There was a round of applause from the passengers as the small Gotland Airways plane made it through the turbulence to the runway at Hamburg Airport. At first, I thought it was the reindeer sandwich (true) I had eaten for lunch. (Yes, children - when Santa’s helpers are too old to keep up with the hectic pace on Christmas Eve, they are sent to the knackers yard and end up as the meat in Gotland Airways sandwiches.) Once we had scraped Sue off the ceiling, we disembarked and headed for the city centre. The storm we had flown through had reached there by then and we spent the next 6 hours dodging the showers waiting to catch the overnight train to Zurich.
The 2-berth sleeping cabins made clever use of all available space. They reminded me of those budget hotels in Tokyo for businessmen who’ve had too many sakes and missed the last train home. You slide into a capsule and are cocooned for the night - quite cosy in fact, once you get over the claustrophobia.
We awoke to beautiful sunshine outside Basle. There’s nothing quite so wonderful as being served coffee and croissants in your own cabin watching the Swiss countryside slide past the window.
We were going to be staying with Richard & Hildegard who left Dorchester 2 years ago to move back near to where Hildegard was brought up. They live in a new apartment with a fantastic view over a lush, green fertile plain to a series of alpine mountain ranges far in the distance, but appearing much closer in the crystal-clear autumn sunshine. Richard & Hildegard are an inspiration in that they love the sourcing and preparation of good food rather than whatever the supermarket has in. They’ve picked the right place to live as there are roadside farmers’ fruit and veg stalls everywhere selling apples, pears, plums, tomatoes, peppers - all unmanned but with honesty boxes. Richard makes fresh bread daily as the base for their homemade jams and marmalade. There’s always something on the go for tonight’s or tomorrow’s meal, lovingly prepared with obvious enjoyment. Very much like the philosophy of our host family in Vaeroy, Norway.
Giuseppe displays his magnificent potatoes and physique
Camilla & Antonio's Cafe
The jewel in the crown of their food sourcing is their allotment. Now allotments in Switzerland are quite different affairs from those in England. No small veg patch with a hut for storing the tools but beautiful wooden cabins which serve almost as second homes with flag poles to announce your presence. There’s a wonderful community spirit there with lots exchanging of gardening tips, gossip and produce. We were introduced to Giuseppe, Antonio and Camilla - all lovely Italians who had emigrated to Switzerland years ago but brought their love of home-grown food and cooking with them. Camilla insisted on interrupting her preparation of pickled aubergines for the winter to invite us all in for the best espresso in the Canton. Conversation was easily conducted in a mixture of Swiss-German, Italian and English but, most of all, with lots of fun and laughter. You don’t read a lot about this sort of life-style in the celeb magazines but I can’t think of anything better.
During our week with them, Richard & Hildegard took us on various excursions, which included a barbecue above Lake Lucerne and a night in their daughter’s flat in Andermatt, half way up the St Gotthard Pass to Italy. There, we met a lady from a family who owned several hotels in the area for generations. Ostensibly, she ran an antique shop selling lots of amazing artifacts from the hotels but this was only really an excuse for her main hobby which was as a mine of information about the history of the St Gotthard. Merchants discovered the tortuous route centuries ago as one of the few ways through the Alps for transporting prosperous goods between central Europe and Italy. You can see glimpses of the original track from the modern road and it’s incredible to think of the lengths people went to in order to get the goods through. She even told us of how fresh trout was available all year round on the hotel menus for the gentry courtesy of men that carried the live fish in water-filled tanks on their backs all the way from Lake Constance, 90 miles away. Especially because of the harsh conditions in the winter, several hospices were established as long ago as the 13th century at various strategic points on the route. These were refuges for travellers but, with their obligatory priest and St Bernard dog, also had responsibility for locating and repatriating those who had perished in avalanches.
There’s good news for would-be future fellow travellers - I’ve finally got a new T-shirt! This was courtesy of Richard & Hildegard’s lovely daughter, Madeleine, who works for UEFA, the organisation based near Geneva that organises the Champions’ League football tournament and has various items of promotional merchandise. Among Madeleine’s responsibilities on match days is signalling from the touchline to the referee the exact time the game should kick off so that all the companies who have bought the television rights can time when to finish their adverts. She has a special satellite-controlled watch to do this which, ironically for the country which is world-famous for time-keeping, is made by Casio. What next !