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!!

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

Gratitude Friday: Introducing Frau Hilda

This Friday, we wanted to express our gratitude for our car, Frau Hilda.   While we use the public transport quite a bit, it has been super nice to have a set of wheels during our time in Geneva for weekend trips.    Also, we are lucky enough to get the option to rent a parking spot near our building which is quite a luxury in Geneva.  We are very appreciative of this benefit.

What happens if you don’t have a spot near your building?    You have to buy what is called a macaroon.  No, it is not a tasty baked treat by Lady J, it is a 180 franc yearly pass to park on the street in certain blue zones.   You can only park in the particular zone  that correlates to your neighborhood.  However, this macaroon parking is not guaranteed.  We know people who have searched for over 45 minutes and not been able to find one remotely close to their house.   Yuck.

Why?   Geneva is not car friendly.  They are proactively trying to reduce spaces and convert people to use public transport.  For more on this and the hierarchy of who and what is important, check out Switzerland Hughes.

So how did Frau Hilda come about?   When Gabe accepted his job, they let us know we would have a company car in Geneva. We got to pick it out from three models: sedan, minivan and SUV.  We picked the only SUV option, swayed by the proximity to ski resorts.  We selected it in March, before we left.   We were notified that even though it was a BMW, a German brand, it was actually made in South Carolina.  About an hour from our house in Charlotte.  So it would take 9 months to make it to Europe.  Our furniture only took 2 months.

We like to name cars.  Gabe wanted it to be female.  We were debating whether to name her a South Carolina name or a German name.  We went German….Frau Hilda.

Has Frau Hilda ever starred in a film? Why, yes. Since her arrival in December,  we have made a video about her adventures entitled “BMW 007”.   Our favorite part is Frau Hilda “escaping” from the Monte Carlo Casino.Check out her film debut!










Bon weekend, everyone!

Finally….The Matterhorn!

Post by Lauren

This post is dedicated to Pascal and Gisele.

You might remember that we visited Zermatt before, but failed at catching a glimpse of the Matterhorn.

So when Gabe’s family put this iconic  mountain on the top of their Swiss wish list, we were excited at the thought we might actually get to see it.

We anxiously watched the weather forecast hoping for clear skies.  And…mission accomplished!

We stayed in nearby Tasch, the town where we had parked the car on our last visit.  Tasch has trains to Zermatt every 20 minutes, providing a less expensive hotel option (150 CHF vs. an average of 500 CHF ) since it was still skiing high season in Zermatt.

After dropping bags at adorable Hotel City in Tasch, we headed to Zermatt and immediately took an electric taxi  to the best overlook.  It was quite bright, but still magnificent.

Zermatt is known as a climbers destination although the Matterhorn is one of the deadliest peaks in the Alps.  It was one of the last peaks to be climbed in the golden age of Alpinism, and was first conquered by a group lead by  Edward Whymper in 1865.  Unfortunately, on the descent, there was a fall and four members of the group fell to their deaths.

We passed the graveyard for those who have died attempting to climb the Matterhorn.  It has been about 500 people in total who found their match in the 4,478 m high peak. For more information on this topic, Schwingen in Switzerland did a comprehensive post.

Mountaineer's cemetery, Zermatt

After wandering the town a bit, we dined on burgers and beers at Zermatt favorite, Brown Cow at Hotel Post, and then headed back to our own hotel in Tasch for the evening.

The next morning, we got up bright and early to make sure we were on time for the Glacier Express. We had an extra half hour to kill, so a few of us ventured back to catch a morning glimpse of the majestic Matterhorn.  Much better by morning:

Zermatt still remains one of our favorite Swiss towns.  We have visited it now in winter and spring.  However, I think it would be beautiful in the summer and fall as well.

Gratitude Friday: A Great Ski Season

Post by Lauren

Ski season is officially over for our household.  With temperatures warming up, the local slopes are slushy by lunchtime.

However, we wanted to dedicate a post in gratitude to the Alps and the ski opportunities that we have had this winter.

Last winter, it was unusually warm.  We heard people say that it only produced about 2 decent snow days and even still, the slopes weren’t ideal.

This season is a stark contrast – there was wonderful skiing to be had pretty much every weekend from the beginning of January until now.  Over the last 3 months, we have visited:

  • La Clusaz, France
  • Les Contamines, France
  • Megève, France
  • Chamonix, France
  • Verbier, Switzerland
  • Saas Fee, Switzerland

We feel lucky that we have had the chance.

Our friend A has major talents with the camera while skiing.  I don’t possess such talents as I always have to concentrate on not falling.  However, since I have a lot of time in the chair lately, I mixed her video footage with my own to create a recap video of our ski exploits.

Au Revoir Ski Season – until next year!

And bon-weekend to all.






Just another day at the office

Post by Lauren

Last week, Gabe had a company outing to La Clusaz, France.  The group skied as a team building activity.

As the weather warms up, we aren’t sure there will be many more opportunities for skiing.

We hear that Zermatt and Chamonix have year-round skiing so perhaps this could be an option.

Magnificent Megève

Post by Lauren

Gabe went skiing in Mègeve a few weeks ago when we were having our Arctic temps.    Luckily, two fellows from Geneva accompanied him as I was worried he would freeze to death in the -20 C temps.

However, I am happy to say that they survived.  Below are two photos from his blackberry he captured while out on the frigid French slopes:

Skiing at Megève

Mt. Blanc

While they went for just the day (only about an hour’s drive from Geneva), we have heard good things about the town of Megève  from friends.  Hopefully, we’ll be able to return and perhaps stay in the town next year.