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Great Drives Chrysler Takes On The Alps


for Conde Nast Traveler Magazine
By Stephan Wilkinson

THE SWISS INVENTED the tourist industry. If it weren't for dogged Brits who in the 19th century discovered the beauty and challenge of the Alps and for the Swiss who as a result saw gold in those hills, we all might still be soldiering through expensive, uncomfortable grand tours, learning French, sleeping six to a bed in caravansaries and hitching rides on the mail coach. Or letting Mark Twain and Henry James do our traveling for us. (Twain didn't like Switzerland and figured its rightful specialty to be the cuckoo clock rather than tourism.)

Certainly we wouldn't have this compact little country as a playground and its people as the world's best hoteliers. Or its roads as some of the world's most scenic and challenging yet highly developed and efficient, even for a car you might think would be more at home on Interstate 80.

Day one, Vevey to Visp (131 miles)

Charlie Chaplin retired to Vevey when he was relieved of his U. S. visa, and it still seems a bit of an elephant's graveyard. Vevey is on the "Swiss Riviera"--the easternmost curve of Lac Leman--which is a bit like calling the Berkshires the Massachusetts Alps. My 14-year-old daughter is easily the youngest person in the diningroom of the Hotel Trois Couronnes, but her 57-year-old father is the second youngest. No matter: we have a Mercedes-silver Chrysler LHS sedan parked in the courtyard, and the rest of Switzerland awaits.

The LHS, a spacious and well-equipped four-door by anybody's standards, is one of the most recent chapters in the Chrysler Corporation's ascent from a near-death experience to status as Detroit's kickass innovater. But is it a world-class car? Let's try to find out.

Not without first stopping at the Castle of Chillon, only six miles from the starting line, we won't. In the 13th century a fortress, then a residential chateau and arsenal and ultimately a workaday tourist attraction, the castle is best-known as the source of Byron's fanciful 1816 ode, The Prisoner of Chillon. Byron's visit was almost as quick as mine but more productive. Besides, he left his graffito behind, BYRON carved into a pillar in the dungeon, and I didn't.

The castle once sat astride an alley north from Italy that, between Swiss rock and hard place--the cold, thousand-foot-deep lake--was wide enough for only two soldiers abreast. Today a busy highway, several railroad lines, two soaring viaducts of a six-lane autoroute and much of the Swiss Riviera have been jack-hammered into the same space. Still, the castle is a coolly lovely stone ship, dismaying only in the rocky, chill dungeon in which Byron's Francois Bonivard (and a variety of other political prisoners) spent four years chained to a pillar.

Normally, Great Drives spurn the superhighways, but in Switzerland the autoroutes are five times as fast as the smaller roads that invariably parallel them, and since the scenery is largely vertical, you see it from either route.

At Sion, it's like crossing a state line between Maine and Mississippi: French-speaking Switzerland becomes German-speaking Switzerland, though there is said to be a narrow buffer of locals who speak an odd Franco-deutsch dialect. Switzerland makes a mockery of the theory that a nation needs one tongue, since this country the size of two New Jerseys speaks three languages--French, Italian and a German dialect--and seems to work as well as any in the world.

Ten miles farther on, I crank the Chrysler hard right onto the small two-lane into the Val d'Anniviers, said by many to be the most beautiful of the many deep valleys in the region. Naively assuming we'd be trundling along a riverbed, we instead ascend a series of blind switchbacks to a road high above the gorge. My daughter, on the guardrail-less outside of the road, looks down and says, "I don't think you want to know how far down it is." Nope.

Gaining altitude, we soon reach the snowline, and the LHS turns out to be admirably suited for the job. With front-wheel drive, ABS and traction control--poor man's four-wheel drive--slick roads hold no major challenges (yet...), and we putter up one side of the valley to the dead end at Zinal and back down the other. Sliding through one hairpin, I point out a large wooden cross by the roadside. "That's where somebody had an accident," I explain. "Well, not just an accident. Where somebody died."

"What kind of accident could you have on this road without dying?" my daughter asks. Good question.

Day two, Visp to Luzern, 101 miles on the road, nine on a railway flatcar

At Fiesch, northeast of Brig, we park the Chrysler and transfer to one of Switzerland's most elemental yet ubiquitous vehicles, an enormous cablecar to the top of the 9,500-foot Eggishorn. Ascending amid a rattle of skis and a thunder of sweating Swiss in plastic skiboots, I am the only person not wearing neon. I feel like a man in a leisure suit who has blundered into a black-tie dinner.

Far below the summit, Europe's largest glacier, the Gross Aletschgletcher, is an enormous pudding of snow and ice sliding inperceptibly toward the vast glacier-junction they call la Place de la Concorde Suisse, the icy heart of the Alps. Sipping kaffe mit kirsch in the blinding sun outside the resthouse, I have pulled up the drawbridge, in a land apparently insulated from the woes we've have come to assume are part of life--crime, racism, poverty, homelessness, casual fury, pointless violence.

The Swiss bore holes through the Alps with impunity, and at Oberwalt, we enter one atop a railway flatcar--the underground car-train tunnel that substitutes for the snowblocked Furka Pass. (Of Switzerland's 74 mountain highway passes, a third are unusable all winter, generally from October through May.) Eighteen minutes later, the Chrysler is in Realp, nine miles as the mole digs but 23 via the knotted, tortuous road that travels a 14-percent grade more than a mile above us.

North of the travel-poster ski town of Andermatt, the highway descends a series of switchbacks through a rocky gorge, much of it under snowsheds that fend off avalanches. Across the gully, railroad tracks literally corkscrew through the rock, a lifesize Lionel exhibit, popping out to provide baffled passengers with three views of the same village from different levels.

In Switzerland, you'll go nowhere without discovering the train has beaten you to it. They climb mountains at impossible angles if they can't simply chop through them, and they cling to cliffsides like iron leeches. One ascends the Jungfrau; mountain-climbing while sitting down. Many say driving in Switzer- land is silly with such a good railroad system, and they may be right--for them. I find lounging in even a luxurious, panorama-glazed railway coach too much like commuting: boring, detached, nonparticipatory.

Luzern is surreal. It only now becomes apparent to this card-carrying New England WASP that I've stumbled into Switzerland in the middle of fasnacht--carnival time--and it is Fat Tuesday in the ancient lake city. Bands of grotesquely masked musicians are everywhere. Half the populace is costumed, many of them the adult equivalent of the horrifying little boys who wear cadaver costumes in grade-school Halloween parades. Every possible tumored, warted, infested variation on human physiognomy is represented, many of them leaking papier-mache bodily fluids and organs at every orifice. (It's a shock when one pulls off an alien-monster head the size of a garbage can and turns out to be a wildly pretty young Swiss.) The Elephant Man would go unnoticed in the crowd.

Flying home several days later, I'll read in the Swissair in-flight magazine that, "Hotel rooms in carnival cities cannot be obtained for love or money." But that afternoon, we naively wander up to the Romantik Hotel Wilder Mann, perhaps the loveliest small hotel in the city, and score two singles in a New York minute.

Day three, Luzern to Interlaken with a sidetrip to Stechelberg (76 miles)

Pushing the LHS hard through the switchbacks and hairpins of the Brunig Pass, southwest of Luzern, I suddenly realize that something is missing: gone is the howling, tire-folding, anchors-aweigh understeer that we've learned to expect from big American boats. The Chrysler tracks aggressively through corners that its immediate predecessor--the archaic Imperial--would have plowed straight across, and the only sound is the groan of its power-steering pump on full lock and occasional disconcerting judder of the traction control at work. (Traction control partially brakes whichever front wheel is spinning due to a slick road surface or overapplication of the engine's abundant power, thus allowing the "good" wheel to continue driving strongly.)

The road around the less-trafficked north side of the Brienzersee is a sweeping two-lane banked on one side by the jade waters of the lake and on the other by steep, piney slopes ascending into clouds. To the south, the same overcast hides the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau, Switerland's favorite peaks trio. Can we see them from Stechelberg, at the end of the valley of the Weisse Lutschine? No: a sheer gorge that opens into a high valley flanked by enormous and absolutely vertical cliff faces--in fact only small ramparts compared to the Alps just beyond them--blocks the view but is itself colossal enough to make the trip worthwhile.

At dinner that night in the popular Hotel Interlaken, I'm for the first time surrounded by American voices. To one side, a man thanks the waiter in Europidgin: "Dinner excellen-tay," he says. To the other, a couple from Dallas is complaining about muddy snow, an arrogant ski instructor and a trail where they actually had to pole uphill for a hundred yards. "That's a new experience for me, and I'll tell ya whut," the man says to a friend, "you do that chicken-step for awhile, you're better takin' your damn skis off."

Day four, Interlaken to Basel with a diversion to Germany and France (156 miles)

Into each Great Drive a little desperate adventure must fall. This is my day. The tiny, nameless, beautiful road to Sigriswil, west of Interlaken and high above the Thunersee, has turned into a snow-covered goat track, and I'm an idiot to have perservered. When I finally decide to stop and back out--there's no turning around--the LHS refuses, for by this time, we're heading downhill in deep snow. Okay, we'll keep going downhill. We can do that. Of course, if the track turns uphill again, we'll be hiking out five or 10 miles.

In fact, the problem becomes more crucial than a simple stroll to find a towtruck. Now the road is plunging downhill at an increasingly steep angle, and even in low gear at three mph, the Chrysler's fat Michelin tires are on the verge of breaking traction and sliding. If they do, I'll have no choice but to grind the car into the wall of rock on one side, for on the other lies an unrailed drop of several hundred feet straight down, and our wheels are already tickling the edge.

Twenty minutes of jeez-isn't-this-exciting chuckles later, we're safely out of the snow zone. To probe the other extreme of the Chrysler's performance envelope, I head for Germany and its no-speed-limit autobahns, at this point only 80 miles of Swiss autoroute to the north.

Not that the Swiss drive slowly: at one point, I'm passed at 105 mph by a Pontiac van with Swiss plates, and as I tuck into its blocky draft, two Swiss-driven Jeep Grand Cherokee V8s stick their toothy grilles into my rear-view mirror. For 20 miles, the four of us run like a big Detroit train at 100 to 110, and there can be no surer sign that American cars are back than the spectacle of our all-purpose quartet wailing past Audis, Peugeots and Opels. When Europeans, the most demanding high-speed drivers in the world, buy American iron, Detroit must be doing something right.

On the autobahn, the LHS tops out at an indicated 132 mph. The wind noise is unforgiveably loud for a state-of-the-art sedan--in fact it overwhelms the radio at anything over 100--but the big Chrysler is stable, comfortable, precise and competent at just over twice the maximum U. S. speed limit. Day five, Basel back to the Swiss Riviera (180 miles)

The Trip Rip award goes to the Hotel Euler, in Basel, a five-star pile of considerable elegance and cheek. Ordering the $36 price fixe dinner--pot au feu l'ancienne, a bland farmer's meal that shows no hint of the proximity of France, a stone's throw from Basel--I discover that the only price that's fixe is the entree itself. Ordering soup and dessert brings the tab to something closer to $60. And this morning, $18-apiece breakfast charges for the traditional croissants-and-yoghurt fruhstuck appear on the bill, though at virtually every other good hotel in Switzerland they're included in the room rate (already a handsome $185 to $320 for a double at the Euler).

Our meandering southbound path will take us along one of several routes recommended by my cyberspace friend Zoran Mitrovic, who I've never met but who quickly answered my computer's anybody-out-there query for Swiss route recommendations on the CompuServe ethernet. "I got out a map and sat down with my girlfriend," Zoran tapped out, "and we talked about where we'd want to drive again. One route wouldn't be in the Alps but in the Jura. Go to Moutier, then Tavannes, on up to Bellelay, west to Saignelegier and then Le Noirmont, south to Chaux de Fonds and Neuchatel."

The sky is leaden, the sun a disc of pewter, but the road is a delight. In one stretch a series of fast sweepers, in another a staircase of switchbacks up into the soft, piney Jura, in yet another a trundle through a town where the fasnacht custom seems to be the perching of grotesque, lifesize stuffed figures high in trees and suspended from lampposts and balconies.

The ancient town of Gruyere is the jumpoff point for the last leg--what I've been told is a spectacular drive over the Jaunpass, through the Bernese Alps and back to Montreux via the classic ski resort of Gstaad. On the map, the contorted-tapeworm aspect of the route make it apparent this might one of the more challenging roads of the trip.

But we never make it: I'm stopped in my tracks by the sudden, unexpected sight of the Chateau de Gruyere high on a hill above the road. It is a medieval castle so simple and sober yet airy and magnificent that I can't resist spending the fading light of the afternoon prowling its chambers and walking the walls. No Bavarian fantasy, it is a forthright stronghold on high ground that an artilleryman would covet, and on a late-winter day, my daughter and I are alone with its treasures.

As the trip nears its end, a roadside sign to a town that is the home of a famous Swiss prep school for the children of rich Americans and minor European royalty jarred from my memory a 30-year-old story. A friend of mine, an English teacher at Manhattan's High School of Music and Art, on a whim took up the offer of the prep school's headmaster to come see him to talk about a possible teaching job "if he was ever in the area." One summer Gino was, and after a series of trains and finally a half-mile hike across alpine meadows, he reached the school, unannounced.

He roamed the halls halloing--the school seemed empty--and finally stumbled across the headmaster's office. Bursting in with a friendly howdy and an outstretched hand, he found the stunned, solitary dean sitting at his desk in full makeup and a dress.

"It was the most miserable half-hour of my life," Gino later told me. "We had to go through with the interview and each pretend nobody in the room was in drag." He didn't get the job, either.