As the bus lumbered up the snowy road, winding higher and higher toward the top of the mountain, my only thought was, "What has he gotten us into?"
"He" was my uncle, and the bus was climbing to the top of Grosse Scheidegg, a 6,434-foot peak in Switzerland, where passengers would hop off the bus and sled back to the bottom of the icy road.
At one point, the driver stopped to put chains on the tires before continuing to drive at a steep angle through blind twists and turns, making the idea of sledding back down (and possibly encountering the next bus) seem like madness. Meanwhile, everyone on the bus, young and old, merrily chatted away, as if this death-defying climb was nothing more than a sightseeing trip.
Of course, it was a sightseeing trip for my mom, my sister and me. We had decided to visit Mom's sister and her family in Switzerland last Christmas. They treated us to a classic Swiss holiday full of winter scenery, outdoor adventures and, of course, large quantities of cheese.
We arrived in Zurich the week before Christmas and took a two-hour train trip to Lungern, a small village of about 2,000 residents, where my uncle was born and raised. Although my relatives live in Nyon, outside of Geneva, they spend holidays at their house on Lake Lungern in central Switzerland. The area is an ideal base for exploring Alpine scenery, with numerous ski runs and hiking trails nearby.
When we got off the train at the station above Lungern, the smell of wood smoke was overpowering. My eyes were stinging, but I couldn't wait to warm up in front of one of those fires.
My aunt, Alice, and her husband, Patrick, arrived late the next day with their two children, Joseph and Elena-Maria. The next morning, everyone was up bright and early as we began what would be a daily ritual: sitting down to breakfast together for a hearty meal of fresh bread, cereal, yogurt, quark (a custardlike variant of yogurt) and cheese.
The Swiss are rightfully proud of their dairy products, especially in Lungern, where it is common in summer to see herds of cows in the fields, their bells filling the air with a loud, yet oddly beautiful, clanging.
Americans who struggle to "eat local" in the States will find it nearly impossible to do otherwise in Switzerland. Lungern, like many Swiss towns, has its own cheese maker, baker and butcher. And just steps from the lake house, we found a charming coin-operated milk depot, where farmers in the area drop off their milk to be purchased (day or night) by locals, or to be shipped to other parts of the country.
Our tour of Swiss gastronomy continued the next day with a 20-minute drive over the Brunig Pass to the town of Hasliberg, where we visited a cheese maker. For a lover of cheese, it was thrilling to see the wheels stacked floor to ceiling in the fragrant cheese cave. My uncle chatted in German with the cheese maker as he ordered three varieties, enough to keep us stocked through the holidays.
When I asked him later about the purchase, he explained that the three kinds were actually the same cheese - one was aged three years, the second two years, and the third had been made that year.
When I tried them, it was easy to tell the difference. The oldest cheese was hardest, crumbly and pleasingly bitter, like a parmesan. The two-year-old was softer, with a nice mix of salty and sweet. The youngest cheese was the softest, with a more gentle flavor.
After a leisurely meal the next evening, we rushed to the town's grand church for a Christmas Eve service. Even though the service was in German, the beauty of the setting, the sound of singing voices and the familiarity of the Christmas story made for a moving experience.
As we walked out into the cold, clear night, the melody of a string quartet drifted over the town. I looked up to the stars and felt the presence of a higher power.
A Christmas excursion
I'd like to be able to say that Christmas Day was a unique Swiss experience, but it seemed pretty American to me. My cousins got iPods that my mom had bought in the States (they had a notion of what they were getting - no wonder they had been so happy to see us).
After all the eating and drinking we had done, we agreed it was time for an excursion. We stayed close to home, walking down the road to the cable car that would take us to the peak of Schonbuel, just above Lungern. After the first stage of the journey in an enclosed car, we changed over to a more traditional ski lift. The sight of skiers zigging and zagging beneath us as we climbed sparked my interest, and that evening I suggested to my uncle that we go skiing the next day.