20: Strolling with the Smokers

We spent Saturday strolling around Biel, Bern and Murten with visiting Canadians Gord and Sandi Smoker, who have woven their way up from Israel, Turkey and who knows where else to spend some time in Switzerland.

For almost 12 hours, we got to speak English without thinking a moment about cultural nuances, or our listeners’ comprehension. It is just possible we talked their ears off. This morning, my jaw hurts and as I write this they are fleeing Switzerland on a train, headed for Frankfurt and then home to Vancouver Island. We don’t blame them.

The Smokers made Switzerland all the more fun – Gord provides a non-stop comedic patter that made Sandi groan and us laugh. We got the best restaurant service we’ve ever had here, which may be because Gord charmed the waiters, in particular in one Italian/German/English exchange where he told the waiter that 15% was a normal tip in Canada at which the waiter exclaimed “50 per cent??!!” We imagine he is somewhere right now filling out Canadian visa application forms.

A typical Bern picture of the town clock tower. 

 

A not-so-typical Bern photo. What goes on in this city’s underbelly?

We don’t know what this is, but it was in one of the Bern basements we glimpsed in at off Marktgasse (Market Street).

 

Bern’s basement boutiques include barber shops and fancy clothing stores.

 

This cellar door is named for the genius who worked in the patent office above it from 1902 to 1909. For some reason, an online biography says this office is located at Speichergasse and the Genfergasse, while the street we found it on was Marktgasse. It is possible the street was renamed, but we have no way of knowing for sure.

 

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Higher still in the Jungfrau mountains

The view from Mannlichenbaln looking south toward the Jungfrau mountain range.

Stepping off the gondola that runs from Wengen to Mannlichen, one turns right and is immediately confronted with doors to washrooms. This is a pleasant surprise and likely a necessity for anyone suffering an intestinal reaction to the gondola’s final bump and sway before docking.

A chunky wooden bench outside the station allows visitors a moment to pause and reflect on the heights they have attained. How high were we? We were looking down on Murren, where we had lunched weeks ago, and at 1,660 metres, we then thought that was pretty darn high. Mannlichen’s upper station is at 2,230 metres, and from this vantage point, Murren looks like a pretty play village of the sort that can be purchased to accompany miniature train sets.

Appearances are deceiving. A wide mostly even surface makes it look easy, but this trail is at a rather steep pitch.

The air thins out here, which is unfortunate, because a steep uphill climb to Mannlichenbaln still waits for those intrigued by a nearby look-out and if ever there was a need for oxygen, this is it.

Here is an important note for travelers making decisions under the guidance of Rick Steves, our favorite travel guru. Steves’ guidebook says the walk is 10 minutes, which sounds like a breezy lark, but it’s closer to 20. Now 20 minutes still comes across as a brief stroll that is worth the price of seeing the Unesco-marked site at the top, but it is a steep climb, made all the more tricky by the fact that it appears to be a friendly gravel road.

Do not be fooled. This is no mountain back lane. As we made our way slowly up the mountain, I thought of important things I had left behind at the hotel, things like steroid inhalers, Aspirin and nitroglycerin, all handy in the event of a heart stoppage – mine or some fellow hikers.

Of course, while I cautiously paid heed to internal signs of protest from my heart, I watched with great annoyance as chunky elderly Swiss with those cursed walking poles strode about. They are everywhere, vigorous, mountain-climbing, cross-country-bike-riding, cheerful Swiss. How they sicken us all with envy.

We could discern no actual use for this piece of equipment except to signal that the Swiss have no problem plunking heavy equipment anywhere, even on mountainsides.

While en route, we came upon a loud piece of heavy equipment strung with hoses – we peered over the edge to see what the contraption could possibly be siphoning or pumping out from such heights where there were no signs of any buildings, but the hoses disappeared down the slope. The only hint of its function was a lingering septic aroma wafting in with the mountain air. With no machine-operator in sight to explain this, we shrugged and continued the near-death march up the mountain.

If you stumble, these will stop your fall. Note: The challenges of capturing perspective on camera means that this slope is much steeper than it appears. Yes, as much as the fall will hurt, the landing will be worse, but still better than going the whole 2,300 metres down to the valley floor.

The final 40-60 feet of the climb is over uneven rock so the Swiss have fashioned a few metal poles strung together with rough rope for visitors to grasp for safety. Those fearful of plummeting need not fret – they will soon be caught in the teeth of steel snow-stoppers that flank the mountainside like the brims of stacked hats, and so the fall will be brief, but likely still fatal and certainly extremely painful.

At 2,342.6 metres, we rounded the top and were treated to a lovely 360-degree view stretching all the way to  the waters of Brienzersee and the Lauterbrunnen Valley. This is not the top, of course. The enormous mountain peaks of Jungfrau, Jungfrauloch, Monck, Eiger and Schreckhorn still towered beyond.

Tomorrow: The Mannlichen-Kleine Scheidegg trail. 

Alpine flowers at Jungfrau.

Looking north toward Lake Brien or also known as Brienzersee.

At the look-out - benches, another trail to another look-out, not a single safety fence in sight. This is not Canada. If you fall off, it is no one's fault but your own. The Swiss say: You knew they were mountains, right?

What’s in a name? Murten or Morat?

The view from Murten/Morat's castle ramparts where on June 22, 1476, 2,000 Murtonians/Moratians beat 20,000 invading French back into the lake, causing many of the armor-clad French to drown. The townspeople were aided by about 10,000 neighbours. This battle is considered seminal to the creation of the Swiss Union. Note: The French were hungover from partying the night before. True story. Also of note: The Swiss are famous for their mercenary soldiers. By this we conclude that it is not the legendary Swiss neutrality that protects against foreign invasion, but Swiss ferocity.

It began with us sprinting through the train much to the horror of our fellow passengers, but it wasn’t really our fault. We blame multiculturalism and its child, multilingualism.

In Canada, multilingualism earns high respect, but here in Europe it leads to high-annoyance. My international readers will correct me if I’m wrong, but even the multilingual Swiss can have trouble clearing language hurdles.***

As an example, the lease negotiations between Dave’s corporate rep and our apartment’s leasing agent were conducted in English, although they both spoke French and German. So why English? Because it was their strongest common language and to use the descriptor “strongest” is stretching it.

We, the mute, listened as they waffled back and forth in three not-very-good languages, hearing one question spawn the response “yes” at one moment and “no” in the next. Consequently, the terms of our lease are a mystery to us.

It brought back memories of my multilingual European father who back in the early 1960s decided we would speak English only, saying that it was better to be eloquent in one language than an idiot in many.

Before you write your angry letters, let me say I know there are people out there who are masters in many languages. I just have not run into many yet.

But I drift from my topic, which is Murten/Morat and how we got lost trying to get there. I don’t drift too far, though, as language formed the foundation for our trouble.

Medieval castle ramparts in Murten/Morat.

We got on the right train, heading in the right direction. As Biel fell behind us and the Swiss countryside opened up, we paid attention to town signs and watched the villages for castle ramparts and ancient churches – the attractions that were bringing us to Murten.

After what seemed a reasonable interval, we began to worry that we had missed our stop.

I recalled hearing the train’s recorded announcement heralding “Morat,” which was not on the map or in the train schedule. As it turns out, Morat is the French name for Murten.

We learned this later – that Swiss villages/towns frequently have both German and French names, but for some reason hidden in Swiss Rail’s corporate headquarters, they switch languages in a sporadic manner. Maybe it prevents invasion from foreign armies, or too many tourists amassing at any single point.

In any case, that is how we missed our stop.

Looking out from Cressier's rail station, Switzerland. April 2011. Clearly, we were in trouble.

We got out at Cressier, which by Swiss standards is absolute Heck as you can see by this photo (right), and then feared that this being a Sunday, there might not be a train for hours. Stuck in Cressier! Switzerland’s “Brugge.”

We were wrong about that and with some help, soon boarded a train returning to Murten.

But our travel-nerves were jangled, so we watched anxiously for signs of Murten – or Morat, call it what you want cause that’s what the Swiss do –  and the minute we saw something that remotely resembled the pictures in our guidebook, we got on our feet. The train came to a stop, but the doors wouldn’t open. We don’t know how trains work here, so we sprinted in a frantic manner through the cars looking for an open door, like rats stuck in a  trap.

One of us may have shouted, “Stop the train! Let us out, let us out, we want to go to Murten,” but I’m not saying who. At that point, a passenger said, “We’re not there yet.”

It is comforting to know that we gave our fellow passengers something to laugh about on that otherwise quiet ride. It is also comforting to know that we will never see any of those people again.

As it happened, the doors did not open because we weren’t actually at a station yet. If we had gotten out, we would have plunged down a steep incline. So sorry to have missed that.

By the way, we have also learned that the buttons we thought were for opening doors were actually emergency-stop buttons.

Eventually, we found our way to Murten-Morat, a charming medieval village by any name at all.

***This is a rant, and so is not bound by logic. If my Dad had decided to school us in European languages, our little sprint could have been averted. But where would be the fun in that?