A Reminiscence of Unterseen

A street market is in full swing in the shadow of a gleaming white church. A few moments away, amidst the modernity of the urban sprawl, there is no evidence of any medieval thrum. Beer and wine flow as sausages are grilled and homely crafts are hawked. Behind the stalls are banks clad in pristine glass and steel; the dichotomy of this country writ large for all to see. Sun beats down.

We had been left to wander little cities like this in the past, but it was always a few hours of leg stretching after a long train journey. This was different: Unterseen was to be our home for a week, and we were not about to get on a train out of the place. This was our chosen spot; the vantage point from which to view this whole beguiling quarter of the ancient heart of Switzerland.

The skies were crystal clear, and we could see mountains in all directions, a number of which we were about to get to the top of (by train, it must be noted). We could see any weather in the surrounding area coming from a mile off. The only rain we experienced, we had watched on its way down the valley, ready to break over our heads. We stayed outside to feel the cool of its force.

In the local supermarket there is a concession selling noodles and fireworks; most of the items for sale are red and gold, gaudy and brash, plastic and imported. Bottles of rice wine, soy sauce and chilli oil fill the shelves, with paper lanterns hanging from random points of the ceiling. It hangs off the side of the bland supermarket like a now disused café in an Ikea, looking for renewed purpose.

We stood waiting for the bus. We had checked its allotted time on the local transport website; the listing on the stop itself concurred to the second. And yet, it still was not where it should have been. We were starting to panic: had a bus ever been late in Switzerland? It was then that we looked up and around the corner: roadworks had blocked the road off, and the bus was stuck in a tailback.

Our arrival at the rental property was to happen in the hours of darkness: we had planned a route in to the town from the train station, and we knew that it was theoretically a breeze. We had to leave the station from the platform, on to a level crossing, then cross three rivers and we’d be there. In the dark, a rowdy pub filling the night, a small child in tow, it felt pretty far from any kind of breeze.

We needed to make it to the train on time, or else we would miss our connection. We weighed up the bus times, and the possibility that even Swiss buses were late sometimes, with the fact that we hated standing still when we were in a hurry. We ran-walked out of the wash-house, and on to the main street. The café looked so enticing, but we would eat packed boiled eggs and bread instead.

Putting out the rubbish was a thing we did at home, not on holiday; not so for this property. The instructions only told us where to leave the bags, and what time they would be collected. They did not tell us when the optimum time to put them out would be. Hence, at midnight, and rather drunk, I found myself running through the streets of Unterseen – in pyjamas and slippers – to drop a bag of rubbish on to a street corner, covered by the darkness of night. I ran in a crouch, for some reason.

We had instructions for how to get in to the property; we had worked out a route from the station. What we had not expected was not being able to find the key safe in the dark. Torches, meticulous searching and the quibbling of a small child did not go well together. There was no owner on hand.

The riverside was idyllic until it wasn’t: a fast flowing, bright jade green river, a lush, grassy bank, a scattering of ancient buildings; an underpass strewn with graffiti and the scent of piss. An unusual juxtaposition in this peaceful little city. Across the other side of the river was a lesson in modernity and a more familiar era. This side was home to a quiet history, stretching back millennia.

The owner of the house had thought of everything: the house was littered with chocolates, for our delectation; there was a bottle of wine for us and a carved Swiss cow for our daughter; there were tablets and phones for our use; there were maps and reference books; the cupboards were stocked with tea, coffee, hot chocolate and basics with which to prepare a meal. It would become the basis from which we would judge all rental properties from here on in. We reviewed it very highly.

A lily in an old tin bath; bright pink and gleaming. It caught her attention from the first time she saw it, and it would become a fixed point for her. Whenever we left for the day she would check on it; when we returned, she would eagerly run up to it on her way back in to the house. Beautiful lily.

We didn’t want to eat out during the evenings; not on this holiday. So we spent an inordinate time in the local coop, buying groceries to cook with. I will never understand why, in a country which makes so much cheese, Swiss cheese is so expensive in Switzerland. I mean, it costs less in the UK than it does a matter of miles away from the plants where it is produced. Just wanted to mention it.

Renting a property for a holiday feels daunting at first, but I don’t now think we would ever go back to using hotels, except in extreme circumstances. A hotel lacks privacy, it is not a place to relax, it is not a place one can walk around naked in: a good rental property is a home from home; there will be no intrusion from other guests, except those you take with you, and there will be no interaction with any staff beyond those who may be tasked with greeting you. Your bed is your own in a rental.

A poster on the bus advertised the heats for the local yodelling festival. Not the festival itself, but the pre-competition to allow people to apply for the competition itself. This struck us as the most Swiss thing we could ever imagine; it really had to have been found in a bus in Unterseen.

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