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Switzerland and northern Italy

SWITZERLAND | Thursday, 7 August 2008 | Views [2346]

After getting back from Herräng on Saturday 19 July (no thanks to Swedish public transport), we had just a couple of days to wash and get ready for our trip to Switzerland.  On the following Tuesday we hopped on the train for our detour to Karlskrona.  Emma's cousin Anna's sambo Magnus comes from a small island off Karlskrona (in Blekinge in south-east Sweden) called Aspö (literally Ash [tree] Island, despite there being no ash trees there).  OK, first, "sambo" (sum-boo) is a great Swedish word for a couple that live together (literally "same live/dwelling"), which I reckon is way better than "partner" (which to me still implies same sex or business relationships) or "de facto" (which implies criminal proceedings).  Karlskrona was built in the 1600s shortly after southern Sweden was taken off the Danes, and was a warm(ish) water port for the Swedish navy to use as a base to protect Swedish lands in northern Germany at the time (they were doing quite well at this period in their second golden age under Gustav II Adolph and Karl XI).  In fact the place was only really decommissioned in the 1970s or so.  It is protected by 4 islands in the harbour through which there is only one real deep water approach (and this is guarded by fortresses on Aspö and the other island).  Aspö is the only island of the 4 with no bridge to the mainland, served instead by a publicly funded ferry, so the island is still fairly quiet with locals and a few holidayers.  The vibe is not unlike Magnetic Island and it's got these cool stone-wall-lined country lanes all over it that are just lovely.  Magnus' parents Benny and Gun were lovely hosts, even though they had the whole family living in their house and granny flats in the back yard at the time.  We also got to finally have a bit of a night out in Karlskrona with Anna and (eventually) Magnus and his old friend Kubbe (nights out in Sweden are an interesting affair given the cheapest beer costs about $10 a pint - but it costs what it costs I guess and you get on with it).  After our 3 days on Aspö, Anna and Magnus drove us through the wheat fields of Skåne to Malmö to catch the train to Copenhagen to get our flight to Zurich.  This was way (about 300km) out of their way home to Örebro, so big thanks guys!  Interestingly, since we were leaving the EU at this point, we finally got our passports stamped for about the first time in Europe, in a country we were in for 2 hours! After our 3 country day, we had an early night in a hotel near the airport in Zurich.

Next day we got our 6 day Switzerland rail pass activated (giving us unlimited travel on trains, ferries and public transport - all except for a few tourist lines where we got discounts) and hopped on the train south across the Alps to Como.  This was a nice way to ease into the Alpine landscape.  While we were around about the Goddard tunnel, the conductor clipped our ticket and started telling us a few facts about the train.  He was clearly enthusiastic about trains so we happily let him give us the free tour guide treatment, including pointing out the bits where the line spirals and figure-8s it's way around the valleys on each side of the tunnel to gain height without having to go up too steep a gradient - something you'd be hard pressed to notice yourself, with most of it being in U-shaped tunnels (though you may notice a few other tracks up or down the valley wall - that's where you've been or are going).  Traffic was backed up through the car tunnel with about a 3hr delay - our guide told us that on busy days like that it can be quicker to go over the top of the pass and that they're building a new tunnel lower down to ease the congestion through one of the main routes across the Alps.

We left the German part of Switzerland on the north of the tunnel and came out into the Italian part (Ticino), and the architecture immediately changed to Mediterranean.  We hopped off the train in Lugano, a on a very sloping part of a lake shore (we took a funicular from the station to the town centre after dumping our bags in a locker).  Lugano is like Italy that's been given a bit of a wash - the Italian enthusiasm was there, but the buildings were clean (and, unusually for romance peoples, they'd discovered paint) and things worked (because we were still in Switzerland).  It was a lovely place where we walked through town, had some spaghetti at a spaghetti restaurant (very nice too) and had a stroll along the lake shore.  Another thing that's great about Switzerland was that the exchange rate with the Aussie dollar is about 1.01 - so we were temporarily free of mental calculations!

We hopped back on the next train 2 hours later to continue on to Como, just over the border in Italy.  We'd paid for tickets from Ciasso (the border where our Swiss passes stopped working) to Como, a 4 minute journey that we could have saved $18 on if we'd bought them on the train since no one looked at them and we could have ridden for free.  We didn't yet know the complete lack of organisation on Italian railways and assumed they worked like the Swiss ones (i.e. well).

So we hopped off the train at what we assumed was Como, despite the complete lack of signage (at least our Tomas Cook European Rail Timetable told us we should be there at that time - and it didn't let us down once).  Como is a city at the end of Lake Como (named for the town) - a lambda-shaped lake formed by crisscrossing folds in the earth's crust filling with water (the part that goes down to Lecchio looks like it's probably the same fold that Lugano's lake is in).  It was festival time in Como, which consisted of a very loud rock trio doing a very loud sound check (including playing the first half of the same song over and over) on a stage in the main square for most of the afternoon we were walking around there.  The lake is lovely though and the gelati we got from this small shop in a side street was to die for (Jill, I'm sure it wasn't the one you recommended but the dark chocolate was even better than the pistachio - we went back for more the next day).  I should say that the weather the whole trip so far had been hot, humid and hazy and this was to continue until we were back in Switzerland.  This made for some sweaty weather (30+ and humid is hot by any Brisbane standards) and unfortunately made the views of the lake less than perfect - instead of reflecting the blue sky it was left a bit grey looking.

Next day we headed up the funicular we saw on the east side of the lakefront, which went way up to a nice little village on the top of the mountains overlooking the lake (they come down pretty much to the lake shore all the way along, being a fold in the earth and al - Como is on the bit of the fold at the end that extends past where the water is).  The views were nice (apart from the hazy conditions), but were hard to find and most of the views were hogged by houses - unfortunately a common occurrence in Italy where the best bits are walled up by the rich and there is no sense of "public good" in this country where "every man for himself" seems to be the vibe (they'll screech to a halt when you're legally crossing a pedestrian crossing and glare at you for rudely slowing them down).  OK, that's possibly a bit harsh and some of the Italians were lovely (and those who know me well will recognise my Italian heritage), but it does at least make you appreciate the commitment to public space that you see in Australia and many other countries.

Anyhoo, back in Como we hopped on the ferry along the lake to Bellagio, the last town right up in the crotch of the lake.  The ferry ride was pleasant enough and it disgorged us at a gorgeous tiny little town of terraces of old stone buildings sloping down to the lake shore.  We spotted our hotel's name (Hotel Suisse I think) on one of the hotels on the pretty little main square on the lakefront right in front of the ferry terminal.  Given we weren't paying a fortune we assumed it must be a billboard or something pointing us to the remote outskirts of town or something, but closer (gradually less dubious) investigation indicated that this was in fact our hotel.  Our room was out the back overlooking a side alley/steps but the whole place was a real old-school hotel with quaintness written all over it and no water pressure (which we forgave it).  Bellagio is a small town consisting of 2 parallel "drivable" (to a European) streets - one along the lake front (despite a few obstacles that made it more of a cul-de-sac car-park) and one further up the hill.  These are joined by about 10 alleys that are actually cobblestone stairs up the hill (it was fun to watch the wheeled suitcase brigade trying to drag their luggage around) and another alley between the two main streets.

Since it was a hot day, and still fairly early since the only travel that day had been the 1hr ferry ride, we set off to look around, find some lunch and find a spot to swim in the lake.  The first swimming spot right on the tip of the fork in the lake had no-one actually swimming - a general turn off when you need swimmers to indicate where swimming is advisable, so we headed (very sweatily) back through town past the usual overpriced restaurants until we found a god sent takeaway place to buy some slices of pizza from.  Then we continued along the lakeshore back in the direction of Como to find the other swimming place.  As we were passing the car ferry we noticed more and more motorbikes drowning out the peace of the village.  "Where's the motorbike convention?" I dryly quipped to Emma.  Then we realised that we'd walked into the middle of the annual motorbike convention (It was a Sunday BTW), with enthusiasts showing off their vintage motorbikes in some sort of judging parade.  The vintage nature of the bikes at least made these guys eccentric enthusiasts rather than wanker revheads, but the continual roar of engines was starting to jangle our little piggy nerves and we continued towards the "beach".  Unfortunately this took us (and the rest of the stream of pedestrians) along a narrow (albeit 2 lane) country lane with high walls on each side (built by another Italian with no sense of public space) and no footpaths.  This would have been lovely if it wasn't also the main road into town and full of cars and motorbikes whizzing past.  We eventually turned off where we could, down through a couple more villages (they pack 'em close in them thar parts) and down along a stream/drain to the beach".  This was another stony affair, but at least there were people swimming.  So we changed and limped into the water for a bit of a dip.  It was nice enough but certainly not worth the journey.

That night we had a lovely dinner with a table overlooking the lake gradually growing darker and a particularly nice house red before hitting the sack.  Next day we arose early(ish) and walked over to the other side of the promontory to the little village of Pescallo, on the the branch of the lake that goes towards Lecco (known as Lake Lecco despite it being part of the same lake).  This was a nice little, slightly more traditional, village of fishing boats and market gardens (if my family is anything to go by, if southern Italians will concrete over any lawn they own, the Alpine variety will dig it up for a vegie garden).  We wandered back to the hotel, checked out, found a shady bench on the lakefront and waited there for about 2hrs for the ferry, eating our takeaway pasta from the takeaway shop.  It was lovely.

The very pleasant ferry ride took us the 2hrs or so to Collico at the north end of the lake where we had about 10min to find the train station and catch the train to Tirano.  We lugged our gear to the train station and got our tickets with about 3min to spare and waited.  And waited.  Eventually we asked a guard that spoke English and he told us that the train was delayed by 50min!  We then realised what the extra column on the departures screen meant - they had columns for "Departure time", "Destination", "Platform" and "How late the train is expected to be".  We were back on Trainitalia.  When the original time plus the delay amount approached (they make you work it out yourself), I looked back inside at the screen (there was no screen or even signage on the platforms or the trains) and noticed that the Delayed column was now saying 1:20.  So we waited some more till I saw that the figure was now 1:40.  An announcement said (I think, it was in Italian) that the Tirano train would arrive in 20min ("venti"?).  10min later a train arrived and people got excited, we pointed to the train and asked the guard hopefully "Tirano?" - the only way we could find to overcome the complete lack of signage and our lack of Italian, the guard nodded so we madly grabbed our stuff and hopped on, double checking with another passenger when we sat down. 

About 30min into the trip the train stopped at Sondrio and people got off and others were getting on.  The old man across the aisle (and not, I might add, the guy we'd asked when we got on) asked us if we were going to Tirano.  We said yes and he told us we had to change trains, as he was doing.  We madly grabbed our stuff again and ran after him down the walkway to another platform and hopped on the train.  We got talking to him and he told us he'd been to Australia a few years before and driven a campervan from Cairns to Perth around the southern coast for about 3 months (despite his English being only marginally better than our Swedish).  When we got off at Tirano we thanked him profusely for saving our butts back there as he headed off to catch his bus to Bormio.  We saw him later after we'd checked in, when we looked for the bus stop to Mazzo for the next day and he helped us AGAIN by grabbing a bus timetable for us.  He was such a nice man and we sent lots of good karma his way.  We found our hotel (once again right on the square overlooking the train station) and were checked in by a lovely young lady who spoke perfect English (which was just a relief more than anything for our tired little brains) and checked in. 

We asked her if there was a place to get shoes repaired, since my walking boots were starting to split on the sole, a problem I'd noticed a few days earlier but hadn't been able to do anything about with Sundays and small towns and such.  She said there was a place right behind the hotel (no sign, you just have to know - though the shoe-repairing equipment in the window helps the identification).  I went there next morning thinking I'd have to get some glue or something since they were my only pair of shoes and I couldn't leave them there all day.  The lovely lady working there didn't speak English but some pointing at the problem did the job, she said (and motioned) "5 minutes" and motioned me to sit and take them off.  So after some quick gluing and clamping and me noticing another (more serious) split and her fixing that and then me getting her to patch up a couple of scuff marks with some sort of resin, she polished them up and said "3 euros".  I was so happy I gave her 3.50.

Later that morning we got on the bus to Mazzo di Valtellina, a village about 10km north up the valley towards Bormio where my grandfather (Giacomo Lazzarini) was born and raised.  It's a lovely little stone village rising in a narrow strip up the valley side from the grey Valtellina river, with cobbled streets and a couple of little churches.  The old town is only about 3 streets wide and about 3 times that distance up the valley wall, with newer houses built around it.  Oddly enough it reminded me most of the Pioneer Valley (the sugar growing area immediately west of Mackay) which, coincidentally enough, is where Giacomo settled and raised his family.  So we wandered around, took photos, breathed in the atmosphere, had lunch outside the only corner shop in town, sitting in the shade of the church tower, walked up the valley side, saw a castle tower that someone lives in now, saw some more farmhouses (including one gorgeous old one that looked like it had been re-re-repaired over centuries) and Alpine meadows and generally enjoyed being in a typical little village in the area (I think only about 200 people live there).  Dad: I'll give you the in depth tour when we get back, everyone else: I'll move on.  We spent about 5 hours there before we decided it was enough and it was time to go home - though it was only back in Tirano that we realised that there was a cemetery there, potentially full of my ancestors.  Oh well.  For the record, the main agriculture in the region seemed to be apple orchards, with some corn on the valley floor.  Many of the fields and meadows were not under cultivation at the peak of the growing season, suggesting they were for fodder or that farming has since become uneconomical.

Back in Tirano we had a bit of a walk around, including a really nice Basilica on the edge of town, before dinner and a wind down watching the best TV of the trip (about 5 music channels including a "best of the 90s" show - the best decade for music for anyone as young (or old) as us).

Next morning we hopped on the train back into Switzerland over the Bernina pass.  We were relieved that this was on a completely separate line (with a separate station, though next door) to the Italian one, so that it wouldn't be contaminated with Italian train gremlins.  I recommend Trainitalia to anyone who enjoys the full gamut of human emotions, from boredom to confusion, back to boredom, followed by mad panic, more confusion, more mad panic and, finally, relief at getting to the destination at all.  For everyone else, take the Swissrail experience - clean trains that work and run on time with signage.

The train went through town (along a main street at one point near the basilica) and up a narrow valley into Switzerland (the border is near the bottom of the valley, only a few km from Tirano).  It does a couple of spirals to gain height (but this time one of them was not in a tunnel so we got to see the rollercoaster as it unfolded), before snaking its way up, past a lake into a more Swiss-looking valley.  Then it takes an unexpected turn away from the main valley up the wall into a smaller valley, with more switchbacks, before going over the tree line (I looove being above the tree line) to the Bernina pass.  Down the other side we glimpsed about 3 glaciers before winding back into a wide valley and turning up another towards St Moritz.  We got off one stop before at Cellerina, where our hotel was.  One other great thing about Swissrail is that (most of) the trains have big windows that you can open and lean out of (safely) to get a great view, smell the mountain air and take lots of photos.  I looove hanging out of a big train window above the tree line.

This trip only took about 4 hours, so we had to wait for our room to be ready while we tried to find some lunch from somewhere that was a) open and b) not ridiculously overpriced.  We opted for a supermarket lunch of potato salad and (yum) bircher museli.  Once we could check in we headed in to St Moritz to see what all the fuss was about.

St Moritz is a nice enough town, but my god is it touristy.  And even though the buildings are probably pretty old, there's an odd pre-fab look to the place, like it's Switzerlandland or something.  We thought about going up one of the mountains on the chairlift, but they wouldn't even give us a discount for our Swiss Pass and $80 each to get to the top looked about as steep as the mountain, so we declined.  Lucky too since the weather turned from sunny to rainy about 15min later and we would have wasted our money and time.  One good thing we found in St Moritz was a jewellers shop (like Prouds but more expensive - including a bafflingly high priced mobile phone costing about $4000) that for some reason also had models of traditional houses from different parts of Switzerland in them.  And they were large dollhouse big, detailed, presumably accurate type models too, so we got a museum type experience in a jewellers window for free in St Moritz.  Nice.  The other thing St Moritz has is a big blue valley lake, but unfortunately with the cloudy weather it wasn't looking its best and we headed back to Cellerina for dinner and rest.  We had dinner in the hotel, which was a bit of a cafeteria type all-you-could-eat dealy but it was not too dear and lively enough and we had some cheap local beer that was delicious (Calanda) with an amazingly clean finish.  Also nice.

Next day we hopped on the "Glacier Express" to Zermatt.  There are at least 2 things wrong with this train's name.  In addition to this, it was the only train where a seat reservation was compulsory, adding $30 each to the cost and giving us a seat in a coach with "panorama" windows.  These go high up the sides and partly over the roof.  The downside is that they don't open and so you get a view that is marred by internal reflections galore, ruining any photos.  I was grumpy.  Then we saw that the food on board was all in the $30 plus range.  That didn't improve our mood.  They did have a nice audio guide with interesting info on the sights, the train and Swiss geography and history, which was some consolation.  Then that stopped working, along with the air-conditioning.  It was at this point the real downside to the panorama windows revealed itself, this being the first really sunny day of the trip.  They eventually fixed the problems and gave us a $10 sausage platter and $10 cheese platter that I had to look on a different menu to find (though it took them about 3hrs to collect our money).  The whole day's trip took about 8hrs, which is probably about 3hrs too long for real enjoyment (and, unlike about 3 other trains we took in Switzerland, we didn't see any glaciers - for those of you still confused about the second sentence of this paragraph).

On the positive side though, the train went through some great scenery, starting in the Engadin region (the headwaters of the Inn river that runs through Innesbruk in Austria and (presumably) into the Danube where they still speak raetoromanish (romansh), a collection of local dialects derived from Latin, in the same way French, Spanish, Italian, Catalan, Provencal and Romanian are - with most similarities to French as far as I could see and a heavily German influenced vocabulary.  We then went over into the headwaters of the Rhine and through perhaps the most beautiful part of the route, with lush high mountain valleys and more spirally track (including the semi-famous bit where the track curves over a viaduct and straight into a tunnel in a cliff-face).  Then down into Chur along an ancient trading route over the Alps (and reason for the high concentration of castles in the area), before heading up another branch of the Rhine headwaters towards the pass at Andermatt (the same pass we'd gone under in the Goddard Tunnel, except this time going east-west rather than north-south).  Along the way we passed the Rhine Gorge, known (badly) as Europe's Grand Canyon, caused by the Rhine eventually bursting through the pulverised debris left by a huge ancient landslide.  It was spectacular enough, but to this boy from Charters Towers, it had an unfortunate resemblance to mine tailings.  Over the pass we went (above the tree line, mmmmmm tree line) and down into the headwaters of the Rhone to Brigg, before heading up the side valley to Zermatt.

Zermatt is cool.  It's a ski resort like St Moritz, but instead of looking like it thinks it's too good for you, it has a lovely rustic feel, with all the buildings made of that larchwood that's been blackened by the sun (as the audio commentary had explained).  There may be too many of them for all of them to be original (i.e. most are probably pre-fab), and the place may be full of tourists but that doesn't seem to matter (and bear in mind we were at the end of a long day and looking for a reason to be grumpy).  And at least these tourist were hardcore - with few wheely suitcases in sight and groups walking through town with ice-picks strapped to their backpacks!  Adding to the wonderful vibe is the lack of cars, which are not allowed in the town – visitors have to park them in the next town down the valley and take the train up.  We paid $10 extra for a room with a view of the Matterhorn and it was worth it, standing there like an icy Coonowrin with the setting sun illuminating it in contrast to the dark valley.  Ahh.

That night after a supermarket dinner (including a 90c can of beer) I consulted my Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable (best $30 we spent for this trip) and worked out another 8hr journey to get us to Interlaken via Montreaux (with a 2hr stop for lunch) and we went to bed.  Next morning I woke up and the first thing I said to Emma was "Why don't we take the more direct train to Interlaken and go up to Gonergrat instead?"  So we took the narrow gauge tourist line (complete with rack and pinion to climb the steep track) to Gonergrat, the station at the end of the line at 3052m, overlooking the Matterhorn and 5 glaciers.  And it was f'ing worth it!  I was in heaven hanging out of an open train window above the tree line looking at snow covered mountains and the grasses and mosses you see up there (and we saw 3 marmots on the way down).  While up there we walked down the rocky track a bit to get a better view of the glaciers and marvelled at just how thin the air is up there as we huffed our way back up to the train station.  If I were to go there again I would spend more time up there - the ticket wasn't included in the Swiss Pass, but we got a 50% discount making it only $38 each, and for that you can ride the trains up and down all day between the 5 or so stations.  Lots of people were hiking, and a few were mountain biking (kitted up with body armour) down the paths.  Even going to the top and hiking to the next station down would be worth it, but unfortunately we only had an hour to spend at the top and marvel in the great view of the Matterhorn and a glacier with 4 tributaries (I know I said that before but it was so cool!).

So then we got the train back to Zermatt, grabbed our stuff and headed off to Interlaken.  We took the more direct train from Brigg to Speiz via the Lötchberg pass (though it still went through a tunnel, not the base tunnel though, that would be silly).  We entered the tunnel in hazy, only slightly cloudy weather and emerged 10min later on the north side of the Alps into constant heavy rain - just goes to show the influence the Alps have on weather systems.  So rather than looking around rainy Speiz or rushing to get the ferry to Interlaken (for the more scenic route), we just got the first train to Interlaken, found our hotel and checked in, safe in the knowledge that we'd done the best we could that day given the weather, and that Montreaux would most likely have had shitty weather too so we probably didn't miss much.

Interlaken is a nice enough town.  As its name suggests, it is built on a flat area between two lakes.  I theorise it may be on the site of an ancient landslide that filled in the middle of a valley lake, but I don't know for sure.  The lakes have a strange light powder-blue colour (possibly from limestone in the water), like an over-chlorinated pool, and the river that runs from one lake to the other through town (with quite a current and a few distributaries) is kind of freaky for that reason, giving the place a slight tropical 5star resort feel.  Interlaken is also a bit overpriced and has quite a few wanker cars driving around.  It was also the Swiss national day and so fireworks were going off pretty much all night in every direction (we took a sleeping pill to sleep through it).  It is also the nearest town to the Jungfrau region.

The next day we went to this region, paying for the trip ourselves rather than use the Pass since we only had a 6 day pass for 7 days travel in Switzerland and, with a 50% discount available for having the Pass and much of the route to Jungfrau not included, it was only $11 dearer each.  The trains to Jungfrau (literally translated as "young woman" but meaning "virgin") go by two different routes (one via Lauterbrunen and the other up a different valley to Grindlewald) that converge at Kleine Scheidegg.  From there the train tunnels almost the whole way up to Jungfrau, at 3500m the highest train station in Europe.  We went via Lauterbrunen on the way up, a nice little village in an alpine valley with meadows and waterfalls and that kind of thing.  The train from Kleine Scheidegg to Jungfrau is fairly packed and there are only 2 places where it stops for 5min at windows in the tunnel to get off and look at the view (so don't feel the need to rush on for a seat with a good view).  They did have a film on the building of the track and so on (about 1900) with captions in English, despite there being room for more languages. 

Anyway, Jungfraujoch itself is way above the snowline, on a saddle between Jungfrau and Mönch peaks.  From it you can see north towards Interlaken (though this was mostly cloud on the day we were there) and south down the Aletch Glacier, the longest in Europe, as it snakes away down the valley into the distance.  It really is very spectacular.  You can also go out onto the snow (at the very top of the glacier's catchment) with activities like snowboarding (about 50m along a slushy track) and hiking (you can see ant-trails of hikers on guided tours of the glacier).  There was also an Ice Palace - made of tunnels and statues cut into ice - and I'm pretty sure it was the ice of the glacier since there were sediment strata in the ice.  That was pretty damn cool too.  After about 2.5 hours and lunch up there we decided to head home.  We did have a great time talking to a Kiwi couple on the train down - it was great to relax into the familiar again, as well as swap travel stories with people who had about as many as us (including a funny incident with Spanish immigration when trying to come back from Morocco after previously overstaying in Spain - the guards accidentally took them back to Moroccan soil while trying to find a park and had to let them go). We stopped off at Grindlewald for an hour or so, but by then we were too tired to enjoy it and saw no more than the touristy main street before jumping back on the (full) train for an ordinary ride back down.  Overall it was a wonderful experience, but we both have a soft spot for Gonergrat (near Zermatt).  Jungfrau is a slick operation, run much like a ski resort (Perisher Blue for example) with 4 restaurants and a lot of the action is in tunnels in the mountain and indoors (for the simple reason that it's cold and snowy outside, makes it hard to walk around), whereas Gonergrat was a bit more raw and outside on the rocky mountain and we felt like it was punching above its weight.  Both are fantastic though, and maybe if the cloud had lifted on the north side of Jungfrau we might have changed our ranking.

Next day was fine weather (the day before was fine with a bit of cloud) and so we took the ferry along the Breinzer See to Brienz, a nice hour or so of looking at mountains and blue lake.  At Brienz we decided to stop for a while, put our bags in a locker and hang out in the hot weather near the cool lake.  I had a swim in the cool blue waters, but poor old Emma was too shy to get changed into her togs in public (despite all of my helpful suggestions and encouragement) and missed out.  We hopped on the train in the mid afternoon and headed to Luzern (aka Lucern, but not to be confused with Lausanne) near Geneva (also, Tirano is not to be confused with Turino).  It was a hot, slightly grumpy train ride, though the trip down the valley in the canton of Obwalden was quite nice, and the people sitting opposite were interesting to listen to - she was an older German speaking local, he was a young Indian she was hosting (for some reason) and so she was telling him about the area in English in a calm, methodical, relaxing, Zen way.

We really liked Luzern.  It sits at the outlet to the Vierwaldstätter See (Lake of the Four Cantons) on a crystal clear river with a lovely old town of cobbled streets, nice churches and old wooden covered bridges.  One of these, the Chapel Bridge, is the main attraction in town.  It's a wooden footbridge from the 1400s or so with a singled roof, paintings in the rafters and flowers growing down each side.  And they were really blooming when we were there with geraniums, petunias and begonias adding a stripe of colour along the old brown structure zigzagging its way across the river.  The middle bit was damaged by a fire in the 1990s, losing many of the paintings of grisly counter-reformation scenes, but luckily they had a bunch in storage from when the bridge had been shortened over the centuries to build quays along the riverbanks, so they put then in instead, leaving a gap of some singed areas as a reminder.  Halfway along there is a stone tower in the middle of the river reminding all that the bridge used to be part of the city wall (other parts of which are still there too). 

The whole town has a Prague-like feel to it and is really lovely.  The afternoon we arrived we lugged our stuff the long way to our hotel and set off in search of somewhere to swim (so Emma could have a dip this time).  We walked through the old town along the river and out to the lake shore and along to the swimming spot, a beach with a grassy park behind where many locals were enjoying a Sunday evening.  The water was perfect - not cold, and lovely and clear and we swam for a while before getting some takeaway food and beers from a kiosk and enjoying a lovely dinner by the lake.  We walked back to the hotel and I enjoyed another nice beer from the soft-drink vending machine in the hallway as I leaned on our rooftop windowsill looking at the other rooftops along the cross-streets we were on.  And when I say rooftop I mean the lovely old 18th and 19th century 5 storey European buildings with turrets and spires and generally ornate rooves, not concrete blocks.  It was magical.

The swans in Luzern deserve a mention for their strange local custom of swimming around with one foot tucked behind their backs.  We couldn’t figure out whether it was just what the cool swans were doing in Luzern this summer (“If you don’t tuck, you’re a duck”) or if some weirdo was going around crippling swans, since it looked fairly awkward.  Maybe they were just showing how easy it was for them to swim in such clear water.  The only vaguely sensible reason we could come up with was that a lot of them seemed to be preening a lot, so maybe it was moulting season and they were just swimming around in between scratching.  Nevertheless it was odd and we didn’t notice any swans in other cities exhibiting this behaviour, including in nearby Zurich the next day.

Next day, after a few hours having another good look around the old town, we caught the train to Zurich, via Zug.  We were becoming a little travel weary by then so we didn't stop off anywhere on the short 1hr trip.  We were pleasantly surprised to find our hotel close to the train station and river and not far from the old town.  We dumped our stuff and caught a flatboat on the river and out to the lake (partly to see it, partly to squeeze the last bit of value from our Railpass).  The lake was nice - a bit like Lake Como in that it was long and fairly developed along the sides, but the weather was turning again and it wasn't shown off to its best.  We wandered back from the lakefront through the old town and were almost as impressed as we were with Luzern.  Zurich had a slight Paris feel, but clean (the river and the buildings) and with a lovely lake out the front.  We found the place where you can swim in the river, but by then it was about 8:30 so we wandered back to the hotel for a supermarket dinner.

Next day was mostly spent travelling (after another brief look around) - train to airport at midday, flight to Stockholm, long wait for bus to train and home at midnight.

We both really enjoyed Switzerland, with the mountains, glaciers, meadows, lakes and exchange rate.  One downside was that smoking laws are a bit behind the rest of the first world, but at least they don’t do the whole tipping thing, which really irritates me when it’s forced on you in Spain, France and Italy.  For gods sake just tell us how much things cost up front.  If you let me work out how much your labour is worth, then why not let me work out what the food is worth too – “I’ll give you $20 for the great service but the food was a bit crap so I’ll only pay the chef $2”.  Italy was also nice, except for the train system and the individualistic attitude.  I think Italy is definitely better the further north you go though.  And it was lovely to connect (however loosely) with my roots.  Highlights were Tirano (and Mazzo), Zermatt (and Gonergrat) and Luzern for places and Tirano-St Moritz, Gonergrat and Junfrau for railways.

But above all it was the mountains that were the highlight, and Switzerland has a whole range to choose from (three mountain puns [of a sort] in one sentences, not bad).  Thinking about them back in Narvik I pondered why they are so awe inspiring to me.  We live as small patches of civilisation amongst a thin layer of life sandwiched between almost infinite rock below us and infinite space above us, which we spend most of our time ignoring, looking sideways around us as we do.  So when some of the rock sticks up into that space, bypassing our layer completely and occupying our line of sight, we are reminded of how small our layer is and how great the forces and timespans are that not only raised that big hunk of rock up there but also much more of it, only to weather most of it away leaving a relatively small, huge reminder of the whole shebang.

 

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