Up the valley and over

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We needed to be away earlier today. Majella had been arranging a 2 pm rendezvous in the vicinity of Lucerne. She had an overnight message from Kiki/Bella suggesting that we meet at Schloss Hallwyl, about 40 minutes beyond Lucerne and close to Seon where we had booked Airbnb for tonight. The meant we had four hours of driving and needed some added time for sightseeing.

As usual, Majella and I were having breakfast by 7 am when Majella woke Callum. He showered, dressed, ate breakfast, and was ready a little before 8 am. We packed the car, said goodbye to our host, Elisabeth, and were on the road just after 8 am.

Our drive up the Rhône valley was uneventful. The valley floor at Sierre is broad and reasonably level. That continued for some distance through a series of urban and light industrial areas. The hillside vineyards soon disappeared but the motorway continued, with some interruptions for roadworks, until we reached Brig where the Simplon Pass from Italy reaches the Rhône.

Beyond Brig the valley and the road narrowed and traffic eased. The upper reaches of the valley were green pastures though we saw few cattle. Small villages appeared every few kilometres and most appeared to have accommodation for tourists in season.

Majella and I came this way in 2017 but took the vehicular train through the tunnel from Oberwald to Realp because cloud cover made the road over the pass unattractive. This time we had blue sky with just a few scattered clouds so we were happy to bypass the train and drive on toward the pass and the glacier.

From Oberwald the road rose rapidly toward the pass through forest at first and then above the tree line we could see the zig-zag of the road far above and the old Hotel Belvedere (2260 m) near the top alongside the rocky wall over which the beginning of the Rhône tumbled. I saw another road off to the left that I thought at first was part of what we were travelling but it was another crossing. At a few points there was a train line with a central cog running beside us until it disappeared into a tunnel. We eventually saw it again where it exited on the far side of the pass.

As we zigged and zagged our way up to the pass, we drove past bicycles going up and down. Some, but not all, were e-bikes and some of the cyclists were looking a little frayed. Callum was impressed by the variety of sporty cars we saw coming down as we drove up.

We reached the level area near the old Hotel Belvedere just before 10 am and found that the access to the Rhône glacier ice grotto did not open until 10 am. While we waited we had coffees and hot chocolate at the kiosk below the access point. I was taken aback to find that it was cash only but managed to find 15 euros to settle that account. We were able to enjoy the view down the valley where Majella had driven up.

When we had finished our drinks we walked upstairs and found that was also cash only. All I had in European currency was a 50 euro note for which I received 21 CHF in change.

We walked out onto the trail that led to the ice grotto that is cut into the toe of the Rhône glacier each year. Like all glaciers, this one is retreating as the climate warms so we had to walk further than Majella and Laura did when they visited in 2011. The track was graded but had loose gravel and one patch of snow that needed care not to slip.

The ice grotto was an interesting experience. A tunnel had been cut some distance into the glacier and the end of the glacier was swathed in white insulating blanket to reduce melting by the sun. We walked to the end of the tunnel, around a column left there, and back to the entrance. We paused for photographs and to touch the icy walls that were clear with a bluish tint.

Once outside we strolled back up the track. Callum enjoyed clowning around a little in the snow before we drove on toward the nearby Furka Pass (2429 m). There was ample space there to stop and several vehicles already taking advantage of it. We paused for photographs and Callum had to cross the road to investigate and play with a pile of snow. Since we were again at a high place and the hour in Australia was not too late I called Hannah using Facebook Messenger. We all chatted for a bit and the home bound Gutkes enjoyed some of the spectacular mountain views and Callum’s shenanigans with the snow.

The drive up to the pass had been winding road but in surprisingly good condition and wide enough to justify a centre line. The road down was just as winding but less wide and lacking any centre line. Majella had to stop several times to allow oncoming vehicles to get by and a couple of times she had to back up to find a space wide enough. We continued to pass cyclists and at one point saw a group of 20 or 30 cycling teenagers paused for a rest and to regroup as we saw a few further on struggling to catch up. There were numerous ‘flash’ sports cars, some clearly in a hurry to relive James Bond’s descent, coming up. Later we passed a series of classic cars badged with numbers for some event. They included some older vehicles and a classic kombi.

Eventually the road down toward Lucerne widened to become a motorway and we passed through a series of long tunnels and along viaducts beside a lake. As we approached Lucerne we could see that we would be pressed for time to make our 2 pm rendezvous. I switched navigation from the city centre to a parking garage near the Kapellbrücke (Chapel Bridge) which was the landmark Majella most wanted Callum to see. There were plenty of spaces in the car park and we soon emerged through a fancy store onto the street and found our way to the bridge. After the obligatory photos we walked across, along the other side, and back across another bridge. We looked for lunch in the basement food store where we had parked but it was all fine ingredients and nothing easy.

Instead, we drove out of the city toward Schloss Hallwyl. I had checked earlier and found it was closed today but that would not prevent our meeting and looking from the outside. Along the way we paused at a SPAR Express where we found lunch in the form of a croissant for Callum and sandwich for Majella and me.

We arrived at the parking lot across the road from the castle at the same time as our friends. Kiki (now Bella) came from Hong Kong to Toowoomba with her parents around 2001 at the age of about 10 for the benefit of an Australian education. They were part of our Parish family group for several years. She has since worked for an airline, travelled broadly, and now is married to Matthias, a German-speaking Swiss. They have 3 children. The oldest, Olivia, was in school but Charlie and Lily were with them. Bella had photographed a wedding in Geneva over the weekend and they were on their way home to north-east Switzerland.

After greetings we all walked across the road and past the castle to a grassed area by a stream. We had already eaten but Bella and Matthias had brought lunch so the family ate while we chatted. We spent most of an hour catching up and watching artists by the stream and a family of swans on the water.

When it was time to leave we walked back to the cars and said our farewells. We drove on to nearby Seon and checked into our Airbnb. It is 2 flights up and less luxurious than our recent stays but adequate for our night along the road home. Rather than carry suitcases up the stairs we grabbed what we needed and left the rest in the car.

After a short rest we walked out to explore the town. There were a couple of supermarkets but the restaurants I found in a search were closed on Monday. We did find a small kebab place near the railway station and had cold drinks there. Callum checked the menu and decided they had a range of suitable options for dinner. We walked back to our apartment to rest some more.

Around 6 pm we went out again to find dinner. We looked at the menu at a nearby Gasthof but Callum thought it had nothing to compare with what he had seen earlier. We walked on to the kiosk where we bought him the ‘doner kebab mit pommes’ (fries) which he thoroughly enjoyed – not better than Macca’s, just different.

From there we went on to the supermarket where we bough some crusty rolls, ice creams for dessert, cider for Majella, beer for me, and apple juice for Callum along with items for breakfast. We took those back to our apartment where Majella and I dined on the rolls with salami and cheese we had from Marie-Françoise and some fruit.

Sometime later we recalled that we had not yet eaten the ice creams we had bought at the supermarket. They were Magnum star chasers – ice cream wrapped in caramel, then chocolate coated and encrusted with a scattering of popcorn. That made an interesting end to an already interesting day.