Schwingen In Switzerland’s Top 10 Posts Of 2012

Since everyone seems to come out with a Best of 2012 list at the end of the year, I thought I would list my top 10 most viewed posts this year.

  1. Everything You Don’t Need And Can’t Live Without – I don’t like to sit still, don’t nap and hate to be bored.  I realize that it doesn’t always make me the most relaxing person to be around, but it’s generally pretty entertaining.  When we had a free Sunday, I decided to go check out a little shindig they had going on in the cool Carouge neighborhood.  Unexpectedly, this post was selected for Freshly Pressed.
  2. Tschäggättä Parade To Celebrate Carnival In The Lötschental Valley – One of the best things about Switzerland is its festivals.  This one was unlike anything I’d ever seen.  This was my first post to be Freshly Pressed.
  3. More Pictures of the Versoix, Switzerland Ice Storm – Remember the picture of the frozen car?  Well, since it was taken in a suburb of Geneva, I couldn’t help myself.  I went to get the shot.  On a side note, it would have been smart of me not to wear high heals when doing so.  A couple of nice Swiss gentlemen helped me off the ice.  Yep, I’m an idiot, but the pictures are great.
  4. Our Basement Bomb Shelter, Otherwise Known As Our Storage Unit – I’m glad other people are as intrigued by this phenomenon as I am.
  5. Mt. Blanc, The Tallest Mountain In The Alps – I am profoundly grateful to have seen such beauty.
  6. The Spaghetti Tree Hoax, Aka Happy April Fool’s Day From Switzerland – Hilarious.  Sorry, I just couldn’t help myself.
  7. My Introduction to French Cinema, A List of Great, Entertaining and Fun French Films – While I posted this before Jean Dujardin won the Oscar, some of his comedies made the list.
  8. Why Didn’t Hitler Invade Switzerland? – This was a hard one to write as it’s a difficult question.  I hope I didn’t screw it up too badly.
  9. Another Cultural Difference…Men In Spandex – Sometimes, it’s the little things…
  10. What The Heck Is A Bidet? – Please feel free to comment with any additional uses you can think up for a bidet.

 

It Wasn’t Premeditated, Our Hike Up Rochers-de-Naye

Rochers-de-Naye is the mountain with the rock top on the left, not the bump, but the one with the snow below the rock.

We woke up to a beautiful day. Since it was so clear, we decided to do one of the things that we’d been saving for a clear day so we could enjoy the view.  Our choices were take cable cars to the top of Mont Blanc or hike from the lake in Montreaux to Rochers-de-Naye.  I checked with him to make sure he know the hike meant climbing the mountain behind Montreaux.  Please note the full disclosure (on my part) and assumption of risk (on his part).

We weren’t the only ones who thought it was hot. This guy jumped into the water fountain.

A reader suggested this hike and I wanted to do it because the views at the top are spectacular.   Yeah, we could have taken a cog wheel train up, but where’s the fun in that?  Especially on a hot day?

We spent about five hours…walking up, and up, and up.

On the way, we saw these brave fellows heading down.  In this photo, you can’t see what is beyond the edge.  In fact, it’s almost impossible to see from this vantage point.  That’s because it drops off sharply and precipitously.  If you look on the right of the photo below, you will see a small railing that prevents people falling from the steep rock face.  Yep, that’s where we ran into them.  Impressive.

I’ve always wanted to do a ridge hike in Switzerland.  I thought it would be cool to  look down on both sides.  This trail had a bit of one.  Cool huh?

At the end of the ridge, we finally caught sight of the summit.  Although it looks pretty close, it took us at least another 45 minutes to reach it.  I may have slowed us down by stopping every 10 feet to take pictures of the incredible scenery.

When we finally reached the top, we found snow!  I know, I know.  After several hours of hiking, the bandage on my paw looked about as dirty as the snow.

Yep.  The finger is still bandaged.

 

He was exhausted at the end of the day (and very, very hungry).  I thought it was worth it.  He joked that I tried to kill him.  I’m happy to report that he’s forgiven me.  Either that or he is lulling me into a false sense of security while he plans his revenge.

It was a long, sweaty (especially on his part), but enjoyable hike from Lake Geneva (Lac Leman) in Montreux to Rochers-de-Naye at 2041m (6,709 feet).   At the top, there was snow and unforgettable, jaw dropping views.

They also have Marmot Paradise.  Who doesn’t love these beaver-like animals?   I also enjoyed the Alpine garden with lots of special species of Swiss Alpine plants and flowers. I even saw Edelweiss!

The Swiss Army – Ready To Blow Their Country To Smithereens

We have been learning a bit more about the Swiss Army.  It’s more than just fancy knives.  We saw the Toblerone Line, Fortress Fürigen, and learned why Hitler didn’t invade Switzerland.  After World War II, the Swiss didn’t let up.  They continued with their network of secret fortresses and bunkers built into the mountains.

At one point, Switzerland had 15,000 hidden fortresses protecting roads, railways, and mountain passes.  We see evidence of them hidden everywhere.  On hikes, we regularly see doors in the sides of mountains, fake stonework, etc. in the middle of nowhere.  Knowing that they likely concealing something for the military, we stay well away.

Did you spot the camouflaged door?

Most forts were shut after the end of the Cold War.  This was the result of a change in strategy, not a lack of belief in the importance their objective (to remain independent and neutral).  Switzerland decided that if it was invaded, it would probably be for use as a supply line as it has virtually no natural resources.  It’s a sound premise, that’s how Hitler and Mussolini used it during WWII.

To counter this, The Swiss military has wired the country’s extensive infrastructure of roads and bridges to blow.  In fact, they have over 3000 points of demolition!  Its mountain tunnels will be sealed from within to act as nuclear-proof air raid shelters, or blow up too.   In the side of mountains, airstrips are built in with camouflaged doors.  They let everyone know about their plan in the event of a foreign invasion.  It’s a pretty cost-effective deterrence strategy.

Although Swiss armed forces have a purely defensive role, military service is still compulsory (Women can volunteer for most units).  Heck, with a plan like that you need more than just a couple of people around who have practiced how to blow their country up.

How To Get On A Mountain For The Tour De France

Today, the Tour de France‘s cyclists are riding the ‘Circle of Death’, a linkage of four brutal climbs.  Tomorrow’s stage finishes atop the 1,615 meter (5,300 feet) mountain, Peyraguedes.  They’re in the mountains baby!

When choosing a mountain stage, remember these golden rules:

  • The steeper the grade the slower they go (providing you with better viewing).
  • The later in the stage, the more spread out the riders.  This means that instead of seeing them in an enormous group, you will see them in smaller groups and be able to pick out specific riders.
  • A mountaintop finish is the ultimate.  Who doesn’t want to see the end of a stage?

Seeing the Tour de France from a mountain was on my bucket list.  I like logistics problems, but getting there can turn into a very advanced one pretty quickly.

The easiest way to get a front row seat at a great spot on a mountain is to do a bike tour.  Be prepared to bike up the mountain.  If you can handle that, it’s pretty darn good.  You’ll have a front row seat at a good spot with a TV (key to knowing what is happening in the tour).  Plus these guys had support an a nice spread laid out for them on the mountain.

Actually, now that I think about it, there is an easier way to get on a mountain.  The easiest way is to have a bunch of money and/or in with a sponsor.  Although you might not be able to get in one with bikes, we saw tons of VIP’s in team cars.

If you want to drive yourself up there, you might just be able to do it if you get up and on the mountains before the road closes (less possible the larger the mountain).  Getting there the night before and camping is a good option.  Loads of people follow the tour with caravans.  The larger the mountain (Col de la Madeleine, Col d’Ausbisque, Col du TourmaletAlpe d’HuezMont VentouxCol du GalibierPort de PailhèresCol de la ColombièreCol des Aravis, etc.), the earlier they arrive.  For large stages, they will arrive up to a week before hand (Europeans tend to have more vacation than Americans), and there won’t be any space left a couple of days beforehand.

Others drive up in cars or vans and pitch tents.  We met people who camped out, but I can’t imagine that sleeping in this van was very comfortable.  On the other hand, those guys were full of pep and didn’t seem worse for the wear.

Still others bike up.  These guys looked like they were having a great time.  Boris and Natasha liked this option because it allows you to see the mountaintop, get some exercise and still sleep in a hotel.

The police had already closed the roads when we arrived at Col de la Madeline. Apparently, police decide to close the road whenever they feel there are enough people up there.   Forced to leave our car at the bottom, we hiked up…9 miles.  We didn’t have much of a choice, but knew we would have to go it on foot at some point.  It’s probably just as well.  On our hike up, we didn’t see many places to park (or even stand) on the side of the road.  As you can tell from our trip though the largest town we passed, the mountain is a little steep and even the roads of this metropolis are narrow.

The only problem with hiking 9 miles up is that what goes up, must go down.  Once the tour passes through, there is a  mass exodus.   It took us about 2 hours to get down.  One hour into it, the tour had gone over the top of the mountain and they opened the roads to vehicles.  This meant that in addition to dodging bikers racing downhill, we started dodging cars and caravans too.  At least we didn’t have to worry about avalanches at this time of the year.

We made it down in one piece and I love the Tour more now than ever before.  Epic mountain.  Epic day.

We Had Fun Storming Bellinzona’s Castles

From Lugano, we took a day trip to Bellinzona.  Bellinzona’s three medieval castles (Castelgrande, Castello di Montebello and Castello di Sasso Corbaro) and their fortifications are among the most important examples of medieval defensive architecture in the Alps. These fortifications are also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Living in Switzerland, we have castle fatigue.  Poor us.  We happily forego an opportunity to see castles if they aren’t great.  My buddy Rick Steves’ has a list of Europe’s 10 best castles.  I’ve been lucky enough to see a fair number of them and some others, like Windsor Castle, that didn’t make his list.  You can’t swing a dead cat in Switzerland without hitting a castle or the ruins of one (sometimes they’re cooler than the ones still standing).   As a UNESCO World Heritage site, Bellinzona’s castles were supposed to be pretty good and they were definitely worth the trip.

Castelgrande is Bellinzona’s oldest and largest castle.  It overlooks the Old Town. They have built an ingenious elevator/stair system that allows to visitors access the castle from the rock underneath, from inside.  It beats the old school method of scaling the walls.  Castelgrande has a little museum with a cool video that documents Bellinzona’s history and the history of its castles.

Wear whatever you want, but I’d imagine that it is hard to climb the ramparts in these bad boys.

The castles of Montebello and Sasso Cobaro are up the hill above the town.  Although floods destroyed a large part of the medieval fortifications, large chunks of the immense wall remain.   You can see them the photo above.

If you were to ask an eight year-old to draw a castle, they would draw Montebello.  It looks like your stereotypical castle. We climbed the ramparts, posed on the drawbridge and enjoyed the wonderful views.  Montebello’s interior buildings contain a museum with archaeological discoveries and artifacts from Bellinzona that date back to Roman times.

Montebello’s museum also had weaponry.  I had to get a picture with the gun that was about my size.  Who in the heck was large enough to fire this thing?

Magglio, the Luger and Sneaky Pete, got disbelieving looks and thumbs up from people when we told them we hiked up to Castello di Sasso Corbaro.  It was a beautiful day and the views were even better.  From there, you could easily see the mountain passes come together just north of Bellinzona and why it was so strategically important (click here for a panoramic view).

 

Our First Big Hike Of The Summer

Our first Sunday back in Switzerland, the weather was supposed to be great and we were keen to hike.  He traveled last week so he wanted to sleep in.  This meant that we needed to go someplace near Geneva.  We hadn’t hiked the Jura yet and decided to give it a go.

The first weekend after we moved to Switzerland we explored the area.  Driving back from Annecy and The Museum of the Alpine Cow, we saw a giant fortress in the mountain above.  We wanted to visit it and a hike seemed like the perfect opportunity.

We were on the last mound by the river. It has a small, dark smudge on top. Those are the ruins with a statute of the Virgin Mary on top.

We started from Léaz, France (just over the border) and hiked up to the Virgin of Léaz and stunning views of the Rhone River cutting its way through the Jura Mountains.   The Virgin sits on top of sixteenth century ruins, but the spot was inhabited in Roman times (because of its defensible position.  The views were stunning, but I was careful to watch where I stepped.

We walked all the way down to the Rhone River.  Although it was a hot day, we didn’t stop for a swim (we’ll go bridge jumping into the Rhone at Junction soon enough).   The banks were muddy and we had hiking to do… a lot of it.  Uphill.

What goes up, must come down.  We went down to the Rhone, so there was nowhere left to go but up.   On the bright side, the terrain was interesting, varied and shaded (not many panoramic views).  We passed countless streams, waterfalls and channels that funneled water from the Jura into the Rhone.   The trails were okay, but I wouldn’t plan on doing the hike if it rained the previous week and the trails climb sharply.  You were warned.

We hiked up to Fort de L’Ecluse (both of them) through The Haut-Jura Regional Natural Park and down from the mountains.  As the mountains gave way to pastures and fields, we heard our first cowbells of the season.  We love the sound of cow bells ringing through a valley interrupting the background noise of gurgling creeks and chirping birds.  It is the soundtrack to a heavenly day.

One of the best parts of the hike was the wildflowers in bloom.  I snapped way too many pictures of them.

The fields were pretty gorgeous too.

So was the view.  Let summer officially begin!

A Gourge-ous Panoramic Train Ride

We went home from our great train adventure on the Bernina Express a different route, via the Centrovalli Railway.  The Centovalli Railway line runs between Locarno, Switzerland and Domodossola, Italy.  It is operated by the FART (the Ferrovie Autolinee Regionali Ticinesi).  Seriously, our tickets said FART on them. We couldn’t help but giggle when we read FART on our tickets.  Apparently there is a 8 year-old boy in each of us.

We took the FART mainly to get from point A to point B with a different view.  It took a few train changes to get from Luganoto Locarno, but it was worth it.  The train ride was a pleasant and scenic, if hair-raising, surprise.  It was a remarkable two-hour, 52 km trip through the mountains.

The panoramic train hugs the mountain through deep gorges, cascading waterfalls, past vineyards and forests.  It is billed as the one hundred picturesque valleys.  We didn’t count to see if there were actually 100 of them, but the number can’t be far off.

When I said the trains hug the mountains, I wasn’t kidding.  The trains wind their way through the forested mountains, through mountain tunnels, across precarious bridges, over viaducts that tower over ravines.   There is a 17 km stretch near the Italian border where the train goes through 22 tunnels and over 7 bridges.    While that part is particularly exciting, the whole thing is pretty darn cool.

The railway was built in 1923.  Many of the towns along the way don’t appear to have changed much over the years.   Notable views along the way include:

  • An iron viaduct spanning the 75m-deep gorge of the Isorno  (near Verscio) torrent

  • The photogenic village of Intragna tucked into the rugged mountains, Its 65m steeple of its bell-tower is the most recognizable sight.
  • Santa Maria Maggiore is the highest point of the line at 830m (2720 feet) above sea level.

  • The Verzasca Valley where the river has been dammed to form a lake.  You can actually see the Verzasca dam.

In 1978, the railway was severely damaged by floods.  Thankfully, they were able to rebuild it and no one was injured.

By the way, you can connect to trains headed to MilanBernBasel or Geneva from Domodossola.

Why I Love Running

I had a bad day yesterday.  It was crushing.  After bawling for a few minutes, I decided should just go for a good long run because it never fails to make me feel better and clear my head.  On the run, I saw Mont Blanc behind lush, green fields and thought “god, I love this.”

Here’s why I love to run:

  1. There are no shortcuts.  What you get out of it is what you put into it.
  2. I am a nicer person when I’ve run all the piss and vinegar out of me.  I swear it’s true, just ask him.
  3. I love how train running forces me to be in the moment.  To avoid roots, holes, etc.  I must be hyper-aware of my surroundings.  My brain can’t make grocery lists or worry about trivialities.  That being said…  While I am thinking about getting up the hill, my subconscious works on things.
  4. Running clears my mind.  I solve problems, write blog posts, prioritize…
  5. I am almost a midget little person.  There aren’t many activities where I get to feel physically powerful, running is one of them.  Catching (and dropping) a couple of big, strong guys running up a giant hill yesterday brought me my first smile of the run (FYI, Switzerland isn’t flat).
  6. You don’t have to be pretty or dress up.  Most of my favorite things to do necessitate a shower and don’t require makeup.  Running, cycling, hiking, painting, skiing, gardening…you get the idea.
  7. Not everyone is lucky enough to be able to run.  Even when my day is bad, if I am still healthy enough and safe enough to have the opportunity to run. It reminds me that I am pretty lucky.
  8. Gettin’ high.  Who doesn’t love themselves some runner’s high?
  9. You don’t have to wait for the gym to open.  You don’t even need a gym membership.  There’s no fancy equipment.  All you need is a good sports bra (or two if you are double-bagging) and you are off and running…literally.
  10. I love being outside.  It is a great way to experience beautiful places.  Some of my favorite runs have been on vacations, but I could probably wax have waxed nostalgic about my high school cross-country course too.
  11. Running has taught me how to break down a big task into smaller manageable ones.  A marathon training program is a series of smaller activities that add up to something huge.
  12. Energy begets energy.  It’s true.
  13. I have no natural gift for running, but the longer I do it, the better I get.  I am one of those who will have to age into her Boston Marathon qualifying time.  I’m okay with that.  I should be so lucky as to be the last woman standing running.
  14. I love to eat and would be overweight if I didn’t exercise.  Period.
  15. Better nutrition.  Running also helps me to make healthy choices.  I may not be smart, but I learn from my mistakes.  Eating fried pickles (dipped in copious amounts of ranch and bleu cheese) and sweet potato fries (dipped in honey mustard) for dinner the night before a long run was a mistake I will only make once.  I don’t eat as much crap when I know it will feel like it (yes crap, a pile of steaming poo) on the next day’s run.  Decent food nourishes me and allows me to have the energy, the stamina to do long runs.
  16. The camaraderie.  In Geneva, I have run by myself.  Our incessant traveling has gotten in the way of joining a weekend running group.  It is better for the blog, but worse for socializing.  In North Carolina I used to gleefully hop out of bed well before dawn to go meet my running group.  I am not a morning person and can’t function without a cup of coffee, but even without coffee I would be excited to go (and not just for the caffeine in the GU’s).
  17. It’s a challenge.  Challenges are good for us.  They teach us how to push ourselves beyond our limits.  Running has taught me about strength, how to push myself, that I am capable of more and how complaining doesn’t help (even if I still do it).  Trying something new and pushing beyond our comfort zone, even if it is hard, is good for us. It can also be habit-forming tackling one challenge makes me want to tackle others.
  18. I am always happier at the end of the run than at the beginning.  It is (almost) never because the run is over.  Running is a great stress reliever.
  19. I love the sense of accomplishment.  Even if I did nothing else productive during the day, knocking out some miles is a measurable, quantifiable accomplishment.
  20. It is something that I do for me.  I like to help others, but running is something I do because I love it.  There aren’t many things (or weren’t until we started travelling so much) that I do just because I want to.
  21. I love a good project.  Training for a race, particularly a marathon, is definitely a good project.
  22. It’s easy.  I am short and have no coordination.  You don’t even want me in right field.  Any sport with a moving ball is out of the question.  Running = a sport for the uncoordinated.
  23. It is a great way to explore.  I have learned how to navigate Geneva and the surrounding area not by studying a map, but by running its streets.  I am constantly intrigued by what I see.  Sometimes I even run back with a camera to take pictures of cool stuff for the blog.
  24. It is supposed to be good for my health.
  25. Running here, I get to see more men in spandex.
  26. Who doesn’t love an hour (or more) with a rockin’ playlist?

Sorry, the photo above is an old pic. I didn’t bring my camera.  I should have.  Yesterday was clearer and even more beautiful.

The Bernina Express Out Of The Alps And Into Sunny Italy

The Bernina Express Train from Chur to Tirano is so beautiful.  I oohed and aahed through the alps taking a ridiculous number of pictures.  As a result, I split the trip into three posts.  The first post tells about the Bernina Express and covers our depart from Chur to the Landwasser Viaduct.  The second post describes the journey from the Landwasser Viaduct to the glacier at Alp Grüm.

Leaving Alp Grüm, the train turns sharply in one direction then the other, winding its way through the Palu Glacier and out of the Alps.  It turns and loops to the Cavaglia station.  The train zigs and zags through dark forests of pine and chestnut.   Whenever the train passes through a clearing, you can see more the Poschiavo valley and its brilliant turquoise lake.

We hear that in the summer, wildflowers line this route.  Hiking trails wind up the mountain.  On a nice day, it would be an incredible hike.

The train descends quickly as it winds its way down the mountain to Poschiavo.  The view changes constantly and dramatically.  The dark, old forests open up to a lush, green valley.

The Poschiavo Valley is agrarian with tobacco plantations, vineyards, fields and farm animals.  We loved looking at it all on the way down.

Finally, we reached Poschiavo Lake.  Who doesn’t love a Swiss lake?  I still get excited to see them and can’t wait to start dipping my toes in them again.  This one is at  965 m (3,166 ft) above sea level.  It was so sunny and vibrant, we felt Italy approach.

This view reminded me of Maine

Just before Brusio, the train descends the famous Brusio spiral viaduct.  These circular viaducts are used to allow trains to gain and lose altitude extremely quickly without the help of a cogwheel mechanism.   In other words, their only purpose is to adjust the line’s altitude.  It was pretty cool to be able to see both the front and back of the car curving toward each other like a bracelet.  From there, the train continues its descent into Tirano.

Just after Brusio is an enormous 36,000 h.p. hydro-electric power-station. It produces current for the Bernina Railway and industry in northern Italy.  The Bernina Express skirts Poschiavo, but not the towns near Tirano.  There, the train inches between buildings.  They were so close that we felt as though we could reach out and touch them.  For Americans who were raised on wide open roads, it was definitely different.

Upon arriving in Tirano, some people will turn around and catch the train back to Chur.  Others continue to Lake Como or Lugano.  We hopped on a bus to Lugano.  I was happy with our itinerary as some say the views heading south are even more spectacular than traveling north.

Our route – Map courtesy of Bernina Sud

Note: If you are thinking about taking a panoramic train in Switzerland, be advised that you need to make seat reservations.  You can do this at any train station in Switzerland and at most Swiss Travel System sales points abroad. You’ll just need your Swiss identity card or passport.  Since you leave Switzerland and enter Italy, be sure to pack it too.  Bon voyage!

Epic Ride Through The Alps On The Bernina Express (Part Two)

The Bernina Express is the only rail line through the Alps without a major (meaning kilometers long) tunnel.   That translates into stellar and diverse views.  There are so many amazing pictures that I’ve divided this train ride into a few posts.

After passing through the famous Landwasser Viaduct, we continued to climb toward Bergün/Bravuogn with its  onion-shaped 17th-century “Roman tower.”  We got a great look at it because the train continued climb, looping around the valley.  And climb some more.  And more.   After all, we were crossing the Alps.

After Bergün/Bravuogn, we gained more than 1,365 feet in altitude on the way to Preda.  To gain that much altitude required some clever engineering.  The train loops up through five spiral tunnels, passes through two other tunnels, crosses nine viaducts and travels under two galleries in almost eight miles.  The spiral tunnels allow trains to  ascend and descend steep hills.  It was amazing to look out and see the train we were riding on curving up the track through the stunning scenery.

Albula Pass the train enters the Albula Tunnel immediately and spirals down to Bever on the way to Samedan.  It’s another outstanding piece of engineering with more spiral tunnels, looping viaducts, galleries, and bridges spanning the Albula Gorge.  The views change.  It is more sparsely wooded with Arven pine and larch trees.  The train follows a river bed that was filling with snow melt.

The train continues through increasingly dramatic scenery, with steep cliffs and Val Bernina’s deep gorges on to Pontresina (1,774 m) and its view of Piz Bernina (the highest summit of the Eastern Alps).

I wish we could have gotten off at Morteratsch station (1,896 m), to do the one-hour hike to the edge of the  Morteratsch Glacier.  Apparently you can hike past posts that track the glacier’s recent retreat.   Our seats were reserved through to Tirano so we stayed put.  If I’d been smart, I would have booked seats  on a later train or stayed over in Pontresina.  Our day turned out pretty stellar anyway.  I even caught some glimpses of blue glacier ice like we saw when we were skiing in Saas Fee.

Continuing on, we saw Lago Bianco and its a broad riverbed.  The Lago Bianco dam marks the watershed between the Danube and the Po.

We even saw some frozen waterfalls.  They must be spectacular in summer when they are filled with snow melt.  This stretch is the highest public railway open year-round.  You have a great view from the Alp Grüm station.  Auf Wiedersehen Deutschsprachigen!  Ciao realtor italiani!

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