At Vodnikov Dom, a detour: from the Gasterntal to Spittelmatte, Switzerland

Unable to introduce this place, this moment: in 2012 after staying for a few days in the Gasterntal in Switzerland, where I saw scenes of devastation, acres of high pasture flayed from the rocks beneath on which nothing could grow for years, once easy paths through the valley blocked by piles of stones several metres high, big trees chipped and shredded, blocking the beds of streams, the kind of violence I had previously associated with the Himalayas where youthful mountains crumble and fall when violent monsoons sweep over them, I then walked up to the Spittelmatte, a high, dry valley with the Sunnbuel cable car at the east end coming up from Kandersteg, and the Gemmi Pass at the other, where another cable car leads down to Leukerbad on the edge of the Rhone valley, a bridge between the German speaking Bernese Alps and the French speaking Valais. The cable cars whisk you up to easy high level walking, but for a few days they were both out of action for maintenance, which made the area more attractive to me, and indeed when I got to the Schwarenbach Hotel the only other guest was a young German, a married Catholic priest with a very sore foot who had just climbed the Balmhorn with a guide who had already walked back down to Kandersteg, with whom, thanks to the officious but kindly owner of the hotel, I watched that evening on a wide screen TV in some kind of distant classroom in the hotel the match between Germany against Italy when Balotelli disgraced himself again with a pompous, vainglorious celebration after scoring. My path that day took me from the Waldhus Hotel, sitting quietly among woods and meadows in the almost uninhabited Gasterntal, heavily decorated with geraniums and cow bells and edged by a restrained but gleaming car park, up through the steep narrow valley of the Schwarzbach. As the valley narrowed, the trees hung on to the rocks and the path rose and dipped as it found a way across precipitous slopes, in some places beneath overhanging rocks and once even through a shallow cave open at both ends, then dropped down steeply, darkly towards the stream which crashed along almost invisible in the depths and crossed it by a wooden bridge. Then it followed the stream as it curved around so that the way ahead was hidden until suddenly, and suddenness is always good, I wasn’t expecting this, the dark little valley opened up, the trees gave way to a flowery slope in full sun and I gave up whatever discomfort or irritating thoughts and questions might have been preoccupying me and said ‘wow!’ as I saw a mass of globe flowers and thalictrums, and the curving slope deep in grass and flowers which led down to smooth limestone slabs forming a pavement above the stream. On the other side of the stream a wall of trees and crags rose up, and ahead, as the valley turned again it made a boundary to this little theatre. I sat down, and after a few minutes I heard another voice say ‘wow!’ and looked across to see two young men in saffron coloured robes and good walking boots, one of them just about to get busy with his Nikon. They were buddhists on a retreat at a nearby monastery. After they had walked on I looked up again to see a woman walk down into the sunshine from the other direction; she wore a long skirt, of quite heavy sky blue cotton, unusual these days when nearly everyone has quick drying shorts of synthetic material, I remember her skirt but I don’t remember what she looked like, and we began to talk. She was from northern Germany and came to this area of Switzerland, and to this very spot every year -and at this very time I wonder now? – the time I had chosen because I thought the flowers would be at their best, the time which is not too late for the valleys and not too early for the peaks, i.e. early July, the moment which I can sometimes imagine always prevails in the Alps although of course I am always seeing some things which are over, or nearly over, and others which have scarcely begun, and I have to remind myself that everything I see is covered by snow for months on end and that for many too late is when the snow begins to melt and too early is when there is still green to be seen. We began to talk about the president of Germany, recently forced to resign, and how different he is from our own dear royal family. How we began to talk about these things as the stream flowed over smooth white shelves of rock and reflected the sun I don’t know, but it was 2012, just a few weeks after our wet, excited Jubilee, and this lady, she told me, was born on the day of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, when we gathered under the corrugated iron roof of the village hall in Cold Ashton to watch the proceedings on a small television. In fact, she told me, and I knew nothing about this, two presidents had resigned in Germany. First, Horst Koehler, who had been president of the IMF when he took office and had come to power, although that might be misleading term for a role which is largely ceremonial, saying that the international financial markets were a monster which needed to be tamed, had made a speech after a visit to Afghanistan, where he visited German soldiers, saying that German military action abroad was necessary to help secure its economic interests, although he said that this remark was not linked with his visit to Afghanistan but was a reference to international action against Somali pirates. And then in february of 2012 Koehler’s successor, Christian Wulff also resigned after apparently trying to hide the fact that he had received a low interest loan of 500,000 euros from the wife of a business friend; asked in the parliament of Lower Saxony, of which he had been president at the time, whether he had had dealings with the businessman he had said no, but not mentioned the man’s wife, and he had made threats to the editor of Bild, a popular tabloid, in the course of trying to make them suppress the story. What a sad world it was, he said, if one couldn’t take a loan from a friend. The lady in blue couldn’t help contrasting these two men with our own royal family with whom she was connected, not only by the accident of birth, but because in 1998 she had been working in Northern Ireland, just outside Omagh, with disabled children, and it was only by chance that she had not gone into town as usual on the saturday when the bomb had gone off killing 29 people and injuring more than 200, and she remembered that Prince Charles had visited a hospital in Northern Ireland soon after the bombing to talk to survivors and that people were touched that he had assumed this difficult and possibly presidential role, and I didn’t feel that it was my place, in that place, as she spoke with such sincerity and had such powerful memories of that awful time, to question the role of a member of the British royal family in Northern Ireland. 

This was one of those moments, in one of those places, when I felt I was somehow more myself, or maybe a self I could like more, more at home. It must have been like that for the two buddhists, and for the German lady who went there every year, and I wonder if she regretted that our conversation had then taken us first to June 2, 1953, and then via the minor scandals of German politics to another unforgettable time and place, ten past three in Omagh on August 15, 1998.

This entry was posted in Eden etc, history, politics, mountains, flowers, landscapes, walks and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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