Category Archives: Europe

Scotland 2014 Independence Referendum: God Save the King(dom)?

One thing at stake in the Scottish Independence referendum is the iconic flag of Great Britain – the Union Jack.  They call it the Union Jack because it was the combination — “union” – of the old English and Irish red crosses, and the old Scottish blue flag with a white diagonal cross.  No more union could mean no more Union Jack!

I ran across these three Scottish Independence supporters on the hike up to Ben A'an in Scotland's Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, just days before the Indpendence Referendum

I ran across these three Scottish Independence supporters on a weekend hike up to the tiny peak of Ben A’an in Scotland’s Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, just days before the Independence Referendum.   That’s Loch Katrine in the background.

Since at least the 13th Century times of the real Braveheart, William Wallace, the Scots have variously, vigorously, and repeatedly fought for, gained, and relinquished their independence from England.  In 1707, the Scottish parliament ended (mostly) the centuries of bloody battles, and voluntarily entered an economic union with England, making Scotland officially part of Great Britain, and giving up its separate currency, parliament, and military.

In recent decades, a new movement for Scottish independence has taken root.  The Scots re-formed their own parliament in 1999.  This week, the Scots take to the polls for a referendum on independence from England.

The “Yes” Independence movement has lots of momentum and its rallying cries sound sympathetic – perhaps especially to Americans (and Australians and Canadians and half the planet) who now love the Brits as dear allies, but appreciate having gained our own independence from them all the same.  Beyond the need for new flags, a “Yes” vote (for independence) would surely raise lots of complications.  Would Scotland join NATO (and how would its army be formed)?  The E.U.?  Would it have to start its own currency?  Who can tax the oil revenues from the North Sea?  Who’ll get custody of Queen Elizabeth?  There are lots of predictions of economic and political chaos.

The independence movement makes lots of semi-socialist-sounding promises of government care-taking.  The Economist magazine mocks it gently as offering a “dreamier” vision of Scotland’s future, “promising Scandinavian-style public services supported by taxation closer to American levels,” and concludes that the plan being pitched by the “Yes” men is “fantasy.”   Still, I guess the Economist would have scoffed at Washington and Jefferson if that magazine had been invented 250 years back.

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Either way, it’s an interesting time to be visiting Scotland.  While hiking up Ben A’an (Gaelic for “small pointed peak”) just four days before the independence referendum election, I ran across the three ladies you see in the picture above.  They carried their blue “Yes” For Independence balloon all the way to the top, and were intent on somehow planting that yellow Scottish flag (actually a bath towel, but whatever) at the top.  They were glad to pose and share a few thoughts about their plans for the future in an old, old country that might be born anew in the days or years to come.

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A “Yes” vote is a vote for independence; “No” is a vote to keep the Union together.  At least in Edinburgh and the Highlands, there are a lot more “Yes” signs visible on the streets.  It may be telling that the biggest anti-independence sign I saw was the one one strapped to the iron fence of a very nice, aristocratic-looking home.  The word “bairns” (on the “Yes” sticker) means baby in Scottish and Northern English. 

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Switzerland 2013: Jungfrau

More pictures from the “Jungfrau” region of Switzerland.  The area — south of Interlaken — is named for its tallest, snowiest peak.

A few times during the past couple of weeks, I was on a bike, just laughing aloud – seemingly for no good reason.  I think it sometimes just struck me how ridiculously great it was that I’d somehow found my way onto some of the most beautiful hillsides in the world, coasting my bike in zigzags down the path like a 12-year-old.

My friend (and riding buddy on this week’s rides), Scott Humphries, reported that he’d heard me singing a couple of times as we descended.  I’m sure he did.  Much like normal people do in the shower, on a bike I often sing whatever song pops into (or sticks in) my head.  So this time “Edelweiss” (the Sound of Music song about alpine flowers), and 38 Special’s “Hold on Loosely” were in my repertoire – the latter being a pretty decent ‘80s Rock primer on how to manage the handlebars of a mountainbike during a bumpy, difficult descent (“hold on loosely; don’t let go; if you cling too tightly, you’re going to lose control”).

Admittedly, the long, steep uphill climbs are not nearly as lighthearted.  Those usually involve me monitoring my heart rate and trying to manage my breathing in synch with my pedal strokes.  But the already-stunning views from the mountaintops are twice as satisfying when you know you earned it by getting up there under your own power.

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Scott’s and my last (very long) Swiss bike ride involved a couple of significant navigational errors and a steady afternoon rain, the combination of which resulted in our decision to call it a day and load ourselves and our bikes up for a train ride back to Grindelwald.  A very sweet, very talkative 70-year-old lady – a native of the area — asked to sit with us.  The train car was practically empty; she sat with us because she wanted to talk.  Her monologue brushed on weather, geology, politics, sports…you name it.

At one point, she lamented the tour groups that come through her town for a one-day, prescribed visit to the single most famous tourist sight in each region, then pile back on their bus to do that again in the next city.  She thought they short-changed themselves – and her country:  “They don’t even see it.”  Having spent the prior two weeks covering just about every trail and path in the area, I was delighted and contented to know that I had avoided that mistake.

 

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Lest anyone think I’ve totally lost my mind (or that I lost it in ways that were not previously obvious), rest assured that the craziest-looking trails in these pictures were from HIKES – not bike rides.  Neither my nerve or my bike-handling skill is sufficient to attempt those paths on wheels.  Many of the destinations can be reached by train, gondola, hike or bike.  Most of the hikers (not us) take a train to the top and then just walk down.

And our treks on foot were hikes — not real mountain climbing (e.g., with ropes or picks).  Scott and I wondered why we didn’t see any climbers attempting the impressive rocky north face of Mt. Eiger — the one that looms directly over Grindelwald.  It’s been done, apparently, but the statistics on the number of folks that had died trying explained why we didn’t spot any brave souls up there last week.

In the grid of pictures above, the ferry boat is on Brienzersee, one of the lakes surrounding Interlaken.  The flowery bridge is the famous, ancient one in Lucerne (halfway to the Zurich airport).  In the second big picture from the top, that little clump of buildings on the green hillside with all those roads going to it is Klein Sheidig – at the top of a 3,000 foot climb I did three times on the bike and once on foot.  The snowiest pictures are of the Eiger glacier – part of the UNESCO World Heritage site that covers much of this area.  That’s Scott Humphries in several of the pictures.  Believe it or not, he swung by Grindelwald on his way home from Croatia – where he’d been on a biking trip with his wife, Stacy.  He was a reluctant but cooperative model:  mountain pictures can be a little ‘blah’ without something in the foreground, and often he was the only choice available! 

Switzerland 2013: Back to Grindelwald

The first of (probably) two batches of pictures from a couple of great weeks spent in and around Grindelwald, Switzerland.

Last year I visited Grindelwald, Switzerland for just a couple of days.  I promised myself I’d come back this year when I could stay longer, so for the last couple of weeks I’ve been holed up in an apartment on the ground floor of a hillside “chalet.”  (If “chalet” sounds especiallyglamorous, you should know that almost every home here is built “chalet” style).  All the pictures on this page were taken with a camera pointed toward the town of Grindelwald – from a dozen different angles as I biked and hiked and rode trains and gondolas in every conceivable direction to and from town.

The best part?  I’ve had two friends come (separately) to visit and join me in what would seem like an exhausting series of hikes and bike rides.  Each of them are former law partners of mine at my old law firm (Gibbs & Bruns).  Scott Humphries (shown in bike gear here) tagged in shortly after Jeff Kubin (in the blue jacket) left.  Fortunately, they’re both easy to get along with, and energetic enough to keep me pretty busy ‘hosting’ them here in Grindelwald.  My rough tally is that in the last two weeks, I’ve biked or hiked a total of at least 35,000 feet of vertical climbs.

Three big peaks tower over the south side of Grindelwald, Switzerland – Wetterhorn, Shreckhorn, and Eiger.  Most of the town sits on the southern slopes of a mountain called Reeti, so practically everybody has a view (from their “chalets”!) of Mt. Eiger and the other rocky peaks.  As you look through the gaps between the three, you see even-higher even-snowier peaks.  In the gaps and high valleys, there are are several glaciers, most of which have apparently been retreating for hundreds (or thousands) of years – and certainly since the 1880s when they started keeping records.  This may be a good thing — many of the towns are built where big Ice Age glaciers used to be.

One downside of this part of Switzerland is that some things (especially restaurants) are astoundingly expensive.  Pick a seemingly-casual restaurant at random and they’ll probably have at least a few entrée options topping $35US or more (and very few under $20).  It’s not unusual to have to pay $5 for a Diet Coke.  I got some insight as to why things are so expensive here when I saw what had to be done to repair the roof on a condo building next door to the apartment I rented:  They had to use a helicopter to lift the lumber onto the high hillside chalet-style roof.

As a couple of the pictures reflect, there are cows all over the grassy hillsides.  Their grazing is usually restrained by one-strand temporary electric fences that are moved regularly.  There’s no barbed wire here.  Most of the adult cows (mostly milk cows) have bells, so you hear the clanging constantly.  I assume they need the bells to find the cows that they lose because their fences are so flimsy.  Supposedly the best milk-producing cows get the biggest, nicest bells.  It seems pretty funny to give a cow a (heavy, awkward) trophy as a reward for producing milk.

Several bike rides went right through the cows’ very-aromatic gathering places.  A dozen or so flies would start following me and essentially orbit my head for miles up the hill – until the road leveled so I could go fast enough to lose them.  I felt like Pigpen from the Peanuts cartoons.

 

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My favorite shot (at the top of this post) is from a hike near Pflingstegg, looking back down toward town; a nearby sign said there was (somehow?!) a restaurant somewhere up near the glacier if we’d just keep hiking another couple of hours, but it was already late evening and, besides, I wasn’t fully convinced how there could be a functioning restaurant that far back in the wilderness.  The waterfall you see in a few shots (one of hundreds in the area) is near a hilltop area called First (prounounced “feerst”).  The shots (below) with the musicians are from a weekly street festival here — the pictures aren’t much good, but, hey, if you’re interested in Swiss folk music….

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The next post will have pictures from the area a little further outside Grindelwald.

Lake Como

You know you’ve had a good (and busy) vacation when you almost forget your pictures from the couple of days spent driving around Lake Como.

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Lake Como, in the Lakes Region of northern Italy,  is the lake of the rich and famous — with villas owned by folks like Richard Branson and Madonna and George Clooney.  In that sense, it’s not really my kind of place, but the fact that it was also the home of a James Bond villain redeems the place entirely.  More important, the whole lake is a beautiful place.  Imagine Colorado-ish mountains surrounding a huge blue lake, then dot the hillsides with pastel-colored villas and villages.  Unfortunately the weather was pretty hazy when I was there, spoiling most of the across-the-lake shots.  None of these pictures do the place justice, but hopefully you can get a sense of the place.

My first visit to Lake Como was about 20 years ago, and one of the lasting memories was driving the ridiculously-narrow roads out to Bellagio, which sits at the axis of the Y-shaped lake.  I apparently didn’t learn my lesson, and again had roughly 100 occasions where I just had to cringe and hope I didn’t loose a side mirror as I passed other cars.   That trip to Bellagio was before the folks in Las Vegas made the word “Bellagio” so famous in America.  That’s the town of Bellagio in that wide panarama shot, taken from a car ferry that cuts across the lake.

 

Completed Passes

In the Alps, there are lots of very-long tunnels and lots of very-high mountain passes.  Sometimes you get to choose between the two.  Tunnels usually make lousy pictures.  And sometimes you learn a thing or two by taking the high road.

  

The winding road you see in the picture just above is Stelvio Pass — where you leave the Tirol (i.e., Italy’s piece of the Tirolian Alps) and enter Lombardy (the Italian Lakes Region). The picture shows — above those clouds — only the last dozen or so of the 48 switchbacks it takes to get to the top.  You become incredulous that it can just keep going on and on.  Making things a little more interesting, I wound up following a Rolls Royce convertible — circa 1930 — most of the way up the pass.  Its drivers were wearing hooded fur coats and having even more fun than I was, though my Volvo handled the climb better than their 80-year-old Rolls.

In Tirol, they speak German; in Lombardy, they speak Italian like the rest of Italy. The underlying history is that the pass (or, rather, the nearly impassable mountain) was the 19th century border between the Tirol region of Austria-Hungarian Empire (to the east) and the Kingdom of Italy (to the west). It’s easier to defend a border if nobody can realistically cross it anyway. The now-Italian Tirol region was promised (and given) to Italy in exchange for their agreement to fight against the Germans and Austria-Hungarians in World War I, and Stelvio pass was the site of some nasty hillside battles.  The pass persists as a literal ‘language barrier,’ helping to keep the German-speakers to the east separated from the Italian-speakers to the west.

To help assimilate the former Austrians into the Italian way of life, the government gave new parallel Italian-sounding names to all the towns.  Apparently this largely consisted of changing the Ks to Cs, then adding a vowel to the end of every word.  Who knew it really was that easy to translate into Italian?!  Kastelruth is now Castelrotto.  Bruneck is now Brunico (Be sure sure to roll the R).

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A few miles further up the road, after you head north into Switzerland, the Autostrada goes through the ten-mile-long St. Gotthard road tunnel.  It’s cool to know you’re five miles inside a tunnel with a mile or so of granite on top of you, but inside it really just looks like a tunnel.  So this time I opted for the road (less traveled) over the top instead:  a series of three mountain passes took me north and west toward Interlaken.

The first seemed impressive enough, with a nice view back down the valley to the town of Airolo (the picture just above).  The view from the second pass (pictures at the top and bottom of this post) was a little more surreal, with those clouds pouring down into the valley like a waterfall and disappearing as their altitude dropped.  There are no pictures from the third pass — which was essentially inside that waterfall of clouds — I drove those switchbacks with about 50 feet of visibility.  Certainly more exciting than the tunnel.

Operating post-camera-theft, I was (temporarily) working with just one camera and one lens, which was not my favorite ultra-wide angle.  The Stelvio Pass picture with all the switchbacks is a computer ‘stitched’ panarama, made from about five original photos.