The Gurten – my local “mountain”

I like hiking – or at least, I did in Ireland. A look to the scenery all around me in Switzerland suggests that my understanding of the word “hike” may need an upgrade. The Wicklow “Mountains” where I so often wandered with friends and colleagues are only foothills on the scale of the Alps. The Great Sugarloaf (An Beannach Mór), the pointy quartzite cone visible from anywhere high in Dublin or Wicklow is a mere 500 metres at its summit, and I considered that a considerable day out!

The Great Sugarloaf and me in 2014
The Great Sugarloaf and me in 2014

With nothing else planned for my third Saturday here, my new co-worker was interested in an outdoor activity, so we met at the train station and walked up the Aare River (which I had only seen briefly to date) southwards out of town. It was a decent trek to the base of the mountain, but it was a fine sunny day and I was keen to explore my new home.

Eventually coming to the tram stop where a lazier adventurer would have started, we ignored the cool retro furnicular which climbed the slope of the hill on mechanisms of cogs and rope. I should, of course, say “mountain”. It’s 858 metres at the peak – that beats anything I’ve done before, I think.IMG_7209 IMG_7211

It was a steep climb up the wooded path. We were, however, constantly being passed out by infuriatingly fit old Swiss people zooming up and down the slope. Everyone is fit here – I suppose that’s what they all do on Sundays when the city becomes eerily quiet and empty. If not, they’d all just be hiding indoors. With this scenery on your doorstep, why wouldn’t you be hiking or climbing or skiing? We were treated with occasional glances back up the river to the Old City of Bern which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Altstadt Bern
Altstadt Bern

Anyway, we reached the top of the mountain, turned left and the scene opened out – I looked out over the vista and saw the Alps in the distance, straddling the horizon… so that’s what a mountain looks like! I mean, they’re really big. Still snow-capped into Spring, despite the sun. Jungfrau mountain in the distance (for comparison to our paltry examples) is a whopping 4158 metres high! The peaks were away over the rolling green manicured lawns of the park on top of Gurten.  It’s truly an idyllic scene.

The Bernese Oberland
The Bernese Oberland from the top of Gurten

We strolled around the top, stumbling upon a meadow, full of dandelions and other wildflowers; it was a Sound of Music moment. In the distance, across the valley, the sound of cowbells drifted across on the air as a herd wandered on the far slope. They made quite the noise with only a few cowbells, I can only imagine the din if there were more cowbell [I couldn’t resist].

"What a lovely meadow!"
“What a lovely meadow!”

Suitably put in my place by my new understanding of what “tall” means, we wandered back by the river Aare and saw the local celebrities, the Bernese Bears, just waking up from hibernation. They’ve been moved out of their pit into a very pleasant and spacious environment.

The bear in Bern having a kip
The bear in Bern having a kip

I’m living in a nice country now! Plenty of peaks to attempt, although I may have to be more satisfied with shoulders going forward.

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Cully Jazz Festival 2016

In my second weekend in a new city, in a new country, I don’t know many people. But I refuse to just sit around doing nothing, so I planned a little adventure – nothing crazy, but far-flung, and – tá súil agam – a model for future behaviour.
Because I want an adventure…
Last week, having been invited for drinks by new work colleagues, I was chatting to some people I had just met. I was quizzing them on Bern’s seeming tranquility and whether anything trendy lay beneath the surface. As a joke I asked:
“Does Bern have a cool underground jazz scene, or anything…?”
One of those present, visiting from Lausanne, perhaps (but thankfully) taking my question too literally informed me that there was, indeed, an entire jazz festival taking place just outside Lausanne the following week, much of which was held underground; it was literally under the ground, dans les caves – wine cellars in the village open up to the public and invite in bands. I didn’t need any more convincing that this was cool! The idea germinated during my first work week.
When Friday rolled around, despite some theoretical interest, no one was able to accompany me, so this would be a solo mission. Can I survive alone in rural Switzerland? One of the safest countries in the world? Yes (it turns out).

I did go to a book shop around the corner on Langässestrasse to get a cheap paperback to read and save my phone battery on the long solo journey. I got Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, appropriate given his impending 400th deathday anniversary.

I left at 5.30, just missed am earlier train from Bern main station, but got the 18.09 to Lausanne. It was raining and cold (unwelcome). At Lausanne, there were lots of soldiers in uniform with guns going home for the weekend – this is apparently nothing to be concerned about, according to my Swiss sources, but it is odd to see in contrast to Ireland. I waited here to change to the train to Grandvaux, one of the two stations that service the town of Cully, but which had more connections to get home if I needed to leave late.

I arrived at the bare platform at the top of a hill, looking down over the expanse of Lake Geneva (or perhaps I should say Lac Léman)! It is vast. There was meant to be a “car postale” connecting Grandvaux to Cully station, but I couldn’t see where it left from so I started walking… I could see the town below, how hard could it be! Pathways wound through what appeared to be fields and fields of bare vines…

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I got a little lost in the maze of houses and vineyards and had to use GPS to find myself and then find some way to get down the steep, steep paths to the town without going on the winding roads which lacked footpaths. This was the point I realised that perhaps travelling 100 km with little research on my own in a new country in the drizzle might have had risks associated…. But in the end, I found the way downwards (and decided I would definitely take the free shuttle bus back uphill!) into the lovely jolie ville de Cully.

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This French speaking town had been taken over by jazz. It reminded me of Miltown Malbay’s trad music festival, the Willie Clancy summer school – except Swiss, and jazz (and better served by public transport). It seems every business was open this Friday evening with a yellow bucket hung over the door indicating of it sold food, drink,  had music, etc. It was very well organised and signposted. I wandered around to get a feel of what was where. The town was full of enthusiastic people from all countries and there is still a week to go. In “Le Club” tent, I saw the first act of the festival: Serbian quartet of rocky jazzmen, Eyot (drums, bass, singing guitar and keys). Very good!

I wandered off when they finished and finally stumbled on the oldest building in town, Caveau Potterat, a quaint wine cellar/cave, which was packed with people. I squeezed in the door just in time to hear the start of “Swiss Yerba“, an old school jazz outfit that sounded straight out of a ’30s swing record: trombone, tuba, upright bass, banjo, trumpet, clarinet, scat singing and piano. I wanted to dance to the great tunes, but could barely move. People were everywhere, nearly hanging from the roof beams. This gig was in demand!
bmonI eventually left to sample what else was on offer. I was hungry, so I got a beef baguette (with Parmesan topping, rocket, dried tomatoes, etc). It was 12CHF (! – I’m still getting used to the relative cost of things), but delicious and totally worth it. I then wandered into Das Schlagzeug and caught the end of a really out-there ‘ambient/experimental’ group (Trio Heinz Herbert) who stretched what I thought the definition of jazz was. However, I am certainly no expert! They were clearly working very hard to create the soundscape and rhythms they produced, but it wasn’t for me – too modern! Certainly showed the range of the festival – indeed ‘every type of jazz covered’. At this point, around 10 pm, everything seemed to be finishing up. So I went to the station, caught the postal bus up the long hill to Grandvaux and waited for the first of many trains to bring me homewards from my adventure. I was impressed with my memory of school French, being able to use it make inquiries with the bus, order food and drink and generally get around. If only my German (which is spoken in the city I now live in) was on par! Something to work on in the coming weeks. I got home at 2 am, 200 km round-trip completed -thoroughly satisfied and exhausted. I call that a successful micro-adventure.