A change of view in Switzerland’s East Side

“If you receive this message, then your father and I are dead ….”  is a wonderful way to start a video clip, don’t you think? It grips one’s mind in a way that home movies of kids blowing out birthday candles can  not.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Switzerland's Appenzellerland is quintessential Swiss, in so much as it looks as foreigners would expect Switzerland to appear with dairy cows, trimmed pastures and garden gnomes.

We set out for Appenzellerland at the eastern edge of Switzerland on Saturday morning. The first two hours of the train-ride from Switzerland’s Bernese region, where we live, to Switzerland’s east feels as though it is on straight rails, such is its swiftness, but the tone changes on the last train switch. There, the train moseys over rails that bend through a valley, perched up mid-slope with a steep pitch bottoming out in rivers and creeks below.

Cattle appear in the landscape in greater numbers, including a few in what looks like exceedingly tiny farmyards or generous back lawns.

We took a brief stop at Kronberg to try out the bobsled ride. It is a short pit stop of a place and our first introduction to Switzerland’s German region where we quickly learned that English was more welcome than French.

Despite the worldwide-held view that Switzerland is a happy multicultural land, close-up things look a little different. The French, Italian, German and Romanesque populations abide one another in a strange state of suspended animation where nationally they are welded as one, but locally, are in dozens of little pieces, each asserting cultural superiority over the other, like Manitobans over Saskatchewanites.

We’ve heard rumblings about this before – how the Germans resent the French for refusing to learn German, although almost every German speaks French, or so we were told. It turns out that is not true. At Kronberg, the Swiss-German pointedly did not speak French, and any attempts to speak French to them produced scowls that suggested we had walked into a room where the occupants were pausing from a heated argument, but would recommence the minute we left.

We started off with French at the Kronberg bobsled ticket desk, but the clerk looked at us as if we had just said, “Nabadaba ding dong, ala laga bingo!” – which we might have.  Our French is still very rough,  and so we switched to English. The man took our money, but when we asked where to go next, he gave a general wave to his right and said, “Just go around there, it will be obvious.”

If that had been true, we would not have first tried to board the bobsled at the end of the track instead of at the beginning.

When we muddled our way to the correct location, we discovered that each ‘sled’ had its own hand-brakes – in other words, only our own strength would keep us from careening down the mountain at hyper-speed. Adding to the excitement was the fact that the loading operator did not speak French or English, and for all we could tell, might have been mute.

He indicated a set of sled-handles to us, but could not, or maybe would not, elaborate on whether applying or releasing the handles would produce the desired braking action. It seems a small point, but an important one, especially because of our mounting panic as we saw that  our bobsled was moving down a line-up toward launch.

Dave yanked away at the handles, trying to figure them out, and in his confusion suddenly became fluent in French.

“Arretez? Arretez? Does this mean stop???” he exclaimed more than asked, to which the operator returned a blank gaze and so the machinery clicked in and off we went up to the mountainside without any degree of confidence we would make it down in an intact state.

That’s when I turned on the video to deliver that last message to our sons in Canada.

As the sled rounded the top, Dave mucked about with the handles until he was pretty sure he had them figured out, but then was forced to abort that exercise when we realized the next bobsled was approaching behind us. It wasn’t very close yet, but when one is about to embrace earth’s gravitational pull down a mountainside on a sleek steel track, the maximum amount of distance between bobsleds is most desirable.

As a consequence of all this, we rode down in a conservative manner, braking mightily before every curve, wondering aloud whether anyone had ever flung themselves off the tracks, which appeared not only possible, but inevitable given than the curved portions were banked with safety nets.

We made it down to the bottom safely, but as no operator was stationed at the finishing point to catch the sled or tell us what to do next, we scrambled out while the sled was still moving, a view enjoyed by a slew of Swiss-German families who captured our awkward departure on their cameras. Maybe befuddled tourists are the real attraction at Kronberg.

If you go:

Cost: $9 Canadian

Duration of ride:  2.5 minutes

Ride thrill: Variable. Our ride was quite mundane owing to the above-mentioned uncertainties, but a ride without leaning on the brakes could be considerably more interesting.

If you careen off the rails: You will land in a steep slope of pasture, possibly hitting a cow. The ride is at the foot of the mountain, so is not as perilous as to cause dismemberment or immediate death. A bad landing could result in some severe bone breaks.

Could you miss it and still feel you had lived a life worth a postcard or two home? Yes.

Learn more about the sled ride by clicking here.

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