Saturday, August 3, 2019

History of a Two Weeks' Tour Through Switzerland

One night—it was in 1816, and one of those nights the Swiss believe God made for them alone—a boat approached silently, leaving behind her a wake brilliantly broken in the light of the moon. She drifted in towards the whitened walls of Chillon Castle and touched the bank without any shiver, without a sound, like a settling swan.

From it stepped a pale-faced man with piercing eyes, his uncovered head held proudly. He was wearing a black cloak that reached to his feet, which however, did not entirely hide the fact that he limped slightly. He requested to be shown Bonnivard’s cell. There he remained, alone, for a long time. When he had gone, another name was inscribed on the martyr’s pillar—Byron.

Alexandre Dumas, Travels in Switzerland, 1832, published 1843

It is now nearly three weeks since my Journey took place, and the journal I then kept was not very copious; but I have so often talked over the incidents that befell us, and attempted to describe the scenery through which we passed, that I think few occurrences of any interested will be omitted. 

My opening mirrors Mary Shelley's 1817 History of a Six Weeks' Tour through a part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland. You can read the whole "little volume" on Gutenberg.

I came to Switzerland because of family, but I found myself living in the footsteps of long-beloved writers. My journey became my own bookshelf writ large, as I joined Dumas, the Shelleys, Byron, Mark Twain, J. W. Turner, Charles Dickens, Gibbon, Rousseau, Chateaubriand, and many others through the German- and then French-speaking parts of the extraordinary country.

My great grandfather Sebastian Anton Waldis was Swiss, his daughter was my maternal grandmother, Regina Caroline Waldis Brown. She passed down to us a small wooden box with the word Rigi carved on the bottom that her father brought with him on his long immigration journey. In our own middle age, my brother and I became interested in the Swiss heritage that we had long ignored, given the ethnic dominance of being O’Neill’s from Brooklyn.

Sebastian’s marriage certificate listed Arth, Switzerland as his birthplace. Odd sounding town. Google maps showed it to be a tiny hamlet on Lake Zug, about an hour south of Zurich, in the canton of Schwyz.  I planned a trip to visit his hometown, and to see more of country, then join with an organized bike tour out of Lausanne. And that is how I came to live in the heady world of Mt. Rigi and the surrounding towns of Weggis, Vitznau, Arth, and Lucerne, then over to Lake Geneva, Gstaad, and Bern.

Mark Twain's “Sunrise” on Mt. Rigi

Dining in a cable car from Weggis
“In a moment we were deeply absorbed in the marvel before us, and dead to everything else. The great cloud-barred disk of the sun stood just about a limitless expanse of tossing white-caps—so to speak—a billowy chaos of massy mountain domes and peaks draped in imperishable snow and flooded with an opaline glory of changing and dissolving splendors, while through rifts in a black cloud-bank above the sun, radiating lances of diamond dust shot to the zenith. The cloven valleys of the lower world swam in a tinted mist which veiled the ruggedness of their crags and ribs and ragged forests, and turned all the forbidding region into a soft and rich and sensuous paradise.  

We could not speak. We could hardly breath. We could only gaze in drunken ecstasy and drink it in.”  Mark Twain, Tramps Abroad, 1880

There is still a rush to be on the top of Mt. Rigi, called Rigi Kulm, at dawn to see the sunrise. I was happy to summit at midday. Mark Twain’s attempt is wrapped in his signature comedic happenstances: he and his traveling companion had slept all day.  What they first thought was the sunrise, they realized was sunset.  Which I saw from a unique dining experience in the cable car to Rigi Kaltbad from Weggis.  You can see how easily sunset and sunrise could be confused.

Arth, Brunnen, and Lucerne, as I fall into the footsteps of the Romantics

The hand-carved box great granddad brought from Switzerland, on Lake Lucerne

The Rigi-Bahn station at the top of Mt. Rigi

Arth itself having no good hotels, I stayed in Vitznau—the town Sebastian’s own grandfather Franz Joseph was from—on Lake Lucerne. Everything that has been written about the beauty of the Swiss lakes is weak in the face of their actuality. I brought GGdad's wooden box with me, to the shores of the lake. Arth being on the other side of Mt. Rigi, I needed to take the amazing cog wheel up one side of the mountain, and down the other.

The journey from Vitznau is the more dramatic as you ride at an astounding incline into the air, the town falling away as you enter the clouds. The journey down to Arth is miles and miles of the forest primeval. In Arth I visited the church of Sebastian’s baptism. Built in 1694, the baptismal font looked like it could be from 1854, and that brought his past into my present, into my journey.

Next I went to the Staatsarchiv in Schwyz to inquire for more details about Sebastian’s life, where I learned that he was in prison in the neighboring Brunnen for 4 years. Privacy laws attach to all court records from 1848 onward, and so I’m working with an archivist to get the record unsealed. My heart tells me it was for stealing a loaf of bread. This is a man who carried a tiny wooden box on the long journey from Switzerland, and named my grandmother after his mother and sister.

Mary Shelley had a very different experience of Brunnen:

“The summits of several of the mountains that enclose the lake to the south are covered by eternal glaciers; of one of these, opposite Brunen, they tell the story of a priest and his mistress, who, flying from persecution, inhabited a cottage at the foot of the snows. One winter night an avalanche overwhelmed them, but their plaintive voices are still heard in stormy nights, calling for succour from the peasants.

Brunen is situated on the northern side of the angle which the lake makes, forming the extremity of the lake of Lucerne. Here we rested for the night, and dismissed our boatmen. Nothing could be more magnificent than the view from this spot.  The high mountains encompassed us, darkening the waters; at a distance on the shores of Uri we could perceive the chapel of Tell, and this was the village where he matured the conspiracy which was to overthrow the tyrant of his country; and indeed this lovely lake, these sublime mountains, and wild forests, seemed a fit cradle for a mind aspiring to high adventure and heroic deeds.

Yet we saw no glimpse of his spirit in his present countrymen. The Swiss appeared to us then, and experience has confirmed our opinion, a people slow of comprehension and of action; but habit has made them unfit for slavery, and they would, I have little doubt, make a brave defence against any invader of their freedom.”  
Mary Shelley, History of Six Weeks' Tour
The steamboat serving Vitznau to Lucerne across Lake Lucerne

I took the steam boat from Vitznau to Lucerne. The water, the landscape: the very same the Shelleys experienced. It was like walking into the timeless spaces in Mary Shelly’s own travelogue. What delights me about travelogue is the voice, the voice of a writer you enjoy, now more directly speaking to you, sharing details with you, the potential fellow traveler.

“We departed the next morning for the town of Lucerne. It rained violently during the first part of our voyage, but towards its conclusion the sky became clear, and the sunbeams dried and cheered us. We saw again, and for the last time, the rocky shores of this beautiful lake, its verdant isles, and snow-capt mountains.”

The Shelleys and I Go Over to Lausanne 

“The rain detained us two days at Ouchy. We however visited Lausanne, and saw Gibbon's house. We were shewn the decayed summer-house where he finished his History, and the old acacias on the terrace, from which he saw Mont Blanc, after having written the last sentence. There is something grand and even touching in the regret which he expresses at the completion of his task. It was conceived amid the ruins of the Capitol. The sudden departure of his cherished and accustomed toil must have left him, like the death of a dear friend, sad and solitary.

My companion gathered some acacia leaves to preserve in remembrance of him. I refrained from doing so, fearing to outrage the greater and more sacred name of Rousseau; the contemplation of whose imperishable creations had left no vacancy in my heart for mortal things. Gibbon had a cold and unimpassioned spirit. I never felt more inclination to rail at the prejudices which cling to such a thing, than now that Julie and Clarens, Lausanne and the Roman Empire, compelled me to a contrast between Rousseau and Gibbon.” Percy Bysshe Shelley's July 12 letter in Mary's Travelogue

Is there a more naturally literary soul than Shelley? I love his angst about contrasting Gibbon and Rousseau.  I feel connected to the literary continuum by the nestling dolls of literary fandom. Shelley is moved by seeing where Gibbon finished Roman Empire in Lausanne, and he visited Vevai/Vevey where “Rousseau conceived the design of Julie.” For Dumas, it was tracking down Chateaubriand.

Hotel Angleterre, Lausanne
In Lausanne I did not make it to the plaque that shows where the Hotel Gibbon stood with its garden of acacia trees, but I made sure to see Hotel Angleterre et Residence where Byron wrote The Prisoner of Chillon.

My bike tour met up in a hotel next to Hotel Angleterre. We biked through the UNESCO Lavaux vineyards—producer of the lovely grape Chasselas—over to Vevey, on Lake Geneva.  From the town, we started biking around the glorious lake, through the district of Montreux, until the celebrated castle was in sight.

The Prisoner of Chillon

The display about Francois Bonivard at Castle Chillon, the inspiration for Byron's poem

There are seven pillars of Gothic mould,
In Chillon's dungeons deep and old

“We passed on to the Castle of Chillon, and visited its dungeons and towers. These prisons are excavated below the lake; the principal dungeon is supported by seven columns, whose branching capitals support the roof. Close to the very walls, the lake is 800 feet deep; iron rings are fastened to these columns, and on them were engraven a multitude of names, partly those of visitors, and partly doubtless of the prisoners, of whom now no memory remains, and who thus beguiled a solitude which they have long ceased to feel. One date was as ancient as 1670. ” Shelley's letter in Mary's Travelogue

Byron's signature carved into the pillar he thought was "the" pillar; or added by savvy Castle staff

The first thing every guide says at the Castle is how it is the most visited cultural site in all of Switzerland because of Byron. To this day.

The other tidbit is editorial: that things couldn’t have been too bad for Francois Bonivard because when he was freed, he married four times, and was always in debt because of his extravagant lifestyle. The implication being that he wasn’t damaged by being in prison from 1530 to 1536, and chained to a pillar for the last four of them. He was a prisoner of Switzerland’s religious wars: he was a Catholic monk who started fighting for the rights of the Genevese  not be ruled by the Duke of Savoy. He became a celebrated Protestant on his release, and so the marriages.

Bryon paints a very different, though mythical picture.  The real Bonivard had no 5 brothers (although one of the guides thought he perhaps had one sibling, but he was not imprisoned with him.)

Byron’s poem is a masterpiece of darkness and suffering. If Bonivard himself perhaps was not in extreme pain during his imprisonment, many people were devastated by the cruelty and barbarity of the religious wars

Their belief with blood have seal'd,
Dying as their father died,
For the God their foes denied;—

Sir Walter Scott's review Quarterly Review 16 (October 1816) 172-208:
"It will readily be allowed that this singular poem is more powerful than pleasing. The dungeon of Bonivard is, like that of Ugolino, a subject too dismal for even the power of the painter or poet to counteract its horrors. It is the more disagreeable as affording human hope no anchor to rest upon, and describing the sufferer, though a man of talents and virtues, as altogether inert and powerless under his accumulated sufferings. Yet as a picture, however gloomy the colouring, it may rival any which Lord Byron has drawn, nor is it possible to read it without a sinking of the heart, corresponding with that which he describes the victim to have suffered."

Is the signature Byron’s? I would think not. There's too much space between the "B" and "Y," which has lead to an odd dot being added through the years.

Lake Geneva/Leman is well served by a fleet of steamboats. You can see the enormous pistons

From the Castle, we took the steamboat back to Vevey.

“We sailed from Clarens to Vevai. Vevai is a town more beautiful in its simplicity than any I have ever seen. Its market-place, a spacious square interspersed with trees, looks directly upon the mountains of Savoy and La Valais, the lake, and the valley of the Rhone. It was at Vevai that Rousseau conceived the design of Julie.” Shelley's July 12 letter in Mary's Travelogue

Alphorn players on Lake Lucerne in Vevey for the Fete des Vignerons, 2019

The next day we headed for Gstaad, where Hemingway is still remembered, and then on to Bern. Making the journey to great grandfather’s hometown was a privilege. It was even more of a privilege to journey with the good education that brought me the richness of the Romantics in Switzerland.