese and cold cuts, with tea or juice. There were no tourists in the dining room. Everyone was dressed in hiking or mountain biking gear, showcasing their windburned faces and sunbleached hair. After we repacked our bags, we retraced our taxi ride by foot back to the center of town. This passed us on the way:

(All pics are clickable)
Zermatt electric car with concrete mixer

Because there are no cars allowed in this town -and therefore no heavy equipment- they have to transport stuff to building sites the hard way. After the concrete vat guy went past, he was followed by several loads of sand and gravel. We also met lots of people dressed to the nines in ski gear, walking up the street in ski boots with not a trace of snow in sight.

We caught our train to Interlaken, but the view was spoiled because most of the trip was through tunnels. When we pulled into the station, J pulled out her handy map that told us to "follow the brown signs to the hostel." As it turned out, the "brown" signs were really a mustardy-yellow.

View from my room

Balmer's Herberge is a famous European hostel, the oldest private hostel in Switzerland. We were on the second floor of the main building, right under the sign. There's an underground bar and the floors are creaky and old. It's been expanded until it resembles a maze. We ditched our stuff and walked around town for awhile. Interlaken is the country's adventure capital, offering canyoning, glacier climbing, skydiving, and whitewater rafting, among others.

Paragliders in Interlaken, Switzerland

Since it's not cheap to participate in any of the above, J and I explored the town and the shops for several hours. Eventually we came across the park where the tandem paragliders were landing. We watched them land, fold their chutes and stuff them back into the bags. I want a job where I can soar through the air all day so tourists can get their thrills!

Grounded paragliders

Back at the hostel with our picnic lunch, J and I met a Turkish boy named Sabit. He was on his own, so he ate lunch with us before having a go at whitewater rafting. After he came back that evening, J headed for bed, so he asked if I wanted to walk. Interlaken has an enforced noise curfew of 10pm (hence the bar being underground), so we wandered in the gathering dark until we met an elderly couple. Sabit asked which lake was prettier, so they pointed us east. We decided to go as far as the canal, so we walked to the place where there are steps down into the icy water.

Interlaken canal bridge

Then we went shopping. He was looking for a Swiss watch, so I picked out the biggest mens watch I could find and told him I wanted it. He looked confused and told me "is for male," so I amused both of us instead by trying on ridiculous orange sunglasses. We walked again under the trees with camoflage bark and leaves that cast shadows shaped like flowers in the light of the streetlamps, until he abruptly decided he was tired and we should go back. Before long neither of us recognized the area. He wanted to stop and ask directions (!) but I could see grass just down the street. It was the paraglider landing park, so I practically dragged him up the street and found our way home. He bought me Toffifay candy from a vending machine because there was a footballer on the package in honor of EuroCup 2008. Sabit speaks 5 or 6 languages, and he told me that Aussies sound like Americans. He gave me double kisses and the box of candy and said goodnight.

Sunrise in the Alps

Interlaken is beautiful. My one regret is not taking the train up to Gimmelwald and to Jungfraujoch, the "top of Europe." I understand it to be breathtaking there. J was exhausted, so we just stayed in Interlaken. We had a good time, even without the extreme sports. :)

01 October 2008

Espresso, dungeons and chalets

Monday, 4 August 2008

European Adventure Travel Day 3:
Milan, Italy to Zermatt, Switzerland

Have you ever tried making a call from a pay phone that is in another language? Harder than it sounds. I think it only took me 15 minutes to figure it out... I almost gave up twice, but I didn't think that the friend (J) I was scheduled to meet in Switzerland would appreciate my misplacing myself and not warning her, so I dug deep and found the extra determination necessary to defeat the Italian phone lines and leave her a message. Then, I reserved myself a seat on the next train headed in a north-easterly direction, and sat outside the station in the bright sun for two hours.

Best thing about Italian train stations: espresso bars. Men in expensive business suits standing around and sipping coffee out of tiny cups and reading newspapers and/or talking animatedly. Not to mention the amazing espresso and cappucinos. And gelato.

Worst thing about Italian train stations: terrible currency exchange rates. And pigeons indoors.

The train route took me back up through the Lake District and around Lago Maggiore, which is so beautiful that it was all I could do not to jump off the train and stay there for the day. The man with the cappucino cart and the knowledge of my call to J saved my sanity. I want to go back someday. Maggiore, Como, Lugano... each lake is unique, but all are breathtaking. Some call the Lake District the "best-kept secret of Italy." I'm inclined to agree.


On to Montreux, Switzerland. The train track curls around the northern edge of Lac Léman, otherwise known as Lake Geneva, and past the château; the hills and lakes of northern Italy having given way to the mountains and vineyards of southern Switzerland.

The train pulled into the station at Montreux, where J found me without further ado and herded me downstairs and across the street to the bus. Because there are perks that come with a Eurail pass, the château waived the 12CHF entrance fee. J rented an audio guide to share so we could learn Cool Stuff.

Château de Chillon

In the summer of 1816, Lord Byron and his buddy Percy Bysshe Shelley visited the Château de Chillon, taking an especial interest in the dungeons where the political prisoner François de Bonivard spent several years in captivity. Lord Byron was inspired by his story and, envisioning a path worn around the base of a pillar by years of Bonivard's pacing, carved his name in the pillar. He went on to compose his famous poem The Prisoner of Chillon in Bonivard's honor.

In Chillon's dungeons deep and old,
There are seven columns, massy and grey,
Dim with a dull imprison'd ray,
A sunbeam which hath lost its way

Contrary to the theme of the poem, however, the dungeons are not actually underwater, but right next to the water, and the sound of waves lapping at the shore is constantly heard. The château is built on and encompasses a small rocky island just off the shore of Lake Geneva. The island acted as natural protection and as a strategic location to control movement between the north and the south of Europe.

There are three major periods of the castle's history. The earliest mention of the castle dates back to 1150, during the Savoy period (12th century to 1536) when the Savoy family controlled the fortress and the lakeshore. Then the Bernese conquered the Vaud (Chillon being in the canton of Vaud) region, chased the Savoys out, and occupied Chillon in 1536. For the next 260 years the castle was used as a fortress, arsenal, and prison. The current period, the Vaudois era, began when the Bernese left Chillon at the time of the Vaud revolution in 1798.

Swans in the Chillon "moat"

The castle was originally whitewashed stone, but now the stone is bare because people thought that bare stone looked more "authentic" on a castle than whitewash. Silly people.

Windows in the great hall looking across to France

The dungeons are on the south side of the castle, looking across to France. They are built with huge vaulted Gothic ceilings, and on either side are rooms of convenience including food storage and execution chambers. Pleasant, I know. The upper levels are fortress on one side (including the keep and armories) and residential (chambers, halls and courtyards) on the other. This photograph is of a staircase between the lord's chambers and his chapel, worn away by centuries of use.

Chapel stairs

Once we had absorbed all the history we could, we returned to the train station to catch a train to Visp, where we boarded a little red mountain train bound for our evening's destination of Zermatt, under the shadow of the Matterhorn. The train's windows had knobs on them so you could pull them open. This picture may have been taken with the entirety of my upper body leaning precariously out of the train toward the glacial river...

Zermatt mountain train

As we climbed higher into the Swiss mountains, we began to pass tiny villages snug up to the tracks. At one station, I waved to a grandma in a rocking chair on the balcony of her chalet. She waved back until our train disappeared from sight. There were herds of cows with bells and donkeys grazing in fields of wildflowers. Further along, the tall mountain peaks dropped steeply away from the train tracks, into a river grey with rock flour.

Zermatt, Switzerland

We arrived in Zermatt after dark. Zermatt is a pedestrian-only town, the only vehicles being tiny electric taxis and trucks that whiz around the streets with little regard for pedestrians and bicyclists. We hailed a taxi for a ride up to our hostel due to our decidely un-adventurous desire to drop our packs and fall asleep. As it turned out, we were in a "mixed dorm" with one old man and three young men, the latter having hiked 160km through the mountains in the past 9 days. I slept like a baby and missed out on their snoring. :)

I took this photograph of a white cross on the hillside above the chalets by leaning out the window above one of said sleeping boys. It's a charming little town (with an intense shopping district for the wealthy ski clientele) but it's definitely expensive to get to. I wanted to ski!

J blogs her perspective of the day's adventure here.