Engelberg and Titlis, Swiss Alps

Trip Start Jun 15, 2011
Trip End Jun 15, 2012

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Flag of Switzerland  , Obwalden,
Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The weather report on the web was showing some clearing skies above northern Switzerland, so I took the chance to get the family packed and on the road to see the real Swiss Alps. It might be our only opportunity. We got up as early as my family would allow, which isn't early by any measure, and we were on the road by around nine. We passed into Switzerland where flat lands suddenly moved into green rolling hills, and soon small mountains. The weather was not great, the skies were cloudy in all directions, but as many times as I have been disappointed in weather forecasts, I still listen to them, and foolishly believe them. Estela told me that it wouldn’t clear up but I ensured her it would. We would be swimming in sunshine by early afternoon. Zooming south on highway 2, I caught the sight of something magnificent out of the corner of my eye. "Did you see that?" I yelled at Estela. Europe is full of these sights. Since we had time, I pulled off the highway and looped back to weave down the Aare river to this castle in the middle of Aarberg. The castle is stunning, as you can see by the pictures, but the river is also something to stare at for a long time. I couldn’t believe there were no people on this body of water except for one fly fisherman. This is a very clear river with rapids and unlimited opportunities for adventure, or at least for recreation. We climbed down the sea wall and stepped onto the rocky banks, then into the river. The water was warm enough to swim in, which surprised me. To jump into the current would mean a hell of a hike back to where you started, and you would have to endure the whole drying of your clothes thing, which we didn’t really have time enough to do. Carpe diem my butt, we had places to go. But I really wanted to jump in.

We looked at the castle, which was perched on a massive rock above the town, with no discernible way to get to it. I was determined to get there, of course, and Estela just rolled her eyes and came along. There was a trail along one of the base sides that seemed to gain in elevation as it went around, so we were sure to get up to the small town above. But after circumnavigating the rock, we found only a sort of courtyard with a long stairway cut through the rock, and an elevator whose shaft was bored through solid rock. At the top of the stairway there was a door with a card reader, just like at the entrance to the elevator. Adriana showed me that it was possible to unhitch one of the doors to get into this walled city, but to me it sounded a little too much like breaking and entering, and since this place looked so medieval, I didn’t want to brave getting a pot of boiling oil poured on us. We really didn’t need to get in that badly. It seems that the upper fortress is now a high rise apartment building, or some such thing, and it was private property. I assume they don’t have many problems with crime in this part of town. Or perhaps they do, and that's why the people moved up to the top of the rock in the first place. We were able to get to the church, which presents itself from outsiders as the front part of the castle. But it was locked too, and the inside looks like it was rebuilt in the eighties. I envisioned a congregation of people with big hair, and girlish men wearing shoulder pads and eye makeup. We really didn’t need to get in there either.

As we made our way south we began to climb into the alps just south of Lucerne. We were heading for a town called Engelberg, a ski town at the base of one of the highest peak in Switzerland. The rain pelted us the entire way. Not the entire way, actually, because about half of the drive, it seemed, was through tunnels. Some of them were miles long, bored right through the middle of mountains. You can get to ski resorts in Switzerland without ever getting on a winding road. The Swiss just put a road where one wasn’t supposed to be, and at the same time the beauty of the landscape remains intact. You would never know you are sitting just a few meters from zooming traffic while you are enjoying the natural beauty of the wilderness and drinking Schnapps from your bota bag. In Eiger Dreams, Jon Krakauer talks about climbing a mountain in the Swiss Alps and finding himself in an extreme world of vertical rock and horrible weather: frostbiting iciness and skin-pealing wind. While trying to get a little protection from his beastly situation he found a hole in the mountain. Thinking it was a cave, he climbed inside and found himself standing on a train track with a train approaching. He quickly jumped back outside where it was safe.

Estela was right, of course, the rain didn’t let up. There were clouds stacking up to unload on us, just daring us to step out of the car. I checked with the information office to see what we could do, but the woman at the counter gave me the prices, and told me the sad fact that we would only have two hours, at most, on the mountain before we would need to come back down. There was no visibility and then it would be very cold and wet for the cost and the trouble. I got back to the car and asked the kids if they wanted to go for a little hike. We put on all the weather protection gear we had: coats, wind breakers and an umbrella, and headed up the mountain. Estela stayed in the car to read her book.

At the bottom of Titlis there is a road that traverses its way up the slope to the lower stop of the cable car. Since the rain was pummeling us, we would probably not make it that far, so I pointed to a spot on the mountain to show the kids how far I intended to take them. They have learned to ask me how far I intend to go and to get a firm commitment because if not, I would drag them all over hell’s half acre and tell them to stop their sniveling. As we started up the hill we were confronted with kids humming down the road at blinding speed on these things that look like bikes but they have no pedals, just platforms you stand on, probably only for descending. None of them, of course, were wearing helmets. We approached our destination and the rain was drenching us. I found out that all the rain gear we got kept about 95 percent of the water out, which wasn’t enough. I convinced the kids it was just sweat, but I wasn’t so sure. They were pretty wet. We found a large fir tree and hung out below it for a while. Then the clouds parted and the sun appeared, looking sort of foreign to us (haven’t seen it for a while) and we descended the mountain with our jackets off and great views in all directions. It really was a good hike, the kids would agree, at least to me.

We spent the evening and night in Sempach, with some friends we met in Couch Surfing. They had gone to a band practice; they are in a Grateful Dead tribute band. We had the run of their chateau. Estela was reluctant to invade their kitchen, so we went out for a dinner that wouldn’t cost us more than a hundred dollars (the going rate, it seems). We ate at McDonalds. McDonalds has the worst food in Europe, I am convinced, and the prices are no better than any other place. We ate at a small burger and pizza place in Aarberg this afternoon and the hamburger beef was amazingly tasty. The beef in Switzerland comes from cows that eat nothing but fresh green grass and corn, and live a stress-free life. It seems that McDonalds imports subpar beef just to make each restaurant’s food taste the same as everywhere else, but when you are in one of the best beef locations on the planet, that’s not what you should be after. My McDonalds burger tasted like salted spleen. The burger I had for lunch, which was far less expensive, was a great deal tastier than any burger I had ever eaten in the states. If you ever drive down highway 99 in California, look at what those poor heifers eat. Then look at the cow in my picture and you will see why there is such a remarkable difference. Why do people who live in places like Switzerland and Argentina eat at places like McDonalds? I will go to my grave wondering about this. Maybe it’s because they have kids.
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