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Stress-free Switzerland (6912)

Stress-free Switzerland (6912)

"Climb every mountain..."


Stress-free Switzerland

"Climb every mountain..."

The people who make the world's best-known timepieces know how to take time off to enjoy themselves--whether hiking the amazing Alps, unwinding at a Six Feet Under-ish museum, singing German karaoke, or techno-partying until dawn

Anne Stockwell

When you become a journalist, it's usually because you want to see the world. Then the deadlines hit and the farthest you ever get is the dry cleaner. So I'm proud that this summer I escaped not only the office but the country, along with eight queer fellow travelers, on a week-long tour of Switzerland.

I was working, of course. (This isn't a complete fairy tale.) My fellow gay journalists and I were invited on this jaunt by Switzerland Tourism, with our itinerary facilitated by San Francisco-based Gayjet, an online travel agency that delivers tour packages around the world, planned with our community's specific needs in mind. Our assignment: to tell all of you what there is to see in Switzerland and why you should think about coming over here on your next vacation. What follows is my very informal tour diary. Enjoy--I did!

Swiss International Air Lines
OK, full disclosure. I'm thrilled like a kid to be flying business class. Everything about the experience is new. We await the flight in a private lounge. We're escorted to the gate when it's time. And when we board, there's lots of space. My seat is a big blue cushiony affair with a footrest and the ability to get me almost as laid-back as my uncle's old La Z Boy. And I can move my legs. What's more, I can move my legs and there's still room for the woman next to me--in the middle seat--to get past. Perfectly folded newspapers in three languages come around on a cart. Then the dinner menus (!) are handed out, the tray tables are covered in white linen cloths, and the meal begins. The flight crew handles our requests in German, French, and English, and so formally that my American brain can't quite get around the sight. When the chief steward changes into a striped waiter's jacket and moves down the aisle formally bowing and smiling before each passenger with a basket of hot rolls, there's a fleeting moment when I imagine I'm in a David Lynch movie.

After appetizers, salad, entree, cloudberry tart, and a Lindt chocolate from the box the flight attendents offer, there are movies on personal DVD players, followed by sleep, if not coma. Morning arrives with images of Swiss meadows on the overhead TV monitors. Breakfast, I don't have to tell you, is just as astounding as dinner. Imagine being sad to get off a plane!

A tale of three Swiss cities

Remember how magical a train can be? We're on the narrow-gauge Glacier Express: almost a toy train, bright red, with that piercing, high European whistle. Having left Basel this morning, we climb and climb, our ears popping, until, rounding a bend, we see our first genuine snow-capped peaks.

The ice palace in Zermatt

Forget the jaded journalist thing. Everybody whips out their cameras and charges the open windows. While we're ogling the view, it's probably a good time to point out that
SBB, the Swiss Travel System, has furnished us each with a prepaid card called a Swiss Pass. It's good for all transportation, whether trams or buses or trains, and it offers visitors discounts besides. You can get various special deals, but let me tell you, if you can afford it, just go first class.

If the train ride started to bring out the child in all of us, arriving in Zermatt finishes the job. It's a fairy-tale village, the kind Americans have seen only in stories that involve Santa Claus. It's not just the chalets with the brilliantly colorful window boxes, but--wait, where are the cars? Automobiles are banned here. The only conveyances are electric minishuttles and carriages drawn by big, beautiful pairs of horses cloppity-clopping along with sleigh bells on their harnesses.

Then there's walking. The narrow streets are full of people walking. They're anywhere from 5 years old, in little tiny Alpen boots, to 75, in hiking shorts and hobnail stompers. Everybody's carrying huge backpacks. These people don't look gym-healthy. They look outdoors-healthy. Believe me, there's a difference.

The Monte Rosa Hotel

We're staying at the Monte Rosa Hotel , a gorgeous old establishment dating back to 1839 with a bronze plaque outside noting that the first successful expedition up the Matterhorn in the 1850s started from this spot. It seems that while we were having our Civil War, people around here were doing pretty much what they are right now.

The view on a clear day

Fog is expected tomorrow; the sightseeing is going to be zero. But we do get our alpine hike, starting at the top station of the little train that climbs the Gornergrat, the peak opposite the Matterhorn amid an enormous panorama of mountains. The vistas are punctuated by the swooping shapes of glaciers, like ice rivers, and by dots of tiny people hiking everywhere. Clambering down, we can't help stopping around every bend to take snapshots of ourselves against the peaks. And, shades of Heidi, we hear a tinkle of bells and then find ourselves in the midst of a small herd of sheep grazing on the mountainside. Talk about your photo ops!

Next day, the fog is total. Had I not seen the mountains yesterday, I'd never suspect they were there. Despite the weather, most of our group undertakes some death-defying trip called a Gorge Adventure, involving rappelling off cliffs and clambering across iron rings sunk in vertical rock faces and so forth. Fellow journalist Mark Taylor and I undertake the rigors of the Clarins spa instead.

Jaded journalists go hiking

Later, though, I find myself heading up the Gornergrat again. Somehow the mountain is even more alluring in the fog. I'm not alone either. Other hikers keep appearing out of the mist like ghosts in a Shakespeare play. Dampness and chill be damned, they're suited up as always: boots, woolly socks, enormous backpacks, and, yes, shorts.

That night, we reassemble for dinner at a restaurant called Chez Heini. Nobody's expecting a gay vibe here: The decor is dark and gemutlich, with walls covered in hunting trophies and a big open fireplace at the rear where they're actually roasting meat.

Our host is a different matter. I'm not saying the gentleman is gay. But he is a virtuoso of international gay body language. He serves a great meal--seven courses, including a showstopping soup presentation in which he carries each soup bowl out empty with three quarters of a red bell pepper upended in the middle. At the table he lifts the pepper away, and voila, the bowl floods with tomato soup.

There's more than Chez Heini to this man, as we discover when one of us goes downstairs to the rest room. The whole alcove down there is plastered with old playbills and clippings. Even in German, it's easy to see that the guy in the clippings is our host, some years earlier, with a Bobby Darin haircut. His name is Dan Daniell. Naturally we all pester him to sing for us. He demurs.

But next thing we know, the lights go down, a screen drops from the ceiling, and projected images of the Matterhorn begin sailing by. There's an enormous swell of synthesizers and then a big booming voice from another planet launches into a rock song that sounds like "Good Golly Miss Molly," but in German, all about the Matterhorn. It's Dan Daniell, not 15 feet from us, at the bar with his mike set on reverb to the max. He's got a setup that lets him go behind the bar, punch a few buttons, and karaoke with himself.

He's beyond kitsch: He's fabulous. I guess he thinks we're fabulous too. As we're leaving, he vanishes and comes back with, of all things, an armload of men's shirts. There's a shirt for each of us. And on each one, the name "Dan Daniell" is embroidered in gold thread on the breast pocket.

On the streets of Zurich

Rain or no rain, every block or two there's a whole new independent DJ set up with turntables and elephantine speakers blasting techno beats straight to the innards. Most people are in costume to some extent or other, and the costumes favor hot pants--I guess to show off those strong Alpen thighs--and big fleecy bell-bottom leggings, elastic-attached below the knee, flaring out over their shoes. The wearers look like enormously skinny stoned Clydesdales.

The Hotel Adler doesn't serve up the four-star fanciness we've been pampered with so far on this trip--it's a more utilitarian three-star setup--but it's clean and perfectly pleasant, and, as a place to get out of the rain, it's precious.

Back out in the street the parade is beginning, and by now it seems to have sucked up the entire population of the city. The "floats"--which, in Swiss fashion, are numbered, with participants limited to the same number each year--are actually massive flatbed trucks, 18-wheeler-plus, with double-decker platforms of people dancing to the loudest techno I have ever heard. As they pass, crowds of people follow. The techno beat is so rapid-fire that it's not important or even possible to dance all that much. Shuffling along, the crowd behind each float could be a chain gang.

More revelers

I'm trying to get a fix on what's happening here, and it's not easy. In the United States this would be a gay party. Or a frat party. Or at least a youth party. Here, everybody's partying together. Under a sea of umbrellas people of every age--not just teens but people who look like they're bankers the rest of the time--look on. So what's the theme? Tolerance. Diversity. Techno!

The afternoon becomes evening as our hosts treat us to a cruise on the lake in a party boat, which turns out to be a floating disco with more and faster techno music. After dinner it's back to the hotel, where, with a DJ set up in the square below me, I fall asleep and dream techno dreams.

Next afternoon we take a walking tour, and it's as if we dreamed the whole Street Parade phantasmagoria. The cobblestoned streets are clean again, and even in the rain, Zurich is back to its usual elegant nature. Among the many graceful buildings our guide shows us is the Fraumunster, where, she says, women who couldn't find husbands in the Middle Ages went to be nuns. Mind you, it's a gorgeous place, and the nuns here were arguably the most powerful women in Europe because they had the right to coin their own money. If they wanted some money, they just made some! It just goes to show: Power lesbians have always existed.

There's lots more to tell about Zurich: the Marc Chagall windows in the cathedral; the church tower with the largest clock face in Europe; the ruins of the Roman customs house that gave the city its Latin name, Turicum. Zurich is very expensive, but it's not to be missed. By the way, if the Street Parade is on your mind, make your hotel reservations now.

We meet for a last dinner with our host from Zurich Tourism, the out, gay, and frankly rather hunky Markus Salzmann, in the famous Zeughauskeller restaurant. Built in 1487, this onetime armory is still a trifle martial in its feeling, with medieval pikes above our table and a World War II-vintage howitzer mounted above the front door, poised to blow the hell out of a life-size cow sculpture over the door opposite. P.S. Don't touch that grenade in the little pot by the entry; it's live.

After dinner we go for a drink at Barfusser, the oldest gay bar in Europe, renovated only a year or two ago. Pervaded by a warm orange glow from behind the bar, with comfortable banquette seating as well, this is a lovely place to say goodbye.

I'm back on a Swiss jet, in my complementary blue socks, reclining in my blue business-class throne. It's already receding, this amazing week, disappearing into the fog like the mountains at Zermatt.

I wonder: Why does it seem so hard to get to Europe? There's the money to consider, but it's not just that. It's also the time off. None of us take a week off; we certainly don't take two weeks off. We're running too hard. I think that's really the lesson I'm bringing home. The shops I saw in Europe may be selling like crazy, but they close for two solid hours at lunch. At 7 p.m. they go home, and that's it. There's none of this "open 24 hours, 7 days a week."

Even in sophisticated Zurich, everything is closed on Sunday, and the city peals with church bells. It's more comforting than you'd think. It feels as though there's a rhythm to life, as though there are boundaries, a sense of oneself. In my business, at least, in my city, at least, that's gone. We've given it up.

Several Europeans I met this week politely hint that Americans on vacation can be less than pleasant to deal with. Sure, I think to myself. We're so used to stress that we need to create it wherever we go. You know what? That's not working for us, and it doesn't take long away from home to see it.

So here's my advice: Tell your boss you're taking time off for a mini lift. He'll understand that. But don't get the mini lift; go to Switzerland instead. Eat. Sleep. Walk. Enjoy. When you come back, your boss will beg you for the name of your doctor.

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