AT DUSK IN VIRA, on the Swiss side of the Lago Maggiore, the waves lap below your balcony window and the faint chime of bells drifts across the water. You can sit and watch the smoked and grayish outlines of the mountains dying away into a Whistlerian palette of violet and indigo and believe that you are in one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Such an illusion is, however, difficult to maintain by daylight. Noise polution, the curse of the western world, has arrived at this Swiss lake resort. The noise of jackhammers, building new blocks of apartments and excavating for new villas, wakes you up promptly, along with the whine of car engines moving into high gear as they compete for the straight stretch just around the corner from your hotel room. There is a constant drone from motor boats on the lake and - most annoying of all - sightseeing planes that hover over the Lago Maggiore all day long, like pestiferous swarms of gnats.
The fragile ambience of beauty - so easy to experience and to destroy - is in danger of being banished from the Lago Maggiore, and for the most familiar of reasons. This time the influx involves hordes of German tourists, not Americans. Germans are by far the best customers in the Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland.
They come for 30 percent of the overnight stays and bring along their powerful cars and their tastes for luxury hotels, luxury villas, motor-powered boats and planes. As the crowds arrive, the glory that was the Gambarogno (a string of sleepy little villages on the lake opposite Locarno) is in danger of disappearing.
The Swiss are aware of the problem, but their efforts to control noise (a five-language campaign in the Ticino) seems to have had little practical effect. Too, there are "Green Zones" in Switzerland, where development is limited; but since each canton (state) and town has considerable autonomy, the decision may be made for volume trade at the expense of the peace many tourists came looking for.
This is not true in many parts of Switzerland, of course, if one avoids some of the worst offenders in terms of noise pollution such as Geneva and Basel. The Swiss have taken some strides toward banning trucks, buses and cars from the centers of some of their most picturesque cities (Thun and Lucerne, for example) and, in some cases, have banned traffic altogeter.
We visited Zermatt on one of the busiest weekends of the year, along with 6,000 other tourists, and heard birds and church bells when we woke in the morning. Nothing else. It was astonishingly quiet and delightful to be aware, while we ate breakfast, of the clatter of hooves and the light, high jingle of bells passing in the alley below as a party of skiers went by in a horse and cart.
My husband and I traveled through Switzerland for 10 days earlier this year and found that, with the exception of the Lago Maggiore, the Swiss countryside is still surprisingly peaceful. It is also accessible and, despite popular belief, still affordable if one exercises the proper amount of caution.
After contemplating the cost of car rental and the frightening price of gasoline, we decided upon a first-class rail pass (8 days for $86.50). It was a wise choice. Swiss railroads run like the jeweled movements of their finest watches and you can, as is claimed, make a one-minute connection between trains. Even though the Swiss love their cars, the train service is also frequent, providing the tourist with yet another advantage: plenty of empty seats. In our eight days of travel, we did not once have to share our velvet-upholstered, six-seat compartment with anyone else.
Train travel has only one disadvantage. The indispensable companion to a haphazard and impulsive jaunt by rail such as ours has to be the Amtliches Kurabuch, or official Swiss timetable, which lists the movement of every train, bus and boat in the country and even gives the distance between the station and the nearest boat dock (in some cases, a matter of a few yards). However, because the country is trilingual, the timetable uses the language of the area it services and one needs a minimal knowledge of French, Italian and German. To think, as I did, that abfahrt means arriving and ankunft means departing, can be disastrous.
The fact that the dollar now has less than half its former purchasing power did not deter us. We took it as a challenge, did not travel anyplace where a train, bus or boat would not ake us, never took taxis, and packed suitcases that we could carry, if necessary, for 15 minutes.
We did, however, take knives, forks and paper plates. Each morning we bought a picnic lunch of bread, cheese, pate, fruit and pastries and feasted in solitary grandeur in our velvet traveling splendor. To economize on hotels, we can only took a private bath every other night (when we did our laundry), and accosted passers-by for the names of those modest hotels where the Swiss themselves stay and which never seem to be in the guidebooks. We found them impeccably clean. Our cheapest room without bath cost $20 with breakfast (for two) and our most expensive, with bath, was $52. Our daily cost of travel, including the train, averaged $45 each.
The search for a hotel room led to some of our most enjoyable contacts. The trick, we found, is not to ask the pretty girl at the tourist bureau, who will invariably turn out to be sullen, if not actually hostile - you are, after all the 3,000th person since this morning to ask that question. The idea is to holdly walk up to strangers.
We tried this out in Lucerne. We had been wandering in the city, looking for a cheap hotel, but what we saw looked too cheap, or was too near some lively sand-blasting (Lucerne is polishing up its damage in order to celebrate its 800th anniversary this year).
Somehow we found ourselves on a residential street, deserted but for two men, who appeared to be conducting a door-to-door survey. One was tall, thin, somber and silent; the other short, fat and talkative. Within minutes we explained our plight. No problem, said the talkative one in a German dialect. In fact, since he was walking in that direction, he would gladly take us there.
Thanks to the kindness of this stranger, we were able to stay at the Hotel Baren on a small street just across from the old town. The room was extremely plain, with no hot water or private bath, but beautifully clean with comfortable beds and new furniture and cost40 Swiss francs (about $22) including breakfast. That night we heard nothing but rushing water from the river, about 50 feet away.
In Thun, the same thing happened. We arrived at 7 in the evening, cold, hungry and lost. A small elderly woman, who had been watching our meanderings with polite curiosity, took charge of us and led us to another tiny hotel, this one hidden above a health food restaurant, and just as clean and quiet.
Tourist clerks excluded, we were almost overwhelmed by kindness. We asked a woman who was getting off at Berne whether our train went on to Basel. She did not know but said she would find out. She did, and actually got back on the train in order to tell us. On this same train trip, my husband gave me a nudge. Look over there, he said. A woman who had just found a seat had turned to pay the porter who was carrying her two suitcases. She had given him three Swiss francs and he explained that this was too much. He gave her back a franc in change.
The next time we go I want to take the trip again to the "yoke" or near-summit of the Jungfrau, 11,000 feet above sea level; the highest point in Europe. The experience is too rich to be absorbed by one visit alone: the smell of the air, like fresh bread; the sensation of climbing above the clouds; the sun, glinting off jewel-hard snow and then the final arrival inside the mountain itself in a gallery that overlooks a glassy wilderness.
There were still more stairs in order to go outside to the heights and, climbing too fast, I reeled with dizziness. Other passengers seemed similarly intoxicated, either by the height or the idea of that ride to the ceiling of the world. Two young men from Israel ran everywhere despite the altitude, explaining that they had to see everything before flying back to Tel Aviv that evening. Then there was the Taiwanese who, giggling helplessly, fell at my feet. He stood up, bowed and explained, still limp with laughter, that he had never seen snow before.
I would also want to take the extraordinary train ride through the Centovalli linking Domodossola and Locarno. The train climbs past huddling stone cottages and the occasional slate-gray church with its elegantly simple bell tower, to a moorland dotted with crumbling villages. One descends toward northern Italy and discovers the engineering marvel for which the trip is so renowned. The track has been cut out of rocK. The train clings perilously to the side of cliffs, or leaps recklessly across chasms, or burrows through tunnels, and far below the waters of a hundred gorges churn and boil.
I would want to return to the beautiful lake of Thun with its hynotic names of small towns, Einegen, Merligen and Hilterfingen, and explore the heights of the Leventine valley with its pine woods, dreaming meadows and silence. I would not, however, want to return to the Lago Maggiore.