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Postcard from Switzerland: Places the guidebooks don’t tell you about

17 Oct
17 October 2018.
Travel guidebooks are a favorite genre for me and I am a voracious consumer of their wisdom. Go to Europe without Rick Steves? I think not! Fodor’s, Frommer’s, Lonely Planet. and Cicerone guides also populate my Kindle.
Sometimes, though, guidebooks exclude the good stuff and include way too many formula places. We found two worthy outings near Lausanne that Steves’ and Fodor’s books barely mention. In fact, Rick Steves poo-poohs one of them. It was only because I picked up a brochure locally that we were clued in.

Les Pléiades 

We are drawn to high places that include trains and that is what led us to explore this area above Vevey just a few kilometers from Lausanne. The name Les Pleiades refers to the star cluster that is also called the Seven Sisters. I’ve no idea why this mountaintop is so named, but they have incorporated an exhibit called the Astro Pleiades to teach some basics about astronomy. It is dedicated to Claude Nicollier, the first astronaut from Switzerland. It’s actually a clever exhibit, but the draw on this sunny day was the view.

Me on the trail, Les Pleiades.

We found a bit of fall color at Les Pleiades.

Lake Geneva sparkles 1000 meters (3280 feet) below while there is a peek at Mont Blanc 60 miles away. (We stayed in Chamonix, at the foot of Mont Blanc, for 3 nights in 2016 and never saw the damn thing!) The train ride up is charming, a bit of a commuter route to outlying residential pockets from Vevey, but as the train winds higher, it becomes more and more rural. Each stop is on-demand only. At the top, trails abound along with a full-service restaurant. We took a very early train and enjoyed complete solitude for an hour until the next train pulled in full of day hikers young-and-old as well as a half-dozen mountain bikers.

Lac Leman/Lake Geneva far below on a stunning day at Les Pleiades.

You can just see Mont Blanc’s snow-capped peak. Hard to tell it is almost 16000 feet high.

Rochers-de-Naye

This is one of the most fun trains we have ridden outside of the Berner Oberland. A narrow-gauge cogwheel train transports you from urban Montreux through forests and tunnels, to 2042 meters above sea level, about 6700 feet. There were stunning views on each side of the train as we chugged ever-upward. Stations served everything from the Swiss Hotel Management School to middle-of-nowhere cabins.
At the top, we found a tunnel to a viewpoint and a restaurant only open on weekends. There was also a cafeteria not-yet-open even at 10:30 and “Marmot Paradise” without marmots. The perils of off-season travel. But again, the views: stunning.

The alps as seen from Rochers de Naye above Montreux, Switzerland.

The marmots must have been in paradise because they were nowhere to be seen at Rochers de Naye this October day.

There are a number of short hikes available as well as long, challenging ones. You can hike up part way or down a very long way if your knees can take the beating. I think it would be beautiful in springtime although the fall color was not bad. A clear winter day would be spectacular and apparently, there is a Santa Claus themed event for the holidays. For the adventurous, there are yurts to overnight in.
At 11:00 a train pulled in packed with daytrippers, apparently arriving in time for the view and lunch. We were glad we came up early even though the marmots were hiding and there was no coffee available.

A fork in the lake, outside the Nestle Alimentarium in Vevey.

Lausanne and environs were fun to explore. The city itself reminds me a bit of Paris, although without as much charm. I have to keep reminding myself that we are, in fact, in Switzerland. We liked the waterfront in Vevey and if we returned, that is where we would lodge. Chateau de Chillon in Montreux was interesting enough, and we did take a boat trip to France for lunch, which was easier on the budget than dining in Lausanne.

Sunday lunch along the lively lakefront in Vevey. Did I mention how terrific the weather has been?

Another activity we enjoyed that is in the guidebooks was a saunter through the Lavaux Vineyard Terraces, a UNESCO site. You take a modern, sleek, SBB train to a hamlet, then make your way through the terraced vineyards and other small towns on paths, roads, and the terraces themselves, ending up in a small town beside the lake where another train takes you back. In season, one can do a gastronomic tour as well as sample wines in small vineyard huts. Alas, the harvest is long over and we hiked sober.

Walking through the Lavaux Vineyard Terraces UNESCO site.

Little villages and grand chateaus with vineyards growing right up to their walls.

Tomorrow we fly home, so no more postcards for now. Maybe a miscellany/catch-up piece once I get over jet lag!

So long!

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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. 

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!

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?

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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