Wilhelm Tell and Switzerland

Wednesday 28th September 2005, Fussen, Bavaria.
This morning Charlotte had to leave for work by 8am so we all breakfasted together and said our goodbyes. They have been wonderfully hospitable hosts and have made us feel so very welcome. It has been a really happy few days.

We left Munich around 8.30am and headed towards Fussen through a countryside of bright green pastures and woodland with smart wooden houses and the mountains coming gradually closer.

Feeling the sudden urge for a bit of passion we made a detour to Oberammergau, a little town famed for the Easter passion play performed here every ten years. We were out of luck of course. The town was full of American and Japanese tourists, souvenirs, Bavarian hats and locally wood-carved religious figures. There were guided visits around the theatre but they were clean out of passion for at least five years to come. Nonetheless, it is a pleasant place with beautifully decorated wooden houses and interesting carved street sculptures.

Oberammergau theatre

Carvings on display in a shop window

An elaborately decorated house in Oberammergau

Roads are few up in the mountains and our intended route onwards was closed, the result of the recent floods experienced in Europe, particularly in southern Germany where many surfaces in remote areas have been washed away. So we were obliged to return to the point where we’d started to feel passionate before continuing towards Fussen.

This route has long been known as the Romantische Strasse as it has a beautiful scenery and a number of spectacular castles sited in very romantic locations. Road signs are in German and Japanese! One does wonder just what the Japanese tourists make of it all. They are all very sweet but there are thousands of them snapping each other in front of anything that remains stationary long enough! Ian was even asked to move – very charmingly - because he was spoiling their view!

Mad King Ludwig II was a bit of a dreamer and in 1886 he was eventually declared insane and unfit to rule - not however before he’s spent most of the contents of the Bavarian treasury on several fairytale castles like Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau here near Fussen, and the stunning carriages and sledges at Nymphenburg. The day following certification, both he and his psychiatrist were found drowned in a lake near Munich. It is generally assumed the ex-king murdered his psychiatrist and then committed suicide. The mystery of their deaths has captured the Bavarian imagination and König Ludwig der Musikal is currently drawing in the crowds in Munich!!

In fact, Ludwig has probably done more than any other Bavarian ruler for his people if the length of the queue to see around the castles was anything to go by! They are truly stunning and despite the crowds, the souvenir shops, the extortionate car park prices, the climb up, the rushed tour round with a guide who spoke curious English, it was something one really does have to do! We will leave the pictures to speak for themselves. We were left with a sense of awe at the sheer extravagance of Neuschwanstein, but also that such a magic castle could exist in reality. There was something rather Disneyesque about it all. It is perhaps not surprising that the designs were drawn up for work to start in 1869, not by an architect but by a theatrical set designer. It reminded us strikingly of Sintra, near Lisbon which we visited a few years ago.

Neuschwanstein set in the wooded hills

From the path approaching Neuschwanstein

The main residential block

Above the castle, the Marienbrücke stretched as a thin, swinging walkway between two towering rocks, the deep ravine yawning below. From here though, there were magnificent views down onto Neuschwanstein with the lake of Alpsee below. (There are many beautiful lakes around here, gouged out during the ice age and now providing crystal clear mirrors for the blue skies and green pine clad hillsides that surround them.)

The Marienbrücke from Neuschwanstein Castle

Hohenschwangau Castle from the Marienbrücke

Neuschwanstein Castle from the Marienbrücke

The Alpsee

Neuschwanstein from Hohenschwangau

By the time we’d climbed all the way back down it was dusk so we found the nearest campsite – on the edge of the Bannwaldsee, overhung by the darkening shadows from the surrounding mountains. At 19 euros it was also expensive, compared to what we have been used to. It did however include everything from hot showers and hairdryers to dishwashers and washing machines!

Thursday 29th September 2005, Liechtenstein
We are not returning to France by the most direct route. Seeing Liechtenstein on the map created in us a sense of curiosity to see such a tiny independent dukedom caught between Switzerland and Austria.

It was raining this morning so we have had a very wet and misty journey with low cloud that has hidden much of the landscape from view. For those nerdy folk who are actually following our journey on the map, we travelled to Liechtenstein via Oberstaufen, crossing into Austria and continuing through the beautiful Allgäu valley to Dornbirn with wonderful views north towards Lake Constance and the flat Rhine valley. Our intention had been to report on the little town of Wank and its quaint customs. However, much to our chagrin the route was closed off by yet another diversion and it was impossible to find a way through. In any case there are limits to the lengths we are prepared to go to get you some unusual photos!

The Austrian mountains were wreathed in cloud with whole villages of huge wooden houses covered in tiny rounded wooden tiles like fish scales, with wood stacked up under the eaves. The corner of Austria we have seen seems less tidy than Bavaria and already there was a Swiss feel to the countryside. Following the Schwengen agreement there are now no borders between Germany and Austria, and the customs post has been turned into a bakery selling fresh bread and Viennese pastries. Down in Dornbirn we filled up on diesel which is considerably cheaper in Austria than in Germany. (Easy to spot with the same currency. When will Britain see sense?) Actually the dialect is so pronounced that we could hardly make out a word being said but fortunately they seemed to understand us. People were really cheerful and friendly. The highlight of Austria for Jill was discovering a revolving toilet seat! After use, sensors would send out a robot arm with a disinfectant swab and the seat would slowly revolve to be hygienically cleansed! It scared the daylights out of Jill when it suddenly happened!

We entered the tiny Dukedom of Liechtenstein through Feldkirk and a bored customs official waved us through. There are no borders between Liechtenstein and Switzerland. There are also no language changes and both use the Swiss Franc which, judging by fuel prices marked in euros and SF, we think is worth just under 50 pence sterling.

We quickly reached the capital, Vaduz and braked hard before we ended up in Switzerland. We parked Modestine in a side road beside an orchard of cows with gently clanging bells, just off the main street of modern banks, commercial offices and very smart museums and government departments. This is where Liechtenstein’s wealth comes from. Through the windows of the international banks we could see all the financial gnomes busy making the state enough money for the Duke to pay the builders busy restoring his castle on the cliffs above the town. Deciding we’d best change some money but having little idea of its value we helped ourselves to 50SF from a cash machine.

The Duke has the builders in

We soon discovered the State library. The entire population of Liechtenstein is about 34,000 people but they have a library Exeter, with about 100,000 would kill for! It is really modern and situated on three floors of an administrative office block with an archives and local history section – although here local history also means national history! It benefits from legal deposit and also helps to compile the Liechtenstein national bibliography. It has audio-visual lending facilities, reference and loan collections, a patent information service and an excellent children’s’ library. It also has a cafeteria and free internet – at least nobody questioned us when we used it.

Liechtensteiner Landesbibliothek

In the street we discovered a free facility to send emails and photos of the town to friends around the world. The lady in the tourist information told us not to waste our money on a camp site and directed us to the huge local football stadium on the banks of the Rhine, with Switzerland on the other bank, where campervans could park overnight for free complete with immaculate 24 hour loos. So Vaduz gets high marks for friendliness and convenience but is generally rather a dull place, despite its very lavish brochure, with few historic buildings.

It poured with rain all evening. We went native and cooked fondue in Modestine where we were snug and warm with our bottle of wine. There was a free jazz show in town but we didn’t fancy getting soaked though it would have been good to see the Liechtensteiners at play.

Friday 30th September 2005, Agarn, Switzerland
It rained solidly all night stopping just as we woke to a warm clear sunny day. We were astonished to see the surrounding mountains with their summits covered in snow, probably the first of the season. Jill’s excitement was diminished however on realising the only way out was up and over!

Modestine in Vaduz car park

We crossed the Rhein into Switzerland and drove along near deserted valleys through little villages and vineyards. It seemed so strange to see snow on the upper reaches of the mountains and ripe black grapes ready for the harvest below. We found the road signs particularly confusing in Switzerland, which is different from the rest of Europe in so many ways. Generally in Europe motorway signs are in blue and local signs in green. Switzerland is the other way about. And if you accidentally end up on a Swiss motorway you are fined for not having purchased the necessary carnet to put in your windscreen first! The Swiss must have great difficulty with their identity. An independent enclave in the middle of Europe with three different languages and a different currency! From what we have heard each language faction does not agree with the other two and thinks them inferior. Unfortunately for them, also from what we have heard, the French look down on the Swiss French, the Germans look down on the Swiss Germans and the Italians look down on the Swiss Italians.

Our route took us up above the lake of Wallensee with the high mountains dropping sheer into the lake, then winding on up sometimes through tunnels and overhanging arcades towards the Klausen Pass. There was virtually no traffic on the steeply twisting road with one hairpin bend followed immediately by the next. On the way we twice passed herds of garlanded cattle being driven down from the upland pastures for the winter. The clanging of so many cowbells was quite deafening!


Bringing down the cattle

Finally we emerged into Urnerboden, an upland valley where cattle roamed free. In common with many of the local villages, Urnerboden had a white church with a tall spire, houses hung with wooden tiles and colourful window boxes in front of shuttered windows. Then we made the final ascent to the top of the pass at 1948 metres (6391 ft). We were now above the snow line. Here we found a little chapel with icicles hanging from its roof and a near deserted café. Time for a few snowballs before the equally steep descent to Burglen and Altdorf in the Canton of Uri, both places with links to Wilhelm Tell, and bristling with statues, murals and museums.

Climbing to the Klausen Pass


Modestine and Jill rest on the way to the top

Chapel at the Klausen Pass

View to the valley floor with waterfall

On the snowline

In Altdorf we turned south again to Andermatt, another twisting steep climb, beside a rack and pinion railway through a harsh bare landscape of huge jagged rocks devoid of any sign of greenery. Here the motorway to Italy disappeared into the Gotthard Tunnel. Beyond Andermatt, though higher, the landscape was milder and greener with a wide flat valley as far as Realp where cars could be loaded on to trains and taken through the tunnel to avoid the Furka Pass. Modestine though was eager to prove to us just how brilliant she is and headed eagerly up the many hairpins with magnificent views down into the valley to reach the pass at 2431 metres (7976ft). Although higher than the Klausen Pass there was no snow here.

View back to Realp as we climb to the Furka Pass

Modestine at the Furka Pass

Modestine’s route down

On our descent we could see the Rhône glacier - source of the river, ignominiously called Rotten in the German speaking area. The road levelled out as the fast tumbling azure river grew in size passing through a straggle of towns. We crawled through Visp in the evening rush hour and decided it was time to find a campsite for the night which we have found in the village of Agarn, just a few kilometres from the boundary with the French speaking area of the country. There seems to be an identity crisis is Visp where we saw a sign reading “Heute ist Poulet Tag.” Prices seem very high in Switzerland, as we found when buying wine and bread for the evening meal. The wine was local and therefore the Swiss equivalent of Côtes du Rhône. A very small round loaf cost us around £1.50 and after paying for the campsite we were left with only 2 SF to see us through the rest of Switzerland! Jill refers to Swiss currency as chocolate money as it melts in your hands and she’s convinced the Treasury is governed by Nestlé. Switzerland, we discovered, does not conform to the rest of Europe as far as its electricity sockets are concerned and none of our European adaptors would work on the campsite.

The Rhône glacier and the road down

Sunday 2nd October 2005, Champagne sur Loue
Yesterday started grey and overcast but not particularly chilly. Our mountain climbs were now over and we followed the route along the Rhône towards Lausanne. All traffic is concentrated along the valley floor so the major roads, the electrified railway with its overhead cables and the motorways all run side by side. Major industries are also concentrated here with vineyards on the hillsides above all the way to Lake Geneva which then continue the length of its shoreline. It was the time of the vendange or grape harvest. The fields are steep, irregular and often terraced so it is impossible to harvest the grapes mechanically. Everywhere people were out on the slopes filling crates which were loaded on to tractors and trundled down to the wine cooperative on the valley floor. Above the vineyards the rock-face is inhospitable with minimal topsoil providing a foothold for only a few scrubby bushes. Above these there is nothing but bare, grey, mountain peaks. Many of the little towns in the wide valley had imposing castles perched on high rocky summits and it would have been interesting to explore them further.

Finally we reached the shores of Lake Geneva, (or as it is known locally, Lac Leman.) It seemed more like the sea than a lake and had even managed to confuse the many seagulls frequenting it. It stretched away into the distance with the dark outlines of mountains along the shoreline and grey looming clouds billowing above. Paddle-steamers plied between the surrounding towns and fishermen were out in their boats with their nets and rods.

Lake Geneva

Suddenly we rounded a bend and there on the water’s edge, its walls submerged in the lake, was the castle of Chillon! Even with the railway and a busy road passing beside it and the motorway raised on stilts on the hillside above, it still retained the enchantment that had made the view iconic for so many writers and artists. It was quite a magic moment for us, having both studied Byron’s “Prisoner of Chillon” in school. It was in this castle that Bonivard, Prior of St. Victor’s, Geneva, spent four years chained to a column in its dank, dark freezing dungeon, because he was in favour of the independence of Geneva, with nothing for company but a small sparrow that would pass in through the tiny slit window that cast a shaft of sunlight across the prison floor. In blacker moments in the last years of work, Jill had taken to quoting – probably inaccurately - such passages as

My limbs are bowed but not with toil,
But rusted in a vile repose,
For they have been a dungeon’s spoil
And mine has been the fate of those
To whom the goodly earth and air
Are banned and barred, forbidden fare.

However, compared with Bonivard, she had to admit that information management for the NHS was marginally better!

Chillon Castle

Having only 2 francs between us we asked if we could visit the castle and pay in euros. Money is money and not only did they agree, but gave us 2 SF each discount as retired folk! It proved to be a fascinating couple of hours. While Bonivard shivered in the dungeons, the Counts of Savoy lived in considerable luxury above with magnificent views across the lake from their banqueting hall. We also discovered that Byron was no better than the rest of us tourists, as he had carved his name on one of the pillars in the dungeon. One room was dedicated to Swiss weaponry – for a neutral country Switzerland seems to have a great many weapons. Here we were particularly impressed with the crossbow, as used by Wilhelm Tell, which really is a serious machine of war!

Bonivard’s pillar and window

Lakeside sparrows – descendants of Bonivard’s companion

Crossbow, as used by Wilhelm Tell

Ian has misgivings about Jill’s plans for sharing an apple

We then visited the castle treasury where Jill’s worst fears were realised. Sponsored by Nestlé the huge old wooden treasury chest was completely filled with gold foil disks of milk chocolate money! Honestly! (We later discovered that they were prizes for children doing a treasure hunt in the castle.)

The Swiss Treasury

From the castle windows we could see the nearby town of Montreux with its famous rose symbol. By the time we left Chillon however it was raining steadily and we were anxious to see the next town, Vevey, the home town of our friend Martine from our Croydon days. So we passed through Montreaux and continued along the lakeside in pouring rain. Arriving at Vevey we were forced to use our remaining two Swiss francs in the parking meter in the Grande Place so that we could wander around in the rain for an hour. It seems a pleasant enough town with gardens along the shore and a statue of Charlie Chaplin – though as the tourist office was closed we never found out why. Realising we could not stay another night in Switzerland without changing our euros for more chocolate coins, we decided, in view of the weather, to give Lausanne a miss and head for France.

Montreux from Chillon Castle

The lakeside at Vevey

Driving Modestine through the centre of Lausanne with the entire city out doing their Saturday afternoon shopping and trolley buses cutting across traffic lanes required the skill of both of us to get through without getting lost or squashed. We succeeded however and were soon heading back towards France to cross the border near Pontarlier. On the way we passed teams of Swiss army recruits on manoeuvres, all carrying huge rifles and dressed in combat gear. Although Switzerland does not have an army it seems every male citizen of a certain age must undertake a number of days military training in order to take up arms if required.

At Pontarlier neither the Swiss nor the French frontier officials could be bothered to leave their cosy offices to check us through and just waved from the window. Across the border we opened the back of Modestine to let out all our illegal immigrant passengers and headed straight back through the familiar roads of Franche Comté in the rain and the gathering gloom of the evening. We had enjoyed a wonderful three weeks away with the warm hospitality of three different sets of friends, but there was a definite sense of homecoming and pleasure. It was like returning after a wonderful holiday but without the sense of disappointment that it was over. For us, the next stage is just beginning. We drove along beside the now swollen river Loue, past the local fields where the same cattle and pretty horses were still grazing exactly as we had last seen them. As we drew up in the village Susanne was closing the shutters of our flat and welcomed us home with genuine pleasure, inviting us up for an aperitif of Roland’s own concoction to celebrate our return. Inside our flat the heating had been turned on and with the shutters drawn the cold wet night outside was easily forgotten. It was good to be back.