It was Geoff Grahl who'd sold me on Gimmelwald. Geoff was from Australia. We met in Sicily, in October 1990, in a semi-active volcano. I was hiking along the rim when I spotted him: deep inside the smoldering caldera, leaping over steam vents like a madman. I remember thinking, Anyone that crazy must be pretty cool, so I scrambled into the crater and introduced myself. For 10 days we were inseparable, blitzing through Rome, Florence, and the Cinque Terre.
We met up again in Switzerland. Geoff had heard about Gimmelwald through a friend and persuaded me to join him. We hitched the 20 miles from Interlaken to Stechelberg, then caught a cable car. Gimmelwald hung on the edge of a 4,500-foot cliff; no cars went there, only the gondola and a ridiculously steep mule trail. The population consisted of 132 dairy farmers, who might offer you a jar of milk when you passed by. Gimmelwald was the only place in Switzerland where you never saw a clock. The bank opened only on Thursdays. There was a single hotel in town that everyone called Walter's, after the chap who ran it. But backpackers stayed at the rickety Mountain Hostel, which for my money—all $6-a-night of it—had a better location than any place I've stayed since. Through drafty windows that rattled in the wind, you gazed across a pine-green valley and up the frosty slopes of the 13,000-foot Jungfrau.
Geoff and I spent two weeks in the parallel universe we called GimmelWorld. I became convinced the place was magical, like Brigadoon, and wanted desperately to protect it. Later, when I was back at Harvard editing the Let's Go guides, I tried to remove all mention of Gimmelwald to ensure we didn't spoil the place.
The crowds kept coming, of course. Gimmelwald now gets 20,000 visitors a year. When I returned to the village last May, the Mountain Hostel had been outfitted with indoor showers and a spiffy new bar. Two Swedish girls were checking their e-mail on the house PC's. What used to be utterly remote had been plugged into the proverbial grid.
But the sleeping loft hadn't changed. Those rattling windows, that soul-stirring view—still intact.
That night I wrapped myself in Frette linens at the Victoria resort and watched movies on my Bang & Olufsen TV. I had tropical hardwoods on the floor and whirlpool jets in the bath. Al Gore, in town to address the Swiss Economic Forum, was staying down the hall. But I missed that drafty loft in GimmelWorld.
I had a five-hour stopover in Paris en route to Spain. I took the city like an army paratrooper, dropped in with a kit bag and a mission. Mine was to revisit the Musée Picasso, which I intended to compare to the Museu Picasso in Barcelona. I also hoped to have a bowl of bouillabaisse and to listen to Joni Mitchell's "Free Man in Paris" while crossing the Pont Neuf. In the end I did all three—no more and no less—and got out before addiction could set in. I had visited Paris at least a dozen times before, but this was as easy and enjoyable an afternoon as I'd spent there. I could say more, but I have a train to catch.
Where was I again?Oh, right—Spain. I'd spoken five languages in a week, mixing up my grazie's, danke's, and merci's. Twenty-seven minutes after alighting, I was at a breakfast counter in the sun-dappled Boqueria market, savoring jamón ibérico and café con leche. All around me, stalls overflowed with pickled pigs' trotters, sheep's heads, and rams' testicles.
My plan had been to visit both Picasso museums within 24 hours. I made it with an hour to spare. Paris's, I decided, was more comprehensive. But Barcelona's had the better location—a cluster of louche old villas in the moody El Born district—and, like Barcelona itself, its collection was quirkier, including Picasso's cartoonish ceramics and, best of all, his adolescent paintings, back when he could do Caravaggio as deftly as Caravaggio. How thrilling to trace that early arc, as he mimicked and toyed with countless styles. Then you round a corner and come face-to-face with the Blue Period—and suddenly he's Picasso. Turning that corner had shocked me at age 20, and no less at 34.
Eurailing is a great way to see Europe for the first time, but it's also an ideal way to rediscover Europe for the fifth or fifteenth. You may return often to Venice or Berlin or Barcelona, but you probably don't visit all three on the same trip. A multicountry tour throws the differences between cultures—and the increasing similarities—into high relief. Certain icons keep reappearing (tabloids with topless centerfolds, Fruitella candies, Campari and soda, the 24-hour clock), and the essential Europeness of Europe becomes all the more evident. You see the Continent for what it's grudgingly becoming: a single entity, united by a passion for football, Eurovision song contests, tobacco, and labor strikes. Last May, as I began my journey, 15 more countries joined the European Union, in the EU's biggest expansion ever. Suddenly, Hungary and the Czech Republic had been deemed fiscally sound, respectable adults. I suppose I'd become one, too.
On my final night in Barcelona, I went back to find the bench where I'd met Lena, the Danish girl. It was still there, next to a bird-seller's kiosk on Passeig de Gracia. Lena wasn't a romantic thing. It wasn't even a friendship—I never got her last name, never saw her again. It was just a connection, lasting all of nine hours. But you can't tell me nine hours doesn't count for something. Hell, I've seen entire countries in less time.
PETER JON LINDBERG is an editor-at-large for Travel + Leisure.