Sunday, 23 September 2012

Cow Bells and Crucifixes: Travels in the Swiss Alps

I have a terrible fear of Julie Andrews, and let me tell you why. 

As a child I attended a school that owned only three entertainment videos, and those were Jesus of Nazareth, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and The Sound of Music. But none got as much viewing time as The Sound of Music. 

Oh, how it haunted me, that operatic foghorn of a soprano in a striped apron, spinning atop grassy Alpine knolls clutching a guitar. It wasn’t long until the mere threat of Andrews’ voice made me shudder, and the sight of the woman cause feelings of dread that permeated to my shoes. 

In my childlike confusion, I found comfort in fearing the Alps, reasoning that if I never went there I would be safe. But a few months back I had the pleasure of visiting Zurich for the first time, during which I concluded that the Alps don’t actually exist due to the fact that dense cloud had hidden all trace of their presence. This was rather convenient of course, as it allowed me to earmark this vibrant little city as one of the world’s finest without the threat of Rodgers and Hammerstein. No Alps, no fear. 

Yet over time I realised the absurdity of my conclusion, and that what I was doing was running from my fear rather than confronting it. No, I should go back to try again I decided. Cartographers are rarely wrong when it comes to mountain ranges. 

© Amadeus Finlay, 2011

The film may have been shot in Austria, but where better to sort things out than my new-found best friend, Switzerland? 

It was because of this that I found myself in the Alpine foothills somewhere in the vicinity of St. Gallen, gazing upon the crystal-clear slopes of the Alps rising but miles from where I stood. Being prone to getting lost, however, I had decided to hire guide. She was a local girl, born just across the lake in the German town of Lindau. I had begun the day there, sipping on espresso in a certain Café Amadeus. But now things were different, no time for leisure up here. No, we were to go hiking, the guide insisting on leading us on a route rising ever higher into the sky. 

Marina - for this was her name - was a girl of purpose and experience, and she set a blistering pace as stormed up the slopes in her size 5 hiking boots. It was a hot day, and needless to say I soon fell behind. Within half an hour I was alone, and, you’ve guessed it, lost. 

But I couldn’t have cared less. 

Just like Zurich, rural Switzerland drips character and exudes charm. Rolling, tightly-knit hills sweep into fairy-tale glades populated by roving cows with their necklace bells. Alpine flowers, exploding with colour, poke through hill-tops crowned with evergreens and gorse. But it is the dong-dong calls of cow bells that dominate, and from every side a bovine rhythm section provides a dogged pulse to the riffing chorus of bird song. 

When Marina eventually tracked me down an hour later I was to be found in a happy daze at the summit, gazing inanely at a wooden signpost of the crucified Christ. Carved on its top was the elevation of the hill –1,045 metres –, and at its base a metal box for comments and reflections. How wonderful, I thought, I bet Everest doesn’t have this. Verging on ecstatic, I ripped out a page from my notebook and scribbled a note for posterity: First man from Ballyclare to reach the summit (or so I would assume). 

© Amadeus Finlay, 2011

Stunning view, lovely people, and the Alps most do certainly exist. Oh, and thank you for having kept Julie Andrews in her box. Happy to have laid my childhood fears to rest, I rejoined Marina and headed down the hill for a drink. 

There was a cafe in Lindau with my name on it.

© Amadeus Finlay, 2011


  1. Re crucifixes in the Alps, fascinating if typically mystico-fantastical and ethnically essentialist essay by DH Lawrence on the subject:

  2. Fabulous response Max, thanks for the intelligent critique and for including the link. You learn something new every day... :)

  3. It seems positively unnatural to travel without taking a camera along... The very activity of taking pictures is soothing and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel.
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  4. Hi Iffatali, thanks for reading. I agree with you wholeheartedly!