Retracing the paths of famous poets across Switzerland
Consider this: Is it Switzerland's fame that has attracted so many poets over the years, or have the many poets who have visited there made the country famous? I pondered this riddle while wandering around the southwestern corner of this diverse land of lakes and craggy peaks, starting at cosmopolitan Montreux and working my way to tiny Simplon on the Italian border.
Byron visited Montreux with his friend Shelley in 1816 to look at Chillon Castle. The two English poets were retracing the steps of another writer, Rousseau, who set the climactic scene of his novel ''Julie ou la nouvelle Heloise'' there. I was glad when I visited the castle that I didn't come by boat , as Byron and Shelley had - Lake Geneva is still moody and often beset by squalls of the kind that upset their boat and nearly drowned them (as happened to Shelley six years later, off Italy).
Today Montreux has become an international resort attracting a hip, affluent crowd with a mild climate that allows palm trees to flourish in sight of the Alps. Chillon Castle lies just on the eastern edge of the city, moored on the lake like a stone boat at a jetty surrounded by expensive hotels.
It is said that Byron's guide at the castle filled his head with blather about a prisoner once held there, a radical named Bonivard. Whether because of the guide's stories or his own invention, Byron wrote ''The Prisoner of Chillon, '' transforming Bonivard into a martyr for freedom and the castle into a symbol of human struggle against hopeless odds.
My guide, Lisa Poletti, showed me the pillar in the dungeon where Byron carved his name (it's covered by a glass plate), as well as the grooves in the floor made by Bonivard's daily pacing. The castle has a fine collection of armor , furniture, and wall hangings once owned by the Counts of Savoy, who used Chillon as their summer palace. Byron and Bonivard are just brief episodes in a story that stretches back to at least the 12th century.
The secret passages Mme. Poletti showed me and the strangely eerie isolation of the castle right in the middle of a modern resort made me understand the powerful draw the place had on Byron's imagination.
Two hours farther east by train is Sierre, where Rainer Maria Rilke finally completed ''The Duino Elegies.'' Rilke had begun this cycle of complex poems at Duino Castle, outside Trieste, in 1912, but a whopping writer's block left them unfinished until 1922, when he moved into Chateau Muzot in the hills above Sierre.
Most of the tourists who come to Sierre head straight for the cable car station that takes them up to the ski slopes of Crans/Montana, ignoring the small library of Rilke letters and manuscripts in the town hall. The collection is hardly definitive, but worth seeing. After hours and on weekends you can get the keys to the library at the police station next door (try that in the Library of Congress). The policeman behind the desk when I was there had never heard of Rilke, but Sierre is the extreme flank of French-speaking Switzerland and Rilke is not taught in the schools.
I decided that a cab was in order if I was going to find Chateau Muzot - several helpful townspeople had tried pointing it out to me from the train station, but the name led me to expect a big place and nothing they pointed to up on the hillside looked like a ''chateau.'' Really little more than a stone cottage, the house is not open to the public without prior permission from the Reinhardt family in Winterthur. But when I stepped out of the cab, I could understand immediately why Rilke had been able to finish the poems here.
The spare, quiet setting amid stony fields and craggy orchards, capped by the huge peaks behind it, seemed perfect for the cerebral poet who wrote ''the blooming and withering of leaves are equally known to us.'' Rilke often seems abstract in his poems, but critic and poet Richard Exner insists that everything in these poems has a connection with the real world. The rarefied atmosphere of ''The Duino Elegies'' can be breathed in the thin air above Sierre.
I then took the train from the stony slopes of Sierre to Brig, planning to catch the postal bus that leaves every morning for Italy. Along the way it stops in Simplon Dorf, where Wordsworth had paused on his walking tour into Italy in 1790. For reasons that escape me now, I had expected to arrive in Simplon Dorf before reaching Simplon Pass. As the bus pulled out of town and headed up the mountain highway, I watched for signs of the village.
Wordsworth had set out from Brig with a college friend on Aug. 17, 1790, climbing most of the morning until reaching a hospice that provided a free meal to all travelers. I marveled at his making the climb on foot as the bus circled higher into the rugged mountains above Brig. I edged forward anxiously in my seat as we whipped around hairpin turns, not minding the ride so much as worried I might miss the moment when we reached the pass.
Not wanting to miss the crossing, I was anxious as the bus bounded over a rise and came down into a little bowl of a valley nestled among the peaks. Huge mountains were little more than foothills up here now, giving the whole scene an unreal aspect. Blasting its wheezing five-tone, air-powered postal horn, my bus stopped only long enough for the driver to jump out and dump a sack of mail at the ''new'' hospice (built in 1831) before turning out onto the road to Italy. Just then I spotted a sign: Simplon Pass 2000 m.
Like Wordsworth I had crossed the Alps unawares. Like him, my expectation of the event had been run over by the event itself.
The bus wound down the mountain through country devoid of even huts or lodges , past several glaciers and rocky peaks. Yet the land was mapped out with trails and benches for climbers, and when I reached Simplon Dorf I was greeted with greater warmth than anywhere I have traveled in Switzerland. No one in the village has ever heard of Wordsworth, but Lydia Molinari-Arnold, co-owner of the Hotel de la Post, knows everything about hospitality and Kaseschnitten (ham and eggs on a slice of bread topped with local cheese).
After fortifying myself with her cooking, I hiked up to the ''new'' hospice to try to learn something about where Wordsworth might have stayed. Its prior, Klaus Sarbach, is a rustic John Paul II - when not dispensing kindness and optimism to villagers concerned about nuclear war and avalanches, he is out behind the hospice playing his enormous alpenhorn. The villagers are intensely proud of him, because he is the first German-speaking prior in as long as anyone can remember.
I discovered that Wordsworth probably ate lunch at the ''old'' hospice, which sits down in a depression a quarter mile from the highway. The Swiss Army owns it now and the villagers say the soldiers have ruined it. But it is nature, not buildings, that epitomizes Wordsworth, and anyone who would follow in his footsteps should slip on sturdy shoes and head up to the base of the Fletschhorn glacier or make the eight-hour trek through the Zwischbergen pass to Saas-Fee. If the wind blows right, you might hear Prior Sarbach playing his alpenhorn.
A taxi ride from the train station in Sierre to Chateau Muzot costs 12 Swiss francs (about $6). The Rilke library in the Town Hall is open Monday to Friday from 8 to 11:30, and from 1:30 to 5. Twenty minutes farther east by train is Raron, where Rilke's grave is set by the side of the village church high up on an enormous rock. Only the hardy should attempt the climb.
A place in the 80-bed common hall at the Simplon hospice costs 9 Swiss francs (with breakfast). The more modern (though hardly luxurious) Hotel de la Post in Simplon Dorf is 42 francs per person with breakfast and dinner. The only public transportation to Simplon hospice and Simplon Dorf is the postal bus, which runs four times daily from Brig.