6.  An Unexpected Pause

The Rough Guide to Switzerland mentioned a couple of low-cost hotels in Thun’s historic city centre (the Rathausplatz), and I headed there after a quick consultation at the train station’s posted map of the city (these by the way are almost invariably present and wonderfully useful in European cities large enough to need one) to get my bearings.

Website of Bern Canton I strode purposefully, if encumbered, from the station into Thun (“TOON,” pop. ~40,000), through a mesh of streets and bridges, scarcely noticing the scenery and inhabitants in my focus on finding lodging and being able to walk unencumbered (I’d been travelling since 7h45 that morning). After one small wrong turn (quickly rectified) I soon reached the Rathausplatz (“Rathaus” = “Town Hall”), found the first of the hotels I sought (it was cleverly disguised as a restaurant on its ground floor), and with relief stepped into the empty restaurant and looked for a check-in desk. Instead I found only a lovely young woman, lithe and dark-haired, who was doing some cleaning; faced at last with the dreaded language barrier’s practical test (notwithstanding a brief testing of the waters in Brig, where I still had the option of fleeing to “safe” waters), I simply said “hotel?”

What followed is a little hard to describe in a chronological way, regardless of whether or not it would be interesting, so I’ll summarize this bit: the only people there that afternoon were the Kosovar-Albanian cleaning woman and her young-adult daughter, the one I’d encountered first, the proprietor was offsite but was soon reached by cellphone, and apparently I had arrived in a decidedly “Off Season” moment when even the restaurant was closed. My booking of a room happened by way of fragments of four languages (German, French, Albanian, and very little English) communicated through three people standing along two stories of an open stairway, a fourth person being at the other end of a cellphone. What little German I had managed to learn did in fact help me here: I knew how to state clearly that I wanted just one single room for two nights, and I had even picked up the right term for “single room” in Schwyzertütsch thanks to the Rough Guide’s omission-rich handy-terms-list.

In the end I had a room—a nice one, albeit on the Spartan side of tasteful, adorned with Ikea-ish furniture, a couple of Rothko prints, and clashing Sound-of-Music drapes—for a price that I could scarcely believe I’d see in Switzerland (around US$40 per night, whereas rates closer to US$100 were more common, but then the WC and shower were in separate rooms down the hall). My second-floor (U.S. third-floor) window at the Metzgern hotel had a diagonal view of the Rathaus itself and was certainly close enough to give me a front-row seat for all of the town hall’s clock chimings. (That corner of the hotel, by the way, has an axe-wielding lion, rampant, facing the Rathaus. An interesting touch and hard to not stare at after noticing it from the street.) And I paid cash for the room, and no paperwork was exchanged, which struck me as odd in such an organized and meticulous country as Switzerland; the transaction was conducted with the proprietor, a nice-enough young guy, who showed up not long after that phone call.

The bags thus disposed of, I headed out for a look at this place I’d never imagined visiting. The first thing I found, and this was amply reinforced in the next day and a half, was that Thun has the most beautiful river I’ve ever seen: the Aare rises in south-central Switzerland, just west of the Rhône’s glacial source, and passes through the Brienzersee and Thunersee, fed by glacial streams all around, before reaching Thun itself, and at Thun it passes through a couple of floodgate bridges which release the water through the city in a wild fury of churning color…the glacial waters retain their luminous blue-green white, resulting in a gorgeously improbable sight constantly gushing through town.

Where the Thuner See ends at the Aare river’s resumption are some calm shore areas which are home to many swans, which I’ll come back to in a bit; my immediate reaction to seeing them was to be surprised anew at how BIG swans are when the largest birds you’re used to seeing are Canada geese.

I had no real impression of the town itself that first evening, as I was somewhat scattered from having gone through six train stations and landed in a different country and language zone; I eventually found a little pub a couple of blocks from the hotel and had a pleasant schweinsschnitzel (breaded & fried pork filet) and a couple of nice big Schneider Weisser beers. The pub (Walliserkanne, Marktstrasse) was small and slightly too cute, a wood-and-plaster place with a cheese-heavy menu and 70s American rock playing softly (it always seems a bit bizarre to be stressing out over speaking the local language in France and Switzerland when the music playing is almost always in English). There being evidently nothing else to do in Thun on a Sunday night in April, I went back to my hotel after dinner and read (there being in this case no TV, so no news-watching for a change…of course the news would have been in German and thus largely incomprehensible to me, so it’s a moot point) until I fell asleep.

The next morning I was unsurprisingly up rather early and set out for a city-sniffing walk around Thun’s low-lying south side, which is largely cozily residential and comfortably well-off; the largest buildings around were a handful of apartment blocks and a home-improvement store complex. I sat to take in the view of the mountains to the south for awhile, at the south edge of town, before heading back to the city centre on an east-bending curve past a middle school and many little yards rich with flower gardens. Unfortunately the weather had again begun to grow quite warm, but the museum I wanted to go to and the one Internet café I’d found were both scheduled to open only at 14h00 that afternoon, so I reluctantly continued walking, this time along the northwest edge of the Thuner See.

It’s not that the scenery wasn’t enjoyable or that the path wasn’t good—quite the opposite, it’s a lovely mixed-use path on its lakeside stretch, and many people were out making good use of it that day—but my feet truly were aching by this point and I was concerned about the state of that one beat-up toe. So where the path turned away from the water I sat heavily down on an unoccupied park bench (the first one I’d found that was in shade), took off my shoes and socks, and sat back to just air my feet. Within a minute or two I’d decided that the water was an irresistible cleansing/healing option as well, and I sat on the constructed bank and let them dry in the light breeze after a good soaking in the water.

Swans and various types of ducks were milling about nearby at a small ferry dock. After I’d been sitting awhile, a couple of the swans sidled nonchalantly into my vicinity, and it soon became obvious that my dangling toes were being sized up as an offered snack. I let one swan get within a couple of neck-lengths (two yards, let’s say) before I pulled my feet up to sit cross-legged instead, apologizing to him (albeit in English) for the misunderstanding. (To his credit, he was unruffled and did a good job of pretending to look like he just happened to be passing by.)

When I got back to the city center I had to choose between going to the museum or to the Internet café; as I the only access I’d had to my email since leaving Seattle had been the 10-minute check-in at the Mystery Arabic Business in Clermont-Ferrand four days earlier, I headed to Eagle Computer/Internet Café and put in a solid hour dealing with email and news updates, stopping to eat a rather graceless tuna salad for lunch at a riverside diner in the middle of town on my way.

After that I climbed the very strange and sudden promontory jutting up out of the north edge of Thun’s center, at the top of which are a church (which was closed) and the Schloss Thun, an old castle now serving as museum and scenic viewpoint. As a museum it’s somewhere between “pastiche” and “patchy,” with some very interesting exhibits about specific bits of regional history (one on the region’s gunpowder industry, for example, above a room featuring typical cottage contents, in turn above another featuring flags and other booty from a 16th-Century battle) with no context provided and absolutely no continuity or consistency in format. This, coupled with the fact that I arrived half an hour before their closing time, led to an impression of rushed incompletion, although on the bright side it did make me mentally bookmark the museum for a return visit if circumstances ever allowed.

The view from the top turrets of the towers, however, was itself worth the admission price: from the southwest tower, the city of Thun is draped impressively down the steep slope of the promontory to the edge of the lake, and the magnificent view of the Alps ringing the lake and continuing westward and southward is really quite a treat. (These turrets, by the way, were reached by climbing wooden ladders—the second set, the first being the one which climbs to the rafters, which is where the gunpowder-history exhibit was located, believe it or not.) I looked from the less view-rich northwest tower as well, the two eastern towers being closed for renovation, before heading out and letting them close the museum for the day.

Rather than retrace my steps from the climb to Schloss Thun, I followed another path leading southward down the promontory’s odd slope (it seems like it must be steep, but it never felt or looked that way), and this in itself was a slightly kaleidoscopic surprise which reminds me in retrospect of some of the unexpected pockets to be found amid Le Puy’s labyrinth of older streets. I found backyards, vineyards, a daycare playground, and a roofed stairway among other things here, and at the end of it all was a crooked staircase which ended at…my hotel. How interesting….

I was curious to see how the river looked further downstream, where its roiling riot of glacial color would be exhausted into a calmer flow, so I walked along the mixed-use path on the Aare’s north bank through the city’s quick transition to a suburban/industrial mix (with a dash of rural here and there). Before long I noticed an odd metallic chiming sound mingling with the water’s flow, and I came upon a smallish triangular field (still within the city) full of goats—most of them young, and nearly all black—each of which had a rustic metal bell fastened around its neck; they were all munching grass and moving about a little, so 28 bells were jangling in a steady, random flow of sound. I thought “If Dave Stewart were here right now he’d be whipping out a Walkman and recording this for use on some future album,” and for a moment I wished I had a way to record it myself. Describing it in my journal was my only option…and as I did so, on a bench nearby, I noticed storm clouds further west, heading towards Thun.

No way did I want to miss the chance to see a storm over scenery as splendid as that ringing the Thuner See, so I wasted no time heading back upstream, this time however on the southern shore, which passes through very different neighborhoods of a more industrial nature now in decay (and, evidently, currently the favored hangout of skater-punk kids and graffiti “artists”). I continued through town to the Schadau Park, where the shore juts into the lake a bit with a real confection of a building and a pleasant stretch of lawn ringed by a water’s-edge path. The view there is seriously postcard territory anyway, but with a storm approaching it’s even more delicious, and I lingered there, patiently waiting and watching the change of light and atmosphere. When I’d nearly given up hope that the storm would actually pass overhead rather than drifting northward first, the rain finally came—not torrents but enough to please a rain-lover like me, and it came heralded by thunder and just a little lightning to the west. (I was somewhat pleased to notice that I was not the only one enjoying this: a few other individuals were similarly occupied.)

When the storm had spent itself and dissipated to the north, the light slowly changed into that wonderful post-storm heightening of contrasts, and a rainbow shimmered into view to the east, its descent coinciding with that of the northwestern ridge of the Eiger. But the Niesen, just beyond the southwestern shore of the Thunersee, is the dominant mountain seen from Thun, and it was looking especially magnificent in this context, so I soon found myself irresistibly sketching it on a couple of scraps of note-paper. A group of swans flew low across the water, southwestward, just in time to be included in the sketch as I finished it.

A very acceptable day, overall.

After a pause at the hotel to get some preliminary repacking out of the way, I once again set out in search of local grub and once again found surprisingly slim pickings…either the majority of Thun’s restaurants are to be found in other neighborhoods than I found (other than the plaza-seating Italian ones in the middle of town), or this was a seriously off-season moment. I threw in the towel at the self-explanatorily named Essen & Trinken (“Eating and Drinking”), again near the hotel, and enjoyed a decent if unremarkable raclette with a couple of different glasses of wine. Only being seated next to a rather vapid and tiresomely stop-and-start conversation (in English, by Korean business associates) flawed the experience, even though the place was clearly having a quiet night. Another TV-news-less night of spartan simplicity followed at the hotel.

And that was Thun, at least what I saw of it.

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