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The Art of Loving

The Art of Loving


The Swiss adage "es stimmt" means, roughly, "it fits." When an Advocate editor goes in search of artistic and architectural delights--and maybe a gay Swiss miss or two--she indeed finds "es stimmt." What better recommendation for a travel destination?

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 & Neuchatel, 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 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. Our hotel room floating over Lac Neuchatel

Le Corbusier -- and incidentally, every gay boy I know -- would flip over our destination for tonight, the five-star Hotel Palafitte in neighboring Neuchatel. Built out on pilings over Lac Neuchatel, 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 Hotel DuPeyrou, a restaurant housed in an exquisitely repurposed chateau. 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.

Neuchatel& Bern, Saturday

Our droll guide, Veronique, leads us through the narrow streets of Neuchatel 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, Neuchatel 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. The cathedral at Neuchatel

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, 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 Munster, 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. 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 Schwellenmatteli. 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.

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Anne Stockwell