Returning to Spain–Day 16-18–Swiss castles, coincidences and camping

It’s funny how language works. Even when you know someone doesn’t speak your language, you keep talking to them in hopes that something will get through. And they do the same to you. Maybe just standing there without saying a thing is too awkward. This is the way our day started in a French boulangerie just outside of Geneva. In the end we successfully ordered juice, croissants, donuts and coffee but we got raspberries instead of strawberries. Oh well.

Now we are in Alps territory and it is stunning. Jagged green peaks and lush green trees. Grazing horses and cows. A-frame chalets. After an hour or so we reached Lake Geneva, which reminded us a little of Tahoe, but with water a striking aquamarine color. This must be due to the glacier melt-off. We traveled to the far side of the lake to visit the most famous castle in Switzerland, Chateau Chillon. Chillon was first built around the year 1,000 and was added onto many times over the years. It’s positioned strategically on a llitte island on the edge of the lake and its many towers seem to rise out of the water. The reason I wanted to see the castle was because of the literary connection. In the summer of 1816 the English poets Percy Shelley and Lord Byron visited here and were inspired to write several well-known pieces, one based on the gloomy castle dungeon. They stayed in a nearby village and created quite a stir with their bohemian lifestyle and support of “free love” and aethism. Shelley’s lover and soon-to-be wife, Mary, wrote “Frankenstein” during their stay. Supposedly Byron challenged the group to write ghost stories one stormy night and Mary, only 19, came up with her tale about a scientist who creates a being from various body parts. It’s still a classic today. And it’s certainly not a stretch of the imagination to see how one could be inspired by this landscape. For me it’s like all the breathtaking places I’ve seen all rolled into one.

It was only a couple of hours to travel from Geneva to our destination: Interlaken. Last time we were here we camped at a picturesque spot called Camping Hobby with a view of the majestic Jungfrau. This time we decided to stay at the campground next door with the same view but also with a pool: the temperatures were in the 90s and weren’t promising to come down anytime soon. The receptionist at our campground, Lazy Rancho, speaks fluent, almost accentless English as well as German and probably French and Spanish too. She was a model of Swiss efficiency, explaining the layout of the campground and all the possible excursions in the area so swiftly and concisely that we were left in a daze. Our main interest was in taking the train to the top of the Jungfrau, a spectacular two-hour journey that takes you right to the top of a glacier. We caught enough of her commentary to learn that if we caught the earliest train, at 6:50 a.m., tickets to the top were only 140 francs compared with 250 for the later trips. Plus we could avoid the crowds, though she did say they limit the number of tickets each day to 5,000 so we should purchase them one day ahead of time. We decided we’d take one day to relax and take the Jungfrau train our second day. 

Setting up a tent in 90+ degree heat is not much fun. Luckily we can do it pretty quickly and we were able to get a site partially in the shade. As usual our fellow campers were from all over Europe as well as the U.S., a fact easily learned by looking at the car license plates and listening to people talk. There were still many vacant sites since it’s not yet August here, when all the Europeans take their vacations.

The kids’ first question when we check in somewhere is, “What is the wifi password?”, not “Where is the pool?” or “Where is the ice cream?” During the trip Miguel has been in touch with lots of friends, some of whom are also traveling in Europe. Just by chance one of his friends from school, Max, happens to be traveling with the Berkeley High Jazz School and tonight they had a performance scheduled in a town 15 minutes away from our campground! We decided we must go. We thoroughly enjoyed the evening and this lucky coincidence. The concert was on the terrace of a hotel’s restaurant and we arrived early to get a good seat. The restaurant specialized in Indian food–at Swiss prices. We easily paid three times as much money for our dinner here as we would have back at home. It was worth it, though, to get such great entertainment after dinner. The Jazz School is well-known, with a long history, and is made up of young musicians not just from Berkeley High but from around the Bay Area. Max plays the bass. There were five trumpets, five saxophones, five trombones, a drum player, a pianist and a flute player. Thomas thought the music sounded messy and lacked a strong melody, which I thought was a pretty accurate description of jazz. In any case, we were mesmerized by their sound. We didn’t get back to the campground until 10:30 and by that time, unlike the Spanish campground, everyone was snug in their tents. It had finally cooled down a bit and we slept well, with the dramatic backdrop of the Jungfrau rising from the valley behind us. 

7-3 – 7-4–I thought the Swiss portion of our trip would include a lot of time for relaxing, but it has turned out to be the busiest part of the trip. There is just so much to do in Interlaken. That, combined with a lack of electrical outlets at the campground, made me miss a few days of blogging. Since I’m writing this as much for myself as for others to read, I’m motivated to record a few details of the last two days. Time seems to be flying by; it’s hard to believe two and a half weeks has passed so quickly. 

Perhaps the one thing I’ve noticed most about Switzerland this time is the number of tourists. There were a lot twenty years ago, but now there are even more. Many today are from China, which is a big change. I’ve never liked crowds much and being in a crowd certainly affects your experience of a place. It’s a little hard to feel the impact of natural beauty when there are dozens of other people around you. The beauty of Switzerland is certainly no secret.

Like most other tourists in Interlaken, we decided to take the train to the top of the Jungfrau. The Interlaken valley is dominated by three mountain peaks, capped by snow and glaciers all year-round. The highest of the peaks is the Jungfrau, at over 11,000 feet tall. You can ride a series of trains from the valley floor to the top, which takes about two hours and will set you back a minimum of $150. Twenty years ago Peter and I took the train to the top and it became one of our favorite memories; we’ve always wanted the kids to see this sight. In order to save money, we took the early train, which left at 7 a.m. The trip did not disappoint. Despite our worries that the Jungfrau glacier might have melted, it was still there. Just like before, the sensation of stepping out into freezing temperatures in the middle of summer was a bit surreal. And the ice tunnels filled with sculptures were still quite impressive. Now they’ve added a cute sculpture of the little squirrel from “Ice Age.” The scenery along the way looked almost too perfect, with lush green mountainsides and pictureque villages. One the way down we got off the train at the village of Gimmelwald to have lunch and we noticed a sign advertising paragliding. We had been watching paragliders descending from the mountain next to our campsite and thought it would be fun. As it turned out they only had two more open spots left for the afternoon. I didn’t have the nerve to try it and Miguel decided to generously give his spot to Dad. So it was Peter and Thomas, off to the ride of their lives! They and two guides caught a ride on a tram high above the village, then strapped themselves into a harness connected to a colorful parachute. They ran off the edge of a hill and caught a thermal that took them up, up and away! Miguel and I waited at the landing spot and saw them descend about an hour later. They both had big smiles on their faces.

Another must-see in Interlaken is the Trummelbach Falls. It is the spot where all three glaciers drain into the valley below. 20,000 liters of water per minute flow through this area. The amazing part is that you can walk right next to the falls–there is a walkway carved through the hillside that takes you. The cold spray was refreshing. We climbed so many stairs that my legs ached for a couple of days after this. 

I hadn’t remembered the food being anything special in Switzerland, but we had some very good meals. Of course we ordered fondue one day and it was quite tasty. Another day we had maybe the best meal of our trip. We each ordered something different. i had raclette, which is a local cheese melted on a skillet with tomatoes, boiled potatoes, and pickles. Thomas had a fried onion-potato dish with bacon and cheese. Miguel had a delicious roasted chicken and Peter had potatoes and sausage. Two nights we ate pasta at our campground to save a little money and dined al fresco at our little camping table and chairs.

In between our excursions we did laundry at the campground, swam in the pool, took a stroll down the little lane behind us that led to a horse pasture, tasted chocolate bars, wrote postcards and read. Thomas is reading a mysterious book on his phone and won’t tell us the title. He says it’s “Harry Potter” but we suspect otherwise. Miguel is making a silly video of us to post on his Instagram site. 

We’re glad we made it back to Switzerland before there are even more tourists or melting glaciers. Peter had an interesting conversation with one of the paragliding guides. He said the glaciers have been receeding and the increase in runoff every spring has been a problem. They have had to create several dams around the villages in the valley so the water doesn’t destroy them. Tomorrow will be another travel day as we head across France back to Spain. We’ll see if we can make it in one day. 

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