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.

 

I Have Spent More On Highway Tolls Than Shopping In France

Yes.  That title, although said, is true.  Let me explain.

While some highways and bridges in the US need of repair, our highway system is pretty extensive.  For the most part, it’s cheap or free.  Switzerland got a late start building their highway system.  They haven’t even finished it yet.  In typical Swiss fashion, it is extraordinarily engineered and well maintained.  Their infrastructure is impressive; our visitors are always amazed by the tunnels.  Some of it is also rigged to blow.    Foreigners who drive through Switzerland complain about having to pay for vignettes, stickers that allow the vehicle to travel on Swiss highways.  You purchase them at the border (or at the post office) for 40 CHF and they are good all year.

Not surprisingly, they do things a bit differently in France.  Here are some of the main differences:

Highways in France require paying tolls.  Lots of them.  I can’t remember exactly how much we spent in tolls heading from Geneva to the south of France and back, but it was well over 100 Euro and probably more like 200 Euro.  It was too painful to tabulate and made Switzerland’s 40 CHF vignette look like a bargain.

Highways in France are privatized.  Therefore, if your car happened to break down on one,  your auto service cannot come get you.  Only certain specified highway-approved tow trucks are allowed to come get your car.  I learned this little tidbit of information the hard way.  In case you were wondering, you must always pay the toll when exiting the highway… even when your car exits on the back of a truck.

Rest areas in France are a little different than in North Carolina.  They serve real food… and wine.  I was busy worrying about my car and chatting with the police, the tow truck driver, etc., so I didn’t partake (not that I had to worry about driving in the near future).  It looked pretty tasty.

Description unavailable

Description unavailable (Photo credit: Alain Bachellier)

On some highways in France, they have wildlife overpasses (also known as wildlife crossings) for animals to cross the highway.  A practice in habitat conservation, it connects habitats, countering fragmentation.  They also help prevent animals from entering onto the highway, avoiding the resulting accidents.   Below is a photo of one of them.  Sorry I couldn’t take one, but I was busy driving.  It’s handy to avoid the scene above…or worse.

Français : Autoroute A19 – Ouvrage dédié au pa...

Français : Autoroute A19 – Ouvrage dédié au passage de la faune (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Les Incompetents Vol. 10: Nothing Beats The Simple Pleasure Of A Bike Ride

Making a Jet d’Eau by pedaling

We finally got our bikes out of the our basement bomb shelter and went for a ride.   The weather had been so nice, how could we not?  Actually, we got them out a while ago, but I didn’t bring my camera along on that ride.  This time, I was a little wiser.

Note the stiff breeze

The good news is that we went for a bike ride, made it back in once piece and successfully investigated beaches for the summer.  The bad news is that (a) Geneva isn’t flat, (b) we didn’t look take the weather into account, and (c) we didn’t bring our passports so we couldn’t go across into France.

A team from Lake Geneva won the America’s Cup a few years ago. Seeing a sailing competition as we were heading out of Geneva should have been our first clue that it would be quite windy.

Traffic wasn’t a problem.   I wish we could say the same for the hills.  Living in Eaux-Vives, there is nowhere to go but up… literally.  Switzerland isn’t flat and we can’t bike more than a kilometer without heading up a big hill (or two).   A couple of years ago, we biked from Lisbon to Sagres and Sagres to Spain (with A2Z Adventures on a fantastic trip).   Portugal isn’t flat either.  Heading uphill on a bike on a sunny day, he had flashbacks.

The morning of our ride, I took our visitors to the airport on the tram and squeezed in a quick 7 miles by running home.  After breakfast, we decided to go for a bike ride.  From our window, we couldn’t tell how windy it was.  Heading up the lakeside to Hermance, we had a tailwind and didn’t really notice the wind’s strength.  Even when we reached Hermance, and saw a kite surfer, we didn’t think about biking back in the wind.

We checked out the Hermance‘s beach, did a tour of the cute town, and rode on to the border.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t go into France because we forgot to bring our passports.  Ooops.

This stream is the border between France and Switzerland

We rode back toward Geneva, straight into a headwind…the entire way.  Even though we wanted to see more aggrestic splendor, I was pooped.  How did I not notice the wind?  There were signs.  Flags, sailing competitions, kite surfing…  How could I have been so blind.   By the time we hit Geneva, my legs were burning and I was hungry enough to eat the back end out of a dead rhino.  After we put our bikes away, we ate an insane amount of chocolate, collapsed on the couch and watched Top Gear.

Despite our unpreparedness, it was a great ride.  We saw here were amazing views of Lac Leman (Lake Geneva), the Alps and Mont Blanc.  Switzerland is very cycle-friendly and we saw tons of other bikers.  Cars were considerate and seemed used to cyclists.  Unlike cycling in North and South Carolina, we weren’t honked at a single time!  Indiscriminate honking is frowned upon here as it may disturb others, definitely a cultural difference.

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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Pont Du Gard

Pont du Gard is an imposing viaduct built by the Romans.  Frankly, at over 2000 years old it’s amazing that it is still standing.  The engineering behind it is even more astonishing.  We’d heard that it was pretty cool from Hokie over at The Swiss Watch Blog.  When Magglio, the Luger and Sneaky Pete visited, we made a trip to check it out.

In 19 B.C., Roman emperor, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (Augustus’ son-in-law) built it.  The Pont du Gard carried water across the Gard river valley, 25 km (15.5 miles) west of Avignon.

It wasn’t an isolated piece of infrastructure.  It was part of a larger nearly 50 km (31 mi) aqueduct.  The system brought water from springs near Uzès to Nîmes (known in Roman times as Nemausus) with a slight grade.  Its 34 cm/km (1/3000) grade its entire 50 km.  Walking around, you can see other parts of this system.

It took between 800 and 1000 men about three years to build.  When it was completed, it transported 20,000 cubic meters (44 million gallons) of water daily.  Constructed without the use of mortar (bearing masonry), its stones are held together by iron clamps.  Some of the stones weigh 6 tons.  They were moved into place using a complex system winch system.  You can still see the remains of the supports for the complex scaffolding.

Not a Peugeot or a Citroen but a Mazda

As the Roman Empire declined, they began to worry more about the barbarians at the gates than maintenance of their infrastructure. Deposits filled up a majority of the channel space. It was unusable by the 9th century.  Once it wasn’t useful for delivering water, people took what they could from it, taking stones for other purposes.  It was also used as a footbridge across the river.

In the 18th century, the aqueduct was restored.  Even by this time, it was tourist attraction. Additional restorations were done under the reign of Napoleon III in the mid-19th century.  The workers carved their names in the stonework.  These aren’t the only graffiti.  The original Roman workers also carved their names.  French masons over the years have also left their markings.   It looks like way more work than a can of spray paint, but clearly lasts much longer.  I am not suggesting tagging monuments, only noting that graffiti has been around since before the birth of Christ and impressed that we can still see it.

The Pont du Gard is an amazing piece of engineering and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It is so impressive that it is easy to overlook its beautiful surroundings.  Enjoy the three-tiered series of stone arches, just don’t forget to enjoy the rest of the view.  It is a great place to take a dip, picnic or fly a kite.

You were warned

 

Geneva Auto Show

Many US cities have auto shows (Detroit, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Cleveland, Columbus, Portland, Minnesota’s Minneapolis/Twin Cities, Orange County (OC), New York, Miami, South Florida, St. Louis, Richmond, Los Angeles (LA), Seattle, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Silicon Valley).  Click here for a 2012 auto show schedule and here for a list of Motor Trend shows.  He has even been to the Detroit show several times.  I’ve never been, so I was excited to see what it was all about.  The Geneva Motor Show is held at Palexpo every March.

Last Friday, we had date night.  I picked him up after work, but didn’t tell him where we were headed.  Tickets to the Geneva Auto Show (officially known as the 82nd International Motor Show and Accessories) are half price after 4:00 p.m., so it was cheaper to go to the car show than to go to a movie!  Although we know people who spent days there, a few hours was enough time for us to hit the highlights.  He was pretty excited when he realized where we were headed and we had a really good time.

“You got cars, they got rims.” There were countless booths filled with rims.

The show isn’t just cars, there is also a hall full of accessories booths.  From rims, to tools to garage doors, to car washes, it has just about everything auto-related you can imagine.  Walking through that hall, he said it reminded him of a trade show.

These doors are made to be opened by your driver.

Since this is Geneva, there were luxury cars galore.

Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?

I loved the matte paint job.

BMW 6 Series Grand Coupe

Despite the hype about the new Bentley SUV, the only thing we liked about the car was its sweet rims. We predict you will see these on Cribs soon.

You can see their appointment to the queen in the top right corner. He liked the Aston Martins better.

The name is Bond, James Bond. Yeah, baby.

Car enthusiasts were jazzed about the new concept cars (also known as prototypes), cars made to showcase new styling or technology .  Many of them were electric.  While these are not yet on the market, they provide a glimpse into what what we’ll see in the future.

BMW i8 Concept Car

The American Car companies were there and they offered great value for the money, running much less than comparable European models.

Chinese automakers were also there.  I’ve seen several SsangYong‘s around Geneva.

Some booths offered entertainment like foosball or a simulated driving game.

He was expecting to see more models, but apparently they only hire models in evening gowns and cocktail dresses for the press days and special events. The cars were the real eye candy.  The sports cars were some of the biggest attractions; they just looked sweet.

Kids loved this car.

Many of the exhibitors restored or modified cars.  I have never seen as many flip-up doors.  It was like a giant episode of Pimp My Ride.

Some of the modifications were more useful.

You can buy cars at the auto show.  Each of us decided on the three we wanted.  His top three: Aston Martin (any of them), the Jeep Cherokee and the Tesla Sedan.

Being small, I love a small car.  I wanted a Mini and any Lotus.  Although I am sure this phrase has never been written, for my third, the Maybach edged out the Smart Car.  The champagne in the back helped sell me.

Sorry Smart, you lost by a nose. If it is any consolation, I am more likely to buy you in real life since I can’t afford a Maybach.

 

Fancy A Turbosieste? Powernap National Day in Switzerland

I have been remiss. I let a Swiss holiday pass without so much as a word.  My apologies. In my defense, until a few days ago, I wasn’t even aware that Turbosieste National Day existed.  For those of you who don’s speak French, it means “National Powernap Day”.   What a holiday!

How do you celebrate Turbosieste ( aka Turboschlaf in German and Turbosieste in Italian) National Day?  Powernapping in public places.

Powernapping in private is also a common and acceptable (and common) means of celebrating.  On March 14, 2012 from 2:00 – 2:15 p.m. everyone in Switzerland was asked to stop what they were doing for a 15 minute nap!

Driving can be dangerous and is even more so on the steep and windy roads that cut through Switzerland’s mountains.  Driver fatigue is the cause of 10-20% of the accidents here. To prevent driver fatigue and avoid accidents, the Swiss launched a public service campaign.  It encourages pulling off to the side of the road to nap when tired.

I’m not sure that people would feel safe sleeping roadside or at a rest area in the US.  Michael Jordan‘s father was famously murdered while napping at a rest area in the US.  However, Switzerland is quite safe and there isn’t much danger of being robbed or killed roadside.  It is the number one country for the powernap (yet another reason to come visit).

Click here  for a short video about the Turbosieste on YouTube.

 

Another Fine Mess, Fines In Switzerland

In a country where personal responsibility, obeying the rules and money are all taken very seriously, fines are inevitable.  We have heard that you need to budget 1000-2000 CHF a year for fines.  Thankfully, we’ve only had one ticket thus far.

Here, a diverse array of behaviors are punishable by fine. Here are some interesting Swiss fines:

  • Highest speeding ticket in Switzerland (tickets are on a percentage of income)
  • Naked hiking (instead of banning it, they just decided to fine naked hikers…uber Swiss)
  • Entering a private drive
  • Putting your recyclables in the bins on a Sunday or holiday

A friend of ours was unlucky enough to get her car towed. Five hours = 250 CHF or $275. Ouch.

 

Why CH?

If you have looked at any Swiss websites, you may have noticed that their country abbreviation is “ch”. This is also the country code/abbreviation you see on cars, money and stamps.

What does the CH stand for?  Confederatio Helvetica. Just don’t ask me how to pronounce it.

Switzerland has four official languages (French, German, Italian and Romansh) that each have their own word for Switzerland.  To not favor any one language, the Swiss use the Latin term for Switzerland, Confederatio Helvetica.  Problem solved.

Who were the Helvetians?  They were a tribe that lived in Switzerland that were beaten by Julius Cesar in 58 B.C.   They lived (more or less) in the borders of modern day Switzerland.  This isn’t terribly surprising as modern day Switzerland follows natural geographic boundaries (the Rhine, the Rhone, the Alps and the Jura).