The Giger Bar, One Cool (And Slightly Surreal) Joint

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Most people have seen Hans Rudolf “Ruedi” Giger‘s work, even if they don’t know who he is.  Giger is best known as the designer for Ridley Scott‘s Alien movies, for which he won an Oscar.   Incredibly creative, he paints and sculpts too.   Giger was way ahead of his time in foreseeing the increasingly close relationship between the human body and machines.

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The Château St. Germain in Gruyères (yep, like the cheese), Switzerland houses the H. R. Giger Museum, which is a permanent repository of his work.  The nearby Giger Bar is a stunning, slightly surreal bar designed by him.   Built in 2003, it was way ahead of its time, foreseeing the increasingly close relationship between the human body and machines.  There are two Giger Bars; the other is in his hometown of Chur in the  Graubünden Canton of Switzerland.

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Giger excels at represent human bodies and machines in a cold, but connected, intriguing way.  Sitting in the bar, you feel like you’re in the belly of the beast.  It is an incredibly imaginative and slightly surreal mixture of skeleton and fantasy.

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While it’s dark, structural and even biomechanical, it’s not cold.   We went early and at an off hour so that we could fully explore the place.   We oohed and aahed as we discovered details everywhere.  It definitely makes for an unforgettable drink.

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The ceiling has the skeletal structure of vertebrae, like a fantastic ossuary.

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Once upon a time (the 1980’s), there was another Giger Bar in Tokoyo.  Unfortunately Giger wasn’t as involved in that one.  Its design was constrained by earthquake codes.  Perhaps most damagingly, it became a hangout for the Yakuza.  Giger disowned it and never even entered.

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By the way, Giger is spelled with only one ‘e’.  Hans Geiger, known for his work on the radiation measuring known as the Geiger Counter, was German.

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Chur, We Can’t Pronounce It But We Liked It

Chur, the capital of the Graubünden canton (state/province), is Switzerland’s oldest city.  It has been continuously inhabited since Roman times, but archaeological evidence has turned up evidence of inhabitation in the bronze and iron ages (over 11,000 years ago).

Like many european towns, Chur’s old town is car-free.  This helps give it a great atmosphere.  In 1464, much of Chur burned in a massive fire.  It was rebuilt by German artisans who left their mark. The old town is rich with great architecture that looks a bit more German than the nearby Heidiland.

It is one the largest city with the most amenities between Zurich and Milan.  Better yet, it has hiking trails and ski lifts that leave from the city itself!  About 50% of the area around the city is forests.  In a matter of minutes, you can walk from the old town to mountain forests.  Love it!

Chur has the highest average temperature of all Swiss cities.  Its location in a protected valley at foot of important Alpine passes gives it the “Föhn”, (a warm wind from the Swiss mountains). and wins with his vineyards a special picture.  Graubünden, is famous for its fine wines.  Some of the more famous ones,  Gravedona, Menaggio, Dongo, are the names of nearby towns.

Wine isn’t the only thing to drink in Chur.  Mineral quality water flows from the city’s taps and fountains.  We tasted it.  They weren’t lying.  It’s pretty darn good.  The water comes from the springs in the nearby Rabiosa Gorge (4 km/2.5 miles from Chur).

Although we had a wonderful meal filled with local specialities, Chur is cosmopolitan enough to boast over 130 divers restaurants that include French, Italian, Spanish, Thai, Japanese, Greek, Portuguese, Indonesian and Chinese.  That’s not bad for a little town in Heidiland.

We visited Chur in eastern Switzerland because it was the starting point for the Bernina Express, one of Switzerland’s epic train journeys.  After a visit, we’ve deemed it worthy of a return trip.  It’s a cute town and a great starting point for outdoor activities.  It is also a convenient place from which to travel to the more expensive St. Moritz, Davos and Klosters.

Chur is not pronounced like you might expect.  To complicate matters, it is pronounced differently in Swiss German, French and Italian.  In French (don’t quote me not this) it is pronounced like “Coire.”  In Swiss German, it sounds like “Kur.”  When in doubt, just point to it on a map, smile and pull our your best “bitte,” “mercy,” or “prego”.

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!

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.