The Swiss Cascade and Castle That Inspired Poets (and Us)


Over the past few days, we’ve glimpsed Switzerland at its prettiest and most poetic (which is such a relief after the stormy sky and mercurial moods detailed in the previous post).

Standing under Staubbach Falls.

The drive from Lucerne to Interlaken revealed alpine beauty that rivals even the Colorado Rockies and New Zealand’s Southern Alps. We checked into a cozy family room in a friendly little hotel, aptly named Hotel Splendid, and immediately headed out to explore before rain returned.

I’ve never seen as many waterfalls as we saw on the drive to Lauterbrunnen, a small town seven miles up the valley from the better-known Interlaken. “Lauter brunnen” means “many fountains” or “loud wells,” and there are 72 of them in and around town.  The waterfalls stream over sharp cliffs colored with alternating shades of dark and light gray, and then they’re swallowed by swaths of forests where the lighter green of new growth contrasts with the darker evergreens.

We stood in a meadow under Lauterbrunnen’s beloved Staubbach Falls, all of us feeling warmed by the sun and awed by the stream of mist floating down in the wind. I thought the moment couldn’t get any better, but then it did, because we saw a little plaque that indicated we once again were following in Goethe’s footsteps. He visited this spot in 1779 and was inspired to write the poem Spirit Song Over the Waters, which we read and discussed right there at the base of the falls until Kyle ran off to chase some sheep. (The next day Kyle wrote in his journal about the beauty of the waterfalls and concluded, “But most of all I love the mountains. They give me ideas for my mind.” I agree!)

After days of rain and indoor time, Kyle was so happy to run around here.

Overall, we really enjoyed Interlaken; I only wish the town could demolish its tacky modern high-rise hotels that look utterly out of place against the charming historic cottages done in quintessential Swiss-German architecture. The town’s original buildings look like they’re lifted from a Hansel and Gretle storybook, all woodsy and decorated with patterned carvings and stenciled paintings.

German is the dominant language in this region, but as is the case everywhere in Switzerland, we heard multiple languages and tasted a variety of cuisines. Our favorite meal was at a surprisingly authentic Mexican restaurant, El Azteca, where the Portuguese twentysomething waiter spoke so many different languages to the diners around us that I finally asked him (in Spanish) how many languages he speaks. He said six, as though it were no big deal (German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and English)! One thing I love about Switzerland: It has solidified the kids’ desire to study a second language in school, which before this trip they had groaned about as though it would be an endless chore.

A well-marked trail network branches out through the valley, and Morgan and I left the kids alone in the hotel room one morning to run together (which we only do when we feel certain it’s a safe place, with someone we trust at the receptionist desk available to help in case of emergency). We ran a path back toward Lauterbrunnen and once again marveled at the views — until a cloudburst drenched us with rain so freezing that we turned back. Well, the sun was nice while it lasted!

Morgan on our rainy run. No wonder the grass is so green and the waterfalls are so full around here -- it's really wet!

After Interlaken, we crossed over to the French part of Switzerland and settled on the north side of Lake Geneva. We checked into a terrific apartment in the town of Montreux, about a half hour from Lausanne, and rejoiced to be in a rental with a kitchen again. We have stayed in too many hotels recently and therefore celebrated the opportunity to cook simple meals and avoid overpriced restaurants. The apartment overlooks the lake and has a playground in front.

Our apartment building in Montreux isn't terribly pretty ...

... but the view from its balconey sure is.

The kids quickly made friends with three siblings (who are completely trilingual — German, French and English) from the apartment below us. We met their parents, who invited us down for dinner, and it was such a treat to get to meet some locals.

One morning, after the kids hit their schoolbooks for about an hour and a half, we gathered around the laptop to learn about the history of Chateau de Chillon and to read Lord Byron’s poem The Prisoner of Chillon. The castle is just a mile away from the apartment, so we packed a picnic and set off walking along the lakeside trail to spend much of the afternoon exploring the medieval masterpiece. We’ve visited many castles along the way, but this was the best restored and had wonderful displays enhanced with period furniture and artifacts.

Morgan called up, "Rapunzel, Rapunzel!" when he took this shot of me in one of Chillon's towers.

Byron’s words — written in 1816 after he imagined how the prisoner Bonivard must have felt during his six years chained to a pillar there during the 1530s — came to life as we poked around the dungeon. Morgan excerpted lines from the poem for captions to some of the photos in this slideshow (click the play button, then the “full screen” icon in the bottom right corner, then the “show info” tab in the upper right corner to read them).

This is turning out to be a great week not only for seeing Switzerland, but also for homeschooling. I’ve been meaning to write a followup to our early post on homeschooling, since families planning similar long-term trips have been asking about how we do it, how many hours a day the kids spend on school, and that sort of thing. I’ll try to write it soon, but suffice to say that their learning is intertwined with travel more than ever and is difficult to quantify because learning happens all the time, wherever we go. We managed to strike what feels like a good balance between sitting indoors and working through their core curriculum, and going outside to learn more spontaneously and experientially.

Speaking of which, right now we’re headed to the Musee d’Alimentarium, a food museum in neighboring Vevey that explores the history and politics of food production as well as the science of nutrition and food digestion. It may not inspire poetry, but likely will be food for thought!

A statue of Charlie Chaplin gazes at a giant fork in the water outside Vevey's food museum. As we often say during this trip, "That's something you don't see every day."

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