We have long drooled over photos of the Swiss Alps, drooling in the manner that keen travellers do, when they see somewhere new, beautiful, interesting, quirky, or perhaps, just somewhere they’ve never been. About ten years ago we ventured into the Alps at Chamonix, for a quick look, but still there was a spot we had always wanted to go, a place where D, in particular, would sigh and say “I’ve always wanted to go there.”
And now, with an extended time away, and with relative proximity, we decided to escape the heat of the ancient tower and northern Italy, and head further inland, to a higher altitude, to lift up our eyes, and feel refreshed.
Less than three hours drive, with a stop for fuel (both of the diesel and caffeine variety) before leaving Italy, over the beautiful Simplon Pass with a pause at the top for lunch along with other travellers enjoying the summer, and soon we were at Tasch, Switzerland, the end of the road. The huge covered carpark at the station was easy to find, tickets even easier to buy, and soon we were on the train south. By now the valley had narrowed, the mountains steep on each side, the scenery beautiful, and we craned our heads to look up and out the windows. The trip wasn’t long though, but we arrived at the station, looking oddly familiar after an Amazing Race episode, and found our hotel’s electric taxi. But still we hadn’t seen it. Until the taxi turned a corner, narrowly avoiding taking out several tourists walking on the largely footpath-less streets, and there, in front of us, was the mountain we had come to see.
Better views though, were to be had from our hotel room balcony. We stayed two nights, enjoyed drinks out on the balcony each evening, serenaded by an alphorn player practising on the valley opposite our hotel, whilst we admired the view. In the mornings we woke to a spectacular sight, which we could see from our bed. We sighed in bliss.
But we couldn’t just sit about taking the same photographs all day, though taking the same photographs did seem to be unavoidable, simply because every time we looked at the mountain it took our breath away, and we wanted to capture these moments, scared that otherwise we might lose them.
So we headed off to Gornergrat, a high mountain plateau of sorts, with views of the Alps, and especially of the mountain. There were walks to do of varying intensities, so we chose an easy one, one that wouldn’t ruin my feet any worse than they already are, and saved a more energetic walk for later in the afternoon, back at Zermatt, when the temperatures were warmer, and the views just as lovely.
Our stay was of necessity a brief one. Switzerland is notoriously expensive, and shocked us after Italy’s more reasonable prices, and we still had plenty to see around the Italian lakes. But we could see how it would be pleasant to visit for several more days, and explore the trails around Zermatt, to some of the smaller villages, or – if we had the appropriate footwear – even up into the foothills. The trails were wide and well-used, and would have been easy for us to manage. Walking, with a capital W, was the reason many people were there. The resort village was teeming with Germanic and French families dressed for serious walking, every single member clutching at least one, sometimes two, walking sticks.
We could see too how awfully romantic the place would be in the ski season. Once again, I wished I was a skier – maybe sometime we’ll come back, just to experience it in winter, to enjoy hot chocolates and/or hot toddies in all those cosy bars with their roaring fires. This visit, though, was all about sitting outside and eating and watching the scenery, or the people who had, like us, come from all over the world to see the mountain. At times, both were equally interesting.
We decided to drive home from Italy via another pass, the Great St Bernard pass. At the top of this ancient pass, that has been used since the Bronze Age, that has a Roman road, and that Napoleon used to cross into Italy in 1800 with 40,000 men, is the St Bernard Hospice, home of the famed St Bernard rescue dogs. But on this mid-summer day, there was little sign of the snow that must blanket the landscape in winter, even though the temperature was appropriately chilly.
We passed down into Italy, admiring the alpine scenery and wishing we had packed a picnic as lunchtime approached and then passed, until we saw a roadside sandwich stall (complete with draught beer, a barbecue, and a tent for shade over tables and chairs), with a cheerful Italian man swigging on his beer and a long-suffering wife handling the finances. The man easily swung from Italian to French, and laughed at our surprise at the ample size of our four euro sandwiches.
Eventually though we left the mountains, where we had passed picturesque village after village, vines clinging to the hills, and castles in varying states of ruin, back down into the plains and the extravagantly fast Italian autostradas that whisked us home tout suite.