In The Footsteps Of Twain (Up A Mountain In Switzerland)

Monday, April 18, 2011

Back in 1880, Mark Twain wrote that, “the Rigi-Kulm is an imposing Alpine mass, six thousand feet high, which stands by itself, and commands a mighty prospect of blue lakes, green valleys, and snowy mountains.” Whether Twain himself really was a tramp — as he refers to himself in A Tramp Abroad, his travel memoir from his travels through Germany and Italy — might be up for debate. But he certainly hit the mark with his descriptions of the Rigi-Kulm in Switzerland.

Each year, I come back to Lucerne, the Swiss town that Twain describes as “three-quarters of an hour distant” from the Rigi-Kulm. After an afternoon stroll along the cobblestone streets of the Lucerne harbor, I always visit the town’s notorious wooden bridge. Known in Swiss-German as the Kapellbrücke, the chapel bridge is a reconstruction of the original that burnt down tragically in the summer 1993. The Kapellbrücke is the landmark of Lucerne, and countless visitors flock to it each year.

Though I am normally not one to follow the well-beaten track, Lucerne’s Kapellbrücke continues to be one of my favorites. It is here that I reconnect every time with my birthplace. Peering out from underneath the wooden beams, I am enveloped by imposing mountains on each side. The slight waves on Lake Lucerne rock back and forth peacefully.

Last summer, I came across Twain’s A Tramp Abroad and was immediately enthralled by his humorous renderings. In particular, chapter 28, which involved his climbing Mt. Rigi, caught my eye. On countless occasions I had come across the name “Rigi.” It filled advertisements all over the Lucerne region. From skiing, to hiking, to biking, it was the paradise of outdoor sports.

I knew where it was and what it looked like. Many times had I seen the enormous flag of Switzerland that was draped on the mountainside over the village of Vitznau. It was a flag that had made national news numerous times. Thirty-one by thirty-one meters, it weighed a ton (700 kilograms to be exact). Hanging it had certainly been no easy job, and the Swiss were proud to show it off.

I, however, was embarrassed to admit that I had never been to the top of the flagged mountain. Considering myself a near-native of Lucerne, I felt I had a lot to catch up on. That very same summer I was set on following Twain up the Rigi. And while I was at it, I was going to take my entire family along as well. Twain led us the way: from Lucerne to Weggis, the village at the base of the Rigi. While the tramp tells us that he had arrived by boat, we decided to make it a car trip right along the waterside. It was a beautiful, winding road, the sun glimmering of the surface of the lake.

In Weggis, the ascent to the Rigi-Kulm is, as Twain explains, “made by rail, or horseback, or on foot, as one may prefer.” Here we differed in preference from the tramp. While he elected to hike up, we opted for the small locomotive and said we would hike down instead. Waiting for the engine to start, I began reading aloud Twain’s tale to my parents. They, too, instantly enjoyed the humor and so, as the locomotive rolled, I continued reading.

Seeing us smile, fellow travelers began listening and laughing along. Twain’s tale became an unanticipated communal event, and when we reached the top, all of us were sure that we had done well in choosing the locomotive. The protracted suffering of Twain’s hike was alright to listen to, but no way did we need to experience it first-hand ourselves.

The locomotive reached its final stop, and though we had not completely finished reading Twain’s tale, we got off. For now, we would enjoy the landscape — the literature could be finished later.

Breathing in the crisp, fresh air, we hiked the few, final meters to the very top. Finally, I had reached the Rigi-Kulm cross that I had always marveled at from below. And in no way was I disappointed. The 360-view of the Alps left me speechless. Yes, I agreed in silence with Twain: the Rigi-Kulm certainly “commands a mighty prospect of blue lakes, green valleys, and snowy mountains.”

Still in complete awe, my family and I now made our descent. Again, we had made a better choice than Twain. While he had been tormented in the “dark and drizzly and cold,” we had chosen a stunning summer day. In fact, the sun shone down with such strength that we made a halt right across the locomotive station we had just gotten off at. Better buy my fair father a hat, I thought. With Twain’s suffering still imprinted on my mind, I didn’t want to risk any unnecessary suffering, be it a sunburn or something else.

After the gift shop we strolled on, the first part of the downward trek still being rather even and not very steep. As we continued, cows grazed peacefully on each side. Soon, however, the trail become steeper, and we began to experience what Twain had surely suffered on the way up. The Rigi is a beautiful mountain — beautiful for those sitting on a mountain hut sipping a Rivella, the typical Swiss beverage with apple juice and sparkling water. For those who hike it, however, come prepared with energy. What on the locomotive had taken us perhaps half an hour, now took us four-and-a-half hours to descend by foot.

We arrived back in Weggis sweating, and starving. Luckily, the village is replete with little, family-run restaurants. In one of them, we opted for a carb-loaded Swiss classic: Rösti mit Spiegelei. Letting the yolk of the fried egg flow over the grated potatoes, we delved in hungrily. Reading aloud the rest of Twain could wait for another day.

By Isabel Eva Bohrer



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