Switzerland & Northern Italy (September 9-21, 1994)

This is another installment of our travels before we used digital cameras and before our move to Singapore in 2014. All the photos have been scanned and are of less than desirable quality – please accept our apologies. Travel restrictions are still keeping us from travels to most of the world, although we keep adding to our list of potential destinations for the coming years.

Friday, September 9

At 2:15 PM, the adventure began as we boarded the American Eagle flight from Cleveland to New York. The flight from New York to London was delayed taking off by a 1/2 hour, because “favorable” tailwinds would get us to Heathrow before the 6 AM curfew (no landings before 6 AM).

Saturday, September 10

The tailwinds weren’t as favorable as they predicted and we got to London too late to make our connection to Turin, Italy. American Airlines Customer Service was able to book us on a British Airways flight to Geneva, Switzerland, at Noon, as there was no other flight available to get us to Turin, today. The Customer Service person also changed our car rental to Geneva and gave us a voucher for a free breakfast.

We spent the time until we boarded the flight to Geneva going back through our travel books and maps to re-plan our trip from a different starting point. Once we landed in Geneva (about 4:00 PM), we picked up our rental car and drove to the Geneva train station to visit the Tourist Information office and get help finding a place to stay. Unfortunately, the TI was closed, so we drove around town and located one of the pension hotels mentioned in the Frommer’s guide – the Hotel Beau Site (this hotel no longer exists).

We got a room on the 3rd floor, front, with shower, sink and 3 beds. The toilet was down the hall. This was Ray’s first time staying in a hotel with a toilet is down the hall – he lived through it. We stayed 2 nights and breakfast was included.

After cleaning up, we walked along the river toward the old part of Geneva. The are many upscale, expensive stores along our route. Lots of skaters. There were many events in progress on the streets through the old town – a female guitar singer, a jazz band, a polka band, and an effigy burning outside the cathedral.

We had dinner, outside, at Les Armures (in a old armory building). We had a very nice dinner of Raclette cheese over new potatoes. In addition, Pat had a very good gazpacho (creamy and light pink), while Ray had jambon cru (thin slices of meat). We shared a bottle of La Croix Pinot Noir D’Ollon and the had good strong coffee to end the evening.

Sunday, September 11

This morning we walked back to St. Peter’s Cathedral to tour the archeological site. It was interesting but very warm.

We bought a baguette, cheese and wine across the street from our hotel. Then we drove to Carouge. Ray pointed out where he had stayed for six weeks when he came to the Battelle Memorial Institute facility in 1980. He also pointed out where the BMI facility had been. We continued through Carouge, crossing the border into France and drove up Mont Saleve, a very distinctive mountain side just south of Geneva. It was windy and cold (we should have dressed warmer). We ate lunch in the car and it started to rain.

After we ate, we stopped at a roadside restaurant for coffee. The restaurant had some great views of Geneva. There were many bikers and even some skaters. Ray wanted to show Pat a nearby slope to a cliff where hang gliders would launch off the mountain. He had often watched them from the Battelle facility when he was there. Many of the hang gliders where tandems, where an experienced pilot would take a brave person for a ride.

Back at our hotel, we took a 2-hour nap, before walking along Lake Geneva and back to the old town. We stopped for salads and drinks at Au Carnivore. Pat had pastis, a French liqueur flavored with aniseed; Ray, kir, a drink made with dry white wine and crème de cassis.

A note about the times: Before returning to the hotel, we searched for a pay phone so we could make a call back to the U.S., using a calling card. Although we had mobile phones, we had left them at home. Mobile phones were not the the way to go at this time.

Monday, September 12

Checked out of the hotel about 9:30 AM and drove out of Geneva, along the north side of Lake Geneva. Our first stop was Nyon, where we walked through the city towards the Chateau. It started to rain, so back to the car. We continued to Morges, where we visited the Chateau de Morges Castle. It didn’t open till after lunch, so we ate cheese, fruit and bread in the car. A hard rain started again. Finally, we made it into the Chateau and the museums which was interesting.

Our next stop was Chillon Castle, near the east end of Lake Geneva. I had first heard of this castle from the poem “The Prisoner of Chillon”by Lord Byron. Even though it was, again, raining hard, we had a very good time. The castle is beautiful and we spent close to 2 hours there.

We left Chillon, driving south toward Aigle, where we headed into the mountains on our way to Gruyeres. The road in the mountains was twisty and would have been much more fun to drive if the rain would have stopped. We stopped in the village of Le Sepey and found the Hotel Au Cerf. We had dinner at the hotel’s restaurant – fixed price dinners for each of us, although a single dinner would have been sufficient for the two of us. After dinner, it was off to bed under goose-down comforters with the windows wide open.

Tuesday, September 13

We were up early, had breakfast in the hotel and went on a short walk in Le Sepey to look at the mountains. Then it was Pat’s turn to drive in the mountains (her first time). Our destination was Gruyeres.

We arrived in Gruyeres about Noon. The town does not allow cars, so you park outside in one of the car parks and walk in. When we arrived there were very few tourists, but there was a steady increase over the next hour.

We toured the Gruyeres Castle and walked around outside it. The views from the Castle walls over the valley are beautiful. While walking around outside, near the church, Pat spotted a fox running across a field. This was her first fox spotting in the “wild”.

Next, we drove over the Juan Pass and shortly thereafter stopped at Bäckerei T. Mann, near Erlenbach im Simmental, where we bought bread, water and sausage for later. Outside Latterbach, we stopped at Balmer Bergsport, a mountineering store, and bought hiking sticks for both of us. We continued on towards Thun, on the North end of Lake Thun (Thunersee), where we walked around town.

Our final stop for the day is in Kanderstag. Traffic was heavy going into Kanderstag because there is a train that transports cars and passengers over/through the mountains (the road to Kanderstag dead-ends at the mountains about 1 mile past the train station). This town is also a popular skiing destination during the winter. The mountains surround the area, although because of the rain and low clouds, we had to imagine that. We found a room at the Hotel zur Post (this was Ray’s first stay in a hotel room that was not en-suite).

The sky cleared and we immediately went out to scout the start of our next-day hike. The hotel gave us a very good map of the various trails in the area. We visited the train station and a skating/curling center. Then had dinner.

Wednesday, September 14

We woke to more rain and poor visibility. We ate breakfast at the hotel, reorganized our backpack and decided to try the hike to Oeschinensee, in spite of the weather. We hiked up to the lake and got thoroughly wet and cold – took us about 90 minutes. We had lunch (sausage and fries) at one of the restaurant next to the lake. Then we hiked to the chair lift and rode down. It was a great ride with good views and a red blanket to keep us warm.

We were going to stay another night, but with the poor weather, decided to move on to Interlaken. One of the reasons this was on our list of places to visit was Rick Steves’ recommendations and his mention of a specific laundromat. The laundromat (Wäsch und Glettstübli, on Unter den Häusern), close to the Aare River was our first stop. While we waited for our laundry, we went down the street for coffee and apple strudel at Mohler, a bakery and cafe, made it well worth doing our laundry. Back at the laundromat, we met a couple from Cincinnati, Ohio, who where painful to be seen with – he was what we would consider the “ugly American”, loud and obnoxious. We were so happy when they left to find change.

We had a cheese fondue dinner at the Mercato restaurant (now permanently closed) before heading to the Hotel De La Paix, where we were spending the night. This is a small hotel filled with tour groups that seemed to be all British and older. Many antique clocks decorated the rooms.

Thursday, September 15

When checking out, the hotel clerk told us the weather forecast did not look good for the next several day. We then decided to go south into Italy, hoping to find some sunny days.

As we drove into Meiringen, we heard cow bells ahead and then saw a large herd of cows (with headdresses decorated with trees) coming down the road toward us. It stopped traffic until they had all passed.

We took the funicular to Reichenbach Falls where Sherlock Holmes lost his fight with Professor Moriarty in “The Final Problem”. Unfortunately, our photos are missing but do remember the falls being quite steep and fast moving.

Next up was a hike in the Aare Gorge. The weather was cool. Halfway through our hike, the rain started again.

Now we drove the Grimsel Pass into Brig. Then went over the Simplon Pass into Italy. Our guide book told us the pass was constructed by Napoleon for moving troops across the border. Many parts of the road are covered, or partially covered, to hold back snow and keep the roads open year round.

As we entered Italy, the border guard asked us where we were going. When we told him we had no particular destination, he waved us through and replied “Enjoy”. Although we stopped in Domodossola to find an ATM, we continued to Biella to look for accommodations for the night. In Biella, we stayed at the Hotel Astoria, a very nice hotel that was in our price range, although it looked expensive. Dinner was across the street from the hotel at Ristorante Pizzeria la Lucciola.

Friday, September 16

We left Biella and drove the A5 to Aosta. Found a free parking lot and walked into the main part of Aosta. We saw some Roman ruins, part of which were in the process of reconstruction. Found a place for lunch and were amazed at how much cheaper than Switzerland the prices were. Then we bought cheese and salami for later.

We left Aosta and drove to Valgrisence where we hoped to find a place to stay. We wanted to get to Albergo Perret, which had been mentioned in a New York Times article on June 11, 1993 – “Rambles in a Remote Italian Valley”. The hotel was also the last one in the valley and where we headed. As we drove up the road, toward the hotel, it started to snow (at least it wasn’t rain). We were stopped several times to allow cows to pass – they were being brought down from mountain pastures to their winter homes. The road was also very narrow, being one-track in many places, and we had to back down several times to allow trucks coming down to pass.

The Albergo Perret (Hotel Perret) was very modern (built in 1953). The owner, Luigi Gerbelle, told us the only reason there was a room available was someone had cancelled because of the weather. Luigi (spoke English, Italian, French, German and Spanish) showed us to our room and informed us dinner was at 7:30 and we would join him in celebrating his wife’s birthday. Fish was on the menu.

After a short walk further along the road, we went down to dinner. The dining room was set up with one long table for the family party guests and side tables for the guests staying at the hotel. We were seated with 3 Swiss visitors, whom spoke English. Luigi introduced us and then began dinner service. There was white wine on each table and a large plate of pasta, served by the birthday lady (the manager’s 3 daughters and regular servers were gone for the week). Luigi then came to the table, carrying a large, black truffle. He shaved the truffle over our individual plates of the pasta, while telling us the truffle had been a gift from his wife and he wanted to share it with his guests. It was the first time we enjoyed real fresh truffle.

The next course was the fish – 4 different types. First was perch, lightly fried in butter. Next was salmon with a mild tomato sauce. This was followed by a flat, dry fish with grey skin. Then came eel, de-boned at the table. Each of these fish was excellent. All of the fish were caught and provided for the party by family members. For desert we had coffee and coconut cake.

While eating, we talked to the 3 Swiss (2 men and 1 woman), sharing our table. The couple ran a hotel in Gstad; the other man was a hiking guide, who often traveled with the couple. We told them about the New York Times article, which they were very interested in reading. We gave them our copy of the article and our address (so they can mail it back).

After dinner, everyone was invited to the “great room” for drinks and sweets to honor the birthday. Pat declined and went back to the room. I decided to stay for one drink. The Swiss guide, Oswald, show me a map and a recommended hike for the next day with a stop at a ski hut.

Saturday, September 17

When we woke, the sky was blue and the sun was out. By breakfast it had begun to be overcast. We had breakfast with the 3 Swiss, said our goodbyes, took our things to the car and checked out. We drove across the dam at the end of Lago du Beaugard, just below Albergo Parret. The lake was formed when the dam was built and flooded 5 towns which lie beneath the water. We were able to catch sight of a couple of submerged buildings. Once across the dam, we continued to the right along a one-lane road that clung to the side of the mountain. Parts of the road felt like they might cave in at any moment. There were parts of the “guardrails” that had been smashed by various vehicles. I crept along in 1st and 2nd gear, and had to pull off the road to let a local driver zip by.

We parked the car near Uselieries and began the hike to Rifugi Brezzi. We walked along the road until we reached the deserted village of Saxe-Savior. Here the trail changed into a mountain path, mostly covered with snow. The snow was sometimes over out knees, which made hiking slow. We reached the hut 2.5 hours later even though several times we almost turned around. At the hut, we had a lunch of spaghetti and coffee. An hour after arriving, we started back down. Going down was so much easier and the scenery was wonderful. Saw a marmot and several pretty birds. By the time we got to the car, our boots and socks were completely soaked.

We drove down the valley to Planaval and checked into the Hotel Paramount (another recommendation in The New York Times article). Dinner was to be served at 7:30 PM, so a nap was in order. Dinner consisted of pumpkin soup, salad, pasta, wine and cheese.

Sunday, September 18

When we got up, the room was very cold, but the sky outside was a beautiful blue. Before we had gone to bed, we asked for extra blankets, since the heat would not come on. The extra blankets were left outside our door but not announced, so we didn’t have them when they were needed. We had a breakfast of coffee, bread and jelly.

We now headed to the Grand St. Bernard Pass, bypassing the tunnel to the other side of the border.Once we passed the turnoff to the tunnel, the narrowed considerably and begins a very twisty meander to the top. For most of the drive, we had fantastic views up and down, but once we got close to the top, and the border with Switzerland, the fog and snow began and we could hardly see the buildings at the border. We decided not to try a visit to the monastery because of the weather.

Once out of the mountains, on the road to Martingy, we saw a sign to Gorge du Durmand on the side road to Champex. We drove almost to Champex, but stopped to have our lunch (white wine, cheese, bread and some of the hardest salami we had ever tried), while overlooking the valley. While having lunch, we watch a hot-air balloon slowly pass through the valley. We never actually got to the Gorge, but it looks like a place we’ll visit sometime.

We then went back to our original road, driving through Martingy and into Sion. Here we stopped at the Chateau de Valere on a nearby hilltop. The organ here is famous, having been built between 1390 and 1430. We bought a CD of organ music played on this instrument.

Although there is another ruin on a nearby hilltop, we decided to continue driving toward Zermat. Along the way, we stopped at Underground Lake of St. Leonard. This was a neat cave with very clear water. We boarded a boat with, perhaps, 60 other visitors for a short trip through the cave (approximately, 300 yards). Unfortunately, the commentary was only in French and German.

Back on the road toward Visp, we passed through a military base with jets , bunkers and taxiways on both sides of the road. In addition, there were several traffic lights to stop traffic if the jets had to takeoff or land, as they use the road, rather than having a separate runway.

When we got to Visp, about 5:00 PM, we checked into the Hotel Touring, next to the railway station. (Ray had stayed in this hotel in 1980, when Ray was in Switzerland for work). We then went out to find something to eat (Ray had Rösti and sausage; Pat, a clear soup; both had apple strudel and cream for desert). Going up one hill, we ran into people coming from a church, carrying a small cross on a marble base that included a candle. Some of the women were dressed in a local/regional costume with white hats and apron. Next we met a group of men in band uniforms, carrying their instruments. Obviously we just missed something.

Monday, September 19

After breakfast in the hotel, we drove to Täsch to catch the train to Zermatt. The ride to Zermatt took 10-15 minutes. The 5-car train was filled with people dressed for hiking, but a few with skis. Zermatt is very “touristy”, with lots of gift shops, hiking/skiing shops and restaurants – everything was pricey. We saw nice hiking boots and backpacks – nothing we were willing to buy at the marked prices.

We stopped at the TI and picked up a map of the hiking trails in the area. Walking through town to get our bearing, we suddenly came to an open area and saw the Matterhorn, mostly covered in fast-moving clouds. We sat on a nearby bench to wait for the top of the Matterhorn to clear. Soon we were able to take some photos with a low cloud only midway down the mountain side.

After studying the various hikes, we decided to take a ski lift to Furi and Schwarzsea. The lift to Furi was single, enclosed chairs (so we were in 2 separate ones). The lift from Furi to Schwarzsea was in a large gondola, packed with people. When we exited the gondola, we saw a sign indicating our altitude was 8,481 feet above sea level. We headed down about Noon, stopped to take a photo for our friend Patti and a tee shirt she designed, continued down to Restaurant Farmhouse, where we stopped for lunch (2 beers, Rösti, and goulash soup). Then finished our hike in Zermatt and caught the train back to Täsch and our car.

We drove to a small town, Ernen, on the road back toward Sion. We checked into the Hotel Alpenblick Ernen. We had a nice room with a towel heater, which we used to dry some socks we washed in the sink. There was also a small patio with great views of the mountains. We had dinner in the hotel’s restaurant and discussed the possibility of calling American Airlines and, maybe heading home, early. When we returned to the room, we called AA and they booked us on a flight on Thursday from Basel. However, we had to stop in Zurich to pickup the tickets before driving to Basel. Our plan was to take a hike in the morning, then head to Zurich, pick up the new tickets and drive to Basel.

Tuesday, September 20

After a light breakfast, we drove further into the Binn Valley, to one of the hikes we wanted to do. The valley didn’t look very long, but the road was very twisty and seemed to go on for a long time. The road was also very narrow and Ray had to back up to find a pull over to let a truck pass. The road also passed through a long tunnel. When we got to the hiking area, we discovered it was a very popular spot – several camping grounds and large parking lots. We parked near the start of the trail to the mineral quarry that was our destination.

The trail map showed the quarry about 30 minutes away, but not easy to find. In fact we passed it, looped back and finally spotted a sign for the Lengenbach mineral quarry. It was fenced and locked – Pat was very disappointed. We climbed up a stream bed to get a better view into the fenced quarry. On the way back, Ray noticed some shiny white rocks in the stream. On picking them up we saw they all had veins of pyrite running through them. We started gathering many rocks on the hike back to the car. Ray was carrying the backpack with the rocks which kept getting heavier as Pat couldn’t stop picking up more. As Pat was in front, Ray started slowly discarding some rocks without Pat noticing (although she eventually caught him in the act). The Binn Valley was a very pretty and we hope to return sometime.

Our next destination was Lucerne via the Furka Pass. We stopped at the top and visited the Rhone Glacier Ice Grotto, where you can walk inside the glacier in a carved out area. It was cold, but a beautiful blue. This glacier is the source of the Rhone River that flows to Lake Geneva, through Geneva and into France, through Lyon, Avignon, Arles and into the Mediterranean Sea.

We arrive in Lucerne just after Noon, parked the car in a garage, and walked through town. Stopped in the Hofkirche (Church of St. Leodegar), where Pat lit a candle for her Mom. Next was the Kapellbrücke (Chapel Bridge) – rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1993. Continued through several older streets, then back to the car.

We left Lucerne, heading to Zurich, to find a less expensive hotel than ones in Lucerne. We hoped to find a place in one of the small towns along the way. We finally stopped at the Hotel Arche in Affoltern.

Wednesday, September 21

After breakfast we drove to the Zurich airport, parked in the parking garage, and went to the American Airlines counter. We were helped by Marlise. When we explained we needed to pick up tickets for our flight out of Basel, she asked why. We explained our frequent flyer tickets had restrictions that meant we had to fly British Airways out of a city AA does not serve. Her response was “rules were meant to be broken” and asked us if we would be interested in flying directly to JFK from Zurich. Of course, we accepted.

We had to get our luggage out of the car, return the car to Avis and then rush back to the AA gate. After a hurried 45 minutes, we arrived at the gate just in time to board.

While going through the security checkpoint, we were stopped because of the rocks in our luggage! The person examining the bag of rocks, said she had never seen pyrite and kept asking us if it was gold from Switzerland. We explained we had got them near Brig and Pat gave her a small piece.

Our flight took off on time, direct to New York. After clearing Customs, we re-boarded our flight to Cleveland. Arrived in Ohio about 5:30 PM. Other than the rainy weather, we enjoyed our adventure.


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