2: Swiss Surprise

Yawn. Another mountain.

Swiss cheese, fondue, chocolate, watches: These are some of the things we expected of Switzerland. It turns out, there’s a bit more than that.

Start with the spring produce: Switzerland is perched just atop Italy and is only a few hours away by train to the Mediterranean, so that should have clued us into its fresh fruit and vegetable market. The produce here is crunchy and fresh.

We did not expect to see cyclists up on the  mountainside Kleine Scheidegg trail, but there they were, introducing us to another Swiss national oddity – adventurousness bordering on recklessness. They brought the Red Cross to the world, making us think they are a cautious accident-adverse people. They are not. Their idea of safety does not follow a prevention-protocol, which makes sense – it is how they got so good at responding to disasters. They make so many of their own to start with, offering them plenty of training opportunities.

I had no idea that Switzerland has a keen wine industry. South-facing sloped farmland ribbed in vineyards surrounds our town and with French vineyards a stone-throw over the border, it makes sense that the industrious Swiss would get in on the act. As to why it never occurred to us that Switzerland is a wine-producing country: Some joke that it is because the French export their wine, while the Swiss drink all theirs themselves.

There is skiing, of course, but the Swiss are also passionate mountain-climbers, hikers and bicyclists. They love sports. Confusing us even further, they are also proliferate smokers. We cannot understand this.

They are conservative in their conduct, yet they also voted to build a facility for prostitutes to operate their business in Zürich.

There’s more. I knew chocolates heralded from this mountainous land, but so too does CaranDache watercolour pencils and crayons – the funky metal-tinned colours my sister-in-law used to paint clown faces on ours boys when they were young.

Racial and immigration issues headline frequently in Swiss news as the country, like the rest of Europe, copes with the flood of Albanian Muslims that pushed north in the wake of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, as well as Tamils and other far-flung political refugees who fled to Switzerland because of its liberal amnesty program. As Canadians, we are accustomed to hearing about immigration issues, but we had no idea that step-for-step, Switzerland has the same national debate going on that we do.

They love festivals, and they are crazy about music. It’s not just yodeling that tickles their ears: I have never seen such a large concentration of accordion players anywhere. They beat out the Americans when it comes to marching bands – they have them all over the place, some in costume and organized, while others who look like they decided to take their band practice out of the garage and on to the street, just for fun. The quality of music played by buskers here is outstanding. I am sorry to say it, but most of them would put Victoria buskers to shame.

What surprises us the most, however, is that such a geographically small place has such a globally large footprint – from the Red Cross to the United Nations to its international market for banking, pharmaceuticals (Roche, Novartis), watches, Swiss Army knives and more. They are a stunningly successful people who from so little have made so much.

But back to chocolate, more chocolate businesses than Lindt call this place home. So, too, does Toblerone, Frey, Nestle, Cailler, Camille Bloch, Favarger and more – it explains why despite the occasional scandal, Switzerland’s brand continues untarnished. After all, who can stay mad with a place so packed with chocolate?

Advertisements

14: Swiss Sunshine & A Hike Through the Jura Mountains

BIEL Alstadt: The sun is out in Switzerland again after a very cool and wet spring.

The sun is out in Switzerland again, so we rode the funicular up the Jura Mountain slopes and hiked down. The Juras are mere bumps in the landscape compared to the Alps, but it is still exciting to get lost in them, which we did a few times owing to the pecularities of Swiss signage. Apparently, all roads lead to Biel, but the question on our minds was: Which one will get us there sooner and with less chances of ankle-breaks?

If you go: The funicular (rail-car that rides up the slopes) runs every 20 minutes. It has two compartments for bikes (appears able to hoist about 10-15 per ride). Priced at 5.40 CHF (Swiss Francs) per person. Half-price SwissRail cards for residents apply (2.70). Go from Biel to Magglingen to access the mountain bike trails. For more info, click here. 

The trail  is very steep for the first 50 m, and has a few hairpin turns that create ideal blind spots for careening cyclists to flatten hikers. Fortunately, the trail levels and straightens a little after that, making it safe-sharing for hikers and bikers. It took us about 90 minutes to walk from Magglingen back down to Biel. Keep your ears open for cyclists, even on the scarier parts of the trail. We were heading down a narrow concrete stepped embankment when we heard the thwack sound of bike tires bumping down the pavement behind us  – yes, a mountain biker in the most unlikely of places. How like the Swiss. They are a sturdy bunch.

Okay, most roads lead to Biel/Bienne.

For mountain biking types who want to know here the trail-head is: Exit the funicular and go  left. Adjacent to the funicular station (on your left again) is a driveway that drops down to a parking lot. Go down the driveway (about 15-20 metres, maybe less) and you will see yellow signs (again, on  your left) marking the trail before the parking lot.

If  you go past a gated road you have gone too far. Turn back to the funicular station.

Take extreme care. The first portion of the trail is very steep with a deep hairpin turn, although we did see a cyclist whip down it without injury, so maybe I overestimate the trail’s treachery. The rest of the trail does not look so frightening.

Statsurday

  • Most hits on HoboNotes from: Canada, U.S. and Switzerland.
  • Least hits: Spain, Costa Rica and Ireland
  • Readers from Japan: Three!
  • Top Post for the Last 30 Days: Paris food – can you eat lamb’s kidney without having to sell your own?
  • Top Post for the Week: Strolling with the Smokers
  • Fun search term that brought a reader to this site: My tooth is breaking into pieces, which is exactly what happened the first week we arrived here in 2011.
  • Second most fun search term: Loons that attack people This suggests that I am not the only one to fall victim to this musical but menacing (on at least two occasions) carnivorous waterfowl.

This part of the trail was not so bad, but it is still steeper than it looks. We saw a salamander and a deer while on our walk. I went to whip out my camera to photo the deer, then remembered we see deer almost everyday back at home in Canada. Later, I had regrets. It was the first Swiss deer we’ve seen.

The view looking back from our table at a Joral’s waterfront restaurant. That white dot you see near the top of the mountain is the start-spot for our hike.

19: Why Do We Care About Ducklings?

Why do we care about ducklings? There are so many of them. And yet, we still care.

“He is already dead,” the waiter said as I twisted my key in the mailbox. I had stepped out our hotel’s side door where the staff take their smoke breaks.

“Who?”

“Him.” The waiter pointed at a still mound of yellow and umber down. A duckling lay on his back on the asphalt, his torso twisted, his head flung back so his thumbnail-sized bill pointed upwards, exposing a yellow plume at his throat. A handful of ducklings scattered over the walkway, their cheeps punctuating the street sounds. The waiter explained he heard a loud bang and then saw the dead duckling roll off a van parked by the hotel. We were on the Suze River canal walkway where service vehicles sometimes park. The canal had 15-foot deep walls. The ducklings could not have come from the Suze. With the recent rainstorms, the canal water rushed too fiercely for any duck to get lift from it, much less featherless ducklings.

The waiter reached a latex-gloved hand over the van and drew back with a live duckling. We looked up. Would a duck have nested at the top of a five-story building? It didn’t seem possible.

But then, why not? They have wings. About 20 feet away a stout woman pointed us toward the mother duck calling for her young.

Another waiter appeared, the father of a newborn boy. He looked down at the dead duckling and echoed the first waiter.

“He is already dead. It is nature,” he said with a shrug, but then he and the other waiter in their starched white and black uniforms circled the van to shepherd the ducklings toward their mother.

When all her babies were gathered around her, the mother duck stood quacking for a moment more, as though she knew one was still missing. Do mother ducks know how to count out their babies?

She turned and hopped the low stone pedestal that rims the canal; her babies clambered at the ledge to join her, but for them it was too great a height. She slipped through the wrought-iron railing and readied to leap the 15 feet down into the churning green water, but then realized her babies were not at her belly. She threaded back between the bars, but she did not come down from the ledge to join her young.

Instead, she waddled east toward the lake, while her babies followed, fretting against the stone, keening pitiably to join her. The lake was still a mile and many busy crossroads away. Her path would take her fledglings through the thick of the city.

A small audience formed in the apartment balconies above the canal.

Under their watch, I followed the family and I wondered, why do we care so much about ducklings? The restaurant where the waiters work serves duck.

The mother duck was nearing the street when she seemed to reach a point of decision. Here, the stone pedestal sloped downward, so a few of her ducklings were able to make the leap and cluster around her belly. She slipped under the fence onto the edge and dropped down into the hurrying water.

Some of her babies trusting their mother, tumbled over the wall with her.

The remaining ducklings threw themselves against the stone and quickened their cries. The current forced the mother duck and her babies downriver, but they fought their way back up to where the crying babies scrambled at the ledge.

The balcony audience shouted and made sweeping motions with their hands, indicating I should send the babies over the edge. As I bent down, one duckling cleared the stone and with little featherless wings outspread, fell down into the water.

I gently cupped the last duckling in my hands, lifted him onto the pedestal, but he would not jump. I nudged him closer to the edge, but he only bleated louder and struggled back into my hands. I pushed him over then, feeling sick as I did it. Below, the ducklings swirled around their mother. They were all together.

I turned around and said, “C’est bien, tout c’est bien.” Everyone raised their hands and shouted in joy. For them it was over, but when I turned back I saw one duckling carried away by the current, her mother hurrying to catch her, but forced to circle back to gather her brood who could not keep up. The separated one bleated, her little dark wings outspread, facing her mother, as the water pulled her backwards tail-first and farther away.

It seemed for a moment as though the mother and her brood would close the gap, but then two merganzers appeared and pecked at her babies, teasing them away from her in the swirling water. She could by herself catch the duckling being carried away, but she would have to abandon the rest to the hungry merganzers. She gave up the one and circled back to fight the merganzers, with her babies frantically working against the current to stay inside her protective reach.

The merganzers gave up, the mother was too fierce, but by that time the little duckling had been carried out of sight, although we could still hear her bleating, but soon, even that was drowned out by the city noise.

 

My beloved niece and random travels

Now this is a proper Swiss "river," running straight and orderly as all Swiss waterways should. Note: An untamed creek/river ran alongside it. The Swiss are not to be outdone, they will have every kind of waterway.

TAUBENLOCH, BIEL/BIENNE, SWITZERLAND  I received a note from one of my darling nieces this week (I have 11, no wait, that’s 12 nieces, plus one genius-Goddaughter), asking for my advice on where to travel as she’s planning to trot across Europe next spring.

The thing is, there are so many places to go that she could play pin-the-tail on the European map and land just about anywhere interesting, except for Olten, which we have already established is not worth visiting.

The Taubenloch gorge trail criss-crosses the Suze River as it falls from the Jura Mountains down into Lac Biel/Bienne.

But, Olten aside, we have done some random drop-in touring and been pleasantly surprised, as we saw on our trip to Thun, the not-so-well-known Swiss settlement north of the Bernese Mountains. Although it receives as little attention as Olten when it comes to tour guides and online searches, it turned out to be a fabulous place. Click here and here to see past posts and pics on Thun.

Europe is full of such lovely finds and not just in medieval villages, cathedrals, castles and pastries. We discovered a treasure in a canyon trail just north of our town of Biel/Bienne.

It swoops down into a steep limestone carved gorge that bellies out in a fast-moving river, or maybe creek. It’s not clear to me what qualifies as a river, as I’ve seen “rivers” in Spain that had all the panache of the ditch that ran in front of our small-town-BC home back in the 1990s. Yet the Spaniards called this worm of a waterway a “river.” Fascinating people, the Spanish.

You can understand that when someone describes something as “fantastic” to me, I reserve judgment until laying my own eyes on the thing. This is what happens to people who have lived in Spain. They are forever sceptical about everything.

Check out the metal railing, bowed by falling rock. The Swiss know how to add excitement to a cliff-side trail.

But the Taubenloch trail is nothing to be sceptical about – it turns out that it is a charming, although sometimes alarming stroll. The alarming part is the ample evidence of landslides as can be seen by security tape and warning signs around badly deformed metal railings where the falling boulders have messed with the trail. As late as 2009, the trail was cut off due to a number of landslides. This makes walking it a very exciting venture, indeed.

A southerly portion of the trail scoops out of the limestone walls of the gorge, such that walkers are directly underneath massive overhangs of rock, overhangs that have visible stress fractures in them. It quickens the pulse as well as the pace.

There are gorges and waterfalls more grand to be found south of us in the Swiss Alps, but I am a scaredy-cat, so this was just the right start for me. I’ll try the big stuff later.

To get to the Taubenloch trail,take the train to Frinvillier (less than 10 minutes from Biel/Bienne or 30-40 minutes from Bern, or with train switches, about 90 minutes from Zürich). When you get off the train turn right, heading down to the underpass where you will make another right, going under the underpass that now is an overpass to you, until you come to directional signs in a small Swiss village. Take the sign pointing left (downhill) called Gorges du Taubenloch. It will look like you’re heading off to nowhere, but eventually the road leads to a skinny trail alongside a raised walled canal. This is the northern end. The trail meanders at a

The prospect of this stone ceiling caving in on us did not bother Dave's coworker, Mike.

gentle downhill in a southerly direction, crossing the Suze River several times via walking bridges. At a slow pace, you can cover the trail in 45 to 60 minutes. It is reported to be only two-kilometres long, although with all the winding and such, my pedometer showed it to be much longer.

Cost: We didn’t pay a cent, although as we exited the trail on its south end, we went through a gate, along with some signs in German or French, so it is possible there’s a donation box. The trail is said to be maintained by a non-profit society.

Taubenloch is full of tunnels and caves, some natural, some carved. Locals tell us caves were/are used as potential sniping points in case of invasion, and are also used to stockpile weapons all over Switzerland, which does not have an army per se as the entire male population is required to take military training and serve 3 weeks a year until age 34, although some are required to go til 50 - I would imagine they are 'special-ops.'

One other thing: The southern end of the trail comes out right into a Biel/Bienne suburb, and you can walk all the way back to the train station or look for a bus. I can’t give any advice on the bus, because we walked back home, which took less than an hour, although we did have a leisurely browse through an outlet store along the way. No nature hike is complete without at least one stop in a shop.

Xenophobe’s note: I mock the Spanish for their idea of what constitutes a river, but in all fairness, the Swiss would probably mock me or my fellow Canucks for finding Taubenloch to be awe-inspiring. This is because the Swiss own Switzerland, a pretty fabulous place in every way. 

Autumn is a lovely time to walk Taubenloch.