The Art of Loving Switzerland

By Anne Stockwell

Originally published on Advocate.com January 11 2006 1:00 AM ET

So I’m
careening to the airport in Los Angeles, dying for a breath
of Alpine calm in Switzerland. It’s quite
possible that the Swiss are lunatics behind closed
doors, but I don’t think so. This country is
blessed with drop-dead scenery in all directions, plus an
old-fashioned politesse that seems to blanket the
landscape like new-fallen snow. I get the feeling that
everything in Switzerland works. “Es stimmt,”
they say. “It goes; it fits.” When
“it” fits, so do I.

I was here once
before, with a rollicking band of gay travel writers, and
it was a blast. This time I’ll be following the other
path I’m queer for: art and architecture.
I’ve also challenged my hosts at Switzerland
Tourism: Where are the lesbians in Switzerland anyway? On my
last trip with a dozen adorable gay guys, I heard
plenty about the hunky Swiss boys. Swiss misses, not
so much. But more about that later.

Right now, board
Swiss International Airlines Flight 41 with me. My idyll
in business class starts with dinner -- gravlax to start,
then sea bass and bok choy, coffee and cheeses, and a
Swiss truffle as a final touch. Wines and liquors flow
throughout. What’s more, the biz-class seats on
the Airbus 350 let me straighten all the way out and go to
sleep. I recline on a slant, like Billie Burke on her
lunch break in The Wizard of Oz. But I hit the
Continent practically free of jet lag.

Zurich and La Chaux-de-Fonds, Thursday

Landing at
Zurich, I take the train to La Chaux-de-Fonds, in the
French-speaking region of Switzerland. (In other regions,
German and Italian dominate.) It’s our first
art and architecture stop. My first-class Swiss Pass
is easy to validate, and shortly I’m ensconced in
a comfortable, quiet railway car.

Arriving is not
challenge-free. I basically know only two French words:
merci and beaucoup. And for the first time in this country,
there aren’t English speakers everywhere.
(I’m not complaining. I sharpened up my
charades game.) At La Chaux-de-Fonds’ tiny train
station, I say “Hotel Athmos” to a cab
driver outside. I know he’s trying to tell me
it’s an easy walk from the station, but I
can’t decipher his directions. In the end I
ride the two blocks in grandeur, arriving just as our
Switzerland Tourism guide, Evelyne Mock, is heading
out to dinner with the rest of my crew. Over Swiss
cuisine at a local restaurant, our group begins to
bubble with what will become a most enjoyable chemistry.

My room at the Hotel Athmos is charming and
old fashioned -- small, but with a lovely duvet, a capacious
closet, and a full-size bed cozied up to one wall.
Outside, amber leaves drift past the window, and I
fall into unconsciousness.

La Chaux-de-Fonds & Neuchâtel, Friday

Downstairs at the
Athmos, there’s an abundant buffet breakfast. Can I
just say here that bread in Switzerland is a thrill? Add
Swiss butter and jam, and the earth moves. A cup of
coffee later, we head out.

La Maison Blanche
is the first stop on our tour. Built in 1912, this
residence on a wooded hill was the first independent project
of hometown architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, later
known to all of us as Le Corbusier. The house had
fallen into disrepair over the years, but a coalition
of citizens and professionals from La Chaux-de-Fonds have
managed to renovate the house according to its
designer’s original plan. We’re there at
the ribbon-cutting, and even without understanding the
language, I get the civic pride.

La Maison Blanche | Advocate.com

Stockwell at La Maison Blanche under the cobalt
blue arches

Jeanneret built
the house for his parents, but he was also testing out
ideas for himself. He’d studied art before
architecture, and at 25 he was already rejecting the
sentimental swoops and curls of art nouveau. His
passion: clean lines and light. He had ideas
about color too. He mixed up the whites and grays outside
with arches of eye-crossing cobalt blue. White was
good to eat by, he thought; blue, to sleep in. His own
bedroom at the Maison he painted yellow: Like Rosie
O’Donnell, Jeanneret saw it as the color of
creativity.

Now we’re
off to a fondue lunch at the local restaurant Auberge du
Mont-Cornu, a postcard chalet with great overhanging eaves
and nodding red flowers in the window boxes. The
fondue pots come out amid a grave debate among our
Swiss hosts. What can one drink with fondue? Our local
tour guide insists that only wine or hot tea are acceptable.
It’s dangerous to drink anything bubbly with
the dense melted cheese-and-bread dish. Why? Our guide
mimes regurgitating a brick. Um, point taken.
“Dangerous fondue” becomes the watchword of
the tour.

Our sight-seeing
climaxes with one of Jeanneret’s first big jobs.
Built during 1916 and 1917, the Villa Turque, or
Turkish Villa, now the public relations headquarters
of the luxury watchmaking company Ebel, was
commissioned as a family residence. An inscrutable brick
wall faces the street, pierced only by little round
windows. Yet inside, the towering structure becomes a
generous chamber flooded with light. I can hardly
imagine how radical this soaring retreat would have been in
the teen years of the 20th century.

Hotel Palafitte | Advocate.com

Our hotel room floating over Lac Neuchâtel

Le Corbusier --
and incidentally, every gay boy I know -- would flip over
our destination for tonight, the five-star Hotel
Palafitte
in neighboring Neuchâtel. Built out
on pilings over Lac Neuchâtel, it has long,
rectangular rooms that are almost like separate little
studio apartments -- but nicer. There’s a big
flat-screen TV; a Bose sound system with six speaker
installations. A spa tub set in a bathroom that’s
all warm wood planking, like a Finnish sauna. On your
sundeck is the lake, and you’ve got your own
private ladder down to the water if you want to tie up
your rental kayak or just jump in. On the horizon is the
Eiger mountain, muscling in on the Jungfrau.

Dinner is
gorgeous, served at the Hôtel DuPeyrou, a restaurant
housed in an exquisitely repurposed château.
Surrounded by tapestries, silks, and parquet, we
devour venison, vegetables, and spaetzle, and more of that
brown Swiss bread.

Then it’s
back to the Palafitte, with its massive king-size bed and
steel privacy shutters that clank down at the push of
a button (to repel boarders, I guess). Sprawled under
the weightless eiderdown, I hear the honk of a duck
flying over the lake. Beethoven plays softly on the Bose,
and it’s lights out.

Neuchâtel
& Bern, Saturday

Our droll guide,
Veronique, leads us through the narrow streets of
Neuchâtel to the heart of the ancient city. It’s
a trip through time as well. All the buildings are a
specific ocher yellow, she explains, because all the
stone came from a single quarry dating back to the
Romans. Since then, Neuchâtel has been through who
knows how much political hot-potato, with royal
marriage and war serving equally as discombobulators
of the status quo. But its cathedral dates way back, at
least parts of it. The foundations are Romanesque, including
double doors flanked on one side by the original
homophobe, Saint Paul, being chatted up by an
alert-seeming little devil. Suggesting some of those hateful
epistles, perhaps? We’ll never know. The
cathedral’s Gothic by the time we reach the
spires anyway.

Inside we see our
first fallout from Switzerland’s great conflict, the
Reformation—the battle between Roman Catholicism and
Protestantism. An elaborate medieval altar features
painted knights and carved ladies-in-waiting. But
during the graven-image-busting Reformation days, the
faces of the ladies were scraped away.

After the tour,
and a wistful stroll through the teeming farmers’
market in the ancient square—the
cheeses!—three of us take the train to Bern,
the capital of Switzerland, where we’ll park for a
longer stay. It’s not a long
ride—nothing in Switzerland seems to be.

Climbing up out
of the Bahnhof, we’re in German-speaking Switzerland
again. And this city is instantly likable. Our new hotel,
the Allegro, is just across the bridge. Meanwhile,
everybody’s shopping. Bern’s
centuries-old arcades protect the facades of many
malls’ worth of shops. There’s a rush on
at the grocery, the bakery, the Italian-leather store.
By law, businesses close at 4 p.m. and don’t reopen
till Monday morning. As the Zytglogge, Bern’s
famous clock tower, chimes four, you can literally see
the shoppers give it up, take a breath, and regroup for
beers and cigarettes at the restaurants that edge the plaza.

Neuchatel cathedral | Advocate.com
The cathedral at Neuchâtel

As night falls,
our host from Bern Tourism, Sandra, escorts us to dinner
at the restaurant Kornhauskeller. What a smashing
picture this massive, repurposed feudal cellar presents!
Down a broad stone stairway, my eye is compelled to an
enormous gilded disc that faces me across an expanse
of floor seating hundreds of diners. The great disc
seems like…what?…a gong, maybe? It pulls all
the elements together. Seated, we admire the heavy
vaulted ceiling, painted on every surface with Alpine
decorations.

On the way out, I
get a side view of that great golden gong. It’s a
barrel!

After dinner
it’s time to put on my Advocate hat and
check out the gay nightlife. The two bars we visit seem just
like Bern itself—laid-back, small enough to be
convivial, doing a roaring business with cute folks of
every age and gender. Aux Petits Fours (Kramgasse 67,
3011 Bern, phone 41 (0) 31 312 73 74, www.berninfo.com) is a tiny hole
in the wall right downtown amid the shops. The bartender
welcomes us in, but we’re off to the Samurai
Bar
, still in the shopping district, located up a
flight of stairs. The three good-sized rooms are
packed, the dance floor pounding. Instead of
techno—catnip to the European ear and punishment to
mine— there’s classic R&B and disco.
And here at last are the Swiss lesbians. They’re the
heart of the party, and it’s good to see that the
party includes everybody. Hot young boys, bartenders
(in suits!), stately homos, and even a fierce black
drag queen in a platinum wig.

Bern, Sunday

Margaret, our
guide for a walking tour of Bern, picks us up under a
shockingly blue sky and starts by explaining that Bern is
protected in a loop of the Aare River, a position that
allowed the old town to start on the riverbank and
grow backward from there. Crossing the bridge into the
old city, we’re time-traveling again. The gothic
roofs jut upward with nary a satellite dish in sight
(they’re forbidden).

Soon we’re
at the Münster, the city’s late-Gothic
cathedral. Its portico is covered with an extravagant
bas relief of the Last Judgment—so detailed
and, well, scary, that the graven-image purgers of the
Reformation left it the hell alone. Next comes the
Zytglogge, the medieval clock tower. Each hour as it
strikes it sets a whole crew of mechanical figures in
motion, the same circular actions every time.
What’s more, Margaret has the key to the tower; we
climb all the way up and see for ourselves the maze of
clockworks that have been ticking away for centuries.

Paul Klee Center | Advocate.com

The Paul Klee Center: a high-tech fantasy metropolis for hobbits.

This afternoon
we’re headed to one of the star attractions of our
tour: the new Paul Klee center, named for and
built to perpetuate the spirit of Switzerland’s
superstar artist. Assuming our high degree of gay
cultural literacy, I won’t go on and on about
who Klee was—although as it turned out, I was pretty
clueless about the man. Aside from creating the
whimsical masks and drawings familiar to our American
eyes, Klee was an architect and poet and musician
and…the list goes on.

When
Klee’s family—still living in
Bern—began to float the idea of a museum to
house their own Klee collection, 110 million francs were
raised from private sources to get the thing done.
There was one condition: This would be an active
place, not a hush-hush, high-art palace.

Rising up out of
a hill, dazzling in the sunlight, the center reminds me
of a high-tech fantasy metropolis for hobbits. Designed by
Italian architect Renzo Piano, it grows right out of a
grassy field, and as with a hobbit hole, its most
important surfaces are curved. Three “hills,”
successively smaller, serve the center’s multiple
uses. The biggest hill, on the left, houses the more
public functions. Downstairs from the cafe is a
theater equipped to allow 200 guests simul-translation in
three languages. Next door is an exhaustive
installation of Klee’s drawings. Back upstairs,
kids make their own art in the children’s section,
with materials available to everybody and instruction
for free.

The middle
“hobbit hill” houses a marvelous collection of
Klee’s color works, mounted with subdued
lighting designed to preserve his watercolors and
chalks and so on. The right “hill,” the
smallest, houses administrative offices and banks of
computer terminals that access the whole collection.
(At station after station, I found visitors furtively
checking their e-mail.)

The afternoon
flies by, and I hit the tram back just in time for our
dinner date with Hugo Furrer of Swiss Travel System, the
country’s amazingly comprehensive and
coordinated network of trains, buses, and boats. We
take a tram and then a funicular (!) across the banks of the
Aare into a drowsily beautiful neighborhood, where we hang
out over Italian food at Schwellenmätteli. Right on the
riverbank, this cluster of three restaurants is named for
the series of locks that slow the current down and
create the effect of a babbling brook. In summer, Hugo
tells us, the Bernese regularly put their work clothes
in a waterproof bag and go for a float down the
Aare’s currents at lunchtime.

Hugo is so much
fun, it would be easy to figure him for a dizzy party
boy. In fact, like one of the trains he oversees, he gets
where he’s going right on time. He wants us to
know about the Swiss Pass, an all-purpose, wallet-size
ticket that gets you onto nearly every train, tram,
bus, and boat in Switzerland. The big news: Starting in
2006, a Swiss Pass also gets you into the majority of
museums in the country. It’s so
sensible—one wallet-size piece of paper gets you
wherever you want to go. Family values (the financial
kind) figure prominently in the pricing too, with kids
under 12 riding free.

We’re so
totally sold on Hugo, nobody notices that a candle on the
table has set our breadbasket on fire. (Hugo puts out
the flame before you can say “Swiss
Pass.” )

And even though
we’re part of his job, Mr. Furrur must be just a
little sold on us too, because he lets us in on the
subject of the text messages that have had his phone
vibrating off the table all through dinner. It’s
all about Gobi, the chocolate Lab puppy just bought by
Hugo’s good friend Daniel. Hugo invites us out
to meet Daniel and the new baby on their evening walk.
Before long we’re all sipping drinks at a snug coffee
bar with Gobi sleeping at our feet, and Hugo is
telling me about the time he celebrated Halloween in
West Hollywood.

Friends,
it’s a small world.