JUNE 12 

It was a travel day.  We headed to Gimmelwald, Switzerland  ... another recommendation by Rick Steves' travel guides. 

Riding the rails and transferring trains we climbed into the Swiss Alps and boarded a bus.  As we boarded the bus we looked up to see a huge waterfall that appeared to be flowing right into town.

The bus delivered us to another impressive waterfall, where we took a gondola to reach Gimmelwald.

Finding our B&B (above: light coloured building centre) with ease, we introduced ourselves to our host, Ollie, who had been out for a hike on the Northface Trail with Rick Steves earlier that day, showed us to our room and took the time to acquaint us with some of the hikes in the area.

The village was wrapped in clouds making it difficult to appreciate the surrounding mountains.  We chatted with other tourists over the balcony railing and bumped into them later and decided to visit over a traditional local meal. 

The meal, complete with traditional music was expensive and not the kind we enjoy - heavy on the cheese, some potatoes and a spartan amount of vegetables and we left still hungry. Should have gone to Walter's Hotel.
 
JUNE 13

Sunday morning in Gimmelwald was a quiet affair. We were snuggled under our feather filled duvets while a couple of open windows let in the cool mountain air. Gimmelwald was in the clouds and wisps moved around like slow smoke from a chimney. These curls of translucent white floated past chalet homes accented by shuttered windows festooned with window boxes.

Neat wood piles lined some of the lower walls promising both an extra wall of insulation and an easy supply of fuel for the winter hearth. Neatly planted gardens showed a naturally slower progress than their valley counterparts.

Goats grazed on natural meadow grasses and wildflowers. They will soon be moved away from the village up into the high pastures allowing the town pastures to mature and be harvested for winter feed. The pastures near the village have enough growth for two cuttings while higher pastures grow slower and are only able to produce one yearly crop. Up even higher in the alpine fields the locals let the grasses grow for two years before taking off a crop. The eco balance here is a delicate one and is cherished and protected not only by the farmers but by the other citizens as well.
They know that without the farmers the forest would soon reclaim the land and they would dearly miss the organic produce their farming neighbours now produce for the townspeople plus the tourist that find their way here. They have learned from past experiences that living in cooperation with the natural vegetation is more beneficial than trying to manipulate it. Adding fertilizer helps weeds, with little or no nutrients, to crowd out the high-value growth. Planted grasses do not have the root systems and natural stamina to which the indigenous wild grasses have evolved.

Above town there is a communal pasture. The five farming families left in the village of Gimmelwald have in total eighty cows. They share the cost of three herders who take care of the cows, move them when the time is right and milk them. The cheese made in the high alpine where the cows are summer pastured is called "Alp Cheese". It is slightly different from the milk which comes from different summer pastures and is mixed together at a central location and called "Mountain Cheese". One day a week the production of each cow is recorded and after the Alp Cheese has been made the farmer-owners receive their share accordingly. What is not consumed by the family is sold ... some in little outlets in the village and some in specialty shops in Geneva.
The federal government also assists farmers with subsidies for each head of cattle.

Each year for a hundred days the herders take animals to the high alpine pastures ... mature cows to one, cows who have not yet calved to another, sheep to yet another.

The clouds lifted a bit and the rain fell and we wondered what we would do with ourselves ... perhaps just enjoy the day for what it might bring ... an opportunity to have an "in" day of reading and writing. Perhaps a trip to Murren on the gondola. Murren, at 1638m (Gimmelwald is at 1363m), is above and on the mountain ridge next to Gimmelwald.   Murren is a larger town ... with more shops ... and more tourists.

By 10:30am the clouds became bright with sunlight and the cloudy mist started to roll up the hillside, like waves against the sand, giving glimpses of higher homesteads and valley rock faces. Our hopes of doing something "out-doorsy" lifted with the mist.

By noon we were ready to head out and take whatever the weather gave us.

Just outside of Maria and Ollie's B&B we met a gentleman and a little black lamb. There was little fear of the lamb on the roadway, as the roads in Gimmelwald are available only to those with a farming license. Most Gimmelwald citizens keep their cars at the bottom of the valley in Talstation Schithornbahn.

We spent some time with Hans and the little black bottle-fed lamb as he took the time to tell us of the production of jerky, sausage and cheeses of the village. He is from Geneva and helps out by tending the cheese store here occasionally and selling the family's products in Geneva.
After bidding him a good day we filled our water bottles at the wooden trough with cold clear mountain water.

The next stop was at Ester's Guest house. As well as running this small country inn she runs a tiny store - the only one in town. Perhaps saying "tiny" is an over exaggeration. The store's square footage would be approximately 17 square feet and fits on the landing of a stairwell. She stands on the landing and her customers stand on the stairs; if there is a line up, they stand outside on the porch at the bottom of a long flight of stairs. Her little shop sells homemade bread (we bought the second to last loaf of today's supply), homemade yogurts (we bought two individual sized blueberry containers), beef jerky and beef sausage from her own cows (we bought a sausage) and various other items such as knitted anklets, mitts and socks, postcards,  sheep bells, milk, butter, homemade jams, other preserves and muesli (we bought a bag).
With our purchases stowed in the day bag we proceeded down the road and came upon our host Ollie returning home on his bike.

Walking and bikes are the major forms of transportation within this tiny well kept community he explained. "When I ride my bike from home to school, it takes me twenty-five or thirty seconds to get there. When I walk it takes me three minutes and," he continued with a mischievous look on his face, "that is simply not acceptable!"

Ollie agreed that it was not a good day to head to the top of Schilthorn. We told him it was our intention to just wonder around town and have a relaxing day. We asked him where the school was and he pointed it out before riding off on his bike the short distance home.

We climbed the path and walked around the school then took a path up behind that led to yet another path upward towards the higher road (appreciating that Gimmelwald only has two roads that parallel each other joined by a "U" turn). From there we turned upward again ... not a steep climb but a moderate upward grade.
Passing a couple having lunch on a roadside bench, we began looking for another bench where we could do the same. We went a fair distance before finding a similar rustic bench under a large tree and spread our picnic cloth. From the daybag we took out Ester's goodies mixing some of the Muesli in with the blueberry yogurt ... so good ... and marveled over the pasture views and the rocky cliffs striped by white waterfalls across the valley.

While we enjoyed this picturesque picnic the swirling clouds above gave us three rain showers and pelted us twice with hail but the large leafed tree provided a filtering umbrella. After tasting a couple of pieces of Ester's delicious bread we packed up our picnic cloth and continued upwards until we reached the village of Murren.

Sunday is a close day in Murren and only a couple of souvenir shops, a few cafes and the cable lift to Birg and Schilthorn were open for business. We poked through the two souvenir shops, read literature at the lift station and had tea and a local pastry favourite at a café.

The walk down gave us the odd shower but it was a pleasant walk indeed. When we reached Gimmelwald we walked along the upper-road, making the "U" turn at the end and approached the B&B and the cheese hut from the west side.

They were warming a bottle for the lamb. We stopped to chat and purchased some alp cheese to go with Ester's sausage and bread for a picnic dinner.

JUNE 14

Early morning showed low clouds. By 10:00 the clouds had sunny breaks and our hopes of going to the peak of Schilthorn heightened.

Ester was hanging duvet covers on the clothesline when we arrived to pick up bread and yogurt from her stair-top store.

At the mountain lift terminal, where Gimmelwald is the junction between the valley station and Murren station, men were unloading boxes and articles on to a little farm truck for delivery. Many of the articles were not boxed; huge cow bells with wide leather belts and buckles, bed frames and a new gadget that the younger fellow couldn't help but test its seat and movable parts.

As they were speaking German, we could not understand, but whatever it was tickled their funny bones and they all laughed making a fellow that looked like he could be fabled Heidi's grandfather look like he was Santa Claus working to pick up a few extra Swiss Francs.

The gondola took us from Gimmelwald at 1367m (4485 ft) to Murren at 1638m (5347 ft) where we stopped to have some of Ester's yogurt and granola for breakfast and watched how they slung specially designed shipping crates below the people carrying gondolas to carry freight directly from the valley floor to Murren.

The next leg of the trip to Schilthorn took us from Murren at 1638m (5347 ft) to Birg at 2677m (8783 ft).

Birg sits on a pinnacle of rock. We had hoped to walk from here back down to Gimmelwald but the trails are closed due to late spring snow.

We transferred at Birg to yet another gondola that took us up through the thick clouds to the top of Schilthorn at 2970m (9744 ft).

Mountains pointed up through the clouds as the restaurant we had lunch at made its hour long 360 degree revolution.
Thinking we might catch a picture of the restaurant itself, we went outside but the cloud only closed around us.
We dropped in to see clips from the James Bond movie "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (certainly not one of the better ones) and the role the Schilthorn summit played in the film. The mountain-top hide-a-way destroyed in the film was the then-under-construction revolving restaurant and tourist facilities we were now visiting. 
We took the two gondolas back to the traffic free village of Murren. It certainly looked different from yesterday when we were here in the rain and its visitors were taking time to amble down the street and sit at outdoor café tables.

We caught the funicular [a steep hill tram] up to Allmendhubel at 1912m. The funicular, built in 1912 and modernized in 1999, takes only a few minutes to reach the top of Allmendhubel. We began our walk on the Northface Trail.   It opened in 2000.
Along the hike that starts in Allmendhubel and ends in Murren there are twelve information boards situated at view points along the route. The boards provide the conquest histories of the mountain tops we were viewing. Many pioneering achievements have been accomplished in these Bernese Alps.

We looked across the first valley we would be traversing just as the sun broke through the clouds and accented a green which made us think of Ireland more than Switzerland.

 

On the other side of the valley we catch a glimpse of Murren below.
The pathway was decorated with tiny wildflowers beginning their short season of bloom.

At one point we came over a hill and stretched out before us was a field with a backdrop of Swiss mountains and we broke out in song "The hills are alive with the sound of music ..." half expecting Julie Andrews to come over the ridge and join us. The moment was upon us and without inhibitions Sherrie leaped through the field singing in Julie's stead ... until a young couple came along to witness the exhibition. To break the ice we laughed and said "how could you not dance when surrounded by scenery like this?" We took their picture and they took ours and we went on our way. Just before disappearing completely over the next hill, we looked back as he was leaping through the air and she was taking photographs.
The next valley opened to us and we could see below farm buildings on both sides of a silver thread of stream. Once down, we crossed a bridge over the stream and carried on the trail that wove itself through the buildings. Some of the farm homes we had passed along the trail are set up to provide refreshments to tourists walking by, supplementing their farm income.

As we climbed up the mountain side towards a forest we stopped at a few mountain huts (some more modern than others) ... perhaps a little disappointed when we did not encounter Heidi's grandfather. These huts are set up for the herdsmen to shelter themselves, and livestock if required, plus do the milking and make alp cheese (some of which we were carrying in our day bag).

The forest reminded us again of how well the people of this region balance nature and their needs. 

On the edge of the forest, just above Gimmelwald, we stopped and enjoyed our picnic dinner with the rings of different sized cow bells providing fitting background music.

 

 

As we walked back down into Gimmelwald, we wondered how the citizens of this tiny village felt about visitors invading their mountain perch.

If they went to that extent ... would they like not to have tourists at all?  We wanted to ask.
Almost sixty years ago the residents of Gimmelwald, led by the teacher who preceded our host, petitioned the government to declare Gimmelwald a landslide hazard area which would in reality limit the building permits and keep out any ambitious projects by tourist accommodation promoters. 

Maria, our hostess along with her husband, Ollie, came to Gimmelwald twenty years ago (the day after they married). Both are teachers and they are the only teachers in the Gimmelwald school for the 17 students from grade one through nine. When Maria was asked the question, she responded that tourism is good for Gimmelwald.  No longer can the farmers make enough from the land to support their families. She talked about how many of the people here worked in tourism, from providing lodgings and food to working at the lift stations. "We could not afford to have the lifts if the tourists stopped coming," she said. "If the people here cannot make a living from farming and if tourism stopped, there would be nothing here to hold the people." 

We talked on with her about other issues and could have been talking to someone in Italy, France or Canada. We travel the world to experience differences but find that although the scenery may change, people are very much the same ... sharing the same concerns over care and education of our children, health care and taxes.

JUNE 15

We woke to clear blue skies. The roosters were crowing and little goats were out of the barn and investigating the big outdoors.

We walked down the quiet street. The stairs for the cheese hut were tucked under the narrow porch. We filled up the water bottles with some more sweet mountain water. 

 

Hans called out and we back-tracked to say our good byes. He is going to help them move the town's cows up to higher country before he returns to Geneva. The field near the water trough had been cut yesterday by scythe ready to grow a second crop.

We rang the bell at Esther's and bought some yogurt and muesli to take with us. We asked her the question and her answers were similar to Maria's. The town's people could handle the tourists and enjoyed doing so. Because of regulations the town was limited to the one hundred and thirty beds that now existed. After those were full the tourists are sent away. One two-edged sword that has comes from having the world visit (and Esther credits Rick Steves with that accomplishment) is that the people of the town have wider understanding and more information from which to make decisions. The other edge of that sword, is with so much knowledge of what can be part of their lives, they are not always satisfied with what they currently have and yearn for things that would not have been part of their thoughts and vocabulary before.  Computers are having a similar effect. Every home in Gimmelwald has a computer and the small school has six which are in constant use opening the world to the people and the citizens of Gimmelwald, both young and old.

As we waited to be carried back down to the valley floor, we watched the crowd of day trippers get off the gondola. With clear skies, most of them carried on to the other lift on their way to the top of Schilthorn. Gimmelwald disappeared from our view. More tourists awaited at the bottom for their chance to be lifted to Gimmelwald.

It was a short wait for the bus to take us to the train station. We looked once more at the tumbling waterfall (the same water we had crossed over between Murren and Gimmelwald). Like the continuous stream of water that flows through Gimmelwald, so will there be a steady stream of tourists for years to come. We only hope the people of Gimmelwald continue to see them as a positive impact on their village life. We hope also that these visitors leave with similar positive feelings and wonderful memories as we most certainly do.

On the way to Colmar, the train sped along the shoreline of Lake Thun and later the River Aare which flows into the Rhine.

Our first phone call from a booth at the train station secured a room for the night ... but only one night.

 Maison Jund is an accumulation of connected buildings that seem to be making an effort to hold each other up as if they all have had too much wine. Perhaps the wine that is made by the owner/wine-maker, Andre. Perhaps Andre thought this too and painted these four hundred year old half-timbered structures with the barrel dregs of his red wine.

We took to the streets.

What is now Colmar's University Institue of Technology was built between 1738 and 1744 on the site of a Franciscan convent which had been used as a hospital from the middle of the 16th century. Freestones originating from the old town fortifications were used in its construction.

Colmar's covered market was constructed in the mid 1860s using a metal frame supported by cast iron pillars and filled in by brick and freestones. Big doors opening to the canal allowed the gardeners to unload their produce from their flat bottomed boats. In the south-west corner, a niche was built to hold the 1869 "Petit Vigneron" statue created by Bartholdi who also created the Statue of Liberty.

Nearby a colourful row of half-timbered houses line Rue de la Poissonnerie where the fish mongers had their shops.

A part of Colmar is nick-named "little Venice" because of it's network of canals (they even shuffle tourists around in little motorized gondolas (more of those flat bottomed boats ). 
A five star hotel (left:light green building on right) , that from outside appearances looks like many of the other half-timbered structures in this city, sits on a canal in the "little Venice" district. As we let our imaginations take us a couple of centuries back, the sound of horse and carriage completed the mind pictures.

All those hundreds of years ago when many of these homes and shops were built, they may not have had building codes, but they did have taxes and the amount of property tax was based on the amount of ground on which the structure sat. Just as now, people weren't keen on paying any more taxes than they had to. To that end the owners built the ground floor of their buildings as small as reasonably possible and then made each additional floor larger and over hanging the floor below.

There are always surprises in yesteryear freestyle architecture. Take for example the high gabled statue of a man trying to squeeze through a small round window. Could it be that the father of the household arrived home unexpectedly and the young man is trying to flee from an upstairs boudoir?

The ornate house of the wine merchant constructed in 1609 evokes the golden age of the merchants which started in the 16th century. On top of the gable another work by (Statue of Liberty) artist Bartholdi is of a wine cooper. 

This street of affluent merchants is also home to three beautiful shop signs (there are many throughout the city) by artist Hansi -- the Swan Apothecary (pharmacy), the bakery and the butcher. Hansi, a great patriot, included the colours blue, white and red within his signs.  Other signs, old and new, throughout Colmar add their own charm to this unique city.

We slowly drifted back to our circa 1600 room passing a mother swan with four little ones and picking up dinner supplies on the way.
After dinner and a little travel day snooze, we went out to "Folklore Evening" put on by the Tourist Office of Colmar ... unfortunately leaving the camera behind.

The show took place around a large bandshell in a park area called Place Rapp. A thirty-piece band was in the band shell while right in front of where we were sitting ten dancers in traditional costumes did folk dances to music supplied by three accordionists.

In between music selections a lady spoke of the meaning of the music, dances and the 18th century style of costumes.

Costumes have changed over centuries, adapting to local life area by area and even town to town. They characterize age, religious and political beliefs. Materials (linen and hemp) created in rural houses, colours and cut defined the Alsatian costume. As people began to purchase manufactured products the costumes became larger and used bright colours.

For the females costume the linen, and later cotton blouse, is decorated around the neck. The 18th century sleeves became longer and puffed out then tied in with ribbons. The collar either square or circular is knitted or in linen and is trimmed with a plain lace that matches the end of the sleeves. Farmers wore their skirts at their calf while urbanites wore them to the ankle. The Protestant skirt is usually decorated at the bottom with ribbon, while the Catholic's wore theirs plain. A corset was usually made of a precious material, laced at the front and hooked at the base. The apron of the Alsatian costume was made of linen. In later years flowered patterns, silks and satins were used. The bottom of the apron can be decorated with ribbons or lined with lace. Stockings are white and hand knitted. Shoes with low heels were decorated with ribbons or a buckle. The shawl is not only decorative but provides extra warmth. It is usually tied or crossed and can be adorned with fringes, flowers or embroidery. The typical headdress of the Alsatian costume is a ribbon bonnet. Around 1830 the headdress was like a large bow and in the nineties it reached a metre diameter. The colour of the ribbons depends on religious beliefs: black for young Protestants and married women, red and multicoloured for the young Catholics.

The older dancers felt very comfortable with what they were doing and having fun by acting out the dances and not just doing the steps. One of these older gentlemen was quite sassy and captured the audiences attention with his playful antics. Some of the audience which was sitting informally around the bandstand, sat quietly in appreciation of the entertainment before them, while others tapped their toes, moved their legs and hands in remembrance of when the had learned these traditions. One lady in white slacks and standing close to the fence was struggling to contain herself and would every so often break out in dance on the sidelines. Near the end of the program the ten dancers went out into the audience and selected ten partners to join them in a dance. The sassy fellow picked Sherrie (oh for a camera!). After that dance they selected ten more members from the audience and the lady in the white slacks was selected. She was in her glory and her face shone with glee.

  

JUNE 16

We spent the morning securing accommodations, since an opening had not come available at Maison Jund. Our new accommodations lacked character but would suffice for one night's lodging.

Our next stop was the train station to check timetables of train departures and connections in Paris for the Eurostar. While we waited in line in the information office, the lady in the white slacks from the night before came in and recognized us. She greeted Sherrie as though they were long friends of a dance team. Her conversation in French would have usually triggered Sherrie to say, "Desole. Je ne parle pas francais. [I'm sorry. I do not speak french]" however, she just watched her enthusiastic explanations with an understanding smile on her face and seemed to nod at the appropriate times. 

Once Sherrie smiled in agreement and said, "belle [beautiful]" and it seemed to fit in because the lady continued talking as though we understood each and every word she was uttering in French. Finally she slowed down and with some words around "Au revoir [good bye]" she grasped Sherrie hands in good will and then departed.

On the way back we stopped for brunch in a recommended cafe. It had a salad bar and a cooked vegetable bar. We chose the vegetables and savored green beans, spinach, carrots and cauliflower which all seem to be absent from most European menus.

We cut through the park which was the scene of last night's entertainment and took pictures of children and adults running through the sixty intermittent spouts of water without getting wet. Then, of course there were those that would stand on a spout and let the wetness happen.

The bandshall was empty but the images of last night played on.

Part of the afternoon was spent in museums and churches.

The Unterlinden Museum collections, housed in a serene cloister, are for the most part, religious paintings and artifacts.

One small room holds several large and ornate wine casks as well as two wine presses.
We were pleased to find one religious statue that looked pleased with the life God had created, rather than expressing the serious, sad or pious face usually found on religious statues.

 

   

 

A new acquisition for the museum is a still life painting of a dentist cabinet. It is believed to be the oldest still life painting in existence. The word on the white mug means "toothache". The bottle on the left has a parchment paper stopper.

The centrepiece of the museum is Grunewald's Iseheim Altarpiece. It is a series of paintings on hinges that fold in and open to show different biblical moments and was painted to be seen by patients in a medieval hospital suffering horrible, and at that time incurable, skin diseases such as Saint Anthony's Fire (caused by a parasite living in grains).   The scene of the crucifixion is most poignant. 

If we were to visit the museum again, this assemblage of art would be the first stop not the last. After an hour of viewing other religious paintings, many of them on the crucifixion, many of them outstanding in their own way; made what should have been the highlight seemed rather anticlimactic.

In the Dominican Church we viewed the beautiful "Virgin in the Rosebush" painting by Martin Schongauer. The detail is incredible (no photos allowed). 

Outside a beautiful piece that could be photographed was a statue of Mary with Child (below left).

In Colmar the real show-stopper is the old city itself. Street after street of film gobbling sights (again thankful for digital cameras) can feel like walking through a painting in a history book.

 

The hatter's house is a Renaissance jewel. Built in 1537 its facade is elaborately painted and the turret houses a spiral staircase.

  

 

 

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Next door to the hatter's house is the draper's home. There is a statue of the draper carved into the corner of the building. He is holding a measuring stick. Many cities, like Colmar, had their own set of measurements in the middle ages. Perhaps that helps to explain the tilts and leans of the buildings.