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Quest For The Water Castle: Geneva And The Matterhorn Region (PHOTOS)

Posted: 04/29/2012 8:00 am

The dialectic is that water is divine and hellish, delicious and deadly. And the Rhone in Switzerland is the poster child, spilling from the roof of a continent. It is a powerful waterway that lights cities, and slakes the thirst of millions. And at the same time it is a paean to peace and a cause of war.

Water is over-tapped and under-tended in many places around the world -- but not here. How has this alpine haven resisted temptation to bleed its most precious resource?

Switzerland is often called the water castle of Europe. Some six percent of the continent's fresh reserves are found in this fastness. The Rhone, Rhine, Danube and Po all launch their journeys here. The Rhone trips into Western Europe's largest alpine lake: Lac Leman to the French, Lake Geneva to the English. (*SEE PHOTOS BELOW*)

Since Roman times men have marveled at this sea of a lake and its embrace of sky-scratching peaks. Water has the velocity and weight to influence the course of entire communities, societies, states. It has the muscle to move mountains. And everyone, everywhere requires it.

The water of this lake provides endless recreation, nurtures the vineyards above its banks and provisions the kitchens that line its shores. The Rhone takes a nap here beneath the Alps before it courses through France and fetches up the Mediterranean near Arles. Of the scenery, the poet Lord Byron penned "I saw their thousand years of snow/On high-their wide long lake below/And the blue Rhone in fullest flow."

One of my favorite authors, Herman Melville, wrote that water's "gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath." Could this lake, with its wide eye clear and unblinking, fashion the character and soul of a people?

Financial powerhouse, home to scores of international organizations and symbol of Swiss neutrality, Geneva pulses and shines, bright and clean as the little sea it sits upon. Geneva straddles the Rhone as it glides from the lake. The left bank is the old town, dominated by its soaring cathedral, while the right bank holds the hotels and The Red Cross, the World Health Organization and the UN European headquarters, to name but a few. Affluent, multicultural and hardworking, the people of Geneva take pleasure and solace from the shades and shadows, the dreams and reveries, of their ever-restless water.

Water shapes this city, floating its sailboats, steamers and water taxis, flickering like butterflies of light next to promenades, and luring bathers to its beaches. And because water is Switzerland's precious blue gold, the study of water is serious business here.

The astounding fact that 300 million people depend on the water that issues from Switzerland's glaciers spurs on programs like the University of Geneva's Acqwa Project to find solutions to rising global temperatures. The inconvenient truth about water is that they're not making any more of it. More and more people, however, continue to depend upon it and demand more of it. If water is the oil of the 21st century, Switzerland is a very rich place indeed. Can the people here pave the path for better understanding and protection of the world's water? Can they ignite the way to an equilibrium between people and aqua pura?

Geneva's very symbol is a fountain. The Jet d'Eau sends its plume 465 feet in the air, a liquid proclamation in the city's harbor.

Built in 1886 as an outlet for excess water pressure in the city's pipes, the first jet was a mere 98 feet. But over the decades the popular plume has risen to claim the spot as one of the world's tallest water columns. To watch it is to witness poetry. Its stem unfolds into petals of white rose, then overflows on an invisible slope. Who could not be happy watching water dance?

Place du Bourg-de-Fours is the heart of old Geneva today as it was back in the 1540s when a Christian theologian persuaded the people to condemn the excesses of the Catholic Church and embrace reform.

The theologian was John Calvin, a Frenchman recruited to bring the Protestant Reformation to Geneva. He changed the course of history and shaped the moral fiber of Geneva. Before the Protestant Reformation, the Cathedral St. Pierre was adorned with statues and frescoes, but during the reformation, the people stormed the church and destroyed all the ornamentation. What's left is the austere stone interior and the stiff backed chair from which Calvin preached.

So, Geneva continues to have a reputation for being somewhat staid, but on the lake on weekends, it can get quite racy. On fine days, people take to the lake in droves, and the water waltzes with sails and spinnakers. Billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli founded Team Alinghi, the two-time America's Cup winners.

Water delights the soul and rests the eyes. It stirs the imagination and lures us into dreams. Water lifts our spirits; it's the magic that brings people to the Swiss Rivera, Lake Geneva's north coast.

Anchoring this playground is Lausanne. It's easy to see why this town attracted the Romantic poets. The water here binds the mind to inspiration. Literary salons flourished in the late 19th century, and when Dickens visited, he commented that he never saw so many book sellers as he did on the steep streets of Lausanne.

The old town sits high above the lake and little fountains splash in the narrow back streets. Victor Hugo, another literary visitor, described his view from the Cathedral at night: "I saw the lake above the roofs, the mountains above the lake, the clouds above the mountains and the stars above the clouds. It was like a staircase where my thoughts climbed up step by step and broadened at each new height."

The waterfront of Lausanne is known as Ouchy, and its castle is now an atmospheric hotel, once a place of redoubt, now a house of repose, a fortress whose lost history was written in water.

Ouchy also has spawned its own band of pirates. The Ouchy Pirates own and operate a vintage Lake Geneva barque. Built in 1932, it is one of the last remaining freight carrying sailboats, once used to carry heavy goods from France to Switzerland. Now it carries tourists out to the mountain fringed lake.

On fine days, Lausanne sparkles like a splash of water in sunlight, but with stormy weather it can terrify like the walking dead. In 1816, the poet Percy Shelly stayed in a villa near here with his wife to be, Mary, and the poet Lord Byron. One stormy night they decided to tell horror stories. The wild electrical storms on the lake sparked Mary Shelley's story, Frankenstein.

Switzerland's pure sweet water not only floats boats, and spews the beads of inspiration, but it is the essential ingredient for the great wines, beers and foods of Europe.

The arteries of the earth, rivers claim the spirits of life. Another oxygenated path is the wine trail, which leads from the belle epoch seat of Vevey.

Le Train des Vignes, one of Switzerland's many electric trains charged by hydro-power, ascends like water running uphill into the Lavaux wine region. Ever since the Romans first set up camp in these parts, grapes have been cultivated, quaffed and hoarded here.

Centuries ago, monks dug out many of these steep terraces, built walls to keep the land from sliding and fashioned gutters and drains to control the rain water. The rain and sun infuse dozens of varietals of grapes on these slopes. Wine trails allow visitors to walk from vineyard to vineyard, stopping at a little caveaux for tasting. About half of Swiss wine is white, made from the Chasselas grape, and the Gamay and Pinot Noir grapes create the red wine.

Paths, roads and highways all crumble with time. But water is the path everlasting.

The mountains around Lake Geneva grow steeper at the eastern edge. This is known as the Haut Lac Superieur.

Water, in the right geography, can be the toll booth of empires. In the 12th century, a great castle arose, on a narrow slice of land boxed in by mountains and water.

It was the powerful Savoy counts who ruled these shores and built the Chateau de Chillon. With the tolls and duties they levied on trade from Italy, they decked out their halls and regal lakeside rooms. But the dungeon held those who defied the regime. One such prisoner was a young Genevan, Francois Bonivard, who spoke out against the Duke of Savoy in favor of an alliance with the Swiss. He spent six years in chains until the army from Bern released him. Soon thereafter Geneva joined the Swiss confederation--making this ring of cantons even stronger. Byron's poem The Prisoner of Chillon depicts this gloomy hole: "There are seven columns, massy and grey/Dim with a dull imprison'd ray/A sunbeam which hath lost its way."

Not far from Chillon the Rhone empties into the lake. This is the start up the watery trail to the water castle of Europe.

Longfellow called it the Royal River, "born of sun and shower, in chambers purple with the Alpine glow, wrapped in the spotless ermine of the snow." The Rhone flows through a deep glacial valley called Valais.

This is the French speaking region of Switzerland, known for its pure water, wine and cheese and giant ice-cloaked mountains. Nearly all of the high peaks in Switzerland pierce the sky over the Valais and spill their wealth to the glens and bowls below.

When Switzerland was cited in a recent study as the most environmentally-sound country on earth, much of the credit went to its wise use of water, especially for power. At 935 feet high, the Grande Dixence dam is one of the tallest gravity dams in the world. But a changing climate that cooks and shrinks the glaciers is reducing the watershed, threatening the dynamic for hydro. Some predict a reduction in hydro-generated energy at a rate of seven percent a year going forward.

The mountains here are fountains of glaciers. And glaciers are the great ice ploughs set to work ages ago to grind and grate the side valleys of the Rhone. Everything is moving, everything flows downwards. Streams of songs and scents, water carrying colorful pebbles, pieces of plants, microorganisms and the chromosomes of life. But the source of this rich water is dwindling; the mighty glaciers are melting. Future generations may ask what we did to save the glaciers and perhaps we will say we looked to Switzerland.

Here in the shadow of a glaciated Alpine peak, everything becomes clear, and the truth grinds down to the heart of the earth. For our grandchildren to enjoy these vistas, to hike and ski and soak in this beauty, we need to do our part to turn back the hands of time.

Glaciers carved the Valais and all its side valleys and each is different. The valley at Leukerbad is capped with a cirque of stone. Beneath it, dozens of thermal springs bubble up their alms, rich in calcium-sulphates.

There must be a few things a soak in a mineral springs won't cure. But I don't know what they are.

Throughout time, mankind has turned to water for its healing properties. The Romans believed in the concept of health through water and ever since people have swum and soaked in thermal pools looking for relief, restoration or just relaxation.

The temperature can reach 123 degrees, but it's cooled and filtered for guests. Hot water increases blood circulation, eliminates toxins, stimulates the liver and aids digestion. Leukerbad spas offer all kinds of intimate connections with water, from scrubs, rubs or mud baths. But just soaking in a blue pool with a cirque of mountains all around is therapeutic enough.

The water is well-employed here: First it heats the hotels, then the hot pools. In winter it is run under the streets to de-ice them and then finally it generates electricity before it flows down to the Rhone.

I have travelled the world and been places where you have no choice but to drink bottled water. But here in Switzerland, pure mountain water flows from thousands of fountains in public squares.

What makes the mountains beautiful is that somewhere, everywhere, they hide the jewels of water. While water gurgles up in town, little mountain lakes lie cradled in the pass on high. Mark Twain took on the Gemmi pass, then struggled, descending these cliffs into Leukerbad by means of a "path as steep as a ladder."

The further one climbs in the Rhone Valley, the more spectacular the architecture of Nature, the exquisite roughness, the dramas of violence and beauty. The pinnacle is the great crooked icon, the Matterhorn.

Zermatt is the Matterhorn's rapt audience, a cluster of chalets huddled at the base of this floating castle. The city is car free and green; visitors choose between horsepower and electric taxis. Zermatt's water originates from 86 springs and is piped into homes, hydrants and fountains. It is 95% pure spring water and subversively delicious.

The formidable Alps, once feared as the haunt of demons, were tamed by a cog and a wheel and soon the grand vistas drew tourists from around the world.

Swiss hydro power has single-handedly created the world's best railway system and fashioned runs that generally defy logic, such as the Gornergrat. The ride is the rare one that comes up to the brag about it -- and then exceeds it.

More than 20 peaks higher than 13,000 feet lock and nuzzle this ridge, and the hiking is literally sublime, as the Romantics would have scribed. The lake known as the Riffelsee doubles the Matterhorn, every jag, every streak of snow perfectly copied. And what an echo of light, water and wonder it is. Percy Shelly mused that "Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted."

The strings of its strength, the magic of the mother Rhone, its moods and colors and music, flow from the tributaries which in turn feed from snows and glaciers high in the Alps. High on the northern side of the Rhone, the mighty ice blanket known as the Aletsch Glacier straddles some of the highest peaks in Switzerland.

The Aletsch glacier holds in its icy vault enough water to provide all of Switzerland with drinking water for 40 years. At least for now.

A glacier is the wise old man of the future, as the water locked beneath the wrinkles, fractures and fissures eventually thaws and renders forth, nourishing all life down valley and beyond. The Aletsch, the longest glacier in the Alps, earned UNESCO World Heritage status for the enormity of its deliverance. Wretchedly, this whale of ice is shrinking, losing the weight of its water at a rate of half a football field a year. Scientists predict it will be gone in another 100. All of Switzerland's glaciers have lost about 15 percent of their surface in the last 20 years, and the rate of loss has accelerated in the past decade.

A retreating glacier means rising oceans, less fresh water for humans, the wreckage of winter tourism and destabilization of mountainsides. In broader terms, more than three quarters of the world's fresh water is stored in ice. Alpine glaciers have been reduced by half since 1850. What can be done to stem this ebbing tide?

There's a saying: "Faith is like electricity. You can't see it, but you can see the light." The people of Fiesch, the little town at the base of the Aletsch glacier, are trying a faith-based approach to stop the melting.

In 1678 the villagers took a sacred vow to lead honorable lives in exchange for protection from the glacier advancing on their village. Every year they commemorate the oath in a parade to the church. Now that the glacier is going the other way the people have appealed to the Pope to let them reverse the vow and pray for the glacier to survive.

Fiesch is one of several mountain towns that bloom in a region known as the Goms, the uppermost Rhone Valley, not far from the icy heights from which the river springs. You cannot have peace without clean water. Conversely clean, ample water promotes peace, such as felt in the traditional wooden homes and churches up this funnel-like valley.

Water here has always been brisk, bountiful and timely, christening the grasses that feed the cows who deliver the milk and cheese and nourishing the little sun burnt towns and their hearty inhabitants.

The wieldy and regal Rhone is just a sprightly stream here in its upper reaches. In the course of its long journey, these waters will drop 6,000 feet and marry 1,000 tributaries before slipping its surly bonds into the sea. Up here is the source code, the birthplace of so much of European élan vital, the spot where the first tears trickle from the Rhone Glacier.

The Rhone, like the Aletsch has shrunk. It too is predicted to vanish within 100 years.

There is the same amount of water on earth today as 10,000 years ago. The cycle of evaporation and rain is unchanged. But population growth coupled with climate change and pollution means that cycle, and its bounty, may soon be too little to support the planet.

In this catacomb of ice lies the future of our world. How we protect this frozen tincture of life, how we share this precious resource, how we manage, use and consume it will determine our fate.

This crystalline source once so mighty it carved the entire Rhone Valley is now, by comparison, an ice cube. Fortunately, the Swiss, who have safeguarded their water castles throughout history, know that real change, dedicated science, enterprise and attention are needed

The Swiss have solved unsolvable puzzles before, from piercing trains through mountains to pinning time to precision to seizing peace during war. Perhaps the Swiss can now lead the way to protecting this precious, dwindling water castle of Europe.

Water has given mankind so much -- everything, you might argue -- what now can we do to protect water?

We can find solutions to climate change, purify what we have polluted and help people all over the world achieve access to secure, safe and sufficient fresh water. We can travel to see the glacier wrapped peaks, marvel at the valleys these icy plows have carved and try to find solutions, big and small.

It's a task daunting in scale and scope, but in the bright mountain air of Switzerland, beyond the bounds of the insurmountable, anything seems possible.

Check your local listings for the new public television special, "Richard Bangs' Adventures with Purpose -- Geneva and the Matterhorn Region: Quest for the Water Castle," brought to you by American Public Television.

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