Along the Narcissus Path – Les Avants

It was a walk planned around train lines and train timetables. There was no real destination in mind, no peak to climb or pass to cross. All we had seen was a photograph. A little red train clinging to the mountainside. Hauled up from one village to the next by a series of cables for more than a hundred years. Sometimes that’s all you need to give your day a plan. The rest was simply a matter of planning.

A train down the lake to Montreux, sitting on the right hand side of the carriage for the best views of the water and the mountains beyond. In Montreux we crossed the platform for a smaller train, with panoramic windows that promised something special if we were willing to ride it for long enough. Not today. Today our destination was a village tucked away in the valley above Montreux but not yet deep in the mountains. Still, it gave us an idea for another time. Another plan, tucked away.

The train zigzagged its way up from the lake, passing close enough to houses and gardens that it felt as if you could reach out and touch the frame of the kids trampoline or help yourself to a sausage from the barbecue. In Les Avants we climbed down onto the platform, the only passengers to disembark on this mid-week morning in early summer. The little red train was waiting for us. No guard. No other passengers. Just a little screen counting down to departure, and a gate to the platform ready to swing shut when it was time to leave.

At the top we were at a gate to a highly exclusive and private rehab clinic. Resisting the temptation to try and work out which tired actors, rock stars and hedge fund managers were lounging on the terrace, we set off instead into the woods. It was a forest trail along the mountainside, popular – it seems – with trail runners who skipped past us while keeping a wary eye for tree roots. 

It was one of those walks where you are sure that if only the trees would part, the view would be spectacular. To Lake Geneva and across to France. Along the shore to the vineyards and their neat rows of green. Down the valley and into the high Alps, where snow was shining in the summer sun on the summits. We just had to be patient. At the top of a little rise, we turned to find a natural balcony complete with picnic tables and a view framed by the forest on either side. Down on the lake, a steamer made its way from France to Switzerland. It was a perfect spot, and hard to leave.

But we were walking with an eye on those train timetables, following the path as it led down and out of the forest, crossing the pastures and high meadows of white narcissus flowers that have long been bringing visitors up from the town below to enjoy the fresh air and views. We were walking in the tracks of Vladimir Nabokov, who had walked and written about these meadows during a stay in Montreux. Hemingway had spent winters here, escaping the gloom of Paris. 

It was only now that we realised that the path we’d been following from Sonloup and the top of the funicular railway to Les Avants was named for these flowers, and not for the number of selfies taken by walkers at the lookout point. We took the train back down to the lake pondering what these flowers had done to deserve such a name, determined not to look too closely at our reflection in the water just in case.  

46°27’25.5″N 6°56’19.4″E
Photographs: Katrin Schönig
Words: Paul Scraton