Monthly Archives: September 2015

Logistics Notes on Switzerland 

This is my fifth year walking Europe’s pilgrimage routes and Switzerland is the fourth country I have walked in (not counting the US). Here are some observations that may help with your own journey planning.

  • Switzerland is quite different from the other countries and well worth your consideration as a Jakobsweg section.
  • The most dramatic scenery (and the most demanding climbs and descents) are east of Interlaken and mostly east of Briënz. And I do mean dramatic – comparable to Yosemite Valley in drama (not in wildness of course). Both were formed by similar geologic processes.
  • The availability of lodging and stages is quite good. The section between Thun and Fribourg has smaller towns with fewer options; in some places very limited indeed. 
  • The availability of food shops, both location and opening hours, is quite good; the best I’ve encountered in Europe yet in fact. The variety of cheeses, butters, yogurts, prepared meats, and fresh fruits and vegetables is excellent. One could easily self-cater all three meals a day.
  • While there is not a baggage transport system in place, Switzerland has Europe’s best public transport system.  There are buses and trains everywhere and it is easy to shorten days or skip sections if you need.
  • The way-marking is excellent, again the best I’ve seen in Europe. Still, the Swiss Mobility app with its downloadable maps for offline use was invaluable.
  • The variety of lodgings is quite diverse. Sleeping on straw is in fact enormously comfortable and I highly recommend you try it. Some places were exceedingly plain and almost shabby. Others were splendidly spare and modern. Everything was clean and appropriately priced when compared to other similar Swiss lodging. That is to say, 30 francs gets you one level consistently, 60 francs a different level.
  • Quality of lodgings is quite good. A sleeping sack is generally mandatory; I was very glad to have a light sleeping bag. Blankets were always available; pillows not always (apparently I should have asked, but I do not know the word). Toilet and shower down the hall and shared was common. Soap and towels were not always provided. I hung my wash in the room and it dried overnight.
  • I reserved lodging two months in advance for my travel in September and even then there were some places already full. Email in German and English worked well. My reservations only covered the German-speaking zone; my French-speaking Swiss friend has been making daily reservations for us by phone, with no problem but it is near the end of the month.
  • The list of available lodgings is on the Swiss pilgrim association site, www.jakobsweg.ch
  • Lodgings often offer a discounted price for walkers, so do ask. The price you get by showing up in person is lower than the one offered for Internet booking, sometimes.
  • Weather this time of year is lovely for walking, most days. There was a serious storm about once a week however. A lightweight fleece and rain gear are essential.
  • Pricing is, well, Swiss. Over 16 days ranging from some extremely simple lodging and meals to some very comfortable, I averaged SFR 86 daily, including transport. This compares to EUR 60-65 in Germany and EUR 40-45 in France. In Switzerland one pays per person rather than per room.  I could have spent less and stayed only in the simplest lodgings and self-catered all meals, reducing the average.
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23 Sep 15: Lausanne

Distance: 10 km Total Climb: 100m Total Descent: 200m

After a very wet and windy night, dawn broke to a light and weakening mist. We set out on an immediate hill climb, which was at first glance gratuitous, until we came upon this historic and perfectly charming street.

  
  
Then it was downhill and across the river Broye, which had risen at least a half meter since we last saw it yesterday afternoon, and was now boiling merrily along. We continued along the riverbank at least an hour before turning uphill again. Darkening clouds loomed over the turkey farm and the single track woodland trail. As if we had planned it, the rain started the moment we sat down to lunch at the entryway to the Vucherens chapel, and ended with our meal. 

Not much further along, we encountered a woman walking from Lausanne to Strasbourg (northbound). With a donkey. In five years of walking the pilgrimage routes, this is the first time I’ve personally seen this historic mode of travel. Many times I’ve heard tales, so it’s nice to see in action.

   

Another hour and we found a bus stop at Eschedeboef, a couple kilometers before Montprevere. It was equipped with a bus, which we quickly took advantage of. Line 62 runs to Cloisages, which is the transfer point to Lausanne’s Metro. Five stops on, at Ballages, we left the Metro and once on street level it was only two blocks of level walking to the Lausanne Cathedral. 

  
Just as we entered, there was a guided tour beginning – in English! So we took advantage of that too. Much interesting information on the Swiss reformation as well as the construction of the cathedral and its role as a pilgrimage site.

And that was the end of this year’s pilgrimage. I travelled onward with Beatrice to their home north of Lausanne, where I will visit for a few days before returning home on Sunday.

22 Sep 15: Moudon

Distance: 17.5km Total climb: 181m  Total descent: 365m

Breakfast at the abbey was generous: brown bread with butter and jam, choice of yogurt, three cheeses, coffee and tea. And do your own dishes, thanks. The Congolese priest joined us, making for a merry start to the morning. 

We got underway at a decent hour, stopping at the abbey church to see the modern stained glass windows, by British glass artist Brian Clarke.

   
 Then it was a lengthy climb uphill (Romont could easily be categorized as a “Hill town” in the French sense) to see the Church of the Assumption (Stiftskirche Maria Himmelfahrt) and its remarkable modern stained glass windows. 

   

   
The route led down to cross the valley, up and over a very exposed pastured knoll, and made a long descent down to the valley of the river Broye. The last two hours were a pleasant and park-like farm road along the river to Moudon. Definitely not remarkable scenery, and I was cheered to have the companionship of Beatrice along an otherwise rather dull section.

Our lodgings tonight are on the main square, directly across from the St Ettienne church, which also has modern stained glass windows, by yet a different artist. I do not know the source of this fondness for modern glass, but it is definitely the high point of today’s walk.

   
   
This is the season for game, so when the hotel restaurant had venison as the daily special, I could not resist.

  
(Note to readers: pictures from the past few days have now been updated to the previous blog posts, now that I have wifi access.)

Lodging: Hotel Chemin de Fer

21 Sep 15: Romont

Distance: 20km Total climb: 200m Total descent: 100m

After a very simple breakfast of brown bread with butter and jam, plus coffee or tea, we bid a fond farewell to the very hospitable monks at Hautrive. 

  
We three set out, up a wooded hill and through small towns and farmland. The terrain is gently rolling; we can see mountain crests to the south but where we actually walk is very gently contoured. I have come to the conclusion that all the dramatic scenery in Switzerland is east of Interlaken.

Lunch is a picnic on one of the many wayside benches provided here by the local hiking groups. Because of the time constraints today we did not take advantage of the village offering fried chicken as the local delicacy (I think they schnitzel it – Colonel Sanders has not passed through here just yet). Some more brief bits of woodland shade break up the long grind of shade-free pastures on a sunny afternoon. 

  
We push on, as the nuns at tonight’s convent have directed that we arrive before 5pm, or we lose our beds. And it’s 20 km, a distance I would not undertake unless there were no big hills. We made it with time to spare, but my calves are really complaining! I haven’t had much soreness at all this trip, except for the two 20km days. 

The convent is right on the route, just at the beginning of town. Quite convenient since town proper appears to sit on a hill, which will be the first order of business tomorrow. The convent dates to the 1500’s but the guest quarters have been recently renovated and it is quite comfortable.

Dinner was a most congenial cream of spinach soup, followed by a generous portion of creamed spinach and a delicious cheese quiche. All vegetarian and all very tasty. We were joined at table by a Congolese priest on temporary assignment from the Gregorian University at the Vatican, filling in for the local priest. Since he spoke French, Beatrice was able to translate and we had a lively and very interesting discussion.

Lodging: Abbeye Fille-Dieu

20 Sep 15: Kloster Hautrive / Abbeye d’Hauterive

Rest Day.

  
Every large group of people has a daily routine to help things run smoothly. Here is the daily routine for this Sunday at this monastery.

4:15 Office of Vigils

6:30 Office of Lauds

7:10 – 8:00 Breakfast (brown bread, butter, jam, coffee, tea)

09:30 Office of Terce combined with Eucharist (on weekdays Eucharist follows Lauds and precedes breakfast) This is quite a long service, complete with entrance procession, incense, and chanted entrance psalms, as well as introit, Kyrie, gloria, sanctus, angus dei, with an offertory anthem also chanted.

11:50 Office of Sext

12:10 Midday meal

2:30 Office of None

5:15 Office of Vespers

6:30 Evening meal

8:00 Office of Compline

The Offices are sections of the Daily Office, lasting about thirty minutes each and including several psalms, each sung to a different plainchant melody; a short reading or two; and a litany of intercessory prayer.

The midday meal is the big meal of the day, at least here in the European monastery guesthouses. Starter was a delightfully light cream of vegetable, mostly green onion I think. Main course was an assembled pork roast, with mushroom gravy, pomme frites and freshly pickled kraut. A cheese plate and fresh watermelon completed a very nice meal. This was a Sunday, and I don’t know if the weekdays are similarly grand.

The evening meal this Sunday was lighter fare: brown bread, assorted cheeses, sliced salami, butter and jam, coffee and tea. The Swiss call this coffee complete and it is a common Sunday evening meal.

The Abbey church is late Romanesque (the arches are beginning to show a slight pointedness) including the decoratively painted plaster walls; parts of the building date to the 12th century and it was completed in the 14th century. The main building, including the monks’ residence, refectory and quarters for male guests, dates to the Baroque. Outbuildings including the guesthouse for women also date to the Baroque. But it is a rather simple Baroque, if that’s not an oxymoron: the ornate urge is limited to the railing ironwork and a small bit of ceiling moulding in the public spaces. 

  
The Cistercians, as best I can summarize, are reformed, less-comfortable Benedictines. The history and lineage of the monastic orders makes fascinating reading, especially the story of the powerful Benedictine abbey at Cluny (which funded construction of most of the infrastructure along the Chemin St Jacques in France and the Camino Santiago in Spain).

My Swiss friends Beatrice and Yves have arrived now, so tomorrow we will walk on together. 

19 Sep 15: Kloster Hautrive 

Distance: 9.2km Total Climb: 200m Total Descent: 230m

The hotel breakfast room was the madhouse one might expect with a bus load of Chinese tourists. The offerings were quite varied, including cold meats and cheeses, yogurts, fresh fruits, cereals and muesli, and a hot line, plus juices and the coffee maker. I’m afraid the food was disappearing faster than the kitchen could replenish the trays.

It took a few minutes to work my way over to the cathedral, dedicated to St Niklaus, for my credential stamp. The stained glass windows appeared to be early 20th century, and the interior decor was an interesting combination of French and German styles. Certainly more Gothic than Baroque.

  
From the cathedral, the Jakobsweg route (now Chemin St Jacques) works uphill through a pedestrian shopping street that is just beginning to come to life this Saturday morning. At the main train station, several hiking routes converge, so pay attention to the markings and your Swiss Mobility app. Once north of the tracks, it continues uphill through residential districts towards the edge of town. It is likely possible to make this bit by bus (from the cathedral to the edge of town) but today is a shorter day, it’s not raining (yet), and I do enjoy the walk.

Lunch was at the parish church cemetery in Villars-du-Glâne; lest you think me ghoulish, I must point out the French dead are very hospitable. They always provide a bench and fresh water. The French-speaking Swiss follow suit.

Then it was down a big hill, to make a very interesting river crossing. The bridge there dates to before 1250 (when stone replaced the preceding wood) and there might have been a bridge there since prehistoric times. Apparently the lay of the land drives these things for thousands of years. 

  
So these past few days I have been walking the actual historical Jakobsweg route. It is not always the case – sometimes the best route got paved over as a highway, or the hiking association decided the view would be better from that hilltop over there. After the bridge, the route continued in historical fashion; you can see how deeply the trail has eroded over the years (more than 3 m or 10 ft).

  
At the top of the next hill I have an interesting conversation with the trail-marking people:

  • The Abbey is 30 minutes off the Jakobsweg route, that-a-way.
  • Keep going.
  • Keep going.
  • Not that building. Keep going.
  • Keep going.
  • Oh all right you can turn here. I tried to keep it a secret.
  • Keep going
  • Still
  • You’re here! Reception is the 4th door down

This is a Cistercian monastery dating back to 1185, home to about 20 monks. Of all the times I’ve stayed overnight in monasteries, I’ve never been able to take a rest day or attend services, so I’m really looking forward to this time. 

 Cistercians are the white monks – their choir dress is a while wool habit. Outside the church, I see some in the white habit with a black apron and others in a gray cotton habit (which one might think of as a working uniform I suppose). Vespers was conducted in French, and the psalms are sung to antiphonal tunes that were new to me (that is they didn’t sound recognizably Gregorian).  Dinner was in silence for those at table, while a reader read a piece in German. We visitors ate in a separate room and never saw the monks together. After dinner we visitors all did the dishes together in silence. (For folks at Grace: try to imagine the kitchen on Tribe Sunday, in silence.) I’m lodged in the guesthouse, in a spacious room with two windows overlooking the garden and main building. From 7pm onward they observe the Great Silence (you’ll remember this from Call the Midwife). 

Lodging: Kloster Hautrive

18 Sep 15: Freiburg/ Fribourg

Distance: 20 km Total climb: 130m Total descent: 310m

This city has two names, one in German and one in French, because it sits on the line that divides the two parts of Switzerland. Half the city is on the east side of the river and speaks German, the other half lies on the opposite shore and speaks French. I’m told the French can tell the French-speaking Swiss are not French, but they can’t tell whether they’re Swiss or Belgian. Apparently the vocabulary rules are looser outside of France proper.

As you might imagine, this dividing line is somewhat fuzzy. I started hearing the schoolchildren say Merci outside Wattenwil two days ago, and there was a whole table of French-speakers in the breakfast room this morning. Some of them were having difficulty with the German-speaking server.

The route this morning descends some 200m on an old and historic section of the Jakobsweg. It is a good thing I did not attempt this bit during yesterday’s storm: I would have slipped on these wet smooth cobblestones and slid all the way to the bottom of the hill. The freshly shorn sheep looked well-washed though. We continue along the wooded edge of pastures, and then through forest. 

   
 The Swiss, consummate innovators, have done a fine job of engineering the trail for water drainage, so the erosion damage is minimized. I have not seen this anywhere else in my European walks.

By the time I reached Heitenreid the threatening clouds started to make good on their promise, and even though I had rigged for rain, the bus shelter was very inviting. So we had a 45 minute rain delay. Then I marched onward, being passed by the first of four walking pairs out with me this morning. Lunch – a sandwich made from breakfast surplus – was on a quiet church porch, which gave some shelter from the breeze as well as a nice view of the surrounding rolling countryside. Small town, both Protestant and Catholic Churches, noontime : bell wars. 

After lunch continued through pastures and small farms, with quite a lot of pavement walking all told. In Tafers, there are two side chapels that are actually outside chapels, and one was dedicated to St James. The pilgrim association here has been going on since the 15th century. 

  
Across the street was a small grocery, and a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. So I went in to restock supplies. As I was checking out, the young man who is cashier asks me, “Apfel?” Now, my speaking of German is not half bad, apparently, but my listening needs some work. Still, this just did not compute. Finally we shifted to English and he explained that today was Apple Day, they were giving them away free, and would I like one? Why yes I would. An Apple a day …

No sooner had I stepped outside and finished stashing the new supplies in my pack than another pair of pilgrims stops me. “Are you American?” Why yes. Then he asks my name, and I tell him. “You left your credential in the chapel. We have it!” This is really good news because the credentials are necessary for the pilgrim accommodations at the monasteries, where I am planning to stay tomorrow. I thank them – two young men living outside Munich, one Austrian and one German -with some of my new favorite cookies.

More pastures, some suburbs, and Fribourg looms across the river. This is a big city! So after having made 20km on my own steam, I hop a bus for the last leg into the middle of town. I’m staying at the NH Fribourg, which is centrally located and decently priced (this is Switzerland after all).

Since I’m not inclined to wander far after such a long day, dinner was in the hotel restaurant and classic French. A huge salad of fresh tomatoes dressed with balsamic

  
Veal with mushrooms in a cream sauce, Rösti on the side

  
And for dessert a multi-layer berry cream