Sunday, July 29, 2012

Stuff about Switzerland 9 (the parallel universe post)

Tomorrow we leave Switzerland (sigh).

1.  The smartest thing I can think to say about Switzerland is that it is a physical manifestation of a hedge fund.  However, everyone who knows anything knew this already.  It's like Yogi Berra said - cash is just as good as money.

2.  Switzerland is second in per capita chocolate consumption, fifth in cheese consumptionseventh in coffee consumption, seventh in wine consumption...and yet still third in life expectancy.   

3.  If you don't want to pay the sky-high list prices for everything, you have to find the ubiquitous special discount card - from the phone to the train to the pool, etc.  However, there are endless variations on the discount cards such that a detailed inquiry would lead to madness.  I believe the man-purse is popular here because there's no way all the discount cards would fit into a wallet.  

(The man-purse is fine, as well as man-pris, unironic sunbathing in a Speedo, riding to work in a suit on a tinny little scooter, etc.  But let us praise the universal adoption everywhere of cargo shorts.  Now, I don't look like a slob in Europe - I just look like every other guy.)

3.  Also there are parallel restaurant breeds.  First there are the aperitivo places, where somehow a meal that would cost $50 is yours for the cost of an overpriced drink or two (this makes no sense to me).  Then there are the grottos, the great levelers of Ticinese cuisine, where guys arriving in Ferraris share tables with kids playing games on their phones, couples, and anyone else who drifts by.  We had family in town, and based on a recommendation headed over to the Grotto Figini.  It was simply delicious (but can it be "absolutely authentic" if it has a Fodor's review?).

4.  Generic Red Bull!

Yours for only $0.60.  As far as I can tell it's the same stuff.  Coop worked overtime to make their generic product packaging look horrible (remember the generic beer?  Also, here's a fun page dedicated primarily to bashing Swiss beer).

5.  Finally got a picture of the Tecno Impianti Termo Sanitari trucks we've seen from time to time:

Great email address, too.  Another odd reminder of Edmonton.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Como - Bellagio

We're running out of days in Switzerland, and so it was time for a Sunday trip to Lake Como.  We took the train to/from Como, a fast boat to Bellagio, and a slow boat back.

A few photos here.

Como was nicer than we had been told, and we were amazed to find cheap coffee:

(that's 75% off Swiss prices!)

Which is probably all you need to know about us as travelers - we had come to see this:

And yet the most impressive thing of all was the half-euro coffee machine.

Will-J found the Duomo:

(the Como Duomo, get it?)

And the most expensive hotel in Bellagio:

Bellagio was pretty, but crowded.  It's just one of those places you have to see - you know it will be touristy, but you have to go anyway.  And it was worth it.

While the fast boat was indeed fast, it was closed in and they wouldn't let us move around.  The best part of the trip was to join a few hundred of our fellow day-trippers on the big old ferry proceeding on a snail's pace back to Como.  The ferry reminded me of the ones I used to ride on Lakes Michigan and Superior, making for some interesting associations with high-summer Italy.  The wind was up, the sun was setting, and we could see why people consider Lake Como so special.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Haute Route journal (part 4)

Here's an intro to my Haute Route hike.

Day 6.

Stage 13: Gasenreid - Europa Hut

The last two stages of the Haute Route are also the entirety of the "Europaweg," a trail finished in 1997.  I was excited to see the route, and especially the Matterhorn.  Pretty quickly I was up to the statue of St. Bernard pointing the way:

But more importantly, I saw this:

The Matterhorn!  What a trip - on day one I got to see Mont Blanc, and on day six I got to see the Matterhorn.

The Europaweg has a little exposure:

And, maybe more importantly, some issues with landslides:

(sure, I can agree to cross the danger area quickly).

It was all very interesting, and the dedication/fortitude of the trail crews is impressive.  The original trail is a work of art, especially considering the builders started from scratch (as opposed to a historical route).  Unlike trails on high-angle slopes back home, I didn't see any blasting - the trail had been draped into the natural folds of the landscape.  Now, that very steep landscape is changing, and the builders are having to move the trail around.  I have read some online discussion critical of the Europaweg, calling it dangerous and a waste of money.  On the specific Tuesday I hiked the high section from Gasenreid to Europa Hut, there was no rockfall, and I found the trail stable and solid.  However, the trail is indeed suffering (see below).

At another landslide (!), the trail includes a wildly-rickety suspension bridge:

I had no problem with "Not swing!" as I minced over this thing.

This was my first day of hiking without having to go over a pass (there were eleven, not that I was counting), and I made good time to the Europa Hut:

Stage 14: Europa Hut - Zermatt
Alternate Stage 13: St. Niklaus - Zermatt

After the Europa Hut, I saw a much larger suspension bridge I couldn't wait to cross (?):

Unfortunately, I hadn't researched the Europaweg's current conditions, and found this sign posted:

Here's an online description of the re-route.  Basically, the proposition was to descend towards the town of Randa, and then either climb back towards the Kinheutte on some new trail, or traverse south towards the town of Tasch, and then climb back up.  My response to all this extra climbing was this.  I had already hit the high point of the Europaweg, taken a bunch of photos of the Matterhorn, and descended maybe 1,500 American feet to where it was warm and the trained cows were grazing.  Randa was calling:

I hiked the rest of the way to Zermatt on the old Haute Route stage from St. Niklaus to Zermatt.  It was a pretty hike on the undeveloped east side of the valley.  It turned out to be for the best, because if I had stayed on the Europaweg I would have missed CAMPING ALPHUBEL:

First, there was the biggest tent I had ever seen:

Only to be trumped by the even more humongous tent next door:

(does that fit into a car when folded?)

Soon to be followed by the armored personnel carrier camping caravan area:

(this thing is called a Brembach)

Only to be trumped by this epic vehicle:

(it can cross a raging river, and I have a feeling the tires are bulletproof, but the views from inside aren't so good).

In Tasch, it was more of the "version of utopia" Swiss thing.  Tasch is the place where you park your car and take a train to Zermatt (no cars in Zermatt, mind you, or at least that's what I thought).  But the big parking garages are vine-covered, green-roofed, low-profile concrete structures next to a rushing glacier river.  On my side of the river, I hiked along next to a park, where families were grilling hot dogs and enjoying the wildflowers.    

Soon, I could see the Matterhorn again, and all was right with the world:

Until I got to the Zermatt madness:

(the Zermatt campsite)

(the world's tallest/most elaborate trail sign)


Zermatt was jumping, and it was surprisingly touristy, especially given the towns I had seen so far.  Although the streets are nominally closed to cars, there are dozens of silent and speedy electric vehicles that sneak up behind you (apparently horns aren't allowed, either).  I got my train ticket back to Lugano, and did my best to enjoy town for the afternoon.

(I would have no problem staying at the Zermatterhof, in case you're wondering).

But soon enough, I was back on the FART train, heading for Locarno:

And soon after that, I was back "home" in Lugano, where the past few weeks' haze had blown off, and everything was clearer than before:

Or maybe that's just backpacking for you.

Haute Route journal (part 3)

Here's an intro to my Haute Route hike.

Day 4.  

Stage 8: Arolla - La Sage

After day three, day four was bound to be a letdown (and sore).  Just to underscore this point, it was raining in the morning, and all those day three views were gone.  Arolla was deserted:

The morning hike was through a string of little towns.  The cottages and hay-barns picked up the striking characteristic of resting on disc-shaped rocks:

Apparently this is a means to keep rodents out.

So, if I had to pick a town along the Haute Route to stay for a few days, it would be La Gouille, at the bottom of the Val d'Arolla.  Like Sembrancher, La Gouille was a mix of tourism and stalwart farming.  It seemed like about half the buildings were "a louer" to tourists, but then the rental place would be right next to a serious trucker's place:

It was Sunday, and there was exactly one business open in town - the boulangerie.  I sat at the public water fountain in the middle of town, and watched everyone pad their way through the wet streets to buy their bread, greet their neighbors, and head back home again.

Finally, I motivated to start hiking up the Val D'Herens.  I saw house with an old Willys Jeep.  Was it Army surplus, or did it have a story to tell?

Alternate Stage 9: La Sage - Col de Torrent - Barrage de Moiry/Grimentz

I thought about the Jeep, how Switzerland is Europe with 1,000 years of no war, and hiked up above the town of La Sage:

Here, I took my first "alternate" stage route from the the guidebook.  The clouds were too thick for me to see the high mountains, and I didn't plan on staying at the Cabane de Moiry, so I hiked over the Col de Torrent instead of the Col du Tsate.  It was windy, dripping humid, and occasionally raining.  It was also a popular hike - I hadn't seen anyone in the morning, and only two hikers on day three, but on the pass I saw maybe 15 hikers.  Maybe they were all looking for "Sex de Marinda:"

Over the Torrent, another big reservoir (Lac de Moiry) - this time the route went over the dam crest:

They definitely don't go for instream flows here - there was exactly no water being released from the reservoir (except into the extensive water project facilities:)

Stage 10: Barrage de Moiry/Col de Sorebois - Zinal

Now the wind was blasting away, and it was time to hike up the Col de Sorebois:

Here I learned why Swiss cows are so well behaved.  So, I've been hiking around Switzerland for a few weeks, and see these little ribbons used to fence pastures.  I didn't understand how the cows don't just walk through the ribbon.  They aren't barbed.  They aren't electrified.  How does it work?

It works because the cows are trained.  I was hiking up the Sorebois, watching a farmer a little ways ahead of me visiting his cows.  He'd go up to a little group of cows, feed them snacks, pet them, talk to them, check them for injuries, etc.  Then he'd walk up to the next little group and do the same thing.  The cows are trained - they stick around their pasture to get more treats, petting, etc.  At least that's my theory (and it's made me a big supporter of Swiss cheeses/milk).

Over the Sorebois, it was another long hike through a ski area - this time above Zinal.  They, too, trimmed their trail:

At the Sorebois gondola station:

there seemed to be a reality show filming in progress involving women arts students - there was a cameraman and sound guy chasing the women around, and they were acting accordingly.  The gondola was only $14, and it was leaving in 20 minutes, but alas, my day one decision came back to haunt me yet again, and I banged down 3,000 feet of steep/rocky trail to town:

Zinal had a grocery store, open on a Sunday (!), with only semi-eye-popping prices.  Food in tow, I was pretty excited on my way out to the legitimate campsite at the edge of town.  A shower!  Hot water!  I wonder if they have a pool!  Unfortunately, it turned out to be just a grassy area past the town park and next to a gravel pile.  No shower.  The area was a little confusing - people were camping all over the place, but it seemed clear that some areas were day-use only.  Some Belgians were using a broken "no camping" sign to anchor their tent.

Day 5.

Stage 11: Zinal - Gruben

Zinal was unlike any other town I saw on the trip.  Wide streets and new-ish buildings.  Not a lot of character:

This was a big change from Les Haudres, La Sage, and the other towns in the previous valley.  I was hearing more German, and indeed on day five I was passing back east through the language demarcation line at Gruben - no more high school French fun for me.

Day five was beautiful and clear, and I could see the high peaks again.  For the first 3/4 of the day, it was a straightforward grunt up and over two passes.  Then the last 1/4 was back to the eye-popping scenery of day three (foreshadowing - you can skip down to the Twara viewpoint photos if you want).

On the way up the Forcletta, I saw signs for the Sierre-Zinal mountain marathon:

(let's see, 19 miles and 5,300 feet elevation gain - and I'd make back my entry fee and then some if I could run it in under three hours.  Doable?  Nah.)

And on my way up the Forcletta, there's that no-instream flow thing again.  Here comes the mountain stream into the diversion structure:

And nothing comes out:

It's like a water roach motel.

I saw some more trained cows:

And became briefly demoralized when I saw how high the Forcletta pass is, emphasized by a little fresh snow:

The hike down into the Turtmanntal/Gruben was quite pretty - here's the Weisshorn: 

There's the valley, and the tiny little town:

And there are some teepees (?):

There's not much to the town - here it is:

And here's the one big hotel:

Stage 12: Gruben - St. Niklaus

I crossed the street, and it was time to grunt on up to another pass, the Augstbordpass:

And here's a big group of people climbing up to the pass:

By this point, I knew the deal - regular people, i.e. people who haven't taken a foolish vow against public transportation/gondolas, only hike the best parts of the trails.  I'd go a day hardly seeing anyone, but then as soon as I'd get to the really good pass, or when the trail would join a popular loop hike, there would be tons of people.  I concluded that the Haute Route is a made up thing to beat up foreigners' knees so they don't swarm the best parts of Switzerland.

Even given this perfectly-sensible conspiracy, I had the feeling there were less people in the high country than usual.  Which matches what I've read about tourism being down in at least some of the Swiss Cantons.  There's a simple (non-conspiratorial) explanation - the Swiss franc has appreciated massively against the euro and the dollar so that people are taking a 10-20% haircut on what they're used to paying in Switzerland.  This is in addition to the economic crises.  They stay away.

What this means is that it's actually the perfect time to be here.  The trains are empty, the trails are peaceful, and you can get a spot in that special mountain hut without trouble.  If the franc goes back down, the hordes will return.  If it doesn't go back down, probably services/business cut back to reflect fewer visitors.  So now is the time.  It makes sense to me - at least I'm good at rationalizing as I overpay.

As I was pondering this, the views got really good.  Here's my first view down into the Matteral valley:

And then, out of the blue, I turned a corner and was at the famous Twara viewpoint:

Let's see that again:

Oh, come on - one more:

There's Dom, the Breithorn, the Klein Matterhorn, etc.  I immediately sat down and tried to absorb this place.  It's definitely an impressive view, but I can't say it's the best ever.  Why?  Well, first, I've been to Nepal.  Second, I'm American.  And I recently hiked across the Grand Canyon.  The Grand Canyon is a bit like the Twara viewpoint in that you can't see anything until you come right up on it.  The Grand Canyon is unlike the Twara viewpoint - at least for an American - in that it is a touchstone of American identity.  So while I was amazed by the view up the Matteral, I was moved by hiking down into that big canyon.  As Whitman would say, the Grand Canyon is "Freedom - to walk free and own no superior."

The trail quickly drops down into the town of Jungen, clinging (but comfortably clinging) to a bench of pastureland 3,000 feet above the valley floor:

Here, I had the chance to walk down past the last gondola that could have saved me a long, knee-banging hike down into a valley.  Yet again, good thing I decided to hike all the way to Zermatt.  Bypassing the gondola did mean I got to see the little shrines/stations of the cross on the way down:

And a farm where they raise all kinds of camelids:

Including the vicuna, bringing back memories from our Chile trip:

In St. Niklaus, there's a Bosch factory:

I couldn't tell exactly what was being made inside, but I could see workers moving around and some CAM equipment:

In my first post from here, I wrote that Switzerland is a "version of utopian dream."  My specific example of that dream was a hay field next to a laboratory.  Since then, I've thought about that dream quite a bit.  It sounds simplistic and stereotypical.  But here it was again.  A few hours walking from the Twara viewpoint is a Bosch factory.  It's a factory right in the Matteral, maybe fifteen minutes by train from Zermatt.  And it all fits in - perfectly, seamlessly, and harmoniously.  The town is there, the cliffs are over there, the old church is bonging out the hour, and in the factory people are making stuff to export.  I don't really know how this all works in such tight quarters, but from what I've read it rests on some very unique circumstances specific to Switzerland (and very specific externalities Switzerland can incorporate/transmit).  I'll stand by my statement - it's a version of utopian dream (and very high on the quality-of-life index).  Not that it would work anywhere else, but interesting to see nonetheless.  

Outside of St. Niklaus, the signs started pointing to Zermatt:

Which would have to wait until morning: