Don’t Let The Cows Out!

In the US, we have a strong tradition of property rights.  In theory, every man (and woman) is the king (or queen) of his castle (or trailer) and can do what they want with their land, including barring others from trespassing.  Other countries, like Switzerland, have a different take.  There, landowners are regarded more as stewards of the people’s land.  As a result, Switzerland’s hiking trails (known as WanderwegTourisme Pédestre, and Sentiero Escursionistic in German, French and Italian respectively), cross through people’s property.  With around 60,000 km/37,282 miles of in such a small country, how could they not?

Yellow diamonds mark hiking routes (some cultural trails, old pilgrims’ roads, etc. have brown signposts).  When we first arrived in Switzerland, we weren’t sure whether we would get in trouble for following the trails.  They lead through people’s pastures, woods and yards.  We even followed one right through the middle of someone’s barn!

I know, for an American who grows up with “get off my land,” this is a hard concept to wrap your head around. Farmers receive significant benefits from the government so they don’t seem to mind to much.  If the Swiss government made me a steward of the land and defrayed the cost of my insanely beautiful mountain views, I wouldn’t mind hikers either… as long as they didn’t let my cows loose.

We’ve never seen so many types of cow barriers – and he grew up on a farm!  Amazed by the variety, I started taking pictures of them.  Who knew there were so many different ways to keep cows in?

Note the little ladder for people to walk over on the right side in the photo above. Genius.  Not that it couldn’t be improved by a railing.  Solar powered cow fences like the one below are pretty common.  Now I’ve seen everything.

Some fences are a little more old school.  I like how they wrote “please close the door” in Sharpie (in German) on the gate post.

Whatever you do, be careful, when taking pictures.  Don’t back up into one of these bad boys or you are in for a nasty shock.   Take my word for it.

You see some good old-fashioned American-style barbed wire too.  It’s not good to back up into either.  You’d think I’d learn, but with views like these, it’s easy to be distracted.

The turnstiles are pretty cool, kind of like getting on the subway.   You see, in Switzerland, they take their cows pretty seriously.  If you have tasted their dairy, you know why.  In fact, it was just in the news last week that dairy farmers in Switzerland are field-testing a new device that allows cows to send texts to show they are, um, feeling frisky.  Yep.  You read that correctly.   Some Swiss cows are have sensors that gauge their readiness to mate and sends their owner a text message when they’re in heat.

Whatever you do, just be sure to close the gate and don’t let the cows out!  Who knows what kind of trouble they could get up to?

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Why Hiking In Switzerland Is Wunderbar

 

We have been traveling a lot lately, but we spent most of the summer in Switzerland.  Switzerland is wonderful in the summer.  We love it, in part, because it is a hiking mecca.  Here are some reasons why hiking in Switzerland is wunderbar.

  • cable cars
  • there is plenty of opportunity to hike above the tree line, affording breathtaking views

  • the trails are incredibly well-marked and well-maintained
  • the trails are everywhere, they criss-cross the country, including the cities
  • its cities are compact so you are out of the city into the mountains quickly
  • the views are varied
  • at the end of almost every hike, there is a crystal clear blue lake to dip your feet in

  • I have yet  to find a mountain in Switzerland where my cell phone doesn’t work
  • even at altitude, you pass many cafes where you grab a bite

  • the fountains for cows mean that you can refill your water bottle all over the place

 

It Wasn’t Premeditated, Our Hike Up Rochers-de-Naye

Rochers-de-Naye is the mountain with the rock top on the left, not the bump, but the one with the snow below the rock.

We woke up to a beautiful day. Since it was so clear, we decided to do one of the things that we’d been saving for a clear day so we could enjoy the view.  Our choices were take cable cars to the top of Mont Blanc or hike from the lake in Montreaux to Rochers-de-Naye.  I checked with him to make sure he know the hike meant climbing the mountain behind Montreaux.  Please note the full disclosure (on my part) and assumption of risk (on his part).

We weren’t the only ones who thought it was hot. This guy jumped into the water fountain.

A reader suggested this hike and I wanted to do it because the views at the top are spectacular.   Yeah, we could have taken a cog wheel train up, but where’s the fun in that?  Especially on a hot day?

We spent about five hours…walking up, and up, and up.

On the way, we saw these brave fellows heading down.  In this photo, you can’t see what is beyond the edge.  In fact, it’s almost impossible to see from this vantage point.  That’s because it drops off sharply and precipitously.  If you look on the right of the photo below, you will see a small railing that prevents people falling from the steep rock face.  Yep, that’s where we ran into them.  Impressive.

I’ve always wanted to do a ridge hike in Switzerland.  I thought it would be cool to  look down on both sides.  This trail had a bit of one.  Cool huh?

At the end of the ridge, we finally caught sight of the summit.  Although it looks pretty close, it took us at least another 45 minutes to reach it.  I may have slowed us down by stopping every 10 feet to take pictures of the incredible scenery.

When we finally reached the top, we found snow!  I know, I know.  After several hours of hiking, the bandage on my paw looked about as dirty as the snow.

Yep.  The finger is still bandaged.

 

He was exhausted at the end of the day (and very, very hungry).  I thought it was worth it.  He joked that I tried to kill him.  I’m happy to report that he’s forgiven me.  Either that or he is lulling me into a false sense of security while he plans his revenge.

It was a long, sweaty (especially on his part), but enjoyable hike from Lake Geneva (Lac Leman) in Montreux to Rochers-de-Naye at 2041m (6,709 feet).   At the top, there was snow and unforgettable, jaw dropping views.

They also have Marmot Paradise.  Who doesn’t love these beaver-like animals?   I also enjoyed the Alpine garden with lots of special species of Swiss Alpine plants and flowers. I even saw Edelweiss!

Hiking The Beautiful Bernese Oberland

I bought a book entitled the 50 Most Beautiful Hikes in Switzerland.  It’s a great place to get ideas on where to go.   Although we probably won’t get through them all, we’re off to a good start.

We’ve been to the Bernese Oberland several times and love the area.  With a good weather forecast, we decided to try a new hike in the area.

If you aren’t sure why we like that area, take a look at the first photo.  We started the hike from Thun with that view.  Wowzers!  After about 30 minutes of walking along the lake, we headed inland.  When you head away from the lake just about anywhere in Switzerland, you are in for a climb.  This hike was no exception.  We trekked up the Choleren Gorge.  It is a long, wild gorge with beautiful waterfalls, bends, rocks and dizzying bridges.

We emerged from the gorge to a beautiful valley full of farms.  He kept thinking we were done climbing, but the “hill” just kept going and going.  With a little refreshment, we were ready to tackle the next part.

Our perseverance was rewarded with a stunning view of Lake Thun and the Swiss Alps.  Can you believe the view these goats have?

They were headed downhill to be milked.

The snowcapped mountains (from left to right) are  Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau.

Along the way, we made some new friends.  We wanted to move in to this guy’s farmhouse.  It may have one of the best views ever.  He was such a sweet  puppy that we would want him to stay.  

We just kept wrapping around the mountain keeping the lake view.  The whole time, we were pinching ourselves.  We couldn’t believe we were getting to experience something so beautiful.

Eventually, we wound back around to toward Thun and began our descent.

Once we hit the woods, look what we ran into.  More Toblerone-style anti-tank barriers!

It wouldn’t have been easy for Hitler to get tanks up there.  It was a bit steep.  We shouldn’t have been surprised since we started the hike through a gorge, but this was a bit scary.  My arm was still in a sling from my kitchen accident and so my balance felt a bit off.

On the way back toward the lake, we saw this cool climbing wall on the side of a house in Hünibach.  Pretty cool.

In the park, we saw this cool Rube Goldberg type contraption.  Since we were hungry, thirsty and dreaming of dipping our feet in the lake, we didn’t linger.

We sat on a dock, dipped our feet in the water and enjoyed the view.  Then, we giggled when these guys drove by blasting the theme song from Baywatch.  Is it possible that the Swiss love David Hasselhoff as much as the Germans?

Too Much Can Get You Alsauced, Alsace’s Wine Route (Route du Vin)

When we traveled to Burgundy, we learned that hundreds of thousands of years ago it  was seaside.  The limestone deposited during that time (and complex soil from subsequent fracturing from land shifts) make their wines unique.

Like Burgundy, Alsace sits on a geological fault line and its soil varies extensively.  Also like Burgundy, it is one of the most prominent wine regions of France.  The best vineyards of Alsace are along a geological fault zone that stretches from south to north along the Voges granitic mountain range.  It is 120 km (74.5 miles) long but only a few kilometres wide.  This is the Alsace Wine Route/Route du Vin, a scenic journey to enjoy the French wines, countryside, architecture and food.

The vineyards are located in the foothills of Les Voges mountain range around villages from the middle ages.  Ruined hilltop castles from the middle ages overlook the towns.  Many of the towns have fortified ramparts and cobblestoned streets.  They are postcard pretty with flower-decked streets, historic churches, timbered buildings and gurgling fountains.  In addition to the usual assortment of delightful shops, cafes, restaurants, wine tasting rooms (winstubs) which serve wine from many local vineyards fill the towns.  Ooh la la.

Turckheim, RibeauvilleRiquewihr and Kayersberg are the most popular towns on the Alsace Wine Road and are regularly visited by tour busses and the crowds they bring. Other nice towns include: ObernaiBarrMittelbergheinAndlauDambach-la-VilleSelestatBergheinHunawihr and Eguisheim (which we visited).   Alsace is a popular destination for vacations/holidays.  While we saw other tourists, we were lucky (and surprised) we didn’t see any crowds.

Alsace wine tasting at Paul Schneider

Alsace is well-known for its crisp white wines.  Alsation wines use seven varieties of grapes: Sylvaner, Pinot BlancPinot Noir, Riesling, MuscatPinot Gris and Gewürztraminer.  It has Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) designation.  There are countless opportunities to taste these in roadside wine cellars (caves in French).  Everyone recommends advance appointments (particularly during busy times like harvest).  Not all wines are created equal and not all wineries are created equal.  The quality can vary drastically from winery to winery.  As a result, if you want to taste the best, research them in advance.

Eichberg and Pfersigberg are two of the other well-respected Grand Crus

One of the best surprises was the Cremant D’ Alsace, a lively and delicate sparkling wine made by the traditional method of fermentation in the bottle.  It’s kind of like Champagne.  What’s not to love?

Although you can drive the Alsace Wine Route, there are many well-marked hiking trails (sentiers viticoles) and bike routes if you get Alsauced.

Our First Big Hike Of The Summer

Our first Sunday back in Switzerland, the weather was supposed to be great and we were keen to hike.  He traveled last week so he wanted to sleep in.  This meant that we needed to go someplace near Geneva.  We hadn’t hiked the Jura yet and decided to give it a go.

The first weekend after we moved to Switzerland we explored the area.  Driving back from Annecy and The Museum of the Alpine Cow, we saw a giant fortress in the mountain above.  We wanted to visit it and a hike seemed like the perfect opportunity.

We were on the last mound by the river. It has a small, dark smudge on top. Those are the ruins with a statute of the Virgin Mary on top.

We started from Léaz, France (just over the border) and hiked up to the Virgin of Léaz and stunning views of the Rhone River cutting its way through the Jura Mountains.   The Virgin sits on top of sixteenth century ruins, but the spot was inhabited in Roman times (because of its defensible position.  The views were stunning, but I was careful to watch where I stepped.

We walked all the way down to the Rhone River.  Although it was a hot day, we didn’t stop for a swim (we’ll go bridge jumping into the Rhone at Junction soon enough).   The banks were muddy and we had hiking to do… a lot of it.  Uphill.

What goes up, must come down.  We went down to the Rhone, so there was nowhere left to go but up.   On the bright side, the terrain was interesting, varied and shaded (not many panoramic views).  We passed countless streams, waterfalls and channels that funneled water from the Jura into the Rhone.   The trails were okay, but I wouldn’t plan on doing the hike if it rained the previous week and the trails climb sharply.  You were warned.

We hiked up to Fort de L’Ecluse (both of them) through The Haut-Jura Regional Natural Park and down from the mountains.  As the mountains gave way to pastures and fields, we heard our first cowbells of the season.  We love the sound of cow bells ringing through a valley interrupting the background noise of gurgling creeks and chirping birds.  It is the soundtrack to a heavenly day.

One of the best parts of the hike was the wildflowers in bloom.  I snapped way too many pictures of them.

The fields were pretty gorgeous too.

So was the view.  Let summer officially begin!

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 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.

 

Snowshoeing, It’s Like Hiking But More Awkward.

Last weekend, we went snowshoeing.  The snow here is melting…quickly.   We knew that we wouldn’t have too many more opportunities.  If you need confirmation that the season is over, just take a look at the snow above.

St. Cergue is in the Jura the lake, where there’s only a thin white band of snow at the top.

We strapped up our hiking boots, went to St. Cergue and rented snowshoes, having no idea what we were getting ourselves into.  Thankfully, some nice Swiss snowshoers helped us make sure they were on correctly.  They let us try their poles.  Not knowing much of anything about snowshoeing, we didn’t rent poles.  Ooops.  It was definitely easier with the poles, but we only went about four miles so we were fine without them.  The lack of snow near the parking lot was more problematic.

Luckily, this was the only area where the snow was sparse.

We encountered a few other Swiss on the trails and learned that the usually reserved Swiss are pleasantly chatty on the trails.  In Geneva, expats don’t always get the opportunity to have meaningful interactions and conversations with native Swiss.   We learned a lot about the area from them.  For example, these stone walls mark the borders of farms.  They aren’t relics.  In the Jura, they still build them!

When we weren’t chatting with other snowshoers, we enjoyed the peace and tranquility.  It was a gorgeous day.   It was a pleasure to be out in the woods and going “off piste” through the snow was a blast.

In this area summer farmhouses become winter restaurants that cater to the area’s snowshoers and cross-country skiers.  We got a recommendation from a nice Swiss lady on the trails and she did not steer us wrong.  The restaurant, Le Vermeilley, was fantastic.

It was a cozy room with wonderful traditional dishes and a nice proprietor.  After a nice lunch, we headed back.

We’d expected snowshoeing to be more difficult than it was.  I want to try it again  next year.   He wants to do some cross-country skiing more.   We have friends who snoeshoed at night under a full moon.  That sounds like a rocking’ good time so I’m pretty sure I can talk him into it.

Some trails around there are only for cross-country skiers, no snowshoers. I guess we’ll have to try that next year.

 

Mt. Blanc, The Tallest Mountain In The Alps

Him and Mt. Blanc/Mont Blanc/Monte Bianco

Mt. Blanc, Mont Blanc and Monte Bianco all refer to the same mountain.  It has so many names because of its strategic location.  It in France, viewable from Switzerland and forms part of the border with Italy.  The French and Italian names mean “white mountain.”  Other names for it include La Dame Blance and Il Bianco.

Aosta Valley – From behind the protective tape and snow fence on the slopes

It lies in the Alps between Italy’s Aosta Valley and the Haute-Savoie region of France .  The 11.6 km (7.1 mile) Mt. Blanc Tunnel has connected the two since it was built in 1965.

courtesy of EnlightenedTraveler.co.uk

The trip around the alps is long and so the tunnel was an instant success, becoming one of the major trans-alp transport routes.  It costs about $60 roundtrip for a car to use the tunnel.  That does not include the fine you will pay if you speed over 70 km/hr or do not leave sufficient distance between you and the car in front of you.  They are militant about this safe driving because in 1999 there was a fire in the tunnel that killed 39 people.  We felt a bit more at ease traveling through the tunnel knowing that when the tunnel reopened in 2002, it contained additional safety features.

courtesy of railsystem.net

Mt. Blanc’s height is 4,810 m (15, 782 feet) tall.  It has year-round snow.  Its Bossons glacier comprises the largest ice fall in Europe.  It made the news in 2007, when it grew 6 meters!

It is a center for alpine outdoor activities including: skiing, snowboarding, heliskiing, paragliding, snowshoeing, mountain climbing, trekking, hiking, mountain biking and everyone’s favorite pastime of warming themselves in cute cafes.  All of this activity is not without danger and Mt. Blanc averages 100 fatalities a year and many more severe injuries.  Recently, a Russian couple froze to death while attempting to climb Mt. Blanc, a body was found on a black run (he must have snuck in some night skiing), and an avalanche killed a man.  Looking at a video of a Mt. Blanc avalanche on YouTube, helped me to understand their power and danger.

Courmayeur Piste Map courtesy of winter-sports.com

The Aosta Valley, where we spent the weekend, is a paradise for off piste skiing.  Some of our group went off piste.  Having skied a whopping three times in the last fifteen years, I was happy to stick to the reds.

Please note that these pictures are from the Italian side.  Mt. Blanc’s peak is not visible as it is obscured by a lower part of the mountain when viewed from this angle.