Four years ago my mum and I went to visit my sister in Zürich, Switzerland. She was doing an internship there and we had decided to take the night train from the Netherlands to Zürich, which would drop us off right in the middle of the city after about ten hours. I spent the visit mostly trotting after the other two and trying to figure out how my new camera worked.
What struck me about Zürich was how clean and neat it was. According to my sister it was a city of bankers. It lies snug against the rim of Lake Zürich in a region that’s not too mountainous. In the two full days we spent there, we did as the Swiss did: walking down the street eating hot chestnuts from a paper cone (well, until we found a worm in one of them), taking the quaint little tram up to the highest point near the city, the Uetliberg, for a hike through a misty forest, and visiting the old brewery-turned-spa with a rooftop pool, where we had a brilliant view of the lights of Zürich through the steam rising from the pool. (It also turned out to be the designated making-out spot for couples on a given Saturday night…)
It was wonderful to catch up with my sister while rising higher and higher through the ranks of trees, with the fog hanging thickly between the coloured leaves. When we reached the top we had a magnificent view over Lake Zürich and the city, overlooking a sea of peaks growing more blue and faint the further away they were. Truly, it felt like standing on top of the world, pressing up against the ceiling of blue sky.
The day after we went to Engelberg, a popular skiing resort in winter, but now bedecked with autumn’s colourful raiment: the hazy blue of the sky, the lilac glow of the low sunlight, the orange, yellow and green of the leaves on the trees; the dark and mossy rocks along the river, the milky grey of the rocks on the paths, the rosy granite of the exposed mountain flanks… As a child I used to go on hiking holidays to Austria and Germany quite often, but the mountains of Switzerland were somehow different; more spectacular. The highest peak in Engelberg is the Titlis, clocking in at 3,238 metres. We started out with a hot chocolate and a walk around the town, which boasted mostly shops for outdoor gear – not altogether surprising. We then took off on a lengthy walk around the valley and its base, enjoying the sunshine, the cheery bubbling of a mountain stream, and the beautiful autumn trees. We ended our day eating raclette, a typical Swiss dish: melted cheese scraped onto a plate, in which we dipped bread, potatoes and veggies.
It’s not just growing up in the below-sea-level and over-cultivated middle of the Netherlands that makes mountains so attractive to me (Engelberg is after all hardly the pinnacle of uncultivated natural splendour). It’s their age that I love the most. “Life is old there / Older than the trees / Younger than the mountains / Blowing like a breeze,” John Denver sang, echoing Percy Shelley, whose poem Mont Blanc is one of my favourites: “Children of elder time, in whose devotion / The chainless winds still come and ever came / To drink their odours, and their mighty swinging / To hear—an old and solemn harmony.” It’s not for nothing that various ancient mythologies equate mountains with giants turned to stone, or call them the bones of the earth. Walking in places like these, it seems you can hear echoes of tectonic movements from millennia ago. They tacitly accept the humans clustering around their feet, trying to make a life in their shadows.