travelog 86

A Visit to Our Old Homeland

What better reason could there be than Julia's brothers wedding, to visit our homeland again after a long time of not going? As the wedding is planned for the summer there's nothing else standing in the way of going, having decided long ago that the only time to visit Switzerland would be during the warm summer months. Our reception at Julia's mother's house starts as the first highlight of our trip, with sharp Swiss cheese from the local market and Landjäger, a typical smoked Swiss sausage specialty, made perfect with a glass of young wine. The culinary highlights will accompany us during our three week visit which of course doesn't go by without worries concerning our weight.

The first weekend is reserved for the big event, the wedding of Amanda and Kaspar. Since Amanda is originally from the Ticino, the Italian part of Switzerland, the festivities will be held around Locarno. This gives us the opportunity to visit Nicky and Zino, old friends we haven't seen for ages. To make our weekend complete, the two invite us to spend a couple of days at their place. Thus we enjoy even more culinary specialties and bottles of delicious fermented grape juice, but that's also the beginning of our misery, and after this weekend we don't even get close to scales. On Friday we borrow the car of our former neighbor for the weekend and drive south over the San Bernardino, one of the two main routes over the Swiss Alps. The weather is perfect for a spin in the car through this beautiful part of Switzerland. In the Grisons, old castles defy attackers from up on rocky perches and small white-washed churches stand on green meadows. Fat cows graze on green fields, a sight that has to be captured with the camera as our Mexican friends surely have never seen such fat cows in their lives. Near Thusis we make a side trip on the old road to see the Via Mala. It's a narrow gorge through which the young Rhine has to squeeze. Far below us, the water roars through the narrows over rounded rocks down the mountain. We even find a Sedum and the homesickness stays within bounds. Next, we visit the little church of Zillis, the wooden ceiling of which is adorned with incredibly beautiful and detailed paintings. Particularly graphic and fascinating are the butchers who hold cut-off heads in their bloody hands. Now peaks, still snow-covered, accompany us on both sides of the road. Alpine flowers please the eye. In front of wooden houses, also called chalets, shine bright red flowering geraniums in pots. And everywhere you can hear the ringing of cow bells from green meadows. Soon, the road descends into the Ticino. We find Nicky's house above Giubiasco without problems. The pleasure of seeing each other again is delightful and we're all pleased that we still recognize one another after all these years. The table on the terrace is set quickly and with a breathtaking view out over the Magadino plains we enjoy a Merlot, local cheese and sausage specialties like venison and donkey salami and an excellent mortadella. This mortadella has nothing to do with the porqueria, as Nicky likes to call it, that is sold under this name in the German part of Switzerland, but it is a thick, coarse salami. After coffee and grappa we already have to leave to arrive on time to the Polterabend, the party on the eve of the wedding. The group meets at the valley station of the Cardada cable car. After a beautiful ride up the mountain with incredible views back over Locarno and the Lago Maggiore, we eat a typical Ticino dinner at a cozy restaurant. Around midnight, we all stroll back to the cable car under a starry sky.

On Saturday we are first treated to Nicky's excellent kitchen and appear slightly cheerfully tipsy at the Castello Sasso Corbaro, one of the castles above Bellinzona where the wedding ceremony will take place. The bride rides up outside the castle in an old Piaggio with loud honking and the applause of the guests. Inside the room, most of the people have to stand and we all hope that the ceremony will be over very quickly because there is no air condition in here and we're bathed in sweat after just a few minutes. Of course there are some funny moments during the ceremony that is held in Italian, particularly when the registrar translates some parts of the contract into German so that Kaspar understands very well what he's getting himself into. Kyra, the bride and groom's three year old daughter and ring bearer, follows the action attentively and later hands out sugar coated almonds to the guests. For an aperitif on granite tables under blue grapes we go to a nearby restaurant. Later we change location again, this time to Ascona where the tables are set on the terrace of an exclusive restaurant at the lake. In case the dear reader has the feeling that the only thing we have done so far is stuff ourselves, he/she's not very much mistaken. But with so much great food it's hard to say no! And so we continue and feast on Grano Padano Parmiggiano cheese. A whole cheese was cut open and with a knife they have cut small pieces out of it that make it look like a rose. It's great finger food! Of course, champagne is poured generously and everybody is busy finding his/her table. We Old Ones, meaning the over 40-year olds, are placed at the family table but when the dancing starts we shake a leg too and sway to the beat of some old-time Italian hits. We hold out 'til the wee hours of the morning but when the music changes to the year 2008 we slink away unnoticed. A thunderstorm, rivaling the ones we only know from Mexico, wakes us up on Sunday. Rain is coming down in buckets and there's lightning and thunder. Our planned drive back to Zurich over various passes falls through with the storm, but this gives us the great opportunity to continue enjoying the legendary hospitality of our Ticino friends to the fullest and to put on some more pounds.

Back in Zurich, the days go by in no time. We want to meet old friends, stroll through the old part of town, go for a walk along the lake, in short, we want to be tourists. Another highlight is a visit to the opera, an invitation from Julia's mother. A friend with connections managed to grab tickets for a box, a very special experience. We sit on red velvet covered chairs under red velvet ceilings with golden decorations and watch the other box guests. As soon as all the box chairs are occupied, the porter closes the door so that no one from the cheap seats can sneak in. We hear Handel's Rinaldo under the expert baton of William Christie. The music fills us with enthusiasm, the production is completely modern and needs some getting used to, but all in all it's a magnificent evening, ending with homemade Mexican food and Tequila. Lunches and dinners in Julia's mother's quiet garden turn into true feastings every single day. Mother Lotti's vegetarian kitchen admittedly suffers a lot under our visit because we wish to eat such scandalous things as meat loaf wrapped in pastry dough and served with spicy Dijon mustard, Landjäger, or Saucisson with sauerkraut. She even digs up old and long forgotten recipes from times when she still prepared pork with apples and onions, a stew that this time is pepped up with lots of hot Mexican chilies. The culmination is a platter of cheese from the local market and what's better with this than a glass (or two) of wine?

We spend another weekend in Bale with Martin's mother where Georg (also known as Tuennes from an earlier travelog) comes to visit us from Cologne. Of course we do some sightseeing on the way to Bale and spend a few hours in Laufenburg on the Rhine. Tall half-timbered houses line narrow alleys where it's always comfortably cool and shady during the summer months. There's a bridge over the Rhine that is an excellent place for taking pictures of both the German and the Swiss side of Laufenburg. Martin's mother is already expecting us in Bale and later in the evening Georg arrives with the typical lateness of the German Bundesbahn, the train. Over cheese, bread and wine, we talk for hours about everything under the sun. On Saturday we stroll through the old part of Bale where Martin still knows his way from his childhood days. At the cathedral above the Rhine, a wedding is taking place and we have to be patient to get in. Instead, we walk around the convent courtyard where we get a glance at the wedding buffet. Whole cheeses of Grano Padano Parmiggiano seem to be the latest hit at weddings; at least here we find this delicacy again. In the meantime, there's a man playing the Alphorn in the cathedral's park above the Rhine, another great opportunity to take a few pictures. For dinner we're invited to visit with an old school friend's of Martin. The two haven't met in 20 years and have many things to talk about. Over the years, memories about certain events have become distorted and the two of them are not always in agreement about how it really was. After a nice breakfast on Sunday we all leave for the train station where Georg boards a train to the north while we head to the south. The feasting continues in Zurich as we cook Mexican food for Julia's mother's birthday.

To be tourists in Switzerland for the last time, Maggie takes us on a day trip to Engelberg. Again we drive past geranium-overgrown chalets and well-fed cows on deep green meadows. At the cheese-factory of the old monastery we meet Ernst Odermatt, the cheese maker, and his daughter Judith, the manager. They know our Mexican cheese maker friend Salvador of whom we wrote in an earlier travelog. We get three vouchers for a ride with the Brunni cable car to Ristis and a drink at a restaurant. The Brunni cable car is opposite the Titlis, one of the most famous Swiss peaks. The clouds hiding the mountain disappear in the afternoon so that we can take great pictures of its snow-covered peak. We are surrounded by more snow-covered mountains and vertical cliffs. Cow bells ring from the meadows and alpine flowers bloom everywhere. On a bench against the wooden wall of a chalet we enjoy the warmth of the sun and curse ourselves for having forgotten the picnic in the car. It's an afternoon out of a travel brochure of Switzerland. Of course we also stroll along the main road through Engelberg where no cars are allowed and visit almost every store admiring black and white cow-patterned souvenirs, yodeling battery-powered cuddly marmots. And coffee cups, washcloths, lighters and much more in red-white variations. Finally, we visit a store where all sorts and sizes of bells are sold. Next to it is the saddlery where the matching collars are made. They even had orders from the USA where the leather collar had to be stitched not only with the usual edelweiss and gentians but also with the US flag. The saddler can even remember our friend Salvador who bought a suitcase full of bells in various sizes for his goats. The culmination of this day is a quiet dinner on Maggie's terrace with margaritas to cool down and cheese from the cheese-factory.

Three weeks fly by in no time. On the one hand this is very sad because there are so many more things that we want to do and see, but on the other hand it's good because after our daily culinary excesses we need desperately to get on a diet and have to put some serious sport activity on our agenda!

July 2008

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen