Chapter 21      Lauterbrunnen

It was late by the time we reached Autun, where there was a camping area. The village was an unexpected delight, and helped to remove some of the dreadful thoughts. Across the field stood a huge ruin, in grand isolation. We learnt that it was the ruins of a Roman temple to Janus.

"I've never heard of this place, but it seems to have some interesting things. We had better look around tomorrow, before we go on."

There were more than a few interesting things; the whole village was still surrounded by the remains of an ancient wall; one part was intact with watchtowers at regular intervals, at other spots there is only the gateway in the middle of the present road. Traffic has to go round the gate.

From the top of the cathedral is a wonderful panorama of the village in its pastoral setting. The line of the wall can be seen easily, and the sagging roofs of the crooked houses and the narrow winding lanes.

"It looks like a jigsaw puzzle," said Jacqueline. "Everything is all higgeldy-piggeldy."
"I suppose the roads just follow the original tracks. In those days no one bothered much about setting towns out properly. People built more or less where they wanted to."
"Can we wait here until the bells ring?"
"You can if you want to, but I'm going to look at the carvings at the main doors. I think they are something special."

Going down is often worse than going up. Less tiring but it causes 'jelly legs'. I made my way down steadily in the darkness of the tower, and emerged into the subdued light of the cathedral.

Just inside the main door was a table of postcards, paintings and religious items. By studying these it is possible to find out the things most notable in any place. I bought postcards of the village with the church spire dominating, the ancient wall, the bas-relief over the entrance, a Roman gate, and a picture of the village reproduced from an ancient engraving, showing muddy lanes, sagging houses and the dominating cathedral. The latter, apart from the dress of the villagers was not unlike the present day picture.

"This is remarkable, because the village is so small to have such huge walls and a cathedral," I commented as we finally drove on toward Switzerland.

Lake GenevaRoad on the shore of Lake Geneva

The camping ground at Lausanne was very well appointed if rather expensive. Everything was available, from a supermarket (with corn flakes, no less) a restaurant, coin operated showers, washing machines and basins for washing up. The town was beautifully situated on Lake Geneva, with dozens of little hills on the foreshores. The ground floor windows of the museum overlooked the roofs of neighbouring two storey buildings.

Lake GenevaLake Geneva

We found the lake irresistible. After a walk along the shores, we ate lunch in a park, watching the swans on the placid water. Further along the lake is the Castle of Chillon, which stands on a rock, connected to the shore by a bridge, and which uses the lake as a moat. In the dungeon is a mighty pillar where a prisoner, a church official, was chained for six years from 1530. When Byron visited the castle, he was so moved by the story that he carved his initials on the pillar, and wrote a poem, 'The Prisoner of Chillon'. As directed, we followed the arrows through the maze of rooms, which included an arsenal, a ceremonial hall, bedrooms, a chapel, latrines opening directly onto the lake from the third floor level, and in the very centre a refuge tower reached by narrow steps, in case of attack. From the windows one can look down to the water far below, or up to the surrounding mountains and the snow capped summits.

ChillonCastle of Chillon

Two hours later we continued the drive around the lake, coming to Geneva in the afternoon peak hour.

"I think we'll go out of the town a bit, because the camping ground here is sure to be expensive. Lausanne cost 12 FR."
"There's one about twenty kms further on at Nyon," said Peter. "It's on the lake, and the book says there is swimming. It is seven FR."

When we arrived it seemed that we were unlucky, as they were full, but when I explained that we had a campervan, she found us a corner. The facilities were rather inadequate for the number of users, and very antiquated, but I had done the washing at Lausanne, and the children planned to have a swim in the morning, which could replace showers. I strung a line from the van to a tree, and hung up the still damp clothes.


Nyon was another surprise. It is a small town in a lovely setting, with some Roman columns, fluted and decorated, standing in a park. Below the columns was a children's playground, including Red Indian totem poles and a floral picture of a dog and a lamb.

Nyon gardensNyon gardens

We had almost travelled right around Lake Geneva. Our next stop was UNO building in Geneva, where we spent two hours inspecting some of the conference rooms and wandering around the grounds. Flags of every nation represented were flying gaily around a golden sphere. Nearby was a Russian exhibit symbolic of the trajectory of a rocket leaving the earth for space.

UNO building in GenevaUNO building in Geneva
UNO building in GenevaRussian exhibit at UNO

On the road to Mont Blanc we had to stop to photograph twin glaciers. The peak was partly hidden in the clouds, which circled it; lower cliffs were scraped clean by avalanches. Then through the Alpine village of Chamonix and down a mighty twisting pass to the wide flat valley floor.

twin glaciersTwin glaciers

The boys had helped with evening meals when I was extra tired.
"I want to cook the dinner tonight," offered Jacqueline, and being very weary I let her. I should have checked that she closed the front of the stove after lighting it.

Suddenly she began to scream, and immediately I realized that she must have knocked the handle of the saucepan. I cried to David, who was nearest,
"Cold water quick!" He poured water on her leg and I drove in search of a doctor.
"Is there a doctor?" I asked, and was directed to the Visp hospital, where we arrived within ten minutes of the accident.

I had put the water on to boil and I was peeling potatoes. I was sitting right beside the stove and had not put the safety door up. The van rocked and the boiling water spilled directly onto my left thigh and across my left foot. David emptied about 5 litres of cold water down my leg but when mum took my jeans off, layers of skin just peeled away to reveal a bright red welt the size of a dinner plate.

I carried her in and within moments she disappeared on a stretcher, and I had to go back to the van and think about my lack of foresight, and possible permanent injuries to my daughter. Whenever I dozed that night, her screams woke me.

She was less upset than I. Although she could speak no German, she soon settled down to a few days in hospital. There were two others in her room, a lady who could speak some English and a girl of about fourteen who had broken her leg skiing.

"See my bed," said Jacqueline excitedly. "It can go up and down by this button, and this one makes the top or bottom tilt up."

The hospital was an excellent one, but visiting hours were meagre. I found a number of excuses to visit - Jacqueline's hairbrush, or some fruit, or a comic, or her clean pyjamas. When I had no excuse I invented one.

There were no visiting hours at all on Thursday, so I took the boys for a day's drive to the Rhone Glacier, where (for a price) we followed a tunnel in the ice, and declined to be photographed posing with their specially supplied 'polar bear' impersonator.

From the top of the St Gottard Pass nothing could be seen but cloud, although up until then it had been a perfect day. A new, well-graded road cuts out nearly all the hair pin bends. When I had travelled over this road nearly ten years ago, there were 24 hairpin bends within two or three kilometres, not counting curves. It astonished us at that time that anyone could conceive of constructing a road in this terrain. It had to be built up in places to an amazing extent, the valley down which it passed consisting of terraces of cliffs. The new road goes largely through the rock walls, sometimes in tunnels, sometimes with one side open like a verandah, so that we could occasionally glimpse the old and more exciting route through the mist.

"Look," said David. "Some cars are going down the old road."
"Yes," said Peter. "I saw a sign at the top which said 'to the old road', but I didn't realize it would be that."
"I wish I had known - I would have taken you down just for the experience. It's a bit late now if we want to be back before dark."
"Next time we come to Europe."

Below cloud level it was still a bright day and Lake Locarno shone in the sunshine, coloured sails gleamed on the water. The road we now chose would have been an exciting afternoon's drive - narrow and windy, and very scenic, through tiny hamlets clinging to the mountainside. It was necessary to back up when we met another vehicle, and even when we had the road to ourselves the going was painfully slow.

"I wish we had taken the long way round. It is sure to be faster than this crawl."
"What's wrong with this?" the boys wanted to know. "It's more interesting than ordinary roads."
"I want to get back in time to visit Jacqueline."
"I thought they didn't have any visiting hours?"
"They don't, but I'm going to try."


The day had been full of interest, from glaciers to mountain passes, but had still not kept my thoughts for a moment from my daughter, wondering if her leg would be scarred, and how she passes the hours, and regretting that she had not been able to participate in our day's activities.

"May I see my daughter for a moment please? I have brought her a clean singlet."
Half an hour later I felt satisfied that she was still content to sleep in a comfortable hospital bed, rather than the narrow van bunk.

During the few leisurely days in Visp we became familiar with the supermarkets and found an exciting cheese covered with a peppery powder, we watched the trains shunting on the branch line to Zermatt (so near and yet so far), we listened to the post buses which by law blow their melodious horns at every bend of the Alpine roads, the boys swam, and I washed everything in sight.

About midday on Wednesday, 1st August, I walked to the shops, but they were already closed. When we went to the hospital, one of the other visitors told us that it was Swiss National Day.

Jacqueline produced a tiny flag. "The nurse gave me this."
The children played draughts and I bought my diary up to date. In the evening there were fireworks in the surrounding villages. A van parked nearby with a GB sign, and we heard the occupants speculating about the reason for the celebrations. Peter began his flute practice, and after a few moments the girl from the neighbours knocked on our door to see who was playing.

"I play the flute myself. I play in concerts sometimes," she said.
"Peter has only been learning for a couple of months," I explained.
"He's doing well," she remarked.
"I heard you talking about the fireworks. I've been told that it's Swiss National Day, so I suppose the fireworks are in aid of it."
"You come from Australia, do you? I'd love to go there."
"Yes, I'm teaching in England. Where are you from?"
"We come from Lancashire. Come and meet my parents."
"Thanks, but they might be busy. You've just arrived."

Gornergrat station and the Matterhorn, ZermattGornergrat station and the Matterhorn, Zermatt

After tea, she was back again, with an invitation to join them for a glass of wine. They even produced wineglasses. We chatted until well after the boys' bedtime. The daughter asked so many questions about our homeland, and especially about horses. Unfortunately, my equestrian experiences were very limited and I was not much help.
I had explained at the hospital that I wanted to move Jacqueline to Germany as soon as possible. So that she could travel without fear of breaking the scabs on her foot, her leg was put into plaster. The doctor wanted to see me before we left on Friday, but I had trouble contacting him, so decided to wait another day and leave early on Saturday. We collected her at eight am and drove up the Grimsel Pass on a foggy day with only brief glimpses of the glacier.

"We went right up inside that glacier in a sort of tunnel. There was a photographer and a man in a bear skin at the end."

As we were descending we were held up for a couple of hours by a tourist bus coming up, towing a small trailer of luggage. It had most inconsiderately got stuck trying to negotiate a bend, and the trailer had to be unhitched and moved by hand to allow the bus to proceed. From our vantage point we could see the traffic behind the bus held up for miles down the valley. I don't know what they finally did to get the trailer re-attached to the bus. Did they pull it around the corner, up hill, by manpower?

Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen are among my favourite places, and as Jacqueline seemed fairly comfortable, I decided on a detour. We ate our lunch in a parking area in view of the mighty Jungfrau. A helicopter hovered around the lower snowfields across the valley and we wondered if it was a manoeuvre or a rescue. Skiers and other holiday makers in the town enjoyed the sun, the shopping and the scenery in leisure, for us it was a frustrating rush to eat, to transport Jacqueline and her plaster leg to the toilet, and be on our way again.

When we arrived at Bonndorf at five pm, Auntie Gret and Uncle Willi took over. Auntie Gret made us something to eat and Uncle Willi gave Jacqueline his bed so that she would be more comfortable.

On Sunday I began to relax. We had reached Germany without further mishap and I began to calculate the possibilities of completing the trip to Norway. The tickets for us and the van from Norway to England had already been paid for. Just how far was it?

When I took Jacqueline to the hospital in Bonndorf, to have her plaster removed, they decided to admit her. The hospital was not as luxurious as the one in Switzerland, the nurses and nursing aids always over-worked, but there was no restriction on visiting. During the next few days I spent a lot of time attending to my daughter, washing her, doing her hair, emptying her pan. David had been born in this hospital eleven years before and I found that the medical care had not changed much.

My memories of this hospital were some of the most horrific of my life. When they removed the plaster from my leg, no one understood that the burn was right across the top of my foot and they proceeded to cut the plaster across the burn, tearing my newly burned skin with their scissors. I screamed the place down. Later, in the ward, I needed to go to the toilet but my pan had not been emptied for hours. When I attempted to lift it onto the bed, it spilt the contents onto my sheets. The nurses then spent the next ten minutes screeching at me for "wetting my bed". If I had known any German I would have screeched back that if they had done their job in the first place, they wouldn't have found it necessary to change my sheets and clothes. And they tried to force feed me boiled spinach. These memories are still vivid 40 years later.

Grandma was now in Bonndorf, Grandpa having retired to care for her, and moved to a small flat in their hometown near most of their relatives. Grandma was a fulltime job for one person. She no longer recognized anyone; she just stared into space and made movements with her hands as if she saw things in front of her.

"I don't know how much longer Alfred can care for her," said Uncle Willi. "She will soon need two people. So far she still comes when you tell her, although she can't always tell when she wants something, or needs to go to the toilet."
"I'm glad we came when we did. At least the children saw her at Christmas when she was fairly lucid."

Bonndorf in summerBonndorf in summer

It was very sad that her eldest son, whom I had married, had not so much as sent a card since we had parted six years before. When the children and I arrived at Christmas she thought that he must be dead. As she was so much worse by August, I tried again to contact him through his solicitor, but still no response.

I planned to visit the children's natural grandfather in Gottmadingen. (Grandpa in Bonndorf was in fact my ex-husband's stepfather). While Jacqueline was in hospital, the boys and I set out to see if we could locate him, and see what his reaction would be. He lived in a large airy attic, which he kept clean and bright if not exactly elegant. He was an energetic man, recently retired. His wife had died a few years ago, leaving him alone as they had not had any children, but he was a busy person, and could now devote more time to his hobbies. He swam every day and walked a lot, and was able to get casual jobs doing photographic work. With what he earned with his camera, and his pension, combined with modest requirements, he could afford the things he liked. He took us to dinner in the town, where he was well-known, and was proud to introduce his daughter-in-law and his grandsons. He and the boys could not talk to each other, but there was obvious cordiality. When we left, he insisted that we call again with Jacqueline, before leaving Germany. He gave me some chocolate, which I took to the hospital on our return to Bonndorf. Later in the week I took the boys back to Switzerland. Jacqueline was progressing well, so we planned to continue our journey to Norway, as soon as she was fit for the trip. In the meantime I wanted to show the boys some of the highlights of the Alps. I chose Lauterbrunnen in the heart of the tourist area, a spot that I fell in love with on my first trip to Europe. It is an expensive place if you want to experience all that it has to offer. We restricted ourselves to the Tummelbach Falls and a cablecar ride up to Gimmelwald.


The former is a mighty fall right inside the mountain, It has found its way underground from the snowfields above, and has followed a series of faults in the rocks, emerging just above the flat valley floor. The original cracks have been enlarged to a series of huge caverns, and as the cracks enlarged, the volume of water able to enter has increased. Now it is so enormous that it is impossible to hear anything above the roar. A lift takes sightseers up to the top and you follow down a path within the mountain, wet from the constant spray, with lookouts at the best vantage spots for each cascade. Sometimes the river disappears into a deep chasm, and the footpath has to take a long detour to get down to the level and in the rock tunnels, the noise of the torrent is completely lost. Then the path approaches the river again, and we could feel the spray in the air. The space is filled with its sound. Then after a brief rest in a deep pool, the water rushes off in another direction. Finally it emerges into the open and its wild downward progress comes to an abrupt halt, as it flows powerfully into the valley. It was something of a shock for us too, to come out into the sunlight.

Now we began an ascent in a cablecar, which swings high above the valley floor, as it is drawn toward the top of the cliffs. Great heights always make me feel I want to fly, maybe in some moment of ecstasy I will try. With increasing altitude, the views of the mountains and valleys become more and more expansive. One has a great awareness of the enormity of the mountains across the valley because of the breath-taking distance down to the valley in between, with tiny houses and cars so dwarfed by everything else.

There is a small Alpine hamlet on the edge of the cliff, the cable car station, a post and telegraph office, a shop and two or three houses. A path leads up the steep mountainside for those with the time and energy to climb the peaks. This was impossible for us. We wandered for half an hour along the track clinging to space, experiencing the feeling of height, unable to express what we felt.

"I would like to live here always," said Peter inadequately.
"You don't remember, but you came here when you were about two and David was a little baby. Uncle Perce and Auntie Dorrie were travelling in Switzerland and they invited us to spend a weekend with them in Lauterbrunnen, I think it was their favourite spot too. They paid our expenses in the same hotel as them. It was really beautiful."

After the babies were in bed, we had sat on the verandah of the hotel with my aunt and uncle, in the long twilight, and watched the full moon rise behind the snow capped peaks, while the darkness was falling on the nearer cliffs. I remembered feeling a sensation of tranquility I had thought I had lost since my marriage. One must find contentment in such an atmosphere. I had loved it then and had always wanted to bring my children, and hoped that they would feel the same.

"It's a shame that Jacqueline isn't here too," I thought as the boys and I descended in the cable car.
"What's for dinner?" asked Peter.
"We won't stop around here. Camping fees would be too expensive and they're probably booked out at this time of the year. It will be light for a while yet, so I'll drive on. Get something to eat to keep you going, some nuts or fruit."

The road led up toward Susten Pass. Above the lower slopes we found a place, with the steep wild cliffs still ahead, and the road up which we had come winding away into the valley. The camping area shared a small flat space with a little lake. The mountains around were all pink and grey in the late evening sun.

"Look," said David early in the morning. "There is a load of hay walking across the road."

He was right. An enormous load of hay with a pair of legs under it passed over the road. Harvest was beginning. In these inhospitable altitudes, every blade of grass was precious, and could only be cut by hand. Many people were cutting and stacking hay on the steep hillsides, by the road, wherever the grass grew. Winter would soon be here.


In the village of Altdorf, I found a book in English about William Tell, and bought it for Jacqueline. Also in the village we found the memorial to the hero. While looking and taking photos, we were approached by an Englishman who asked us if we knew where to get a chemical to purify water.

"I've never thought about that in Switzerland," I said. "I'm sure you'll find the water here is good."
"I just don't feel like taking any risks. You never know in foreign places."

The Swiss, very proud of their country and their heritage, would have been astounded at the suggestion. In this region the scenery is perhaps not as spectacular as around Lauterbrunnen, but is also not as overwhelming. I found the beautiful lakes and wooded hills more comfortable.

Uncle Willi had told us it was worth detouring to see Einsiedeln. It was. The main attraction is a black Madonna, in the church. Many others thought so too, and the area in front of the church was a hive of industry. There were dozens of stalls selling souvenirs of all kinds... statues, candles, paintings, wall plaques, plastic ornaments, gilded jewel boxes, religious articles. We studied the postcards and noticed that the Madonna, a black doll, was dressed in different costumes in each one. Each robe was elaborate, and richly embroidered.
"Is there one Madonna, or a whole lot?"
We found that there was one, in a glass case in the ornate church. It was quite a small doll, in a large flowing gown, surrounded by jewels and religious relics. Apparently the gown is changed regularly. We saw a pale blue and silver one; I bought a card of a bright red and gold robe.

Einsiedeln AbbeyEinsiedeln Abbey


NEXT    >>