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Postcard from Switzerland: The Lauterbrunnen Valley

4 Oct
4 October 2018.
Weather (near) perfect, locals friendly, cheese coming out of our ears.
This was our fifth visit to the Lauterbrunnen Valley, aka the Jungfrau Region, and it was difficult to leave after a week of great weather.  We have rented the same apartment three times now and it feels like coming home. There’s nothing to figure out: we know the transportation, where to shop, where to eat, and that James’ and Michelle’s apartment has a slow cooker for our convenience. Day one, we put a pot of chicken soup on low and headed to the mountains.

We can see this waterfall from our apartment in the valley.

People ask why we go back to the same place over-and-over. That could be a bore in some places but here we always find new things to do. So many new things this trip that we did not get back to a couple of old favorites.
New to us was Sulwald and Isenfluh, a peaceful little community with views not seen by the masses heading elsewhere.

The cable car to Sulwald from Isenfluh can hold 8 people or one cow. Ric and I had a private ride.

In 4 trips to this area, we had not been to Isenfluh or Sulwald. It was a world apart. If you ever get to Isenfluh, stop at the restaurant there for a Sulwald Burger and a Radler and enjoy this view.

Eight people or one cow. The attendant showed us how the right side of the car opens to create a ramp the cow can use for boarding.

Another new-to-us adventure was the Aare Gorge. Our arrival was unexpected: the stop-on-demand train halted inside a tunnel and opened the doors. We thought it was a mistake until, magically, a door in the tunnel wall slid open revealing a path. We traipsed across a suspension bridge, then followed a somewhat rugged path up the hillside to the official entry. From there, the wooden walkways took us through the gorge to the train station at the other end.

A new-to-us walk was through the Aare Gorge on a slightly overcast day. We exited our train at the same level as the river, climbed up to the gated entry where the walkway began leading us down again.

People have been walking here for over 100 years. The ingenious Swiss build paths, tunnels, and walkways everywhere!

I have read about the Ballenberg Open Air Museum for years. Finally, we managed to visit. What a unique museum! 50 years ago the Swiss decided to create a place where their heritage could be preserved. Imagine a wooden building from 1336 preserved for posterity! While that is the oldest, it is far from the only ancient structure maintained at Ballenberg. Visiting was like taking a walk across all of the cantons in a couple of hours.

Many of the buildings at Ballenberg are hundreds of years old. They were disassembled, moved, and reassembled on site.

The day we visited there was a horse event. The Swiss Army turned out to help.

Handsome rooster at Ballenberg.

At Ballenberg one can walk across many of the Swiss cantons in a couple of hours.

A threshing demonstration at Ballenberg. Many Swiss crafts and skills are on display.

An old favorite is the hike from Männlichen to Kleine Scheidegg. Although we’ve done the hike four times, there is always something new. 

Since we last visited in 2016, this Trojan Cow has been added at the Männlichen playground. It moos and has a slide inside.

On the way to Kleine Scheidegg. There are a lot of improvement projects and building everywhere in Switzerland it seems.

I love this picture of a woman taking a photo of her dog at Männlichen. This is the start of our favorite hike to Kleine Scheidegg.

In four weeks of travel, we have had one day where rain kept us from doing what we had planned. ONE DAY! Big contrast to last year when we froze for the first two weeks of September.

Our last morning the snow level had descended considerably. It was about 40F/4C when we left.

This little guy was out-and-about, drinking from the stream through the pasture behind us and keeping an eye on the ‘hood.

We do not eat dinner out very often in Switzerland, but we found tasty pizza at the Camping Jungfrau restaurant.

If anyone needs a clean, comfortable place to stay in Lauterbrunnen, let me know and I will hook you up. See this pictures here but contact the owner directly to book. LMK and I will give you an email address. 
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Postcard from Switzerland: Pontresina, Graubünden

21 Sep
21 September 2018.
The signs in Pontresina are mostly in German, but we are hearing – and speaking – Italian as much as we did in Ortisei. We’ve moved out of Italy, stopping at Innsbruck, Austria for a couple of nights, and now we are in the part of Switzerland wedged between Austria and Italy. I am speaking as much Italian as English. The other night the waiter thought we were French as we mashed up English and Italian in response to his preferred German. The French would be appalled. We don’t dress that well. 

The morning view from our apartment.

Most everyone is multilingual. A young grocery store clerk moved seamlessly between German and Italian, hesitating only slightly to engage her English when needed.
Our time in Ortisei went by too fast! A final night of pizza at Maurizkeller with new friends (and fans of our book!) Cathy and Gene was a fitting end. We said reluctant goodbyes to Justine, Siegfried, and Minno the cat. Always best to leave while you are still enjoying.
Innsbruck was a convenient stop to avoid a 7-hour train from Bolzano to Pontresina. (Nothing is easy in the mountains.) It was fine, certainly a pretty alte stadt and some dramatic lifts, but nothing as pleasing as our beloved Val Gardena. And it was hot. Had some decent Nepalese food for dinner. You won’t find that in Italy.

So here we are, high above St. Moritz at 8,156 feet, and I am served chamomile tea — loose tea in a basket mind you — on a wooden tray, already steeping with a timer set. #ThingsnotfoundinUSA

The funicular arrives at Chantarella above St. Moritz. Lots of cyclists surging down mountain trails.

Pontresina is very pretty and we are enjoying our junkets. The weather is cooler than it was in Italy and Innsbruck, so I might need to break out the gloves and a jacket is a daily requirement, at least to start.
One day we took a horse-drawn omnibus through a glacial valley for lunch at a hotel, then enjoyed a peaceful 4-mile walk back to town. This may be the ultimate easy-hiker hike. Of course, there was great food at the hotel by the glacier.

The horse-drawn omnibus is an easy-hiker solution. Take the carriage up and walk 4 miles back.

The Roseg Glacier from the trail. Hikers, bicyclists, and horses share the path.

The path along the Roseg Valley stretches alongside a glacial stream.

When hiking in Switzerland one must always watch out for the “suckler cows.”

Another fun transportation thing to add to the journal: we had to signal for a train to stop at a somewhat remote station. If you don’t signal, they fly by. Works for getting off, too. The transportation system is a miracle here with prices as high as the heavens that support the system. Pristine cleanliness and timeliness have a price and the Swiss are willing to charge for it.

Just across the river from our hotel is the Surovas station. Trains stop on demand only.

Surovas station. See the little red train through the trees? They glide by so quietly we have to be watching for them.

The Morteratsch glacier easily accessible by train and on foot.

This part of Switzerland, so famous for winter sports, is less refined than our beloved Val Gardena or Berner Oberland as far as hiking and transportation. It is actually very quiet now in September. There are, however, many mountain bike trails and these are very busy. I cannot imagine hurtling myself down these mountains on skis nor on a bicycle!
See you in Lauterbrunnen (The Berner Oberland) next week!

Postcards from Italy: The Val Gardena

13 Sep
13 September 2018.
We are wrapping up two weeks in Italy’s Dolomites and what a two weeks it has been! While hiking on the Alpe di Siusi one day we stopped to help a couple who were confused by the trail map they held. “You look familiar!” exclaimed the wife. “Don’t we know you? You wrote a book!” Our first celebrity moment. Thanks Judy and Andy! You made our day!

Ric on the deck at Rasciesa before our hike.

Our hosts now for three years, Justine and Siegfried at Residence Astoria seem like old friends. Their cat, Minno, was newly adopted during our visit in 2016 and now he is a strapping lad. As luck would have it, another couple who have our book is staying at Residence Astoria! Cathy and Gene from Auburn, AL are here and hiking using our guide. Turns out we share an affinity for the Berner Oberland as well.

The red cable cars emerge from the fog as we ascend to the Alpe di Siusi. We decided to go on a foggy day and found tranquility but no rain.

Blissful foggy day on the Alpe di Siusi. Very few people bothered to ascend but we enjoyed the fog.

We’ve explored some easy hikes to add to the book and we have taken some ridiculously difficult trails that we will not include. One night we splurged and stayed on the Alpe di Siusi in a lovely old hotel (we are not the rifugio types) so we could hike more easily there for two days.

Below the cable car at Seceda in the Puez-Odle Park there is a madness of marmots.

New to us, a short and scenic hike at Passo Gardena. It will be featured in the next edition of our book.

I am grateful my Italian comes back to me when we are in Italy but here in the Val Gardena — it was part of Austria until WWI — my high school German floods back and I find myself substituting German words when I forget the Italian. The locals often switch between the two languages in casual conversation so I fit right in.

We enjoyed watching these goats play while eating lunch at Malga Laranzer in the Alpe di Siusi.

The Sciliar and Punto Santner stand guard over the west end of the Alpe di Siusi. Our view over a cappuccino.

On the trail to Col Raiser, above Santa Cristina. It was a lot of work to get here!

There’s been pizza (3 times), apple strudel (also 3 times), and canederli (once is enough) along the way, and lots of good Lagrein, the local red wine. Luckily all offset by our average of 19,000 steps per day!

Pizza with anchovies and mozzarella di bufala at La Tambra, Santa Cristina.

Next stop, Innsbruck.
A dopo!

Mountaintop to sea level: Girovaga’s 2018 Euro-trip

4 May
4 May 2018.
When the weather is miserable travel planning can be a great escape. At any given time, I have three or four European itineraries rattling around in my head and usually one of them has moved beyond theoretical and into reality. This year our theme is Mountaintops, Lakes, and Seashore. We will visit 4 mountain areas, 2 lakes, and the Ligurian sea. Purtroppo, we won’t be going until late summer.
I’ve spent a fair amount of energy in planning, securing lodging, researching hikes, and just yesterday I started making train reservations so as to get the super economy fares where possible. (I love every minute of the pre-trip tasks.)
Here’s what we have planned.
Having learned our lessons last year during The Grand Tour, we are not going to hop all over the continent. Our modus operandi now is longer stays in fewer places. This trip we will confine ourselves to Northern Italy and Switzerland with a tiny stop in Austria.
In a nutshell, here is our route: Milano – Ortisei – Innsbruck – Pontresina – Lauterbrunnen – Stresa – Camogli – Lausanne over the course of seven weeks. No cars, no planes, just trains. 
Milano is a city we’ve visited many times and while there are not any major sites we plan to see, it will be a buffer between a long Transatlantic flight and our train-plus-taxi to Ortisei, a journey of about four hours. We like Milano and have a favorite hotel there, the Hotel Berna. Alas, the Berna’s prices are sky-high due to a Gran Prix event so we will be staying across the street at the oft-recommended-to-me Hotel Garda. Nothing fancy, but (I am told) comfortable. We’ll recover from jet lag, buy SIMs for our phones, enjoy browsing, and perhaps take in a special art installation. After Milan, there will be no large cities this trip.

The last time we spent the night in Milano was in December 2015. Expect it to be much warmer when we arrive end-of-August.

Ortisei is, of course, our favorite place in Italy. This will be our seventh year there and eighth visit overall. Can’t wait to see our hosts Justine & Siegfried, visit our favorite shops and restaurants, and hike to the rifugi all over the Val Gardena. We will stay in the apartment we occupied in 2016 and 2017 and use this opportunity to update and add to our book, “Walking in Italy’s Val Gardena.”  We are planning to add a couple hikes to the book as certainly we will try something new in addition to repeating the hikes and riding the lifts we love.

One of my favorite views in the Alpe di Siusi. We will surely hike here and update our book.

I was in Innsbruck in 1972 but Ric has never been. I remember it being quite lovely and it makes for a convenient break in the otherwise long journey by train to Pontresina in Switzerland. Just passing two nights here.
Pontresina is near St. Moritz and is purported to be a good base for easy-hiking so we will spend a week. We’ve found a darling apartment overlooking the route of the Glacier Express and a lively river. Can’t lose with lodging overlooking a train line in Switzerland.
From Pontresina, we head to Lauterbrunnen via the famous Glacier Express. The Lauterbrunnen Valley and the Jungfrau Region offers an incredible combination of transportation and easy-hiking. It is, so far, our favorite area in Switzerland. This will be our fifth visit. It vies with Ortisei for favorite mountain locale, but the food is better in Italy.

On the hike from Männlichen to Kleine Scheidigg, above the Lauterbrunnen Valley. There was snow at high elevation in October.

If Disney wanted to invent a new attraction, they could not accomplish anything more fantastic than the Swiss have already done in the Jungfrau Region. Train to 11,333 feet? Check! Thirty-minute gondola ride in complete silence through a stunning landscape? Check! Behind-the-scenes at a James Bond’s mountaintop location with a revolving restaurant? Check! Seventy-two waterfalls in 9 kilometers? Check! We have a favorite apartment here, too, and fall brings reasonable rates, pleasant weather, and fewer tourists.

This is the view from “our” apartment in Lauterbrunnen: Staubach Falls and  a small herd of cows as well.

Then we are back in Italy, stopping at Stresa on Lago Maggiore for three nights followed by Camogli, Italy, for six nights. Stresa makes a nice place to break up a long transfer (with several changes-of-trains) to Liguria. Stresa has been on my list for years and promises not only some light mountain hiking but lakeside strolls and island hopping.
Camogli is our seaside destination. We have not been to Liguria since 2014 and our previous four visits we always stayed in the Cinque Terre. I am hoping Camogli will be a little less frenetic and allow us to experience a different part of Liguria. I am so looking forward to Ligurian cuisine! Alici marinate (marinated anchovies) are the best in Liguria most likely because they are caught nearby and fresh as can be, marinated with local lemons. Then there is pesto pasta, focaccia, and almost anything they do with a fish.
Finally, we will wrap up with a week in Lausanne, Switzerland. Several trains are required for this transfer, which is a bit kludgy, but we like a train day. Since we pack light, it’s not too difficult. Lausanne is featured in so many books and movies — especially stories of intrigue — that it has been on my list for years. We look forward to exploring Lake Geneva, the vineyards, castles, etc. It should be a rather low-key end to a long trip. We will fly out of Geneva, a mere hour by train from Lausanne.
Have you been to any of these places? What are your insights? Favorite restaurants, sights, hikes, or tours?

Assisi is more than San Francesco

6 Oct
06 October 2017.
St. Francis of Assisi naturally springs to mind, and surely we have the Saint to thank for the beauty of this town. Without him, who knows? But there is more to Assisi than a religious pilgrimage.
We visited Assisi on a day trip from Spello in 2011 and intended to make it back while we lived in Roma. Never happened. Finally, we included a return to this, Italy’s “Green Heart” and our timing was excellent: warmish fall weather and sun prevailed.

Classic Assisi shot: the Basilica of San Francesco. Such a humble man and such a grand edifice.

Rebecca Winke was my muse for our first trip to Umbria in December of 2011, although she did not know it. On this trip, I was pleased to finally meet her and we were able to stay in one of her traditional apartments right in the center of Assisi, an ideal location.

Typical Assisi street: steep!

Assisi is a good city for strengthening your thighs and we walked it all. Steep alleys, hidden staircases, and a few broad streets lead from one historic wonder to the next. There is the Basilica, of course, and more churches than I could count, but also the eremo (hermitage) of San Francesco above Assisi where his followers gathered. There is a lovely bosco (woods) now run by F.A.I.  (Fondo Ambiente Italiano) featuring hiking paths.  I was pleased to stumble upon the little-known, little-visited Museo del Memoria dedicated to the Assisi Underground: priests, nuns and lay people who saved many Jews during WWII. I had read the book several years ago but the museum is only about five years old. Moving to see this remembrance.

Now a church, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, these columns remain from a 1st century BC temple dedicated to Minerva.

Assisi is also a decent base for exploring Umbria. Ric and I only managed one day trip this time, to Spello, but Perugia, Spoleto, and others are possible by public transportation, and many more interesting Umbrian towns are within a short drive if one has a car. There is, of course, wine, as Umbria is home to the great Sagrantino di Montefalco.
Regarding that day trip to Spello. you can read about it over at Project Easy Hiker. We took a great, but not-so-easy hike. We also purchased some fantastic olive oil and shipped it back to Oregon.
We found “our bar” the first morning, a place the locals go, and we patronized it each day becoming temporary regulars. There are excellent restaurants: Osteria Piazzetta dell’Erba, Trattoria Pallotto, and Osteria degli Umbri were so good we would have repeated had we been staying longer. We also enjoyed shopping in the tiny alimentari for food to prepare in our apartment.

Trompe l’oeil cat, Assisi.

We were fortunate to have Taxi Bruno (#23) pick us up one morning when we wanted to go to the eremo, which is above Assisi. Did we want him to wait for us? No, I said (Bruno only speaks Italian by the way), we will come back on foot. Va bene. On the way up, I started to worry. The road was steep, somewhat busy with traffic, and there was no shoulder. So I asked Bruno how we would walk down. The road or the path of San Francesco (Via Francigena) were the only choices, and the latter is rugged, he said. Talking amongst ourselves, we decided perhaps, if he could, we’d have Bruno wait for us. He was delighted to and gave me a very full account of how to visit the eremo and handed us an English-language guidebook to use. So we had a visit to this special little spot in the woods and Taxi Bruno took us back to Assisi. So happy we sprang for his services. Lucky us, on our last morning Bruno also showed up at the crack of dawn when we needed to go to the station on departure. We
Who would have thought going to Mailboxes, Etc., would be a memorable event? We needed to ship home olive oil and a few other things we had purchased and did not want to cart all over Europe for another month. Seems like a mundane activity, right? Not in Italy!

Lavender shop, Assisi.

We arrived about 11:30 to find the store locked and two dogs tied up inside, one of which was barking furiously. Since the store was supposed to open at 11:00 and we had traveled there by bus with these packages, we were a little miffed. But this is Italy and times can be approximate. I stuck my head into the bar next door and a group having coffee assured me the MBE guy would be back. Probably just making a delivery. One of the guys very kindly stopped after he had his coffee and called the owner to see: sure enough, he was on his way.  (I had tried to call but the number on the door was disconnected. If we had not lived in Italy so long I might have found this odd, but it did not seem all that strange to us.)

Friendly cats all over town came out to greet us.

So Mr. MBE shows up, unlocks the door, offers apologies, and introduces us to Arturo, one of the dogs, who is on a leash tied to the counter. Arturo seems docile now that we have been let in and anxious to make our acquaintance. I have never met a dog I did not like, and they like me; except Arturo. But for the leash restraining him, he would have taken my face off! I backed out of reach just in time! And the owner did not seem to find this so odd. Ahhh, Italy. I’ll bet if I met Arturo in a restaurant we’d have been fine.
I kept my distance from Arturo, although Ric did not seem to have a problem. The guys at MBE took good care of us and even made us a nice espresso.

Everyone seemed to have beautiful flowers around their entryways.

My only regret about our stay is that we did not get out into the Umbrian countryside more. Without a car it is difficult to do. It is, I think, a little harder to navigate on public transportation than Toscana. But that makes it all the more charming.
Here are a few shots from our hike in the Bosco di San Francesco.

 

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