Cowabunga! Kiteskiing!

Kite Skiing - Soft Snow

Kite Skiing – Soft Snow (Photo credit: SteveSchwarzPhotography)

Deutsch: Skifahrer startet den Drachen.

Deutsch: Skifahrer startet den Drachen. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Snowkiting (also know as Traction Kiting,  Power Kiting, Kite buggyingkite skiing and kite land boarding) is an outdoor winter sport where people use kite power to glide on snow or ice.   It is similar to kite-surfing, except that the skier wear skis (obviously), does it on snow instead of water.  It has been popular for years in Europe where it first became a sport.  Today, it is gaining in popularity elsewhere.   Instead of gravity and hills, power kites or traction kites provide the pull.  In fact, the pull allows you to go uphill!   Just like on skis or a snowboard, you can get air.  Kite skiers perform all sorts of tricks and stunts.

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Just make sure you have wind… and that the kite doesn’t pull you off the edge of a cliff.  Avoiding trees, pylons, rocks, ski-lifts, tow ropes and other skiers is probably a good idea too.

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Chris Cousins kiteboarding in Switerland.

Chris Cousins kiteboarding in Switerland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Snowmaking, Skiers Response To Mother Nature

When Mother Nature doesn’t deliver, man takes things into his own hands.  Usually, it involves some sort of big, noisy machine.  Snowmakers are no exception.  Those are snow cannons in the photo above.

Snowmaking creates snow by dispersing water and air-under-pressure into freezing ambient air. They can even choose whether to make it into light powder or a wet base snow (which lasts better at higher temperatures) by regulating the water content of man made snow.  Still, the lower the temperature, the better for snowmaking.  It usually needs to be below 25 degrees fahrenheit (-3.89 Celsius) for it to work, which is part of the reason it is done at night.  The lower the humidity, the higher the temperature can be.   Aaah… the miracles of modern science….

I’ve Been Hanging Around The Mistletoe. Want Proof? Here’s A Top 10 List.

We’ve noticed these balls of leaves in the trees since we moved to Switzerland.  It’s all over the place here.  Only after a year did I lean what they were… mistletoe!   With Christmas fast approaching, I thought it was the perfect time to talk about these strange green balls.

The top ten things you may not have know Mistletoe (Phoradendron flavescens or Viscum album):

1.  It is a parasitic plant whose roots invade a tree’s bark, allowing the mistletoe to absorb the tree’s nutrients.   Sometimes, it harms a tree and causing deformities in the branches, but it’s not in the mistletoe’s interest to kill its host.  If its tree dies, it dies.

2.  Mistletoe isn’t a complete drain on the host tree (usually oak, apple, hawthorn, or poplar).  Its small green leaves give the host plant with energy through photosynthesis.

3.  Mistletoe is aggressive.  A mistletoe plant to grow on top of another mistletoe plant.  It’s also “aggressive” to your digestive system so don’t eat the berries…regardless of how many glasses of Egg Nog you’ve consumed.

4.  Birds, however, eat Mistletoe’s berries and well, everybody poops.  Eventually, they eventually leave their droppings where they hang out, on tree branches.  Their droppings contain the seeds (which have a sticky coating), which sprout their roots into the tree branch.

5.  Although it’s a European plant, birds travel.  It grows down the eastern Atlantic  coast of the United States, from New Jersey to Florida.

6.   You can grow your own.  Click on this link if you want to indulge your inner Martha Stewart.

7.  Kissing.  Smooching.  Tonsil Hockey.  Snogging.  While it’s got as much credibility as an urban myth, why tempt fate?  Legend has it that couples who kiss underneath the mistletoe will have good luck (for the traditionally minded marriage and a long, happy life together), but standing underneath it and not doing so is bad luck.  In any case, it’s the perfect excuse for a little PDA…and to invite George Clooney to your holiday festivities.

8.  Although American’s know Mistletoe from Christmas Carols, other cultures saw it as a much more powerful symbol.  Ancient Druids used it for performing miracles (perhaps I should climb a tree and get myself some), providing fertility, to healing diseases and protecting people from witchcraft.  Yep.  I definitely need to get me some. especially since…

9.  Britain’s Druids weren’t the only ones who were hip to  its powers.   Vikings believed mistletoe had the power to raise humans from the dead!   When the Zombie apocalypse starts, you know the cause…

10.  Oh yeah, and the Bieb’s like’s it so much that he sings about it.  Here’s a link to Justin Bieber’s song Mistletoe on YouTube.  Happy Holidays!

Justin Bieber at the 2010 White House Easter E...

Justin Bieber at the 2010 White House Easter Egg roll. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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?

Fresh Seaside Air Inland Thanks To Saline Towers

While in Bad Kreuznach, Germany we saw giant structures on the side of the road.  They were 9 meters (27 feet) high and looked almost like walls.  We wondered whether they were for flooding, remnants of ramparts or used for something else.  It turns out that they are Saline graduation towers, structures used to produce salt by removing water from Saline solution via evaporation.

The towers are made from a wooden wall-like frame stuffed with bundles of brushwood (typically blackthorn).   The Nahe valley has many salt springs. Salt water from them runs down the tower and partly evaporates, leaving minerals behind on the twigs.  The water in the bottom has a higher salt content (as a result of the evaporation).

We’d never seen these before, but apparently they are in spa towns in  Germany, Poland and Austria. Our friends told us that the air around them is beneficial and people with lung problems flock to them like they do to the seaside.  The salt water (for both inhalation and bathing) remains a remedy  for rheumatic diseases, asthma and skin conditions.

Of course, we had to check them out.  We hiked through the Salinental valley from Bad Kreuznach to Bad Münster to see them.  They were pretty sweet.  You almost got a high from breathing in the air.  It had a salty, tangy, fresh smell, kind of like the ocean without any fishy odors.  The area around the towers felt cool and it was very refreshing.

The Kurpark gardens are billed as Europe’s largest open-air inhalatorium, they offer private salt rooms and spas on site. saline nebulizer, the thermal baths and a number of rehabilitation clinics.  Saline nebulizers  spray a fine salt mist into the surrounding area.  The saltwater droplets are then breathed deep into the bronchial tubes.

You have been able to get radon therapy for rheumatism and inflammations for over 100 years. Bad Kreuznach pioneered radon therapy in an underground quicksilver chamber. Patients sit in an underground room, inhaling radon gas. I was surprised to see it because we had to do a radon test in our basement when I was a kid.

We walked along the water to adjacent Bad Munster.  Although there isn’t a ton besides campers and more spas in Bad Munster, it was beautiful.  It was so beautiful that Turner even painted it.  In 1844 while exploring the smaller valleys of the Rhine, he painted the castle of Ebernburg from the Valley of the Alsenz (click here to see the painting or go see it at the Tate in London).

If Alsace’s Storks Really Do Deliver Babies, We Could Be In For A Big Surprise

We’d heard storks were the emblem for Alsace, we just didn’t expect to see two giant nests the minute we drove up to Euguisheim, our first Alsatian town.

Two nests

Storks were once plentiful in the area.  For centuries, the storks of Alsace lived among humans, building their nests on Alsace’s buildings.

They migrated every year to Africa ( mostly Mali and Mauritania), a 12,000 kilometer (7456 mile) journey.  Over the years, their  population decreased until the 1980’s, when only two pairs remained in all of Alsace.   There were several causes:

  • 90% died on the migration due to hitting power lines, exhaustion and dehydration.
  • Pesticides
  • Urban growth
  • Draining of the marshes along the Rhine
  • On the annual migration to Africa, large numbers of them smashed into power lines.
  • African droughts in their wintering habitat depleted food supplies.
  • In warring African nations, starving residents ate them.

Alsace under took a program to repopulate the area with storks.   They built stands for the nests in Alsatian trees chimney stacks and bell towers.  They also developed stork parks for breeding and raising storks.

For the first three years, young storks are kept in enormous enclosed aviaries to rid them of the instinct to migrate. Alsace took other steps to encourage their repopulation.

  • They provided addition food, in the form of fluffy, yellow, day-old chicks (they also  eat field mice, snakes, frogs and smaller birds such as sparrows).
  • Electric company developed special screens to keep the birds from nesting on poles to decrease electrocutions.
  • Between breeding seasons, they repaired deteriorating nests.
  • Residents are strictly forbidden to remove nests from their chimneys and rooftops.

Today, many storks do not make the dangerous migration and live in Alsace year round, delighting Alsatians who adore them.  Only about half of the Alsatian white stork population migrates.  Half those migrating storks travel to the traditional wintering grounds in Africa.  Others go to Spain, where open dumpsters provide easy meals.  Now, Alsace’s stork population is over 400 nesting pairs!

We visited one of the aviaries and watched storks feed their babies.  It was pretty cool.   Watching them, we could see why the people of Alsace love these majestic birds.  Not all the nests were enclosed.  It was exciting to watch the parents soar overhead.  Each time, I was so busy staring that I didn’t get my camera ready in time to get a picture.  Sorry.

Storks symbolize of happiness and faithfulness/fertility and luck.  According to legend, storks deliver new babies to their families. According to Alsatian custom, a child wanting a little brother or sister places a piece of sugar on the window ledge to attract the stork.  The hope was that it would leave the precious bundle in exchange for the treat.   In case you were wondering, we didn’t leave anything on the windowsill of our hotel room.

Visitors to Alsace, don’t have to look hard for storks (La Cigogne in French).  From souvenir shops to decorations, they are everywhere.

Geneva’s Jonction

La Jonction is the point where the Rhône River and the Aarve River converge, their confluence.  The Rhône descends from the Alps (the Rhone Glacier in Valais) into the far end of Lake Geneva (Lac Léman).  The water is then filtered while passing through deep Lake Geneva, coming out the other end an even clearer, brighter blue.

The Aarve is snowmelt directly from the Alps and is still full of sediment.  Since it didn’t spend time in the lake being warmed by the sun, it is also much colder.  Last August, I dipped my finger in in.  It was over 32 degrees (0 Celsius), but not much.  Bbrrrr.  Our friends rafted down the Rhône and said that the bottom of their raft became noticeably cooler after the confluence of the Aarve at Jonction.

They can see the drastic difference in their color and sediment at the point where they meet.  I’ve heard it described as Blue Curacao next to Bailey’s Irish Cream.  After they join, the Rhone becomes greener and cloudier.

There is a lot of natural beauty in Switzerland.  If Jonction were located elsewhere, it would probably get more attention.  Here, it has to compete with stunning mountain ranges and crystal clear lakes.

Geneve/La Jonction

Geneve/La Jonction (Photo credit: silviaN)

Jonction is also a neighborhood in Geneva, located near the rivers’ confluence, one side is bordered by the Rhône and another by the Aarve. By the way, if people tell you to meet them at Jonction on a hot day, make sure to bring a swimsuit.  The Rhône side of Jonction has a giant grassy area where people picnic and sunbathe.  They jump in the river and float downstream to cool down.  Oh yeah, they also jump off of bridges.  We’ll do it again soon.

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!

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.

Spring Is Our Yellow Period

When Magglio was here, he was intrigued by huge yellow fields of flowering plants that, from a distance, looked like Canola.  We asked the proprietor of a cafe what they were.  He told us that they had two names.  In France, they are known as “pissenlit,” which translates to “pissing the bed” (and is also another term for dandelion).   In Switzerland, they are known as “dents de lion,”  which translates to “lion’s teeth.”  He showed us a salad of  the greens.  Apparently you can only eat the plant’s greens before they flower.   After they flower, they become too bitter.

We stopped at a field to investigate.  It was beautiful.  Knowing the name, we bought some at the market the next day and made our own.  Tasty.

The plants had just begun to flower and continued to do so.   I couldn’t understand why the fields would be filled with them if they weren’t for some other purpose.  They grew quickly.  On our hike last weekend, two weeks after Magglio’s visit, they were taller than me (not that it’s hard).

Curious, I did a bit of research and determined that they are Colza (Brassica rapa), a type of rapeseed.  I’d never heard of it before.  Looking up translations, it translates to…Colza.  So much for that.

Apparently, Colza oil is big in Europe.  They extract the oil for both industrial applications and food.  Historically, it was used to light streetlights before electric lighting, to light lighthouses, and in lamps in the place of whale oil.  It is also used to calm choppy seas and even as biodiesel.  They use the cake after the extraction as feed for pigs.  Us?  We just like the flowering fields.