ACCIDENTAL ALPS

(This article, or something pretty close to it, first appeared in the March 2104 issue of Canoe and Kayak UK)

Having let quite a few people know we were heading for Scotland, some sort of explanation seemed only reasonable on our return. I decided to blame Susannah, suggesting she must have been holding the road atlas upside down.

We have an old wooden box that we refer to rather grandly as our library. At 7.30 on the morning of our departure, along with Haswell-Smith’s essential guide to Scottish islands, this box was stuffed with OS maps covering almost everywhere from the Galloway hills to the northernmost tip of Lewis. The fact that two Snowdonia sheets, and all four 1:25,000 maps of the Lakes, were also crammed in, hints that we are not unaware of our tendency to change tack, sometimes on the very the slightest pretext. Even by our usual standards, this was quite a change though,

Perhaps it was a certain breath of wind across the cheek, a murmur in the orbit of the planets, or maybe some slight alteration in the song of the swallows overhead (well something must account for it). Whatever the explanation, by about a quarter past eight a very cheap ferry ticket had been bought online, and our boxed map collection now covered bumpy spots around Argentiere and Zermatt. By 8.30 we were off.

And had the roads of crossing southern Britain been kinder, we might have enjoyed another pre-ferry pootle around Dover harbour. As it was, both the M3 and M25 were operating in ‘Have you remembered to purchase a ticket?’ mode, and we swung off the little roundabout at the end of the seafront and into the equally busy terminal with only a very few minutes to spare. It was a shame. The sun was out, and the water stretched out invitingly between breakwater and shingle beach was almost mirror smooth.

It stretched out pretty invitingly the next day too, only this time between Thun and Spiez. The weather was a little less settled mind you, and the gale that swept the length of Thunsee meant any attempt to avail myself of the joys of Alpine paddling was short, strenuous and achieved very little in the way of distance along the yacht-speckled shore.

Overnight the wind dropped though, and at about three in the morning, perhaps woken by a moon rising over the lake, we looked out over soft inky black water, stretched out smooth towards a thin line of lights twinkling on the far shore. A single beacon marked the top of Morgenberghorn, where moonlight lit the stubborn remains of the previous winter’s snow.

Early morning, and the view across Thunsee to Morgenberghorn.

Sympathetic readers might wonder what Susannah thought of the suggestion that a fine photo opportunity had suddenly presented itself, of being dragged from the warmth of a three-season sleeping bag to plod down to a murky three in the morning shoreline with my tripod. All I can say is that this early photographically-induced rise wasn’t actually my idea.

It was quite a paddle though, and by the time dawn arrived (or had nearly arrived), and photos had been taken, we’d certainly built up a good appetite. Muesli and tea were enjoyed on a lake-edge bench as the sun lit up the peaks ahead – washing it first with the palest of pinks, then carmine, before turning to orange and finally gold.

It isn’t that far from Thunsee to Brienzersee to the east, and the short drive is worth it. Beautiful as it is, Thunsee is pretty busy, ringed by almost continuous towns, villages and main roads. Brienzersee still has its fair share of development, but the settlements are all much smaller, and while the highways are also there, they’re far less hectic, and somehow manage to hide away from the lake itself, particularly along the south shore. In fact, viewed from anywhere along the northern edge, there’s very little to see on the far bank but cliffs, forest and overhanging mountains. Like Thunsee, this lake is also filled with some quite extraordinarily beautiful water. When all lies still, it looks as if someone has poured molten jade into the rift between the opposing mountain ridges. Drifting over this vast glacial pool feels slightly surreal.

Loading our canoe before setting out around Brienzersee.

And drifting over it was our plan for the day (although hardly a very old plan it has to be admitted). Would the weather represent an improvement on the day before?

Oh yes.

Admittedly, mist still clung to the slopes above Brienz, as we set out away from our van, swirling lazily about the peaks beyond, but it soon began to break, allowing tentative shafts of sun to search out the lake far below.

Heading towards Brienz.

As I babysat our canoe on the stone steps of the pretty Brienz waterfront, and Susannah set off to hunt down some food in one of the stores in town, a fleeting and rather pathetic attempt at a shower did force me to shelter briefly beneath a plane tree. Raindrops peppered the flat expanse of mysterious dark grey-green water… and then that was it. As we cut the corner of the lake, heading straight for the quite imposing cliff over on the south side, the sun burst out, the water leapt in an instant from sombre green to luminous turquoise, and the temperature started to rise.

Anyone who has driven in Switzerland will have seen the numerous construction projects that line the roads. And it’s a little known fact (much contested, and just possibly not really a fact at all) that all these various bridge building, tunnel digging and road widening schemes that intersperse any route through the mountains, are actually all the result of weekend hobby projects – DIY ventures for wealthy and engineering obsessed Swiss bankers and industrialists. Exhausted by the strain of office life, these CEOs and Directors abandon their immaculate charcoal grey suits at the end of each week and head for the hills in their hundreds. Each Saturday morning, after clamping a pristine hard-hat on their heads (with their name printed in black Helvetica 18 at the front), these industrialists, senior managers and entrepreneurs climb into a shiny new 25-tonne swing-shovel or yellow grader, fire up those big diesel engines, and start to build.

All rot of course, but amidst this complete fiction lurks the fact that the Swiss long ago realised they could turn a franc or two by easing the trials and tribulations of their tourists. Understandably keen to experience the mountains for themselves, many early visitors to Switzerland were rather less enthusiastic about the very real hardship and danger commonly associated with actually doing it. So while the well-heeled 19th-century Swiss, recognising a few engineering solutions, might not have actually rolled any sleeves up themselves, those with an eye to increasing an already healthy bank balance soon turned for assistance to their engineers and architects. The extremely important matter of transporting the affluent, and their wallets, in amongst the beauty of the mountains, in as much comfort as possible, was soon under way.

They’ve been at it for ages now of course. And while not every attempt has been altogether successful, at least from an aesthetic perspective, the funicular railway built in 1879 to carry guests from the ornate Giessbach-See landing stage to the hotel set high on the cliffs overlooking the Brienzersee, certainly is.

Warmed by the sun, we tied up at the imposing stone quay and popped up the well-worn steps to admire the results. We found lots of impressive wrought iron, cogs and varnished wood. Then, after adopting what we hoped were suitably Victorian tourist saunters, we set off in search of the impressive Giessbach Falls that thunder down the mountainside to meet the lake in a haze of rainbow-infused mist. A wonder of nature and the mark of man, separated by only a few yards of lakeshore, and, dare I say it, coexisting pretty successfully.

The view from the footbridge over the Giessbach Falls.

Which seems to characterise Brienzersee, and its continuing valiant attempt to balance the quite extraordinary natural beauty of the area with the inevitable pressures from the influx of all those people (including Susannah and me) wanting to experience it all.

And it does work, illustrated by the fact that we only had to paddle on a short distance along the shore before almost all sign of man’s influence dissolved. Yes, we could still see the villages on the far shore, perhaps 3km off, we could even hear the train over there every now and again, but our bank was a startlingly beautiful concoction of bare lichen-encrusted rock and thick forest. Sunlight dappled the occasional open glade and songbirds flitted in amongst the branches, hard at work on their Alpine fanfare.

Passing the island of Schneckeninsel.

Rounding scenic wooded headlands we did come across the odd settlement of course, but these were small and pretty villages, with sleek, highly polished yachts and dinghies resting at their sunny moorings before them. A couple more hotels also dotted the shore, but these so characterised the architecture of a now rather ancient Swiss tourism tradition, that they didn’t seem to jar. Even the little laburnum-bedecked island of Schneckeninsel, with its wrought iron railings, seemed to work. Man and nature in harmony again.

Our lunch spot on Brienzersee, close to the western end.

Lunch on a warm and sunlit shingle beach was very enjoyable (bread, cheese, cured sausage and chocolate – well, what else?). Even dodging the pleasure cruisers and their quite impressive wakes was fun, especially during our dash across the mouth of the River Aar that connects Brienzersee with Thunsee to the west. By mid afternoon, after an extremely enjoyable day, on and off the water, we were back at our van.

Brienzersee in all its May-morning glory.

An upland, and very uplifting, interlude then followed, during which we managed to put our feet on some late season snow. Not far from Brienzersee, on the slopes above Grindelwald, we ate more bread, sausage and cheese amidst swathes of wild crocuses, marvelling at some of the most stunning mountain scenery to be seen anywhere in Europe. We also had the chance to witness yet more extraordinary examples of that Swiss engineering ingenuity, applied once again in putting visitors up close to the mountains, right up close. More cogs, rails and gleaming carriages, this time employed to propel those with deep pockets and little inclination or capacity for invigorating toil within a Toblerone’s throw of one of the world’s most thrilling and awe-inspiring cliff faces.

Our upland interlude, and a rather famous north face.

While Brienzersee and even the Grindelwald valley had been balmy and sun-kissed, Lake Gruyere to the west certainly wasn’t. Low cloud, a sharp straight-off-the-snowfield breeze, and lingering lake-edge mist soon chilled the bones during our exploratory paddle. This all provided another reminder, if it was needed, of the speed at which the weather can change in the mountains. That speed though meant that by the time we arrived on the shore of Lake Geneva (or Lac Leman) the sun was out again.

Lac Leman (well, I first fell into it on the French side) has provided me with some treasured memories. Not least because, way back when Bjorn Borg was just easing into his winning stride at Wimbedon, it was here that I first paddled a proper canoe. Fashioned in heavily oxidised aluminium (I’ve since realised it was a Grumman) that clanky, rather battered and unloved craft had seen better days, but it was a canoe. Well over thirty years later I was back. Something to ponder on.

Back on Lac Leman (Lake Geneva), for the first time on over thirty years.

With old memories still fresh in my thoughts, we set out along the shore, this time on the Swiss side, watched by Nestlé employees from their huge steel and glass office, and overlooked by vineyards – and I didn’t fall in.

A move along the Swiss coast allowed us to slip the canoe into the water next at the town of Rolle. Here, with swallows, swifts and martins flying low around us, and eagles high above, we paddled out from close to the castle to visit the Île de la Harpe.

In true Swiss style this quite sizeable and impressive island, covered in mature trees, isn’t natural at all, but was built by the wealthy merchants of the town (over a string of summer weekends no doubt). Impressive storms can sweep down out of the mountain to batter his great expanse of water with some fury. I can still recall a rather alarming 1970s version, experienced, mid-lake, aboard a very small catamaran. Realising that the fortunes of their harbor might benefit from a little protection, these eminent ressortisants and bürgers, decided, as you do, that a new island would probably sort out the problem. Constructed in 1837, it was named after the political leader, former Rolle inhabitant and once tutor to the Tsar of Russia, Frédéric-César de La Harpe. A rather impressive obelisk now stands within this artificial island as his memorial.

Rolle Caste, with the artificial île de La Harpe out in the bay.

Before heading back into France, and the start of meandering return to the ferry, our unexpected Alpine visit ended with a short stroll through town… and the discovery of some fancy Swiss puddings. A little later, lounging on an ornate wrought-iron bench in the warmth of a late alpine afternoon, we enjoyed these chocolaty concoctions while overlooking the yachts dancing amidst the sunlit waves on the lake beyond. Yes there were castles, lakes, mountains and eagles, but this certainly wasn’t Scotland.

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