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.

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What You Can Learn From License Plates In Switzerland

In Switzerland, license plates are assigned based on experience, thus low number plates usually indicate someone who has been driving a long time (i.e., an old person). Larger cantons (GE, ZH, etc.) have more cars and so the numbers on the plates extend much higher.

Very low numbers (e.g., “GE 3”) usually are assigned to taxis. On government cars have a single letter (instead of the canton): “A” for administration, “M” for military. There are no personalized license plates.

Diplomatic plates are all over Geneva.  They have CD in a blue square on the left of the plate.

Each canton (like a state) has its own abbreviation.  When you are in the parking lot of a ski resort, you are easily able to tell where the other skiers live in Switzerland.  I find looking at them is helpful in learning the coat of arms for each canton.

The abbreviations for the cantons (listed in German, French Italian and English) are:

Often, you see EU (European Union) plates in Geneva.  It’s understandable given our proximity to France.  Sometimes, you even see foreign plates.

I once saw US plates while I was riding on the bus.  Sorry, I couldn’t get a photo.


 

Why Fasnacht, Basel’s Carnival Celebration Takes Place After Ash Wednesday?

FasnachtBasel’s Carnival celebration, starts the Monday after Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday.  Carnival in Rio, Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Carnival in Venice, and the overwhelming majority of Carnival celebrations end on Fat Tuesday with the start of lent on Ash Wednesday.  Why then does Basel’s Carnival take place the week after lent has started?  There are several theories.

It is thought to be Protestant Basel’s response to the Catholic idea of giving up things for Lent.  As Protestants they believe in moderation all the time.  Throwing one heck of a party and indulging of all manners of excess only to renounce them doesn’t fit with their philosophy.  Some argue that it is this aversion to lent that causes them to hold it later.

Others argue that it is a desire to provoke neighboring Catholics, who are already fasting.

Basel’s Carnival celebrations began a half-week after Ash Wednesday even before the reformation.  In Basel, Lent did not begin until the week after Ash Wednesday because people fasted on Sundays as well (to achieve their 40 days of fast).  This would also explain why Basel’s Carnival begins on Monday mornings.

Some Swiss say Baslers do it just to be difficult and/or different.

By the way, other towns with Fasnacht include: Bern, Liestal, Luczern, Olten, Rapperswil, Constance, Oltn, Winterthur, and Weil der Stadt.

 

What Makes Basel’s Carnival Different?

Basel has the only Protestant Carnival celebration in this part of the world.  As a result, they do things a bit differently.  Don’t worry, it is still tons of fun.  Here are some of the ways in which Basel’s carnival is unique:

  • The instruments in Basel are mainly fifes/piccolos/flutes and drums.  This makes the music reminiscent of military tattoos.
  Most of the songs sound like they were composed to march to.  I even recognized a couple (Dixie and Battle Hymn of the Republic).

  • Some carnival celebrations are an orgy of drunkenness, license and excess.  Basel’s Protestant character and general Swissness means that obnoxious behavior, lewdness and inappropriately revealing attire are unwelcome.  Unlike more fleshy and raucous celebrations, imagination, satire, wonder and magic are the order of the day.

  • The Reformation made efforts to suppress the carnival.  During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Catholic church also tried to end it because of its subversive aspects.  During this time, celebrations continued in the form of a “feast day”.  For this reason, Basel’s carnival is not called Carnival, but instead Fastnacht (which refers to the fast after the feast).  Military guilds were involved in these celebrations and influenced today’s celebrations.  Doubtless, the marching by numberous organized groups, the fife and drum music and the tattoo-like parading were all influenced by them.

  • German immigrants brought carnival traditions with them.  You see their influence in the lanterns, elaborate parades, floats and marchers displaying large caricature heads (that often lampoon public figures and politicians).

  • Enormous float-size lanterns satirically depict current topics and public figures.  Many of this year’s floats addressed the financial crisis.

  • Poets and songwriters compose humorous commentary on current affairs, much of which lampoons politicians. They recite them in pubs and play the songs in the street.  These are written in the Basel dialect, so that only locals can understand the airing of the city’s dirty laundry.

 

Fasnacht (Basel’s Carnival) Is Days Of Fun

On the Sunday night after Mardi Gras, Carnival celebrations (known as Fasnacht) in the Basel area, start at the nearby town of Liestal, with Chienbesen, a huge, bonfire parade.  Fire lights up the cobblestoned streets and cast shadows.  Eventually, participants return to Basel for the famous Morgestraich parade of lanterns through the city centre.  It starts at 4:00 a.m. and continues for several days.

Approximately 12,000 people take part in the festivities!  A Carnival Committee with select Cliques to participate in the celebration.  Each Clique makes giant cartoonish papier-mâché masks, costumes, lanterns and usually a float.  Most Cliques design theirs around a theme.

The streets were already packed when we arrived at 3:20.  We made our way to the center of town, wondering where we needed to go to observe the festivities.  In broken German, I asked someone where to go to see Fasnacht.  They responded “anywhere.”  At the time, I didn’t find it particularly helpful, but they were right.  People line the streets and it wasn’t hard to find the floats.  We wandered up the empty streets, past the sidewalks packed with people until we found an empty space where we could stand.  People who were much better prepared had staked out any and all available high ground from to view the parade.

Right on cue at 4:00 a.m., the parade started.  It was magical, worth the sleeplessness (even while nursing a cold), and something I know we will never forget.  Post-parade, participants and observers alike crowd into bars and restaurants fill Basel’s bars and cafes to warm up, hydrate and fill their bellies.

The streets do not remain silent for long.  The Cliques resume strolling the streets, but in a less organized way following a seemingly random route. This is known as ‘Gässle’. People wander the streets following them.

Although it probably doesn’t have the racousness of Rio’s streets during carnival, it has a cheery, warm, even joyous vibe.

Cliques have to take breaks.  I did a bit of investigation to find out how they keep warm and their energy up.

Not all participants dipped into the sauce.  We saw many children playing instruments and marching.  There were so many of them that we joked flute and drums were the only music instruments taught in Basel’s schools.  Seriously, there were thousands upon thousands of musicians playing those two instruments (and doing it quite well).

There are several more parades during which Waggis throw goodies to the crowds.  Waggis are hardly incognito.  They have gigantic plaster heads with bibulous noses and large frizzy wigs.  They also roam the streets, sneaking up on, chasing people and showering them with confetti (and in some cases stuffing it down their backs).

They only throw single colored, not multi-colored, confetti.  Back in the day confetti sellers decided to only sell single colored confetti so that people could tell if confetti was reused (aka, scooped up off the dirty ground).  Once fresh confetti was easily identifiable, using anything else became taboo.  Confetti sellers are still patting themselves on the back over that one.

Courtesy of badische-seiten.de

Finally, Gugge, a sort of concert by brass bands that morphs into a musical parade, start-up and continue past midnight.  In the evening while the Gugge’s roam the streets, Schnitzelbank singers entertain the revelers with satirical songs and verse about current events in restaurants and bars.

Morgestreich, An Early Morning Parade During Basel’s Carnival Celebration

Basel, Switzerand’s Carnival celebration, Fasnacht, starts with the Morgestraich parade at four o’clock on the Monday morning after Ash Wednesday.  When clocks strike four, the entire city goes black.  When the streetlights go out, a magical atmosphere envelops the city and the tens of thousands assembled to watch gasp.

Lanterns are lit and fife and drum music starts to waft through the streets.  Masked marchers in strange, whimsical costumes, and large caricature heads form eerie processions through the streets.

Each group has their own costume, theme music and immense float-like lantern  (that requires four large men to carry them).

Some marchers carry colorful lanterns attached to the ends of long poles.

Floats and marchers displaying large caricature heads often lampoon regional and national politicians.  Many of this year’s themes were financial.

Although the streets are crowded, the atmosphere is warm, festive and mysterious.  At five o’clock the city lights come back on, marchers and spectators take a break and warm themselves at inns and taverns.  With all the bizarrely costumed patrons, it slightly resembles the bar in Star Wars.

Popular foods include: Basler Mehlsuppe/Carnival Soup (a thick brown flour soup), Zwiebelwähe (onion tart) and Fastenwähe, a caraway-seed pretzel.

Basel’s Carnival festival, Fasnacht, is one of Europe’s top 50 festivals and does not disappoint.  The atmosphere is magical and the experience unforgettable.