High on Heida Some thoughts on life and mortality.

Issue: winter 2013 (long version)
Janet and I were spending a few days at our little chalet in Kandersteg, when we noticed that our one-day travel passes with Swiss Rail would expire on Saturday 11 May. Rather than let them go to waste, we hastily decided to go on a whirlwind tour of the Valais, starting with Zermatt and then packing in as many other villages and towns as possible.

We caught the 6:42 fast train to Brig, and then changed in Visp to the more leisurely Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn. Everything went smoothly and we arrived in Zermatt at 9:13 to a partially sunny day. After all the rain of the previous weeks, we were happy to see little bits of blue sky and hoped that the clouds would disperse so we could finally see the Matterhorn. On three previous visits to admire this grande dame in all her snow-capped glory, she had declined to drop the last of her seven cloudy veils, and it soon began to look as if this day might be no exception.

"Let's go to the Gornergrat observation platform," I proposed to Janet. "We might have a better chance to see the elusive peak from up there."

The cogwheel train up to the Gornergrat was due to leave at 10:24, which gave us about an hour to stroll around Zermatt. We headed into the old part of the village, and chanced upon the parish church of St Mauritius and its cemetery filled with the graves of mountaineers who had lost their lives over the last century. It was depressing to see how many young people – mainly Swiss and British – had died while attempting to climb the Matterhorn and other peaks.

A little while later, we entered the Gornergrat railway station which was teeming with other tourists, equally keen to see the Matterhorn at close range. I felt like we were pilgrims in search of a miraculous revelation. On the way up the nine-km-long rack-and-pinion railway, there were several ‘oohs and aahs' and much clicking of cameras whenever the clouds afforded us momentary glimpses of the famous ‘bent pyramid' peak.

It turned out that the view was not much better from the observation platform of the Gornergrat Kulm Hotel, at 3100m is the highest in the Swiss Alps. Although the resplendent surrounding mountains (29 of them, all over 4000m) and the spectacular panorama of the Gorner Glacier were free of clouds, the Matterhorn continued to play hide-and-seek. Everyone's cameras were focused on her, waiting for the perfect souvenir shot, and then along came yet another batch of swirling clouds to test one's patience.

We had no more time to linger; we needed to board the 13:39 train from Zermatt to Visp so that we could then catch the 15:10 Postbus from there to Visperterminen. Why there? Well, the mountain village happens to be in the region where Heida, one of my favorite Swiss white wines, is produced. Heida is billed as the ‘pearl of Alpine wines', because the locally grown Savagnin blanc grapes stem from one of the highest vineyards in Europe. Even Celtic and Roman vintners over 2,000 years ago appreciated what the region had to offer.

We could well believe the vineyards were among the highest, as our Postbus sped dizzyingly past the neat, steep terraces toward Visperterminen. The shops In the village were closed on that Ascension weekend and we couldn't buy any wine, so we spent almost an hour wandering through its narrow streets, taking in its ancient wooden houses and granaries blackened by the sun.

At 16:20 we took the Postbus back to Visp. Along the way, the bus stopped to pick up three beautiful young women and three handsome young men. The women were clothed in sleek and sexy gala dresses and the men in pitch black suits and variously colored ties. Further down the mountainous road, yet more of these Valaisan glitterati boarded the Postauto. When we arrived in Visp, a whole crowd of them was gathered on the platform, waiting for the train to Brig. We wondered if they were going to a wedding or some other big event.

As soon as we arrived at the station in Brig, the exuberant young crowd was heading towards the city centre. We, on the other hand, noticed an underpass with a sign "Naters: 3 Minuten" and on the spur of the moment turned in that direction. Naters is a town on the other side of the Rhone from Brig, and we recalled that it was home to one of the best-preserved ossuaries (bone houses) in Europe. Situated next to a lovely Baroque church, it was built in 1514 to serve as a repository for bones from older graves. Unfortunately the bone house was closed, but we could still peer inside through a very large iron grille along one side. What we saw was a broad, high wall of neatly-stacked skulls staring right back at us. Apparently, the bone house contains about 30,000 of them! Directly in the centre of the wall of skulls were polychrome sculptures depicting Christ on the cross, Mary and St John the Evangelist. Above the holy figures and the skulls was a wooden crossbeam inscribed with the words: Was ihr seid, das waren wir / Was wir sind, das werdet ihr – What you are we once were / What we are you will be.

The day's second reminder of our impending mortality made us acutely aware of the need to enjoy life while we could. Off we trekked across the bridge over the Rhone in search of interesting sites, a good meal and a glass or two of Heida in Brig.

Most people only know Brig as a place for changing trains. The view from the train station is not impressive, so almost no tourist stops to take a look around. This is a big mistake because only a few minutes away is a most charming old town, featuring the small but splendid Stockalper Palace. It was built by a fabulously rich merchant, banker, large-scale entrepreneur and politician. As we approached the palace, we could hear the hubbub of many boisterous voices. A look inside the inner courtyard, with its imposing rows of arcades in the style of Italian palazzi, revealed the source – hundreds of young men and women, including the ones we had seen on the Postbus and in Visp, were chatting and drinking. I poked my head inside the courtyard and asked a matronly woman what the occasion was and she said, "Today they're celebrating their Matura graduation. Afterwards there's a gala ball in Brig Sports Hall."

As we strolled through the rose garden, the palace's three towers topped with gilded onion domes reflected the gold of the evening sun. A strong breeze had arisen and flags flapped loudly overhead. The young people had begun to stream out of the courtyard, and we trailed after them in the hope of finding a good restaurant along the way. Everyone was happy except for one girl who was hobbling along the cobblestone street, trying to maintain her balance. A glance at her feet indicated that the ankle strap on her left high-heeled shoe was broken. What a disaster to happen on what was probably one of the most important days in her life! And it didn't help that two young men were sniggering at her plight. As we passed her, we noticed she was trying to hide her tears. How sorry we felt for her at that moment.

A few minutes late, we entered an attractive square and found just the right place to eat: the Restaurant de La Place. Some of the male graduates were sitting outside enjoying a beer, before heading off to the ball. We assumed they were the non-dancers. As we settled down to our delicious and reasonably-priced meal with, of course, a bottle of Heida, a gust of wind lifted the short skirt of one of the passing beauties – to the great delight of all the male observers!

After our meal, we headed back to Brig station and hopped onto a train to take us back through the Loetschberg tunnel to Kandersteg. In the spectacular setting of the Valais Alps, we had encountered unexpected versions of Love and Death. Let's raise a glass of Heida to both!


Illustration by Edi Barth

Edi Barth, a Swiss/American cartoonist /tattoo artist, will draw a witty cartoon (also in color) of whatever subject you want for that special occasion. He is the author of "Menue Surprise" (available from the author). His cartoons and illustrations for ad campaigns have been published in many magazines and newspapers.



Author: Roger Bonner

Swiss writer/poet who runs a writing/editing business, Right Style. A collection of his funniest stories and columns entitled "Swiss Me" (with illustrations by Edi Barth) is available from Bergli Books or in bookshops throughout Switzerland.

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