röstigraben: crossing the invisible potato border

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Matterhorn mountain as viewed from Zermatt

One day during our honeymoon in Switzerland, we drove to Täsch and then took a train to Zermatt, which is where you visit if you want to see the famed Matterhorn, sometimes referred to as the Mountain of Mountains, or Berg de Berge in German. As we walked Zermatt’s long main street to reach the lift that would take us to the Matterhorn “glacier paradise,” we noticed that signs were all in German. In the windows of Bäckerei were Grittibänz, those cute golden bread men. We were greeted with hallo instead of bonjour.

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I was delighted that only an hour’s drive from our French-speaking base of Crans-Montana could have us land in a town that felt so completely German. What I didn’t find out until later was that, during our short trip, we had crossed what’s known in Swiss German as the Röstigraben. Rösti is a simple Swiss potato dish, like a big hash brown. Röstigraben (potato ditch, essentially) is a lighthearted term for the barrier that divides the French and German-speaking parts of the canton. It is not merely linguistic, but often refers to differences in attitude and voting habits by the people on either side (think Bible Belt, or New Yorkers vs Southerners). Similarly, there is a term for the divide between German-speaking Switzerland and the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino: polentagraben.

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The Matterhorn looms over Zermatt. The mountain is an iconic symbol of the Swiss alps with its distinctive crooked-pyramid shape. It’s the mountain you find on a bar of Toblerone, and its Disney copycat in Anaheim has drawn many fans, who get to “bobsled” down the twists and turns of the small-scale depiction. To my eyes, the mountain has personality, a quirky look that reminds me of Harry Potter‘s Sorting Hat. If I am to characterize the Matterhorn, though, I would be wrong not to mention its dark side. Scaling the heights of the Matterhorn has tempted climbers since 1865, when it was first successfully ascended. (Though this success is relative. Seven men attempted the climb, only three made it back).

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This ascent of the Matterhorn marked the end of the “golden age of alpinism,” since the mountain was one of the last major peaks in the Alps yet to be ascended.

In Zermatt today is a small cemetery at the foot of a church. It seems to contain only the graves of those who have lost their lives trying to tackle the Matterhorn or other nearby mountains. The Matterhorn itself has claimed about 500 lives since its first “successful” ascent. Some of the graves are decorated with gear, such as a small iron cross looped with rope and an ice pick.

We didn’t have much time to look around, though, as we needed to get to the gondola. It was approaching noon, and the ride to the top would take a full 45 minutes. At that altitude, nighttime comes early and falls like a hammer.

The Matterhorn Express is billed as the “world’s highest 3S cableway.” The brochure promises it’s “like flying.” At 82 CHF a pop (about 72 euros right now), we thought it better be. Funnily enough, that was practically the budget option. There are cars offering champagne and comfortable leather seats or a full fondue meal, should you so choose. Talk about lunch with a view. ACS_1428

Once at the top, we stepped out of the gondola and into Italy, just over the border. The “glacier paradise” is a real feat of engineering: there is a restaurant, gallery of ice sculptures, and cinema, inside of an actual glacier. One of the features of a glacier is that it is subject to motion, probably a very slow descent down the mountain. If temperatures should ever cool dramatically, I’m guessing there will be no more glacier paradise. But for now, pretty neat. Lunch was simple, some tomato soup and rösti, but pricy. When you think about what it takes to get those ingredients up to that altitude though, I guess it can be forgiven.  ACS_1408

The best part was the view, a panorama where fourteen glaciers and thirty-eight high peaks are visible. I couldn’t stay out on the platform for long. My thin wool coat didn’t do much to combat the 5 degree Fahrenheit wind. When you start to uncomfortably ponder how it would feel to freeze to death, you should go inside.

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First modern travel poster: a depiction of the Matterhorn

Speaking of freezing to death, there is a cool show available on Netflix called The Horn, which we watched with rapt interest after our visit. It’s a docu-series about Air Zermatt, the alpine rescue team employed to rescue errant skiers and others who encounter danger on the mountain. In the first, teeth-clenching episode, the team attempts to rescue a skier who has fallen into a 100-foot crevasse.

winter wonderland: honeymoon in the swiss alps

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Switzerland in a word: cozy. As is my tendency, I had given the country an embarrassingly little amount of thought until I visited. Roger Federer. Watches? I had once been warned away from visiting for a weekend, told there was nothing to do.

But a short visit last week (our honeymoon!) was enough to pique my interest. Over hot chocolate, hot baths, and clean, cold air, I even forgot my aversion to winter. Switzerland (at least, the tiny part that I got to see) is not a bland, no man’s land, but a diverse, adventurer’s country that also happens to be extremely appealing in terms of aesthetics as well as gastronomy.

A few days after our wedding, with the big day still a blur in my mind, we set off on the seven-hour-drive from the outskirts of Paris to southwestern Switzerland.

We were staying in Crans-Montana, a resort town where Victor used to visit with his family. He had fond memories of skiing, warm plates of raclette, and time spent with his grandmother, but hadn’t been back for over a decade, when he was a teenager.

Crans-Montana is located in the Valais, one of the twenty-six cantons of Switzerland. Everyone around us spoke French, though we had to pay in Swiss francs instead of euros: beautiful printed bills on thick paper and shiny silver coins worth as much as 5 CHF apiece. While the Valais is French-speaking, Switzerland has four official languages: French, German, Italian, and Romansh, in a fascinating example of geographical boundaries influencing language. Where there be mountains, you can probably find some linguistic diversity.

But the causes aren’t all geographic. As this article explains, “Switzerland is a Willensnation, or nation of the will,” where the twenty-six cantons agree to work together, but without an especially powerful central government. As such, no uniquely Swiss language was ever imposed on the different cantons (which were once fully sovereign states).

We had plenty of time to explore our surroundings. We wouldn’t be doing any skiing, as we’d arrived a little early for the season, most likely missing the snow by a mere couple of weeks. Our plan, then, was simple. Hike in the mountains, refuel with stick-to-your-ribs winter food.

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Despite wheezing from a cold and the effect of the thin mountain air, standing at high altitudes next to a rushing waterfall or frosty lake felt exhilarating. Under full sun, the snow glittered. Everywhere were tiny chalets. They dotted the ice-blue mountainsides, looking sweet and lonely. The air smelled of pine. Icicles sat poised on cliffs overhead like daggers waiting to fall. (I always tiptoed past them, remembering what I’d heard about an icicle being the perfect murder weapon.)

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Restaurants sat hidden in hills, far away from the rest of civilization. They catered to hikers and skiers, offering an improbable refuge (and likely, fondue). Inside, these places had low ceilings, lace curtains, folksy printed tablecloths, and depictions of woodland creatures like something out of a wintry children’s book by Jan Brett.

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Swiss cuisine, our regime for the week, was a mash-up of offerings from the surrounding countries. On a menu board next to a typical boeuf bourguignon or German choucroute with sausages, you’d find several varieties of fondue, sausages made from veal, potato rösti (like a big hash brown), raclette (melted raclette cheese served with potatoes, charcuterie, cornichons), and croûte au fromage (like the best grilled cheese sandwich you’ve ever had, eaten with a fork).

We tried everything, even returning to the same restaurant three times when their fondue proved addictive. It’s the perfect date food, the gastronomic equivalent of a hug or a fair-isle sweater.

attention abeilles: hiking the massif de l’esterel

img_1742The best thing about waking up in the morning–or returning to my petit chez moi at any time of day–is the view from my balcony: the brilliant bay outlined by mountains.

I come from the part of Missouri that’s just barely not-Kansas. Deprived of elevation for so long, any hint of it makes me giddy.

Mountains comfort in their grandeur: a constant illustration of perspective. When you can see more than the neighbor’s front lawn, it’s easier to feel loosed from quotidian cares.

These particular mountains sit stoic, wrapped in a fine layer of gauzy fog. They look their best at sunset, as the dying light tinges them a deep purple. When night falls, the streetlights click on and trace a route around the base of the mountains in sparkling orange light.

These are my personal fairytale mountains. But like a shy classmate with a crush, I was content to stay a safe distance away. I didn’t even have a name for the object of my affections. All this time I’ve been here and my description stopped at: “those pretty mountains in the distance. To the right. With the red rocks.”

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It turns out I have a view of the Esterel Massif, a coastal mountain range of volcanic rock tinted brick-red by porphyry. On Sunday I asked Cécile, friend and native Cannoise, what I needed to do to get over there. Whenever I’ve hopped on a train to explore, I’ve always headed direction Ventimiglia, towards Italy. Never towards Marseille. I had developed a mistaken idea that the trains didn’t really run that way. Left unchallenged, this idea kept the mountains mysterious– and inaccessible. I’m glad I asked, because Cécile assured me that they do. She looked at the map of destinations and suggested a few. I wrote them down. I’m well-versed in the string of sparkling towns surrounding Nice, but didn’t even have names for the much more rural areas that neighbor Cannes.

It was a beautiful afternoon and I was itching to go somewhere, but the tiny train station right across the street didn’t offer rides for several hours. Fearing the sunset and the resulting chill (I was ill-dressed for a 15-degree temperature drop), I went to Villefranche-sur-Mer.

The next day, the sun again shone bright and my student canceled. It was as good a sign as any to get on the train. I picked Agay and bought a round-trip ticket for 7 euros. The next thirty minutes I was shuttled through the coast, surrounded by rocky red mountains and the deep blue sea (a preview of the hiking scenery to come).

The train spit me out in front of a tiny station and sputtered away. The station, bright red and boxy like a toy house, was dwarfed by the red rocks in the background. AGAY.

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Because I always like to spend a lot of time in adequate preparation, I picked a direction at random and started walking, googling hiking trails and train times as I did so. I was also wearing Birkenstock slides, which proved their name by causing me to slip all over the mountain. (There’s a reason I do not position myself as the Expert Traveler, source of wisdom for all practical matters).

Within five minutes I was away from the main road and headed down a promising path. It involved wooden and stone stairs and much of it felt like I was cutting through people’s backyards.

acs_0361acs_0351acs_0362acs_0363 Within twenty minutes, I had gained a lot of elevation and a panoramic view of the sea and hills. I hadn’t passed anyone else until I saw a red pickup truck parked in a field near a sign that warned ATTENTION ABEILLES. Watch out for bees. 

acs_0358An old man walked around to the truck.

Bonjour! I called out. Excuse me, but what bees? It seemed wise to inform myself in case there were giant attack bees further down the trail, or something of the sort.

It was nothing so adrenaline-inducing.

The man pointed behind the truck to a collection of beehives. I crept a bit closer and could hear the signature angry hum. Vaut mieux pas s’en approcher ! He warned. Vous risquez de vous faire piquer ! 

acs_0352 Noted. Getting stung a dozen times over wasn’t really on the day’s agenda, so I gave the bees a wide berth. Bees soon became a theme, though, buzzing shrilly about each patch of wildflowers I approached.

Ten minutes later, I came to a bench on an overlook. I stopped and read for about an hour, stopping occasionally just to fling my head back and breathe. I also furiously brainstormed picnics, my mind organizing grocery lists. If ever I found a place to have un pique-nique, this was it. acs_0330 acs_0353 acs_0329 acs_0332 The trail widened into a a red-dirt path big enough for several lanes of traffic. Tiny pebbles lay like scattered marbles on the ground, a sort of Home-Alone-style trap. In my sandals, the footwear of the hopeful and foolish, I was struggling to stay upright (much to the amusement of my fellow hikers). I wound my way up the red rock layers until I came to the point de vue at the very top of this particular mountain. acs_0356acs_0360acs_0359 acs_0350acs_0354acs_0344img_1717acs_0334 Gravity propelled my descent and I arrived where I had started in half the time. I still had 45 minutes before my train came, so I took the opportunity to visit Agay’s stretch of coastline. img_1742acs_0333 I found a rocky beach with clear water and patches of electric-green moss. Next to the bay was a campground complete with RVs, grills, and families having apéro. A man in waders headed out in the water with a bucket and a pole, surely hunting for some kind of snack from the sea.

It was a notably different crowd than on the Cannes beaches, with the luxury restaurants on the sand offering 20 euro cocktails. This felt normal, rural, a bit like a lake in Missouri. (But give me a Mediterranean bay any day.)acs_0337acs_0349acs_0346 acs_0331acs_0366acs_0365acs_0367acs_0364 It was a day well-worth 7 euros, I’ll say that much. Good things can happen when you jump on a train.

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shades of blue: falling for gorges du verdon

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A stranger in the kitchen. That was my first impression of Rémi. I didn’t know how to politely phrase the question ‘who are you and what are you doing here,’ so I assumed he was related to my AirBnb hosts, a cousin or something. We had a whole conversation before I realized he was just a guest like me. In Cannes for a week from Bordeaux, he would complete a weeklong stage for his new job, the training period required before he begins in January and moves here for the year.

Both in our early twenties and new in town, we struck up an easy rapport, making our respective dinners at the same time and walking around Cannes together. In the middle of the week was le Toussaint–all Saint’s Day–and Rémi had the day off. He asked if I wanted to go somewhere.

Yes.

I thought of places Erika and I had visited that he might like. “No,” he said, “let’s go somewhere new for you too!”

Kind soul. I thought out loud about where we could go by train.

“I have a car!” He laughed.

La classe! Clearly I had been “roughing it” for too long. En voiture, the possibilities were endless.

We met early the next morning. Rémi hooked up the GPS, while I sat in the passenger seat thumbing through a Lonely Planet guide for Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur.

I fell on a page about the Gorges du Verdon: “Europe’s Grand Canyon.”

“Have you heard of this?” I read him the description, then typed the address into my phone. It was only thirty miles away, but the drive we’d need to make, winding around mountain roads, was predicted to take over two hours.

“Is that okay? What do you think…” I really wanted to go, enchanted by those turquoise waters, but I tried to hide it. If he didn’t want to, I understood. It would be a lot of driving time for a last-minute day trip, and we wouldn’t be able to trade off. (I thought of my one disastrous manual driving lesson the year before).

Rémi responded with that most French expression of enthusiasm: a shrug. “What’s the address?”

We were off.

img_3113It was a proper road trip: windows down, blue skies above, and the radio cut by static. In the space of an hour, our setting evolved from beach town to classic autumnal landscape to the ear-popping heights of the mountains.

We passed pastures of goats and sheep and plenty of warnings to watch out for wandering members of the flock.

Civilization became more and more scarce, but no matter the elevation, one thing was sure: even in the boonies, there would be no shortage of festivals.

Signs alerted us to the existence of fêtes celebrating everything from chestnuts to…donkeys. As you might expect from a country that loves champagne and celebration, France has a festival for everything. Some seem a bit…unnecessary (yay garlic. Yay orchids), but even the small ones are excuses to get together, eat, drink, and buy things you don’t need. And what’s not to love about that.

We were almost there, and I was more than ready, my stomach pleading with me to find solid ground. The comically tight, twisting roads were nauseating, as was the view (in a beautiful way, of course).

There were bikers (there are always bikers, tough as nails), and I would’ve stayed in the car all day before trading places. Their uphill plight looked like one of the circles of hell.

We passed crêperies and tiny pizza shacks squeezed onto the side of the road. Some had outdoor seating: the chairs lined up near the edge of the cliff, nothing between the casual diner and the abyss but a weak fence. One pizza margarita and a side of dread, s’il vous plaît.

We stopped to breathe and stare over the edge for awhile. Ultimately though, we wanted to get to Lac de Sainte-Croix. More driving.

It was worth it. I had never seen fresh water this shade of blue: from deep-teal to turquoise to swimming-pool-acqua depending on the light and on the depth.

We watched people set out in kayaks and paddleboats.

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Signs on the bridge warned swimmers from jumping. I was interested to see that the biggest danger cited was not the chance of landing wrong, or hitting a rock. No, jumping was a really bad idea, apparently, because of the high chance of getting stuck in the clay at the bottom of the lake. And drowning. To further dissuade, the signs listed a death toll. img_3109

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After driving, walking, and sufficiently appreciating the natural beauty, we were ready to find something to eat.

We drove away from the gorges and the lake and through a number of tiny villages perchés. They were postcard-charming…and postcard-still. Everything was closed for le Toussaint. img_3117 It was a hungry trip home to Cannes, which may have influenced my opinion of the pizza we eventually procured: absolutely delicious.