Monthly Archives: September 2014

Pisa

20 September

Five hours of train travel: Bellinzona to Milano, Milano to Firenze (Florence), Firenze to Pisa. I commiserated about the lack of AC on the final train with a British woman returning from a conference. I found my hotel, a few blocks from the station, thanks to Google Maps since tourist information was only open 9:30-13:00. It was hot and muggy as I hauled my suitcase on it’s broken wheels, now heavier than ever loaded down with Swiss chocolate.

After a short break, in a refreshingly air conditioned room, I walked over to check out the Leaning Tower. The streets were mobbed with people, both locals and tourists. Many had red dots on their noses in connection with a blood donation drive. Shortly after photographing the tower in the early evening light, my camera slipped and I broke my UV filter. Fortunately I found an open camera store and they were able to remove the broken glass. Hopefully the lens is fine, but I won’t be able to use a polarizer for the rest of the trip. I cheered myself up with a nice meal near the hotel: ravioli, salad, wine, and tiramisu.

21 September

I was tired in the morning and wished my ticket to tour the Leaning Tower was later than 10:15. I ate the rest of yesterday’s lunch for breakfast and walked back to Piazza del Duomo, checked my bag, and got in line. As I spiraled up the inside of the tower, I felt the odd leaning sensation I recalled from my prior visit here, thirty-one years ago on my honeymoon. At the top, we were given adequate time to circle around and take pictures, then they rang the bells, warning us in advance. That was a nice surprise. I spent most of the afternoon in the hotel lobby, finally posting my Bern blog entry and resting my weary legs until it was time to join up with Walking Women for a week in Tuscany. (That will be my last post for this trip).

Farewell Switzerland

When I returned from Montreux, I met Sibylle at the meeting spot in Zurich. We took a leisurely stroll along the river and enjoyed dinner outdoors in Frau Gerold’s Garden.

18 September – St. Gallen

I packed my bags, leaving Zurich for the last time and took the train to St. Gallen, where Sibylle works. We had lunch together in the court building which was much more modern than I expected. In the afternoon, I toured the town center, discovering a Chocolaterie with one of the best Swiss chocolates I’ve tried yet. The Swiss may have the world’s best at milk chocolate, but it’s hard to find anything in my favorite 60-70% range. My handy Swiss Pass got me into the Abbey library, Stiftsbibliothek, one of the most amazing rooms I’ve ever seen (photos not allowed, so I bought a postcard).

After Sibylle got off work, we took a train to Rheineck. Her father was waiting for us, along with his dog, Hela. We stayed in the modern new house he had built a couple years ago in Lutzenberg, with a fantastic view of the Rheintal region. He and Sybille’s mom fixed a most amazing traditional meal: Züri Gschnetzleds (veal or beef with mushrooms, and cream) and Rösti (grated potatoes cooked with butter in a round skillet). Though we couldn’t share a conversation, I can tell that Sibylle’s mom is a very kindhearted person; I’m sorry I missed getting a picture of her. Two of Sibylle’s four siblings, Simone and Daniel joined us. I got a kick watching the five of them taste the meal to get it just right. Thank you all for a most wonderful evening.

19 September – Hike Along the Rhine

In the morning, her father drove us to train station. We road to Chur, stored our bags, and caught a bus to the Graubunden area, near Ilanz, where we hiked through the Rheinschlucht Gorge. This was a gentler hike than my others, through pastureland and along the river. I thoroughly enjoyed walking and chatting with Sibylle and look forward to seeing her when she visits San Francisco next year.

On the train back to Chur, the announcements were made in Romash, a first for me. I surprised myself by getting teary-eyed when I gave Sibylle a goodbye hug, then boarded a bus for a two-hour ride to Bellinzona. It rained much of the way, the first I’ve experienced on this trip.

19-20 September – Bellinzona

The language switched to Italian, as Bellinzona is in the Ticino canton. The streets were nearly deserted when I arrived in the late afternoon. I took a stroll, then ate dinner in the restaurant adjacent to the hotel.

In the morning, I walked up to one of the three castles in town, Castello de Montebella. I had the place to myself, as it wasn’t yet open. Back down in town, I picked up items for lunch at outdoor markets and spent my last francs on chocolate. I then boarded a train to Italy. It was a bit late with an un-Swisslike last minute track stitch. I finished reading Swiss Watching as I left the country. I can see that I’m more Swiss-like than many Americans.

Lake Geneva

Switzerland is comprised of 26 cantons, each with its distinctive architecture and culture. The majority is German-speaking, a few are French, one is Italian, and several are bilingual, including one with Romansh. Today I traveled to Vaud, a French-speaking canton on the northern shore of Lake Geneva. It feels like a different country; not only is the language different, the people seem livelier.

16 September – Lausanne & Vineyards

I stayed in Lausanne, one of the cities along the shore of Lake Geneva. I was going to stop at Fribourg on my way, but got a late start out of Zurich, and then, surprise, the train had a mechanical problem and we were delayed almost a half hour. I say surprised because so far the Swiss transportation system has run perfectly. If it’s not the best in the world, it’s certainly the best I’ve ever experienced (and leagues ahead of Muni). The buses, trains, and boats are on time, reliable, and clean.

I left my suitcase at the hotel and caught a local train back to Chexbres where I took a walk through the vineyards that hug the slope above the lake. It was gorgeous, almost too hot, and I thoroughly enjoyed the salad I packed for lunch, on the only shaded bench I found along the way. The return train from Cully was filled with people, coming from I know not where.

After a short rest, I took the metro to the car-free center of town. It’s uphill from the lake. The streets are steep and the area feels less open than Bern, with it’s wide streets in the old town center, and Zurich, with it’s river.

17 September – Montreux

I got a leisurely start and posted my Zurich blog entry before catching the train to Montreux. There I wandered the old town a bit until it was time to catch a boat to the Chillon Castle, the most visited historic sight in Switzerland. This 1000 old building was built on a small rocky island adjacent to the shore. After exploring the castle, I returned to Montreux by bus and took a train back to Zurich.

Bern

13 September, Sunday – Fondue and Art

After my climb down the mountain in Zermatt, I took the train to Bern where I met Sibylle at the meeting spot; a blue cube hanging in each station (she looked refreshed and perky while I was sweaty and exhausted). We stayed two nights with her wonderful friends, Eva and Marc, and their cat, Blitz. Sibylle fixed us a delicious goat cheese fondue, a first for all of us, into which I dipped bread and pears. That revived me enough to join everyone for ArtStadt, an annual event. The installations, small and often just one piece, were scattered throughout the downtown, in shops, basements, and apartments giving me the opportunity to see many old and interesting buildings.

14 September, Sunday – Suspension Bridge

The four of us got up early and took a train and then a bus, nicely timed together, up to the mountains for a hike in the Vallis area. We took a cable car to Belap and hiked down 500 meters to Hangerbrucke, a 124 meter suspension bridge just below the retreating foot of the Aletsch Glacier, the largest in Switzerland. The uphill side, to Riederalp, was “only” 400 meters (1300‘).

Back in Bern, Sibylle and I went to the home of another wonderful couple, Martina and Claudio. It was their wedding in the south of Italy that prompted Sibylle and I to meet in Rome. We enjoyed a yummy Italian meal on their glassed-in porch overlooking the Parliament building.

15 September, Monday – Murten and Bern

Sibylle was in Bern to attend a conference so I headed off sightseeing. I first took a short train ride to Murten, a town that takes cuteness to a whole other level. The small old town is overflowing with window boxes and partially surrounded by ramparts. On my ride there and back I continued reading Swiss Watching: Inside the Land of Milk and Money, an entertaining and informative book about the Swiss by Dicon Bewes which I recommend to any considering a visit to this beautiful, clean, and organized country.

I returned to Bern, Switzerland’s fourth largest city, and wandered around the central area. It contains a surprising number of decorative fountains, statues, and hanging signs. I rode another short funicular, came across a market, celebrating cows I think, and saw many bears, the towns namesake. Sibylle and I reconnected at the train station and returned to Zurich; the two cities are only an hour apart and the train was packed with commuters.

Zermatt

11 September, Gornergrat

OMG! Today alone was worth the trip to Switzerland. When I changed trains in Visp, it was cloudy and drizzly and I was worried. Then when I got to Zermatt and saw how gorgeous it was, I bought a ticket for the cog train to Gornergrat. It climbs a 20% grade to about 10,000’. Best €42 I’ve spent yet! (That’s half price with my Swiss Pass; this is not an inexpensive country). The view of the surrounding peaks and glaciers, including the Matterhorn, was jaw dropping. I hiked partway down, stopping about every 10 seconds to take another picture.

The walk uphill to the hotel, Alpenroyal, was more difficult than the hike. When I checked in, I learned that there is a tunnel and an elevator I can use to bypass most of the climb. I later took it down to the charming, car-free village, filled with expensive tourist shops. There I satisfied my rare craving for a hamburger at half the price of an average meal. But first I enjoyed a relaxing soak in a jacuzzi and swim in the indoor pool.

12-13 September, Schonbeilhutte

I woke early and spent a bit of time catching up on my travel log before enjoying the complimentary breakfast: delicious whole grain fresh bread, cheeses, yogurt, fruit, and beverages. They also had sliced meats and cereals.

I then headed up to one of the many mountain huts in the Alps, Schonbeilhute. This “4.5 hour” hike took me a bit over six hours. I stopped for many photos and had a nice chat with an artist from London and his Swiss friend. After climbing out of the trees, much of the trail was along a ridge overlooking the valley and the Matterhorn. I saw several types of colorful butterflies and one very cute green frog, none of which sat still long enough to be photographed.

Much of my slowness was due to steepness. If I had realized that the elevation gain was 1075 meters (about 3500’), I may not have started out. The last half hour was especially difficult, as the hardest section came when I was tired and the sky was threatening rain.

The hut holds quite a few people; I think there were able fifty that night. Hikers are provided a quilt, a pillow, and a spot on a mattress, five in a row; the room I was in could have held twenty. I’m glad they weren’t full, so there was a gap between me and the others on my lower bunk. I paid to get dinner and breakfast, but beverages, including water, are extra. (Supplies are delivered by helicopter). Most of the hikers were German speaking, but I found a few Brits and Canadians who had just finished the Haut Route from Chamanix with a French guide, which sounds both amazing and difficult. Over dinner I enjoyed a conversation with a young gay couple, one from Zurich, the other from Germany. Switzerland allows civil unions in lieu of gay marriages.

In the morning the valley below was filled with fog and just a few peaks rose above us. It was already clearing by the time I finished breakfast, bread and jam. I chose a different route back. The hike down and up to Schwarzsee was easier on my knees and provided more amazing views. From there I took a cable car back to Zermatt.

Zürich

Sunday, Sept 7, was essentially spent traveling. After one last walk through our neighborhood in Rome, we walked to the tram, which took us to a train, which took us to the airport. Fortunately we missed Saturday’s one-day strike and our plane left on time (inexpensive flight on Easyjet, with a strict one-item limit for carry-on). We flew to Bern, then took the train to Zurich, where we caught a bus which dropped us off a block from Sibylle’s apartment. We arrived in time for dinner.

On my first day in Switzerland, before seeing Zurich, I headed to Luzern because the weather forecast was good. Switzerland is a country of microclimates. I’ve been monitoring the weather and heading where it looks most promising. (The Swiss feel like they missed summer this year; they had more rain than in many decades).

8 September, Mt. Rigi and Luzern

I took the train to Arth-Goldau and then rode a cog train up to Rigi Kulm, a peak overlooking Luzern. From there I hiked down to a cable car, saving me a very steep downhill. It took about three hours in total, with a beautiful view of the lake much of the way. As in Nepal, the trail markers list times rather than distance, a more useful measure in hilly country. I then took a pleasant boat ride to Lucern, where I spent an hour or so strolling along the waterfront. It was Monday, so most of the museums were closed.

9-10 September, Zurich

 While Sibylle was at work, I explored Zurich, the largest city in Switzerland, with half the population of San Francisco. (This country is about the size of New Jersey with fewer inhabitants than NYC, about eight million). It’s easy to get around as the transit stops are clearly labeled and buses depart at the minute listed on the schedule. I took the bus for the short ride to the center of town then walked around the picturesque city center. I visited the two largest churches, climbing to the top of the tower in one and admiring the Chagall stained glass windows in the other.

 On Wednesday, I woke up with a neck cramp, probably caused by carrying my camera around so much without my waist strap. Fortunately, the perfect solution was at hand: Thermalbad, an old brewery converted to a spa, where I did the Irish-Roman circuit through steam rooms, cleaning, soaking, and cooling. My favorite was the Roman bath. I spent about a half hour in this large warm pool allowing the various jets to relax every part of my body. I emerged renewed and spent the rest of the day wandering through museums.

Rome

4-6 September

I’ve been on the go so much I haven’t had time to sort photos, hence the delay in this posting.

Rome is definitely a walking city. Each morning we ate yogurt in our tiny apartment, then wandered our way through the numerous twists and turns of the historic district. Like San Francisco, it consists of many hills with surprise vistas around every corner, except on a much grander scale – piazzas, columns (many Egyptian), cathedrals, colorful buildings, and performers. The street musicians were particularly good.

The central city feels like an outdoor museum and we saw more art walking the streets than in many buildings built to house it (the graffiti wasn’t impressive). The old and the new intertwine to form a vibrant city. A couple of the key sights, such the area around the Spanish Steps, were under renovation. A few others, including the coliseum and Sistine Chapel, charge admission, but there is no fee to enjoy the amazing architecture and street life or to enter the numerous churches. At the Vatican, we stood in line for a half hour to see St. Peter’s Basilica (wow), then skipped the lift and walked more than 500 steps to the top of the cupola for an amazing view. When we tired, we stopped at a sidewalk café for a light lunch or snack. Paninis, pasta, and pizza – they are everywhere. After all this exercise I should be in great shape for hiking the Swiss Alps.

We stayed in the Trastevere neighborhood, where I woke to the sound of the bells on a nearby church ringing 13 times every morning at 7:00; Sibylle slept in later. It’s a wonderful area within walking distance to just about everything, plus plenty of restaurants and an active nightlife (which I noticed more than experienced). My favorite dinner was pumpkin ravioli at Marco G, just outside our door.

Tip: If you’re going to the Vatican Museum, which includes the Sistine Chapel, go early on a weekday. This was by far the most crowded attraction. The Sistine Chapel exits close to the entry point for St. Peter’s Basilica saving you from having to wait in that line. There’s an additional fee to visit the cupola. You can reduce the climb to 320 steps by paying an extra two euros to take the lift (longer line). If you plan ahead you can reserve a specific time slot online. If not, you can pay extra to skip the line, with or without a guided tour.