I flew to the wrong Swiss airport. But I blame my cousin Cliff. He’ll argue the toss of course, but I swear this is what happened –
Weeks and weeks before my trip to Switzerland I mailed the fellow, told him that I was about to book flights to come out and see him and could he confirm that he lived in Bern? His reply was that he didn’t ‘quite’ live in Bern but…and I quote, “ya that’ll be fine”.
Anyway, in Bern did I land.
Kindly Cliff drove the 2 hours from Sion (the true location of his residence) to pick me up.
It was cold. Bloody freezing. The decision to bring my North Face down jacket was looking and feeling to be the right one.
What a shame I didn’t bring something to cover up my ears, nose, lips and eyelids.
Snow covered the landscape in a thick, fluffy white blanket and it snowed all through the drive home and continued to snow all that night as I sat chatting to Cliff, his lovely wife Charlotte and her charming parents, Bob and Francis, in a house…in Sion.
The conversation centred on my bizarre decision to fly to Bern when Geneva was clearly much more convenient for all concerned.
After all, Bob and Francis flew out to Geneva (from where the rail service was much better) and they flew from Heath Row while I had to drag my silly South African ass all the way to London City. Duh!
Hector, the jack russle beagle cross, didn’t give a damn where I’d flown from, or to.
As long as I kept flinging his furry little fox toy thing across the room for him to chase and clumsily ambush, he was happy.
I could see that we were going to be friends.
Sion is quite small and sleepy, but surrounded by picturesque Swiss beauty in the form of imposing mountains and a fast flowing river. The architecture was forgettable but not offensive and the local Friday market was quite…nice. Unfortunately because of the severe snow conditions, many traders didn’t show up but I had the pleasure of sampling some wonderful cheeses, breads, spreads and cured meats.
I bought the worlds most expensive leg of lamb (Take lots of money with you when you visit the Swiss) and I had some quirky Swiss street food. The Swiss love cheese. In fact, even from my very limited experience I could tell that cheese was damn nigh a national obsession. Most of the fast street food options available involved something or other – covered with cheese.
I felt fine loading my system up with the stuff.
My ultimate destination was after all Thailand, where I would likely not ingest any product from a bovine udder for months.
Cliff is a fine home chef and through the weekend I was treated to good pasta, tender pan fried duck breast and my first ever fondue. I learned a new trick with aubergine and I had some of Cliff’s special hot chilly sauce which brought tears to my eyes and gave me hiccups.
I ran (for the first time in years) in the annual Sion Christmas town run. Seven times around a one kilometre lap track through the town centre streets. It nearly finished me.
The locals were lovely though. They took photographs of me just as I was being lapped by the front runners and shouted “allez allez allez” in encouragement.
At first, during laps one, two and three (when I still had the will to live) I smiled and waved and at one point even did a little Charlie Chaplin skip to show just how much I was loving it.
By lap five my smile had morphed into a grimace. My face was a deep purple colour and I had a ring of white froth around my mouth that I wore like a badge of the damned and defeated.
No longer did I run. I flopped, pounded and dragged myself through the streets of Sion as though on some sort of a gruesome penance. Is this how Jesus felt?
The lovely locals didn’t tire. “Allez allez allez” they persisted.
But by this stage I barely heard them. And even if I could hear them, I wasn’t about to ‘allez’ for anyone. They could all fuck off!
I had not the strength to look left or right. When would this bloody thing end?
Was I on lap five? Six?
Was it my lot in life to die here, in the snow, on the streets of Sion? Would anyone remember me? Would anyone care? This was not how I had imagined it would end.
Ok I’m being dramatic, but I’m trying to make a point.
I finished the 7 km route in a credible (I think) 30 minutes, three minutes behind Cliff and a long way from my former galloping glory.
Upon completion I was presented a fist sized model of the Sion Cathedral encased in glass, and if you shook it, it snowed in there.
I thought my near death experience deserved more than that.
C’est la vie.
Roast lamb and roasted root veggies on Sunday afternoon completed a memorable stay in Sion.
I bade farewell to my hosts and boarded a train for Bern, where I had a connecting, early morning flight to Athens, via Vienna.
Trains in Switzerland were impressive. Big, new, fast, punctual, silent, spacious and clean.
All the adjectives that one might find lacking in a British train, which I think are pretty good themselves.
In Bern, I was reminded how even the most tentative attempts at being adventurous can result in the most rewarding of experiences.
Once safely in my modest city centre hotel room I was loath to just jump into bed and call it a night.
A half hour mooch about the city streets at night could only result in good things – I thought.
Only 10 minutes into my wanderings I stumbled upon a large open square with an imposing town hall type building at its head. The inscription on the facade read ‘Curia Confoedorationis Helveticae’.
Something to do with the Helvetii who were a Gaulic tribe ruthlessly crushed by Julius Cesaer, I thought.
This area was perhaps their old stamping ground.
Anyway, standing in the freezing square and staring expectantly at the building were crowds of people, many armed with cameras and tri-pods, clearly expecting something to happen. Ten minutes later and on the hour, happen it did. I was served up my first ever light show.
From a projector on the opposite side of the square were beamed wonderful, moving, psychedelic images accompanied by profound voice and instrument. The building came to life. It danced and pulsed with colour. It had a heart beat, a body and a soul. It lived.
I’m finding it hard to write about this. You had to be there. It was astonishing.
An icy, four o’clock start the following morning found me en’route to the airport, in a taxi and chatting away to my Algerian taxi driver who had hunched shoulders, a furrowed brow, a defeated countenance and lamented the hardships of being married and having to support a litter of children.
I was reminded yet again that while some things in this life change, some things never change, no matter where in the world you find yourself.
Athens. I’m ready.