Home is where the sunrise is

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I recently received an invitation to attend an event in Zurich to discuss the concept of Heimat, among other things. Heimat is a German word that doesn’t have a direct equivalent in English. It can mean home, homeland, native land and more.

When Swiss citizens fill in official forms, they are routinely asked to give their Heimatort (literally ‘native place’), the commune of origin of their family. This is passed down through the paternal line so that my husband’s Heimatort (and by extension mine) is the village where his grandfather was born, even though his grandfather left there as a small boy when he was sent to live with relatives after his mother’s death. This grandfather, who ended up working as a saddler in another village, never lived in his native village again and may not have felt any emotional attachment to the place but many Swiss are proud of their Heimatort.

The old function of Heimatort was that the commune (municipality) would provide for you in case of destitution. In the past, this was more about social control than charity. Somebody caught begging or drunk in public could be picked up and returned to his or her Heimat to be dealt with. Not a cheery prospect at a time when people who were classed as ‘work shy’ could be interned under the ‘administrative care’ legal provision (common up to the 1970s). Children who were taken into care were referred to their Heimat for a foster home placement – in practice to work as labourers or servants for farming families – which often meant a new life of drudgery miles away from where they grew up.

Now, thankfully, we have prosperity, social welfare payments and a professionalised child welfare system. The Heimatort is only relevant in a few minor, archaic ways, such as the right to graze animals on commonly held land.  (Admittedly this is not minor if you can’t access the land your neighbours are using for free.) I don’t know of any other residual rights Heimatort grants but I’d be curious to know if anyone can enlighten me.

I have some Heimat issues myself in that I still feel the loss of my Irish homeland very keenly. Ideally, after fifteen years in a different country I should have transferred my allegiance and affections to my new location. But this has not happened, at least not to a convincing degree. Despite the fact that I have built a decent life for myself in Switzerland, a process that involved great effort, I still feel the inner tension of being pulled back to my place of origin. Meanwhile, my family is deeply rooted and happy here. It’s a conundrum.

A three-month stay in Ireland this year went some way to alleviating that tension. Apart from all the external trappings of life in Dublin that I enjoy (the sea, the sea!), there are two interlinked things the place offers me that I haven’t been able to replicate in Switzerland. One is a sense of community and the other is the ability to be myself. My German and French are good but I don’t feel truly myself when I speak those languages. I cannot be as genuine when I am working to communicate with a reduced vocabulary (and I seem to have hit a ceiling in both languages). But it’s not only about language; I have good relations with lots of people on an individual basis but it’s in a group that solidarity and shared experiences come into play. In this environment you can express a bigger range of your personality and find meaningful acceptance. I already have some ideas on how to respond to this problem and I’ll be giving it more thought over the coming months.

As for my book related activities, I am doing my bit to promote the French and German editions of The Naked Swiss (La Suisse mise à nu and Die Wahre Schweiz), which has so far notably involved a live television interview in Payot bookshop in Geneva on July 5th.

The interview was hosted by Patrick Vallélian of the in-depth Swiss news magazine Sept.Info, which is running an excerpt from La Suisse mise à nu in their latest edition and organising various joint events at bookshops in French-speaking Switzerland. More updates about these events on my Facebook page.

I was delighted to see the French translation reviewed in the Tribune de Genève newspaper and I’m looking forward to reading the write-up of the interview I gave 24 Heures newspaper later this month.

This time last year I was preparing for Le livre sur les quais festival in Morges at the beginning of September. This year the pressure is off as I will be attending as a visitor rather than a guest author. I have my ticket to see Maggie O’Farrell on September 2nd and will book more as soon as the full English programme is online. Especially looking forward to hearing Lisa McInerney speak. I loved her first book, The Glorious Heresies.

The photo above is the view from the top of the Kaiseregg mountain in Fribourg at sunrise a fortnight ago. The actual sunrise pics didn’t come out too well on my old phone but this one captures the dreamy beauty of the place. We had to get up at half past three in the morning to complete the climb in time before the sun came up. Tough going but well worth the effort, this was the best experience of my Swiss summer so far. I wish you all good times and safe travels this summer too.

Beer and the great outdoors

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Switzerland has such an abundance of hiking trails that searching for a new route can send you down a rabbit hole of maps and websites. To make things easier, and more refreshing, hiking guide Monika Saxer has compiled a list of 59 hikes, each of which ends at a brewery or bar where you can quench your thirst with a local craft beer.

Beer Hiking Switzerland is published in English, German and French by Helvetiq, the same publisher that will publish the translations of The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths in the new year. As I am partial to hiking and beer, I didn’t need any persuading to try out one of Saxer’s trails. I once went too far for my own good when I walked my old work commute from Fribourg to Bern (an adventure you can read about here), therefore expert advice is gratefully received.

For this hike, I press-ganged my family to join in and we chose the 11-kilometre Gottéron route on page 94. It starts in the German-speaking village of St Antoni in canton Fribourg, passes by the edge of Tafers and ends up following the wooded Gottéron valley all the way to the Old Town of Fribourg.

I already knew the Gottéron part of the walk well, a narrow other-worldly trail that winds along by the Gottéron river through steep sandstone gorges and dense forest. As with any walk on Swiss hiking trails, there are places set up for grilling and picnicking, as well as signposts to reassure you that you’re on the right track.

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From St Antoni, after a dip and a short climb, most of the route was gradually descending which is the kind of hike I like best. I also like quiet walks. We did not meet any other walkers on the St Antoni to Tafers part, although it was a Saturday afternoon. But we did spot some ostriches, llama and these unusual highland-type cattle.

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The arrival into Fribourg is one of the most romantic approaches to the town, across the Pont de Berne and into Place Petit Saint Jean. Confession alert: we did the walk in two parts over two weekends. As recommended, we made our way to l’Auberge du Soleil Blanc to order a Fri-mousse beer which is brewed a few doors up on the rue de la Samaritaine. The perfect way to enjoy one of these Indian summer days.

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I’m always interested to see what other ideas people come up with to write about Switzerland. The sky’s the limit. The important thing is to write about something you are passionate about. Monika explains in her book that this book grew from her interest in microbreweries. She starting selecting hikes that ended near breweries, and writing up those routes on the website of the Women’s Alpine Club of Zurich, now called CAS Section Baldern. After she was featured in a Migros Magazine article about women and beer, Monika was approached by Helvetiq to write this book.

If you were to write a book about the country you live in, what approach would you take? I’d love to hear (but not steal) your ideas.

Book heaven on Lake Geneva

Book heaven on Lake Geneva

Walking into the crowded authors’ tent at Le livre sur les quais (The book on the quays) literary festival in Morges on Saturday, my first thought was that I had entered a cattle market of books and authors. The festival now boasts a roll call of more than 300 authors. Could this be too much of a good thing?

Le livre sur les quais is only in its seventh year but has achieved significant national and international recognition, attracting big names and 40,000 visitors. Although mainly a festival of French-language literature, the festival has an excellent English programme and star-studded guest list (Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train).

Morges is a pretty little town on Lake Geneva, a short commute from the city of Lausanne. On the five-minute walk down from the train station to the lake shore, you glimpse large courtyards to the left and right, surrounded by low-rise apartment blocks. This is urban living at its best. There is an attractive old centre, and when you cross the main street, Grande rue, any of the side streets lead down to the lake shore and stunning views of the water and the French Alps to the south.  

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The authors’ tent is right on the water’s edge, an impossibly long marquee with the sides left open on the lake side in the hopes of a breeze. Continuous lines of tables run along the ‘walls’ on each side of the tent, facing several inner rectangular ‘islands’ of tables. It was a hot day on Saturday and the temperature in the tent was sweltering.

The authors sit behind these tables, each with a pile of books on display. The presence of so many authors in one place, selling their books (not that they handle money, you take the books from the table and pay at a till) creates a feeling that they are vying for attention.

Maybe I was projecting, the way I do with cows too, but some of the authors looked a little forlorn and overwhelmed. According to the programme there were 348 guests attending the festival, authors, poets, translators.

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For the visitors, the wonderful thing about the set-up was that you could walk up to an author you admire and strike up a conversation. This accessibility is one of the great attractions of the festival. I went straight to the island of English-speaking authors island. The authors come and go participating or attending various talks in venues around the town or on pleasure boats!

I was delighted to meet Alison Anderson, author of The Summer Guest, which I had been reading on the train journey to Morges (big disadvantage of ebooks – you can’t get them signed!). The novel is a fictionalised account of a real summer spent by Chekhov and his family in an idyllic country setting in Sumy in Eastern Ukraine. The story is told partly through the diary of a blind woman who became close to the great writer, made poignant by the knowledge that she is dying, and partly from the perspective of the present day translator of the diary.  Anderson gives a fascinating account of her research trip to Sumy here.

It was a day of discoveries and striking up connections with people. One talk I attended was a panel discussion about historical fiction with Rosie Thomas, Petina Gappah (amazing speaker from Zimbabwe), John Boyne and Anne Korkeakivi. John Boyne, best known as the author of Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, talked about the nit-pickers who come to him with minor factual corrections. He also confessed he checked one-star Amazon reviews to see what people did not like about his books.

“There are no mistakes in fiction. Once you put a made-up character into a historical setting, it’s corrupted. The story you’re telling comes first.” I am really looking forward to reading my new copy of Boyne’s latest novel, A History of Loneliness, his first novel with an Irish setting.

My visit to Le Livre sur les quais was a very enriching day for me, but one where I was glad to be the observer and not the observed. But soon it will be my turn to sit at a table and talk about my book. After a career of asking questions, I’m not sure how easy it will be to have the roles reversed. This month I will be giving my first interviews about my book, and two talks at the Geneva Expo on October 2 (more info here).  

One more thing for any of you who are on Goodreads. The Naked Swiss  is now listed there and you can mark it as ‘want to read’ if you like, and/or follow my author page.

Have you attended any literary festivals this year? What do you think is the best formula? I know a huge amount of work goes into these events and I think they are fantastic for readers. I hope authors feel the same. Not only did I come away with these great books, but I was able to meet or listen to four out of the five authors. 

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Would you pass the Swiss sleeping-in-straw test?

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The ‘Stroh Deluxe’ room in Hotel Kemmeriboden Bad in the Emmental is a world away from the real thing

The longest night I ever lived through in Switzerland was spent half way up a mountain in a barn, my head resting on a rough pillow several feet above a calving cow. Although 90 per cent of the population lives in the lowlands, the Swiss like to think of themselves as a mountain people, and therefore they celebrate all the trappings of rustic mountain life. When the idea of ‘sleeping in the straw’ came up, I took my cue from my enthusiastic Swiss friends and convinced myself it would be a fun thing to do.

It was a chair lift ride and half a day’s hike to get to the chalet where a farming couple were spending the summer looking after their herd of two dozen cows. We ate fondue outside and watched the sun set over the pre-Alps. I had to agree it was lovely. When we were shown to the accommodation upstairs – rough-hewn wooden bunks with the promised straw-filled mattresses and army blankets – I thought it could have been worse. I hadn’t taken vernacular Swiss architecture into account.

To keep everybody warm in winter, Swiss farmhouses traditionally integrated the family’s living quarters and the barn or cowshed under one roof. We were actually sleeping in the old hay loft, directly above the stall. This soon became clear from what I could smell through the gaps between the floorboards. One cow was being kept in for the night (I soon discovered why) while the rest were free to roam outside. When I resigned myself to the smell and the occasional sounds of snorting and stamping from downstairs, it seemed like sleep might be possible.

I awoke from a short and fitful sleep to distinctly more unhappy sounds coming from the cow below. I don’t know how many hours that poor cow was calving but I didn’t sleep a wink throughout. It did eventually come to an end and finally the light went out and the sound of lowing and voices was gone. All was not lost, I thought, dawn was still at least an hour off. I hadn’t reckoned on the morning milking, which started after what felt like a mere moment of shut-eye. First the whole house shook with the thundering of twenty-four sets of hooves on the wooden floor, and the clanging of twenty four cowbells, as the cows came in to be milked. Then the milking machine generator started up, also seemingly located directly under my bed, with its own penetrating noise. Eventually I was lulled back to sleep by the chugging – until it stopped. But then it was time for the cows to be let out, and the din of hooves started up again.

The next day I hurried down to the Central Swiss Plateau, glad to be back in the one of the most densely populated areas in Europe if it meant having modern conveniences and sleeping through the night.

The age-old tradition of taking herds up the mountains to the summer pastures is only maintained by a relatively small number of famers nowadays. Some 17,000 mountain farmers make the trek every year with 800,000 livestock, usually staying in simple chalets while they look after their animals, serve drinks to hikers, and make cheese or other farm produce. Where practical, herds or flocks are left alone, or in the care of sheepdogs.

An incredible two thirds of Switzerland’s land surface is taken up by mountains but my sleeping in the straw experience is the closest most Swiss get to mountain life in the land of Heidi, chalets and yodelling from alp to alp. To the Swiss who live in the lowlands, the mountains are their playground, a place to go skiing, hiking, paragliding or hunting. The fact is it is difficult to make a living up there. The majority of Alpine farmers rely on subsidies, and volunteers are drafted in to help with the summer harvest in a support programme organised by the charity Caritas. And the Swiss are loyal to their high-altitude brethren. The charity for hard-up mountain dwellers Schweizer Berghilfe (Swiss Mountain Aid) is one of the most popular in Switzerland for bequests. On the scientific front, the Swiss are global leaders in avalanche and glacier research. They also know a thing or two about hydroelectric power, since more than half of Switzerland’s electricity production comes from hydroelectric power generation.

This summer I summoned the courage to sleep in a mountain hut again, this one belonging to the family of a friend. First we had a hair-raising drive up a narrow winding road hewn out of the mountainside, literally stuck between a rock and a hard place whenever we met another car. Then came a long hike, up and up. There was no milking involved this time – the small herd left alone on our particular alp were too young – so I only had the spiders to worry about as I waited for morning to come. But I did have the pleasure of being first up and lighting the morning fire to heat water for breakfast, one of those age-old tasks that almost made me sentimental about mountain life. Have you ever tried sleeping on the straw? Or what is the equivalent where you come from?  For those curious to try it, check out this Swiss agritourism website to find a farmhouse nearby. But if you prefer something more refined, why not try the room in the picture above at the Hotel Kemmeriboden Bad in Emmental, canton Bern? I know I’m tempted.

Discovering the delights of Fribourg

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Fribourg is a charming medieval town situated between Bern and Lausanne on the main Zurich to Geneva rail line, often overlooked as a tourist stop. Though I’ve lived here for the past thirteen years, I’m still discovering hidden gems.

It’s that time of year when people are on the move. Some of you will be exploring Switzerland and if you can possibly make room for Fribourg on your itinerary, here are some suggestions on how to spend the day. If you don’t have the time or the means to get to Fribourg, let me show you around.

Fribourg is a small enough town to get to know on foot. For anyone who doesn’t have the energy for the hills and cobblestones, there is the option to take the little tourist train, which leaves every day at 2pm, 3pm and 4pm from Place Jean Tingeuly, five minutes’ walk from the train station. This one-hour guided tour with a couple of stops will help you get your bearings and see the different styles of architecture stretching back 800 years.

Miséricorde campus, built in the 1930s
Miséricorde campus, built in the 1930s

Walkers can start by asking directions to Collège St Michel. If you take the back route by the main post office, you will pass by the main university building Miséricorde with its distinctive Le Corbusier style architecture, which is worth a look. Carry on along rue Joseph Piller towards the collège and you can break for your first coffee opposite the cantonal library in Marcello’s.

Marcello's is on the edge of the charming Quartier d'Alt
Marcello’s is on the edge of the charming Quartier d’Alt

Afterwards you can go up the steps of the college and wander around the grounds of what used to be a Jesuit seminary and is now a pre-university college, taking in a visit to the church of St Michel.

The college is at one of the highest points of the town, which descends, quite steeply in places, to the Sarine River. There is a wonderful view of Fribourg from the terrace at the back of the college. From there you can take the old covered steps, Escaliers du Collège, down to the narrow shopping street rue de Lausanne.

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Rue de Lausanne with its quirky boutiques and townhouses leads down to the Bourg area. Don’t forget to look up to see the stone carvings and decorative windows at first floor level.

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Now you arrive at the Hotel de Ville and cantonal court around the large open space of Place de L’Hotel de Ville where, if it’s a Saturday morning, the weekly market will be taking place. Grand Rue comes next, a narrow 17th to 18th century street which is completely unchanged, and used to be the town’s best address in its heyday.

Here you are faced with a couple of choices. You can loop around by the cathedral and back to the cafe des Arcades for more refreshments before visiting the mini gallery quarter which includes the Tinguely museum, the Museum of Art and History (lovely garden) and the small Gutenberg printing press museum. Two more heavy duty churches – the Basilique Notre Dame and the Église des Cordeliers – provide shade and tranquility on this part of the tour.

The garden of the Museum of Art and History
The garden of the Museum of Art and History

Or you can do down to the river. On this walk you’ve been gradually descending through the centuries and altitude towards the legendary Old Town – Basse Ville or Unterstadt. From this Hotel de Ville level there are at least three ways to get down – by taking the fairytale-like Stalden steps which begin at the end of Grand Rue, the more workaday steps from the Pont de Zaehringen (check out the view of the new Poya bridge) which gives you an opportunity to cross the Sarine River at the foot of the steps and enter the walled part of the Old Town through the impressive Bern gate.

Pont de Berne, close to the Bern gate and city walls
Pont de Berne, close to the Bern gate and city walls

Fribourg is a little confusing and the river doesn’t help for orientation because it keeps changing sides. That’s because the town is built on a sharp turn in the river which creates a river peninsula. The third way to reach the Old Town is from the other side of the Hotel de Ville, towards the rue de la Grande Fontaine where you will find more pretty steps.

What makes these routes even more interesting is that all these streets are lived in and many of the houses have been kept in excellent condition. You will see people bringing their shopping home, tending to their balcony plants or sitting on their front steps.

There is a bus that carries passengers up from the Old Town to the train station – the number 4. An alternative to the bus or the climb is the funicular railway which starts at the bottom of rue de la Grande Fontaine and leads to Place Python, which is also where the Wednesday farmers market takes place.

If you like what you’ve seen on this walking tour, here are some suggestions of other places to see from Fribourg Tourism, where you will also find information on the festivals and events on this summer.Wishing you all safe and happy travels.

(all photos taken 30.06.2015 © Clare O’Dea)

The ultimate Swiss tourist trap

Luckily there's no railway to the Grand Combin glacier
Luckily there’s no railway to the Grand Combin glacier near Verbier

In the summer of 1868, three years before the Rigi railway at Lake Lucerne was completed, an English noblewoman travelling incognito made an excursion to Mount Rigi. The stout 49-year-old woman had a lot of work and family troubles on her mind as she was carried up the mountain in a sedan chair. But this lady was no ordinary tourist. She happened to be the most powerful woman in the world, with the job title Monarch of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Queen Victoria visited at the beginning of the mountain railway boom. Entrepreneurs were snapping up railway concessions all over the Alps and rushing to complete the first, the highest, the steepest railway lines to make a killing in the lucrative new tourist market.

It is a staggering fact that two thirds of Switzerland’s land surface is taken up by mountains. Small communities had always eked out an existence on the lower slopes but the great peaks were out of bounds, known only from a distance. It was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that the Alps began to be seen as an amenity, first for hikers and climbers and later for less adventurous visitors who could be transported up to dizzying heights in their Sunday best.

Not everyone agreed that laying tracks and blasting tunnels in the Alps for tourists was a worthwhile pursuit, as I discovered when researching article for swissinfo.ch about the centenary of the Jungfrau railway last year.

“We regret that so many mountain lines have already been built, which only benefit a small number of people economically, while from the ethical point of view they are not only useless but even harmful,” the Swiss League for the Defence of Natural Beauty and the Swiss Heritage Society wrote in a petition to the government calling for a more prudent granting of railway concessions.

In its first full year in operation, 1913, the Jungfraujoch station – Europe’s highest train station – on the shoulder of the Jungfrau mountain in the Bernese Oberland attracted 42,880 tourists; last year 833,000 people, myself included, made the unique rail trek to “The Top of Europe”.

The return trip from Interlaken to Jungfraujoch (3,454 metres above sea level) is about an hour and a half each way, with two train changes. If ever I had the feeling of being herded, it was on that day. I joined the multitudes of Indian, Chinese, American, European and Arab tourists being efficiently ushered from one train to the next by smartly-dressed guides. After leaving Kleine Scheidegg for the final leg of the journey there were more stops inside the tunnel at the viewing windows cut into the rock face.

I arrived at the top around lunchtime to join throngs of people wandering around through a maze of tunnels or milling about in front of the different eateries (including what must be the most expensive Indian buffet in mainland Europe). I could see the magnificent Aletsch glacier for a few minutes before everything was obscured by cloud.

Here’s the report I wrote for swissinfo.ch about the centenary.

The 200-franc day trip which is billed as the ultimate Swiss tourist experience seemed to me to be rather overpriced, overhyped and exhausting. Within minutes of boarding the return train, everyone on board promptly fell asleep, wiped out by the altitude and possibly the stress of being herded around all day.

Here’s a little secret. Switzerland is full of mountains and easy ways of getting up them and while I’m not saying they all look the same, there are spectacular views to be seen from almost anywhere, even the top of the smallest, most humble 12-franc chair lift.

It’s holiday time again. Have you got any tourist trap stories to share?

This fork sculpture at Vevey, Lake Geneva is a bit of fun
This fork sculpture at Vevey, Lake Geneva is a bit of fun