The Bernese Oberland
Copyright Vladimir Kagan 2010
Good-by Paris - Hello Geneva!....and a brief visit with my sister and family. …However, no trip to Europe is complete without a pilgrimage to the Swiss Alps: our Mecca, our little corner of heaven: The Bernese Oberland. It’s where we go to hibernate each year and have done so for the past forty years or more. It is where my parents found peace. It is where Erica and I loved to go skiing among the rolling hills of Gstaad. It is where we mountain climbed each summer (Sadly, those joys are a thing of the past with our inability to walk any distance)…. It is here we retreated to on September 11, 2001 as we were about to board a plane in Paris bound for New York…. and it where we spent this past 9/11. It is where I am most inspired to sit and smell the alpine flowers…the fresh manure spread over the lush green grass for the cows to feed on…. and where I have created some of my most innovative designs.
My niece, Polly and her husband Christof, have an enchanting chalet plunged into the middle of a farmer’s field in a tiny village called Les Moulins…(if you drive fast, you’re through it before you know it)… It’s a dot on the map on your way to Châteaux D’Oex. They generously lend it to us every time we are in town.
This is where we find tranquility…. September is already off-season…most restaurants are closed to give their staff a vacation. The colors haven’t changed yet, but the snow on the mountain tops get refreshed and creeps down to a lower altitude. It is the time when the farmers bring their cows off the alpine meadows to lower feeding ground. This is an occasion to celebrate with small parades of decorated cows taking over the road.
Swiss mountain farms are small enterprises consisting typically of a herd of 20 cows and calves. It is small enough for one farmer to cope with, often holding down a second job as a carpenter in the summer and ski instructor in the winter. Help may come from an aging, but fit as a fiddle father and the children. It is a tradition deeply rooted in their DNC. Their farms and alpine meadows have been in the family often over five hundred years. Their chalet “quarter-boards” bearing dates of 1600, give or take a few years. Farmers are subsidized to keep them from drifting into city jobs. There is little chance of this, as they love their land and cows. We have a friend in Gstaad that did leave the farm and has become wealthy running successful clothing and ski shops, but comes fall, he goes into the mountains to help his father and siblings hand scythe the hay on the slopes too steep for a tractor. It is a tradition that won’t die.
To watch the farmers work is a marvel of modern farm technology. Multi-functional small tractors are equipped to cut the hay, rake it, gather it, and bail it, spread the manure and tow the milk urns to the local Molkerei (farm cooperative). Here it is processed into an unbelievable Gruyere Cheese, in these parts affectionately called “Berg Kässe”…. when it’s three years old, it is so hard that it must be cut with a plane producing curly nuggets called “Hobelkässe”…which is to die for! When it’s still soft, perhaps a year or so old, it’s magically transformed into Fondue…(a Swiss concoction almost as famous as their chocolate). It is much enhanced with a shot or two of Kirsch (a Swiss Liquor made from cherries) and a generous helping of their dry local Fondant white wine….. While it can be ordered in any city or town, to really enjoy Fondue, you must savor it in a local restaurant along the road or up a winding dirt road into the hinterland.
The first half of these mountains is French speaking, but drive eight kilometer out of Rouchmont to Saanen and you are in “Schweitzerdeutch” country. The French speak no German and the others no French. However, English suffices in both parts.
The drive from Geneva now takes less than one and a half hours, much of it along bucolic Lake Geneva. As you drive out of Lausanne and gently up the road overlooking Montreux, you are mesmerized by a last glance of the lake’s shimmering water and the impressive mountains overlooking the city of Evian… Evian is Erica’s favorite water. It has been bottled there for over one hundred years. Several years ago, we made a visit to see the town and where it all happens. (Skeptics like me say it comes from the lake, but Erica is certain it flows down mountain streams, being purified for over a two-year period, meandering through subterranean rivers and little brooks until it is finally funneled into an Evian bottle…. and what’s left over (if any) trickles into Lake Geneva.
Once you turn off the main highway to drive up into the mountains, the road cuts through plush green pastureland, where Switzerland’s commercial milk is produced. Before you know it, you arrive in Bulle, a small provincial town that is the start of the two-lane road climbing up into the Alps. (Thanks to Swiss foresight and planning all the little towns now have underground bi-passes that have knocked off a good half hour of the drive.) As you emerge out of the tunnel, there, perched on a steep hill looms the impressive castle of Gruyere, once an impenetrable defensive position against marauding neighbors, but now a tourist attraction for anyone coming to the mountains for the first time. It has given its name to one of Switzerland’s finest cheeses. (We choose to bi-pass and slog up the mountain pass.) The road, which was once a menace, has been vastly improved with spectacular engineering, and is now passable without your heart in your mouth. It is a haven for weekend warriors, riding their motorcycles at top speed, taking each turn at a dizzying angle, sparks flying behind them as they grind their footrests into the pavement. Though only 16 kilometers up the road, it seems an eternity until we reach our hidden village of Les Moulins. Take a sharp right before the stream (it’s easy to miss) and we arrive in time to catch the last rays of sun streaming down the steep slopes, the sound of cow bells off in the distance and the soft snorting of the cows feeding on lush grasses, 20 feet in front of you. Serenity sets in instantly…. We don’t want to leave for dinner…just hang out. This time, it was truly a short visit: two nights with a lovely day squeezed in the middle. But for us it was an eternity.
Reality took control, as we had to depart the next morning from Geneva Airport at 7:30 AM for our lugubrious trip back to Nantucket, via London and Boston.
Below, I am sharing my precious mountains…Probably more photos than you want to see.
Flying-in over the Alps...
Up the hill....Frederick's farm with the cows grazing after miking.
View of the Wildhorn from the village of Lauennen
Erica welcoming our surprise visitors