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Category Archives: Switzerland

Switzerland – looking back

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The Alps

We shot about 9 hours and took about 1000 images in Switzerland this summer. Really great weather! We expected lots of rain and we barely had one day of rain in the entire two weeks travel. The Alps are impressive and they are the highlight of the shooting session. The cities are OK but some are really dour.

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Posted by on July 20, 2011 in Blog, Switzerland

 

Switzerland

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The Alps

When you look over a Switzerland landscape, urban or rural, you have the feeling that you are watching a toy train maquete model of cities. Everything is so well trimmed and the attention to detail is accentuated like in a toy model. Besides the perfectly painted and clean house on clean streets where no detail is left to fate, the trains are running everywhere and you can watch like in a toy train models how they cross, stop and start, several at a time, all of different shapes and forms, climbing mountains or going in tunnels.

Busses, trucks, boats and cabins are all completing the landscape, all playing their role in perfect sync and precision, all being on time like in Japan and maybe asking themselves, “what the trains in other countries are doing to be late?”.

Switzerland is model of efficiency that you may hardly find in another country in the world maybe with the exception of Japan. I was watching one night in Luzern, mesmerized the paving of a large part of the road in the middle of the town, near the lake.

What draw my attention were the numerous people who were involved in the activity and that each and every person was moving with precision doing his job. Either by moving some machines for cutting the asphalt, or paving, or measuring, etc. nobody was sitting or talking or lingering with somebody else. If Breugel had painted the paving of the street in Luzern would have been one of his typical paintings with lots of people moving purposefully.

And this sense you have it everywhere you go, even in the French or the Italian part. People are efficient and they don’t look to be frustrated like they look in France all over the place. They may not be the friendliest people but if you ask you will be helped no matter what language they will speak. The Germans are well…German and you kind of expect this but the French look also helpful, way more than across the border and the Italians, vivant as usual, are noisy but a far cry of their neighbors from the south. The more south you go in Italy the level of noise increases….

No matter where you go the German spirit is embedded in things like the language that is prevalent all over the country, out of the German speaking area being always the second language.

The German spirit is obvious in the order that governs everything. Nothing is left unregulated and the most obvious is the traffic where the lanes are always precise, the traffic lights always work and the parking places are a national obsession. In Switzerland is no way to find a place where you can park and is not somehow regulated. There are precise number of parking places, all marked with blue for residents and yellow and/or white for public and ALL have a sort of meter limited in time based on location. The parking regulation obsession reaches its peak in the top of the mountains where around a cabin the parking has meters!!!  Parking garages are everywhere, all are automatic to the point that is nobody to explain if you don’t know what to do, all have a15 minute grace period and all are so clean that is embarrassing to think of their New York equivalent. In Tasch, the city where you park for Zermatt the parking garage was washed daily with detergent that your own soles were dirtier than the ground. And in spite of this apparent limitation you can find a parking spot if you drive around. All parking garages have a permanent display of the amount of places available all over the city and to park in them is roughly four times more expensive than to park on the street but is no limitation in time and also they have a flat after 8-10 hours. Overall the cost to park a full day is about CH20-30 similar with Manhattan.

The roads are in excellent condition and they maintain them continuously. The construction traffic is always regulated by traffic lights even for less than 100 meters and nobody crosses the light but they wait diligently even if is night and no car is in sight. Very few steal the yellow and I hope that I did not do it too often and get a ticket in the mail. The traffic light is so embedded in their spirit that there are mounted in the narrow stairs of the cathedral tower where visitors climb to look over the city. And tourist wait, up or down till they get the green light!!!!

Being so well organized you are not surprised that the roads are so well marked. There are signs well placed everywhere that even without a GPS you can reach by yourself anywhere with minimum or no help at all.

As expected in this kind of order the hotels are top even if they are at the bottom of the scale. But the prices are high everywhere you go at a minimum of $200/night for a double and the offer, way higher than in Norway, is still under the level of Germany or Austria as number of rooms. When you cross the border in the Euro zone you get the same room for about half price or just a little more. The major deal, if you can get it , is to stay in private houses whose prices can be a third of a similar hotel room. In general the owners rent only for two nights but we did not have issues and got these kinds of rooms. However they are prevalent in the German speaking area and mainly in the mountains. For sure they are not so obviously displayed in the French or Italian speaking area.

At the parity with the high prices for the hotels are the restaurants where served food is at, sometimes, ridiculous costs. On the chalk boards, in front of the restaurants, where it is usually advertised something to enter the restaurant for, you can see turkey sandwich with fries for CH23.50 that may add up to US$28!!! As a result ANY dinner, no matter how basic it may be would drain for about $100. However the food in supermarket is reasonable, relatively close to the normal Euro and US prices.

By far, the most interesting part of Switzerland are the mountains. The peaks and the glaciers are a treat that should not be missed. Trains, with or without cogs, are crossing the mountains, outside but mainly completely underground, in tunnels that take you from the base of the mountains and bring you through the mountain, underground, all the way to the top. Beside them are lots of telecabins to the point that any part of the mountain can be reached by anybody. The cost of all this mountain transportation is relatively high but what you get for it is worth it ten times of what you paid. The accessibility to nature beauty for everybody has its worthy cost.

If I have to take a pick of the best spots in Switzerland, any mountain peak in a clear day would win over anything else. The cities are OK but not great, even the famously financial center of Zurich being still a little dull and low in expectations.

The French cities on the Lake Leman are worth a visit mainly because of their proximity to the lake. Montreux is alive, maybe because we caught it during the Jazz festival and Geneva with its river, lake and canals has a charm but looks very bourgeois. In any case a visit on that part would not be worth it without a cruise on lake Leman that is really beautiful. From the boat you can admire the coast with its villages and the vineyards and lots of transportation moving through them like toys. Also from there you can see that absolutely no spot is wasted, everything has something planted or built on it. In this sense something that cannot stop to impress in this age of outsourcing is to see lots of factories, small and efficient, all over the country along the roads. Their number is so high that you have a sense that still is hope that something still can be manufactured outside of China.The Italian part has fewer things to see than its beautiful location on the lakes.

But no matter what, Swizerland is quite of an experience to visit. The sense of order probably may be too obsessive for many who stay there. The feeling that the entire society is completely regulated made a guy I met in New York to state “Switzerland is the most democratic police state in the world”.

 
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Posted by on July 15, 2011 in Blog, Switzerland

 

Rhein Falls-Schafhausen-Zurich

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Rhein Falls, Singen, Germany

The morning did not look so great but way better than the previous because it was not raining. The Rhein Falls were already flooded with school kids in day trips. The falls are no so large but the path going down into them were so well built that were bringing you to the water level that was almost falling on you. Finally the sun started to peek out from the clouds and we spend way more time than we planned there, b ut we shied away of taking the boat and getting soaked in the middle of the river.

We left to Schaffhausen, that is extremely closed and we enjoyed a visit in a charming jewel of a city that looks more German than Swiss. Schaffhausen was the only town in Switzerland that was bombed, and even twice, in WW2 by the Allies who confused it with German territory being so close to the border.

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Schafhausen, Switzerland

The center has so many old buildings that most of them have oriel bay window, highly decorated, some of them astounding. The three squares have in the middle fountains with statues, one of them having Wilhelm Tell, the legendary hero of Switzerland.

We could not stay longer, I spite of the beauty of the place because we wanted to spend some time in Zurich, located luckily at 50 km.

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Zurich

The first thing we did in Zurich was to find a parking place, that we found out that may cost as much as the car rental for a day if you leave it longer. Limmat river crosses the city and flows in lake Zurich. All the main things to see are in a very narrow perimeter of the old city so we started to stroll the pedestrian area. The main churches, Fraumunster and Grossmunster have stained glass windows by Chagal, respectively Giacometti. Cabaret Voltaire, the place where DADA movement started is still in existence but as a small exhibition place and located very close to Kunsthaus, the main art museum that has an impressive modern collection, where Giacometti and Munch have a remarkable presence. I strolled also to the new ex-working district that sports a new spirit, young and creative, where the museum of design is located. Punk guys with spiked collars were lying on the sidewalks have drinks guarded by their dogs.

After about 4 hours of walk we took the car and drove to the lake’s shore trying to find a restaurant but to no avail so we returned in the city and ate in the pedestrian area.

The Hilton Apart hotel, booked at the airport for convenience, received us with confusing rules. No Internet was available except in the business lounge and the parking was free only for three hours, and latter you had to pay an astronomical sum, that latter proved to be less than advertising. After I filled up the tank and paid for parking we went to bed just to wake up four hours latter to bring my family to the airport. They were flying through Vienna on Austrian Airlines on miles and my flight was direct on Swiss three hours latter. So I returned and had my breakfast, read a book, left to the airport, dropped the car and cleared all security and barely made the flight in time.

In the plane I spoke with some girls coming to NYC from Greece and the discussion obviously came to the current situation in the country. Similar with the discussion I had with a Portuguese guy in a previous flight from Bucharest, the girls were very apprehensive about the future and considered that the entire scenario is actually already written in Berlin and Paris and Greece has only to follow orders. The lack of jobs is prevalent, the insecurity about the current jobs being combined with the fled of multinational corporations. The sense of lack of independence of the past proud countries in Europe is prevalent everywhere you go and the conspiracy theories abound regarding the way these countries are controlled by the big finance. Similar with Romania where the feeling is that the country is run by thugs, dressed as politicians, in Greece the situation is similar and nobody is resigning or is found responsible for the present situation. I wished the to enjoy New York and they promised to do because, as they said, probably will be the last trip outside of the country we will do for a long time….

 
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Posted by on July 14, 2011 in Blog, Germany, Switzerland

 

Liechtenstein-St Gallen

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Liechtenstein Castle, Vaduz

The breakfast room was full of kids, no tourist just Austrian. This was a local affair where families were coming in the mountains to hike and spend time in nature. The guys from the reception were nice but they charged another E10 for another kid. Because we had Internet we decided to book a room for the next night. The day final destination was suppose to be the Rhein Falls, near Schaffhausen in Switzerland and again the best hotels were just across the border in Germany, 13 km away from the falls. We booked a hotel that will prove to be the best pick from the entire trip, Hotel Krone, right outside of Singen.

Unfortunately the forecast we saw the previous day in Chiesa proved to be correct and drops of rain started right after we left the hotel. We cross the border and realized that even the previous day we drove to Austrian through Lichtenstein. The principality ran with authoritarian power by its ruler welcomed us with drenching rain and we stopped in Scharr for bit at the church and continued to its capital Vaduz. Lichtenstein is major financial spot that confers it prosperity. A lot of private banking are located there, it has a university that we visited and it sells like any small place in the world… stamps for tourists to put the country on the map. Actually it may be cool to send a postcard stamped from Lichtenstein.

I drove up to the castle, that is closed for visitors being the residence of the princely family and I stopped for a while on the small pedestrian area that has the city’s stores and museums. Luckily the weather improved and we were able to walk a little bit more but is not too much to see. Just curio shops and …stamps!

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St Gallen, Switzerland

The pouring rain started again and we drove to St Gallen, about one hour drive from Lichtenstein. The main attraction in St Gallen is a famous and old library located in the city’s monastery. St Gallen was a main center of learning and the library that had an impressive collection of old books and manuscripts was founded in the 16th century in the old tradition of European libraries. Judging by its size the monastery was very influential in those days.

After a false start we found the city center and the monastery. The pedestrian area is quite interesting with lots of old buildings, with painted facades and oriel bay windows. The windows were a show of status in the old days when the city was a powerful center. However the rain started and stopped continuously, sometimes a little sun coming out but just to be followed by more pouring rain.

After I moved the car closer to the monastery I went to visit the library. Its ceiling was decorated baroque and the woodwork was impressive. The manuscript were definite a treasure and it had also a replica of a mechanic globe from the 16th century, the original being in Zurich Museum.  The globe was build as a replica, and it became a fascinating project for the now-a-days engineers and cartographers, and given to St Gallen in 2007 after a long debate between the two cities of who should be housing the original.

Outside the spells of rain continued and after a bit of a walk in the rain to the end of the pedestrian area I was completely drenched and decided to come back to the car, located in front of the Textile Museum, a craft for which St Gallen was known in the old days.

On the highway the rain never stopped and we could not stop thinking how lucky we were of good weather during this trip. Everybody told us that all they had in Switzerland was rain. For us all the rain we got till now were T storms in the afternoon when we were driving for our night destination sometimes with rainbows over us. But today we experimented the heavy and unceasing rain that cuts you all the enthusiasm to go anywhere.

Close to Schaffhausen we stopped at the Rhein Falls just to check it out but we already decided that we would visit it the following morning. We continued the drive and crossed into Germany and we turned left right before Singen and went to the beautiful and charming Hotel Krone in Rieliongas??????

The room we got proved to be one of the nicest we had in this trip, with old furniture and comfortable beds.  We went out and ate in another beautiful place, Hotel Lowen. The German kitchen is very good and famously hearty and tasty. But, maybe coming from Switzerland, it strikes you that the portions are huge and bare bone inexpensive for such exquisite food. The candle dinner in a traditionally decorated restaurant hall was great but I am relieved that I cannot eat similar portions every night. Would be a disaster for the health! The kids had sandwiches from their schnitzels for the entire following day!!!

We returned at the hotel where we were able to get Internet connection and used it to make some calls in New York over Wi-Fi and latter we had a late beer in the restaurant in the very German atmosphere.

 
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Posted by on July 13, 2011 in Blog, Liechtenstein, Switzerland

 

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Bernina Pass-St Moritz

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Chiesa de Valmolenco, Italy

The morning had a perfectly clear sky but the weather looked bad for the following day. We had breakfast and started to look for a hotel for the night. Destination of the day was Bernina Pass and latter St Moritz but when we looked on Internet we could not find any hotels with 3-4 beds around St Moritz. However lots of hotels were coming up in Austria, very close to our destination so we book one, Jufa Montafon, close to Feldkirch.

Like everything outside Switzerland the hotel prices in Austria are a fraction, about half, of the hotels in Switzerland. When we asked latter in Austria how can be such a large difference, they just snubbed the Swiss, “they have their country and their own money”…

We could have taken a walk in Chiesa from our hotel but we decided to park in the village for a very short visit. We found such a beautiful Enoteca from where we could not resist to buy some liquor and we left relatively quickly but late toward Bernina Pass. Named also Bernina Strasse, is a road the crosses the mountains from Tirano, Italy to St Moritz. It has also a great train that is listed by UNESCO being the highest non-cogwheel, train the world.

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Tirano

In Tirano we took a short walk and bought some food and admiring the train that was going on the town’s streets and latter in the villages on the way, we reached the pass at 2400 meters. A barren landscape welcomed us on top where after the regular pictures we decided that we should do a hike. Here we noticed one of the Swiss obsessions: near one of the cabin, it was a huge PAID parking on top of the mountains. This I noticed in many other places but here it looked so ridiculous because at any time you could park either right near the parking place or anywhere else for free, However the Swiss parked in the paid parking place…

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Bernina Pass – Alp Grunn

There were several hikes and we picked in the end one following an alpine lake and going to a chalet restaurant named Alp Grunn. We got more info from other travelers on the way. The Alps are full of hikers, mostly Swiss but also Japanese, Europeans, etc. The path was full and it looked like a very popular route. It was a very pleasant walk following a huge

Alpine lake, dammed at one point on one side and on the other side the train tracks, where occasionally was coming the charmingly red Tirano-St Moritz train.

After about one hour and a quarter we reached Alp Grunn, in an amazing location, overlooking an open valley toward Tirano from where you could see the train coming on 360 curves in order to be able to climb the steep mountain.

Besides the chalet was located right under a steep mountain that had in the middle a large glacier. Magic location! Right under the chalet was the Alp Grunn train station from where trains were passing almost every 20 minutes.

We had a quick lunch admiring all these views crossed by red trains and we took way too many pictures. Time being again too late we rushed to take a train back, for one stop, CH5/person, to Ospizio Bernina, the station right under the Bernina pass. The language spoken in the area is Romansche, a Romanesque dialect, and many sign were displaying words in it but we did not hear anybody speaking it. We stayed too little in the area….

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St Moritz

We took the car from our non-paid parking place and we zipped down the mountain to the very glitzy and expensive St Moritz. After Zermatt, Megeve, St Gervais and Chamonix we did expect a very beautiful resort or at least interesting. However the feeling was the opposite. Walking in the center on streets that have mainly new and clean building we found just fashion stores and expensive hotels with no personality. You could have been anywhere in the world and the only thing that gave some sparkle to this boring place were the Alps’ peaks that were shining in the sunset. We drove around after that still thinking that we missed something and we left disappointed like in no other place in this trip. In a way the blandness of St Moritz was good because it was very late and we had to drive to Feldkirch and latter Bartolomeoberg in Austria where the hotel was located. We got out from St Moritz on Julierpass, that is way less interesting than Bernina pass, and we drove on the highway non stop through Chur arriving in Feldkirch around 10 pm. It took a while to find the pedestrian area that was still full of restaurants, but not many serving dinner at that time. Luckily we found one and we got our Wiener schnitzel dinner with Austrian beer and around 11 pm, after short walk in the beautiful Feldkirch center we left to Bartolomeoberg, about 13 km away. We found the hotel that turned to be a modern construction highly used for kids summer camps. The rooms’ modular furniture, with two beds but each piece of furniture could accommodate some other bed, up to five that were hinged down making the room very flexible in terms of accommodation.

The lady from the reception was waiting for us, it was 11:30 pm, and right after she gave us the key locked the reception leaving me with no sheets for the bed. In the morning when we asked why it happened they said that they noticed that we wanted a 3-bed room but we listed only two people. Very precise and ….German! In any case we slept very well in the quietude of the village till we were woken up by some guys who started early in the morning to cut the bushes right under our window……

 
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Posted by on July 12, 2011 in Blog, Switzerland

 

Lugano-Locarno

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Lugano

Again the rain cleared the skies and the morning was beautiful. After breakfast and the previous night experience we booked a hotel on the Internet to make sure that we don’t run again crazy in the night. However around our next destination, St. Moritz were almost no hotels with 3-4 beds available so we decided for a hotel in Chiesa del Valmolenco, Italy, a two hours drive from Lugano but a perfect location that was placing us just 30 minutes from Bernina Pass.

We left the luggage in the car parked at the hotel and we started a stroll in Lugano, on the shores of Lake Lugano and the old town. Being Monday the museums were closed, including an interesting photo exhibit by Wim Wenders,  so our out doors visit took about 3 hours. The old town is quite interesting and the stroll on the lake’s shore and in the park is a charm.

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Locarno

After that we picked up the car and drove to Locarno, for an even shorter visit. Piazza Grande was cleared after the previous night concert that I guessed happened in pouring rain, and we strolled a little in the Cita Vecchia and on the shores of Lake Maggiore.

After about an hour and a half we left, trying to get to Ascona that is only 4 km away and latter to Vale de Verzaca to see some traditional houses but we decided to skip boith in the end because lack of time.  So we drove directly to Belinnzona, to visit its famous three castles.

First we drove to Caso Sxxxx on top of the hill where the museum was closed because an exhibition that ended yesterday was taken away. But even with no inside visit the views over the city and over the other two other castles are spectacular. From there we drove down to the middle castle, Montebelo, that houses a Civic Museum and is one of the most interesting castles I ever saw, with two sets of circular walls each with its own gate, everything being so well restored ….like everything in Switzerland.

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Belinnzona

The third castle, Castelgrande, is in the city center so we had to park to get to it. The civic museum was opened but I skipped it being too late in the evening. The views are great over the two top castles, but the castle is less interesting and attractive than the previous ones. It was quite late when we finished the visit and the 37C temperature drove us in the AC of the car. We started to drive to Lugano and towards Chiesa de Valmelenco. From From Lugano the road goes to Gandria, the border town to Italy, but the construction on the road delayed us a lot. All the construction area on the road that closed one lane are controlled by traffic lights. Few cars pass to give access to the other sense so it may take a while during rush hour to go over that specific spot. We ended up crossing the border into Italy around 7 pm and drove on an extremely narrow road, where trucks and busses were waiting for incoming traffic causing more even delays. However, in spite of the very narrow road the Italian drivers were showing their Latin spirit on the beautiful curves of Lake Lugano. We continued on this marrow road till Meggio where the road connects to a wider one that goes for more than an hour on the shore of Lake Como to Sondrio. Meggio was quite a surprise. Tucked away from the well-known spots is a charming town with a beautiful plaza on Lake Como full of restaurant where we stopped for dinner. When to order we realized that we don’t have any Euros and they don’t take credit cards, but eventually the problem was solved and we paid by Amex in the hotel. When we ordered we wanted to make sure that they bring us tap water, which they did but they still charged us Euro1.1/glass!!!!! Italians….. So, no tip! But in spite of this we could not have noticed the large differences between the prices in Switzerland and the ones in Italy, or any other Euro zone country. The difference is so large when you cross in the Euro zone, that you feel like when you cross the border into an undeveloped country. The same dish can be 2 or even 3 times cheaper in Euro zone than in Switzerland.

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Sondrio

We left around 9 pm from the restaurant and drove on the beautiful shore of the lake for an hour. From there we left the shore and drove in a very boring town landscape to Sondrio. In Sondrio we missed the exit, returned and found the way to Chiesa and we started to climb the 13 km road to the town. Right before 11 pm we reached the village, where a lonely guy pointed us how to get to the hotel. The hotel had our reservation and after some confusion with the number of beds in the room we got a nice suite. The sign in the bathroom said “no shower between 10 pm-8am”(!!!!) and we are not in Switzerland but in Italy…. All the hotels have wi-fi access and checking the emails turned out that I had to make a call in New York before going to bed.

 
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Posted by on July 11, 2011 in Blog, Switzerland

 

Furka Pass

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Rotheisglacier

The evening rain guarantees a sunny morning. I went o get breakfast and brought it the room, packed, ate and left for Furka Pass on another glorious morning. First we enjoyed the beautiful view of the Grimsel pass that we crossed already when we came from Interlaken and latter we started to drive with numerous stops for shots and pictures on Furka pass. The pass is really special, with amazing views from all points. After too many stops we eventually arrives at Belvedere hotel and the Rotheisglacier where we bought tickets to visit the ice cave and walk close to the glacier.

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Rotheisglacier

Here you see first the result of the global warming the Alps glacier melting. On top of the ice cave they put a material, about which I read a while ago, to protect against the sun and to preserve the cave against melting. The glacier look was very sad with water all over, cracked ice, blue at least in the sun and everything melting like crazy. The cave consisted of ice tunnels cut in the glacier. In some of them they installed lights in the ice that were giving a eerie effect inside. Water was gushing down in several places but his was not the melting ice on that location but some kind of melting path. I spend a lot of time inside and latter outside walking the area where water was gushing out from the lake at the base of the glacier. Latter I asked and found out that the glacier looses about 4-5 meters every year. It is not enough snow and soon it will be disappearing like most of the glaciers at under 2500meters.

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Furka Pass

We continued to Furkapass that at 2412meters is one of the tallest passes in the Alps and after several pictures we started to drive down. We stopped on the way and went on a hike to Albert Heim cabin, on a charming alpine path around gushing glacier streams, and beds of alpine flowers. But the customary afternoon T storm was on the way, the peaks being covered in dark clouds, and we turned back 20 min from the cabin being afraid not to be caught by the T storm on the slopes. After we started our drive down, the rain started when we reached Andermatt, a charming little town where we stopped for lunch and a coffee eating some delicious cherries bought on the road. For the first time in Switzerland we were charged for tap water at the table, being defined as being a service; 2 glasses for CH1/each!! Andermatt is close to the highway that brought us on the 17km traffic controlled tunnel that crosses in Ticino, the Italian area of Switzerland, where after a quick nap in a parking, the coffee did not help, we drove to Lucarno. Here it started a three hour saga of finding a hotel, with Piazza Grande being closed because of a concert, and many other hotels being full. After several tries we left Lucarno trying to find something outside but it was Sunday evening and the hotels were closed (!!!). We found so many hotels closed that we don’t know if this is an attitude here or is just a sign of the crisis that for sure does not look in the restaurants.

Eventually, we drove to Lugano, trying on the way a number of hotels where the bars were full by ‘hostesses” waiting for clients. In Lugano we were lucky and found right away Hotel Besso that had a room to accommodate us for CH200. The afternoon T storm was continuing in the night so we had to walk in the tapered rain and had a very late dinner in a close by restaurant, Federale. The food was great, Italian, but something was missed in translation for the order and we ended up with CH8 mineral water at the table that tasted terrible.

 
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Posted by on July 10, 2011 in Blog, Switzerland