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:

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