In my last post I told you all about fishing and hiking around Lake Louise. It was beautiful. Now I’m going to introduce you to Johnston Canyon and the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.
After the big hike at Lake Louise we (I) wanted something a little flatter (for my knee). Barbara and I bent over a map with our coffees and found the Johnston Canyon hike and – if we (the kids) were up to it – continuing on to the Ink Pots.
Johnston Canyon is an extremely popular hike because of the flatness, well maintained trails, and incredible grandeur payoff in the views of the lower and upper waterfalls. It’s only a half mile to the lower falls and another mile further to the upper falls. So a really doable and quick hike. People any fitness of ability level (including crutches or wheelchair) can go on these trails. If you want/need to park close get there before 9am. If you don’t you’ll have to park in the over-flow parking or along the road. My knee was pretty stiff and I had very little problem. The kids bounded ahead with Mark racing after them.
I was actually glad to be going a little slowly because it was so freakin’ beautiful.
The Canadian National Parks have taken special care to put in these walkways that (a) even the terrain and (b) let you walk almost over the top of the creek bed.
The water had that wonderful blue color that glacial water has. It was the same color as the Rhine River.
There are plenty of waterfall along the way. Shorter. Wider. Not quite a grand as the lower falls, but very beautiful.
And then you come to the lower falls. You can tell it’s the lower falls because you run into a bit of a traffic jam. People patiently wait in line to get a view and plenty of pictures of the falls. It is worth the wait.
From here you can go up a steeper incline (you’ve only gone about 30 meters up so far) and get to the upper falls. My knee wasn’t up for that so I waited by this wonderful view contemplating life and the existence of everything as they went on to the upper falls.
Mark and the others reported the upper falls were beautiful. You can see that this is a view of the same “lower falls” just at a higher point on the trail. It really puts into perspective just how tall these falls are.
We didn’t get to the Ink Pots – deep pools of water along the river that flows to the falls – unfortunately. Perhaps this means I’ll go back again sometime to see them. There were also other trails we wanted to hike but didn’t have time for, like the C Level Cirque, the Banff Cave and Basin National Historic Site, the Upper Hot Springs, the Banff Gondola… and that’s just in Banff! Jasper and Canmore are just a short drive away. Up there you can hike on the Columbia Ice Field, Burgess Pass, and the Bow Valley Provincial Park. Even that still only scratches the surface!
Our travel companions continued on and experienced Jasper and bears!
But before they had an encounter with a grizzly we went to check out some of the most luxurious accommodations in Banff. And, arguably, all of Western Canada: The Fairmont Banff Springs.
Mark’s dad had told us about it when we were talking about our upcoming trip. Back in the 1880s a guy named (Sir) William Cornelius Van Horne became the president of the Canadian Pacific Railway and oversaw the development and completion of the trans-Canadian Railway. One of the things he and other railway VIPs loved was the beauty that was surrounding the construction path of the railway. Being not completely stupid, they also saw a money making opportunity knocking on their door.
Tourism. And if you have tourism you’re going to need hotels.
If you want the RICH tourists you’re going to need really, really nice hotels.
And this hotel is stunning. The guidebooks tell us that it was built in a Scottish Baronial Style because apparently Banff, Canada is named in honor of Banff, Scotland. The building as it is today (which I am given to understand is a bit different than the original structure) looks like late-19th century castle.
We admired it for a while in temporary parking – they have free 10-min parking set aside for touristic gawking – and decided (a) we really would like to see the inside and (b) we also needed a snack. So I said I’d check it out and apparently walked in like I owned the place.
The inside was absolutely gorgeous. Grand. Magnificent. You can tell their guests are the rich, famous, and royalty. They have guest rooms, suites, and then the “gold” experience. I will never be rich enough for the gold experience.
They really feel their Scottish heritage. The Tartan rugs. The bluestone walls (very like the stone you find in Scotland). And several paintings by Scottish artists of both the Canadian and Scottish Banffs. Even the porters wear kilts.
Now that they are open year-round I imagine those kilts become slightly drafty around January.
We could have gone for the Rocky Mountain Afternoon Tea at $49 per person ($24.50 per child), however, given the hiking ensembles we were wearing and how we probably smelled we decided to go to the small cafe at the end of the grand hall.
If the drinks and treats available at the cafe were any indication afternoon tea would have been spectacular. There were individual tiramisus, creme brulee, mini fruit tarts, fresh croissants, pain au chocolate, … you name it, that had it. And every non-alcoholic beverage you could want. About 30 different kinds of teas, 4 different coffees, 10 different types of coffee drinks, fresh juices, and about 7 different kinds of bottled waters.
We picked our desserts and drinks and sat at long tables that reminded me of old library tables with lights wired into the middle of them. It was fun and we had a really nice little snack in the midst of incredible opulence.
Re-energized, Barbara and I went shopping and the boys went out and found the candy store. Banff had your normal touristy stores, but also had some galleries that showcased beautiful works of art – European and First Nation. I came away with a couple of pieces to decorate our new house. Now I just have to find a frame…
Banff is a great place for families to go. It doesn’t have the tourism crush that places like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite can have, but it does have a variety of amenities that ensure hikers of all ages will have a great time. I highly recommend it!
Just when you thought our travels were over, we went off to Banff, the onomatopoeiadic capital of Canada. It’s the sound an exclamation mark should make. It’s also one of the most beautiful places in the world.
The trip got all planned when I was on a Skype call with my friend Barbara. As you may recall she was our downstairs neighbor and became one of my best friends. She taught me how to make rösti and shared Epiphany cake with us. She and her family were going to go on a vacation in North America. Specifically Canada. And even more specifically the Canadian Rockies in the Banff/Jasper area. For 3 weeks, because Europe cares about their working people and know that everyone needs a long vacation break in order to come back rested and reset.
But for us this would be a vacation of 3.3 actual days. Because we’re American. We would get into Calgary in the early afternoon and drive the 1.5 hours to Banff in a really swanky Fiat 500x rental car that Avis swears is a “mid-sized car.” (I am really liking their definition of mid-sized. The Fiat 500x is definitely on my list of Cars To Buy.)
The drive was promising. The car was smooth and the landscape promised some grandeur.
Our hotel was actually a sort of condo complex called The Hidden Ridge Resort. It was very resort-y in that it had a pool and a hot tub and featured a lot of redwood beam-type architecture. The room we reserved was the most basic you could find there – a one bedroom condo with kitchenette and living room (I think the pictures of are our actual room!). It had a nicely sized range, a microwave, a coffee pot, a hot pot, a full-sized fridge with freezer, and all the pots, pans, and dishware you would need for a family of 8.
Their mascot was a bear.
In our case we were a family of 4 with another family of 4 who was camping near by. We cooked dinner at the condo several times and had breakfast there every morning. That was perfect, actually. We didn’t have to worry about where we would get food first thing in the morning and we would sit pouring over our maps deciding which hike to take while comfortably sipping our coffee. And then in the evening when we were wiped out we could fire up the grill and sit at a comfortable table having burgers, sausages, salad, and beer and chatting for as long as we wanted. It was 5 times the comfort at about a third of the price of eating out.
Everyday we tried to see something new. Banff was full of wondrous view and beautiful hikes for people of all ability levels. The easy hikes were the most crowded so I was glad that all of us were at about an intermediate hiking level. Well, really Richard and Barbara and their boys are advanced hikers and climbers and they were very gracious about us holding them back for the first 3 days of their Canadian vacation. But every hike was more beautiful than the last.
The first day the 4 boys requested that we go fishing. Now I have been fishing ever since I was 2 years old – In fact, the night before my wedding my dad took me out to our river fishing spot and he and I caught catfish in the dark – so I knew what I was doing in the fishing department. I was actually the only one who knew what they were doing. It was a little scary.
I had found this shop called Wilson Mountain Sporting Goods online. They were right by Lake Louise and had fishing tackle for rent for $9CAD per day. They also have bikes, mountain bikes, climbing gear, and bear spray for rent.
Yes, bear spray.
This was a big deal around Banff. There are grizzly bears there. Big ones. And they are very active. Just this April, a grizzly chased a woman and her dogs down a path in Banff and then in May, a grizzly chased a couple of people and their dog for 20 minutes until they made it to a Parks’ truck where they hid until the bear left. Just about every camping and hiking supply store in and around Banff sell or rent bear spray. Barbara bought two canisters at a whopping $40 each, but if you think about it, $40 is quite a low price to save yourself from being mauled by a bear.
Not that we saw any during our hikes.
But I digress… We were fishing!
The gentlefolk at Wilson Mountain rented us 4 poles and then I bought some spinners and hooks to help actually catch the fish. Lures are not included in the rental of the poles. Then we walked across the parking lot and bought our fishing license from the Parks service station. We got a nice map and some descriptions of the local lakes and the fish therein.
Right down the road and just off of a railroad depot was a river spot that our helpful Parks guide assured us was (a) a good spot for fishing and (b) devoid of people at this time of day. He also circled a few more locations to try should this spot on the Bow River not pan out.
The Bow River has Cutthroat Trout, Bull Trout (which I had never heard of), Rainbow Trout, Brook Trout, and Mountain Whitefish. We caught a bunch of rocks instead.
So we moved on to Emerald Lake, which our guide assured us was also great for taking kids fishing. Emerald Lake had all the trout that the Bow River had and none of the Whitefish. The boys perfected their casting technique and their patience.
But we didn’t mind too much. It was just so gorgeous. The water is actually emerald green. Mark took two of the 4 boys out in a canoe. Emerald Lake is one of those lakes in the Yoho National Park were you can rent canoes right along with some fishing poles. Our guide told us that Emerald Lake is a great spot for kids and for beginning fisher-people.
There was also a hike along the edge of the lake that was about (if I recall correctly) 2.5 miles around. The route was flat and practically paved so it’s perfect for novice hikers or people with kids. And you don’t get nearly the traffic that you see at the more popular lakes. We walked up to the resort that is just up the hill and over looking the lake. There is a cafe and a restaurant there that serves ice cream, sandwiches, and hot tea, along with fuller meals and adult beverages.
After a whole day of fishing and being surrounded by beauty we called it a day and went out to eat. The restaurant scene in Banff is quite varied. You can get just about anything there, from some lovely Indian curry to shawarma to hamburgers. The kids were all very pleased. And as our hotel has a grill and a kitchen we ended up going to the grocery store and making the rest of our dinners in the leisurely comfort of our condo.
The next day we were back out and put in a full day of hiking!
The consensus was that you can’t go to the Banff and not see Lake Louise. There are buses and tours and copious amounts of overflow parking. The crowds are thick and people cover the lawn of the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.
Lake Louise is actually at the start of the trails. The parking lot is right there and if your goal is to just see LL then there is no hiking necessary. However, if you want to hike there are two different trails available.
The first trail goes right around the lake and then up along a ridge and to a tea house. The trail is an easy 5.3 km long and keep you right on the edge of the lake. It’s a very popular trail and has foot traffic that rivals the busiest New York sidewalk.
Given that we didn’t come to Banff to be in crowds of people we opted for the less busy trail up to Lake Agnes and Big Beehive.
Both trails start at the same place, but about 200 meters in they split and the Lake Agnes trail starts going uphill and slightly away from the lake. It’s a 5.5 km hike so almost the same distance as the Lake Louise trail and it also takes you to a neat tea house that sits just above the shore.
Before you get to Lake Agnes, though, you are treated to the incredible Mirror Lake.
Not to be confused with the Mirror Lake in Yosemite, this Mirror Lake is a very small lake that is mostly a pass-by destination as hikers make their way up to the must larger Lake Agnes. We took a minute there to rest, drink some water, and eat some gummy bears.
You also get an early view of the Big Beehive mountain. It rises out of the trees like some kind of bee skyscraper. And people climb this. People like Mark and our friends. But I am getting ahead of myself. We haven’t reached Lake Agnes yet.
We had another kilometer uphill to go. And it was worth the hike.
The tea house is a neat little building right at the front edge of the lake. While the others went up to the top of the Big Beehive, I stayed with the boys and we played along the water’s edge at the opposite side of the lake before heading back to the tea house and having a lovely pot of tea. The boys chowed down on chocolate chip cookies and hot chocolate. The others joined us before long and we all had a nice cup of tea. It was only 65-70F at that altitude (yes, that is snow in one of the photos above) so something hot was very welcome.
There is even a tea house challenge! You have to visit both tea houses at Lake Louise and Lake Agnes. The guide books tells us that you can connect the two Tea Houses by the Highline trail to form a 14.6 km loop. It takes a minimum of 5 hours of hiking to complete. If you are in good shape and don’t stop for tea.
The walk down to the parking lot was steep, but easy. My knee gave me some trouble when I was about 3/4 of the way down, but I would recommend this hike for someone who is in okay condition. And I would also recommend hiking poles if you aren’t in the best of shape. The boys didn’t have a problem at all. They didn’t even complain for the entire day!
(Well, H complained later and said that it was boring. We asked him what would make hikes more interesting and he said, “Not going on them.” We continue to campaign for the benefits of hikes.)
As our friend said, if you come to Banff you must see Lake Louise. It was such a remarkable hike and the woods was so beautiful and peaceful. And in the next blog post I’ll tell you all about our hike along Johnson Canyon and show you the impressive Fairmont Banff Springs.
I still feel I am in the middle of the river Denial. But the boat I am on is quickly heading towards the shoreline.
In 50 days.
Switzerland has been magical. Last week I went with friends to France just to sample cheese. My favorite winery is just down in Ticino. We are only 30 minutes away from amazing hiking and biking trails.
Part of my coping mechanisms is to go into planning mode. H’s 7th birthday is conveniently time so I can focus on planning his party. Superhero theme, incidentally.
I am also cruising Zillow like other people visit Facebook. Everyday I am scouring Zillow for rental houses in our budget in the DC area. And then when I am bored or I’ve seen everything there is to offer in DC I look at houses in other states. Cost of housing variances are crazy.
It is May, which my realtor tells me means we can start looking for houses in earnest. Which means I can play House Hunters International from this side of the pond. I have emailed him a couple of listings that I found suitable. Our friend Ingrid is going to help us out and perform the necessary “sniff tests.”
Not having a place to live and, therefore, not having a school for the boys is one of my major stress points. So I focus on it a lot.
And then I start to bake. Again, it’s handy that H’s birthday is right around the corner. Yesterday I made cupcakes for his class. Tomorrow I will be baking some layers of his cake and attempting pinwheel sugar cookies. Then there is all the snack food to make for the party.
Not to mention I’m working on the hefe-schnecken roll that I love so much.
In other planning:
The moving company is booked
We have the final walk-through with the landlord set
An AirBNB place is booked for after the moving company takes our beds
Plane tickets are purchased and confirmed
Final trips to places in Switzerland and Europe are booked
Realtor is emailed about possible houses
What I still have to do:
Convince Mark to ditch our old mattress
Buy a new suitcase
Convince Mark to give away our old desk
Throw away the broken suitcase
Sort through books and papers
Find a place to live
Enroll the kids in school
Make more lists
Cross things off my lists
Buy colored pens to make crossing the things off my lists more fun
It’s the one thing that everyone says we should do. Followed by “It’s the Alps, for God’s sake!”
So, even though we come from the flat lands of the Midwest and have gone downhill skiing a combined total of 3 times in our entire lives, Mark and I did it.
We went skiing.
IN THE ALPS.
The Alp we selected was Kandersteg/Oeschinen, a picturesque Alpine town in the Bernese Oberland. It’s just a little to the southwest of Schilthorn, where the kids and I took Mark’s brother and sister-in-law when they visited.
Every parent that I spoke to about our plans would get a faraway nostalgic expression and then sigh, “Ah, Kandersteg. Our kids learned to ski there. It’s a wonderful place for beginners.” That was pretty great affirmation given that I have ZERO experience in selecting skiing locations.
And it’s beautiful.
Up on the mountain
On the way to Kandersteg
We intended to get the kids right out the door and on some skis, but failed because we forgot that stores in Switzerland usually close between noon and 2pm for lunch. This also extends to all the ski rental shops. So instead we started gently by hauling the kids up the mountain and pushing them down it.
Kandersteg has a wonderful 3 kilometer-long sledding run. You go over the skiing runs (sledding and pulling the sled) until you get to the start. The start is a gentle slope that fools you into thinking this is going to be easy. You even pass by a little cute chalet/restaurant that beckons you in for a hot chocolate or a last meal.
But we bypassed that because we didn’t know better.
And even the next stretch is gentle and lovely. It was so flat we had to get off for a bit and pull the kids behind us. Then we found a nice slope so Mark got on behind H and I got on behind E and we pushed off.
We were all smiles and full of delight at the beauty around us. As I went down the first hill I thought, “This is soooo much easier than hiking down the Matterhorn!”
That’s when we realized the sleds had no steering wheel.
And there were lots of turns.
The majority of those turns were necessary to make or you would just fly over one of the many sheer drops off the side of the mountain. In a rare show of safety mindedness, the Swiss had actually put up bright orange snow fence to prevent us from plummeting to our deaths. They also put cushy bumpers over the wooden posts of the bridge we had to slide across.
There was even a snow fence cleverly placed in front of a creek that prevented H and I from plunging head first into icy water on our second run. Well, actually, we hit a boulder first so I think we would have been good.
The most important turn was where a choice between “blue” and “black” runs presented itself. Or, as I have labeled them above “easy” and “certain death.” The “easy” run included a huge 35% slope with signs that read “LANGSAM!/SLOW!” Which is hilarious because you are fighting gravity and inertia while on a device created to minimize friction and having no brakes. I was sure that I was going to burn a hole in the heels of my boots from doing the Flintstone drag for almost 700 meters. I never did try the “certain death” path because my will isn’t up to date.
In one thrilling moment E and I whipped around a corner on the 35% slope doing about 40km/h, E yelling, “I’m too young to die!” the entire way.
H and I reenact this in the pictures below. Right before we DID IT AGAIN!!
I’m too young to die!!!
As I said above, the run is a total of 3 km long. With crashes it can take you about 30 to 45 minutes to get all the way to the bottom. The run takes you from the top of the gondola all the way to the bottom of the mountain.
Then you jump on the gondola and ride back up to the top!
Don’t want to pack a sled in your car or on the train? No worries! You can rent one at any of the ski outfitter places in Kandersteg.
Need a break before you attempt to hurl yourselves to your death? There is a great flat area right off the gondola where you can throw snowballs at each other and a cafe, also right at the gondola, that serves some of the best hot chocolate ever.
Even if you don’t want to ski or sled go up to the top. The gondola ride is worth it just for the view.
Kandersteg also offers guided snowshoe hikes! We intended to do that, but we got swept up with skiing and never got around to it. The slopes were so lovely even I, who am guaranteed to wipe out in spectacular fashion, rented skis. (Not without trepidation, as I mentioned in this conversation with Shaun.)
See? It looks so gentle and fluffy!! What could happen??
Plus we look good.
Find out how we did next time! (With, I hope, videos!)
I’ve been trying to write this post for almost 2 weeks now. It’s been hard. I don’t know why, but I slip into a navel-gazing monologue of maudlin philosophy. It’s boring for me, too. So, this is what I’ve got on reflecting about our last 4 months in Switzerland.
Time is ticking.
Only 4 months left.
Half a pregnancy.
(No, I am not pregnant.)
I am, however, in a weird head space. It’s like my brain is splitting apart.
I’m desperately trying to soak in everything I can and love about Switzerland and yet I’m cruising rental listings. I’m wading through the thickets of the school year while researching school districts in Maryland. I’m buying the boys new clothes while at the same time making lists of stuff we will need to sell or give away.
It’s like being on both ends of a see-saw.
The boys are feeling it, too, even though we try to keep them out of the chaos of change and more Switzerland and European-travel focused. E has declared he’d be willing to stay if we bought him a new TV and a PS4. H can barely remember Maryland and he’d be willing to stay, too, if we promised to ship over all the toys we left in storage. The fact that the kids have given us a kind of blessing makes staying in Europe very tempting.
However, the wheels are in motion and unbreakable Stateside promises have been made.
I just sent our property manager/real estate agent an email informing him of our return and intended plans and pretty much begging for help setting a timeline. My mouth was dry as I sent it. This was a big step. We have decided not to move back into the house we own, but to rent for a year in a neighborhood we’d like to buy into. It’s not an irrevocable decision by any means, but it feels big.
And it’s the first concrete step in admitting to myself that I am, indeed, moving back.
I’m sure I’ll have more coherent and deeper thoughts about moving back later, but right now I’m preoccupied by packing for a skiing trip in the Alps. I haven’t skied since I was 15 years old and even then I wasn’t any good. I made about 6 trips down the bunny hill and on the last ride down I cartwheeled down the hill spraying poles, skis, gloves, and hat in spectacular fashion. A 6 year old boy brought me my stuff as I sat in the snow at the bottom of the hill. I chucked it all back at the man behind the rental counter and spent the rest of the day sipping hot chocolate and reading fashion mags in the chalet.
I wasn’t much of a writer in high school. I did my English essays adequately. I daydreamed out stories in my head. And it is true that my senior year Chem grade was saved by my essay on Louis Pasteur. But I was going to be a veterinarian so I didn’t really focus to much on all these characters speaking to my inner self.
Needless to say, everything changed. Life happens. You don’t always end up where you thought you were headed.
And I’m working on a book. Several, in fact, but I am focusing on just one right now. I’m trying to take advantage of NaNoWriMo and get my first draft finished.
NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month. It happens for the entire month of November. It’s a national thing. They even have a website. You can sign up, make contacts, earn “badges,” and get moral and inspirational support.
Or you don’t have to sign up. You can just make a pledge to yourself and work to write 50,000 words in the next 30 days. (Well, 29 now.)
Don’t fool yourself into thinking that this is going to be easy. Writing is work. It is a job. It takes time and effort to think up characters – their flaws and their talents – and tell their story.
It is also wonderful. I am the creator of another world. Anything I can imagine can become real. I could spend hours writing. Of course, when I’m focused on writing I can do nothing else. And the state of filth in the house proves it.
I have found I do my best writing in the morning. I get the kids sent off to school and then I sit down at my computer with a cup of coffee (milk and sugar). I go through Facebook and Twitter; check in on the rest of the world through internet sites and then ideas start popping out to me. Conversations between characters start happening in my head. And I simply start to write them down. Sometimes the words won’t come and so I read about how other writers write.
I wish this could happen all the time, every day. But I have other responsibilities. I have dinners to make, a house to clean, a husband to dance with, and children to read to.
But every November, I do try and make writing my full-time job instead of just a part-time job or “hobby that pays.” I try to sit down everyday and spend a significant amount of time to put words on a page. Maybe on December 1st I will be posting about how I have my first draft done. Who knows?
But now I’m going to vacuum while my characters knock at the door of my imagination until tomorrow morning.
A guest post from Mark! For Mother’s Day I requested the gift of …. a weekend alone. I just wanted time to myself and weekend where I could have some peace and quiet and time for myself. As part of my gift, Mark took the boys on an overnight adventure to see the more military parts of Switzerland. Here is their adventure.
Recently, the boys and I decided that we would go on an adventure to investigate more of the “prepared” part of the “neutral but prepared” ethos that permeates Switzerland. This involved going to the metropolis of Full-Reuenthal (population 818) in northern Switzerland and home to a two-part museum related to the military history of Switzerland (and other countries).
The first part of the museum is a seven story warehouse (plus annex) filled with weaponry. Part of this museum was simply for saying “look at this really neat stuff!” The boys’ heads turned every which way trying to figure out which tank to look at first.
Most of these tanks had been used at some point by the Swiss Army, but there were some British, German, and US tanks included as well.
There were educational aspects to it as you could explore the inside some of the tanks to see where people sat and what conditions would have been like. One of the rarer objects owned by the museum that really let you get a sense of this was the World War II King Tiger tank on the main floor that has been partly disassembled to be repaired and refurbished. We were able to see many of the mechanisms of the tank and the compartments for the crew.
Other parts of the museum were dedicated more specifically to Swiss military history. Those floors had various uniforms, such as recent Swiss military uniforms, historical Swiss Guard uniforms, and even historical ski soldier uniforms (completely white) complete with wooden skis. The museum also had a history of heavy guns on display with one floor of the museum charting teh course from horse drawn cannons to early machine guns to mortars and anti-tank cannons.
Then there was the part of museum providing a bit of world military history through miniature figures in battle scenes.
There were battles set up from World War I, the Franco-Prussian War, American Civil War, the 30-years war, Julius Caesar and the Romans, Alexander the Great, and (because the Swiss do have a sense of humor) a dinosaur battle featuring a Tyrannosaurs and a Triceratops.
The second part of the museum was even more interesting, at least for me. Part of the reason that this museum is in Full-Reuenthal is that it is on top of a sizable hill overlooking the border with Germany. As you are walking along a residential street in the town, you look to your right, and “Hey, what do you know!”
This tower looks just over the top of the hill. (We walked up that side of the hill, and the tower was really not obvious until you were very close.) It is the entrance to one of the largely underground forts that protected the border. We were told that construction started in 1937 and was finished in early 1939; three months prior to the start of World War II. This is astonishingly quick especially considering the size and the fact that much of it is 20 meters underground!
This fort was then part of the National Redoubt system that was intended to deter invasion; our brochure told us that there were 400 bunkers along the northern border and thousands more in the more heavily fortified Alp region. This particular fort was decommissioned in the late 1980s and turned over to the current private group of citizens that runs the museum.
We had a fantastic guide that gave us a tour of the tower. Parts of the tower were, of course, defenses, mostly machine guns that looked out the entrances and surrounding areas. Our guide even showed the boys how to operate some pretty serious machine guns, which earned him a special place in the boys list of awesome people.
These weapons were going to be fired in enclosed spaces, the fortress designers had the foresight to include clean air breathing equipment. The soldiers would put on a gas-mask and hook the front end to a hose that brought them clean air (the blue tube in the picture carries the air and the hose can be seen hanging on the wall between the boys and the guide).
Much of the tower was devoted to observation areas to watch the border. Our guide pointed out that each area had a map of the terrain with numbers denoting certain reference points. Should the observer notice the enemy at any of these points, he would phone the command center. The command center would then phone the gunners. The gunners also had a map on the wall with the reference numbers and the settings to hit that reference point. Since the guns where located behind the crest of the hill, the gunners could position the gun and fire the shells over the top of the mountain without seeing the target themselves and, more importantly, without the enemy seeing where the shells were coming from.
After learning that, it was time to see the main weaponry of the fort. We walked down the main tunnel to get to the gun towers.
As you can see, the base goes on a ways (210 meters), making the construction speed that much more impressive. The grooves in the floor are rail tracks for the cart that would bring the ammunition from the magazine to the elevators that would bring it up to the guns.
After a bit we reached the tower and made our way up to see one of the main weapons – a 75mm gun with a range of a bit over 10km. It was quite something and the kids crowded around it..
The black rectangle on the left is the map the gunner would use to position the weapon. There was even a movie (in English!) that explained the whole process from sighting the enemy to firing the gun. We were told that the guns were fired during the war period for “warning purposes” (Get off my lawn!) but were never called on to shoot at the enemy.
After that, we looked around the rest of the base. The personnel quarters were modest, but not unreasonable and cafeteria fairly spacious. Some of these rooms were set up to show what life was like. Others were devoted to guns. Lots of guns.
We were told that, at its peak, 160 soldiers were stationed there. It was fun to tour, but living underground for long stretches would be hard.
After looking inside, we looked around outside. The guns were fairly well protected by concrete housings.
For added camouflage, there were screens that raise and lower that would further hide the fact that there is a gun in the tower.
After that we were exhausted and it was time to head to the train to get to a hotel. On the way, we crossed a field with yet another bunker, this one not so hidden.
This military side a quietly acknowledged, but not publicized side to Switzerland. It’s just kind of there. Accepted, expected, but not a big deal.
Firstly, it helps that E is goal driven and the rules are clear. If this is what it takes to get an iPad or movie in his hands then he is going to do it as fast as possible. It also helps that H follows older brother lead in a lot of things.
The first few days E was up at 6:30am making his bed, doing his math page and reading his book. He even mopped the kitchen floor and did a load of laundry while I was sleeping to complete his chores. (!?!?!?!)
Furthermore, he has not complained once about the tasks he has to do. He just does them and move on into iPad time.
And H is good with it, too. He wakes up, does his imaginative playtime with E and a pile of Legos, makes his bed, and then I sit with him as he does his reading, his math from one of those great Brain Quest books, and his writing. For his writing, since he is 6, he decides between a word sheet in the Brain Quest book and continuing to use his “reflections” book from school. The teacher was having the students draw a picture and then write a sentence about the picture as their reflection of the day or weekend. He really likes it. And he especially likes that he has a choice.
The chores we have for him are scaled to his skill level. He dusts, he folds towels, he puts away dishes. Not without whining, but once he gets going he’s good. And the whining is getting less and less as this becomes “just how things are done.”
And then they sit and play the iPad.
The one area that hasn’t gone according to plan is playing outside for 30 minutes. On the really hot days it gets hot fast. The shutters are closed and the windows sealed by 9am. If we don’t go to the pool in the afternoon, our practice has become to go outside in the evenings to bike or have a water fight. The neighbor boys are home and battle can be epic.
But all-in-all it’s going really well! Tomorrow Aunt Ellie comes and the day after Uncle Erik joins us! We are going to take them to a mountain (also a heat avoidance maneuver) and show them around Basel. And then a few days after they leave the boys are I are off to Edinburgh, Scotland for a week!
I hope your summer vacation is as relaxing as ours!
It seems incredible that summer break if finally here. It was a long time in coming here in Switzerland. We only get an 8 week break, but I’m sure it will seem adequate by the time school starts at the end of August.
To help the time pass we spent a long weekend in Zermatt. Zermatt is a cute little village at the foot of the Matterhorn. The Matterhorn is one of the most famous mountains in the Alps. Its north and east faces are incredibly sheer. It looks like the snow has been lightly spread on with a butter knife. One of the legends says that it was the walking stick of God that got stuck when He was walking through the Alps reviewing His creation. He tried and tried, but He ended up breaking His stick. Then a giant, who lived on the Italian side of the Alps, got curious about what was going on in Switzerland, so he stepped over, but ended up smooshing part of the Matterhorn and gave it a sheer side.
The Matterhorn stretches 4,477.5 metres (14,690 ft) into the air. It stands alone and completely dwarfs the hills around it. And it’s just breathtakingly beautiful.
It was the last of the mountains in that region to be successfully climbed. Edward Whymper and 3 companions and 3 guides made it to the top in 1865. Unfortunately, only Whymper and two guides out of the 7 men who made it to the top that first time actually made it back down. They were belaying down when one of the main climbers slipped, knocking one of the guides off, and pulling two other climbers with them to their deaths onto the glacial pack 1200 meters below.
Over 500 climbers have died trying to make it to the top or come back down. A sign giving cautionary tales of ill-fated climbs tells about a pair of Germans wearing track suits who thought they would just run up to the top. They had to be rescued by a helicopter.
It is beautiful and imposing and we couldn’t stop looking at it. We had a great view of it from our balcony and we would sit there staring at it in the evenings. Mark and I asked ourselves, “How many pictures of the Matterhorn is too many?” The world may never know.
We spent our first half day just seeing what Zermatt was all about. It is a lovely town. With an economy built around outdoor tourism, it has more outdoor sporting goods stores per capita than any other town I’ve ever been to – Northface, Jack Wolfskin, Mammut, and at least 15 other local shops. It also has a lot of restaurants, about half of them Italian and all of them expensive. E was extremely pleased to have a diet of pizza and pasta for the weekend. The rest of the buildings seemed to be hotels and condos. Commercial, but really lovely for a 3-day weekend.
Of course we decided to hike. We had several options: a hike to the east up past 5 lakes from Sunnegga to Fluhalp; taking the train up to Gornergrat straight to the south and then hiking down to Riffelert or Riffelalp; and finally going to the west and taking the funicular up to Schwarzsee and hiking back down into the center of Zermatt.
We settled on hiking down from Schwarzsee. Just look how easy it looks on the map! It looks like a fairly straightforward hike, the guidebooks called it “good for families,” and there is a cartoon sheep leading the way! Done!
Mistake #1. Trusting a cartoon map.
We got the boys’ hiking boots and light jackets on and set off to find the funicular. It was somewhere in the west half of Zermatt. Naturally we walked. The main road was by the river, a milk-glass blue color that I had a hard time looking away from. We followed that around until we came to a fork in the road. We went left.
After about 10 or 15 minutes we found the youth hostel, not the funicular. The director of the youth hostel told us we should have gone right, so we went back down the hill with our two new friends Zara and Karina, a mother/daughter team from Indonesia, and found the funicular.
It was a glorified and encased ski lift. The children held onto me for dear life while Mark snapped pictures. The ride was uneventful and beautiful and we made it up to Schwarzee in under 20 minutes. The funicular even slowed down long enough for us to get out with some dignity.
I am remembering the hike in two parts: The Hills Are Alive! and Eff This!
The Hills Are Alive
Lord, was it beautiful! We were right there at the foot of the Matterhorn! The sky was impossibly blue with fluffy white clouds and it was just cool enough to make hiking very comfortable. We wandered around the top and tried to memorize the view.
H spotted a restaurant and once we shot down his request of ice cream at 10am he decided this was the most boring thing ever. Until we started to walk and we let him go through the meadows instead of having him walk on the path with us. Then it was delightful.
It is the end of June, but it’s spring in the Alps. There were buttercups, violets, and other flowers I’d never seen before. We could hear the clank of cow and sheep bells around the hills. Streams were running with the melting snow from the mountains and we could see some of the melt cascading off the mountains in waterfalls.
E became obsessed with Pure Glacial Water. He needed to drink some. NOW! So at an available stream he dumped out his perfectly good Zermatt hotel water and filled his bottle with Pure Glacial Water. He was extremely triumphant.
The boys were jumping from rock to rock and Mark and I were having a lovely hike down the biking path and onto smaller foot paths. The big highlight was having to jump over a stream to make it to Stafelalp, a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, for lunch.
Lunch was relaxing and much needed. Especially since after that we get to….
All this time we’d been going downhill. Sometimes more downhill than others, but it was still down, down, down. You may not know, but that is very taxing on your quads, hips, and knees. Plus, your feet tend to slide forward in your shoes and your toes press against the front of your shoes, making them sore.
We weren’t sore yet, but we were getting fatigued. The boys were game to continue, but we could tell they were getting a little tired as well.
The hills were still green, the streams were still rushing, and the path was still smooth. However, the path was more downhill than before, I had to pee which the sound of rushing water wasn’t helping, and the green hills were treeless and allowed the sun to hit us full-on.
We came to another fork in the road. The arrow to the left said Zermatt. The arrow to the right said Furi and Funicular. So, we could end the hike a little early and buy a ticket for the funicular down to Zermatt. Or we could just keep going – walk over the dam just to our left and keep moving around the hills and cow pastures into Zermatt.
Mistake #3. We went left.
The dam was holding back the milk-glass blue water. Wind gusts were blowing through our coats, cooling us off. And then H’s Detroit Red Wings hat blew off. Mark made a dive for it and caught it, literally 2 inches from disappearing into the gorge. He also ripped out the knee of his pants.
We continued, holding our hats tightly in our hands, and went into the green pasture on the other side. We didn’t know it, but we had gone from one mountain to another.
The path just went on and on; down and down. After another hour of hiking my quads were screaming, my knee felt like it was going to tear, and I still had to pee; E was declaring with every third step his legs were “going to burst” and proclaiming with every sixth step the superiority of his Pure Glacial Water; Mark was asking for a moment of silence to mourn his ripped pants; and H was laying on the ground lamenting that he’d never have another playdate ever again because we were never going to get home.
At least the landscape was still gorgeous.
We made it to Zmutt, a town of approximately 6 buildings, and kept going. We were too tired and fed up to do more than acknowledge that we had reached a town and keep moving. We made it to the pine forest and kept hiking down until we reached Zermatt another hour later. That’s 4.5 hours of hiking and 16km.
We treated ourselves with beer (the adults) and ice cream (the children) at a local pub and then limped back to the hotel room for a rest. It wasn’t until we tried to get up and walk to dinner that we realized just how much trouble we were in. My knee was having trouble moving. My big toe on my right foot felt like it had been stomped on repeatedly by a horse. Mark’s legs were seizing up as well and the boys were just tired, tired, tired.
We didn’t have to walk too far and we found a great traditional Swiss restaurant. We got fondue for 3, chicken nuggets for H, and a starter of raclette for E. We ate way too much, had a great time going over the hike with the boys, and then limped back to bed.
The children went to sleep in record time. Who knew it only took a 20km hike to get them to sleep in under 10 minutes?
The Next Day…
We were still sore, but not immobilized. It turns out having a small stroll to get to and from dinner helped to loosen up our muscles. However, we were no way going to be doing another one of the hikes we had researched. Instead we decided to take the cog-wheel rail up to Gornergrat, look around, have lunch, and take the cog-wheel rail back down in time for our train to Basel.
We were packing up when we told the kids what we were doing. The next thing I knew H was nowhere to be found. I called for him and his voice wafted out from under the bed. “I. am. not. going. up. another. MOUNTAIN!! NEVER!!!” As we tried to get him out from under the bed he complained, “What you plan is so BORING! Mountains are BORING! I want to go to Legoland!”
One generous bribe of chocolate and ice cream later and we were on our way up the mountain on the train.
While watching the view go by the words to “How Great Thou Art” kept going through my head.
O Lord my God!
When I in awesome wonder
Consider all the works Thy hand hath made.
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.
When through the woods and forest glades I wander
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees;
When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur
And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze
I was raised Catholic. I am more quietly spiritual than religious now, but I believe Carl Gustav Boberg must have seen something similar to inspire the poem “O Great God” that became the lyrics for the hymn.
This was all lost on the boys, who were focused like bloodhounds on their quest to get ice cream and chocolate and then to see how long it would take to finagle a souvenir out of us.
Gornergrat isn’t just another mountain. It’s also home to an observatory and has an infrared telescope mounted on top of a huge castle-like structure that also holds the Kulm Hotel and the 3100 Restaurant.
We found there were a couple of snow banks hanging on for dear life. Children of all ages, including ours, were making snowballs and pelting each other while the “adults” sat at tables on the patio eating lunch, ice cream, and having drinks. E and H were having such a fun time!
And let me tell you, the air is thin up there. Everyone was slowly making their way up to the summit, huffing and puffing as they kept one hand securely on a rope railing. But the view was worth it. The Matterhorn to one side, Mt. Rosa to the other, and a whole line of Alps flowing out behind.
The top of Gornergrat was unbelievably beautiful. Majestic, even. I hope you can see how blue the sky was that day. The photos are completely untouched. The landscape just keeps going.
We were so sore all we could do without wincing was admire the view. So we put our American all in to admiring the heck out of that view. All too soon it was time to head down and catch our train back to Basel. The boys were actually reluctant to leave.
I decided to send a postcard to my niece from the top of Gornergrat and while I was busy the boys cornered Mark and weaseled souvenirs out of him. E got a cute Swiss rubber duck and H got a metal cup, which he then clipped to his pants so he’d always have it just in case there was some glacial water he could drink.
If you ever get a chance to go to Zermatt then GO. In fact, you should make time to go. I have never been anywhere like the Matterhorn before and I doubt I will ever again. If you are worried about a language barrier don’t be. I heard more American English there than at the Mall of America. And they make getting to and from different mountain tops incredibly accessible for people of all mobilities. So GO!
Book-ending our day trip to Liechtenstein was a casual tour of St. Gallen.
The longer we are here the more we love exploring the small towns of Switzerland. Each town has its own flavor and feel. Each town and hamlet specializes in different architecture, music, foods, wines, and cheeses. (Cheese is more than just a food in Switzerland. It’s a way of life and therefore must be mentioned separately.)
A regular window outside some person’s house that features carvings representing the four corners of the known world: Europe, Asia, Africa, and America. The animals, the people, and the things in the background of the carvings are all things found on those continents.
Each Canton even speaks a slightly different dialect of Swiss German just to prove they are different/unique/superior to the other Cantons. And St. Gallen is no exception. Their official language is Swiss German, but they speak a particular Alemannic dialect, making communication extremely fun.
St. Gallen has found other ways of being unique and setting themselves apart. They have amazing art installations throughout the city.
The Stadtlounge area of St. Gallen. Blocks of the main city covered with that spongy playground material. The kids absolutely loved it! Even the street is red!
And there are these awesome globes above the street!
They change color as you watch; from green to blue to purple to gold and back to green. We were lucky enough to find a pizza place right near here so we could watch them flow through their colors.
As you can see from this small sample, St. Gallen is a fun city to just wander around and see really interesting and wonderful things.
By this point in the trip the boys were rejecting typical Appenzell food and were demanding pizza and pasta. Mark and I still managed to eat fondue one night. E even joined us! I guess a boy can only eat pizza three day in a row before he wants something else.
Way back when we visited Dublin (stay with me, here) our tour guide to Newgrange told us that about 800 years ago the Irish sent out missionaries to Switzerland and they ended up settling in St. Gall, which became St. Gallen. And that was part of the reason why we decided to stay there.
Another reason we decided to go was peer pressure. Every time we told someone we were in Switzerland they would rave at us about the library in St. Gallen. The architecture! The mood! The style! The incredible books! All of it! You must go! As some of you know, I have librarian genes in my blood (thanks, Mom), and therefore feel compelled to visit libraries everywhere anyway. So, basically Mark was doomed to have to visit this library with me from the start.
The official name is the Abbey Library of St. Gall Abbey. The abbey and its library were founded by Saint Othmar in 719AD. He chose the spot where St. Gall had built his hermitage and named it after him. Now, here’s where we find the Irish in Switzerland. Saint Gall (or Gallen as he is now known) was one of 12 companions of Saint Columbanus during his mission from Ireland to Europe in 589AD.
A lot of the paintings and sculptures of St. Gall show him with or standing on a bear. I find that wonderfully symbolic of his religious successes in Switzerland as the the bear is a common theme in Swiss Canton flags and art.
The city dates its founding back to the establishment of the abbey, but it was officially called the town of St. Gall (and not the Abbey) in about 974 when the town wall was completed. In fact, the entire city was controlled by the monks and abbot until the 15th century when the city, and the ruling cloth weavers guild, were granted Imperial Free City status. (There is an entire economics and political science thesis in there somewhere.) It joined the Swiss Confederacy in 1451 and became a Canton of the Federation.
To enter the library you had to put on large felt slippers over your street shoes in order to preserve the ornate wood floor.
We were also not allowed to take photos so these are images of a few post cards we purchased. You can find over 500 images of the medieval manuscripts of St. Gall at their website.
The library contains over 2100 original manuscripts. The audio tour does take the time to explain in an ever-so slightly snarky way that when the library was under threat from The Reformation they took an ornate astrological globe (shown in the lower left-hand corner of the picture) and many manuscripts to Zurich for safe keeping. When the danger passed and the Abbey asked for everything back the officials in Zurich acted completely shocked that the globe and manuscripts hadn’t been a gift. After decades of bickering a mediator finally got St. Gallen to accept the shaft and they were given a 100% accurate replica of their globe and the return of only some of the original manuscripts. (If you know that Zurich is also home to the FIFA headquarters this kind of thing shouldn’t surprise you.)
The archivists and librarians do a wonderful job of curating the manuscripts. All the cases you see in the pictures allow the visitors to see many of the medieval manuscripts, including the carved ivory tablets that had been presented to Charlemagne.
I was wandering around in the glory of the library, watching to make sure the boys didn’t attempt to open the cases and actually read the books, (there was a horrible moment when I saw H sitting in a chair drawing in a book that thankfully proved to be the visitor’s sign-in register) when I almost literally stumbled into a mummy. And honest-to-God Egyptian mummy from the 25th dynasty!
I backed into her case and almost screamed out loud when I turned around and saw a blackened, shriveled dead body. I was horrified and grossed out to learn that the bits of her linen shroud were cut away and given out as memento presents to people. Apparently these sorts of “curios” were common in libraries in the 19th century. Many, many libraries in Europe boast mummies, relics, and other taxidermied animals. It’s almost like visiting home. (I kid! I kid! My childhood home has cake! The Abbey Library frowns on cake.)
We left the library after about an hour of just looking around this one 20×50 foot room and started wandering around the church grounds. The abbey and church grounds are actually a huge chunk of the old city, really displaying how much influence the church had in the city and in Switzerland.
Outside the old city St. Gallen felt very modern and very much like a gritty, industrial city. Our hotel was comfortable and the walk was short, but the historic architecture stopped right outside the old town and modern buildings and art took over.
We spent only two half days in St. Gallen and that felt adequate. However, its location and access to the main train line makes it a perfect base camp for exploring the Appenzell region of Switzerland. Plus, the Abbey Library is absolutely a must-see. It is routinely listed in the top 5 most beautiful libraries in the world and is in the top 10 most important examples of Carolingian architecture in the world. I am so glad that we went!
It will be another week or two before we have another major adventure, but keep checking back for other stories and articles. I have quite a few in the works!
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sailaway from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” ~ Mark Twain