By Mark Gauert
City & Shore Magazine
The lady in the ball cap walking her dog down the mountain asked where I was from.
“Floride?’’ she repeated in French, before switching to English. “Why would anyone want to come here from there?’’
I looked ahead at our trail through the green pastures of the Swiss Alps, about 5,000 miles from – and 6,000 feet above – South Florida. The high that summer afternoon was 52 degrees, about 40 degrees cooler than at home. I looked up to the snowy peaks of the Dents Blanche, Veisivi and Perroc – the sharp teeth in the mouth of the glacial Valley of Hérens in the Swiss canton of Valais. The last time anyone saw any snow in South Florida – or so many teeth – Jimmy Carter was about to be sworn in as president.
“It’s nice to be here now,’’ I said to the lady in the ball cap, “away from all the heat, humidity and hurricanes this time of year back home.”
But there were other reasons. More than I cared to let on to a stranger in a ball cap with a Bouvier Bernois at the end of her rope.
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Switzerland is not an economy destination in Europe. (For that, try Spain, Portugal, Slovenia). It can cost a lot to get there, to travel inside the country and to eat out at restaurants.
But the truth about Switzerland in summertime, I wanted to blurt out to the lady in the ball cap, is that I kind of like it there.
I like the soft bell choirs of goat, sheep and cow bells on the grazers up in the alpine hills. I like the hot Bosco burger and glacier-cold Zermatt beer on the sun terrace at the five-star Riffelalp Resort (a place remarkably undiscovered on a Monday afternoon, considering The New York Times had mentioned it among its list of “52 Places to Go in 2017”). I like the idea of listening to Herbie Hancock – or, wait, Tom Jones!?! – this season at the Montreux Jazz Festival; or window shopping Hublot, Lindt and Swatch on the Bahnhofstrasse in Zermatt, in the monumental shadow of the Matterhorn. (I had questioned the objectivity of the sales lady behind the counter at Läderach, who said hers was “the best chocolate in the world.’’ Until I tried it).
I like the bright, flavorful – and, outside of Europe, largely unknown – wines of Switzerland, too, especially the pinot noirs, gamays and merlots from the rocky terraces above Sion. I like wandering the heroic halls of the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, looking over such authentic game-worn memorabilia as Jesse Owens’ track shoes and Shannon Miller’s leotard. But mostly, I like hiking the slopes of the Valley of Hérens, through cool pastures waving with purple, red and white wildflowers, dotted with weathered log mazots and summer chalets – with hardly another hiker in sight.
Except for a lady in a ball cap, walking her dog down the mountain with me.
She looked at me and shook her head.
“If I had a choice, I would have stayed in Florida,’’ she said with such insistence I began to wonder if she might be an undercover Swiss Guard patrolling the backwoods for visitors overstaying their visas.
“I went to Florida when I was younger, and I’ve never forgotten it,” she said. “I loved the water, the beaches, the cities – even that place over on the west coast, where all the old people are. What was it called? Oh yes, Fort Myers!”
“Everybody,’’ she said, “was so friendly there.’’
Everybody here, I began to think, was pretty friendly, too. (Unless she was about to flash her Swiss Guard credential).
* * *
I walked for awhile longer with the lady in the ball cap and her dog, until she took the trail back to Evolène, and I took the one back to my room to pack.
On the flight back, I thought about what people say about the grass being greener on the other side of wherever they are. The burger hotter, the beer colder, the chocolate better. I think it may be all a matter of perspective – or maybe just how badly you need a vacation.
When I got back from mine, I looked ahead at the terminal floor at MIA – where Marjorie Stoneman Douglas’ words about the Everglades are embedded in the terrazzo underfoot. (“The saw grass stands drying to old gold and rustling faintly.”) I started to like the idea of some hot conch fritters and a cold mojito. I started to like the idea of listening to Peter Frampton – or, wait, Blondie!?! – at the Hard Rock; or window shopping on Las Olas, or Worth Avenue or Atlantic Avenue in the shadow of downtowns.
At the curb, waiting for the Park ‘N Fly shuttle, I looked up into the billowing heights of a summer storm – our mountains – and knew that I was home.
But if I ran into the lady in the ball cap on the beach or the Everglades or window shopping on one of our streets in summer here, I’d tell her I would’ve stayed in Valais.
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IF YOU GO
Swiss International Air Lines flies direct daily from Miami to Zurich (ZRH), swiss.com. Yes, it’s true, they pass around baskets of chocolate before each landing.
SBB (Swiss Federal Railway)’s network is steps away from baggage claim at ZRH. In my experience, it’s an easy, clean and efficient way to get around the country fast. It’s about an hour from ZRH to Bern, the nation’s capital. It’s about three hours from Zurich to Sion, gateway to the French-speaking canton of Valais, the Valley of Hérens and Evolène.
Riffelalp Resort, 3920 Zermatt, riffelalp.com. Perched at 7,290 feet, this five-star, 133-year-old gem was well known long before The New York Times mentioned it this year among its list of “52 Places to Go in 2017”). A random check of availability on the resort’s website showed a double room with a view of the Matterhorn for about $425 a night (based on a week’s stay). And you’re going to want the view of the Matterhorn here. (It’ll make you forget there’s cable-satellite TV in the room. Maybe even the mini-bar). If you can’t stay the night, at least have lunch on the sun terrace, with the same stunning views of the Matterhorn and surrounding peaks. You’ll think you’re in a Bond movie.
The Olympic Museum, 1, quai d’Ouchy,1006 Lausanne, olympic.org/museum. Notable not only for its fascinating collections of memorabilia from the games, and interactive interpretations of the games’ ancient and modern history and the athletes’ training regimens – hey, I shot 10 out of 10 targets in 56 seconds in the biathalon simulator! – the museum grounds also command one of the prettiest views across Lake Geneva to alpine peaks in France.
Da Vinci Ristorante, Place du Midi 35, 1950 Sion, sionrestos.com/davinci. Everything on the menu here is memorable – but, if you happen to be on the summer terrace here some night when the chef’s offering linguini with sardines and an onion confiture, you may think it’s about the best dish you’ve ever had in your life.
Buffet de la Gare, 2 Avenue de la Gare, 1955 St. Pierre de Clages, buffetdelagarechamoson.ch. A great place in the vineyards, with views of the mountains from the covered terrace. I don’t often take pictures of my food – but, the melon au jambon cru looked like a work of art worthy of display at the Louvre. (I took a picture, but I finished the dish before I could have it professionally appraised).
Grand Hotel Kurhaus, 1986 Arolla, arolla.com/kurhaus. The last stop up the winding (and a little harrowing) Route des Marmottes to Arolla, the Kurhaus has been welcoming guests in rustic comfort here since 1896. There’s hiking and stunning views up the glacier to 11,932-foot Mount Collon – but, really, I’d go just for the blueberry tarte on the sunny terrace. You can walk off the calories on the hike down.