THE HILLS ARE ALIVE . . .
Linda Thompson enjoys three European countries in one day
You can tell we’re heading into mountainous country. Gary, our tour director, has put The Sound of Music on the coach video system.
But far from sounding trite, in this context it works, and we all sing along. We’re on our way to Lucerne, Switzerland, driving through beautiful Burgundy wine country, passing through the Jura mountains.
It’s 650km of outrageous scenery, towering mountains, windfarms — amazingly peaceful after the bustle of Paris, our first stop on the Insight Vacations’ Road to Rome guided holiday.
Lucerne looms as a cool oasis after the heat and we go straight to a cruise on a windswept Lake Lucerne to see how the other half lives, the Swiss Alps in the background everywhere.
Next day we head out to see the sad lion monument carved into a limestone cliff in the town, a tribute to Swiss Guards who died protecting King Louis XVI during the French Revolution.
There’s a Jesuit Church with fine carvings and frescos, then later in the day we head up stunning Mt Stanserhorn by funicular railway and open-topped cable car. From here you can see as far as Alsace and Germany’s Black Forest.
Breathtaking views from every quarter. Some of us trek up a gentle slope to Heidi’s House, where friendly marmots live in burrows. But you just can’t stop looking at those views and spotting the edelweiss.
Many here have a smattering of English and a local asks where I’m from. She says isn’t New Zealand just like Switzerland? Well, sort of, but your mountains are higher and more in-your-face and . . . pointier.
In the distance we can hear bells of grazing cows let out into the fields for the summer. My childhood favourite book of Heidi comes to life.
Later a small group of us head up into the mountains to visit a local farmer, Ulli, to learn more about dairy farming in the alps — which she says stands for “A Lovely Place”. Her 40 cows live inside during the harsh winter so we enjoy lunch snacks of homemade cheeses and salami and smoked beef, strudel and chocolate cake in the spotless cowshed. All washed down with coffee and Schnapps. Then there’s a horse and carriage ride around the village. Others browse the shops and buy chocolate. Lots of chocolate.
That evening there’s a music festival on by the Reuss River so I join thousands of happy concert-goers of all ages to watch their local superstar play. No idea who he is but he’s good.
Next day we pass through the tiny principality of Liechtenstein, its quiet capital Vaduz’s streets nearly empty, bar the shops selling cuckoo clocks and more chocolate, and some very excellent icecream.
This doubly land-locked state of just more than 162sq km makes its money from skiing and has a very long, proud history. It has a population of about 38,000 but they must all be at work and school.
For €3 you can get Liechtenstein stamped in your passport. That’s a bit of a rarity in these days of European Union when the only way you know you’ve changed countries is when your phone sends you a message saying welcome to France/Switzerland/Austria/ Liechtenstein.
But we’re off to mountain-ringed Innsbruck, in Austria.
I’d seen those multi-coloured houses by the Inn river in a dozen photographs. And here they were, in the flesh. Stunning, and they’ve stood there since the 14th century.
The Gothic old town of Innsbruck is glorious, unchanged for centuries. The buildings date from the Middle Ages but the town is bustling with 21st-century commerce inside these ancient buildings.
Max’s Golden Roof is decorated with 2657 gilded copper tiles, a rather unsubtle message from Emperor Maximilian about his wealth and power.
In the distance the
Nordkette mountain range hovers over it all.
The cathedral just off the square is being restored but inside it is yet another example of the wealth of a church that dominated every life for centuries.
Back in the square, a group of men in lederhosen appear to crack whips to music. Where else could you see that?
And then there’s shopping time at Swarovski.
The women in our group light up, the men sigh. It’s worth going into the building just to admire the crystal-inlaid steps, the giant crystal boobs inside the foyer — and of course there’s a sale on. Credit cards may be damaged.
That night there’s a real Tyrolean dinner of schnitzel and potatoes — a bit too packed with several tour groups in at once — and dancers in national costume showing astounding skill in thigh-slapping dance, yodelling and playing traditional instruments, including those massive alpine horns. Somehow it’s not even twee.
They finish their show with a song dedicated to every nation in the audience. There are at least 20. Our song is Now is the Hour, and I’m the only Kiwi. Someone pinches our transport home to our hotel, but one of the nice robust men in lederhosen offers to drive us back.
No language issues — he speaks no English, the two other Chinese guests in the car speak no German or English and my German is a bit hit and miss. No one cares. Lots of smiles and thanks. Tomorrow we head into Italy and continue our journey through history via Venice, Florence and on to the cradle of democracy, Rome. But that’s a whole other story . . .
Marmot in the Swiss Alps.
Tyrolean horns at dinner performance Photos / Linda Thompson
Innsbruck’s coloured houses