How To Board A Car Ferry

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At Vaxholm (in Sweden), we spent an hour picnicking and watching cars embark and disembark from the ferry boats that connect the islands in the Archipelago.  We listened to the waves in the Baltic Sea and watched the process.  This is what we first saw.  The ferry pulls up and docks.  You can see that the gates are just opening and all of the 4 lane lights are red.

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Cars line up on the street (which is a dead-end into the sea) well ahead of the departure time.  We didn’t see a ferry schedule and I’m not sure whether they allow reservations, but there are only so many ferries and only so much space on each ferry.  I would hate to not show up early enough to get a spot.  Plus, you wouldn’t want to miss it.

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They didn’t buy the tickets while waiting in line.  I’m not sure how they sell tickets, whether they are available online ahead of time or someone comes around during the ride to sell them during the ride.  Once the gates are open, the light for lane 4 comes on and cars drive one by one onto the ferry.

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Once the first row is full, they start loading up another row.  In the photo above, you can see a full row.  You can also see the green light has come on for row B to begin loading that row.
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The loading process was very efficient and went quickly.  Once the cars were on, they closed the gate and lowered the bar.  Immediately after, the boat disembarked.

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Not long after that, another boat arrived.

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When boats disembarked, we were sometimes surprised by what came off.  Speeding off the ferry on bicycles looked like fun.  The vehicles exited in an orderly manner.  In the lower photo on the left, you can see they have a sign with a signal that tells which row can exit.

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Can you imagine taking a bus on a Ferry.  They disembarked so quickly that I think the passengers must have traveled inside the bus.  Plus, it didn’t look as though the boat had a passenger cabin.

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Minding The Gap

Why were we here instead of on the highway?

While heading north towards Geneva, we got off the road and got to see the beauty of the Vaucluse department in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region of France.    It’s a good thing it was so beautiful, because our 3-4 hour drive home ended up taking over 8.

You can see why the Tour de France often rides through here.   In fact, they’re headed through there this week.  It’s near Gap and the infamous Mont Ventoux.  The views of the dams and lakes, and mountain scenery are spectacular.

Vaison-la-Romaine

Vaison-la-Romaine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At one time, Vaison-la-Romaine  (which you might remember from the post about Provence’s Ironwork Bell Towers) was the capital for the Voconce people.   It is famous for its ancient Gallo-Roman ruins including a Roman bridge.

The Roman Bridge at Vaison-la-Romaine, Vauclus...

The Roman Bridge at Vaison-la-Romaine, Vaucluse department, Provence, France Français : Le Pont romain de Vaison-la-Romaine, département de Vaucluse, Provence, France (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The bridge is one of five remaining Roman bridges in Provence. It survived a German bomb during the World War II and the Ouvèze River’s devastating floods in 1992.   Vaison has two excavated Roman districts, and an Archaeological Museum.

Stone houses in Vaison-la-Romaine, Vaucluse de...

Stone houses in Vaison-la-Romaine, Vaucluse department, Provence, France Français : Maisons de pierre á Vaison-la-Romaine, département de Vaucluse, Provence, France (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We weren’t the only ones who got off the highway and started taking side roads.  Since it was the edge of the alps, there weren’t many alternatives and the road was packed.  Ironically, it was still less crowded and moved faster than in the south of France.    We entertained ourselves by counting the number of people we saw pulled off on the side of the road answering the call of nature (over 10).

If you’re interested in a French vacation without the seemingly ever-present crowds, this is a part of France for you.  If you’re a Tour de France fan, this is also a part of France for you.  If you like simple bucolic beauty, it’s for you too.

I think the photo below is a viaduct on the Grenoble train line  (Chemin de Fer de La Mure/the Mure railway).  We saw it on the route from Orpierre (with its nice swimming hole in Les Gorges de la Méouge) to Grenoble.   It can be reached easily by road from Grenoble, or by trains on the SNCF line towards Gap.

I’m On A Boat! Our Hotel Boat In Stockholm

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He travels a lot for work so he appreciates hotel amenities.  I really don’t care too much about my accommodations as long as they are clean and centrally located.  I’m so cheap that I’m bad.  Very, very bad.  I’ve stuck him in all kinds of hovels.  Stockholm isn’t a cheap city, luckily there are some great places that are easy on the budget, centrally located, have great views (see above and below), have a great on site pub and provide a unique experience.  You can stay on boat hotels in the Södermalm neighborhood (both on the Riddarfjärden and the Stadsgardsleden sides of the link to Gamala Stan).

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They had bikes you could borrow and cool lounges, but the best part was the amazing view from the seats (some of which were in lifeboats) on the upper deck.  We sat there taking in the views, enjoying the sunset and singing The Lonely Island‘s (with T-Pain) “I’m On A Boat” from the movie Stepbrothers.

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I give mad props to people in the Navy who live like this on a long-term basis.  The room was tiny, but had everything we needed.  We even had our own bathroom (It is something that he appreciates, but I have no problem foregoing.  Just ask him about the hovel I stuck us in when we visited Dublin).

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We had some new experiences in the bathroom.  I’d never showered in a place like this.  It was tight (so tight that you can see my toes standing on the toilet lid), but workable.  Everything fit in there like a masterful game of Tetris.  It was impressive and surprisingly easy to use.

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The best part of the room itself was the view from our porthole.  Amazing!

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Scams, Part Deux

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My favorite guys (not really), scammers, are out on the streets in Paris.  Although I previously wrote about scams and shell games, they abound and I have new photos.  Notice how they walk away in one of the pictures, that is because a cop had just walked into view.  Thieves, fraudsters, crooks, hucksters and n’eerdowell’s abound and there’s no way I could cover it all in my previous posts.  Here are some more scams you should be aware of.

Crowded trains/trams/busses provide abundant opportunities for pickpockets (beware on Geneva‘s public transport).  Pay attention.  Keep your hands on your bag.  Don’t put your wallet in your back pocket.  Pay attention to other passengers bumping and knocking into you.

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In a crowded train heist (common in Italy), dozens of future passengers squeeze their way into the train car, bus or tram a few minutes before departure. They exit just before the doors close and it departs, taking valuables with them.

See newspapers not only as a source of news, but as a handy screen.   I had a friend lose an iPhone to a nice old gentleman with a newspaper at a coffee bar.  Thieves don’t have to be old.  Beware of children (or anyone) waving a newspaper in your face.  It doesn’t have to be a newspaper.  If someone’s invading your personal space, you’re distracted.  It’s then really easy for a partner to come swipe your valuables.  Pay attention!

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Guys are suckers for pretty women.  Friends of mine are no exception.  They would strongly advise you to beware of pretty girls, especially those who invite you to meet them at a bar for a drink or suggest a restaurant.  Sometimes, they disappear and you get left with an insane bill.  The owners of the establishment are not usually open to discussion or negotiation.  You were warned.

I’ve always been afraid that someone will walk away with my camera.  It’s part of the reason you don’t see many pictures of the two of us together.  It turns out that I’ve got something else to worry about.  Sometimes those offering to pose with you in the cool period costume will have a partner willing to snap the picture.  They then hold your camera for ransom until you’ve paid for the most expensive picture of your life.   I’ll settle for cropping his fingers out of the picture like in the photo above.

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If something seems to good to be true, it is.  Don’t be a sucker.  If a taxi, rickshaw or any other mode of transport driver takes you to a store where the leather, jewelry, watches are priced low, there is a reason.

While we’re on the subject of cabbies, beware of inflated fares.  Check with your hotel to make sure your destination is open to avoid the it’s closed, but I know a better one just down the road problem.  You could also make them take you there to prove it.  Look for a license (if possible), otherwise, it’s just like hitchhiking with a price tag.

While not really a scam, I hate being taken or paying more than I have to.  In markets, stall/shop owners will frequently ask where you’re from.  They don’t do this because they want to make friends with you or just to get you to linger over their goods.  They are working out how much to charge you.  Obviously, if you come from a wealthy countries like the US, they think you have more money to spend.   Be careful with your answer, give and obscure/evasive answer.

 

The Paris Subway Iconic Signs

DSC_0639_2The Paris Métro‘s art nouveau entrances and art deco candelabras are iconic.  They are almost as readily recognizable as the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe or the Louvre.  The smell of the subway is almost equally iconic, but fortunately not as easily expressed via the internet.  

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A French friend explained to us that for something to be popular in France, it must be beautiful, even if it means sacrificing function.  A lot of Paris’ beauty and charm lies in the elegance of everyday life.  These subway signs are a perfect manifestation of this.

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These “edicule” entrances were designed by the architect, Hector Guimard in 1899.  Some conservative Parisians considered them too fanciful.  Some saw the wrought-iron stems clutching glowing reddish balls, pistils and stamens of flowers, as suggestive. Eventually, acceptance grew.  Nevertheless, they didn’t have the appreciation they enjoy today.  Many of the signs were torn down over the years, in the name of modernization.  Eventually, Paris recognized their beauty, value and symbolic power. In the late 70’s the remaining ones were declared historic landmarks.  At the end of the century, they restored the remaining art nouveau Metro entrances.

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Cool huh?  We aren’t the only ones who think so.  The New York Modern Art Museum bought the old wrought-iron railings from a Metro entrance.  They are on display as a pioneering, beautiful example of art nouveau.

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Les Incompetents Vol. 12 – Don’t Forget Your Train Pass

He left for work and forgot his wallet (with his public transport pass inside).  Wouldn’t you know it, that was the day the TPG (Geneva Public Transport) decided to check passengers for their passes.  In Geneva, you don’t have to show a ticket to get on a tram or bus.  Periodically, TPG officers will board busses and trams to check tickets.  They issue steep fines to riders without tickets.  Riders without any form of identification (to properly issue the fine) are taken into custody!

He had enough identification on him to allow them to check and see he had a TPG pass.  He received a fine that he will not have to pay if he brings his pass to the TPG office.  Of course, this being Switzerland, you still have to pay a small fee.

On a side note, I heard a hilarious story about one of the TPG checks.  It seems to be some sort of urban legend here.  Who knows whether or not it is true?  A woman took the only available seat on the tram next to an immigrant.  She began complaining loudly about immigrants, how they should go back home, and how generally horrible they were.   TPG officials boarded that tram and began checking tickets.  Immediately before the officials came to check their tickets, the man about whom she had been complaining grabbed her small paper ticket out of her hand, popped it in his mouth, quickly chewed and swallowed it.  When the officials came, she was without a ticket.  Proclaiming her innocence and claiming the man next to her ate her ticket was not enough to prevent her from being issued a fine.  Everyone who witnessed the incident remained silent, having been so offended by her behavior and remarks.

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.

An Interesting Bus Ride To Lugano

The Bernina Express deposited us in sunny Tirano, Italy.  It’s not a big town.  We planned to stay the night in Lugano.   Switzerland’s railway network provides bus transport from Tirano to Lugano.  Easy peasy.

It is a 2 hour trip through through the Valtelina Valley, past Veltlin‘s vineyards, along the banks of Lake Como, and climbs the mountain to Lake Lugano (Lago di Lugano or Ceresio).  While it’s not a naturally beautiful as the Bernina Express, it is interesting (and air-conditioned).

The bus route was operated by an Italian transport company. Rhätische Bahn (Rhaetian Railway) now has the Swiss Postbus operating it.  Postal buses serve more rural hard to reach areas in Switzerland (very useful for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts).

Our Swiss driver must have grown up driving narrow, winding mountain roads because he did a great job.  Several times, he had to honk heading into tiny towns.  This let cars on the opposite side of town know not to enter the town’s narrow streets.  The roads are not wide enough for more than one vehicle at a time.  I don’t mean one in each direction.  I mean they are only wide enough for a single vehicle.  Every once in awhile, there was a wisenheimer who thought he could make through.  They had to back out of town on the narrow roads because there was no way they were getting past our bus.

The experience confirmed that I should never take a bus tour.  It was all I could do not to get up and run from one side of the bus to the other taking pictures.

Note:  If you are interested in taking this route, please be aware that the bus doesn’t run year-round.

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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