“Right! What’s a cubit?” - Bill Cosby, from Noah in three skits
Day Sixty-Four – August 21st
Sleeping in the valley has its advantages. The mornings are warm and inviting. For the first time in weeks I can make coffee without wearing my down jacket. Plus the skies have cleared and we have sunshine!
The morning is spent sitting outside the HOW on lawn chairs filling in our journals and playing with our rock collections. Eventually we motivate and arrive at the cheese factory in the House of Gruyere just in time to wait an hour and fifteen minutes until “something very big will happen in the cheese place.” At first I think the lady behind the desk is kidding me. “Is it a big something?” I ask. “Oh yes, very much activity, it is the best time to see the cheese. You wait.” She says with a big broad smile. I swear I saw her on a billboard ad for Switzerland.
So we wait. They have a nice playground outside and plenty of HOW parking. Vince and Adele play in the park while we have a picnic at one of the tables on the lawn. As we sit and relax a group of bikers from the States ride in and belly up to a prepared lunch set out by their tour leaders. It looks like such a nice way to see a country: a little morning ride to a great lunch stop followed by an afternoon ride to a nice hotel then a great meal and warm shower.
An hour has passed and we can stand it no longer. We must see the cheese! If you follow cheese as we do then you know that Gruyere is on the life long top ten list of places to go and sample. It sits somewhere between Gouda and Provolone just behind Parmesan.
The tour is actually very entertaining. We learn that what the cows eat is reflected in the final product and that traces of wild spices can influence the “taste and nose” of the cheese. The audio tour is done from the cow’s perspective, a unique way to tell the story, and is done by a chirpy Swiss woman that sounds like Heidi. She assures us that machine based milking is “much preferred” than the old “by hand” method as it allows for better hygiene during the process. I am not buying it by the looks of the milking apparatus connected to Bessie the pictures.
By 1:15 we can hardly stand the wait any longer. We have been staring at a big vat filled with milk for 15 minutes in anticipation. We even nudged out an old guy or two that was trying to angle in for a better view. Women and children first for the “something very big”. We stand cameras ready.
In the sealed room below we see movement by the vat of milk. A man emerges, dressed in white from head to toe and wearing a facemask, to record the time on a white board. Then he stands and looks at the vat for five minutes or so. Nothing happens. He checks his watch again then reacts as if he has heard an alarm that we cannot hear. He throws a switch on the large vat and picks up a plastic thing to stir the milk. We are almost jumping up and down. The turning machine starts to move. Oh, thank God we waited…
That’s it. The turning machine moves the milk around, and around, and around, and around, for something like forty minutes. That is the “something very big.” I am not sure, but if we had stayed until the end I think the guy stops the machine, records the time and then goes back to where ever it is he came from. It’s a tough day in the office for these cheese makers. The kids love it.
Snacking on samples we drive over to Chateau de Chillon just outside of Montreux. Its one of the best castles we have seen on the trip so far: big and sprawling on the inside yet tight and compact on the outside. The woodwork is pretty much in tact unlike the others we have toured and it is really old going back almost a thousand years in some parts. We have a wonderful time exploring.
To cool off from all the wandering around we stop by a local beach just past the moat and swim for few hours. Adele jumps and dives off rocks while Vince splashes around and makes castles of his own. It is a great afternoon that runs into early fringe.
By the time we climb back up into the Alps and arrive at our campsite in Tasch, the last stop before the train up to Zermatt, all of the sites are taken and we end up in the parking lot again. This time we are parked literally right in front of the main information sign, blocking it really, and in the middle of the main area across from the building for showers and dishwashing. The place is jammed with hikers and climbers.
This is our third parking lot so far and one of the nicer ones. At least we are surrounded by mountains and in the company of like-minded travelers. We dine and sleep under every blanket, towel and jacket we have. Welcome back to the cold.
Day Sixty-Five – August 22nd
This is an early campsite. People are long gone when we wake up at 9a. The trains start around 7a and the early hikers can be heard milling about as early as 6a.
We cannot get over how hardy these folks are. People of all ages are geared out with climbing protection, ropes, ice axes, crampons and hiking poles. And the equipment is worn from years of use. Their boots and packs speak to the many miles they have seen. You want to be like them: heading out in big groups, laughing and joking in the cold morning air and returning tired and content in the early evening. Life and nature are embraced and lived out to the fullest up here.
The train tickets to Zermatt are a reasonable $41 round trip for the family. Something must be up. It is a ten-minute ride up the mountain that ends at a main square down valley. The first thing you notice are the merchants: all high end selling very expensive stuff. Then you realize the place is jammed with tourists.
It is hard to rationalize the contrast to the hikers and climbers at the campsite. They are here as well but only to pass though en route to another lift or trailhead. Walking across town to get to the gondola that takes you up to the Matterhorn you notice that the people actually staying here in town are cut from a different cloth. They are tourists with gobs of money.
I knew the $41 was too good to be true. The gondola to the top adds another $180 to the tab. I knew the Swiss would not let me down. $221 bucks to ride to the top of a mountain. Something is out of whack.
Vincent is not having a good day. He has been whining since we left camp and it only gets worse the higher we climb. By our lunch stop up top he is down right unmanageable. It is draining on all of us so we decide to head back down and split up for the afternoon. Adele and I draw the “stay in town and have some father daughter fun” card. Always a winner.
They have this place at the very top of town called the Forest Fun Park. If you ever come here, go there. When we check in the guy asks us if we want to go for one hour or for two plus hours. I thought he was joking.
We take the one-hour intro package (it actually takes us a little over an hour to get through) and we harness up. Oh, did I mention this is a zip line park? And zip we do. We start about half way up the huge pines and work our way almost to the top by the end of the line. There are obstacles to navigate, meadows and rivers to fly over and more adrenalin rushes than we can count. I am sure it will register in the top five experiences for Adele on the TATW.
It is such a pleasure to share the time with Adele. We laugh and scream on the zip line high fiving each other with each crossing. Then walking through town we joke around and talk about nothing in particular. She is eight going on “can I please have the car keys?” Tomorrow she’ll be all grown up.
But this summer she still sets out snacks at the foot of her bed for the fairies and leaves them messages on post it notes. And she asks if ghost are real and castles haunted. I can’t capture it all. Using big words out of context. Memorizing lyrics for the first time and then singing along to her favorite songs. Being so eager to help and be useful. Setting up the table and chairs, doing the dishes up at the washhouse riding her bike to the campsite store to buy an ice cream for her brother. It almost hurts it is all so pure and honest.
Sometimes I get the sense she knows this is a special time. This was one of those afternoons.
We train back down around 6:30p or so and try to get food for dinner but everything is shut down. All we can muster up is coffee and milk for the morning to make mom (and dad) happy. So, like many other nights, it is pasta and a bit of salad.
Vince has calmed down a bit but still tells us all we are “added” (meaning “out of “) control when we tell him it is time to go to bed. At least he is not threatening to “take away your computer.” How scary it is when it comes back at you...
Day Sixty-Six August 23rd
We are leaving a trail of Swiss Francs everywhere we go and we really need to see some sunshine, so we are going to the homeland to see what we can see.
I love Italy. First off, it is full of Italians. It is not just their look but also their attitude. They all walk around like they own the place and therefore they can do whatever they please. This is their house remember: your welcome to pull up a chair and visit but don’t expect you can become one overnight. The attitude has been nuanced over generations. They are confident, self-assured and filled with the drama of the day to day. Life is exposed on the streets and lived to the fullest in the public eye. Not because they want the attention but because they don’t care what the rest of the world thinks about them. When they move you can feel their thoughts. Life here is a warm smile, a quick flaring temper or a shrug of the shoulders. At least you know where you stand.
My nose feels right at home.
With or without a border patrol we know immediately when we have entered into Italy. The roads are rougher, the houses more run down and buildings and factories are wedged in where ever they can be. Clearly they ran out of room at some point and now everything new must sit atop something old. Ruins and modern co-mingle. In other countries this would look completely out of place but here it all looks natural.
Lago Maggiore is beautiful with a narrow road ringing the lakeside and towns spilling down mountainsides. The drive takes much longer than we expected with heavy traffic and the crazy Italian drivers mixing it up with the tourists. There’s not much to see for the kids so we just drive up one side and then try to camp on the northern tip.
The first two campsites we try are both nightmares, one is fenced in with barbed wire, the other is part of a camping compound on a peninsula sticking out into the lake with literally thousands of tents and campers. We keep driving.
Eventually we end up back in Switzerland on the Italian border. The guy that checks us in is an old bare-chested Italian (the men don’t wear shirts here) and keeps pointing at things, rambling on for a few minutes then ending with “oh, si va bene, va bene” He seems very happy to have guests.
We are the only ones in the place and we have an entire field to ourselves. All of the other people staying here are permanent residents. In our travels thus far we are finding that staying with a larger number of regulars usually means great bathrooms and solid infrastructure. This place is no different and is a pleasure to stay in.
Even for another night of rain.
Day Sixty-Seven August 24
The Carcano family hails from Varese, a small city tucked in between Lago Maggiore and Lago Como not far from the Swiss border. As a New Yorker growing up in a suburban ethnic melting pot on the north shore of Long Island, everyone’s family was from somewhere in Europe, so the question was often asked, “Where is your family from?”
It wasn’t enough to say “Italy and Germany” since almost everyone I knew was from one of the two. As kids we all knew our grandparents or great grandparents birth towns to add some context. For me it was always, “Varese, its up north and Oldenburg, outside of Bremen.” This is my father’s side of the family. My mom’s mom’s family came in “illegally from Ireland” we are told (much drama on that side of the family) and my mom’s dad’s side may be Swiss-German we are not sure.
Today we are going to Varese to search for a street named Via Carlo Carcano. Charles was chosen as Vinny’s middle name after both my father and his father and a long line of Carlo Carcanos. Apparently Carlo was a patriot and noteworthy enough to warrant his own street. Since Carcano is also the name of an opera house in Milan and even more famous for the guns they produce here in Italy, Teri rightfully so, wants to know where all the money is. So do I…
Varese is a working class city with working class people. All the old people look like my grandparents and my father’s uncles, aunts and cousins. Like the experience in Oldenburg, I feel right at home.
The street is surprising easy to find and after a few times around we manage to get parking. Vince seems total confused that we are on “his street.” Standing on the corner, rolling video to record the moment, cars flying by and people looking at us like we are nuts as we point to the street sign and then to Vinny yelling, “this is a Carlos Carcano!” is a great family moment and one that will come up at family dinner parties for years to come.
As the excitement on reaching a goal winds down, a goal we have talked about for months when folks ask us where we plan to go on the TWAT, we get back into the HOW and set our sights back on the day to day. It is time to find George and Julia.
I pictured Lago Como as a small lake with a few villages gently rolling down to the waters edge and a couple of people milling about looking fabulous, wearing sunglasses and sipping wine. Instead it is a really big place with lots of towns and half of Europe on August holiday.
It is very difficult to find parking much less George and/or Julia. I just assumed we would run into Julia sitting dockside waiting to meet me and that George would be out walking his dog and wandering around looking for Teri. (I understand from an inside source that Julia may be back in Malibu but I am looking for her none the less and Teri is definitely looking for George). When you can’t park the HOW you improvise. I take a hard right and head towards the water.
At the end of a dead end street we find a beautiful water front park for lunch. Vince and I take off our shirts like the rest of the Italian men and sit on an ancient rock wall and throw stones. Teri and Adele set up lunch and then wander around to snap a few photos. The setting really is worth all of the hype. After an hour or so you begin to realize just how impressive everything is. If you can do it in high style I would come back and stay a while.
Have you ever dealt with the police in a foreign country? Ones that pretend to speak limited English and seem to prey on tourists in rented camper vans? Ones that say, “I hope you have your checkbook” when they hear you are from the United States? Ones that shatter the image you have of Switzerland and remind you that there are bad people everywhere? Ones that pull you over not for speeding or reckless driving or anything else you can think of but instead because your camper van is over 2m wide and apparently at some very limited times you cannot drive in one of the lanes with a 2m+ camper? Ones that have to make sure we are over 2m by checking our specs on the registration, which as it turns out it is, is over 2M but by only a few centimeters? Ones that write you up for $350 to be paid on the spot, credit cards accepted, no questions asked?
To be honest this experience felt so wrong to us that all I really want to do is leave the country and spend our money elsewhere. Switzerland has enough coin, and they start fleecing you as soon as you get out of bed for everything in this country, they don’t need their police to hassle tourists. If anyone knows the Chief of Police in Switzerland let her know that the rank and file’s behavior is bad for business.
Late in the afternoon, after a long day of driving, we find a nice campsite in the town of Chur. We do laundry, have dinner at the restaurant (a big deal eating out), play at the playground and call it a night.
Day Sixty-Eight August 25th
It’s the blood that freaks you out the most: that and the look of fear on Teri’s face when she carries Vinny into the camper. The gash turns out to be deep but just shy of needing stitches. It’s a bleeder nonetheless. Head wounds are that way. Vince handles things remarkably well for a four year old, much better than the rest of us. He is Vincent the Brave after all.
Everything runs through your mind at warp speed when faced with a true crisis. Are the vitals all OK? Is he in shock? What is up with all that blood? Does the travel insurance cover stitches? Do we care if it does or not? Are there doctors in town? What day is it anyway and are any of the offices even open? Can the HOW drive fast enough to the emergency room? Can we find it? All of this happens with your heart thumping in the back of your head.
Turns out he is tougher than we imagine and takes it all pretty much in stride. There is much drama around the “incident”, still not sure what happened exactly, something about “pushing” and “falling” and “bumping” but it all sorts itself out eventually and we are on our way.
The town of Val is on the agenda today. It is a small mountain town up a harrowing, narrow, hairpin filled, carved into the side of a mountain, way up in the air with no guardrails road. What looked to be a forty-five minute side trip turned into and hour and a half of pure driving agony.
You see the town of Val is famous for two things: (1) a really high-end spa and (2) a water company. The water company bottles on site and trucks the water down the same road we are heading up using very big trucks. Did I mention blind hairpin turns without guardrails?
Lucky for Val if you arrive on one piece it is likely that you will refuse to drive back down and therefore you’ll need a place to stay. Unlucky for us they don’t have a campsite, the hay houses on the hillsides are not for rent and the spa hotel rooms start at $500 per night. This is a tough day.
Teri and Adele head to the spa, Vals Therme, to check out the pool while Vince and I try to rest in the camper. Apparently the Therme is one of the architectural wonders of the spa world. From the outside it looks like a refurbished 1960s Holiday Inn.
Soon they return and after the rave reviews I head off with Adele to check the place out and go for a swim. The hotel is circa 1960 but the pool house is something completely new and different. It is impressive. They built the entire structure out of layered stone. Each pool is set at a different temperature so you can plunge into hot or cold or just float around at room temp.
Adele loves it and is so excited to show me around. The place is full of rich old people, couples and a few European metrosexuals. It’s not really the right crowd for a four and eight year old. Somehow the floaties don’t seem to work. It is though, one of the best $30 swims I have ever had.
They only way to get down the mountain is to listen to Green Day under head phones cranked up very loud. That, and also to follow one of the water trucks down the mountain so they clear a path for the HOW. It is a long drive back to the same campsite as last night only this time we have an even better place under the trees by a river.
Tonight we fall sleep to the sound of rushing water.
And more rain.
Day Sixty-Nine August 26th
We wake to a surprise respite from the rain and a few sunbeams breaking through the cloud cover. It doesn’t last long but it’s enough to sit outside and catch up on our “journaling” as Adele and I like to call it.
With Vince’s head still on the mend and another rainy day ahead we decide to drive over to the Ludwig castles in Southern Germany. It is time for us to leave Switzerland, the cost is killing us and the rain is driving us all a bit mad.
This is a confusing part of Europe with Switzerland, Austria and Germany all converging and co-mingling. We never really know which one we are in and therefore get a bit confused about paying tolls. Someone should let the foreigners know how they work if they want us to pay them.
They have these big signs posted and places for cars and trucks to pull over and stop to get some kind of tag thing-a-maggigy but it all comes at you so fast that we can’t react and then the next thing you know you pass right on by. I have this vague notion that we may be receiving toll letters with some kind of penalty fee tacked on for months to come. The same thing happens with all of these auto cameras everywhere. Apparently, if your speeding and they catch you on film, you get a ticket in the mail months later. The problem is the speed limits are kind of vague. If we start this doing in the States I am moving to Canada.
Bavaria is by far our favorite part of Germany. Driving the small winding roads here is a pleasure after the mountain passes. The countryside and farmland looks more like Switzerland than up north and everything is wider and more manageable. It all has a distinctly German feel to it that we have grown accustom to now: it is almost like we are home, having spent so much time here this trip.
When we get to our campsite it is pouring again. So much so that I hesitate to even get out of the HOW for fear of getting washed away. Luckily I do because we get the last site in the place. It is a great site sitting on a lake with views of both of Ludwig’s castles.
During a brief break in the rain we all swim in the lake, skip a few stones and chase some ducks around trying to catch them. When the sun does come out you realize just how beautiful the place can be. But then it goes away again and you are stuck in the 2m by 7m HOW with little food, and fading hopes of being able to tour the castles we drove all this way to see (part of the tours are outside and there is no way we are going to be able to stand the torrential downpours).
Serious, I am not kidding, it has to stop raining.
Day Seventy August 27th
The wind was blowing so hard that Teri and I (and the rest of the campsite) had to get up in the middle of the night to take down our tarp and put anything that was outside, back in or under the HOW. That’s when I first noticed the drip. The rain was coming down so hard that it pooled on the roof and then cascaded down onto the back bumper with a tremendous crashing sound. It is easy to piece it all together here in the light of day: at 3am it was maddening.
We are running out of patience. The castle tours are out - the kids won’t last in all the rain – nor will the parents. Outside is completely unpredictable, pouring one minute, then the rain pausing the next. The activities here at the campsite are limited to (1) swimming (2) an outdoor playground and (3) hiking around the lake.
It feels like ground hog day. We wake up with great expectations and high hope only to be brought back down by the rain. It has been raining since we left Paris.
This situation is deteriorating rapidly. We are wet through and through. Even a hot shower, once a cure for all ails, is no longer doing the trick. We are miserable and we need to warm up and dry out.
So we head out to lunch at the only dry place the campsite has to offer, a little restaurant serving German food (read that as plate of meat with some other meat and a little meat on the side, oh, and lots of bread).
The high point of today is when we get a break for about an hour and half in the weather and we attempt the hike around the lake, have some playground time and manage a quick swim. It is ludicrous. The hike is super windy with a hard rain blowing off the water. The playground is crowded, very wet and slippery making the slide and monkey bars almost life threatening and the lake is freezing. Sure we all stand around shivering in our bathing suits trying to make the best of it, and the kids seems to actually enjoy it for the most part, but it is not what we signed up for. A few days of rain sure, but a few months?
Deciding we should work with the elements Vince starts washing the HOW with a spray bottle and paper napkins and I take a scrub brush to the scrape along the side. To our surprise the scrape washes off! It turns out to be paint and dirt that we can wash off with a bit of effort. This is great news and hopefully we will be able to get our damage deposit back to help cover the cost of the traffic ticket (s?).
We have leftovers for dinner. The temperature is dropping steadily to the point now that we are all in bed and under covers just trying to stay warm. As of now the insane dripping noise is back and louder than ever. I would get up to try and stop it but it’s raining way to hard to attempt to venture out. Besides, I need every piece of clothing I have to stay dry so I can sleep in it to fend off the cold. Oh, the glamour of life on the road.
Voice: “An ark, get some wood, build it 300 cubits by 80 cubits by 40 cubits.”
Noah: “Right! What’s a cubit?”
Voice: “A cubit? Let’s see I used to know what a cubit was… well, don’t worry about that Noah.”