Tschäggättä Masks

It’s Tschäggättä time again!  Last year, we went to see the Tschäggättä parade in Switzerland’s Lötschental Valley during Carnival/Fasnacht.  The costumes and the masks amazed us in particular.

Until the 1900’s, only the valley’s inhabitants knew Lötschental’s masks.  Over the next four decades, Tschäggättä masks gained recognition as works of art and a unique cultural heritage.  After WWII, with recognition, the Lötschental Valley’s increased contact with the world, and greater demand, there was a golden age of Tschäggättä masks.

Tschäggättä masks are instantly recognizable.  Their distinguishing features include:

  • Large, smiling mouths, either with carved wooden teeth, or toothless (sometimes they have animal teeth
  • The mouth is either s-shaped, curved up or rectangular
  • They usually feature bulging, uneven eyes

 

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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!

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.

What You Can Learn From License Plates In Switzerland

In Switzerland, license plates are assigned based on experience, thus low number plates usually indicate someone who has been driving a long time (i.e., an old person). Larger cantons (GE, ZH, etc.) have more cars and so the numbers on the plates extend much higher.

Very low numbers (e.g., “GE 3”) usually are assigned to taxis. On government cars have a single letter (instead of the canton): “A” for administration, “M” for military. There are no personalized license plates.

Diplomatic plates are all over Geneva.  They have CD in a blue square on the left of the plate.

Each canton (like a state) has its own abbreviation.  When you are in the parking lot of a ski resort, you are easily able to tell where the other skiers live in Switzerland.  I find looking at them is helpful in learning the coat of arms for each canton.

The abbreviations for the cantons (listed in German, French Italian and English) are:

Often, you see EU (European Union) plates in Geneva.  It’s understandable given our proximity to France.  Sometimes, you even see foreign plates.

I once saw US plates while I was riding on the bus.  Sorry, I couldn’t get a photo.


 

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.

 

Saas (Not SaaS) Fee, Another Cute Swiss Ski Town

Sorry, this post about Saas, is not about Software as a Service (SaaS), but about the town of Saas Fee, Switzerland.    While there are several reasons to go to Saas Fee, the real attraction is its location surrounded by some of Switzerland’s tallest mountains.  Saas Fee sits at over 1800 meters ( 5,905 feet, 1.18 miles) and is surrounded by over 13 peaks of over 4000 meters (13,123 feet, 2.485 miles)!

Like nearby Zermatt, it is an adorable car-free ski town with gorgeous views.   Because it doesn’t have a view of the Matterhorn (only other giant, stunningly beautiful mountains) and doesn’t have a rail stop, Saas Fee is smaller and slightly quieter.  As a result, it is a bit more of a family destination.  Don’t be fooled into thinking Saas Fee is quiet or sleepy.  Whether it is an apres-ski bar or clubbing at night, you will be able to do it in Saas Fee.

Until a two-lane road linking Saas Grund to the village of Saas Fee was completed in 1951, Saas Fee was inaccessible by car.  The buildings are a mix of modern hotels, shops and small traditional, weathered farm buildings.

We enjoyed strolling Saas Fee’s car-free streets.  It was great fun to look at the at shop windows.  Although shops keep typically Swiss hours (with the exception of ski shops), there are many and varied.

If skiing isn’t your thing, you can try curling, ice skating, indoor swimming, mountaineering, sleigh riding, indoor tennis/badminton, dog sledding/mushing tours, sledding, night sledding, snow tubing, snowshoe trekking, or ice climbing (which sounds both dangerous and beautiful).

Saas Fee is where Wham‘s “Last Christmas” was filmed.  Just click on the link to enjoy (and search for a new hairstyle).

Skiing Gawking At Glaciers And Avoiding Crevices In Saas Fee

Sorry for the poor image quality; the windows of the Telecabine were scratched.

Last Sunday, we skied in Saas Fee, Switzerland.  The views were stunning, when we could see them.  Unfortunately, it was cloudy.  Each time there was any visibility, I whipped out my camera.  Even then, my photos don’t do it justice.  Saas Fee has spectacular scenery, here’s someone else’s picture for proof.

Photo from benik0.deviantart.com

At the far east end of the canton of Valais in the back of the valley, it is not the easiest destination to get to.  When you arrive, they will treat you well.  Everyone working there was extremely cheerful, kind and helpful.

Courtesy of Investorsinproperty.com

The town of Saas Fee is at 1800 meters (5905.5 feet, 1.116 miles) in elevation.  With peaks of 3500 meters (11482.939 feet, 2.17 miles) in elevation, snow in Saas-Fee is guaranteed.  It is less expensive and less crowded than nearby Zermatt, making it a perfect destination for families.

Piste Map Courtesy of Skiinfo.com

One of the coolest things about skiing in Saas Fee was the ice and glaciers.  They mean that you cannot go off piste without a guide as there is a danger of falling into a crevice!   At first, it was a bit daunting to ski next to them.  They were surprisingly blue and just plain magnificent.

Do Not Leave The Runs Crevices

I have had issues with T bars in the past.  While we’re at it, I’ve had issues with chair lifts too.  Saas Fee has lots of them, long ones.  It was a bit scary taking them in the clouds, with little visibility, knowing that you were near glaciers and crevices.

There was a drop off somewhere in this photo, we just couldn’t see it.

We really did try to respect the rules not to go off-piste.  Unfortunately, this T bar stopped while we were on it.  It didn’t start back up (a rarity because everything in Switzerland seems to run like clockwork).  After about 15 minutes stalled on the T bar, we abandoned it and moved to a nearby slope. It wouldn’t be a day of skiing if I didn’t make a fool of myself at some point.  I only fell once, but when I did, I lost a ski.  It was so steep that I had difficulty putting it back on.  I ended up removing my other one and sliding down the slope on my butt while holding on to my skis and poles.  I looked such a mess that someone stopped and asked if I was injured.  I thanked him and told him the only thing injured was my pride.

Imagine my surprise when I found out my goofy move was actually an alpine maneuver called glissading. It looked like this except it was me, in ski clothes, wearing a helmet, holding skis and way less elegant. Photo: http://www.vuw.ac.nz

While we were in the chairlift, staring at the blue ice in the glacier, we wondered why it was blue.  The ice is blue because water is blue (or at least absorbs light at the red end of the spectrum).  When water is in other forms, like snow, it is not as compact.  Therefore, its blue color is not as visible.  When snow falls on glaciers, it compresses the snow and gives it the blue color.  Science is beautiful.  Literally.

The Road Through The Alps Into Switzerland’s Lötschental Valley

 

Last weekend, we went to Wilder, Switzerland to see the Tschäggättä and Carnival parade. Wilder is located in the Swiss Alps in the Lötschental Valley.  It is one of the most remote places in Switzerland.  It remained largely cut off from the outside world until the beginning of the 20th century.

 

Courtesy of Mappery.com

 

Even then, the valley remained remote and difficult to reach, especially during the winters. It was so isolated that in the 1932, Dr. Weston Price, an American dentist, went there to find cultures relatively untouched by the modern world.  He included it in his book of nutritional studies across diverse cultures, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration.   At the time, some towns in the valley were accessible only by footpath.

 

 

When Switzerland built a road into the valley, they did it with typical Swiss quality and precision.  It is built into a steep gorge and hugs the side of the mountain.  You can see the road climb up the mountain until it disappears into it.

 

 

We saw the first bit of snow and ice at the first curve.  Coming out of that turn, you hug the edge of the road.  If you aren’t the driver, the views are fantastic (even if the drive is a bit hair-raising).

 

 

The road zigs and zags up the mountain.  Switchbacks abound.

 

 

Switchbacks are courtesy of Google Maps

 

Looking at the map, you can (1) all the switchbacks, and (2) why I am glad that I wasn’t the driver.

 

 

Surprisingly, there are cute roadside picnic spots sprinkled along the way.

 

English: Alpine Ibex near Lauchernalp (Lötsche...

English: Alpine Ibex near Lauchernalp (Lötschental), Switzerland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Since this is Switzerland, there are tunnels and covered areas to protect the roads from impassability due to snow.  As you climb back into the valley, the dates on the exterior of the tunnels becomes progressively more recent.

 

 

When we exited the tunnels, we thought the road had been reduced to one lane because the road narrowed.  We were wrong.  Although it may have been slightly more narrow due to the snow, traffic continued in both directions.  There just wasn’t much room for you to put a road.

 

 

We were rewarded for long drive with a fantastic festival in a stunning setting.  It is well worth the effort to get to Wilder.

 

 

We were lucky the weather (and roads) was clear.  In 1999, around 1,000 avalanches crashed down Switzerland’s mountains.   The  Lötschental Valley is an avalanche hot spot.  That year, avalanches made the road impassable and cut the valley off from the outside world.  Tourists and people with health problems were helicoptered out while locals and food were flown in!

 

 

 

 

Tschäggättä. Tschwhata? A Swiss Valley’s Unique Carnival Celebration

Tschäggättä are frightening figures that wear furs, giant cowbells around their waists and carved wooden masks.  Every inch of the person underneath the costume is covered to prevent their recognition.  Tschäggättä walk the streets during Carnival waving large wooden sticks,  scaring and/or tossing soot (nowdays confetti) at their unsuspecting victims.  An unwritten rule, allows only unmarried men to do this.  Go figure.  Guys always try to arrange things so that they have all the fun.

It sounds like a rockin’ good time to me, but some may ask whyTschäggättä stems from a time when winter cut the Lötschental Valley off from the outside world during winter.  It was fairly isolated the rest of the year.  Like many rural places, the church dominated many aspects of daily life.   Local peasants saw the time around Carnival as an opportunity to let off some steam, an expression of anarchy and rebellion.   Or, it could come from the heathen tradition of scaring away the spirits of winter.

The legend of Tschäggättä describes them as wild men, thieves from the no longer existing town (but poorer) across the valley that would come to steal.  The thieves dressed themselves up in frightening costumes to create fear and aid in their larceny.

 

Skiing in Sunny, Snowy Crans Montana

Last weekend, I met some friends from Belgium in Crans Montana, Switzerland.  They were lucky enough to vacation there for a week and I crashed with them for a couple of nights.

Their apartment had an insane view. I can’t imagine waking up to a sunrise over mountains like this every morning.

Although I’ve been to Swiss ski towns (Grindelwald, Zermatt) and skied in France (Contaimines, Clusaz) and Italy (Courmayeur), it was my first time skiing (and renting skis) in Switzerland.  Typically, it runs about 18 Euros ($24).  When I rented skis at Crans Montana, I gasped at the price.  It was 64 CHF ($69) for one day!   You would think that I would be used to Swiss prices by now.  They haven’t lost their ability to shock me.

English: Lac de la Moubra in Crans-Montana.

English: Lac de la Moubra in Crans-Montana. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I guess I should have expected it, Crans Montana is a tony town where wealthy Russians, private bankers and the occasional celebrity (Roger Moore, the Sarkozys, Celine Dion, Princess Caroline) congregate.   In addition to skiing, it is known for its golf course (redesigned in 1999 by Seve Ballesteros), meeting facilities and hotel school.

Crans Montana is on the north side of the valley in the Valais region of Switzerland, the sunniest part in all of Switzerland.  It was a glorious sunny day, with plenty of snow and stunning views of the Swiss Alps on the other side of the valley.  It’s snowed in Geneva, but the mountains have received even more of it.  The snow report: lots of it.

These guys were brave enough to go off piste and look good doing it.  Seriously,  they were hopping around like little bunnies.  I was just happy to just not fall (on piste) and embarrass myself even more than I did.

Once again, I was (by far) the worst skier in the group.  Thankfully, everyone was very patient and encouraging.  I gathered my courage and tried a black run for the first time over here.

At the top of the run, notice the pole with the black in the background

The good news is that it was tons of fun and I made it down in one piece.  The bad news is that I was incredibly slow and slid about 40 feet down on my back, head first).

I slid down like the panda in this photo from Arkive.org

On second thought, that panda doesn’t look sufficiently panicked.  He looks like he is enjoying himself and isn’t worried about the possibility of death or serious injury.  Good thing I wear a helmet.