Mid- to late October every year, each house went away on a two-week autumn school break, renting a chalet either in Switzerland or France. Maison François was booked for a place in Champex, west of Orsières, south by southeast in the mountains above Martigny, Valais. The area around Champex is also known as le petit Canada (the little Canada).
Jean-François and I got along quite well. He expressed a desire to cycle all the way there. He had a ten-speed bicycle, I arranged to borrow a three-speed. We each packed a knapsack—mine with sourdough rye sandwiches of cervelat and emmentaler, a thermos of coffee, rain jacket, Swiss Army knife, wallet and passport, father’s Kodak Retina IIIS camera, notebook and pen, and regional map.
We left early about six o’clock, in the chill, crisp half-light, through the neighbouring vineyard and a farm field, shortcutting via a small railway underpass to meet the route du lac no 1 just east of St-Prex, onward through Morges, Saint-Sulpice, Lausanne-Ouchy, Paudex, Lutry, Villette, Grandvaux, Cully, Épesses, Rivaz, St-Saphorin, Vevey, La Tour-de-Peilz, Clarens, Montreux, Territet, and past the Château Chillon.
Morges is a beautiful town on the shore of the lake at its widest point, from the quay enjoying an excellent view stretching from the Fribourgeois Alps to Mont Salève near Genève and facing the Savoy Alps in France including the prominent Dent d’Oche and the Mont Blanc. It is an important winegrowing centre of La Côte which covers the western part of Lac Léman.
La Côte wines are considered less impressive than the Lavaux, as the majority of the vineyards are further from the lakeside. They do not sit on steep walled terraces but on gentler slopes and rolling terrain, exposed to cool north winds from which the shoreline Lavaux terraces are protected. But some of the Pinot Noir is quite good.
The port of Morges was built 1691–1696 from plans by the Baron Duquesne d’Aubonne, son of the famous French Admiral Abraham Marquis Duquesne, 1610–1688. Before the arrival of trains it saw much commercial trade between Vaud and Genève.
Today it serves as a yachting port. La Morges flows from its source, about one kilometre north of Apples, into the lake between the western end of town and the TCS (Touring Club Suisse) campground, public exercise circuit, outdoor track, and tennis courts, with the Musée Militaire Vaudois on its west bank.
In town sits another museum, the Musée du Vieux Morges, featuring many Italian, Flemish, and French etchings and engravings and other assorted historic collections by Alexis Forel, 1852–1922, chemical engineer turned engraver, a close relative of the renowned psychiatrist, neurologist, cranial anatomist, and sexologist Auguste Forel, 1848–1931. The latter was a passionate champion of the fight against alcohol, and a pacifist, denouncing three evils poisoning humanity (alcoholism, capitalism, and the military). His best known work is the book La question sexuelle, translated into seventeen languages.
A few kilometres further east is one of my local favourites—the village of Saint-Sulpice—because of its peaceful, verdant setting with a pleasant shoreline path. Here was a little restaurant with sidewalk seating that we would on occasion patronize for filets de perche avec frites and a glass of local white wine. The showpiece is the magnificient Romanesque architecture of the little Saint-Sulpice church, a close second to my favourite example—the church in Romainmôtier.
As a result, and in the next few years further reinforced by the early Romanesque example of the Dom in Trier, Westdeutschland, the 7th-century Benedictine Abbey in Echternach, and the ruins of Bourscheid castle above the medieval market town of Esch-sur-Sûre in Luxembourg, this style of architecture has become by far my preference, forever relegating the overdone ornateness, bordering on kitsch, of the many examples of Baroque and Rococo churches throughout Westdeutschland, to the bottom of my personal list of architectural styles. Standing inside the Baroques and Rococos gives me the same feeling of discordancy and chaos, overstuffed and overdone, that I lived with in childhood at home, my mother filling the house with a clash of colours and styles, thus proving a lack of understanding of both, grating on my senses, inducing regular bouts of claustrophobia.
In the landscapes surrounding the Romanesques I would narrow my eyes to slits and slightly out of focus, allowing me to then imagine and see knights on steeds in dark shapes on the forested hill ridges above, in the fading late afternoon sun. All sound would disappear, all awareness of the present, and I would float for a few cherished minutes in a long ago past. Hints of a past life? Magical thinking? These moments were the most common of a number of déjà vus and the like that I was to experience in Europe, the others appearing when I passed by certain farmsteads in the rural Vaud, and since then almost never again, and never in North America.
After these moments I would recall the Grail story, Parsifal by Wolfram von Eschenbach, also the impulse and inspiration behind Perceval, some of the houses named after some of the places and characters—Tourmaline, Chantecler, Blanchefleur, La Source.
Then we rolled into Lausanne-Ouchy, Lausanne’s lake front, a select residential area and well known hotel resort of first-class establishments, a primary steamer port serviced by the CGN’s (Compagnie Générale de Navigation) fleet of modern diesels and Belle Époque steamer and electric-diesel sidewheelers. It was once a separate hamlet of boatmen and fishermen, some today still plying their trade in dark green dorys with long oars, an outboard motor, and a long wide net still fed out and hauled in by hand.
And quickly leaving Ouchy, we cycled into the beautiful and dramatic scenery of the Lavaux, possibly the best of any winegrowing region in the world—blessed by the ideal growing conditions of Switzerland’s mildest mean temperature influenced by the warmth of the lake with the heat reflecting from the water and radiating from the terrace stone walls, a fair amount of sun, the tail end of the hot foehn winds, and the chalky limestone soils and the underlying alkaline earth—a thin strip of terrain stretching about 32 kilometers eastward from here to Villeneuve. The steep walled terraced vineyards, with as few as three or four rows of vines, descend from the hillside villages right down to the lakeshore, here and there cut by local paths and roads, now the route du lac no 9 since Ouchy, and the rail line.
Vaud is the second most important wine canton with many of Switzerland’s largest negociants based here, to this day the many whites and reds my favourites, many available at economical prices. Swiss wines are in large part not well-known elsewhere in the world as they are generally not exported except as special orders. Many were available cheaper than milk or at par with bottled spring water in the local Coop and Migros supermarkets.
Coming home to the Island in 1987, I brought back a few select bottles.
The steely white wines predominate with the large bunched, large berried Chasselas grape accounting for over 80% of plantings, most of the remainder Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, and small amounts of red wine from the Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Syrah grape. Gamay for the red wines is a specialty of La Côte region covering the area west of Lausanne.
Paudex, a hamlet since 1385, sits on the lake’s edge below the many local vineyards, as does Lutry just a little further on, originally Lustriacum as a fishermen’s village in Roman times, then its present incarnation in the 13th century. Next are the hamlets of Villette, Grandvaux, Cully, Épesses, Rivaz, and St-Saphorin.
In Vevey, the traditional capital of the Lavaux, we stopped for a second petit déjeuner, a light breakfast of coffee and a chocolate croissant each from a lakeside kiosk, devoured in short shrift as we looked at the last wisps of fog lifting from the steel grey mirror smoothness of the lake.
Becoming the cradle of the Swiss milk products, chocolate, and dietetics industry in the 19th century, Nestlé is headquartered here along with its central laboratory and an experimental factory.
On Vevey’s eastern edge, La Tour-de-Peilz took mere minutes to cycle through, renowned for its 13th-century castle of which just two round towers survive.
Next we were soon through Clarens where I knew of two famous people buried here—Oskar Kokoschka, Austrian painter in exile from the Nazis, and the writer Vladimir Nabokov, best remembered for Lolita.
Then Montreux, the heart of the Vaud Riviera with its Mediterranean-like climate, the mildest on the north side of the Alps, resplendent with palms, cypresses, magnolias, fig trees, almonds, laurels, and mulberries along the lakeshore, and the famous annual Montreux International Jazz Festival—jazz, blues, rock, reggae, and soul music—the first two weeks of July.
And Territet, a Montreux suburb, like much of this Riviera famous for its clinics and international schools.
Château Chillon sits on a rocky islet, between Territet and Villeneuve, its towers reflected in the Lac Léman waters.
Seeing it as we approached from the west, in the greyish-silvery light, reminded me of the painting of Chillon by Gustave Courbet, and as we passed by the gate, of my family’s Holland–Westdeutschland–Switzerland trip just a little over fourteen years earlier (August 1968) at the height of the Czech crisis with the Soviet tanks in the streets of Prague. I remember touring inside as a six-year-old, quite fearful of the dungeons but impressed by the toilet seats in the outer walls over the water—that people emptied their bowels in such a manner.
So, here we were at a fortress first built in the 9th century, guarding the road between Avenches and Italy by way of the Great St-Bernard, the route d’Italie, for the longest time the only route through the mountains connecting northern and southern Europe. But it was the Bishops of Sion, followed by the Counts of Savoy, that gave it its current look in the mid-13th century. And it was Lord Byron that gave the château its greatest fame, penning the lyrical poem “The Prisoner of Chillon” in Ouchy in 1816, immortalizing François de Bonivard who had spent six years of captivity in one of the vaulted underground chambers.
In the next four years I would visit and pass through the Lavaux many times, and so, I am reminded of these words by (Charles Ferdinand) C.-F. Ramuz, 1878–1947, Soleils sur le Pays de Vaud,
Le bon Dieu lui-même a décidé que ce serait en vignes, ayant orienté le mont comme il convient, se disant: “Je vais faire une belle pente tout exprès, dans l’exposition qu’il faut, avec l’inclinaison qu’il faut, et je vais mettre encore dans le bas la nappe de l’eau pour qu’il ait ainsi deux soleils sur elle, que le soleil qui vient ailleurs d’en haut seulement vienne ici d’en haut et d’en bas....”
We encountered another patch of drizzle as we rode into the Rhône Valley, the route no 9 leaving the lake at Villeneuve, running along the valley on its northeastern side.
Now we were in the Chablais wine region, the Rhône area just above the east end of the lake, not benefitting from the lake warmth or the foehn. Here the Chasselas is quite full-bodied, the sparkling wine for the most part good, the reds commonly weaker.
Somewhere between Roche and Aigle I detoured through a trucker’s pullover/rest stop, sped through a large puddle and saw money floating on the brackish water. It turned out to be a sFr. 50,00 note. What fortune! I decided to treat us both to lunch in Martigny—fortify ourselves for the long and steep ascent to the chalet—saving our packed sandwiches for tomorrow.
All this time the weather remained a little unstable—the weak sun interspersed with the occasional drizzle.
Onward past Bex on our left, we crossed the Rhône at St-Maurice, a little town on the Valais side of the river, made famous by the Abbey as one of the holy places of Christianity, from its founding in 515 by King Sigismund of Burgundy, through the 9th century earning the name of its patron saint, then in 1215 welcoming the regular canons of the Order of St-Augustine. About four weeks earlier the town held its annual September 22nd celebration commemorating the deaths of it’s martyrs.
Here we were dominated by the Dents du Midi to our right and the Dents de Morcles to our left. My bike suffered a flat rear. We spent over an hour patching it roadside. I had the foresight to pack a small kit with us.
Another fourteen kilometres and we reached Martigny for lunch. We sat outdoors on one of the main streets, a sidewalk table under a grape-endowed pergola, each enjoying a whole pizza washed down with a Sinalco for Jean-François, myself anchovies and capers as toppings with, for the first time, a Rivella—a popular sweet, fizzy, refreshing drink made with whey, a cheese-making by-product that I came to love and enjoy on many occasions in the next few years.
This is a small city. Predominant is the round Tour de La Bâtiaz emerging from among the vines from the ruins of the old fortifications. Here the route no 9 bends with the Rhône behind the freeway N 9 on its southern shore. We climbed the route no 21 through Martigny-Bourg and -Combe, first southward and then east, onto the small local mountain road at about the 5,5 km mark, turning right at les Valettes, climbing the valley, steeply winding up numerous hairpin bends, in total 11,5 kilometres, passing the Granges du Durnant and the occasional little chalet or holiday cabin, small meadows, small clusters of apple trees, mélèzes (larches) and epicéas (Norway spruces, common on northward-facing sites) outnumbering the various lower altitude deciduous species as we climb.
This was our last stretch, then Lac Champex and our chalet—the Bon Repos—catching the tail end of le souper, everyone else having arrived by train and postal bus several hours earlier, all the backpacks and suitcases delivered by our reliable Peugeot van.
In the two weeks we enjoyed numerous walks and hikes—the standouts the trail two-thirds up le Catogne peaking at 2598 metres, and up the snow-blanketed valley showcasing la Breya, 2374 metres, early enroute to our left, and at the upper horizon le Aigle du Tourat, 3540 metres, presiding over the Glacier du Touron on the back French side and the Glacier du Trent on the Swiss. We six—three teens and three adults: Dominic, deliciously bodacious and blonde-tressed Daniela, and myself—stopped in at an inn restaurant teeming with army vehicles and soldiers, ten minutes for chocolat chaud and the washroom. A good two or three hours later we reached the pass at 2671 metres, between Pointe d’Orny at 3274 metres and Dzennepi at 2891 metres, the slopes scattered with larches, where we took a stab at the footings of the glacier, soon proven to be too difficult for two of our charges.
Another hike was up through the woods at Som la Proz, due south from the eastern end of the lake, after less than a kilometre forking to the right now in steeper ascent with the stream, eventually crossing it on large stones someone had placed with great care. We were aiming to reach the foot of the glacier from between le Portalet, 3344 metres, and Pointe d’Orny, 3274 metres. We did reach it just past the C.A.S. (Club Alpine Suisse) Refuge d’Orny at 2696 metres. We were awed by the glacier and the freshly dusted and iced peaks. After turning and the first few minutes of descent, I scooped ice cold mountain water from the stream. That early evening a few hours later, I was hit with gastrointestinal pains and several bouts of diarrhea, sweating that night and the following morning. Dominic opined that the stream water must have been tainted by sheep wandering at high elevation. It was cryptosporidium or something like it.
Jean-François and I bicycled back too, the same way we had come, on this day accompanied by light but steady rain only broken through twice by short bursts of sun, necessitating rain jackets that did not vent well, steaming us up on the inside. Again, having left early, well ahead of the others again travelling by bus and train, and with the added bonus of a fast, exciting descent of the hairpin bends down to Martigny, we were the first home. By about Lausanne I started shaking and shivering, teeth chattering, and just could not keep warm regardless of how fast I pedalled. Relieved to be back at Maison François, I took a long hot soaking bath. Then we cooked up a large pot of spaghetti, flavoured by much tomato basil sauce and grated Gruyères. We were stuffed by the time everyone else arrived.