5.  Eurail Pinball Part I

As I mentioned at the beginning of this tale, Switzerland was an intended destination but also a complicated one: I yearned to travel up the Rhône to its source (the Rhône glacier, the Rhonegletscher) as a sort of oenophile pilgrimage, and to explore the dramatic geography of the east of the country and its Germanic cultures, but without being able to speak more than rudimentary German I was severely uncomfortable with even the idea of leaving the French-speaking regions. But memories of the beautiful scenery around Sion, and of how my last trip to Yurp had seen me come very near the Swiss border twice and each time stumble in my journey when I turned back towards France, combined to propel me that direction with or without a plan or a grasp of the language.

I decided to start where I’d left off: Sierre was the farthest east I’d gotten in 2003, and the end of that Rhône-flanking train trip is Brig, from where I could consider my options based on my outlook, so I set my sights on that and left the details of the trip to chance and the French and Swiss rail networks. The latter are, after all, delightfully reliable. So off I went at 7h45 (anyone who’s ever worked with me will flatly refuse to believe this, as I’m SO not a morning person and am rarely even lucid before 10:00 a.m.—but having a hotel across the street from the train station is such a convenience!) and hopped a train to Lyon. Perhaps because of the uncharacteristically early hour, I don’t remember much of this leg of the journey. What I do recall is perking up as the train reached Lyon (“leeYOHn,” pop. ~450,000), where I anticipated a little footwork: there are two train stations in Lyon—Perrache, in the old center of town, and Part-Dieu, across the Rhône and further into town—and I was arriving at Perrache, whereas I recalled that trains to Geneva generally left Part-Dieu. So I’d braced myself (and my right foot, which by now had a toe with a blister I’d had to drain in Clermont-Ferrand and attempt to favor while walking all over Le Puy) for a Paris-style transition via underground but in a subway network I wasn’t familiar with; this wasn’t a daunting thought to me, as I’d successfully navigated that of Brussels in 2003 despite not knowing the language and having a ridiculously tight timeframe (and even-more-sore feet).

But as I lurched off the train in Lyon, ready for battle, I glanced up at a Departures monitor and saw that there was a train leaving this very station for Geneva in something like 15 minutes. “Oh!” I said, almost aloud, and pivoted swiftly to head toward the departing train’s platform.

Website of Geneva Canton The trip to Geneva was mildly interesting (I’d done it before and thus was a little less anticipatory, knowing that all the REALLY cool scenery came after the far end of Lake Geneva), and I spent much of it in thought, contemplating what I could adjust or change in my Seattle rut to get me to a better situation, but I certainly enjoyed the last bit of the journey, as the geographical nature of Switzerland slowly became evident from the approach to it. (That would be the MOUNTAINS and all the associations they bring to mind.) The Geneva train station was as user-unfriendly as I’d found it in 2003, although that experience had taught me how to navigate the poorly conceived switchback of vaguely signposted ramps and corridors (and to take the stairs instead, thereby getting ahead of dozens of other passengers loping down the ramps and creating bottlenecks at every turn as they struggled to find the way). The Geneva-to-Lausanne leg was similarly unremarkable this time—more nostalgic than anything else, as I recalled how I’d reacted in 2003 upon catching a glimpse of the Alps as the train neared Lausanne and how it had begun a series of oh-it-CAN’T-get-better astonishments.

THIS time I knew the route and had a decent memory for the splendour which was about to unveil itself, but I was still thrilled by much of it. The geography begins a Dance of Seven Veils around Martigny, just before the train turns eastward at St Maurice, and swells symphonically as the Rhône valley’s sides increase in height and mass.THIS time I was more attentive with regard to the presence of little towns to be glimpsed up on unlikely high perches of flanking valleys…places you suddenly want to go explore just to see what on earth could make living in such a remote and clustered setting worth it.

Website of Valais Canton Sion approached and I shifted to a double-vision existence, seeing both Now and Then and remaining somewhat aloof as a result. And on to Sierre…and then Brig, where the train’s journey ended and mine faced a decision point. Because Brig is the first major city along the Rhône on the German-speaking side of the linguistic frontier.

I’ll be brief about Brig (“breeg,” more or less, pop. ~12,000) despite its immediate significance to me as the beginning of a larger question than I had been able to address thus far. I took a deep breath after getting off the train and walked through the station and into town, prepared to stay there for the standard two nights, and I tried to remember the bits of hotel-and-restaurant German I’d managed to get to stick back in Seattle. Walking around the town, my bags and the warm afternoon conspiring to make me sweat and pause, I determined that it was an unexpectedly small town surrounded by an interesting array of slopes and distantly perched smaller towns (I’d use the term “villages” but I don’t know that these weren’t merely suburbs…the distinction is important when you get to what you thought was a village only to find that the “villagers” certainly drive some pricier cars than goatherds can usually afford), with lovely fresh air and a sense of being at the brink of something much bigger just out of sight, all around.

I looked for the two or three hotels mentioned by the Rough Guide to Switzerland, with minimal success…couldn’t even find one of the streets, let alone the hotel on it, despite the smallness of the town. When I finally decided to take my chances at the Hôtel de Londres and (after a 15-minute pensive wait for anyone to return to the front desk after the time indicated on a BACK BY… note posted there) found that they were full, I’d already decided Brig wasn’t where I wanted to be that night. The main square, which the hotel’s windows overlooked, had a distressing abundance of children running around screaming, and the town’s size seemed to promise that I’d run through its attractions before the next day was out and spend the rest of my time trying to go further afield. So back I trudged to the train station, where I caught the next train heading north.

Yes, north! Strictly speaking, the route starts back west along the Rhône, but farther up the steep slopes on its northern side, before it veers north and then tunnels under the Alps. Needless to say this part of the trip was a series of overlapping excitements and fascinations for me—even the darkness of the tunnel was enlivened by the mystery of how long it would be before we emerged, and where, an uncertainty compounded by emerging at one point between shorter tunnel sections heading the opposite direction from that in which we’d been travelling when the train entered that tunnel!

Website of Bern Canton Fascinated, I visually devoured the sight of the little towns the train passed at the north end of the tunnel: Kandersteg…Mitholz…Kandergrund…Frutigen…. And I compulsively flipped through the relevant pages of the Rough Guide, hoping for a clue as to where to get off the train and spend a couple of nights that would be worth the linguistic effort. The guide mentioned that Spiez, the next major town along this line, was popular with German families and seniors, which was clearly confirmed when the train made a stop there, but it also noted that Thun (the next stop) was “much overlooked by visitors passing on to Interlaken.” Considering that it was around 18h00 and I was already in unfamiliar linguistic territory, I made up my mind: it would be Thun.

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