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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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?

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

 

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).

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?

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.

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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