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Vacation Memories : Spirit of Switzerland Is Captured on a Mountain

VACATION MEMORIES: This is one of a continuing series on Memorable Vacations that appears from time to time in the Travel Section.

January 24, 1988|FRAN DOUGLAS | Douglas lives in Pennsylvania and spends her summers in Switzerland. and

I was relaxed. My flight had reached cruising altitude and was droning toward the European sunrise and my adopted second home, Switzerland.

Earlier, friends had held a farewell get-together, at which they had asked: "After so many years of seeing and doing the same things, how can you still be excited about Switzerland?" Spontaneously, a quote attributed to the late and lusty Mae West popped out of my mouth: "Too much of a good thing is wonderful."

I was returning to Switzerland with one particular memory etched in my mind. It was the last Sunday I had been in Sachseln--the weather was warm and there were heavy, humid clouds hanging like a tent over the Lake of Sarnen. Friends had invited me to a Yodel Mass at Kasern Alp, a meadow high above the shores of Wilen on the west side of the lake.

As their sleek Mercedes snaked higher up the mountain, the paved road turned into a rutted, muddy-puddled cow path. We cautiously wove our way through the fog-shrouded pine forest. On each side of the path, almost like beacons, thick ground fern, studded with crystal dew, marked our way. Throughout the trip we passed couples and families, young and old, hiking to the appointed Alpine gathering place.

Alfresco Altar

At a wildflower-strewn hilly clearing, more than 200 adults and children were milling about. On the far hillside was a huge, brown-weathered barn with a 20-foot wooden cross erected in front of it. Surely this was the perfect spot for the altar, with basso profundo cows mooing a perfect background for the falsetto-toned yodelers.

Down and across from the barn were two fairly good-sized cheese huts, between which hung a heavy, clear plastic tarpaulin fashioning a cabaret roof for dozens of long picnic tables. We seated ourselves in the quasi-tavern/chapel and ordered cheli (hot coffee laced with schnapps, served in a bowl) to brace us from the chilly breeze.

Soon, a stately hiker appeared in the midst of the crowd and proceeded to unpack his rucksack on a hastily assembled table. It was the priest. The Swiss-white, lace-bound altar linen was arranged on the table. On it was placed the earthen sacred vessels and two vases bulging with a profusion of wildflowers. The Sarnen Yodel Club, in their understated but elegant brown-and-blue embroidered trachten, took their places beside the makeshift altar.

Call to Worship

The priest, robed in gold and green silk vestments, commanded the attention of his congregation. Without warning, a couple of farmers shook two long wooden racks that hung on the outside walls of the cheese huts, clanging a string of brass cowbells. The assembly was jolted to a dead silence. Picnic tables were quickly cleared; the bar disappeared under plastic drop cloths.

"I will go to the altar of God. The God who gives joy to my youth," yodeled the choir in their perfectly pitched voices.

The Mass had begun.

My eyes gazed about this enchanting meadow, noting strong character reflected in the reverent and attentive faces, the muffled chatter of toddlers cradled in their parents' arms, two little boys quietly playing with stones at the feet of the unperturbed priest.

Suddenly, the wind shifted. The translucent, milky clouds were gently enveloping our colorful, open-air Alpine cathedral in a heavenly mist. As the liturgy continued, I clasped my arms about myself, wanting to trap forever the unfathomable spiritual and human emotions that were surging through my body.

"The Mass is ended. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord," the yodeler chorus trilled.

"Thanks be to God," resounded the congregation.

It was again time for mere mortals to commune with each other. The bar/restaurant emerged from its temporary plastic wrap. Folk music, conversation and mugs of beer began to flow. A deliciously thick farmers' beef vegetable soup was on the menu. Gingerbread with mound-like dollops of fresh, unsweetened whipped cream was served for dessert to end a perfect day. The bright sun punctuated the cloudy skies like an enormous period.

Switzerland, you fill all my senses. Hold fast to your special magic. Too much of a good thing is wonderful.

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