Adding a new color to the Spring palette….

We first noticed the yellow fields when Couch Surfer was here, on our drive to the Chocolate Factory.  We aren’t used to field being this vibrant!    They have been a big point of discussion this Spring.    So, what exactly is it?

The first thing I was told was Canola.  Then I was informed it wasn’t canola but grape seed.  Finally, I was told it was a type of green for salads.   I think that S solved it by meeting a farmer and concluded it was actually “rape seed”.

Whatever it is, I sure can tell you it is miraculous to see:

A patchwork of yellow at the foot of the Alps

Fields of yellow

Moo cow with the yellow fields.  Sorry, I still like taking pictures of cows.

More and more yellow

Traversing Swiss Mountains

After our trip to Lake Como, I am a lot more educated on how to get through, around, and over a mountain.

I remember when we first moved here, when we looked at a map, we were stupefied why there wasn’t a direct route.   It didn’t take long to find out that the reason the roads can’t go straight here is because of the big freakin’ mountains, otherwise known as “the Alps”.

Within our year, we learned about the wonderful Mt. Blanc Tunnel, which can save you a lot of time getting to Italy (and also adding a big dent to your wallet, around $60 USD).   We had used this tunnel to get back from the South of France, and also planned to use it to get to Lake Como.

However, I wanted to stop in Lugano and Bellinzona on our way home, putting us in the South of Switzerland, far from the Mt. Blanc tunnel.   I saw on Google Maps that there appeared to be two ways though.  They took longer but it was worth seeing a few cities in the Ticino canton.  No biggie.

The little yellow circle is where we came into Italy via Mt. Blanc. The other two were the ways we considered coming back into Swizterland.

The week before we left, I mentioned to my PT that we were going to holiday in Lake Como and return through Ticino.

“Are you sure the passes are open yet”?  he inquired.

No I wasn’t sure.   Anytime we’d gone that direction before, we were in a train.   This was to be our first time taking the car and it never occurred to me that in mid May some roads wouldn’t be open.

So, that week, I tried to research this.  Key word – “tried”.   Google Maps would still let me do directions home through the alternative ways.  It hinted that “some roads would be seasonally closed”.   No problem…i’ll just Google it.    Surely they’ll be a key like there is during ski season showing whats open and not.

I found a few message boards but nothing definitive that suggested if passes were open or not.   I did find a map showing that going up from Domodolossa there was a station in Iselle that you could put your car on a train to go through the Simplon Tunnel if the Simplon Pass wasn’t open.

See the little happy car on the dotted line? That means underground car on rail transportation.

I noted this would be a plan that could work.  Although, no information about the cost, schedule, etc.  Do these car trains go every hour?  Only once a day?  Once a weekend?

More research also found that the Gottard Pass was likely closed  since it usually is open until June, but the Gottard Tunnel was open year round.  A few message boards added that the wait could be up to 2 hours on a holiday weekend, creating a queue of traffic on the freeway for 10-15 km back.  Curses!!!

I’ll stop and interject with some basic vocabulary.  I actually didn’t really know this until our adventure this weekend.

Pass = a road that goes over an Alp.  It is likely curvy, amazingly beautiful, and will make you marvel at the wonder of Swiss civil engineering.  It can only be passable when the snow is gone or can be scraped.  During winter, its simply not possible based on snowfall.  Some passes, like Gottard, are only open 2-3 months a year.

Tunnel = a road that goes through a mountain, usually in a direct way, and will make you marvel at the wonder of Swiss civil engineering.  The benefit is that they can stay open regardless of snowfall.  If it is not in Switzerland, its costly.  If you live in Switzerland, you have a 40 CHF highway pass that allows you to do it for free.  If you don’t live in Switzerland and want to use said tunnel, guess what?  40 CHF.

The evening before we left Como, we tried to inquire about the best way home.  Our sweet apartment proprietor even knocked on the door of her neighbor to inquire since he knew more about Switzerland.  They said they’d think we’d be okay on the passes around Lugano and Locarno.  Okay, then…didn’t even know those were in contention to worry about either.    She gave us an internet password and we continued to look into it the evening before dinner. Nothing else was definitive.  Thus, we decided to get to Bellinzona and see how the GPS acted.

During our awesome lunch in a UNESCO castle, we inquired at the desk about how to get back to Geneva.  We mentioned what we knew.   When we said Gottard Tunnel and the phrase, “but we weren’t sure because it is a holiday weekend”, she immediately blurted, “that’s a terrible idea!!”.

So, we were off to the Simplon Pass or Simplon Tunnel   We entered “Iselle, Italy” into the GPS so that we could decide and evaluate the pass.

Gabe hadn’t had Ticino, Lugano or Bellinzona on his list.  He found Lugano average, Bellinzona cool because of the architecture and castles, but driving through the Ticino a 10.    We found ourselves curving around lush tropical mountains, feeling like we were in the Amazon.  Were we really still in Switzerland?      It was exhilarating for me to be in the car.  Luckily, Gabe is an excellent driver, but it was still a bit scary.

I made a little movie to show you what driving on these roads was like. Mom, please don’t watch this.

We crossed back into Italy.   And, two hours later, we reached Iselle.  We weren’t really sure what was happening as it wasn’t evident where to put your car on a train, but there were three cars with Canton of Geneva plates and we decided to follow them.   Crossing back into Switzerland, we saw this sign.

All green.  Thanks, Switzerland.  Would have been really nice to have this information online somewhere instead of having to drive here to verify it.

And again, we were in wonder.

Misty Alps

Lush fields with stone fence property lines

There’s still snow up here. The temperature had dropped from 20 C in Bellinzona to 2 C at the top of the Simplon Pass.

The hubby is a good driver. Thank goodness.

Driving over the Simplon Pass

Descending into the valley on the other side of the Alps

A view of Brig coming down from the Simplon Pass.

We had talked with some friends on the way home who warned us about the Gottard traffic.  We didn’t know they were returning to Geneva back through Ticino or we should have shared our information or lack thereof about the roads.

So, this post was to inform any folks trying to drive from Italy back to Switzerland.   It’s not so easy!!

Bellinzona, Switzerland

Bellinzona, located in the Ticino part of Switzerland, is an quaint medieval town.   It is best known for the three castles that dominate the landscape.  The castles were awarded the UNESCO world heritage designation, based on their key role in protection of an Alpine pass in medieval times.

In my recent Castles in the Sky post, I explained that castles were built at elevations for defense.

In Bellinzona, there are three:   Castelgrande, Montebello, and Sasso Corbaro.

We were limited on time so just explored Castelgrande.   Luckily for me, there is an elevator that shoots you straight up through the castle to the inner courtyard.  This is a godsend since my feet aren’t in hiking condition yet.  Visiting the other two is a much more significant effort in walking / climbing.

The town of Bellinzona was quiet on the rainy Sunday we stopped in

View from below at Castelgrande

A first look on the upper courtyard of the castle

Yup, its pretty securely built on this rock.

We admired the view to the other castles.

We were hungry and it was starting to drizzle.  We decided to dine inside the castle where we had read that there was a great restaurant offering Ticino style meals.

Since it was Italian style, we decided to continue the trend of ordering two courses, a primi pasta course and a secondi meat course.   This was a mistake, at least for me.    The first courses came out huge.  Oops.   However, it was so delicious, I finished every bit of my taglietelle with Ticino ragu.  And Gabe finished his gorgonzola gnocchi.    Sorry that I didn’t get a picture before we ate it.

Eating inside of a UNESCO castle.  The sauce that once contained gnocchi.

The meat courses were equally as good.  Gabe almost finished his veal piccata.   I didn’t come close on my beef.   I vowed that I wasn’t going to order Italian style anymore.  I would have been just as content with only a pasta course.  The ride home we were stuffed.

However, all in all, we were impressed with the Italian Switzerland cooking.  It was just as good as Italy.

It was already 2pm, so we decided we better head home.  Especially since we weren’t 100% sure how to get there.

 

Lugano, Switzerland

Did you know there are palm trees in Switzerland??

As we have mentioned before in the blog, there are four different lingual / geographical groups in Switzerland – French Switzerland, German Switzerland, Romansch Switzerland, and Italian Switzerland.

I had wanted to check out Italian Switzerland since we’d moved to Geneva.   Gabe was a bit more skeptical. He would ask,  “Don’t you just want to go to real Italy…it’s just as close?”

So, when we were only an hour from the Italian part (called Ticino – in green, below) when we were in the Italian lake district, I jumped at the chance to swing through two of the towns on the way home to Geneva.  I legitimized we’d need to stop for a coffee and for lunch, of course.   Little did I know the travel drama that this would cause (post to come).

Image courtesy of about.com

Lake Lugano rests in both Switzerland and Italy.   Lugano is at the northernmost part.    This entire area is known for its mild Mediterranean climate, complete with palm trees and tropical plants.  Yes, in Switzerland.

Image courtesy of escapeartists.com

As we drove into town, we were impressed by the scenery, most notably, the large hill to the left of the town.

Lugano, Switzerland

We parked and strolled through a nearby city park, sitting for a cappuccino and a espresso.   Just coming from Italy, we noted we were back to Switzerland prices. And service.

Gabe commented on the little baby Jet d’eau that they had (as can be seen in the photo above).

All in all, it was a nice city.   Not sure if we’ll travel back, but I am glad we got to see it.

You might want to check on Schwingen in Switzerland’s adventures there (link below).  They had a sunny day and a bit more time for exploration.

Related links:

Schwingen in Switzerland:  Ciao Bella Lugano

Frau Hilda rides a ferry

When we went to Lake Como, Frau Hilda got to ride her first ferry.   It is not her first time on a boat…she was ironically imported from South Carolina.

Because Lake Como is long and twisty (it resembles the body of a man), they have a network of boats and ferries so it is easy to traverse between towns on opposite coasts, saving time.

Bellagio is located where the legs meet.   Apparently there is a catchy Italian poem about this, but we didn’t hear it when we were there.

When we drove in, it was no big deal – we just passed through Como and continued up the left leg until we reached the village.    However, the drive was super hair raising and we didn’t necessarily want to repeat it.  Also, our destination was Lake Lugano which was due-west of Bellagio.    Luckily for us, they had car ferries between Bellagio and Cadenabbia (left side of mid lake) every 20 minutes.

Image courtesy of Owners Direct from Home Away

It only cost 19 euro for Frau Hilda, Gabe and I to ride.   We thought that was a smokin’ deal.    The ride was only about 15 minutes but saves us about an hour or two in driving time for where we were going.

Goodbye, adorable Bellagio

Frau Hilda was joined by a fancy car.   I guess these folks didn’t want to risk driving their antique Bentley on the curvy roads, either!

 

I am a ferry veteran.  We used to take the Cape May-Lewes one each summer to travel between New Jersey down to the beaches of Delaware.  However, this was Gabe’s first time.   He loved it.

What do you think of ferries?

The James Bond Trail: Villa del Balbianello

We are on the James Bond trail.

First we visited The Schilthorn in the Swiss Alps from Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Next it was James Bond Island in Thailand from The Man with The Golden Gun.

Now its Villa del Balbianello in Lake Como from Casino Royale.

We took a little boat cruise with Bellagio Water Taxi.  Janine and Luca, who ran the operation, provide a really delightful experience.

Luca driving the beautiful boat on Lake Como

Luca grew up in Lake Como so added a lot of local flavor as he drove us past the majestic coast line.

Villa Carlotta and its magnificent gardens

Public park, not bad.

Town of Mezzegra where Mussolini was killed trying to escape across the Swiss border with his mistress

False George Clooney house. Thought the sign was funny that read “No George” with an arrow pointing South.

Approaching the peninsula of Villa del Balbianello

Gorgeous property of Villa del Balbianello

We hopped off the boat and were met with a great tour guide.     The Villa had many owners in its history including a monastery, then a cardinal, two Italians, an American, and then its last owner, explorer Guido Monzino.

When Monzino died, he left it to the FAI, the National Trust of Italy so that we could all enjoy it.    You can even rent the space out for a private event, as the funds help to maintain the estate.

The grounds, set for a wedding that evening

The room of the villa were left, still set just as if Monzino lived there.     We couldn’t take pictures but I found this photo online to show you our favorite room.  We entitled it, The Ultimate Man Room.    It was a collection of Monzino’s explorations.   It contained his snow suit from the climb of Mt Everest (he ultimately didn’t make it but sent his guides on who brought back rocks still displayed in the house), his sled from exploring the North Pole, and numerous amazing artifacts.

Image courtesy of FAI.

We learned that in addition to James Bond, the villa was also used in the Star Wars movie as well as a few others. You’ll have to check them out below.

*On a side note, back in my early twenties, my friend K and I also hit a James Bond Casino Royale site in The One & Only Club in the Bahamas.  The movie hadn’t come out yet, but I immediately recognized the hammocks when they appeared on screen and were found to contain James Bond’s murdered fling.  We had leisurely hung out in them one of our afternoons.

Related Links:

Schwingen in Switzerland:  Why You’ve Heard of Lake Como

You Tube scene of Villa del Balbianello in Star Wars 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OV0t4NS0j3I

YouTube scene of Villa del Balbianello in Casino Royale : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wGhBxSjg0A

Gratitude Friday: My Swiss Misses

Lately, I have been reflecting on how lucky I am to have met such fabulous ladies in Geneva.   They had some pretty tough shoes to fill as far as awesomeness with my gals back home.   However, I have been very fortunate, and thus this week’s gratitude post.

It’s always nice to have a support network.  But in a foreign country, it is equally as important.

The day I met D & A, at Caves Ouvertes 2011

As culture shock comes on, or a “bad Swiss day” rears its head, I am thankful to have these women in my life.   Plus, there’s only so much Gabe can take :)

Courtesy of Schwingen in Switzerland

 

A lot of the times, we have the same frustrations and joy.    It’s good to know that other people usually have been through what you are going through, or just simply understand.   This could include major things, or minor things.   It’s pretty funny some of the stories we all share.   Like, for instance, everyone has forgotten to label the produce at the store and gotten yelled at.   And, everyone’s had an extremely awkward doctor’s visit.

Nutella Pizza usually makes everything better

It’s also fun to share holidays away from home with others.  Both with people who are familiar with the traditions, as well as sharing what we do with others

If it weren’t for these guys, Gabe and I would celebrate silly US holidays like Halloween alone!

Montreux Christmas market 2011

It’s also awesome to celebrate the good times.   Of course, many birthdays, and even I’ve had the pleasure of seeing 2, almost 3, little ones be born.

Celebrating C’s birthday (it was yesterday!)

This one’s almost ready :)

Geneva is a transient city.   People come and people go.   The length of time one might stay in a city is easy changeable and usually not very long.

This Friday, I continue to reflect on my good fortune and I’m just happy to have had the opportunity for knowing them in this period of time.

Route Blanche and The Mt Blanc Tunnel

Mt. Blanc is the highest peak in the Alps.   For us, its easiest to access via Chamonix, France.   This adorable ski village is only an hour from Geneva and has a cable car you can take to reach the top.

However, this majestic mountain is not just a French treasure.   Mt. Blanc straddles France and Italy, so it is shared.   It is titled Monte Bianco in Italian.   In fact, people can leave Chamonix, take a cable car, and ski down into Italy.  We have some friends who skied this side, in Coumayeur, and loved it.  I can’t imagine how much better skiing is if your mid-day break includes Italian food….a la dolce vita!

However, when it comes to every day life, usually you don’t want to climb Mt. Blanc but to simply get around it or through it by means of getting to nearby Italy.    And so what did they do?

Build a tunnel.

Image courtesy of “Skiing the Pacific Rim of Fire”

It is amazing to think about the effort it takes to build a highway of this magnitude.  France doesn’t let you forget it when you enter the autoroute.  They remind you that they have spent millions of euros on the highway.

When you see the infrastructure required to build the roads, you don’t mind paying the few euro toll to drive on the side of the French Alps.

…that is just leading up to the tunnel, not the tunnel itself.

The tunnel itself takes about 17 minutes to get through, and costs about $60 USD additional than just the Autoroute Blanche.    And what choice do you have if you want to get to Italy?  The alternative is to take a 2-3 hour detour around the other side of Lake Geneva.

Image courtesy of Alice in Wonderlands

It was completed in 1965.    It shut down for 3 years in 1999 due to a horrific accident, killing 39.  They reopened in 2001 after making significant  safety modifications.

 

And thus, they are serious. Here are the safety rules:

1- Maintain speed of 70 km/hour.   If everyone isn’t maintaining speed consistently, they’ll come on the radio and warn everyone.

2- Yield control of your radio to them.   Even if you have an iPod in, it redirects you to the radio station of the tunnel so they can communicate.  They do so in French, Italian and English.

3- Stay 2 blue lights away from the person in front of you, to ensure there is significant stopping space.   You can see the blue lights in the picture above.

We are thankful for the ability to use tunnels to make our trips shorter.

 

Related Links:

The Swiss Watch Blog – Gratitude Friday: Witnessing Something Truly Majestic

Schwingen in Switzerland – Mt. Blanc – the Tallest Mountain in the Alps 

The Swiss Watch Blog – In Winter Wonder with Pascal and Giselle

Don’t go chasing waterfalls….

And I continue with my cheesy song title post names.

We mentioned that it was pretty neat to see the castles while driving on our road trip to Lake Como.   Now that is is Spring, the glacial runoff has started and there is a surplus of waterfalls to be found while driving on France, Italy and Switzerland’s Alpine highways.

Here are just a few of the ones we spotted in our short car ride:

And my personal favorite, driving in Valais, there is waterfall spewing out of the base of a house.

Bellagio, Italy

This weekend was a holiday weekend in Switzerland.  We wanted to take advantage so planned a last minute getaway to Lake Como.  I think I wanted to go there slightly more than Gabe.  First of all, I love Italy in general.  Furthermore, I had romanticized about visiting the beautiful Italian lake for quite awhile.  I was able to lure Gabe in with the bait of the fact that a few James Bond films were shot there.  Plus, we were able to get a last minute apartment in Bellagio.   I convinced him that the hotel name-sake was the next best thing to being to Vegas.

However, when it was all said and done, I think he’d agree that little Bellagio far exceeded his expectations.

Lake Como is located in the North of Italy, just at the base of the Italian Alps.   Switzerland is just over the horizon of the Italian Alps.  While the canton of Ticino is very close to Lake Como, this part of Switzerland isn’t that close to Geneva.   Thus, we drove through the Mont Blanc tunnel and down through Italy, passing Milan.  It was about 4 hours to Lake Como, and another 45 minutes to Bellagio.

Image courtesy of Casa Mantra Ponto

When we’d looked for hotels about a week out, the ones in Bellagio were sold out. We’d wanted to stay there as we had heard it had the most nightlife and restaurants of all the adorably inciting mid-lake villages.    The shortage on booking.com led me to search for apartments online and luckily we found availability at the cutest little apartment, run by Maria at Bellagio Centre Town.

We spent most of the weekend either eating, sitting in a cafe, or strolling down the beautiful Italian streets.   We tried to see how slow we could get our pulses.

Taking in the view of the opposite shoreline, Varenna

Bellagio at dusk

Evening falls on Bellagio

The food was amazing.  Par for the course in Italy.  We forget how bad it is in Geneva until we travel.   We gorged ourselves with the multiple courses like we’d never eat again.   We sipped crisp proseccos at sunset and drank lovely Lombardy and Piedmont wines as the night continued.

Cappacino on the waterfront

Some folks enjoying the homemade  gelato – we enjoyed it each afternoon…

So I stay convinced that heaven on earth is Italy.