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18 Oct

18 October 2019.

Sleep came, at last, on our sixth night at home, signifying the end of jet lag: 8.5 hours Tuesday night had me rolling out of bed at 05:00. The first full night of sleep truly puts a trip behind us except for the memories and 1100+ photos to be sorted.

The final two weeks of our trip were spent in Lauterbrunnen in our favorite apartment. This was our fourth stay in James’ and Michelle’s apartment and it felt like home when we walked through the door. We’ve already booked a stay there in Autumn 2020.

Even in our sixth visit to the area we are finding new walks, new experiences, new corners to explore.

Wrapping up this portion of our trip, I have some photos from a few of our favorite hikes in the valley and mountains. We plan to publish an e-book about easy hikes in this area. Updating the Val Gardena book and writing this new one for the Lauterbrunnen area should keep me out of trouble all winter.

Playground in the mountains

The Allmendhubel to Winteregg hike starts at a fabulous playground. The children don’t seem to notice the view.

WOman in front of snowy mountains

The Mountain View Trail between Allmendhubel and Winteregg is well named.

Tunnel through rock by lake

The trail from Iseltwald to Giessbach hugs the lake and goes through a short tunnel.

Man in trail in forest

We had a couple of steep climbs on the way to Giessbach.

Waterfall

At the end of the Iseltwald to Giessbach hike, a Victorian Era hotel and a fabulous waterfall.

Mountains with a small train

No matter how many times we do it, always a favorite for us is the walk from Grütschalp to Mürren with a view of the little cogwheel train. Oh, and mountains.

Man at a bench with mountains in background

Another fave is Männlichen to Kleine Scheidegg. Not too difficult and highly satisfying.

Man on trail with rocks in background

We had a surprise snow overnight before our hike on the North Face Trail.

Mountains vie2wed from a road

Descending at the end of the North Face Trail into Mürren. The sun came out as we hit town. We hiked alone, encountering maybe half-a-dozen people in 2.5 hours.

SNowy Mountain Peaks

Our post-hike view from lunch at about 14:00. The mountain restaurants along the trail were closed for the season.

Man surfing

In Thun (pronounced “tune”), Switzerland, a man surfs in the wake created by sluice gates on the River Aare.

Castle on a lake

Thun is one of the larger towns in the Berner Oberland. Our walk along Lake Thun included four castles on a bright Saturday.

Goat

Spotted on a walk near Wengen. One passes from town to farm in the blink of an eye.

View of a valley with waterfall

While weather and lighting did not cooperate to make this the stunning shot I had hoped for, it’s still a magnificent view of the Lauterbrunnen Valley and Staubbach Falls.

Road with snowy peak in background

Another walk near Wengen. Snow overnight made higher elevation walking precarious so we found this nice walk above the valley where we could admire the fresh snow.

Goat with valley in background

Goat pasture with a view, Wengen. In less then 30 minutes we went from touristy crowds crowding mountain trains in downtown Wengen to working farms.

If you are looking for a comfortable, convenient roost in the Jungfrau Region, send me a message and I’ll tell you how to get in touch with James. Pictures are online here but you’ll want to reach out personally rather than book through the site.

Finding peace and quiet in Bettmeralp

2 Oct

2 October 2019.

Imagine a place without traffic noise. No cars, no trains, no buses: just a breeze in the trees, a distant cowbell, the gentle whirr of a gondola. Occasionally, an electric taxi or service vehicle makes its way through the village.

This is Bettmeralp, a tiny village where altitude (2006 meters/6581 feet) is mentioned before its population of 462.

chapel on a hill at night

The little “Kapelle Maria zum Schnee” (Chapel of Maria of tne Snow) as night descends. On the far right, you can see the triangle peak of the Matterhorn.

Matterhorn

You can see the Matterhorn from Bettmeralp when conditions are right.

The village has been on my list of must-explore places in Switzerland for about three years. While many tourists flock to Zermatt, our beloved Lauterbrunnen Valley, Luzern, and the Engadine, Bettmeralp in September is almost devoid of tourists. The first night in our hotel, the Waldhaus, only three rooms of this medium-sized family hotel were occupied. The next night, the shoulder season brought a group of 17 to stay for an entire week of alpine exploration.

It was quiet even with so many guests.

Cows on a road

The loudest noise we heard in 3 nights at the Hotel Waldhaus was this “cow parade” right below our window.

This is hiking country, with several trails offering views of the famous Aletsch Glacier, worth seeing before climate change takes even more of a toll. The Aletsch Arena is quite different from our usual haunts in the Berner Oberland. Bettmeralp sits at and above the tree line surrounded by massive snowy peaks too numerous to name. The light is constantly changing and the village is, like most Swiss villages, bedecked with flowers. It is picturesque, to say the least.

Sunlight on snowy mountain

The view from our room at the Hotel Waldhaus at sunrise.

Swiss villag in mountains

Bettmeralp, nestled high above the valley.

Swiss building

Flower-bedecked, the buildings look lovely even on cloudy days.

We only had two days to hike and one could certainly spend several days exploring more corners of the Aletsch Arena by train, lift, and on foot. We choose to start a rainy day by heading on the paved path to neighboring Riederalp. We were looking for one of the lifts in that small village and could not find it in the fog. We were astonished when after seeking refuge in a cafe for a warming cup of espresso we emerged to find the clouds had broken and the landscape revealed to us again.

Signpost

The signage is good: you won’t get lost but you might be confused at the options.

The second day we traveled by train and gondola to Fiescheralp, almost deserted now in the shoulder season but clearly a major ski-holiday destination. The exposed path we took back to Bettmeralp bore few fellow travelers this late in the fall but the vistas were, once again, magnificent and this hike, in particular, gave us a more complete picture of the area.

Mountain and road

On the road from Fiescheralp, a beautiful view.

Man on bridge with hiking sticks

Ric crosses a bridge on our hike from Fiescheralp to Bettmeralp. Yes, it was cold enough for a tuque.

To top off the magnificent scenery, we found excellent pizza as well. Paolo, the pizzaiolo at Pizzeria PiccoBello told me that there are many Italians in the area, working on the lifts. (Italians were also employed in the creation of some of Switzerland’s amazing tunnel systems.)

Building with pizzeria

A lovely Italian experience, high in the Swiss alps.

Pizza

One of our pies at PiccoBello. Truly Italian but with a Swiss-style sausage. The crust was top notch!

Pizza oven and man

Paolo the pizzaiolo plies his trade. A delicate crust that stands up to the sauce and toppings. An art form aided by a wood-fired oven.

The Waldhaus fed us well the other two nights as we partook of their excellent half-board. Mamma mia what a feast: 5 courses! Luckily portion-size was rational. Their selection of Swiss wines gave us a chance to enjoy products seldom found outside of the country.

Hotel bedroom

We had a moonwood room at the Waldhaus. Above the bed, a window leads from the shower room. Shower with a view!

Vew in hotel room

This is the view from our shower room at the Waldhaus.

Mountain view out a window

A little nook in the room at the Waldhaus with a gorgeous view, ever-changing light.

We parted somewhat reluctantly after three nights. An additional night-or-two would have allowed us to visit the pristine alpine lakes or ride lifts to see the glacier from a couple of additional viewpoints.

There’s always “next time!”

Welcome sign

Outside the Hotel Waldhaus where were were made to feel very welcome indeed.

Retreat on the Alpe di Siusi

15 Sep

15 September 2019.

Sometimes you just need to escape even while you are away. Rick Steves calls this a “vacation from your vacation.” While we aren’t really in need of further relaxation, we do like the atmosphere of the Alpe di Siusi and it has become a tradition for us to pass a couple of nights there and be able to hike in the mornings without worrying about an early bus from Ortisei or racing to beat the last gondola down at 17:30. It’s a looonnggg walk if you miss the last ride.

Cabinovia

The gondola up to — and down from — the Alpe di Siusi. It only runs until 17:30 so don’t miss the last ride!

We are based for 2 1/2 weeks at the incredible Residence Astoria, our home in the Val Gardena the past four years. (See Training cats from 2016.) Taking only our backpacks with a change of clothing, we headed to Hotel Saltria for two nights, partaking of their half-pension plan and enjoying the convenience of being right there in the Alpe di Siusi for an early morning hike as recommended in our book, Walking in Italy’s Val Gardena. It’s good to travel light as this journey takes 3 buses and a gondola over the course of 90 minutes. Not fun with heavy luggage.

Hotel Saltria

The Hotel Saltria is a larger property, yet retains an intimacy

Arriving at the hotel, we had time for an hour’s walk in the afternoon sun through mountain meadows, then a shower before dinner. No extended Italian eating hours here! Dinner is from 19:00-20:30 and almost all of the guests arrived in the first 15 minutes. (We did see one couple, clearly new to the concept and not Italian nor German, waltz in at 20:28 and they were seated and served. I think they got the dregs of what was left, though.)

Rifugio

A rifugio on the Panorama hike. The pond is used for fire-fighting (rare) and snow-making in ski season.

The next morning we were on the trail before 10:00 and took what may be our new favorite hike in the Alpe di Siusi, Panorama to Zallinger. (I’ll be writing that in detail for another post.) This was a long-ish one. Leaving the hotel a few minutes before 9:00, we did not return until 15:30 what with transportation, a coffee stop, a lunch break, and a 10 km walk. If we had tried to do this from Ortisei, we would have been gone from 8:00-18:00.

It was so nice to be catered to for breakfast and dinner. No shopping (which we do daily when we are in a self-catered situation), no cooking or food prep of any type. We just showed up and let the hotel staff take care of everything.

Dining room Saltria

The dining room at Saltria. There were people of all ages: young couples with new babies, young couples alone, multi-generational groups, and people like us.

Breakfast was spread across a room bigger than our home living, dining, and kitchen areas combined! Set in a huge “E” shape, were baskets of various rolls and pastries, 8 types of preserves, 4 kinds of honey including one that was still in the comb, fruits, fruit salad, yoghurt, soft boiled eggs, a vegetable juicer, salad ingredients, 4 kinds of sliced meats, and at least 4 types of cheese. Beverages were on a separate buffet and the waitress made cappuccino, espresso, or “German” coffee to order.

This part of Italy is so Austrian that the first words out of anyone’s mouth are generally in German. In fact, this past week one of the German-language newspapers of the Südtirol expressed sadness on the 100th anniversary of the annexation by the Kingdom of Italy in 1919. Memories are long. So we were offered “German” coffee whereas in most of Italy we would have been asked if we wanted “American” coffee.

German is more prevalent in the Alpe di Siusi than it is even in the valley. A couple of our servers had trouble with Italian. One stumbled over the number 6 (sei in Italian) until I used the German word sechs. Some transactions became amusing mixtures: I told them I wanted my coffee senza milch. That high-school German comes back on occasion.

Vegetables

A sampling of the many vegetables available every night.

At the hotel, none of the food on the menus was described in English. Our evening meals — five courses if you wanted to eat that much — were described in Italian and German and the cuisine was decidedly fusion. Pasta or prosciutto and melon for a first course followed by roasted veal and a beetroot/potato puree. Or a cheese strudel as a starter with mountain lake fish on a bed of leeks with lardo. (Lardo is what it sounds like, though quite refined, a Tuscan specialty.) Like I said, fusion, or as our Italian friend would say, contaminated (contaminazione in Italian is a little pejorative, but serves as a false cognate in this case).

After our long day hike, we could have refreshed in the indoor-outdoor pool or worked on our skin cancer, but we retreated to a pre-dinner shower and coffee on the terrace overlooking the magnificent peaks. Just as the sun was setting, we headed to dinner, now greeted by a huge salad and vegetable buffet spread over the enormous “E” that once held breakfast. Perfectly sauteed artichokes, two types of asparagus, grilled peppers and eggplant, marinated mushrooms, more salad ingredients than the farmers’ market, and a cheeseboard.

Pasta

My primo one night, pasta with smoked salmon. Sensibly small portion as there was more to come.

That was the first course. After that, there were soup, a primo, a secondo, and dessert, plus (more) cheese and fruit. We confined ourselves to three courses (no soup nor dessert) but indulged in a fine and reasonably-priced wine list.

My middle-of-the-night trip to the bagno was blessed with the lovely sight of the great mountain peaks bathed in moonlight. That alone was worth getting up for at midnight.

Travelers often complain about “touristy” areas and that so many places are over-crowded, or that they encounter too many Americans carrying Rick Steves’ guidebooks. If one wants to have an experience unlike any you are likely to have in North America, this is a fine place to add to an itinerary.

Laurel and the Sciliar

Just starting out on the Panorama hike. Perfect day!

Postcard from England: Stone circles and urban hikes

10 Jun

10 June 2019.

Can it be ten days since we returned from our spring trip? Wrestling with jetlag, re-entry, laundry, and catch-up gardening took more than a week but the last segment of our 6-week trip is worth relating.

The weather gods continued to smile on us. I am sure the citizens of Wiltshire would have liked some rain but it suited us to a T to have sunny days and fluffy clouds. We even shed our jackets a few times.

From Wales we headed to Wiltshire, home to Stonehenge and the Avebury Circle as well as the city of Bath and the ancient city of Salisbury, where we made our base for four nights. Should have made it five nights.This is a rich, full area with much to see and mileage required to see it.

Stonehenge

It is a challenge to depict the size and the impressiveness of Stonehenge.

We barely stopped at Bath, only long enough to see the Roman bath complex. The center of the city was a madhouse of tourists! We had hoped to return another day to see more, but driving in, parking, and driving out bordered on the ridiculous. We had initially planned on staying in Bath, but although I had been trying to book 6 months in advance, lodging was scarce on this Bank Holiday weekend. So we moved on to lodgings in Salisbury.

Stonehenge was first on the agenda and so much more impressive than I expected! We arrived at opening and the crowd was minimal. Efficient buses ported us to the circle, which cleverly is not visible from the Visitors Center so the monument is revealed dramatically. I thought I would at least be interested but seeing Stonehenge in person is a pretty magnificent thing. We found the VC absorbing until late morning when the crowds became annoying, so we took off for Avebury.

Avebury is gigantic! I had read about it but did not have a good grasp until we actually arrived. The henge is so large there is a village inside the circle. With a pub. A great place for lunch and good timing as we were peckish by now.

Avebury stone

Ric demonstrates the size of one of the stones in the Avebury Circle.

Sheep at Avebury

Sheep and tiny lambs graze freely around the Avebury Circle.

A principal ceremonial site of Neolithic Britain, Avebury is considered to be one of the largest, and undoubtedly the most complex, of Britain’s surviving Neolithic henge monuments. We walked about the stones, enjoying the company of the sheep, and having the good fortune to visit with a guide who could add to our understanding. How did these ancient people have the vision, the strength, and the patience to build these sites? It would be a fantastic place to visit with an archeologist.

Another day we ventured to the ancient site of Old Sarum. If you’ve read Edward Rutherford’s epic novel Sarum this is a must-visit. How fascinating to see the little hill, the castle ruins, and the foundations of the old cathedral! We happened into Old Sarum the day of a Roman re-enactment, luckily arriving before the throngs expecting to watch staged battles. As I re-read Sarum, it is delightful to picture the site with a better understanding of the topography. For an aerial view, click here.

Old Sarum Roman woman

At Old Sarum, a re-enactor demonstrates what Roman life was like.

Re-enactors practice their Roman battle skills prior to an exhibition.

Old Sarum Cathedral

From the castle ruins one can gaze down on the massive foundations of the old cathedral, The cathedral was demolished in the 13th century and the stones used to build the new cathedral and close at Salisbury.

 

Not to be overlooked is the city of Salisbury itself. On the Sunday we visited, the Cathedral opened its doors to tourists after services so as the congregation gathered for coffee, we gawked at the magnificence. It is almost impossible to comprehend that it was built over the course of only 38 years in the 13th century. Notre Dame took 856 years; Sagrada Familia was started 150 years ago and still isn’ t completed.

Salisbury Cathedral

We walked through the close after dinner one evening to find the Salisbury Cathedral bathed in a golden glow.

The Cathedral is set in a magnificent close, the largest in Britain at 80 acres. The close contains schools, Diocesan offices, museums, and private residences, some of which are magnificent mansions. Ric and I thought we’d take a short walk through the close one afternoon which turned into well over an hour by the time we passed through it and around the walls back to our lodgings. It’s huge and worthy of further exploration.

Rick and Jane departed from Salisbury while Ric and I hung out for another day and night intending to do very little. We caught up on laundry and then had time to check out the Salisbury City Walk sponsored by the Visitors Center. It was a great overview and lesson in history and culture. Would that we had done this Day One!

Since the day was divine and we were purposefully unscheduled, we decided to wander after lunch. Finding a path along the River Avon, we were soon diverted through a park and into the Harnham Water Meadows along a meandering path with more views of the cathedral, sheep, and eventually the small town of Harnham. This is the kind of thing we love to stumble upon: an “urban hike” or, if our timing is right, “a path to lunch,” as had we known, we could have eaten in a pub situated in an old mill in Harnham.

Harnham

This old mill at Harnham is now a popular pub.

So our day off from travel turned into a delightful opportunity to further explore Salisbury and revealed many sights we could have explored with more time. If you choose to stay in Salisbury, give it some time as there is much to enjoy. Good restaurants, too! Check out The Giggling Squid.

Swan and cygnets

On the River Avon, a swan and her (his?) cygnets settle in for the night.

Our last three nights were in lovely London. We’ve been there many times, last in 2017 for two weeks, so this stop was meant to be a relaxing return to a favorite city before our long flights home.

London did not disappoint. No iconic sights this time, though. We met friends from Seattle for wine and tapas, walked for several hours through Kew Gardens, last visited in autumn and a completely different experience in spring. We ate excellent Indian food at Punjab, took another long urban hike through the sprawling Regent’s Park, and enjoyed a final pub meal with a superb pie at The Queen’s Head.

Herewith a few of our dozens of photos from Kew Gardens. There is a Chihuly exhibition in progress, a lovely surprise.

For the entire trip, I averaged 16000+ steps per day on the Fitbit, about 7 miles, as nearly as I can figure. Not bad compared to what we manage at home.

For now, the consumption of chips, crisps, beer, and scones has stopped. No more Parisian baguettes nor croissants for now. Camembert is off the menu for a while. No full bottles of wine at dinner. SIGH.

Back to reality…and planning the next trip: Italy and Switzerland in September!

 

Postcard from Wales: Alla fine!

30 May

30 May 2019.

Alla fine! At last, we come to our time in Wales and what a wonderful place it is! Why do so few Americans make their way to Wales? Perhaps it is the lack of big sights. There’s no Uffizi Museum, Tower of London, nor Louvre; no Colosseum, Big Ben, nor Eiffel Tower. What Wales has is beautiful countryside, unspoiled coastline, friendly people, charming pubs, and historical castles.

It does take significant effort to ferret out information and construct an itinerary. Rick Steves does not have the best bead on Wales, in my opinion, and maybe that’s because much of his audience does not have the time to devote to this rural corner of Britain.

Penny Lane Sign

We started our time together with a short Beatles Tour in Liverpool. Paul autographed this sign. From left, me, Ric, Jane & Rick.

Maybe Americans don’t go to Wales because of right-hand drive cars. My brother, the intrepid driver, has experience with “wrong side” driving and we take advantage of his willingness to be the driver when in the UK or even in other European areas where having a car is advantageous (Scotland, Puglia, Croatia, rural Emilia-Romagna). With brother Rick at the wheel and husband Ric in the navigator’s seat, Jane and I could relax and enjoy the scenery from the back seat of the Range Rover.

We all met in Liverpool coming from our various directions. After taking a private “Magical Mystery Tour,” we headed to Caernarfon in North Wales. It is lovely country here, dominated by Snowdonia National Park, but it does take a bit of effort to get around: a lot of windshield time as the going is slow. Without a car, one can use some buses and scenic trains to aid hiking, but a car is quite useful. Easy hikes are not too hard to find with the help of the tourist office. We did find getting detailed walk info in advance of the trip a little challenging but once on site we were happy with walks that included a good pub lunch at the end. We stayed in the Gatekeepers’ Lodge at Plas Dinas Country House. Quite charming and we slept well, ate well, and drank fine whiskey.

Please click on any picture for a slide show and captions.

From Caernarfon, a drive down the coast allowed us a stop in Aberystwyth where the TV drama Hinterland is based. It was a bit dark and brooding on this gray day which is fitting for the show. Watch it if you can. Netflix has it.

By the way, our luck with the weather was amazing. Brother Rick says he always brings the sun to the UK and we only had rain on days we were changing cities, i.e., during car time. Ric and I got wet once since leaving France, and that was in London after Rick flew home. Go figure!

On to St. David’s, Britain’s smallest city. St. David’s is a cathedral city of some historical religious importance and we were drawn to this remote section of Wales for the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. Once in the city, you can just about get around without a car thanks to a bus network, the Celtic Coaster, but having a vehicle and a willing driver makes it easier and faster. The walks were just what I expected of country walking in the UK. We hiked across meadows of sheep and buttercups, along hedgerows, through small copses, past lovely gardens, through kissing gates, and along narrow shoreline paths: all in one walk! In the evenings, dinner was a 10-minute walk from our homey B&B, the Ramsey House. Thank goodness we were walking so much! Big breakfasts then chips and beer at lunch became a habit we need to break.

Click on any photo for a slideshow and captions.

The Welsh language is a major factor in the culture of this part of Wales, separated from the more English-speaking section by the Landsker Line. In Caernarfon and the villages of Snowdonia we heard Welsh spoken often and still heard it a bit in St. David’s. Once we got to the city of Pembroke and on to the Brecon Beacons, the only Welsh we encountered was on the bilingual signs that are required everywhere.

Welsh sign

From menus to road signs and waymarkers, almost everything is presented in both Welsh and English.

Map

Pembroke Castle is very important in Welsh history, indeed in the history of the UK. We took a very informative tour. There is a giant map of Wales in the courtyard which Rick and Jane are shown touring.

One night in a pub in the Brecon Beacons village of Pontsticill, I overheard a table of 30-something men discussing the language with their 60-something waitress.

“Do you have the Welsh then?” asked one of the men.

“Nah, but me grandkids have it at school,” she responded.

Guffaw from the lads. “I could never when I were at school!” said another.

Speaking of the Brecon Beacons, what an extraordinary area! So vast! Although it carries the title National Park, this is nothing like a national park in the United States. These are lands set aside to preserve the way of life as much as to prevent development, so one finds villages and estates right inside the parks, and grazing lands abound as well as farming in sectors. There are no big hotels nor resorts but there are campgrounds and facilities available along with guesthouses, holiday houses, and B&Bs.

It was challenging to find detailed information about walking in Brecon Beacons until we arrived there. We had a faint notion to try a short, local segment of the Offa’s Dyke Path and did a couple of small sections but learned too late about supporting transportation options that would facilitate one-way half-day hikes. A return trip could be more focused. There was a fine walk through sheep pastures to an Iron Age hill fort in the Brecon Beacons. That was pretty darn cool.

We had a very nice house on the edge of Brecon Beacons, at the southern edge of the park, but close to some cute villages with nice options for dining.

Once again, please click for captions and larger photos.

Alle fine (in the end), we had a great trip through Wales and Liverpool was worth exploring as well although our time there was short. We could have extended any location by a night or two and gone deeper and hiked more. Leaves something for “next time.”

We wrapped up our trip in Salisbury, but you’ll have to wait for the next blog to hear about that fine city!

 

 

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