THIS MORNING, for the first time, we’ve taken the uphill train from Wengen to the terminus at Kleine Scheideggat the top of the pass, a station that reminds me of the Tintin stories, with mountain railway trains, some of them charmingly vintage, arriving from three directions and a constantly changing cosmopolitan throng of people embarking and disembarking, some of whom I could imagine having walk-on parts in Hergé’s comic-strip adventures of the globe-trotting Belgian boy-detective. The absent-minded Professor Calculus and the comically but heroic Captain Haddock might appear at any moment. The dapper ticket inspector shepherding passengers onto the ‘Top of Europe’ train would be perfect in a cameo role and these Alpine horn players might add a touch of local colour.
They set up their 3 or 4 metre long instruments on the hillock behind a large tepee which serves as a beer tent. The calm, mellow notes of the horns carry well in this mountainside setting. There’s a subtle play of harmonies when you hear two horns together. It’s a reflective, nostalgic kind of sound, with a hint of sadness about it to my ears; not the audacious bull-roar that you might expect from such a monster of an instrument.
If this was one of Hergé’s stories, by now Snowy (or Milou, as he’s called in the original Belgian version), Tintin’s dog, would have slipped away from the performance to team up with a St Bernard in the beer-tent to drink the contents of its brandy barrel. Thieving magpies feature in one of the Tintin stories but in this mountain setting their place is taken by streetwise Alpine Choughs, one of which surprises Barbara as she’s sitting writing her journal by flying down to the table, right beside her, to check for scraps.
We walk down from Kleine Scheidegg towards Grindelwald, the holiday village in the valley below the Eiger, photographing wild flowers as we go. Alpiglen, halfway down, is perfectly placed for our lunch stop (Goulash Soup, right).
Through the window, beyond the window box filled with geraniums, there’s a view of the lower slopes of the Eiger. The peak itself towers way out of sight above the window and, this afternoon, is lost in the clouds.
Fieldfare and Swallowtail
This thrush-sized bird has us puzzled. In my notes, I record it at 2.20 pm by broad-leaved woodland edge (we’re well down the mountainside now) by a meadow with Globeflower, mallow and trefoil. We’ve seen it several times but it wouldn’t be until after our holiday, when I looked it up in the bird book at home, that we realised that it’s a Fieldfare. I assume that when I noted that its breast was ‘white’ I was getting a partial view as the breast of a Fieldfare is spotted. In Britain Fieldfares are winter visitors, in the Alps they can be seen throughout the year.
The swallowtail butterflies are easier to recognise.
Our final stop before getting on the train for the rest of the journey is at Brandegg, where the restaurant makes a speciality of apple fritters. We sit outside and I draw this view looking north across the valley towards the hamlet of Bussalp, perched amongst the high meadows above those limestone cliffs.
A Buzzard circles high above the valley to the west, descending into the forest. A Redstart, with a breast the colour of ‘rust washed with saffron’ according to my note (I’ve been adding the colour later to these bird note sketches), sings from the gutter at the corner of the restaurant. Cow bells ring like a laid-back gamelan ensemble in the surrounding meadow.
As we walked down the track between Alpiglen and Brandegg we heard a noise as if a train was coming towards us along the nearby track. It built to something more like thunder or distant gunfire. We looked up to the north face of the Eiger to see an avalanche coming down, funneled into gullies on its way so that you might mistake it for a waterfall but it was more like the sand in an egg-timer. As it came down from one terrace it built up a pile – as an egg-timer does – below. When this became unstable the avalanche continued down to the next level, sometimes forking to descend down two gullies.
This is the view of the Jungfrau (4158 m., 13642 ft) from our balcony at the Bernerhof Hotel, Wengen. Most evenings it was partially, or entirely, lost in cloud.