The Twenty-Four Hour Gstaad Cure
Copyright Vladimir Kagan May 7, 2012
If there were any place on this earth where I would rather be for 24 hours than Nantucket, it would be Gstaad... So here I am!
The Roessli Post Hotel where my family has stayed for eons.
Not the glitzy Gstaad of Gucci and Hermes shops... not the Palace Hotel, but the Bernese Oberland, that starts for me, immediately after leaving Bulle* and emerges into the foothills of Gruyère, (the fabled castle fortress perched on top of a hill, overlooking the vast valley below). Gruyère’s fame comes not from its historic role but from the cheese produced in the region and named in its honor. From here, the road winds up a gentle curving road that steepens as you drive deeper into the foothills of the Alps. You pass through village after village, without an inhabitant in sight… each dominated by its beautiful church and the ubiquitous Guesthouse Restaurant.
Before you reach the Alps, you drive along picturesque Lake Geneva - looking toward Montreux
So far, we have traversed French-Switzerland – Vaud, but a mere 10 kilometers beyond, we emerged into “Das Saanenland”, the picturesque little village of Saanen that is only 6 kilometers away from Gstaad. This is the beginning of the Bernese Oberland, where French is abruptly abandoned for Schweizerdeutch (Swiss-German)... a lilting throaty German, incomprehensible to most proper Germans. (I've learned to fake it)... but you have to be born here to speak it properly… I love its singsong lyrical sound that goes so well with the laid-back unchanging spirit of the Alps.
The Gruyère Castle high up on the hill - "my gateway" to the Bernese Oberland
Our first stop was Les Moulins, a tiny “pass-thru” hamlet that is home to my friend Frédérique Chapalay, a farmer in the summer and ski instructor in the winter. He is the salt of the earth… fit as a fiddle at age 50-something… a self taught linguist who speaks French, German, Italian, and perfect English. He tends his 26 cows unassisted and finds time every day to climb into the high Alps to ski the last snows of spring.
My friend and ski-instructor for the last twenty year, Frédérique Chapalay - tending his herd of prized cows
The road (at dusk) now winds gently upward past Château D’Oex, and Rougemont. (The Swiss are geniuses at building bypasses to preserve the original character of the these ancient villages)
Susan and Charles Jefford, who so gallantly allowed me to cajole them into taking this nostalgic trip with me. they had no idea what they were getting in to!
The Jefford, showed me with great pride, my son Illya's painting of the same scene, which they has acquires years earlier!
Me... the only person for miles around
It is very off-season in Gstaad... the snow hasn't quite melted and the trees are just trying to blossom. Main Street is empty and shops are closed except for the coffee houses and Early Beck... the region's fabled "conditerei" (bakery - there is one in every village).
This glorious Alpine area is all about cows: Its worship of cows borders on the religious (think India). Festival are built around their departure for summer pastures and their triumphant return in the late fall... bedecked with flowers and huge ceremonial bells. There are special Feasts and dances to celebrate the "prettiest" cow in the region... (Being canny Swiss - it is always the richest farmer's cow that is selected as he must also sponsor the party replete with a local band, yodeling, abundant food and gallons of wine.)... To be invited to one of these festivals is the ultimate arrival.
Frédérique's newborn "babies"
Cow's abound everywhere... as bronze street sculptures or in our hotel as a scrawny cow... I couldn't believe that that was a Swiss cow... it wasn't. It was a commissioned work by an American sculptress: Sandy Graves... she obviously didn't understand what Swiss cows are all about!
Cows are central to the local economy (aside from tourism). It’s the double cream and mountain cheeses that have sustained the local farmers for generations. These robust farmers live in virtual isolation all summer; tending their cows in high pasturelands... rugged contented people that do not change from generation to generation. Their farms and pastures are handed down from father to son. And no matter how far some of these sons and daughters might stray from the farm, they collectively return for harvest time.... pitching in to cut the scented grasses that will dry into the life-sustaining hay. They harvest the fields with compact motorized equipment and when the slopes become too steep, laboriously by hand with scythes... This backbreaking work goes on from early morning till night when the last strands of grass are cut and left to dry. The dried hay will sustain the cows all winter long. And so the age-old cycle begins: the cows give milk, which is turned into Cheese on the mountains in the summer and farm co-ops in the winter. This is a 24/7 process - no holidays, vacation nor sickness or death will leave these cows unattended. The process is romantic (Erica had written an enchanting poem extolling this time-honored procedure… I have added it for all to enjoy) There is a poetic symmetry to this process; the cows eat the scented wild-flowered grass - digest it - turn it into milk - their excrement is carefully stored over the winter to allow it to ferment and in early spring, is spread on the fields to fertilize the scented grass that the cows will eat. An eternal cycle. These aromatic manured fields are part of the ritual that draws me to the mountains annually... my special perfume!
A beautiful old door opening to the cellar of the Chalet - the ancient front-door lock
A wheel barrel designed to cary hay standing in front of David's barn
As I have been in Switzerland for the past five weeks... twenty-four hours had to be found to make this pilgrimage - a tonic for body and soul.
*(A small industrial city on a high plateau in Vaud, Switzerland)
AN ALPINE ODE
By Erica Wilson-Kagan - August 2008
Hiya, hiya say the crows
Swallows shoot like arrows close to the bright green grass.
The sound of cowbells hangs in the air
Like the misty mountain clouds
Dropping white veils amongst the dark green pines.
Far away in the valley runs the whistling Bimmeli
Brown and white like a toy train with seven coaches.
Is it raining?
Yes, you can tell by the dappling movement in the puddles
And the quiet dripping on the sheltering roof.
Nothing is slower than watching grass grow, they say
But here you can really see grass spring.
First meadows of yellow and white flowers
Like fallen sunlight
Are cut and spread to dry beneath the bright blue sky
Then gathered safely into the barn
Next comes the pungent perfume of the spread manure
And curtains of falling rain
Above your head the sky could be the sea
Almost instantly bright sun reveals
Blankets of furry green spread over the rolling hills.
An inch a day?
Who can tell.
Imperceptible like the movement of the hanging clouds
There for one moment - gone the next.
Unchanging then the cycle goes
Cows eat grass
The hours - the days - the seasons pass
With measured repetition
Switzerland - the land of clocks
For all the world seems timeless.