The earth near the top of Mt Rigi has lain quiet for a while but is gradually recalling its spring promise. Tiny flowers emerge from the soil, even as the snow melts not too far away. The lakes around Mt Rigi wrap themselves in thick white mist, as do the distant lands of France and Germany.
The sun has continued to play hide-and-seek with the clouds today, but as we climb up the mountain, it makes a short, steady appearance. When we first see the snow-clad mountains, their peaks struggle through roiling clouds and blue sky appears in the gaps. My heart skips a beat. These are the Alps and they are for real.
A biting wind catches us as we get off the mountain train at the last stop. I can’t tear my eyes away from the horizon — how beautiful, how dreamy, how marvellous is the realisation of a dream from long ago! I had stashed away little stories about the Alps in diaries that would never be seen again without embarrassment; re-read Heidi when I needed comfort. Mountains are the visions I go to when I need peace or when sleep is slow arriving. I think of mountain lakes and cabins, of slopes thick with flowers. And to see the Alps in their full, snow-covered glory is nothing short of a miracle.
This isn’t my first time seeing the Alps. In 2016, G. and I made our first journey into Europe together, stopping at Munich and Salzburg during those two unforgettable weeks. We went to Neuschwanstein Castle in the Bavarian Alps and to Hallstatt in the Austrian Northern Limestone Alps. But this was in summer and we didn’t see any snow. It was therefore clear that I had to see the Alps again — snow-covered and in Switzerland — to truly convince my shallow head and heart that I had seen them.
A work trip to Basel offered me this opportunity, and with planning help from our colleague at the office there, my Indian colleague and I have made the multi-stage trip to Mt Rigi. We take two trains to go from Basel to Lucerne, change to a bus, then board the mountain train which has deposited us here to witness the grandeur of Mt Rigi and the Alps (and clouds) as far as the eye can see. Far and near at once, they exert an indescribable power on me. Mountains are among the most magnificent, yet ferocious, gifts of nature. All I want now, while the wind chills me to the bone, is their blessing.
We are fortunate enough to see some peaks in the brief interval between the arrival of our train and the onrush of a mass of clouds, which quickly swallow up large swathes of the ranges. Tourists don’t stay long as the restaurant is closed for spring break. The railings around the peak are dotted with signboards pointing out different peaks and international borders, but with the clouds not keen on respecting any such conventions, all we know is that we are looking at the Alps in Europe.
We linger on a bench near the peak, hoping that the clouds will relent briefly so that we can take a peep at the Black Forest, which I’ve wanted to see ever since I saw a travel show about it a couple of decades ago. I had imagined a dense mass of trees, dark and impenetrable, ripe for supernatural happenings. There would be rain and snow, but also sunshine pouring through the branches, falling leaf-dappled on the forest floor. It might be for the best that I haven’t seen it yet. (I did hope, though, that any groups of trees I saw from the top of the Basel Münster were part of the Black Forest, so that craving isn’t really gone. What’s in a name, I don’t know, but there is something. If you’re keen on names like I am, Germany lies somewhere in the distance in the picture below.)
I pull out my Kindle to read a paragraph of Heidi as a mark of respect and gratitude to several years of pleasant imagination. I think of the nights I’ve spent in my bedroom, pretending that the moonlight was shining into an attic in a cottage up in the mountains, on a wintry night — all while being firmly ensconced in an apartment at sea level. Being up here is entirely different. The gentle, velvety greens of the foothills have given way to a harsher shade; the grass has been injured by snow-melt, but the buds persevere. The shuttered buildings have stories to tell, but only when the spring flowers bloom in a couple of weeks. Much as I’d like to see Mt Rigi again, decked in flowers and sunshine, I think I’ve been treated to something more majestic than that. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Our trip to Mt Rigi is quite different to that of Mark Twain and his companion in A Tramp Abroad. His chapters are a hilarious read and I cannot recommend them highly enough. He will also tell you, much better than I can, what the view on a good day is like:
The view, looking sheer down into the broad valley, eastward, from this great elevation — almost a perpendicular mile — was very quaint and curious. Counties, towns, hilly ribs and ridges, wide stretches of green meadow, great forest tracts, winding streams, a dozen blue lakes, a block of busy steamboats — we saw all this little world in unique circumstantiality of detail — saw it just as the birds see it — and all reduced to the smallest of scales and as sharply worked out and finished as a steel engraving. The numerous toy villages, with tiny spires projecting out of them, were just as the children might have left them when done with play the day before; the forest tracts were diminished to cushions of moss; one or two big lakes were dwarfed to ponds, the smaller ones to puddles — though they did not look like puddles, but like blue teardrops which had fallen and lodged in slight depressions, conformable to their shapes, among the moss-beds and the smooth levels of dainty green farm-land; the microscopic steamboats glided along, as in a city reservoir, taking a mighty time to cover the distance between ports which seemed only a yard apart; and the isthmus which separated two lakes looked as if one might stretch out on it and lie with both elbows in the water, yet we knew invisible wagons were toiling across it and finding the distance a tedious one. This beautiful miniature world had exactly the appearance of those “relief maps” which reproduce nature precisely, with the heights and depressions and other details graduated to a reduced scale, and with the rocks, trees, lakes, etc., colored after nature.
A little like this, perhaps? I might find out some day.