BERN, Switzerland — I was in the middle of a European capital and the fierce currents of a bright blue-green river were forcing my bathing suit off my body. My more agile friends had long since disappeared downstream, and sunbathing girls were giggling at me. Was it a nightmare? Not at all. I was enjoying a dip in the Aare River in this unassuming capital.
It was all pretty loose: a trip around the Alps in my French friend Laure’s late 1980s-era Volkswagen camper with a handful of her friends. We had no strict itinerary; it was one of those “the destination is the journey” adventures, and I had put myself fully in the hands of Laure and her friends.
Laure had warned me that this would not be a food-centric trip. However, once the remaining four travelers had arrived from different parts of France and the van was deemed ready, one of our first errands was to stock up on fresh baguettes and local cheeses. We then set off from Laure’s stunningly picturesque hometown of Veyrier-du-Lac, in the foothills of the French Alps, toward Switzerland.
I surrendered to eager exploration of cities and towns that I otherwise would never have visited. Bern, for example, was one of the great surprises of the trip. There was plenty to see and do besides swimming in the Aare. I loved the 21st-century hobbit-hole architecture of the Renzo Piano-designed Zentrum Paul Klee, which houses an enormous collection of the celebrated Swiss-German painter’s works. A stroll through the beautiful adjacent Schosshaldenfriedhof, where Klee is buried, put the museum visit in context. Back in the city center, it was fun to stand around the Zytglogge, a medieval tower, and wait for its 15th-century astronomical clock to spring into action.
From Bern we headed east toward Interlaken, where we camped in the village of Saxeten, about 20 minutes outside the city, and close to hiking trails with breathtaking views over the two lakes that give Interlaken its name. We camped “in the rough” every night, usually spending about an hour finding a spot that was the right mix of bizarre, inconspicuous, and scenic. This isn’t technically allowed in most European countries, but we had no trouble and rules seem relaxed if you go about it smartly. In Saxeten, this meant we slept comfortably in the van and tents in the parking lot of an abandoned inn.
After an exhausting yet rewarding day of hiking around Saxeten, we set off toward Bavaria, stopping for a much-anticipated detour in the principality of Liechtenstein. Bad weather and luck meant two of the main attractions of the world’s wealthiest country (per capita) were not available to us. It was too foggy to make out the prince’s castle, and the black box of a contemporary art museum (Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein) was closed. Instead we perused gift shops full of Liechtenstein paraphernalia.
We went back north toward Bavaria and camped outside a forest in view of the majestic, Disney-esque Neuschwanstein castle. From there it was an easy dip into Austria, so we drove a few more hours before ending up in Innsbruck, capital of the Tyrol state of western Austria. While walking around the city we stopped for delicious apple strudel, speck (local cured and smoked ham), and a fantastic lunch of potato dumplings with sauerkraut and bacon at a pop-up outdoor market. We washed them down with the Austrian beer Stiegl from an adjacent pop-up beer garden. Before long, we stumbled upon some of the city’s main attractions, stopping to admire the golden-roofed building from 1500 and climb to the top of the Stadtturm, a large tower with fantastic panoramic views of the city.
Before leaving, we browsed the Markthalle, full of beautiful local produce. There were golden chanterelles, bright vermillion red currants, and plenty of other goods to which our two-burner apparatus in the van would never do justice. We dined that night on creamy potatoes and smoky speck in an abandoned wood-storage cabin back near the German border, where we made a makeshift table out of wood scraps. Our meal was interrupted when the owner of the cabin rolled up in an Audi and unleashed a flurry of rapid-fire German. The only word I recognized was “polizei.” But when he peeked into the cabin and saw our candlelit table and proper Tyrolean dinner spread, he changed his tune and let us stay until morning, on the condition that we clean up after ourselves.
We continued our return west, through the Romansch-speaking areas of southern Switzerland, including St. Moritz and the snow-capped Morteratsch Glacier. We continued into Italy, where we stupidly camped at a wetlands conservation area (mosquito bait), and woke up itching for a dip in nearby Lake Como. Though not as pristine as some of the Swiss Alpine lakes we’d encountered, the deep blue waters were definitely warmer, and offered equally dramatic views. We spent a lazy day lounging around the lake, breaking for pizza in the town of Como.
Up to this point, most of our drives had been in the one-to-two-hour range. But for our last stop, we had to cross a chunk of northern Italy to get back within striking distance of France. Our destination was the home of Laure’s childhood nanny in the Val d’Aosta, the semi-autonomous region of extreme northwest Italy that borders France. After a nearly four-hour drive, we arrived at a stunning compound, built somewhat precariously on a curvy road up in the mountains near a town called Perloz. It was a network of stone chalets, with beautiful, sprawling gardens, and views of the nearby peaks, including Monte Rosa, the second highest mountain in western Europe.
Laure’s nanny, Nelly, and her gregarious husband, Quinto, led us to a terrace area, where a long table was set for what would be the best meal of the trip. There were plates of mortadella, a platter of thinly-sliced tongue with piquant salsa verde, penne with a simple sauce of cream and homegrown zucchini flowers, sausage-like rolettes of ground turkey stuffed with cheese and ground speck, caraway-and-chili-spiked local cheese, and a giant watermelon for dessert.
After a shot of the local caraway-infused grappa, I fell happily to sleep in one of the chalets, where I dreamt I was floating peacefully down the Aare on a slice of mortadella.