The Art of Loving Switzerland
BY Anne Stockwell
January 11 2006 1:00 AM ET
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
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.
Stockwell at La Maison Blanche under the cobalt
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.