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Tag Archives: Switzerland

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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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.

Guns and The Top of Europe

30 Sep
A man gets on the train carrying a gun. What would you do? If I was in France, Spain, Great Britain or the USA, I would dive for cover. But we are in Switzerland, in the Bernese Oberland to be precise, and apparently no one bats an eye. Neither did we since he walked in accompanied by another local, and even women pushing babies in strollers were undisturbed by the sight. I am not going to pretend I understand the Swiss mindset or even the laws around firearms. This article from Time magazine on the subject is pretty interesting. I am not sure I am more concerned about the fact he was hunting in an area where people hike or carrying a weapon in public. 
When we saw this guy get on we got the giggles. Can you imagine if this happened on MAX in Portland? This was on the Wengeralp narrow-gauge cog railway.
When we saw this guy get on we got the giggles. Can you imagine if this happened on MAX in Portland? This was on the Wengeralp narrow-gauge cog railway.
Switzerland seems to have its act together. The Swiss have managed to remain neutral in world politics, insulated from European Union issues as they are non-EU, but they take advantage of the Schengen Agreement and the abolishment of internal borders. Still, immigration is highly controlled. They have an admirable environmental record, plenty of water resources, clean air, excellent recycling, a thriving economy with low unemployment. Their public debt is less than 35% of GDP (compared to Italy at 134% and the USA at about 71%). And of course there’s the cheese. High prices do not seem to deter tourists, especially the Japanese who are here in droves and show no reluctance to shell out hundreds of Swiss Francs to see the sights and buy winter fashions. You would not believe the price of a Patagonia jacket here.
Staubbach Falls, visible from our vacation rental.
Staubbach Falls, visible from our vacation rental.
This is our third trip to Switzerland in less than 2 years. Yes, we like it. The food is not as good as Italy, and the coffee almost all comes from a ubiquitous push-button machine found in virtually every café and restaurant. It’s CHF 4.00 for a basic cup of coffee or a single shot of espresso. In fact, everything is quite expensive. While the exchange rate is almost on par with the U.S. dollar, the actual prices are high. A pizza that would cost us about $11.00-12.00 in Italy is about $23.00 here. A small green salad runs $8.50. Wine by the bottle is insanely expensive in restaurants, but one can get a small glass of good local wine for a price less than we experienced in Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco. Why do we come back if it costs so much? The transportation system, the hiking, the natural beauty: Switzerland offers a lot of what we like to do when traveling. And it works, well, like a clock.
A Jungfraujoch train moves up the mountain. Most of the journey is in a tunnel inside the Eiger and the Mönch.
A Jungfraujoch train moves up the mountain. Most of the journey is in a tunnel inside the Eiger and the Mönch.
I have wanted to go to the Jungfraujoch since Matt Lauer went there in 2011 during his annual “Where in the World is Matt Lauer” tour. During our first two Swiss trips in January 2014 and August 2014, we dismissed the trip to the Jungfraujoch as too expensive. It costs CHF 204.40 per person from Lauterbrunnen in the valley to the Jungfraujoch and back. We learned that with certain types of passes one could pay less, so we vowed “the next time” we would make the trip. This is the next time, so we bought both half-fare Swiss passes and a Bernese Oberland Regional Pass. We had to pay a relatively small supplement to go all the way to the Top of Europe (called so because it is the highest train station in Europe). It was worth it!
Jungfraujoch Railroad - our train ready to depart.
Jungfraujoch Railroad – our train ready to depart.
Rising at 5:00 AM, we caught the first train up the mountain, in total about 1 hour 45 minutes from the bottom of the valley to the Jungfraujoch, arriving just before 9:00 AM. Some of the “tour” is goofy. The giant snowglobe in the Alpine Sensation was unrefined, and the Ice Palace sculptures were not nearly as nice as those at the Saint Paul Winter Carnival of my youth, but the pure beauty of the pristine mountain was the star, and contemplating the building of such a railroad in the 1890s sobering. Thanks to 100 Italian laborers, the tunnel was built.
View from the Top of Europe over the cloud-covered valley. It was very cold outside!
View from the Top of Europe over the cloud-covered valley. It was very cold outside!

We went outside on the observation platform, but the 33 kph winds combined with the -1.5 Celsius temp reminded us a bit too much of our Minnesota and North Dakota heritage. We lasted long enough to take a few photos. Going on the sledding course was out of the question, as was the glacier walk of 1 1/2 hours roundtrip. 
We were at 11,333 feet above sea level. That is lower than the elevation we hiked to in Colorado last month, but a completely different climate. In Colorado, we peeled off layers. Here, I wished I’d had my puffy coat.
Railway Station at the Top of Europe, inside the mountain.
Railway Station at the Top of Europe, inside the mountain.
This was an unforgettable trip and we are glad we did it. Going early was a great strategy, at least with the weather forecast we had. We would be unlikely to go twice, so it truly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

 

 

 

 

People walking on the glacier beneath the Jungfraujoch.
People walking on the glacier beneath the Jungfraujoch.
The Eiger pokes above low level clouds as we depart Kleine Scheidegg.
The Eiger pokes above low level clouds as we depart Kleine Scheidegg after our visit on high.
CHF 30,300 watch available at the highest watch shop in Europe.
CHF 30,300 watch available at the highest watch shop in Europe.
View of the Lauterbrunnen Valley. Our apartment is just a bit to the left of the church.
View of the Lauterbrunnen Valley. Our apartment is just a bit to the left of the church.
View from our apartment. We can also see Staubbach Falls from our terrace.
View from our apartment. We can also see Staubbach Falls from our terrace.
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