Taking sides with the Rhone

There is a point in the Swiss Alps where, if you are careful enough, you can stand legs straddled with a glass of water in each hand. If you pour the water on one side, it will eventually flow into that most Germanic of rivers the Rhine, to nurture vineyards of delicate riesling and provide a playground for Wagner’s operatic Rhine maidens.

The other hand will pour water into the Rhone, a waterway of essential Frenchness. Its upper reaches fast flowing, the water a pale turquoise made opaque by dissolved limestone. Further into France it becomes as languid as a French lunch hour and the banks coated with heavy red grapes that give the appellation- Cotes de Rhone.

We stood on that point, but eventually had to takes sides and of course our sympathies went to the French, partly because our friend and guide, Sandrine Baud was one of the 20 per cent of Swiss, who speak French as their home tongue. The other was that the source of the great French river was our destination- the Rhone Glacier.

Just a note on Swiss languages: about 70 per cent speak a German dialect, another nine per cent Italian and around one percent a uniquely Swiss language made up of German and Italian elements called Romanche. Although Sandrine and her sisters learnt German and English at school, they can understand German from Germany, but not Swiss German. Likewise on our tour which took us into the Swiss German area, many German speakers can’t understand French, so French and German Swiss often communicate with each other in English.

There has been a lot of politicised debate about the causes of Alpine glaciers melting and retreating over the past few decades with most scientific opinion blaming a large proportion of it on human induced global warming. We visited this glacier at the end of summer when even without climate change, it would have been at its smallest anyway.

There was a 19th century poster in our hotel showing the glacier well down the mountain, likewise a photo in a tourist shop, which from the cars in the carpark appear to be the 1950s, and shows the ice at a similar level.

What was surprising about the glacier now was the color of the ice surface, a dark grey probably from airborne pollution particles, which by making the surface darker, would contribute to further melting.

For Sandrine, the key attraction was an ice cave, cut each year into the glacier, which she had visited as a child. She wanted to check it out as something to show her two sons Loic, aged 10 and Quentin 8.

Entering it was strange, its outer area was covered by a large tarpaulin to minimise melting, giving the entrance the appearance of a bedouin desert tent. It was dark and had to artificially lit soon after the start, but the further you walked the brighter it became, illuminated by a pale spectral blue light that came from sunlight filtering through the covering ice.

There were other delights to Sandrine’s two day tour, including several waterfalls of height, volume and spectacle, unimaginable in Australia. They all seemed to be serviced by funicular railways and on one we were joined by a Swiss German glee club, who broke into a chorus of spontaneous yodelling all the way down the hillside.

But probably the most unexpected highlight was our overnight accommodation at the foot of the glacier- the Hotel Belvedere. It was a fashionable destination when  built in the late 1800s, but appeared to have fallen into gradual long decline. It has sort of been maintained, but little modernised.

The three storey building might have had more than 50 rooms, but when we visited no more than four were occupied. If you look along the corridors, the building clearly drops off at one end, due to movements in the earth.

Bedding seemed original too with hard hair mattresses and saggy springs. The only functioning lighting was a single overhead bulb covered by an antique glass shade. The room door closed leaving about a two centimetre gap. Toilets and showers were down the corridor and there was no heating which probably explains why the place closes for the winter.

The only modern concession was a washbasin and mirror with light above that appeared to have been installed 20 years ago. The tap leaked all night and the switch for the light did not work.

Now, if all this seems like the menu for a horror stay, sorry to disappoint, it was not. It just goes to prove that if something has enough charm, its otherwise overwhelming defects can be forgiven. And this place had charm. It was like a living museum of a 19th century mountain hotel, but that was just the start.

Oh yes there was noise too, not from the mountain road that encircled the hotel in bitumen, but from the Rhone. As it changed from ice to water, the first few hundred metres of the great river roared past our room.

But open your eyes in the soft purples of evening or the promising yellow of sunrise and the sharp valley carved by that river drops away. 

in front of the hotel. As it rises on the other side, its slopes lead your eyes to a backdrop that includes some of Switzerland’s highest mountains at least twice as high as our Mount Kosciuzsko.

At the top of the valley just beyond the hotel we spotted a family of marmots, a large burrowing squirrel that were busy collecting grass for their winter hibernation. They had been tricked a few days earlier by an unseasonal snowfall.

The hotel had one more thing to offer, its restaurant which offered intense flavours including a stew made from a local wild deer relative known as a chamois.

As we drove away down the valley we were attracted to a sign that said alpenkase a smoky mountain cheese made there in the valley from cows roaming on the opposite hillside. The farmer cheese maker was an androgynous looking woman who seemed fluent in any language you chose to use. She told us the cheese volume was down because the cows were producing only half the usual milk. This conversation was taking pace in a rough wooden hut cut into the mountainside which she said was abandoned as soon as the snows came.

The Switzerland of Zurich bankers and Rolex watches was another country.

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