Friday, June 18, 2004

Sarganz, Switzerland

Friends: Greetings from Switzerland, where the trains quietly purr and the cow bells clatter like cymbals in an orchestra and mountains of great grandeur are everywhere and the clergy and military are out and about in uniform and the Internet isn't so easy to find or affordable and the euro is not the official currency.

My first night in Switzerland I camped less than 30 feet from some train tracks on a cliff in a mighty gorge. I was fully prepared to be blasted awake at any moment by a passing train, and hoped the shock of its roar wouldn't catapult me over the cliff's edge. But there wasn't a single train all night, and in the morning the two trains that passed barely ruffled the leaves. The next night, however, when I was camped behind a woodpile, I was jarred awake at six a.m. by a passing herd of cows. Their bells made more noise than a roaring freight train.

Among the host of reasons that Switzerland beckoned was as escape from the summer heat of France. It has been delightfully cool. Snow still dapples the mountains. It is downright cold when the clouds come and even colder if they unleash any rain. I had to unbury my gloves and sweater, even on an extended climb to up over 8,000 feet, the highest I've been in these travels, when I was hit by a rain.

It's taken me three days to bike the length of Switzerland, sticking to the south away from the big cities. My route has taken me through a series of ski towns. None compared to the last ski town I passed through in France before crossing into Switzerland--Chamonix. It may be the ultimate ski town. A sign on its outskirts announced it was a sister city to Aspen. The sign was hardly necessary, as, like Aspen, it was overwhelmed, if not strangled, by a glut of boutiques and restaurants and glitz catering to the ski and jet set. All about roamed those who exemplify the creed, " You can't be too rich or too thin or too tan." There was the usual ski town mix of tourists and young outdoor adventurers. Over it all loomed that behemoth, glacier-laden Mount Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe.

From Chamonix it was less than 20 miles to Switzerland, where I encountered my first border control of this trip. The guard wanted to know my nationality and if I had a passport, though he didn't care to see it. The border was in a saddle between mountains. After a several mile climb from the border, I was rewarded with a fabulous ten-mile descent into a vast valley that went on for nearly 50 miles, first with vineyards climbing the mountain sides and then pastures, as the valley gained a bit of elevation. It was a tranquil, paradisaical valley of vast vistas. Each town I passed through was marked by a sense of order and cleanliness and affluence--their streets were wide, the houses were well-maintained and had yards, the buses were modern and the cars bigger, newer and "nicer."

My pleasure was somewhat deflated when the first Internet outlet I tried wanted nine euros for an hour, double of the most I had previously paid. The prices in the grocery stores were also outlandish--four euros for a loaf of bread. But then I discovered that the Swiss have not given into the euro. They cling to their franc, dropping prices a bit, but things are still more expensive than France or Italy. I'm just across the border now from Liechtenstein, awaiting the passing of the Tour de Suiss bicycle race. I sat atop a mountain yesterday with hundreds of others awaiting the peloton. It was preceded by an entourage of advertisers dispensing a variety of products-- cheese and chocolate and pens and water bottles and even a backpack. An older Swiss couple in an RV befriended me and made sure I got some of everything and they also shared food from their own larder. Lance's chief rival, Jan Ullrich of Germany, was leading the race. It was his final tune-up for the Tour de France, just two weeks away. And now for me, it's on to Austria and Germany.

Later, George

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