Read the previous story, “Swiss Family Habegger: A Tale of Mountains and Roots.”
Missing the train in Geneva wasn’t my first mishap with Swiss trains. The day I’d arrived with elder daughter Alanna in Zurich from the U.S. I thought I was handling all the niggling details of travel pretty well. I’d bought the phone card I needed to call our friends in Geneva to get to their house, I’d found the rail information office to buy my ticket to Geneva, and now knew the time of departure, 12:13. But it took longer than I expected to decide what ticket or rail pass made the most sense. There are so many options designed to provide a bargain or convenience (or both) to the traveler that you’d need a more powerful microchip than I possessed to determine which is best for you. I knew I’d be traveling around the country for two weeks but wouldn’t be starting that trip for five days, and I didn’t know how much traveling by train I’d be doing outside that two week stretch, so in the end I simply bought a round trip ticket between Zurich and Geneva that was good for a month.
Time was short. At the bottom of the escalator the train idled, doors open. The signs read Geneva Airport, 12:13. The departure time was right, the platform number was right, but I thought the Geneva station was the last one on the line, one stop beyond Geneva Airport. We stood by the door, uncertain, Alanna mirroring my worry. My watch read 12:13. Any second now.
A train worker raced across the platform, spoke into an official-looking phone on a wall, slammed it down, threw a switch, and then raced for our door.
“Is this train going to Geneva?” I asked frantically.
“Ja,” he said disdainfully as he jumped aboard. I threw in the bags, pulled Alanna on, and the doors closed. Instantly the train started off and I still had no idea if it was the right one.
Once we got settled I learned that the main station in Geneva, Cornavin, was one stop before the airport, so I was able to relax.
The train ran through a rolling valley dotted with forests. Golden fields of grain waved in the breeze or pushed their three-day harvest stubble toward the sky. Cornfields marched in formations of green, a few weeks from picking time. Sunflowers congregated in flat-topped masses, their brown faces downcast as if saddened to be past their prime. Cylindrical hay bales clustered here and there, some blond and elegant in the sunshine, others wrapped tightly in white plastic like gigantic sausages. Alanna called out whenever she spotted one as if it were the most amazing sight she’d ever seen. A river snaked along the tracks, its silver streaks flashing through the trees. At one juncture a fairy tale castle rose above the forest, commanding a high bluff on an island in the river, the quintessential medieval fortress. It appeared so suddenly and was gone so fast I wondered if it was a fantasy, an image from my boyhood created by my own hopes for this journey and the fatigue of getting here.
Much later, after rolling past more cornfields, far more than I had ever imagined in Switzerland, we popped out of a tunnel to the sudden and almost unimaginable blue expanse of Lake Geneva far below, giant layered mountains feathering back toward the horizon. Below us, vineyards tumbled over the rolling terrain all the way to the lake, chateaux and villages poking steeples out from the green carpet.
The drama of this sight came, in part, from surprise. There had been no hint of the lake about to appear, nor of any vineyards or sweeping mountainscape, for that matter. It was like Alice going down the rabbit hole, the train entering that tunnel and emerging in a wonderland of mountains and vineyards and tidy villages and the grand lake anchoring it all. Some sights grow ordinary the more you see them but I couldn’t imagine this one doing so. Like the view of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge framed by the tunnel on the Waldo Grade as you approach from the north, or the Mediterranean Sea from the twisting roads above the French and Italian rivieras, this view had to retain its freshness and wonder. It was a sight I was determined to see again before my month in Switzerland was over.
Trains left Geneva for Bern every hour, so eventually we headed toward Lausanne and those vineyards. The girls settled in to watch the landscape searching for cows or color in their books, but when we left Lausanne I kept an eye out over the lake. I wondered if we were on the same route we’d taken from Zurich, and moments later, when the first of those rolling vineyards appeared below, Alanna blurted, “Hey, we saw that on the other train!” I was astonished. My five-year-old had connected with that landscape in the same way I had. I wasn’t sure what would impress her on this trip and thus far Lake Geneva’s swans and cygnets and coots had captured her imagination, but here she was as enraptured as I was by those vineyards tumbling into the lake.
Once we passed through the tunnel and left the lake behind we settled into conversation, grandfather Eugene across the aisle with a retired Swiss chef who spoke French and German and English and probably other languages. He had traveled all over the world working in hotels and had opinions about most current events. Alanna was occupied with a dot-to-dot book she’d been given by Swiss Airlines on our flight over. I was surprised at how engaged she was by it. This simple dot-to-dot book and a memory game with plastic stickers had kept her busy on much of the flight, on the train to Geneva, and now again. Usually such toys are quickly discarded, but these must have been exactly right for her age or inclination.
We arrived in Bern on time with a few minutes to make the connection to Interlaken. The friendly chef helped us get all of our bags off the train and wished us well. We were tired now and the Bern station was stifling. Jostling travelers jammed the platform and we edged along with dozens of other sweating passengers. Everyone seemed to be squeezing onto the train we thought was ours, and I hoped it was the right one even as Eugene, Paula, and the two girls pushed ahead of me looking for a place to sit.
“Is this train going to Interlaken?” someone on the platform called to me.
“Yes, I think so,” I said, not completely certain.
“No, this train is going to Geneva,” the man next to me said.
Geneva? He said it with such certainty that I was sure he was right. I pushed beyond the vestibule into the car to see my family about to enter the next car. “Paula!” I shouted, causing a stir across the car. “We’re on the wrong train!”
Paula and Eugene turned and tried to wedge their way against the flow, and I turned to get off.
“No, this train is going to Interlaken,” a woman with a German accent said.
“It is?” I asked.
“But that guy said it was going to Geneva.”
“Ja, and then he jumped off the train. This train is going to Interlaken.”
Now mortified, I poked my head back into the car and waved to Paula and Eugene to continue on, it was a false alarm.
The train was so crowded there seemed little point in trying to move on with our luggage. The woman who’d spoken to me had luggage, too, and we shoved our cases into the corner and decided to try our luck looking for seats. I inched forward to the next car and the next, eventually finding Eugene sitting on the floor in a smoking car that was half-devoted to bicycles and thus half empty of seats. The air was much cooler there. He said he would stay put but the others had gone ahead. I found them tucked among other passengers, so hot and tired I hardly recognized them. But seats opened up as the train made stops along the way, and eventually I was able to join them.
The train stopped in Thun, and I had a moment’s regret that we hadn’t planned a day there before continuing on to Grindelwald. But I wanted to get the kids up into the mountains and show them things that would interest them rather than drag them along on a possibly fruitless and boring hunt for a family connection to a Swiss engineering firm. I knew I’d have time later in the trip.
The train ran along the lake where Alanna spotted lily pads and occasional swimmers escaping the heat. The evening light lit up the surrounding hillsides in a luminescent green, and villages nestled between the hills and the lakeshore in the sort of perfection usually possible only in dreams. Eventually we arrived in Interlaken Ost and boarded the cogwheel train to Grindelwald with plenty of time to spare.
On this train the windows opened and Érne stood gazing out, the wind in her face. A narrow river gray with glacial silt roared through the forest beside the tracks, peaks rose sheer and dominant all around, the air grew cooler as we climbed, and I thought we were approaching the Eiger. A check of the map confirmed that we were. A short while later we arrived in Grindelwald, a village on the flanks of one of Europe’s most fabled mountains. The Eiger looms above the town, a massive peak that is stunningly close and draws all of your attention. We’d reserved a room at the Hotel Tshuggen for all five of us, and it turned out to be an attic room in a chalet with a large window and deck looking out onto the Eiger. For two nights it would be our home, the Eiger our companion.
Read the next story, “Swiss Family Habegger: At the ‘Top of Europe.'”
Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, has been writing about travel since 1980. He has visited almost fifty countries and six of the seven continents, traveling from the frozen Arctic to equatorial rain forest, the high Himalayas to the Dead Sea. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and since 1985 their syndicated newspaper column, “World Travel Watch,” has appeared in newspapers in five countries, and can also be found on WorldTravelWatch.com and on TravelersTales.com. As series editors of Travelers’ Tales, they have worked on some eighty titles, winning many awards for excellence. Habegger regularly teaches the craft of travel writing at workshops and writers conferences, and he lives with his family in San Francisco. Click here to learn more about Larry Habegger.