Author- Professor André Dombrowski, Penn Art History Department
A few weeks have passed since my return from a spectacular stay in the Alps, the 2013 Penn Alumni Travel trip “Discover Switzerland.” Serving as faculty host, I had the privilege to get to know over twenty guests, including nine Penn alumni. And what a wonderful trip it was, surrounded as we were by stunning scenery—awe-inspiring mountains, calm glacial lakes, gushing waterfalls, pretty Alpine flowers—that kept surprising us with its endless variety, sublimity and charm.
Because of previous obligations, I could join the group only for week two of their two-week long stay, and I had to miss visits to Bern and Lucerne among other places the previous week. Once I arrived in Switzerland, and at our centrally located Alpin Sherpa Hotel in Meiringen, a small town smack in the middle of the Alps, I met the group for the first of several dinners. The guests struck me immediately as extremely friendly, relaxed, and casual. We had a wonderful time together as a group, and our Penn connections were toasted at the Penn reception the next evening. From then on many breakfasts and dinners were enjoyed together at the hotel restaurant that served delicious local cuisine and made sure we tasted many of the local specialties night after night. Our host, Anja Mortensen was superb, engaged and funny and charming, and she kept us all in line as well as entertained. Our local guide was Jessica Powers Rufibach—her name itself testimony to her interesting background (she is from California, but now lives in Meiringen)—who gave us fantastic introductions to the various towns and sites. The Penn guests came from all walks of life and had various connections to the university, which we enjoyed exchanging: some of them still lived nearby, in University City, others had arrived from Connecticut and Maryland.
From Meiringen, we took day-trips. My day one took us to the Alpine village of Kandersteg from where we took a cable car up to the Alpine Lake Oeschinen, then hiked to enjoy the spectacular views over this gorgeous, clear lake. The next day we visited the medieval town of Murten, beautifully preserved including parts of its medieval wall. There was a small antique market in town, which we happened upon as a surprise, before boarding a boat to go across Lake Murten to tour the winery “La Petite Chateau”. Once there, we were introduced to the local wine traditions and had a wine tasting of some ten delicious wines that were served with the local specialty, a savory home-made tarte flambée. The following day was off for everyone, and I decided to offer an ad-hoc tour of an interesting site in nearby Lucerne, the 19th-century Bourbaki Panorama, one of the last remaining such large-scale historical panoramas in the world. The next day we were off to Zermatt, at the bottom of the famous Matterhorn. The mountain that day was covered in low-hanging clouds, but we nonetheless enjoyed trying to snatch a peak when they happened to open up a bit. The final trip of the week took us to the medieval towns of Thun and Spiez, which we reached by a scenic boat ride across Lake Thun. That last evening, we had our final reception and dinner at the hotel, which made everyone wish that this amazing experience was not yet coming to an end.
Two evenings during this week I lectured to the group, which showed their enthusiasm through their many informed questions. One evening, I lectured on my current research project on Impressionism and techniques of time-keeping in the nineteenth century, which dovetailed nicely with what we were learning elsewhere about the local Swiss clock-making industry. The second evening, I lectured on modern Swiss art, stretching from the symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin to the modernist Paul Klee to the Dada movement founded in Zurich during World War I.
The trip was very memorable for me. I had not been to Switzerland in over ten years, and exploring this gorgeous country with other Penn guests made me appreciate its special beauty and charm anew. Hopefully, until another trip together.
[Professor André Dombrowski will be leading a summer 2014 tour for Penn Alumni Travel through the heart of Europe: Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and France. You can learn more about this trip, The Great Journey, here. To view more of Professor Dombrowski’s Switzerland pictures, click here.]