Posted by: Peadar Ban | October 29, 2014

Italy: A Vacation Which Became a Pilgrimage (Part Five)

The Alien Planet

There is in Greek mythology, and, who knows, maybe Roman, too, a place way up North where things are bright and sunny, fields green, rivers sparkly and clear.  For the life of me I can’t remember the name they gave it.  And, maybe the whole thing is a figment of my imagination.  In any event, as we stood in the line waiting to board I played with the idea, thinking how cool it would be to land in a northern version of Honolulu and be met at the gate by lovely ladies singing sweet songs.  Of course, instead of being dressed in brightly colored skin tight diaphanous wraps these ladies would be wearing seal skin robes and boots, carrying spears and waving shiny sharp broad swords.  The sweet songs would be war chants and funeral dirges.  But the sun would shine.  Yes it would I thought, and Viking long ships would be everywhere.  Somewhere among the crowd would be Tony Curtis, the only Norseman ever to have a Bronx accent, and Kirk Douglas: chin dimple looking like nothing so much as a volcanic crater.

We sat on the left side of the plane.  It didn’t matter to me as long as I got the aisle.  My leg was killing me, and night had fallen…plop.  Perhaps I’d be able to doze off for an hour or so of the five it would take climbing up the world to Reykjavik.  They served us something to eat whose one redeeming feature was that it was neither too hot nor too cold; and it was small.  Goldilocks might even have liked it for those qualities at least.  It was also forgettable.  The noise started.  And, the lights went out.

I am told that the flight from Boston to Reykjavik is somewhere in the vicinity of five hours.  It was with some curiosity then that at about that much time after we had taken off I peeked out of the window and around the thing that was sticking out and keeping us up, to see what Reykjavik, or Iceland might look like.

Now, I have seen the pictures, all of them bright and beautiful, for the Lord God has made Iceland, too.  And soon I was to see, in fact I was looking down at what the Lord God had made; as far as I could see from a height somewhere between ten and ten thousand feet God had some work to do to live up to the press, the hype.

Have you seen the film(s) Alien?  Then you get an idea of early morning in Iceland, or perhaps any day at the Ninth Circle.  As we descended under a gun metal gray sky on a dim morning through sheets of rain and trails of thin clouds the ground below was a study in gray, at least forty shades of it.  There were black volcanic boulders, dark gray boulders, gray gravelly plains and smoky gray hills in the distance.  Here and there were a few patches of very light gray snow; gray probably because there wasn’t enough light for white.  Oh, and some green things that may have been plants…or pebbles.


Iceland? Well, yes. But no Sigourney in sight.










We landed and deplaned into the terminal, zipped from one place to another, down one set of stairs and up the next.  Waited to go through Immigration (though for God knows what reason I cannot imagine) and moved on to our gate out of Iceland and into light.

I got the impression that the terminal was a movie set and the production staff had moved on to the next project; lots of bare wood.  Within the hour we were airborne again, and on our way to Zurich to meet the Gnomes; a nice family who would be our hosts and serve us cheese.

No Cleaner Place Has Ever Been

I have no solid memory of the flight from Reykjavik down to Zurich, other than the fact that we were in a plane and everything below us was clouded over.  When we began our descent (somewhere above Denmark?) we found ourselves in the soup until about 10 feet above the runway.  Or, maybe that was 2 feet. That close doesn’t mean a thing.  Miraculously, the weather cleared up once we were inside the terminal.  The fact that the place was cleaner than a NASA Clean Room didn’t surprise me at all.  About every second person I saw was pushing a broom or packing a trash bag with something.  And, who wasn’t doing that was standing by to catch the rare and courageous stray dust mote.  Dirt and disorder are outlawed in Switzerland.

I think it was still kind of early in the morning, and since it was Saturday, anyway, the place was rather empty.  Besides us there were a few other travelers, but it was, all in all, a rather quiet, even pleasant, place…for an airport terminal.  We collected our bags and wheeled away down nearly deserted and shiningly clean corridors.  Most of the stores, all of which looked as if they sold stuff waaay out of my range, were closed.

Our destination was the train station where we were to catch a train for the little town of Chur (pronounced like cool with an “r” instead of an “l”).  But first, we needed to get a little pocket change, little being the operative word in Switzerland.  I cannot remember the exchange rate, but picture the Swiss franc as Andre the Giant and the U.S Dollar as Joe Btfsblk from L’il Abner, or Sad Sack, and that should give you a pretty good idea.  I’m surprised the nice lady behind the window didn’t look scornfully at us and say, “We no longer take those.”

Pocket change in hand we headed for the train station, about a quarter mile in that direction through some immaculately clean tunnels under a couple of probably immaculately clean streets.  Mariellen had, with her talent for organization, gotten us reservations on a train to Chur leaving in just a few minutes, and we were on the platform waiting as it eased to an almost silent stop before us.  A few minutes later and we were comfortably and cleanly on our way out of town, riding that train…

Our little trip took us south, down the west “coast” of what I’ve learned was Lake Zurich (duh!).  It was a very pleasant trip  along the lake and then through a wide valley between rolling hills and low mountains; a trip about an hour long, give or take.


Lake Zurich looking north with Mariellen improving the view.


A little lump of land in the middle of the lake


Oh, the privations of rail travel in Europe!


There were little towns and villages all along the lake shore on both sides, and many beach clubs, boat clubs and just plain clubs.


A little church on a little hill. We were to see quite a lot of them…both of them.






























Chur, A Word Which Must Mean Something

Slowly, silently, smoothly, the train came to a stop at Chur and had I not been looking out the window, I would have had very little evidence to tell me of that fact.  We gathered our stuff together and eased on down to the platform.  The town, nestled into hills on both sides of a valley whose mountain walls rose a couple of thousand feet or so around us, was a postcard.  See the top of this page if you doubt it.   It was about 3:00pm when we stood on the square in front of the, what is it now??, the Banhof?

Mariellen had downloaded directions from the station to our hotel, only a short walk away.  She showed me them.  They were concise, clear and all in English.  What they did not indicate at all was where North was, so that someone reading them could determine whether “north east” was; left, right, in between, up or down from where one stood..  Had we turned left, and taken the next right, we would have arrived at our hotel twenty minutes before we actually did.  Nonetheless, our little ramble through the town was pleasant enough, even if up-hill.

Up hill, as the next few weeks were to prove, was about the only direction one could take getting anywhere.

And, so, we found it, The Romantik Hotel Stern .  It was on a quiet street, down a little lane from the main road in the shopping and business district by the way we took and only a few yards from another road, the more direct route to the station, and from the station by the way we would have taken if we knew the way to take.  I know, it’s a kind of “through the looking glass” situation, but that’s Europe for you; a different place.  From the outside the hotel looked neat and clean, but pretty un-preposessing I thought; a kind of businessman’s place, probably full of traveling salesmen and their suitcases of samples.  I was less than impressed too, when we entered the small lobby to check in, a room not much larger than our living room, and with less space to sit oneself down, or set down one’s luggage.

But that all changed when we got to the room, across a small covered drive leading to some other properties behind the hotel.  We took the elevator to the top floor and entered another little world; a space that might have dropped out of a novel about two folks staying in a lovely Swiss chalet, in a room with a balcony whose view was of broad mountain slopes, sharp mountain peaks, and snow at the end of May.  The bed was soft and inviting, a bottle or two of clear mountain water and a basket of lovely fruit nearby in our pine paneled spotless room.  It looked as if it had just been dropped off from the store that morning.  Mariellen had chosen the place especially for the flavor of an “authentic” Swiss hotel.  Whether or not it was, I may never know.  But, from then on, it became for me the measure all “authentic” Swiss hotels must meet.


Mariellen captures the scenery from the balcony of our room. The spire in on a Lutheran church…which was locked when we walked up to it.


An engraving on a big table in the dining room. Lovely work.


Looking north from the balcony.














I wondered as we left to return to the lobby and ask about places to eat before a short walk, whether or not Iceland had the same.

Out on some lava flow, I thought.  Hung with harpoons and whale skins, I thought.

We looked in on the hotel’s restaurant, and decided on it.  Boy, am I glad we did!  Then we went exploring.  Once again, every direction was up.

And, we chose the way up to the left toward the very pointy steeple in the picture above.  Our way wound up a long hill past some vineyards, and a structure that looked like a monastery but was really a prison:


Twice a day, every day…


A lovely little prison right in the center of town.









We happened upon a 15th Century Catholic church, the cathedral of the Diocese of Chur which dates back to the 5th Century, and its cemetery behind which contained the remains of at least one Swiss Guard, a captain, and the members of his family.





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After an hour or so of wandering about and taking many more photos than you see here, we returned to our room, relaxed a bit and then went down to supper.  What we ate shall remain a secret until next we meet.  But here is the little nook in which we ate it, and how that came to be is a story I think worth telling:


Mariellen prepares for a lovely meal in Chur on our first night.



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