Category Archives: Travel

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. 

Italy’s Dolomites and the Alpe di Suisi

This is the hike I was taking while someone was back in town bashing in my car window and stealing my passport and my other camera (and lenses).  I’m trying not to think about whether the hike was “worth it.”

The Alpe di Suisi in northeastern Italy is Europe’s largest “high alpine meadow” — which means it’s an enormous mountain-top pasture that doubles as a ski area in the winter.  This time of year, it’s mostly covered in yellow flowers.  Surrounding it are mountains of the Dolomite range — a southern part of the Alps.  You can take a ski lift up to the grassy plateau area, and from there it’s a 3-hour (each way) hike to the top of one of the nearby mountains.  In the U.S., if you hiked that far up mountains you’d be alone up there with nothing but the wind and the Powerbars you’d carried up there yourself.  Here (as in Switzerland, you get to the top and find a restaurant and hotel — without a road in sight and supplied by a miles-long pulley system that raises casket-sized baskets to the top.

It’s a great, beautiful area — these pictures really don’t do it justice.

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There’s a squarish picture in the batch above with the green diagonal hillside on the lower right and rocky mountain walls behind.  The far upper left-hand corner of that picture was the destination of the hike and the site for that restaurant.  There was a lot going on on the Alpe di Suisi:  the Italian military was doing paratrooper practice jumps, for example. 

 

 

 

 

 

Scheisse! Stahlen sie meine Kamera!*

You live and learn.  For example, just a  week or so ago, I didn’t even know there WAS a German-speaking region of Italy (just south of the Austrian border).  But now I’ve had the pleasure of explaining (in English) to a mostly-German-speaking Italian police officer how my American passport and my (Japanese) cameras had been stolen from my Swiss rental car.

 

First, I’d like to say that the Dolomites of northeastern Italy are a lovely place, full of rich history and beautiful scenery, and that the people of that region were all extremely friendly and helpful.  Except for the couple of  #%$@* assholes who broke the window out of my rental car while I was hiking and stole a camera bag holding one of my two primary cameras and four of my best lenses.  Two small consolations:  I had one camera and lens with me when the break-in happened, and the Volvo station wagon I’d rented did just fine crossing the Alps with a cardboard-and-duct-tape rear window and a back seat full of glass.

The ensuing days, of course, have included a few hours at the U.S. embassy in Bern for a new passport, an expensive trip to a Swiss camera store to bring my photography back to up to speed, and a couple of hours at the Zurich airport awkwardly swapping my rental car for a ‘fresh’ one with no broken windows.  Fortunately, I had double-backed-up all but the last round of pictures (and stored the backup elsewhere), so I didn’t lose many pictures.  Of course I had all the pictures from the hike itself, too.  Adding insult to injury, however, my pictures (an upcoming post) from the hike weren’t really all that good.

The shots on this page are not from the Dolomites.  They were taken somewhere along the road (in Austria, I believe) between the Ludwig castles (a prior post) and the Alpe di Suisi region (the next post).  The shots from this lovely spot (these taken on the camera that was not stolen) were the only ones that that survived from that drive.  I’d like to suggest that there were other, true masterpieces that I lost, but for better worse I don’t think that’s true.

 * I do not speak German, but I believe the title phrase above (“Stahlen sie meine kamera”) means “They stole my camera.”  The introductory exclamation (“Scheisse”) is an expletive, which I deem entirely appropriate under the circumstances.