I suppose it could be a symptom of watching too many movies, when your choice of holiday is decided by filmic location. But that’s really what this came down to: in the blue corner, fighting for Team Kitsch, is Salzburg, home to singing families governed by ex-nuns. In the red corner, looking suave, sophisticated and somewhat Swiss, is Interlaken: the nearby Schilthorn mountain was Blofeld’s lair in one of the best Bond films ever (albeit starring the worst Bond ever), On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Julie Andrews vs. George Lazenby – an agonising choice by any standard. Interlaken finally won out, and I returned to Switzerland for the first time in almost a decade (readers are referred to the distant depths of TC5 for the details of that previous trip).
In some ways, Switzerland is a good place for any world dictator wannabe, since they have a proven track record in holding your coat (and your bank account) while you exterminate your fellow Europeans. On the other hand, woe betide any pedestrian who dares cross the road, except in the designated places – as I rapidly discovered. I wasn’t exactly taking my life in my hands when I crossed through stationary traffic, and, even though no-one was put at risk or even delayed by my manoeuvre, I was whined at – there’s no other way to describe it – by a local.
But what else would you expect in a town whose economy appears to run largely on Swiss army knives? These are on sale at the butcher, baker and cuckoo-clock maker – the last-named no doubt with a special implement for dealing with obstinate cuckoos. Said clocks are also near-omnipresent, as is chocolate, though the place does boast (in a quiet, Swiss way) a sex shop, engagingly described as “the last sex shop before the Jungfrau”. Otherwise, it has about the trash quota you would expect from a town with a resident population struggling to make 5,000.
As is traditional, TC sampled the local kebab – once we found it (Interlaken only seems to have two fast-food joints, and one of those is, inevitably, McDonalds). Like the town itself, it was pretty but bland, with no chilli sauce on offer, though it came in something closer to a bap than pitta bread, which was an original touch. We give it a C-
We also tried fondue, the main contribution of the Swiss to proper food – this discounts chocolate, and also muesli since breakfast is not part of the TC diet. But we like fondue, particularly the meat kind, consisting of a pile of raw flesh, a pot of boiling oil on a burner, and a selection of sauces. With typical Swiss ingenuity, all blame for how the end product tastes shifts onto the consumer, since you do the cooking. While one feels it should be cheaper, because you do most of the work, it is a satisfactorily Neanderthal kind of fare.
Given the severe lack of nightlife (or at least, nightlife that doesn’t involve the Vengaboys), it is perhaps no wonder that Swiss youth have such a fondness for drugs. And graffiti too: rolling through the towns on the (quiet, clean, inevitably spot-on time) train, tagging was at epidemic levels. Yet the phone boxes are pristine, and even have email terminals in them, which would last about five minutes in South London. Go figure. It’s all rather disturbing, as if rebellion is only permitted within rigidly-defined boundaries.
Still, it’s hard to complain in such a magnificent setting: as its name suggests, Interlaken sits on a river running between two lakes – judging by the bizarre colour of the water, these must be named Plax and Listerine. Even grocery shopping is enlivened when there are snow-capped, F-sized Alps at the end of every street. Except on the second day, that is, when we woke to find that the scenery had been kidnapped by SPECTRE, who were demanding the sum of one billion dollars for its return.
Actually, it was merely very misty – this was still unfortunate, as that day was the one slated to go up the Schilthorn, eat in the solar-powered revolving restaurant on top, and plan to take over the world. However, we were saved by, of all things, Swiss television. They are short enough on programming to dedicate an entire channel to footage from cameras on various peaks: MTV, as in Mountain Television. Although this may well sound like the most tedious program ever (and it is, despite an undeniably hypnotic quality, and the odd tourist looning around in picture), it did show that the Schilthorn was more-or-less above the clouds, so we headed off.
The journey itself was an experience…hell, buying the tickets was an experience, but the good thing about languages in Switzerland, is that if you can’t remember the German word, use the French one instead. People are remarkably unfazed when you switch tongue mid-sentence. Er, where was I? Ah, yes – let’s start that one again, shall we?
The journey itself was an experience: train, funicular, mountain railway and cable-car, up to a (literally) breath-taking ten thousand feet above sea level. En route, we passed through the hugely eerie town of Murren, which – maintaining the film theme – would be an ideal location if George Romero ever gets round to any more zombie flicks. At just the right height to be basically in the clouds, it was almost a ghost town: the end of April was too late for skiers and too early for hikers. Not a place to be stuck for the night, we careful noted the departure time of the last funicular out.
Shortly after, we were rotating slowly round at the top of the mountain. With virtually the restaurant to ourselves (clearly, not everyone had discovered Swiss MTV), the waiter approached to enquire about drinks. There was only one possible answer: “vodka martini – shaken not stirred”. The waiter rolled his eyes, for the ten millionth time in his career. This near-schizophrenia over the Bond connection was a marked facet of the place; they seemed almost begrudging of the link. Certainly, a major opportunity was being missed, since the 007 souvenirs available were sadly limited – I would have merchandised the hell out of the Bond connection. CDs, videos, stuffed white cats…
Though if Blofeld put his kitty out at night, he’d have never found it again. For in every direction you looked, there was snow – and moreover, it was white. [Those who feel this is stating the bleedin’ obvious, haven’t experienced the grey substitute we get in London] And if I thought the scenery was good looking up from below, it was utterly amazing from the top, gazing down on a fluffy feather-bed of clouds and Alps, as far as the eye could see. Top of the world, Ma, and another ambition safely ticked off.
And that’s Switzerland: in fifteen words or less, a lovely place to visit, but somehow, I probably wouldn’t want to stay there.