Switzerland’s Panoramic Train, The Bernina Express

When you look at advertisements for Swiss trains, you often see pictures of a train crossing an imposing stone viaduct through the mountain wilderness.  This photo is on the Bernina-Express, the Rhaetian Railway, from Graubünden to Veltlin.  The portion between Thusis and Tirano is a UNESCO world heritage site, the third train to receive such an honor.  It received the distinction for its combination of engineering and impressive scenery.

Completed in 1910, you can take it from Chur (on the Albula Railway), St. Moritz or Davos, to Tirano, Italy.  On the way, It passes through 55 tunnels, crosses 196 bridges and overcomes gradients of up to 7%.  Incredibly, it does it all without the benefit of a cogwheel drive (rack and pinion).

The Bernina Express, which is one of Switzerland’s special panoramic train journeys.  The cars have larger windows to for a better view of the amazing scenery.  I hear that in the summer there are open air trains.  They would be great to avoid the glare.

The best part about the Bernina Express is the dramatic change in scenery during the four-hour ride.  It starts in  near Heidiland in Chur.  You pass farms, cows and even vineyards.  Not long after, the train hits the Domleschg Valley (famous for Turner’s romantic paintings of it).  The valley is strategically positioned on the route to three main Alpine passes (the Splügen Pass, the San Bernardino Pass and the Julier Pass) and is rich with castles that were built to control these trade routes.

For at least 20 minutes, there is always a castle in view.  We oohed and aahed over the castles, having no idea just how much cooler it was about to get.

Landwasser Viaduct

Landwasser Viaduct (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rhaetian Railway Glacier Express on the Landwa...

Rhaetian Railway Glacier Express on the Landwasser Viaduct entering the Landwasser tunnel Français : Un train franchissant le viaduc de Landwasser et entrant dans le tunnel du même nom, sur la ligne Glacier Express des Chemins de fer rhétiques. Español: El tren suizo Glacier Express cruzando el puente Landwasser y entrando al viaducto del mismo nombre. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From the Domleschg Valley, the train climbs to the famous Landwasser Viaduct shown above.  Constructed from stone, it is one of the world’s most famous railway viaducts and in most Swiss tourism brochures.  Built in 1902, it necessitated the development of new construction methods.  They didn’t use scaffolding.  Instead, they built steel towers and covered them in stone.  Notice the sheer drop exiting the tunnel?  Construction started there!

Unfortunately, these were the best shots I could get.  I love to take pictures and hate to sit still, but was worried about being rude leaning over people.  The guys above had no problem leaning over groups of four to film or get their shot.  After seeing everyone else out of their seats snapping away, I decided to get up and stand in an empty area.  My pictures improved dramatically.  I’ll post more about the journey tomorrow.

Interlaken, Your Starting Point For Canyoning, Base Jumping, Skiing or Hiking in the Bernese Oberland

Interlaken is a main town in Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland.  It is conveniently located on some flat land between Lake Thun and Lake Brienz. The best reason to go there isn’t the town itself, but its proximity to the lakes, storied mountains like the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, fabulous valleys (like Laterbrunnen) and stellar views like that from Schlithorn.  As such, it is a convenient starting point for many outdoor activities.

The town has been a tourist hub since early in the 19th century.  Interlaken has an assortment of cute old buildings. With a few exceptions, they have been able to keep many older buildings and retain their impressive mountain views (we find the views from areas further back town the mountains even better).

The Bernese Oberland Railway and the Jungfrau Railway made Interlaken a convenient transportation hub.  It remains one and Interlaken generally seems more diverse and cosmopolitan than most of the smaller mountain towns.  We saw Indian, Japanese, Korean, Chinese and many other diverse restaurants.  At breakfast, we heard a plethora of languages.

Paragliding, base jumping, skiing, hiking, canyoning, whitewater rafting, kayaking, etc. are available from the area.  If they aren’t your speed, you can sit down at a café and watch others shop for supplies or land in the park at the center of town.  Although we didn’t pay them a visit, we walked past the casino and an adventure park.

 

The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow…Or Just In Time To For It To Set

After a morning’s aborted hike in the mountains and the drive in a snowstorm, we’d lost hope that the weather would turn around or that we would be able to fit in a decent hike.

The weather in Switzerland is changeable  By mid afternoon, the weather Grindelwald had begun to clear.  By late afternoon, we’d taken our coats off.  What’s not to love?

Us…in front of some mountains

A Snowstorm…On Easter?!?

Two weeks ago, we woke up to a snowstorm.  We took the chairlift down so that we wouldn’t get stuck on the mountain.  We went for a drive to on the way to our next stop and saw lots of snowy farms.  Oddly, driving in a snowstorm wasn’t stressful.  It was peaceful and almost calming.

In case you were wondering, we headed from the Interlaken area to Meringen.

Tomorrow, I’ll post pictures from our hike a few hours later.  You’d never know it’d been this grey.

Check out the waterfall

I’m writing this from Lugano with the window open and palm trees in the yard.  Oh, what a difference two weeks make!  

Les Incompetents Vol. 9 – Whimps In An Alpine Snowstorm

Last weekend, we went to bed in Gimmelwald, Switzerland (accessible mainly by cable car) with this view of the Lauterbraunnen Valley in the Bernese Alps.  It could have been clearer, but it’s still a pretty sweet view.  We woke up to this.

And it kept falling.

And falling.

We’re from Michigan, so we’re pretty hardy and decided that even though we were fighting off colds, we could do a few hours of hiking… in a snowstorm… on a mountain.  Yeah.  I know.  We’re geniuses.  Neither of us wanted to be the bigger baby and complain so we kept going.

And going.

Finally, the wind convinced us to turn back.  We decided that it was getting so windy that if it got much worse they might shut down the cable cars and be stuck up there that night.

Note the pitch of the flag and the temperature of -2. Balmy. Especially when I forgot to pack a hat and gloves.

Thankfully, we were able to get down to our car.   We even gave a couple of Aussies (whose paragliding trip had inexplicably been cancelled) a ride to the train station before setting off to see more of Switzerland.

Clearly the weather was ideal at lower altitudes. We ended up having a great time though. I swear, I will tell you all about it.

 

Waking Up To The Moon Over The Eiger

When we have great views of the mountains, I wake up early and take pictures.  I can’t help myself.  When we had a view of Mont Blanc, I did it.  When we were in the Bernese Oberland last weekend, I woke up early in the morning to this view of the moon and the Eiger.    Not too shabby.

 

The Winter Wonderland Of Les Mosses

We went to Les Mosses, near Aigle and Chateau d’Oex, in the Lake Geneva region, to watch a sled dog race.  This charming, picturesque, plateau is situated in a mountain pass.  As a result, it is surrounded by mountains. Covered in snow, it is a winter wonderland.  We almost expected music to fill the air and Santa’s elves to appear.

While it isn’t exactly extreme, and doesn’t have much nightlife this resort offers plenty of activities year-round.  It has a reputation as a good family resort.

Pimp my stroller, Les Mosses edition

In summer, it has nice pedestrian, hiking and mountain bike trailsLake Lioson is known for its fishing.  In winter, well, take your pick.

  • There are T-bars all over the surrounding mountains and beautifully uncrowded slopes.
  • It has almost 20 miles (32 km) of snowshoeing trails.
  • We saw cross-country skiers everywhere, enjoying the almost 27 miles (42 km) of scenic trails.
  • Believe it or not divers enter Lake Lioson in the winter for under-ice diving!
  • Les Mosses approaches learning how to ski from the viewpoint that it is also important to have fun, making it popular with families.  As a result, it has a park with a moving carpet, drag lift, short gentle slopes and enormous inflatable frog.  The park has obstacles, figurines and slaloms to encourage play.

 

The Hunger Games Filming Locations In North Carolina

We used to live in North Carolina and have been to many of the areas where the new movie, The Hunger Games, were filmed.

From http://www.worldatlas.com, Courtesy of GraphicMaps.com

The arena scenes were filmed in Asheville, North Carolina.  It is way cooler than your average quaint little tourist town.  Asheville‘s vibrant streets are filled with cool restaurants, cute shops, art galleries and a large number of good microbreweries.  If you visit, check out:

  • The Biltmore Estate, America’s largest private home, is located there.
  • The same people who built the Biltmore also built the Grove Park Inn.  Its Sunset Terrace, a massive back porch, is situated for an optimal view of the sunset over the mountains.
  • Located in the Appalachian Mountains, there are tons of great hiking and outdoor activities nearby.
  • The Blue Ridge Parkway, one of the world’s most beautiful drives also runs through the mountains nearby.

Other scenes were filmed at the North Fork Reservoir near Black Mountain (not far from Asheville).

Capitol scenes were filmed in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Shallow Hal, The Patriot, and Leatherheads were also shot in Charlotte.

If you are in Charlotte, stop at the US National Whitewater Center.  Our favorite places to eat there are:

Capitol scenes were also filmed in the nearby town Concord, North Carolina.  Concord is best known for its giant NASCAR track, the races held there and its role as the center of the NASCAR industry.  Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby was filmed there.  Homeland, a show popular in the US right now, is also filmed there.

There were outdoor scenes filmed at one of our favorite hiking spots at the DuPont State Forest, North Carolina.  The Last of the Mohicans was also filmed here.   Some of the movie’s most climactic scenes were filmed at its majestic waterfalls.

District 12 is actually Hildebran, Shelby (eat at  Bridge’s Barbecue if you go)  and another one of our favorite hiking spots, the Pisgah National Forest.

 

Chamonix, Skiing In The Death Sport Capital of the World

Chamonix hosted the first Winter Olympics in 1924, so it was a no brainer.   We knew we had to go check it out.  Unfortunately, we didn’t know much about it. The day before skiing Chamonix, I did a bit of research to figure out where to go.

Chamonix is a valley and there are many different places to ski.  Unlike, Saas Fee, Crans Montana, or La Clusaz, there are separate ski resorts, each with their own characteristics and character.

Here’s more or less what I learned about them:

  • Grands Montets – This is one world’s most renowned ski areas with runs for all levels. It is located on the southern side of the valley (translate that into it’s not too sunny).  It is also means that its north face has good snow.  It is one of the Chamonix’s most famous resorts.  It has a snow park with a skier/boarder cross course with various tabletop jumps and rails.  It is open all season.   People go hard and fast here, really hard, really fast.  Experts enjoy the lift that heads 10,820 feet (3 297.9 meters) to some of the world’s steepest, most technically demanding runs.  We’re not that good yet, maybe next year.
  • Les Houches – The upper part is sunny, glorious in the afternoon and good for beginners.  The lower part, below the tree line, doesn’t receive direct sunlight, shielding skiers on windy days.
  • La Flégère – Its location on the northern side of the valley ensures plenty of sun, attracting people on colder days.  Its northern location also yields astounding views of the valley and Mont Blanc.  This is a haven for snowboarders (freestylers will be very happy) and has great natural terrain for it.  It has skiing for a variety lf levels and is a great starting point. The pistes are the valley’s best maintained.
  • Le Brévent – Le Brévent is on the northern side of the valley above downtown Chamonix. Its southern face lots of sunshine and spectacular views across the valley to Mont Blanc and the Aiguille du Midi.  It has something for all levels of skiers and boarders.  While it is not large, there is a cable car link to La Flégère.  We skied both.
  • L’Aiguille du Midi/La Vallee Blanche – The Aiguille du Midi is on of the most famous runs in the world, Valley Blanche. It is 10.5 miles (17 km) long with a decrease in altitude of 12601 feet (3841 meters) into Chamonix.  The real star is the incredible alpine scenery.   While this epic run isn’t appropriate for beginners, advanced, or even upper intermediate skiers who very fit can ski this piste.  While guides are not required, they are recommended in this potentially dangerous environment to avoid danger.  Snowboarders should seek advice on equipment before attempting this.   You don’t want to be one of the ones that goes over the edge.
  • Le Tour – Snowboarders (especially freestylers) go for its sunny, wide-open slopes that are well above the tree line, with varied terrain and have great powder.  There are also runs for beginners and families.  It is popular with locals.
  • It was hard to get good information about Le Levancher (although it is slang for avalanche), Les Tines and Les Praz.  Sorry.  Perhaps someone will post it comments about them.

At the bottom of the valley, there are some slopes for children and beginners that present virtually no challenge.  They include:

  • La Vormaine
  • Les Chosalets near La Tour
  • Le Savoy in Argentiere
  • Les Planards in the center of Chamonix by the cable car to Le Brévent

Chamonix is an adorable town.  In addition to skiing, it is a mecca for extreme sports like mountain climbingice climbingrock climbingextreme skiingparaglidingrafting and canyoning.  Mountain climber Mark Twight christened Chamonix  “the death-sport capital of the world” because of its base for the large number of dangerous sports practiced there.  The less adventurous can take a cable car up, sit and enjoy the view.

Cozy Yet Elegant Megève

The Rothschild’s developed Megève as an alternative to St. Mortiz in the 1920’s.  It’s high end, filled with pretty people, money and stylish places to spend it.  The center of the village is medieval, but don’t start thinking Megève is quiet, sleepy and/or antiquated. There are stylish modern boutique hotels and chalets that look like they were decorated by Axel Veervoordt.  Gourmet restaurants (many rated in the Michelin Guide), chic watering holes and hip clubs abound.  Non-skiers can shop ‘til they drop at upscale boutiques, visit the spa or hit the casino.  If you want to take a nap then rip it up apres ski, this is a good place to do it.

A pedestrian friendly atmosphere dominates Megève and the streets practically invite you to stroll through them.  You can walk from town to the lifts.  Snow melt forms a small river that meanders its way through the village.  In its center is the main square with its traditional church belfry.

While we didn’t see any of the famous horse-drawn sleighs, we were able to see signs of them.  Ski slopes, chalets and around forty active farms surround Megève, adding both character and fresh culinary delights.