Following Mark Twain's trail in the Swiss Alps

A nun manoeuvres her wheelbarrow through the gardens at Felsentor, a spiritual retreat centre on Switzerland's Mount Rigi.
Christy DeSmith

A nun manoeuvres her wheelbarrow through the gardens at Felsentor, a spiritual retreat centre on Switzerland's Mount Rigi.

My mother-in-law, Anna, reads avidly — in a handful of languages.

Born in World War II-era Budapest, she was a bookish girl who grew up devouring Hungarian and Russian literature. After a stop in Holland, she moved to Lucerne, Switzerland, an idyllic Alpine city set on a crystalline lake, and turned to novels in German and Italian, two of the country's four official languages. Later, she added English to her repertoire.

Anna's spoken English bears traces of her favourite British and American writers: Jane Austen, Shakespeare and Mark Twain. For her, my husband, Mischa, and I were never engaged; we were "betrothed". My daughter's stroller was a "pram". And she's always asking me to "fetch" her things from the grocery store.

Mischa and I now visit Switzerland every summer.

While we're there, Anna likes loading me up with literary references to her adopted homeland. She jabbed me in the ribs during an early visit — this was probably 2009 — gasping with laughter while pointing me toward W. Somerset Maugham's mocking description of Lucerne.

"It was true that the lake was absurd, the water was too blue, the mountains too snowy, and its beauty, hitting you in the face, exasperated rather than thrilled. … Lucerne reminded him of wax flowers under glass cases," the British author wrote of Lucerne in a short story called The Traitor.

I loved this passage immediately. It perfectly captured my early impressions of Switzerland, a gorgeous but oppressively perfect and overachieving kind of place.

A few years ago, Anna handed me a copy of Mark Twain's 1880 book A Tramp Abroad after dinner. "To hear an American read Mark Tvvvvain!" she purred, with her palm pressed to chest. She demanded a live reading. I searched Anna's face for a hint of irony, something I often detect in her expressions. I found none. She reclined in her chair and awaited the performance.

I stammered through "The Awful German Language", possibly the book's most famous chapter (it was the only one I knew). Then Anna directed me to a handful of essays Twain wrote after spending some time near Lucerne. In The Jodel and Its Native Wilds, Twain recounts ascending nearby Mount Rigi with his agent in 1878.

Anna likes this essay, in part, because of her affections for Mount Rigi — she can admire its grass-covered slopes from the comforts of her garden or living room. (All the other mountains in her view are baldfaced and jagged.)

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I started reading aloud: Rigi is "an imposing Alpine mass, six thousand feet high, which stands by itself, and commands a mighty prospect of blue lakes, green valleys and snowy mountains — a compact and magnificent picture three hundred miles in circumference."

I felt my face redden. I'm not fond of public speaking, but more than that, the florid prose embarrassed my Midwestern sensibilities.

"For some days we were content to enjoy looking at the blue Lake Lucerne and all the piled-up masses of snow-mountains that border it all around …" 

This wasn't what I expected from Twain — he seemed intoxicated by Switzerland. Thankfully, the essay takes an irreverent turn, poking fun at Rigi's yodeling shepherd boys, its alphorn players and Twain himself. After all, it took him three days to reach the summit — most hikers can master gentle Rigi in less than a day.

The Felsentor retreat centre operates a modest restaurant especially for hikers. Photo: Christy DeSmith

An hour later, I was lounging about Anna's living room, dousing my phobias with white wine while gazing out the window at the soft contours of Rigi's kulm (or peak). Anna re-emerged with yet another literary reference to central Switzerland: a clip from the Neue Luzerner Zeitung newspaper about the new Mark Twain hiking trail, which traces the writer's route to the top of her favourite mountain.

At Anna's insistence, we were hiking the 6.5-mile (10.5-km) Mark Twain trail just two days later.

I quickly learned that Rigi is steep compared with, say, the famous Barr Trail on Colorado's Pikes Peak, which I had hiked in the late '90s. The first two hours on Twain's trail were punishing: an uphill climb via rutted paths and an improvised, earthen staircase. Anna, age 70-plus, fared much better than I did, though I am younger by four decades. So she scavenged in the bushes for a sturdy branch I could use as my alpenstock.

Hiking is an especially beloved pastime in Switzerland, a nation veined with wanderwegen or footpaths that wind through the surreal landscapes. No matter where you travel in Switzerland, you're sure to find a pleasant wanderweg marked every few meters by triangular yellow signs — they're affixed to tree trunks, signposts, even privately owned barns.

After we had followed the yellow signs for two hours, the Mark Twain trail eased into switchbacks. We spent a comfortable hour or so marching a path framed by beech and spruce trees, encountering the occasional sign inscribed with one of Twain's gushing endorsements: "And of course the colours in the water change and blend and dissolve, producing marvel after marvel, miracle after miracle." I rolled my eyes. But as we walked, my eyes kept wandering to the blueness of Lake Lucerne and all the toylike steamboats sputtering below.

"After that, we found a jodeler every ten minutes; we gave the first one eight cents, the second one six cents, the third one four, the fourth one a penny, contributed nothing to Nos. 5, 6 and 7, and during the remainder of the day hired the rest of the jodelers, at a franc apiece, not to jodel anymore," wrote Mark Twain.

Hikers encounter mountain goats as they approach the summit of Mount Rigi. Photo: Christy DeSmith

As a tourist destination, Mount Rigi saw its heyday around the time of Twain's visit. Today Rigi retains the flavours of the Belle Epoque, thanks to a strict prohibition on car traffic. As we hiked the mountain, 136 years in Twain's wake, we passed a string of dairy farms without driveways or even pickup trucks. I marvelled at all the gravity-defying milk cows, how they grazed atop cliffs and along steeply pitched meadows. Alas, no yodelers were seen or heard, though we encountered a different agricultural relic: hand-painted advertisements for local alpine cheeses.

At 3700 feet (1128m), right around 11 am, we came across Felsentor, a spiritual retreat centre where habit-clad nuns manoeuvre wheelbarrows around massive rock formations and flower gardens. Founded in 1999, the centre didn't exist in Twain's day — he only mentions a distinct rock formation in the area dubbed Felsentor. Felsentor is now home to a guesthouse, a meditation hall and an outdoor restaurant especially for hikers.

We each ordered a salad and a kaffeecreme before seating ourselves on a patio appointed with modest wrought-iron furniture. I untied my boots, wiggled my toes in the fresh air and kicked back to enjoy an immodest panorama of the Swiss Alps. In this perfect moment, I felt my cynicism recede. I grasped what Twain meant when he wrote that Rigi's views "were as enticing as glimpses of dreamland".

The trees eventually thinned out, revealing the hazy blue skies of a typical summer day in central Switzerland. We wound our way through mossy scenes before arriving, finally, to a resort settlement called Rigi Kaltbad, located at 4700ft (1433m). Twain spent his second night there. Anna, Mischa and I stopped there for our second lunch around 2 pm.

The first thing you notice when you reach Rigi Kaltbad is the architecture: lots of traditional Swiss chalets rising in gradient from the slopes. But Rigi Kaltbad is in the midst of transition. In 2014 the brand-new Mineralbad & Spa Rigi-Kaltbad opened in a glistening modern edifice — complete with cantilevered swimming pools hanging off the mountainside.

The spa wasn't complete when we visited, yet we were able to linger on its ultramodern veranda and sigh over the framed-up views of the Alps.

Rigi Kaltbad proved a fine place to ogle feats of Swiss design. Twain stood there and gaped at Europe's first mountain cog rail, completed on Mount Rigi in 1871. "It was planted straight up the mountain with the slant of a ladder that leans against a house," he wrote.

Now I was eyeing the construction site for some luxury condos, perched on a precipitous plot beside the ladderlike railway.

We encountered few hikers before reaching Rigi Kaltbad. Now they were everywhere. Visitors like travelling to Rigi Kaltbad via railway or cable car before walking 2.5 miles (4km) to the summit. After Rigi Kaltbad, there were no more Twain-themed signs to distract us from thirsty mouths or burning thighs. There was only a thick spread of Swiss, German and British tourists trying to coax small children up the steep path.

We started hiking in silence, like marathoners conserving energy for the final sprint. Anna occasionally stopped to enjoy the edelweiss and other wildflowers. I paused to wonder about the high-altitude birds or to coo over path-blocking mountain goats.

Hikers walk near the summit of Mount Rigi. Photo: Christy DeSmith

We reached Rigi-Kulm a mere eight hours after we started, outpacing Twain by two full days. We mustered just enough energy to snap the obligatory top-of-the-world photos for social media.

Mischa pointed east to the high mountains of Graubunden, where residents still speak Romansch (another of Switzerland's official languages). Then the three of us eased our way to the Rigi-Kulm train station, just as Twain had, and waited for that magical cog rail to lower us home.

"Well," said Anna, breaking our exhausted daze. "We are surely faster than Mark Twain."

 - MCT

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