I’m a morning person, and it can be a lonesome predilection.
I open the balcony blinds and with my coffee step out into the jolting cold of a winter dawn. Everything Is shockingly, dazzlingly white: the street, the parked cars, the lawn where I was once death-stared by the old man upstairs for the crime of lawn-walking. A cyclist shoots down the icy street as I flinch, anticipating a nasty skid; he takes the corner with ease. Oh, yeah, that’s right. They’re used to this.
Sunlight. Caffeine. Purpose. Days of dismal cloud have called it quits, and it’s Saturday. I gulp down the last of the coffee, sneak into our room and furtively extract three or four layers from the cupboard. I flinch again as the key turns in the front door with a resounding sequence of CLICKs. Out in the sub-zero chill, I pull on my goatskin mittens and break a fresh trail though the virgin snow of the front lawn. A fresh headache for the old man upstairs.
Crossing the main road, carefully (most pedestrian accidents in Switzerland occur on…crossings), I negotiate the slippery sidewalk that aims straight at Rigi, “Queen of Mountains”, in grand repose again after days of peeking through the murk, dwarfing the wooded grounds of medieval Schloss Andreas at the end of the street.
Schloss is usually translated as ‘castle’ but here is closer to ‘manor’, or ‘stately home’. Unfortunately it’s been closed for renovations since I got here, so I’ve never seen it this close, but the glimpse of rooftops and hedges is stately indeed.
I could turn right here and descend to Vilette, the lovely parklands spread out between the church and the Zugersee…
..but I decide on a caffeinated impulse to swing left, down beside the railway tracks skirting the lake which lead south-west to Lucerne and north to Zürich. A train pulls in as I descend the hill, glides on towards Zug, faces at the windows turned to take in the glory of the misty lake in the soft glow of sunrise:
Switzerland is synonymous with mountains; what I didn’t know before going there was how many lakes dot this tiny but unfeasibly scenic nation. In addition to the hundreds of smaller ones, there are 16 lakes with a surface area greater than 10 square kilometres/three square miles:
For three amazing months at the tail-end of last year, I lived with my Swiss girlfriend at the edge of the lake in the centre next to the big “ZG”: Zug canton (Switzerland is divided into 26 of these states; Zug is the smallest of the rural cantons).
Lake Zug, or the Zugersee, as the locals know it, is the 10th-largest in the country at 38 square km. The city of Zug with its gorgeous medieval centre lies at the north-east tip of the Zugersee; on my first day in Switzerland, a cool autumn afternoon, Sarah took me there on a 45-minute stroll from her place. This was my introduction to the comprehensive network of wanderwegs, the beautifully signposted walking paths that criss-cross farmland, towns and mountains.
We passed the tiny beaches with their barbecue areas, including the (unfortunately deserted) nude beach, and hugged the shore, heading east through the lakeside woods. On the left, fallow fields. Approaching the city, big homes behind imposing gates crouched possessively over their million-dollar lakeside views. Zug has low taxes specifically aimed at luring such residents and their businesses.
We reached the town waterfront which Sarah said would be jammed with sun-lovers come summer. This autumn afternoon we were the only humans in sight; many restaurants and stores close for lunch in Switzerland. After pizza and a beer, I waited, a tad apprehensive, while she ducked into the police station, emerging with a suitably ancient-looking key.
“Most tourists don’t know about this,” she said proudly, and then led me to a tiny door in the base of the clock tower. Ducking under absurdly low doorways (people were short back then), we took a few flights of creaking wooden steps to the room at the top with its commanding view of the rooftops and the lake. A medieval skyscraper.
Today, this winter dawn, I walk tall, tall and alone. My running shoes make that satisfying crunch in the fresh snow coating the wanderweg. A few stray snowflakes snag in my eyelashes. I’m a recent veteran of a couple of hundred miles of alpine snow in the High Sierra, an experience I hope never to repeat; this is the kind of snow I can appreciate: gentle, pretty, SHALLOW, made for snowballs rather than postholing and trail-blazing.
I breathe icy dragon-breath, and whack my hands together to chase out the chill. On the lake, the swans go about their business, undeterred:
Rigi is over there at the bottom of the lake. One day soon I’ll walk from her summit to Lucerne on a cold, exhilarating, sometimes-unnerving afternoon:
Today, I ramble, past the “night swimming” area…
..thickets of tall, flowering grass bowing beneath its burden of snow…
..with the Zugerberg beyond, and its funicular train, walking trails, forests and school for rich foreign kids. More than once I’ve spent the day roaming up there, then descended on foot and walked all the way home. And in time, in three long sections, I’ll circumambulate this beautiful lake and parts of others.
Today, though, it’s a ramble, not an expedition. Crunch-crunch-crunching through that miraculous white, I nod hello to dog-walkers and joggers, pause to admire the perfection of a secluded nook…
..and start thinking about heading home to Sarah and breakfast. Cold-air hungry is my favourite kind of hungry. Must be nearly time for the bakeries to open.
In Zug, when I get there, people are setting up Christmas markets near the still-deserted waterfront.
Well, almost deserted: