Monday, December 24, 2007

Thursday, 30 August: Two Years in Deutschland

Upon passing a landmark date like we did today, I naturally become quite sentimental and reflective about our time in Deutschland. We have come a long ways since our first tentative days, when we barely had the courage to venture out of our hotel room, let alone speak to anyone in German. The time has sped by amazingly fast and it is hard to believe that in another few short months we will be heading home to Michigan. I can only vow once again to take advantage of every moment that is left to us, which means that my writing will probably suffer. Then again, you only live once. The writing will just have to wait.

Friday, 24 August: Dinner with the Dörrs

The Dörrs had us over for another lovely meal this evening. This time I bought a bouquet of flowers at the florist in Schwaben Galerie, where I had a very positive experience with the nice young saleswoman (a far cry from the snooty lady here in Botnang). We went over around 7:00 and ended up staying until after 11. We had a similar meal to last time – Hochzeitsuppe, two kinds of roast pork, spätzle, salad, and kartoffelsalat. Once again Herr Dörr did most of the talking – and once again he did a lot of reminiscing about World War II. I only wish I could understand more of what he said. I was exhausted and could barely keep my eyes open by the end of it. I think John fared a little better because he is more accustomed to listening to men with Schwäbisch accents.

Tuesday, 21 August: A Summer Dinner in the Schlossgarten...NOT!

We were supposed to enjoy a lovely summer evening at the Schlossgarten Biergarten in downtown Stuttgart for our monthly IWC dinner, but the weather was decidedly uncooperative. We’ve only really had about two weeks of summer this year – and that was back in June. It was pouring rain when I arrived at the Biergarten and our small group of die-hard members was clustered at a table under an umbrella downing beers and pretzels. They told me to hurry up and order a beer because the restaurant was already shutting up for the night due to the poor weather. We waited for some stragglers to arrive and then made our way over to the Königstraße to find a place to eat inside. We settled on The Block House, since we all thought steaks and baked potatoes would hit the spot on this wet, blustery day. We ended up having a great time, as usual – the IWC never lets a little rain ruin its parade!

Sunday, 19 August: Disaster Strikes for Gronholm!

We didn’t have far to go this morning since we had tickets for bleacher seats to watch the Circus Maximus spectator stage, taking place literally steps from the hotel. We checked out after breakfast but left our car in the hotel lot, then went in search of our seats. Two sets of bleachers had been set up along the route and we had been randomly assigned seats in the bleachers near the finish line of the course. We arrived early and were disappointed to discover that we had a pretty lousy view – basically just a long sweeping turn with very little likelihood of any major action – and we’d have to dodge the heads of everyone seated around us. Plus there was no sign of the promised giant video screen, which would have allowed us to see the action on the rest of the course. We decided to walk around for a bit and see if we could find any standing room with a better view, but the best spots were already staked out. On our way back to our seats we spoke to a course worker and asked about the whereabouts of the video screens; he said he didn’t know what had happened but there weren’t any screens anywhere. Frustrated, we returned to our bleacher seats and decided to grin and bear it.

It was rather fun to see the rally cars in a more traditional race setting. The cars went out on the course in staggered groups of four and they lapped the course three times. Of course we only saw them for about three seconds with each pass. We got some nice shots and video, but after watching a few of the N-Class Evos and Subarus go by, we decided to leave early and try to make it to the very last stage of the rally, Moselwein, set in the vineyards in a steeply sloped valley on the north side of the river. (Unfortunately we missed the Dhrontal stage, perhaps the most spectacular setting of the whole rally, because we had opted to see the spectator stage.)

Photos from Circus Maximus:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/hausfrau/sets/72157601790856497/

We parked along the street in a beautiful brand-new residential development and made the long trek up the hill into the vineyards. We found a nice spot amongst the vines on the outside edge of a left-hand turn; the cars would be coming straight at us from a long downhill, then turn sharply to the left and head down what turned out to be a steep concrete drainage ditch. John took up a position higher up between the vine rows for a good video angle; I was standing a few feet up from the rock wall lining the road until a guy saw me there and graciously gestured for me to come down and join the line along the wall. I responded in German but quickly discovered that he was one of a group of Frenchmen – all rooting for Sebastien Loeb, naturally. After a while I said something to him in French and he did a double-take, asking me if I spoke French. I explained that I had studied French in school but was now living in Germany, so my French was suffering (this said in rather faltering French, slipping into German at the end). I daresay he was surprised to find an American girl out watching a rally in the German countryside who could speak (OK, “speak” might be a bit strong) not one but two foreign languages.

We ended up having a pretty thrilling spot from which to observe our last stage of Rallye Deutschland. We all had a grand time watching the top WRC competitors take the screeching left-hander; I was anxiously awaiting Markus Grönholm, who has been my favorite WRC driver ever since he tried to take me out on that crazy turn in the St. Wendelerland stage last year. Grönholm and Loeb were currently first and second in the overall championship, and while the gravel-specialist Finn was not favored to win the asphalt German rally, he needed to hold onto second position to maintain his lead in the championship. So you can imagine my horror and anguish when Grönholm finally came around the turn and the crippled right rear end of his car swung into view. Half of his rear quarter-panel was ripped off, the rear bumper was gone, and his right rear wheel was hanging out at an awkward angle, completely detached from the suspension. Grönholm was obviously determined to limp to the finish line, but his hopes of winning the championship were now called into question.

The French fans cheered madly at Grönholm’s sorry plight. And what was the very next car to come into view? Loeb’s pristine cherry-red Citröen, of course. The Frenchmen went wild. My spirits slightly dampened, we watched the rest of the Super 1600 series while the French fans packed up and left. I grew bored with my position after a while so I moved around a bit, experimenting with some interesting photo angles through the vines. We stuck around until practically everyone else around us had gone…right up until the very last car, the little yellow Fiat Seicento driven by Jürgen Hohlheimer, rounded the bend at the bottom of the ditch and disappeared from view. Then we too packed up, walked down the hill to the car, and headed back to Trier.

Photos from Moselwein:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/hausfrau/sets/72157601791464485/

It was still early in the afternoon so we decided to check out the rally aftermath at Parc Fermé. All of the top finishers had already arrived and we spent some time checking out the cars – dents, scrapes, duct tape and all – while the Super 1600 and N-Class cars pulled in. Several of the drivers paused to check out the damage to Grönholm’s car. After watching some Evos arrive, we walked back to Trier’s main market square to have lunch outside. The rally cars were routed straight through the square so we got to see the final finishers come through while we ate. We were surrounded by rally fans and everyone cheered and waved as the cars came by. Our meal was interrupted by a sudden downpour, but fortunately we were under the cover of a large umbrella. After finishing our lunch, we headed back to the car and made the uneventful drive home to Stuttgart. It was another amazing rally experience for us and we feel exceptionally lucky to have had the opportunity to go twice. Now if only we could get to Rallye Ireland next year…

Photos from Parc Fermé:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/hausfrau/sets/72157601791693755/

Postcript: Only after we returned home and went online did we discover the exact nature of Grönholm’s accident. Apparently he was distracted by a cow grazing close to the road and went off. There were no videocameras or photographers on site and the only record of the crash is from Grönholm’s in-car camera. Less than three weeks later, Grönholm announced his plans to retire after the 2007 WRC season. He ended up placing second in the championship, just four points behind Loeb.

Saturday, 18 August: Giant Jumps, Twisting Turns & Rapid Repairs

We were thrilled to discover that this year’s Rallye schedule slated the first running of the Panzerplatte stage for 11 a.m. this morning, so we didn’t have to get out of bed unreasonably early. As you may recall, Panzerplatte (named after the German Panzer tanks) is run on the concrete-paved testing grounds of an old military base and is one of the most famous – and longest, at 30.5 km – stages in the WRC lineup. The stage is also home to the “Gina” jump, the best-known jump of Rallye Deutschland. Seeing the cars catch huge air here was one of the highlights of our Rallye experience last year and we wanted to try to arrive earlier this time to get an even better viewing position. Of course we slightly underestimated how long it took to drive to the stage, park in one of the huge lots near the barracks, get on a shuttle bus, and then make the long trek over the undulating fields of the military grounds to finally arrive at the gently sloping “Gina” viewing area. We were dismayed to discover that all of the best spots along the fence were already claimed, but we managed to stake out what were essentially second-row seats. We brought our camp chairs along and settled in for yet another long wait. A group of people sitting next to us had huge beach umbrellas set up to block the sun, which partially blocked our view and the view of everyone sitting behind them. As start time approached, we began to wonder if they were ever going to take the umbrellas down. It wasn’t even hot out. I finally worked up the nerve to ask them in German to put their umbrellas away, and they complied. Some of the spectators behind us gave me appreciative looks. The WRC cars didn’t catch too much air, as usual, but the Super 1600s didn’t disappoint and the Evos made some fantastic jumps. There’s nothing quite like seeing an Evo flying through the air and thinking, “That’s our car!” I don’t think anyone topped the little Renault Clios and Citröens from last year, but we saw plenty of great jumps.

You can see my best photos from Panzerplatte here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/hausfrau/sets/72157601783962038/

We didn’t stick around to watch the historic rally cars because we knew from last year that they wouldn’t get a lot of air going over the jump. Next we decided to go off the beaten track to the Bosenberg stage. We were attracted to the description of an “S”-curve viewing area but had some trouble figuring out where to park. We finally made our way through cornfields and rolling meadows to the viewing area, which was only sparsely populated with spectators. I decided to take up a position right along the road for close-ups while John stood on higher ground for videotaping. After watching all of the WRC cars go by we decided to hike along the road a short distance and found another great viewing area where we could see the cars coming through a twisty wooded section. I wish we’d been there to see the WRC cars, as it was a fabulous location for photos and video. Most of the spectators left after the WRC cars finished, so we had plenty of room to move around for good shots of the Super 1600 and N-class cars. It was especially fun to watch the less-experienced drivers trying to maneuver through the tight uphill S-turn, narrowly missing a road sign in the process.

Here are photos from Bosenberg:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/hausfrau/sets/72157601790553327/

We decided to end our day at the Service Park, where you can get up close and personal with the drivers and team mechanics, who work furiously to repair the beaten and battered cars during their strictly-allotted 45-minute service period. The Rallye organizers wisely moved the location of the Service Park this year from the Bostalsee (a good 45-minute drive from Trier) to the large fairgrounds near downtown Trier. This made getting to and from the Service Park a lot easier, although parking was a bit of a pain. We had to park on the street and then walk quite a ways through a rather sketchy industrial area to get to the Service Park. En route we passed a whole line-up of Subaru WRX wanna-be rally cars. We arrived in time to see the first WRC cars arrive, and stopped to watch a couple of them getting a quick wash before entering the park grounds. We watched the Stobart Ford crew working on Latvala’s car and saw the evening press conference with Markus Grönholm, Sebastian Loeb, and Dani Sordo, the current top place-holders, from afar (I got a darn good photo of them with my zoom, considering I was several hundred yards away!).

At some point while we were standing between the Citröen and Ford tents, John and I got separated. I literally turned around and he was gone. I stuck to the fence where I had last seen him, took some photos of cars coming and going, and waited. And waited. I was the only one with a cell phone and we didn’t have any contingency plan if we got separated. I tried not to panic, except I had no way of knowing if John had noticed my absence immediately, or if he had walked halfway around the Service Park before realizing I was not at his side. The Service Park is a very big place and there were thousands of fans milling around, and it was getting dark. There was a guy with a microphone walking around doing roving interviews and I was half-tempted to go up to him and ask him to call out to my wayward husband. Some fifteen minutes later, we found each other again, about ten feet from where we had last seen each other. John claims that I am the one who suddenly disappeared.

Together again, we left the WRC area to check out the less-crowded Super 1600 tents. I daresay we recognized the Japanese crew leader at one of the Suzuki tents (the guy who came out and said, “Ten more minutes!” last year). After a lot of searching (and even asking someone for directions) we finally found the independent N-class cars tucked away in a forgotten corner. It’s always fun to see the guys working on their Evos, away from the crowds, with no barriers between you and the cars. I was also happy to finally see the tiny yellow Fiat with its frizzy-haired German owner/driver furiously working away on his pride and joy.

Here are photos from the Service Park:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/hausfrau/sets/72157601790642255/

It was pretty much dark by now and most of the WRC cars had left, so we made our way back to our car and drove back to the hotel. Except we hit a bit of a roadblock – literally. We knew some of the streets in downtown Trier were goint to be blocked off for tomorrow’s Circus Maximus stage – a new addition to the Rallye Deutschland schedule. Every rally features a special “spectator stage” that takes place in an arena or in town. It’s usually a very short stage and the cars run the circuit two or three times, which means the spectators get more viewing opportunities, hence the name “spectator stage.” Last year, the spectator stage was in a small village near Trier; we didn’t go because we’d heard that the viewing locations weren’t all that exciting. This year they moved the stage into the heart of Trier for the first time, and it was going to run right past the Porta Nigra and our hotel.

What we didn’t realize is that they had already blocked off the streets in preparation for the stage tomorrow morning, and we found a concrete barrier barricading the main access route to our hotel. We tried to use Susie’s navigational skills to approach the hotel from other angles, but we kept ending up back in the same place. We couldn’t find any other places to park nearby and we became increasingly frustrated, since we were literally across the street from our hotel. Finally I told John to stay with the car while I ran over to the hotel to ask for help. I tried to explain to the woman at the reception desk what our problem was, but my German failed me and I had to switch to English. She pulled out a street map of Trier but it was not nearly as detailed as Susie’s map, so that wasn’t going to help us navigate the maze of streets. An older, well-dressed gentleman was standing next to the desk and the woman turned to him and asked his advice. I figured out after a few moments that he was somehow connected with the hotel.

The gentleman said he was going to his car and that he would drive me back to our car and then we could follow him to the parking lot, but I thought that sounded rather complicated since he would have to get over to where John was parked and then drive all the way back. I suggested that he come with me instead and be our navigator. He told his wife, who was also waiting in the lobby, that he would be back in a few minutes and then walked with me out to our car. We started chatting along the way (in German, of course), and I quickly learned that he was actually the owner of the hotel! I think John was rather stunned to see me show up with the hotel owner in tow. The gentleman was very nice and wanted to know all about what we were doing in Germany and how we liked living here. We talked about Mercedes and he told us that he drove an S-Class and his wife had an SL convertible. So not only was he the hotel owner, he was also quite rich. And here he was sitting in our car, amiably navigating a couple of wayward guests to the parking lot! He guided us with ease through a series of dark, narrow streets, some of which were barely wide enough for our car to pass through, and finally we ended up back at the carpark. We thanked the gentleman profusely and then went in to eat a very later dinner at the hotel restaurant. Our servers were a bit snippy with us at first because it was quite late and they had to keep the kitchen open for us, but while we were eating the hotel owner came by and gave us a little guidebook to Trier. After that the servers were much nicer.

Friday, 17 August: Let the Rallye Begin!

After partaking of the hotel’s fine breakfast buffet, we headed out to Ruwertal, the very first stage of the rally, with a start time of 10:13 a.m. We arrived with plenty of time to park in a huge grassy field and hiked about ten minutes to the first viewing area, which consisted of a short straightaway, a sharp right turn, and a lefthand hairpin. We staked out a decent position just above the hairpin, but were a bit disappointed because the best angle for photos was on the lower side of the bend, which was off-limits to spectators. (As always, I was immensely jealous of the press photographers, who get all the best shooting angles.) While we waited for the stage to start I took a hike through the woods to the next viewing area, another hairpin bend heavily shaded by trees. It was a dramatic turn but it was already pretty thickly staked out by spectators and I was worried about the low light conditions for photography, so we ended up sticking with our original position. All of the WRC cars and most of the Super 1600s made it through smoothly but some of the Evos and Subarus made some dramatic slides.

Here are photos from Ruwertal:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/hausfrau/sets/72157601774317769/

We grabbed some sausages and Cokes for lunch and then headed to the second running of the Schönes Moselland stage, which, as its name suggest (schön means “beautiful”), is set on a dramatic vineyard-covered hillside overlooking the town of Piesport, surrounded by an enormous horseshoe bend in the Mosel River. We arrived in time to take some shots of the postcard-perfect scenery and then made our way down the hill in search of the ideal viewing spot. We arrived between stages and managed to nudge our way up to the fence on the lower outer side of another lefthand hairpin turn. We watched the historic rally cars go by from the previous running of the stage and then waited around for over an hour and a half for our stage to start (rally fans certainly have to be patient). From here we could see the cars snaking down the next hill in the distance and we could just barely make out two white cars that had gone off the road and were now stuck amidst the vineyard rows. A crew was swarming around one of the cars but they didn’t succeed in retrieving it – I guess they are out for the duration. We think the two unfortunates were Super 1600 entries but we couldn’t tell for sure.

There were no big mistakes by the WRC cars at our turn, although Petter Solberg deposited some large chunks of rubber on the road as his already-damaged Subaru came screaming around the bend. A guy ran out and snatched up a hunk of the rubber – to take home as a souvenir?!? There were a lot of naughty spectators here who kept trying to sneak up the road between the vineyard rows, and I could swear that I saw several of them trying to touch the cars as they went by. (This is no laughing matter – one of the motivating factors for the establishment of controlled spectator zones in the last decade was that several fans lost fingers while trying to touch the cars, and more than one spectator has been run over.) The course marshals do their best to look for wayward fans and keep them behind the fences. One of the marshals was wearing a floppy straw hat and everyone jeered at him when his hat blew off and he had to walk out onto the course to retrieve it. We didn’t stick around to watch all of the independent-class cars because we wanted to get back to Trier to watch the WRC cars arrive at Parc Fermé.

Here are photos from Schönes Moselland:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/hausfrau/collections/72157601674185737/

We drove back to Trier, parked at the hotel, and made our way through the center of town to the Parc Fermé (closed park) at the Viehmarktplatz, where all of the rally cars have to spend the night. The cars arrived by a different route from last year and we got to watch them driving through the streets of Trier. This is always a fun thing to see, especially when you get a great shot of folks sitting at an outdoor café just a few feet away from a passing WRC car. We arrived at Parc Fermé just in time to see Grönholm drive in and greet the throngs of fans. We also watched Kopecky, Latvala, Stohl, Atkinson, and several of the other WRC cars arrive, then went back out to the street to watch some more cars coming through. We ended up eating a late dinner at the hotel, which was excellent.

Here are photos from Parc Fermé:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/hausfrau/sets/72157601783882210/

Thursday, 16 August: Return to Rallye Deutschland

We have been looking forward to our second trip to Rallye Deutschland for some time now. I won’t bother with the long drawn-out description and analysis that I wrote last year, particularly since I am writing this four months after the fact (whoops, didn’t mean to let that slip), so I’ll simply provide brief highlights here.

We made the drive up to Trier in the E-Class this evening. We got off to a late start – after 6 pm – and I was driving because John had already had a long day at work. I was making good time on the empty Autobahn as we approached the Mosel Valley, maintaining speeds of 180-200 kph. As I came around a long, sweeping bend in the fast lane, passing a BMW wagon that was going a tick slower than me, John suddenly shouted, "Watch out." My gaze jumped ahead to the right side of the road just beyond the bend, where we could see that a couple of semis were parked on the shoulder. I immediately let off the gas, and the BMW next to me simultaneously began to slow down. Only after several seconds (and several hundred yards) had passed did my eyes return to my lane, at which point I registered the fact that a police car was ahead of me with its flashers on (but not its police lights). It took another split second (and a few more yards) for me to realize that the police car was at a DEAD STOP. In the fast lane. On an unlimited stretch of Autobahn. With no flares, emergency triangles, or anything else to give drivers like me any advance warning. The BMW was still next to me in the right lane, so I had nowhere to go. I hit the brakes, hard, but not hard enough to set off the ABS. After a second, I realized that we were still approaching the police car at an alarmingly fast rate. I had never slammed on the brakes before at 180 kph, but this was the big moment to find out what the E-Class could do. I gripped the steering wheel and slammed my foot on the brake. The ABS went wild, the tires squealed threateningly, and it seemed to take an interminably long time for the car to come to a screeching but controlled stop, about 30 feet from the police car. It gave me quite an adrenaline rush. The only time I've ever had a scare like that was when I almost ran over a howler monkey that tried to cross the road in front of me in Costa Rica. This time the stakes were a tad higher than just a flattened monkey.

Meanwhile the BMW continued merrily on its way in the right lane. I slowly moved over, passed the police car, and proceeded down the road. I was so shaken up that I didn't think to look as we passed the trucks on the shoulder. John said it looked like they were clearing up and accident, but that didn't explain why the police car was parked in the middle of the Autobahn. He said the two Polizei officers gave us a funny look, as if they were thinking that perhaps they should move their car.

We made it the rest of the way to Trier without incident, and navigated ourselves smoothly to our hotel, the Römischer Kaiser, where we stayed last year. This time we knew the drill, so we pulled up on the sidewalk, checked in, brought our suitcases inside, and then John took the car down the street to the hotel's gated carpark. Our room was not quite as spacious and bright as our corner room last year and we had a tiny dormer window overlooking the rooftops instead of a nice street view, but it suited our needs since we didn't intend to spend a whole lot of time there. We quickly settled our things and then headed out into a light drizzle to find a good spot to observe the Rallye Start.

We chose a position along the straightaway, within sight of the Porta Nigra and one of the big video screens so we could see the drivers giving their interviews under the Red Bull arch. A group of Czech fans came by, dressed head-to-toe in Czech flags and shaggy red-and-yellow wigs and blasting toy trumpets. Unfortunately I was surrounded by people who kept sticking their cameras out in front of me (dangling neck straps and all), plus it was overcast (and still trying to rain), so my photos didn't turn out great, but it was fun to watch the cars rumbling past. John got us some french fries (slathered with mayonnaise and ketchup, of course) and a Coke to tide us over until we could have a late dinner. We watched all of the WRC cars go by and some of the Super-1600 class and then walked down the street towards the huge fortress-like cathedral to see the Evos and Subarus up close and personal. Just like last year, there were no crowd barriers here so the fans could get as close as they wanted, sometimes lying down in front of the cars to take pictures and rushing up to shake the drivers’ hands. After the action came to a close, we wandered back towards the hotel and stopped for a late dinner at a bistro-style place just around the corner from our hotel.

You can see pictures from the Rallye Start here on my Flickr site:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/hausfrau/sets/72157601754228619/

Monday, 13 August: It's Official - We're Staying!

It seems crazy, I know, but we had to wait until today - just two weeks before the end of August - to receive the official word from Chrysler that the new guys at Cerberus have approved John’s job extension until December. We were living under a dark cloud of anxiety for the past few weeks, afraid that we might still be ordered to return to Michigan at the end of this month – or as soon as humanly possible, since we had stubbornly avoided taking any steps to help organize our move. Suffice it to say that I was positively thrilled by the news. Four more months, including another autumn in Stuttgart – my favorite season of the year!

Wednesday, 8 August: The Long Road Home

The final day of our Alpine journey dawned cloudy and rainy, but we decided to continue with our original plan to traverse the final two passes on our itinerary – the 2,224-meter Sustenpass and the 1,948-meter Klausenpass – on our way back to Bregenz. The former was identified as Car Magazine’s favorite of all the great mountain passes of the Alps, so we had to give it a try. Unfortunately the weather did not improve and our seven-hour drive through the mountains was completely socked in. We can only imagine the magnificent vistas of snow-capped peaks and verdant valleys that were hidden from view today! John had a heck of a time just staying on the road and I had to satisfy my photographic cravings by taking pointless pictures out the window of a bottomless white abyss. It was a long day of driving through endless clouds, but we made it safely home to Stuttgart in good time.

What a magnificent journey…we are already fantasizing about running an auto touring operation in the Alps. We would provide the cars (we’ve decided Mini Coopers would be just about perfect), mechanical support, guides, driving routes, and hotel reservations, and our clients would get to explore the best scenic roads of the Alps! John’s colleague Gert has already volunteered to be one of our guides. Now if only we had about a million dollars in start-up funds…

A few more photos from our drive home can be seen here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/hausfrau/sets/72157603812729513/

Tuesday, 7 August: Real Cow Bells & a Slight Lapse in Judgment

The Swiss weather forecasters were, sadly, all too accurate: it started raining overnight and it was drizzling when we got up this morning. The mountains were invisible and it looked like our plans to hike to the Früdenhütte were literally being washed away. As you may recall from our visit to the Berner Oberland last fall with my parents, the Früdenhütte is a traditional Swiss hiker’s hut perched on a ridge about 1000 feet above the shores of Oeschinensee, the gorgeous glacial lake nestled in a cupped valley high above Kandersteg. We were sorely disappointed, since we had added a day to this leg of our trip for the express purpose of attempting the hike to the Früdenhütte. We decided to look around Kandersteg in the morning and hope that the weather might clear up a bit. We stopped in at the cheese shop a block from our hotel, where they have a gigantic cow bell hanging in the window, and I decided to inquire about where I might find my very own authentic Swiss cow bell. I was tired of the silly tourist-variety bells with their faux-leather straps and cheap rainbow fringe; I wanted a real honest-to-goodness bell that was made to be worn by a real cow. Three people were working in the shop at the time (all of whom spoke some English, fortunately), and they gave me three different (and rather emphatic, might I add) opinions on where I could find myself a cow bell. The first suggestion was a shop in Reichenbach, a little ways down the valley, where they made bells; the second was an antique store near Frütingen, another town just down the road; and the third was a retired farmer in Kandersteg who happened to have a barn full of cow bells that he probably wasn’t using anymore. The directions for the latter were a bit vague and one look at John’s face told me that wandering down a country road into some old barn was not the sort of wild goose chase he was willing to go on this morning – authentic cow bell or not – so we opted to try the first two options.

We headed down to Reichenbach first and drove up and down the main street a couple of times; the only shop we found that looked like it might sell cow bells was a hardware store, but they were closed for their autumn holiday. A few bells were hanging on a rack in front of the door, cruelly taunting me. The antique store was relatively easy to find, but it too was closed. I walked up to the window and pressed my face to the glass: lo and behold, there was a beautiful antique cow bell just sitting there on the floor, a few feet inside the door! At that very moment a car pulled into the driveway. An older woman stuck her head out the window and called out that the shop was closed. Yes, I thought, I can see that. I asked if she spoke English; she said no. I asked her when the shop would be open. She didn't answer specifically but asked if I was looking for something in particular and I told her yes – Kuhglocken! She nodded and indicated that she could open up the shop. She parked her car, unlocked the door, then disappeared behind a curtain leading into a back room. A few seconds later a 5-month-old Berner puppy (whose name sounded an awful lot like “Barney”) came bounding through the doorway. In his excitement he piddled on the floor right in front of me, narrowly missing my shoe.

The shop was amazing – a cavernous space crammed with gorgeous wooden furniture, farm implements, and the usual knicknacks. Of course I was oblivious to everything except for the two long beams spanning the room that were lined with – glory hallelujah! – dozens of beautiful cow bells in every size imaginable, hanging from sturdy leather collars and fastened with heavy buckles. I was in cow bell heaven. The lovely bell I had spotted in the window was apparently a rare French model from Chamonix that cost a whopping 400 Swiss Francs, but I was hopeful that some of the others would be more affordable. After much looking and discussion we picked out three bells. The lady had to call the shop owner for the prices. She told us the big one was 180 Swiss Francs and the two small ones were 80 each, but she immediately came down to 50 on the newest of the three. The total thus came to 310 ChF and of course they didn’t take credit cards, or even EC cards. I had only withdrawn 200 ChF from the ATM in Kandersteg and so had a grand total of 274 ChF plus change in my wallet. I showed the lady my empty wallet and offered her an additional 10 Euro to help make up the difference, but she didn’t want it. She mentioned something about a bank down the road, but we made it clear that we had no intention of coming back. She finally accepted the Francs, muttering, “Es ist mein Kopf!” (It’s my head!) if her boss got mad at her. We completed the transaction with the lady placing our three cow bells into plastic bags (she didn’t give us a receipt of any sort). As we were leaving John said, “Jetz brauchen wir 3 Kühe.” (Now we need three cows.)

Very satisfied with our cow bell venture, we headed back up the valley to Kandersteg. It was about 1 pm now and still drizzling, but we decided to give the hike a shot anyway – what did we have to lose, other than getting a little wet? We stopped at the hotel to pile on what would have to pass for rain gear and walked up the road to the Sesselbahn (chairlift). We bought two round-trip tickets and were grateful for the thick wool blanket the attendant laid across our laps as we headed up into the clouds. From the top of the lift it was a 20-minute walk to the shores of Oeschinensee, which was now nearly invisible in the low-hanging fog. We snacked on organic cheeseburgers and Cokes at the lakeshore restaurant and then set off on the trail to the Früdenhütte at precisely 2:15 pm. The sign at the trailhead said it would take 2-½ hours to reach the hut. That would leave us only an hour and fifteen minutes to get back down to the chairlift, which closes at 6:00, but we decided to give it our best effort.

We headed up the narrow, rocky trail in a steady drizzle, crossing a number of dry streambeds and traversing a stunted conifer forest. The trail skirted the edge of the lake for a while, then began climbing steadily upwards. We scrambled over slippery rocks and roots, past blooming mounds of wild azaleas, then emerged into a barren rocky landscape peppered with clumps of straggly grasses. We crossed three wooden footbridges (see photo, right) over rushing streams that came cascading from hidden cliffs high above our heads and tumbled downwards to the lake, now far below us. We continued up, up, up an endless series of switchbacks. The vegetation all but disappeared and the landscape transitioned to rain-streaked shards of black shale. At one point the clouds thinned enough that we could see a huge cliff face looming above us, and we knew that somehow the trail would take us up there. We couldn’t see much in any direction and we lost all sense of scale or height. We could no longer see the ultramarine blue of the lake through the fog, and the hut perched on its rocky ridge was still hidden somewhere in the clouds far above. Several sections of the trail took us up nearly sheer cliff faces, with stone steps gouged into the rock and metal cables to guide our way (see photo, right). By this point we were quite wet, but the heavy exercise kept us warm.

Our original turnaround time of 4:00 came and went. We knew we must be getting close, and this time even John really wanted to get to the top. Finally we passed a large plastic water tank labeled Früdenhütte and we knew we must be close…very close. The trail wound up and around one last rocky outcropping and suddenly the squat stone face of the hut with its cheerful red-and-white striped shutters appeared out of the gloom (see photo, below). We turned around and glimpsed a brief vision of blue-green waters through the swirling mist far below (see photo, below). Directly across from us we could make out the vague forms of the high peaks on the other side of the lake. One can only imagine how magnificent the view must be on a clear day. All around the hut, rock-strewn slopes swept upwards into jagged peaks crowned with ice sheets. It was 4:30 and we had made the 1000-foot climb in exactly two hours and fifteen minutes – beating the trail sign estimate by fifteen minutes. A light glowed dimly through the hut’s lace curtains but there was no other sign of life as we walked slowly around the building. There wasn’t even an overhang where we could sit and rest for a few minutes. We had paused momentarily to look at the inscription over the threshold when the upper half of the split-door opened and a young man peered out. I said, “Hello there!” and he said hello back, giving us an odd look. I’m sure he was wondering what sort of crazy people had decided to make the hike up to the hut in this weather (we hadn’t encountered another soul on the trail). He had a dog with him – a scrawny, wary-eyed shepherd – but apparently he was the only person staying at the hut at the moment. We asked him to take our picture and he kindly obliged. We would have liked to linger and chat, but we had a timetable to keep. We said goodbye and turned back down the trail, leaving the boy to stare rather quizzically after us.

By this point we were soaked through and the drizzle had turned to a steady rain. We couldn’t see a thing below us, which was perhaps fortunate, since I imagine the view is rather virtiginous when the weather is clear. We kept up a hard pace on the way down, but the going was very difficult – cold, wet, slippery, and tough on the knees. I stopped to snap a few pictures (using our small camera because I didn’t want to risk water-logging the SLR, which I was nevertheless lugging around in my backpack) but John, ever safety-conscious, kept urging me on because he was worried about the streams. Once again we found ourselves on a steep mountain trail, late in the day in bad weather, with no emergency supplies, and no one knew where we were. About a thousand small streams had appeared since we had made our way up the mountain, and water was now cascading from cliffs where there had been none before. As we approached each of the three major stream crossings, we wondered if the footbridges would be underwater. Fortunately none of them was, but the water was much higher than it had been on the way up, boiling violently through the narrow channels only a few inches under our feet. We were fairly relieved when we crossed the third bridge, but we still had a ways to go. The once-dry streambeds near the end of the trail had turned into raging torrents, and by the time we arrived back at the shore of Oeschinensee, my boots had turned into sodden sponges. It was 5:45 and we knew we had virtually no chance of making it to the chairlift before 6:00, since the walk to the lake had taken us twenty minutes – downhill and before we were exhausted from a long hike.

Fate thus deemed it necessary for us to walk all the way back to Kandersteg – a descent of another 1000 feet – in the rain. I had made this trek once before, fifteen years ago, and I knew it was going to be hell on my knees. We passed a small herd of rain-bedraggled cows on the way down, their bells (which, I noted with immense satisfaction, looked just like the ones we had purchased this morning) clanging mournfully in the mist. It took us another hour to reach the valley floor, by which point my knees had turned to jelly and I could barely walk in a straight line. The route wasn’t well-marked and we ended up hiking cross-country down a ski slope part of the way. Finally we reached the raging river and followed it back into town.

By the time we stumbled through the welcoming door of the Hotel Adler it was 7:15. A hot shower never felt so good! We rewarded ourselves with a huge pot of fondue and a bottle of German Riesling in the Adler’s dining room. We even ordered extra bread, and wiped the pot clean. I can’t remember fondue ever tasting so good.

More photos of the day's hike can be seen here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/hausfrau/sets/72157603796053441/

Thursday, November 15, 2007

6 August: The Jungfraujoch

The mountain panorama from our balcony was spectacular this morning – not a cloud in the sky, and the temperature was downright balmy. The Hotel Adler posts a weather forecast in the lobby so we knew that today was our best chance for sunshine and clear skies; thus we planned to take the train up to the Jungfraujoch, the rocky saddle between two of the highest mountains in the Berner Oberland, the Mönch and the Jungfrau. At 3,454 meters, the Jungfraujoch boasts the highest train station in Europe and visiting it was the primary reason why we returned to Kandersteg on this trip (you’ll learn the second reason tomorrow).

We got going around 10 am and I drove us to Lauterbrunnen, where we bought tickets for the 11:30 train to Kleine Scheidegg. (It is very expensive to go all the way up to the Jungfraujoch, so don’t do it unless you know you will have good weather at the top!) We were now old hats at all this, having done the identical journey up to Kleine Scheidegg with my parents last fall, and we settled into our compartment on the cog train for the 45-minute ride up from Lauterbrunnen and through Wengen (view from the train, left). The train was quite full; we sat across from a couple of British guys and an American family with two teenagers. The mountains were totally clear on the way up and we agreed that it could not have been a more perfect day for this journey. We saw a few of my favorite Swiss cows along the way, wearing their characteristic bells (remember this detail for tomorrow, too). We had a short wait at Kleine Scheidegg so we went into a gift shop and bought some magnets (I recently started collecting magnets from all of the countries we’ve visited since we’ve been in Germany, so I had to catch up and buy two from Switzerland, one for each trip we’ve made here). For some inexplicable reason, a small herd of goats had camped out right in the middle of the train station and were eliciting lots of attention from the Japanese tourists.

We boarded our train around 1:00 and started the long, slow ascent up to the Jungfraujoch. After the first stop, we entered the 7.3-kilometer long tunnel that traverses the massive wall of the Eiger. The train stopped twice on the way up, each time for about five minutes, so we could walk out to the viewing platforms and look straight down the wall of ice, all the way to the green valley of Grindelwald far below (view from one of the windows, left). En route, a video played on board the train explaining the history of the tunnel and the construction of the station at the top. The tunnel was the brainchild of a man named Adolf Guyer-Zeller, who originally planned for the train to climb all the way to the topmost lookout platform, now known as the Sphinx. The project began in 1896 and took 16 years to complete; unfortunately the tunnel’s construction was plagued by budget shortfalls, inclement weather, and numerous accidents. In the end the tunnel stopped at the base of the Jungfraujoch saddle, but it still represents a monumental achievement in engineering.

The Jungfraujoch station is an enormous multi-level complex, most of which is built inside the rock itself (see photo, left). (Here is a good picture of the complex: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Siteoverview.jpg) We stepped off the train into what felt like a cross between a subway station and an amusement park, with an array of colored arrows pointing the way to the various attractions. We first walked through the Ice Palace, which is a network of ice tunnels and caves filled with imaginative sculptures. This is worth a look, especially if you’ve never been in an ice cave before. The whole place has an eerie green glow and it’s fun to slide around on the smooth-as-glass floor. Next we went to one of the two outdoor viewing areas, where you can walk around in the snow, take in views of the jagged peaks of the Jungfrau and Mönch rearing dramatically into the sky, and have your picture taken in front of the proudly waving Swiss flag (the mother from the family we were sitting next to on the train took our picture for us). Then we took the high-speed elevator up to the Sphinx (it climbs over 100 feet in a matter of seconds), where you can walk around outside on a circular viewing platform. From here we got incredible panoramic views of the mountains and the awesome Aletsch Glacier, which, at 120 square kilometers, is the largest glacier in the Alps. We watched a glider soaring in lazy circles just off the side of the Mönch and we could see a string of mountain climbers starting their hike up the Jungfrau.

We opted not to eat lunch at the station (the “nice” restaurant was far too expensive and the “casual” restaurant was a glorified cafeteria), and instead decided to make the short hike across the glacier to the Mönchsjochütte, a typical Swiss hiker’s lodge. The 45-minute trek across a gently rising slope covered in fresh snow was a lot harder than it looked – at 11,300 feet, we were gasping for air! It was definitely worth the effort, as the crowds dispersed as soon as we got a few hundred feet away from the station. (You can rent sleds and even ski equipment up here, but the ski slope is pretty pathetic.) Signs warned us to stay on the groomed trail, because if you head off into untouched snow you just might fall into a hidden crevasse in the ice. Walking across the blinding white snow under impossibly blue skies, with views of craggy peaks and the vast glacier spreading out before us, was simply mind-boggling (view looking back towards the Jungfraujoch, below). Finally the hütte came into view – a rugged-looking structure on stilts, clinging to the “hip” of the Mönch. Below us we could see a climbers’ camp consisting of a snug circle of dome tents clustered in a not-so-sheltered hollow and agreed that we would leave snow camping to the die-hard mountain climbers.

We were starving when we finally arrived at the hütte, so we decided to share a plate of bratwurst and potato salad along with a couple bottles of Apfelschörle (that’s German for sparkling apple juice). We sat at a window looking out beyond the Mönch to a wide expanse of rock and ice. While we were sitting there, John just happened to see a sign on the wall with the train schedule and he realized that the next train was leaving at 4:45, and then there wasn’t another departure until the last train of the day at 6:05. It was already 4:15, which gave us exactly 30 minutes to get back down to the train station. We literally ran, slipping and sliding through the snow, all the way back, and arrived at the station at 4:40. Clouds were starting to move in over the Jungfrau and the Sphinx was nearly hidden from view as we approached the station. The 4:45 train was already full and there was a line of about two hundred people already waiting for the next one. Fortunately the next train came at 5:05 and we got on it, taking the last jump-seats in our compartment. The train was absolutely packed – people were standing all around us and sitting in the aisles. Riding through a long tunnel in an overcrowded train is not so much fun, but we struck up a conversation with a nice guy named Ron from Ohio who was there with his Swiss wife, who works for Nestlé (sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?). At Kleine Scheidegg we only had a couple of minutes to change trains for our ride down to Lauterbrunnen, so we didn’t end up spending any time there today. We were glad we had explored the area well last fall. The Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau were totally obscured by clouds as we headed down and we thanked our lucky stars that the good weather had held long enough for our visit. Some people find the trip to the Jungfraujoch overpriced and too touristy, but we really enjoyed it, especially the view from the Sphinx and the hike to the Mönchsjochhütte.

We arrived back in Lauterbrunnen (photo from the descent, left) at 7:30 and then made the 45-minute drive back to Kandersteg without incident. We had dinner at the Hotel Victoria across the street, where we were served by a very nice waitress from Berlin who spoke perfect English but obliged us by speaking German. We had a very good meal – I started with a house salad, then a delicious Schweinesteak on a bed of steamed spinach with a fabulous gravy, topped with shavings of a hard, salty local cheese (I wish I could remember the name – it was delicious!). John had salmon prepared three ways with a horseradish relish followed by a meat dish that we can’t remember – things are starting to blur together and I didn’t take good notes. We headed off to bed thinking gloomy thoughts about tomorrow, which was supposed to be our hiking day, because the forecast was calling for rain!

More photos from the Jungfraujoch:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/hausfrau/sets/72157603282245227/

Sunday, November 4, 2007

5 August: Switzerland's Finest

Morning dawned to reveal bright blue skies and a gorgeous view of Lake Como out our window – it doesn’t get much better than this! We wanted to take a stroll around town before checking out, so we were among the first guests down to breakfast in the Metropole’s lakefront dining room. We made our selections from the simple buffet and served ourselves from the coffee machine (not bad coffee, actually), then set out to explore. It was Sunday so the streets were very quiet. Bellagio is full of pretty cobblestoned streets that stair-step down the steep hill to the lake (photo, right). I couldn’t get enough of the warm-toned villas with their wrought-iron balconies overflowing with flowers and vines. We wandered into the piazza in front of the church just as everyone was arriving for services. We walked back along the waterfront, then went down the lovely floral promenade and enjoyed the view back to Bellagio (photo, right) and across the lake to Varenna.

After making a big loop around town, we returned to the hotel to check out. John waited with the luggage while I retrieved our car. We caught the 10:15 ferry to Cadenábbia, on the western shore of Lake Como. (I have to remark that the ferry system on Lake Como seemed highly efficient and using it was a breeze. It would be quite easy to spend a few days zipping around the lake without need for a car.) We were parked at the very front of the ferry and people were definitely eyeing our car (which I admit did look oh-so appropriate on the streets of Bellagio). We felt quite self-conscious – in a guilty-pleasure sort of way – as we got into the car and put the top down. I took the wheel to drive us out of Cadenábbia, past more gorgeous tile-roofed villas clinging miraculously to the steep slopes, with magnificent views out over the lake. We headed northwest on route 340, which winds along the north shore of Lake Lugano. It was a crystal-clear morning and the lakeside villages of Porlezza and Albogasio looked like especially nice places to spend a few relaxing days.

We soon crossed back into the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland and descended into Lugano, a large resort town nestled along the lake. It was too big for our liking, with lots of highrise apartment buildings, but we figured we could at least find a gas station here where we could buy a Swiss highway vignette – the toll sticker that you have to place on your windshield (similar to Austria’s system). Unfortunately, since it was Sunday, several of the gas stations we passed were closed. The first one we found that was open did not sell the vignettes, and we were starting to get a little desperate as we approached the autostrada. Finally, at the very last gas station before the autostrada entrance, we were able to buy the vignette, which set us back a whopping 40 Swiss francs (about $35). It’s valid for a year – too bad we would only be in Switzerland for three days!

We hooked up with the A2 and headed north, through Bellinzona. At Biasca we got off the A2 and continued north on the Strada del Lucomagno – a smooth, wide, two-lane road – which tooks us over the Passo del Lucomagno (#13, 1914 meters). On the ascent we wound up through a dramatic green valley flanked by steep wooded slopes dotted with slate-roofed cottages. At the top we passed a small reservoir held back by an enormous concrete dam, and then we traversed a long, broad, high-mountain meadow called the Val Medel. This area seems to be a very popular destination for Sunday picnickers, as they were out in full force, camped out on the sandy banks of the lovely river bisecting the valley.

At Disentis / Mustér we headed west on route 19, towards the Oberalppass (#14, 2044 meters) to Andermatt. This was an awesome stretch of road and I think John was beginning to regret his insistence on driving the Stelvio Pass, because I seemed to be getting the best roads. Unfortunately I was waylaid by some slow-moving traffic on the ascent of the Oberalp, but it wasn’t nearly as busy as Stelvio and I was able to pass a few cars on the straightaways. We stopped at the top of the Oberalp for lunch (photo, right; most of the passes are marked by a cluster of hotels and restaurants and we figured we should have the experience of eating at one of these places at least once). We had spent most of our Swiss francs already on the vignette and the restaurant didn’t take credit cards, but fortunately they accepted Euros. It was sunny and warm enough to sit outside on the terrace and enjoy the view, including the endless parade of motorcycles roaring by. John had Rösti (a classic Swiss dish of chopped potatoes pan-fried with onions, ham, and cheese) and I had Käseschnitte – I wasn’t sure what it would be but it had something to do with cheese – which turned out to be a giant open-faced grilled-cheese sandwich with ham and pickled onions. Delicious!

John took over driving after lunch and we continued down the other side of the Oberalp to Andermatt, a popular ski resort town. We continued on route 19 up the Furkapass (#15, our highest pass of the day at 2431 meters), distinguishable by the razor-edged peaks towering above the road. From the top of the Furkapass you can see the Rhônegletscher (Rhône Glacier), the source of the Rhône River. We stopped again just over the top (photo, above) to take in the view down the other side of the Furkapass and across the valley to the Grimselpass (#16, 2165 meters), which we would be tackling next (photo, right). We stopped again on the way down to get as close as we could to the lip of the glacier. Just above us, a gush of water tumbled out of the dirty blue ice and cascaded down a wall of rocks into the valley below. Just imagine – this thin trickle of a stream meandering down a narrow valley in Switzerland eventually becomes the mighty Rhône that we saw in France last fall.

The road down the other side of the Furkapass was a masterpiece of asphalt – a long descent of switchbacks and straightaways to the valley floor, across the river, and then we began the equally impressive ascent of the Grimselpass (The photo above shows the descent from the Furkapass and the ascent of the Grimselpass across the valley; the photo below is looking back at the Rhône Glacier and the road descending from the Furkapass). Now that we have driven sixteen of the highest mountain passes in Europe, we are quite in awe of the labor and engineering required to construct these routes – many of which have been in existence for more than a hundred years. Just over the top of the Grimselpass the road curved around a series of small reservoirs colored a milky green from the glacial silt (photo, below). We dropped steeply into a canyon carved by the Aare River – a Yosemite-esque landscape of great curving slabs of granite and thick conifer forests. We continued northwest through Meiringen and then hooked up with the two-lane highway that parallels the Brienzer See to Interlaken – and finally entered familiar territory, as we had been here last fall with my parents.

We ran into a huge traffic jam along the Thuner See just west of Interlaken – apparently everyone else was returning from their Sunday outings at the same time that we were trying to make our way to Kandersteg. We had the top down so we were baking in the sun as we crept along the lake for nearly an hour (a distance we should have been able to cover in about ten minutes). Finally we reached the turnoff for Kandersteg and made the now-familiar trek up the dead-end valley to the Hotel Adler, our home for the next three nights. We arrived around 7 pm and checked into our large room on the second floor. We had a couch and a lounge chair this time, and a great big private balcony looking out the back of the hotel toward the mountains. Our bathroom was a bit odd – it looked like they had covered it over with sheets of white fiberglass, which were bolted to the walls, almost like they had taken a stopgap measure to cover up some sort of terrible problem – but at least it was clean. We had dinner at the Adler’s restaurant – I had the classic Rösti and John had pasta with chicken and lemon chive sauce. After traversing four of Switzerland’s finest mountain passes, we were thoroughly exhausted but exhilarated by the day’s thrilling drive!

More photos from Bellagio to Kandersteg:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/hausfrau/sets/72157603093021239/

Friday, November 2, 2007

4 August: One Day, Two Countries & Four Great Mountain Passes

We had another tasty breakfast at the Hotel Uhrerhof and I had a nice chat with Frau Zemmer in German before we left. It was difficult to say goodbye to this idyllic spot after such a brief stay. Of all of our European travels over the past two years, this hotel, and the Dolomites in general, are very close to the top of the list of destinations I would like to return to for a longer visit.

From Ortisei we struck out on route 242 west to the autostrada, hooking up with the A22 near Bolzano. We messed up (okay, perhaps I briefly neglected my navigation duties because I was slightly distracted by the amazing castle perched on a hill above the highway) and went too far south on the A22. We ended up going about 20 kilometers out of our way and wound up in a traffic jam and had to pay a toll before we could get off and turn around. Finally we got on track again and headed north back to Merano, the way we had come on Thursday. We took route 38 west through Naturno and Silandro, passing through a lovely valley lined with more espaliered apple trees bursting with fruit. At Spodigna, we continued on the 38 south towards the Stelvio Pass (#9, sign in Spodigna above), one of the most famous roads in the Alps. You can see a pretty amazing image of the pass from across the valley here: www.weltderberge.de/alpen/pics/bbe15649.jpg. At 2758 meters, the Paso dello Stelvio (Stilfserjoch in German) is the highest paved mountain pass in the Eastern Alps and the second highest paved pass in the Alps overall, second only to the Col de l’Iseran in France at 2770 meters.

Located about 75 kilometers west of Bolzano, very close to the Swiss border, one of the peaks above the Stelvio Pass is named Dreisprachenspitze, or "Three languages peak," because this is where the historically Italian, German and Romansch-speaking regions all come together. The original road was built by the Austrian Empire in the 1820s to connect the former Austrian province of Lombardia with the rest of Austria. The route has changed very little since then, comprising a grand total of 60 hairpin turns, 48 of which are on the northern side of the pass. The pass was strategically important during World War I, as it formed the border between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy. A portion of Swiss territory jutted between Austria and Italy and the three nations had to reach an agreement not to fire over the Swiss area. Today, the pass is busy not with gunfire but tourists – it is generally open from June to September and has become a favorite route for motorists and motorcyclists, as well as a mecca for hard-core bicyclists.

As we approached the pass, the rolling forested hills gave little indication of the dramatic scenery that was about to unfold above us. Just below the bottom of the pass, we stopped at the side of the road for a pit stop. This was an unfortunate decision, as apparently many other travelers have had the same idea. Perhaps the locals should invest in a rest area for Stelvio Pass pilgrims. I would be happy to pay for the privilege of a clean bathroom. We took this opportunity to put the top down on the SLK, which ended up being a wise choice, as it is much easier to see out of a car with no roof.

I suppose if we had had a little more time to plan this trip, we might have considered the possibility that driving one of the most famous roads in Europe on a Saturday afternoon in August was perhaps not the most brilliant idea. As we started up the first few switchbacks, we realized that this was going to be more about avoiding the swarms of bicyclists, weaving motorcyclists, and monstrous slow-moving RVs and tour buses than it was about enjoying the drive. Unfortunately, the fame of the Stelvio Pass has reached far beyond motoring enthusiasts and it has now become an attraction even for those who have no idea how to drive. On the bright side, our slow pace allowed us (well, me, at least) to enjoy the dramatic view of snow-capped peaks that slowly revealed themselves above us.

We were about a quarter of the way up the pass, following a dark silver Audi A6, when a large bus suddenly bore down on us around a particularly tight hairpin turn. The Audi stopped dead in its tracks to let the bus swing around the bend, but that was still not enough room for the bus, and the Audi started backing up – without bothering to notice that we were a few feet behind him! John had to honk at the guy and I am pretty sure he only missed hitting us by a few inches. Another time, a guy on a big touring motorcycle could not make it around a turn and put his foot down, stopping right in front of us. Avoiding the bicyclists was the worst – they seem to think they own the road. I found myself craning my neck to look around each switchback to let John know if the way ahead was clear, so he wouldn’t have to worry if he swung out a little bit into the opposite lane.

We took a break about halfway up, near the ruins of a burnt-out hotel. We looked further up the pass and marveled at the engineering of the road, which is cantilevered out over the mountainside in places. Towards the top we found ourselves behind a guy in a pimped-out Ford Focus RS who didn’t seem to possess a very high degree of driving skill. We followed him into the parking lot at the summit of the pass, where he joined a group of his friends in Mitsubishi Evos and Subaru Impreza WRXs. We stopped again here to soak in the view, looking directly down on a long stretch of the road snaking up the mountainside (photos, above and right).

In a nutshell, the Stelvio Pass is far too narrow to be enjoyed in anything but the smallest of sportscars, and is basically too crowded to be enjoyed at all. Even the SLK felt huge as John lugged it around those tight hairpins. I would strongly advise against driving it on a summer weekend, and if you are going to make the trek to Stelvio, be sure to tour some of the other great passes in the region, which are lesser known but make for far better driving experiences (like the Jaufenpass, Sella Pass, and some of the others I will describe later).

Here is a movie clip that gives you a bit of an idea of what it's like to drive up the Stelvio Pass:

video

We ran a gauntlet of parked motorcycles at the top of the pass, an area thronged with hordes of bicyclists and tourists, all swarming around a cluster of hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops. The crowds disappeared as we descended the other side, into a desolate expanse of jagged mountains. After a few kilometers we reached the turnoff for the Umbrailpass (#10, a.k.a. Giogo di Santa Maria), which was marked by a gate and sign (written only in Italian) that says the road is open from 6 in the morning until 10:00 at night. The Umbrail is one of the only unpaved mountain passes left in the Alps and, at 2500 meters, is the highest pass traversable by car in Switzerland. We crossed the Swiss border (marked only by a deserted customs station) just a few hundred meters down the road, then continued our descent through a barren valley on a challenging road with very few guardrails (photo, above). Apparently far fewer vehicles come down this side and we enjoyed it a lot more than the Stelvio. The road turned to gravel partway down, but it was only unpaved for a few kilometers, perhaps one-third of the total 13.4-kilometer stretch. We were followed by a Land Rover Defender most of the way down – he had no trouble keeping up with us in the gravel – but otherwise we saw more motorcycles than cars on the Umbrail.

We reached the postcard-perfect town of Santa Maria at the bottom of the Umbrail, where we turned left onto the Ofenpassstraße (only in German can one justify the use of the “triple-s”). This took us on a gorgeous route through the Val Müstair, a landscape of dry conifer forests and broad golden meadows that reminded us of western Montana. We stopped at a little restaurant at the top of the Ofenpass (#11, 2149 meters) to buy sodas and candy bars, then hiked a short ways up a rocky trail to sit on a bench, eat our snacks, and enjoy the view. I took the wheel at this point and drove down the other side of the Ofenpass. The road was perfect – long sweeping bends and minimal traffic. The route took us through a portion of the Swiss National Park (photo, right), home to Europe’s largest Hallimasch fungus (boasting an estimated diameter of 500-800 meters; don't you learn the darndest things on Wikipedia?). The road was dotted with trailheads and the area is obviously extremely popular for hiking. In July 2006, a brown bear was spotted in the park – the first wild bear sighting in Switzerland in over one hundred years. Hikers beware!

At Zernez we turned southwest and took route 27 along the River Inn to the lakeside resort of St. Moritz. We stopped for gas at a BP station that had pumps on both sides of the road. John pumped and paid for the gas while I crossed the street to the store to look for the restrooms. I couldn’t find them so I went inside and asked where the toilets were in German; the young woman at the cash register gave me a strange look and gestured vaguely outside. I circled the whole building but didn’t find a door that seemed to indicate the restroom. I went back inside and asked again. The woman asked me if I was a customer. I pointed to our car and said something that hopefully resembled “that’s our car on the other side of the street”). She pointed to the door and told me the restroom was the first door to the left outside. I went out again, and sure enough, the door was completely unmarked. Strange!

We had now entered the region of Switzerland known as the Engadin, which means “garden of the Inn” in the local Romansch language. We traversed the Oberengadin or Upper Engadin from Zernez to Maloja, an area marked by a chain of beautiful blue lakes dotted with sailboats and ringed by cheerful hotels. From here we descended the precipitous Malojapass (#12, 1815 meters), our final pass of the day, which would take us back into Italy. This was another very crowded road; we followed a string of cars and motorcycles down an impossibly steep series of switchbacks through thick conifer forest (photo, right). About 22 kilometers later and 1100 meters lower, we crossed into Italy at Castasegna. We noticed a pronounced shift in the local architecture that coincided dramatically with the elevation change: from the high mountains, where the hillsides were dotted with tidy Tirolean chalets with overhanging eaves and window boxes bursting with pink and red geraniums, to the lower valleys, where rambling stucco-walled, tile-roofed villas in warm pastel tones sprouted in haphazard clusters.

From Chiavenna, just inside the Italian border, it was only a short drive south to the shores of Lake Como, where the road suddenly became a busy four-lane highway. The lake was hidden from view most of the way along the eastern shore, as it passes through a series of long and slightly claustrophobic tunnels. Because Lake Como is a very long, narrow lake, we realized that we would have to go ridiculously far out of our way to reach Bellagio by land and it made far more sense to take the ferry from Varenna. We found the turnoff for Varenna and wound our way slowly down to the lakeshore, following the signs to the ferry. I managed to maneuver the car into what I assumed was the line for the ferry while John went off to scout out tickets. He returned triumphant with a ticket (11,60 Euro for the car and passengers) for the next departure, leaving in about twenty minutes. We walked around near the ferry dock while we waited. Varenna looked beautiful with its brightly-hued villas tumbling down the hill to the water’s edge (photo, right).

A ferry arrived a few minutes later and unloaded; we were about to drive onto it but the man taking the tickets kindly told us it was the wrong one (I think it was the ferry to Menaggio) and ours would be arriving a few minutes later. Finally we got on the right boat and boarded for the fifteen-minute ride across the lake. It was an incredible evening – only a few wisps of clouds in an otherwise brilliant blue sky, and we marveled at the views. I didn’t have a good image in my mind of Lake Como (other than ritzy villas and resorts, of which it boasts a fair few) before we arrived and I was somewhat surprised by the dramatic mountain slopes of the Parco delle Grigne rising sharply from the east side of the lake. But there was also more development than I expected – the lake is ringed by small towns and the hillsides are dotted with houses. Bellagio, however, was a pleasant surprise – much smaller than I imagined and, dare I say, a bit sleepy even on this gorgeous warm evening at the height of the tourist season. The hotels and houses of Bellagio glowed in a glorious array of gold, apricot, and pink tones as we approached the ferry dock.

Bellagio sits on a point of land that juts into the lake from the south and thus commands some of the most spectacular views in the area. We spotted our hotel, the Metropole, before we reached the dock, and I knew we were in for a treat (photo, above - the Metropole is the pink building to the right of the large white boat). The Metropole is located right on the waterfront and the balconies literally hang over the water (as opposed to some of the other lakefront hotels that have a street in front of them). We drove off the ferry and tried to find parking in a lot in town but it was totally full and, since it was dinnertime, we didn’t expect any spaces to open up soon. We drove a short ways down the road and found another lot with three cars in line waiting to get in. The guy at the gate waved me away but I stayed put and gave him the sweetest look of girlish anxiety that I could muster. A car left the lot a minute later and the man gestured that I could stay. He came up to my window and said something indecipherable in Italian, but switched to English in response to my blank expression. I told him I wanted to park overnight and he showed me to a spot. It cost 10 Euro, which we figured was fair. We unloaded our bags and hoofed it back to the hotel, which wasn’t too difficult because the SLK’s miniscule trunk (even smaller with the top down) has forced us to travel very light. We walked down a gorgeous flower-bedecked esplanade and I made John stop so I could take pictures as I knew this would be my one and only chance to capture the magical evening light (photo, right).

Our reception at the Metropole was polite if not overly friendly, and we climbed the stairs to our tiny double room on the first floor. The bed took up most of the space but the room was tidy and the gray tile bathroom was clean and serviceable. Our view was exactly as advertised – floor-to-ceiling french doors opening onto a tiny balcony with just enough room for two chairs (although ours had only one) and an absolutely stunning 180-degree view of the lake (photo, below, with a car ferry like the one we took from Varenna). Honestly, this was the bargain of our trip at 144 Euro. We arrived just in time to watch the sun disappear over the mountains to the west, casting long golden rays across the lake. Then we both showered and changed into our best “evening wear” (yes, I brought along my stylish black-and-white sundress especially for this occasion). We strolled along the waterfront looking at menus and decided that the Hotel Florence looked the most promising – it had the most interesting menu and the prettiest terrace overlooking the water, framed by a lovely trellis dripping with wisteria. We had to wait for a while for a table but the waiter we spoke to suggested that we have drinks at their bar across the street. We ordered gin & tonics and sat at a table outside, watching the lights come on across the lake.

We were seated at a table right on the water (the waiter sat us and another couple at the same time but he gave us the better table because we had been waiting longer) and enjoyed an absolutely lovely meal. John had risotto with smoked salmon and caviar followed by roast duck with mushrooms in a balsamic sauce. I started with fresh pasta strips with pesto, pine nuts, and zucchini flowers followed by carpaccio with smoked ricotta and shaved truffle. I don’t think I’ve ever had a plate of carpaccio I didn’t like, but this was a very nice twist on the classic. We asked one of our servers for a wine recommendation and he suggested a very nice Barbera red that had a whole long story associated with it (I think he knew the family or something – it may have all been made up, but he told the story with great enthusiasm!). For dessert we both had peach and white chocolate mousse with a milk-based sauce flavored with cognac and almond. We teetered back to the hotel (thank goodness it was only a few hundred yards away) and fell into bed.

More photos from today's drive:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/hausfrau/sets/72157602870675228/