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We interrupt this move for a Swiss break

13 Oct
13 October 2016. We have mixed feelings about our impending departure. Many reasons we will miss our life in Italy yet in some ways we can hardly wait to get our butts on the plane. (See Missing the U.S.A.) We have a lot of little errands to do before we move back to Oregon, but most of them cannot be done until the final few days before we fly. So in fact, we have very little left to do until October 24. It’s not like we are packing up the whole household so why not take 10 days in Switzerland?
This little cow is at about 4900 feet. She has a freash dusting of snow and a great view of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau.

This little cow is at about 4900 feet. She has a fresh dusting of snow and a great view of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau.

The Bernese Oberland of Switzerland is one of our two favorite places to visit and to hike, the other being Italy’s Val Gardena. After our glorious month in Ortisei in July, we thought a compare-and-contrast trip to the Bernese Oberland — specifically the Lauterbrunnen Valley — was in order.
RIc brought his Swiss hiking hat along, luckily. On the trail from Grütschalp to Mürren.

Ric brought his Swiss hiking hat along, luckily. On the trail from Grütschalp to Mürren.

Last year we came at the very end of September and encountered eight days of Chamber-of-Commerce weather. This year, we are a bit later and the villages are definitely napping between the intense periods of summer tourists and winter skiers. Days alternate between sunny and clear and overcast. Supposedly tomorrow it will rain, but we’ve had some terrific hikes and it should be nice enough on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday to hike again. This is our fourth trip to the area and proves once again that repeat visits are advantageous. With a base of familiarity, we are free to discover new facets of the region. Being here in almost-off-season gives more insight into local life and there are fewer tourist groups packing the trains and lifts. Click on any image below for a better view. 
This is the view from our apartment in the valley. Cows in the meadow, and a magnificent waterfall.

This is the view from our apartment in the valley. Cows in the meadow, and a magnificent waterfall.

We now have a favorite apartment here, at Ey-Hus. Owner James Graham (j.graham320@ntlworld.com) said I could share his contact information with you if anyone is interested. Two bedrooms, one with twin beds, one bath, small kitchen, nice big lounge, a view onto the waterfall and up to the mountains. The neighbors are grazing cows with their melodic Swiss bells. There’s a laundry, too, and a bus stop nearby allows one to easily travel the 1 kilometer to-and-from the train station with luggage or when one just does not feel like walking. As most of you know, we avoid cars when possible and this is the perfect place for a car-free holiday, with mountain trains and gondolas that go everywhere.  Renting an apartment and cooking most meals is a real budget saver in pricey Switzerland. James’ apartment even has a slow cooker so we can queue up dinner to cook while we hike.
The other direction off our terrace is this pretty house and the village church.

The other direction off our terrace is this pretty house and the village church.

The Val Gardena and our beloved Ortisei is less expensive, especially for food, and frankly, the restaurant choices are superior in the Val Gardena, but we don’t really visit either area for the cuisine. We come for the hiking and the scenery. And for the mountain transportation.
The Lauterbrunnen Valley has an incredible network of trains and lifts. It is thrilling to soar to the top of the Schilthorn and to chug all the way to the Top of Europe, the Jungfraujoch! It is also a delight to simply walk the easy hiking paths past the magnificent Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau, whether in sun or in snow. By comparison, the Val Gardena offers hiking in high meadows as well as along rocky ridges, and it has the rifugi that we love. In Switzerland, there are few places to refuel along the trail. There are restaurants at the lift stations, but few-and-far-between are rest stops to hike to for a meal or a bathroom. 
Like trying to decide which child is your favorite, I cannot choose between Ortisei and Lauterbrunnen and what each region has to offer. I love them both. For those looking for a unique European getaway, spend 4 or 5 nights each in Ortisei and Lauterbrunnen. The U.S. has nothing like this. Contemplate what it might be like to visit the North Cascades or the Rocky Mountains if served by transportation systems like in Europe, as well as rifugi where you can eat good food, drink great coffee, possibly sleep, and always find a toilet when you need one.
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This and that

12 Jan
Our trips supply us with anecdotes far beyond the pictures we take, and often provide memories we talk about for years: Our two collie puppies running on moonlit Cannon Beach in Oregon on New Years Day at 6:00-God-help-us-AM; A priest roller-blading, cassock flying, on Via Arenula; A beautifully dressed, kind Italian businessman personally guiding us when we were lost in Spoleto;  Running into a pack of Portlanders on a mountain ridge in Italy on Christmas Eve. Here are a few more tidbits from our trip to London, Paris and Switzerland.

Italian moments

I was amazed at how often we encountered the Italian language and Italians outside of Italy. I heard Italian every single day, whether in the street, on a train, or in a restaurant or a shop. It made me miss Italy.
Parisians can find panettone, pandoro and other Italian treats, too.

Parisians can find panettone, pandoro and other Italian treats, too.

On Christmas Eve at Dean Street Townhouse our waitress was from Italy. It felt like home to order and chat in Italian.
Even in the north of Switzerland, we heard Italian daily. Our waiter at Punctum, where we found an amazingly good pizza, was Italian. You can read about it on my other blog, Our Weekly Pizza.

That small town feel

Many years ago, we traveled to my adopted hometown of Lindstrom, MN for my mother’s 80th birthday. The day we arrived there was a huge snowstorm and we were going to be very late getting from MSP to little Lindstrom. We called the motel and we were told they’d leave the key under the mat for us.  How cute is that?
No picture of Hotel Chur, so here is a serene little alley in the Alt Stadt, on our way to Punctum for pizza.

No picture of Hotel Chur, so here is a serene little alley in the Alt Stadt, on our way to Punctum for pizza.

We had a similar experience in Chur, Switzerland. Coming all the way from London, we knew we would not arrive until at least 10:00 PM, so I contacted the hotel. As the front desk staff goes home at 8:00 PM – odd in a hotel with 58 rooms – we received instructions via email including a code to a box that would release a door entry key. Our room key would be laying on the front desk (along with many others, we saw upon arrival). We had a moment of panic when the entry key did not release easily and I had to use a nail file to finagle it, but it all worked out quite well.

Fabled names

Drury Lane, Carnaby Street, Oxford Street, Piccadilly Square, Baker Street, Covent Garden, Whitehall. How often we have come across these names in literature and history and there we were in the midst of them! London Bridge, Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace: fabled landmarks in a literary town. I have to say as much as I like speaking Italian, it was fun to understand every damn word whether spoken or written. No menu translation challenges. 
'Do you know the muffin man who lives in Dury Lane?' There really is a Drury Lane. Now try to get that tune out of your head for the rest of the day.

‘Do you know the muffin man who lives in Drury Lane?’ There really is a Drury Lane. Now try to get that tune out of your head for the rest of the day.

Melting pot

After dinner on Christmas Day, we ventured to the Odeon at Marble Arch to See “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” With reserved seats, there was no need to arrive super early to stand in line, although we milled around in the lobby for a while before the theatre was clear. We heard very little English being spoken among the various family groups waiting. Predominant language? Arabic.
Carnaby was well decorated for the holiday.

Carnaby was well decorated for the holiday.

Thanks to the former British Empire, London is truly home to many cultures. As a result, ethnic food is widely available. We love Italian food, but it was a real treat to eat good Indian food in a London restaurant.

Hailo

Hailo is the Uber for legal cabs. I am not a fan of Uber. I think the drivers who are licensed and who have spent years studying their cities should get my transportation Euro, Pound, or Dollar. London’s answer is Hailo.  In about 5 minutes, I installed the app, signed up, and had a cab scheduled for 06:30 the next morning. The driver was a gem, arrived early, helped with bags, and spoke with the most amazing Cockney accent. Luckily he could understand me better than I understood him. Hailo is also available outside the U.K. It worked great and I wish it would come to Rome. Thanks to Nigel for the recommendation!

Pedestrians & parking

As a pedestrian in Roma, one watches traffic ever-so-carefully. People wear headsets listening to music when they drive, they talk on cell phones even though it is illegal, and generally pedestrian crossings are used for parking so they get little respect as pedestrian zones.  
Orderly, I tell you! Look how the women areallowed to cross the street without a motorino shooting past. And no one is parked in teh crosswalk. Heaven!

Orderly, I tell you! Look how the women are allowed to cross the street without a motorino shooting past. And no one is parked in the crosswalk. Heaven!

In Switzerland, cars screech to a halt before you even know you want to cross the street. I almost felt obligated to cross the drivers were so polite and accommodating. Reminded me of Portland.
I love that in London and Paris drivers park where they are supposed to, inside the parking zones, not on sidewalks or within the zebra stripes. It makes for such an orderly city! Most of you take this for granted, but if you’ve ever been to Roma, you know that creative acts of parking make rough going for those on foot.

Crypt café

Cafe in the Crypt. Notice the tombstones on the lower left.

Cafe in the Crypt. Notice the tombstones on the lower left.

Eating in a mausoleum? Why not? At the famous St. Martin-in-the-Field there is a cafeteria in the crypt. It’s far from the Lutheran Church basements of our youth in the Upper Midwest. This is a true crypt with ancient tombs underfoot. The food was simple, of good quality and, for London, inexpensive. (One sandwich, 2 bottles of water, coffee and tea for GBP 9.85.) It was warm, with low-lighting, a polite crowd, decorated for Christmas.
We ate our light lunch with the Baythorns.

We ate our light lunch with the Baythorns.

St. Paul’s Cathedral also has a café in their crypt. Not as big, but great for coffee and cake.
I don’t see this trend coming to St. Peter’s anytime soon. Can you imagine the crowds if you could have lunch at the tomb of a deceased pope?

Trains, buses, and the Tube

4 Jan
It’s the little stories, observations, and encounters along-the-way that we remember far longer than we recall the stats we learn during a museum tour or even recall in our mind’s eye the finest art in a cathedral. That is certainly the case with our trip to Paris, London, and Switzerland during the Christmas season.
Love the double deckers. Sitting up front on top gives one an impressive view.

Love the double deckers. Sitting up front on top gives one an impressive view.

I have been trying to think of a way to blog about this trip. You’ve seen plenty of pictures of Christmas lights in Roma, Milano, and Paris (plus blogger John Henderson did a far better job than I ever could about Roma). A litany of the sites we saw is just another travelogue.
For the next few posts, I will share some vignettes, stories, and observations from our 4-countries-in-2-weeks trip. First up, a bit about transportation differences.
London Transportation Museum: Old-style bus.

London Transportation Museum: Old-style bus.

Italian trains and buses are anything but quiet. Bangladeshi housekeepers call their mamas in the old country on the super-affordable plan from TIM. Single travelers call everyone in their contact list (Sono in treno! Sono sul autobus!) to inform them of their transit woes. Families en route to their holiday travel with bags of food to sustain them and everyone is chatting ALL THE TIME. Ric’s mom came from the school of never let a moment pass in silence, but they would put her to shame. Italians are social creatures and constantly in touch. What they did before cell phones I cannot imagine, although personal conversation is still a strong suit. Texting happens, sure, but talking is far more prevalent. Who has so much to say? Ric and I can sit for an hour without speaking a word. We call it “companionable silence,” well-developed in 31 years.
Bernina Express . Just threw this one in as a beauty shot.

Bernina Express. Just threw this one in as a beauty shot.

In Paris, if you talk too loud on the bus or Metro you get the stink eye from the French. Conversations are sotto voce and cell phones are not used except to text, peruse Facebook, or other non-intrusive activity. How pleasant it is! The Swiss are similarly low-key, reserved, and, well, Swiss.
In London, we found people chatting a bit more, but in both Paris and London we saw a lot of people reading on the Tube, Metro or bus. Reading actual books, not on devices. One seldom sees a book pulled out on an Italian bus and it would be impossible to do on the Rome Metro since you are always cheek-by-jowl with scarcely room to change your mind. You cannot read on a Roman bus because most of them lack shock-absorbers and the kidney-pounding you take going over cobblestones makes it impossible to focus on a book.
The Metro in Rome is a dog pile. People are in constant motion. There is no queue. People can barely descend from the train before would-be riders crush forward. I have been pushed aside by young people and middle-aged men with no consideration for my gender, age, or the fact I might be dragging luggage. It is a free-for-all. The stations are filthy, the trash bins overflowing, and of course, the great tradition of graffiti covers trains as well as walls.
London Tube station. Excellent signage, lighting, acoustics. Far from Rome.

London Tube station. Excellent signage, lighting, acoustics. Far from Rome.

Ah, London and Paris, with your orderly queues, updated stations, and avoidance of unnecessary conversation! You can actually hear the announcements in a British or French tube station. The Tube stations in London are spotless, with no graffiti at least where we traveled. Even the older stations are well-maintained. I love the Parisian Metro stations that have the glass dividers that keep people from falling into the tracks and define the exit and entry points. Several Parisian men actually offered me their seats and no one pushed past me as though I were invisible. In London, we were able to sit down on the Tube most trips, thanks to a preponderance of trains and well-designed cars. Double-decker buses are, by the way, a delightful way to tour the city. I love how everyone is disciplined enough to get on at the front and off in the middle. Not quite that way in Roma…
Bernina Express interior. Lovely, quiet, comfy. Coffee cost us €4.50 each however. On Trenitalia you get one free.

Bernina Express interior. Lovely, quiet, comfy. Coffee cost us €4.50 each, however. On Trenitalia you get one free.

The Swiss train stations are oases of calm in a calm country. Well-signed, immaculate, orderly, no pushing or shoving (except by foreigners who carry their own habits along). The trains may not be as posh as the Frecciarossa or Italo Treno, but they are comfortable. With no discounting and no complimentary wine (sniff!), the Swiss railroad must be making some serious francs.
Italy, we love you! We love your trains and your warm-hearted people. We love not needing a car to travel all over the city, country, and continent. You do coffee better than anywhere we’ve lived or traveled, and we miss your food when we are out-of-the-country, but you could be just a smidge quieter and stand in line now-and-then.

The Great Railway Adventure

2 Jan
I love to travel by train. Even hours and hours is fine by me. Train travel beats air travel and its many indignities. Four hours in a plane makes me want to slit my wrists whereas four hours in a train is just a good start.
The Bernina Express on the famous Brusio spiral viaduct.

The Bernina Express on the famous Brusio spiral viaduct.

To my husband, trains are a religion. Not only does he enjoy riding in them, he can watch them for hours. He delights in rolling stock of all types, and thrills at seeing railroad workers address their tasks. How many thousands of photos he has taken! He also is fascinated by all types of transportation from pedicabs to delivery vehicles. There’s not an Ape 50
Action shot.

Action shot.

that escapes his camera’s eye.
When I suggested London for Christmas by train, with a stop in Paris and return through Switzerland, he had agreed before I finished saying “Bernina Express.” While we did, in fact, sleep in four countries over the two-week period, this was not “If it’s Tuesday it Must be Belgium.”
I’ll leave you at the end of this post with a few photos,  but first the route. The final plan included nine train trips in 15 days. Good thing we have time.
Roma to Milano – 2h:55m
Milano to Paris – 7h:26m
Paris to London – 2h:17m
London to Paris – 2h:29m
Paris to Zurich – 4h:03m
Zurich to Chur – 1h:15m
Chur to Tirano – 4h:13m
Tirano to Milano – 2h:32m
Milano to Roma – 3h:55m
During the last segment, the full-to-capacity train broke down and we had to transfer to a new train resulting in a 1-hour delay. We were only a little annoyed, and we got a partial credit from Trenitalia as a result of the delay.
Yes, that is a remarkable 32 hours-or-so in trains, blissfully snoozing, chatting, reading, writing, and watching the lovely scenery. I would not recommend this type of schedule for people on their average trip to Europe. One would not want to spend as much transit time as we did on a typical two-week vacation; However, we have time, a true blessing of retirement and living in Europe.
I have more to blog about in the coming days. Stay tuned! Click on any picture for a slideshow or a closer look.

 

Swiss wrap-up

9 Oct
The trip to the Questura interrupted my tales of hiking in Switzerland.
We had unbelievable weather, sunny though chilly in the morning, no rain until the night before we departed for home. We never had to deploy an umbrella or pull up our hoods.
Having a full week in Lauterbrunnen afforded us an opportunity to explore the region a bit more than we have in two prior trips. Relative to the other meaning of “afford,” we were able to keep the budget somewhat in check by renting an apartment and cooking breakfast and most dinners. With this plan to travel extensively in retirement, we have committed to cooking more when we travel. After all, we have time. Plus, the food in Lauterbrunnen is rather uninspiring. It’s a cheese world after all: Rösti, Raclette, and Fondue are everywhere you turn. Vegetable options are slim, mostly potatoes and small green salads or coleslaw.
The trains and lifts get pretty expensive, but a Swiss half-fare card coupled with a Berner-Oberland Regional Pass meant we were able to save considerably on transportation during our 11 nights in Switzerland.
This is an extraordinary place to visit and hike. We really love the Dolomites, but Switzerland is pretty special too. It is incredibly clean and well-organized although the food and coffee are better in the Dolomites.
Which way? I love this picture Ric took of two hikers standing beneath a way-finding sign looking at their map.
Which way? I love this picture Ric took of two hikers standing beneath a way-finding sign looking at their map.
Hiking from First to Grosse Scheidegg, that's the EIger in the background. Everytime we go here we feel like we need to watch the Eiger Sanction again.
Hiking from First to Grosse Scheidegg, that’s the Eiger in the background. Every time we go here we feel like we need to watch “The Eiger Sanction” again.
We love this hike from Grutschalp to Muerren along the narrow gauge rail line.
We love this hike from Grutschalp to Muerren along the narrow gauge rail line.
Another favorite hike is from Mannlichen to Kleine Scheidegg. This is a view toward Grindelwald in the valley.
Another favorite hike is from Mannlichen to Kleine Scheidegg. This is a view toward Grindelwald in the valley.
My surveillance photo of Ric getting ready for a hike. At a train station, of course.
My surveillance photo of Ric getting ready for a hike. At a train station, of course.
Lunch in Muerren, overlooking the Laurterbrunnen Valley.
Lunch in Muerren, overlooking the Lauterbrunnen Valley.
Bern city center as seen from the site of our lunch.
We did one city day, in Bern. Here, the city center as seen from the site of our lunch above the bear enclosure.
Subterranean shop in Bern.  There are many such shops.
Subterranean shop in Bern. There are many such shops, former storehouses and cellars.
Terra cotta bunnies, Bern, Switzerland.
Terra cotta bunny and mouse, Bern, Switzerland.
This is the guy we saw with the gun on the train two days before. He works for the railroad.
This is the guy we saw with the gun on the train two days before. He works for the railroad.
Looking out our back door. The morning we departed, the cows were put to graze in the meadow behind our apartment.
Looking out our back door. The morning we departed, the cows were put to graze in the meadow behind our apartment.
View from Harde Klum to Lake Brienz. Lovely day, difficult hike.
View from Harder Klum to Lake Brienz. Lovely day, difficult hike.
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