As the bus lumbered up the snowy road, winding higher and higher toward the top of the mountain, my only thought was, "What has he gotten us into?"
"He" was my uncle, and the bus was climbing to the top of Grosse Scheidegg, a 6,434-foot peak in Switzerland, where passengers would hop off the bus and sled back to the bottom of the icy road.
At one point, the driver stopped to put chains on the tires before continuing to drive at a steep angle through blind twists and turns, making the idea of sledding back down (and possibly encountering the next bus) seem like madness. Meanwhile, everyone on the bus, young and old, merrily chatted away, as if this death-defying climb was nothing more than a sightseeing trip.
Of course, it was a sightseeing trip for my mom, my sister and me. We had decided to visit Mom's sister and her family in Switzerland last Christmas. They treated us to a classic Swiss holiday full of winter scenery, outdoor adventures and, of course, large quantities of cheese.
We arrived in Zurich the week before Christmas and took a two-hour train trip to Lungern, a small village of about 2,000 residents, where my uncle was born and raised. Although my relatives live in Nyon, outside of Geneva, they spend holidays at their house on Lake Lungern in central Switzerland. The area is an ideal base for exploring Alpine scenery, with numerous ski runs and hiking trails nearby.
When we got off the train at the station above Lungern, the smell of wood smoke was overpowering. My eyes were stinging, but I couldn't wait to warm up in front of one of those fires.
My aunt, Alice, and her husband, Patrick, arrived late the next day with their two children, Joseph and Elena-Maria. The next morning, everyone was up bright and early as we began what would be a daily ritual: sitting down to breakfast together for a hearty meal of fresh bread, cereal, yogurt, quark (a custardlike variant of yogurt) and cheese.
The Swiss are rightfully proud of their dairy products, especially in Lungern, where it is common in summer to see herds of cows in the fields, their bells filling the air with a loud, yet oddly beautiful, clanging.
Americans who struggle to "eat local" in the States will find it nearly impossible to do otherwise in Switzerland. Lungern, like many Swiss towns, has its own cheese maker, baker and butcher. And just steps from the lake house, we found a charming coin-operated milk depot, where farmers in the area drop off their milk to be purchased (day or night) by locals, or to be shipped to other parts of the country.
Our tour of Swiss gastronomy continued the next day with a 20-minute drive over the Brunig Pass to the town of Hasliberg, where we visited a cheese maker. For a lover of cheese, it was thrilling to see the wheels stacked floor to ceiling in the fragrant cheese cave. My uncle chatted in German with the cheese maker as he ordered three varieties, enough to keep us stocked through the holidays.
When I asked him later about the purchase, he explained that the three kinds were actually the same cheese - one was aged three years, the second two years, and the third had been made that year.
When I tried them, it was easy to tell the difference. The oldest cheese was hardest, crumbly and pleasingly bitter, like a parmesan. The two-year-old was softer, with a nice mix of salty and sweet. The youngest cheese was the softest, with a more gentle flavor.
After a leisurely meal the next evening, we rushed to the town's grand church for a Christmas Eve service. Even though the service was in German, the beauty of the setting, the sound of singing voices and the familiarity of the Christmas story made for a moving experience.
As we walked out into the cold, clear night, the melody of a string quartet drifted over the town. I looked up to the stars and felt the presence of a higher power.
A Christmas excursion
I'd like to be able to say that Christmas Day was a unique Swiss experience, but it seemed pretty American to me. My cousins got iPods that my mom had bought in the States (they had a notion of what they were getting - no wonder they had been so happy to see us).
After all the eating and drinking we had done, we agreed it was time for an excursion. We stayed close to home, walking down the road to the cable car that would take us to the peak of Schonbuel, just above Lungern. After the first stage of the journey in an enclosed car, we changed over to a more traditional ski lift. The sight of skiers zigging and zagging beneath us as we climbed sparked my interest, and that evening I suggested to my uncle that we go skiing the next day.
I have never been much of a risk-taker, but I was oddly calm as we drove back to Hasliberg (which has a course suited to beginners, unlike nearby Schonbuel) the next day for my first taste of skiing. Patrick is trained as a ski instructor, but I don't think he knew what he was getting into by taking me on as a student. Skiing is a secular religion for the Swiss; everyone from near-toddlers to senior citizens hits the slopes with a gusto that seems hereditary.
I fell several times and ended up hanging onto my uncle most of the way down the mountain. But as we rode a cable car back to the bottom, he said to me, "Now you can say you have skied the Swiss Alps!"
Not with a straight face, I thought.
Long way down
After the skiing adventure, sledding had seemed like it would be a piece of cake. But as we set out a few days later for the long bus ride, I grew more nervous.
Nevertheless, the ride was spectacular. We drove through Rosenlaui, famed for its waterfalls, now frozen in ghostly sheets of white.
The bus sounded its distinctive three-toned horn - dee-dah-doh - to warn pedestrians and sledders of its approach.
After we reached the top and clambered off the bus, my uncle pointed out one of Switzerland's most famous peaks, the Eiger. The view was beautiful, but I felt a sense of foreboding as the bus turned around and headed down the mountain, leaving us standing there with our sleds. It was time to go down.
As I watched the first sledders pull away, I realized that my vision of barreling headfirst down the mountain was mistaken. Most, if not all, of the sledders rode with their feet in front, using them to control direction and speed. It turned out that if you kept your feet in contact with the snow, there was little chance of building up too much momentum. Only once did we hear the familiar dee-dah-doh of the next bus, and we had plenty of time to get out of the way.
As we sledded down the mountain, we stopped frequently to take in the scenery. It was truly a winter wonderland, with icy peaks glinting in the sunlight and trees laden with icicles. The frozen waterfalls that we had glimpsed on the way up became intricate masterpieces at close range.
And best of all, at the bottom of the sledding run there was a pot of bubbling cheese waiting for us. In a cozy restaurant by a blazing fire, we enjoyed the most famous of Swiss delicacies with a glass of dry white wine. We had waited a while for cheese fondue, but it was worth it.
After the success of the sledding expedition, I wasn't sure what else there was to see. But our Swiss relatives had one more trick up their sleeves.
The Friday before we were to leave was the last workday of the year, which the residents of nearby Meiringen mark with a nighttime festival called Ubersitz.
The celebration, meant to drive out the bad spirits of the previous year, was a cross between Halloween and a small-town parade. Groups of men, some dressed in fanciful costumes and others in traditional Swiss garb, marched in unison through the streets carrying cowbells that sounded an indescribable, eerily beautiful rhythm.
It was a thrill to stand on a packed sidewalk and hear the marchers draw closer until the sound grew so powerful you could feel it in your chest.
The sight of so many serious young men honoring the traditions of their village was the perfect ending to a visit that immersed us in Swiss culture and proved that the most rewarding way to spend holidays in a faraway land is to rely on those who know it best.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Most major airlines offer connecting flights between Baltimore and Zurich or Geneva, Switzerland. Zurich is generally a better choice for mountain adventures. Roundtrip fares start at about $700, including tax. United offers one nonstop flight a day between Washington's Dulles International Airport and Zurich.
Getting around : The ultra-efficient SBB railway is the best and most economical way to get around Switzerland. Almost every village has its own station, and connections to cable cars and ski lifts are generally very convenient. If you are traveling to one destination and will be making limited additional train trips, the best choice may be a Swiss Transfer Ticket. For $108, you get roundtrip travel between any airport or border town and your destination. The transfer ticket and many other options are available at raileurope.com.
Lodging: Most small towns in Switzerland have cozy hotels, but house rental is another option. A resource for rentals is rentalo.com, a site that lists properties around the world.
Attractions/information: The best place to start for finding fun things to do is the Swiss government's excellent English-language Web site, myswitzerland.com. For more information on Lungern, go to lungern-tourismus.ch.