10: Our Last Double-Digit Day

You don’t expect Switzerland to have a summer-resort aspect to it, but it does. We could bring a box of sand back as a souvenir instead of skis, but then no one would really believe it was from Switzerland, the land of snowy alps.

After today, we fall into the single-digit portion of our Countdown to Canada, leading me to go into a little bit of a souvenir panic. Our conundrum is this: We want to bring something back that is distinctly Swiss, however, this desire competes with our goal to pack as lightly as possible. We have found a pair of old wooden cross-country skis at a nearby second-hand shop. They were made in Nidau – a town just beyond the train tracks. The skis have been a subject of discussion since we saw them (I’ve written about them already – click here to see it), and we visit them often. At one point, they disappeared from the shop and Dave breathed a sigh of relief that the question had been resolved for us, but then we found them stuffed away in a corner.

There are multiple problems with shipping the skis, beginning with the requirement that if they go on the flight with us, they must be packed in a molded-shell ski case. Of course, molded ski cases are modern devices made for modern skis. These skis are ancient and very long. They are also very heavy, so mailing them could cost upwards of 500 Swiss Francs (CHF)*. Our frugal natures flinch at such an extravagance. And this potential 500 CHF tab is before Switzerland’s export office opens the package and sees we are trying to make off with some of Switzerland’s precious lumber, albeit very old lumber.

So we seesaw endlessly over the question. In the meantime, I’m going to visit the skis again and see if the shopkeeper speaks enough English to field a question about overseas shipping.

Note: I know 500 CHF sounds like an over-estimate, but when I looked into shipping back a double-shoebox-sized package of books, the estimate came in around 450 CHF. I cannot even breathe when I contemplate the cost for a pair of skis. 

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81: Cobble Gobble: Is China invading Europe one cobblestone at a time?

This cobblestone in Geneva may have been relaid (sett) in modern times, but it is a good example of the use of water-polished eclectic riverstone.

Our little town of Biel has a medieval district laced in cobblestone lanes that slope into the foot of the Jura Mountains.

This gap-toothed cobblestoned street in Bratislava is pretty old and dilapidated, but you can see by the squared edges that these are still quarried stones and are therefore relatively modern.

Not all is as it seems. The cobblestones are not genuine from the Middle Ages as is the village. They are in fact the same black-basalt-coloured cobblestone granite pavers you can have laid in your driveway.

We’ve seen these types of pavers throughout Switzerland, France, Italy, Slovakia, Germany and Austria. They are a menace, in that in some places they are creeping in over ancient cobblestone streets because they provide a smoother surface. Nonetheless, they are still preferred over asphalt, which is what you will find in the charming cultural centre of Basel’s old-town. Shame.

Authentic cobblestone streets can still be found: Bratislava has the most beautiful uneven cobblestone surfaces, which unfortunately I cannot find in my photo-files, dang!  The only photo I can find is of a 1800s “sett” street. Setts hail from the era when squared and quarried stone became more available and towns started replacing local riverbed stone with the flatter setts.

Even impoverished Bratislava is upgrading, so the old rounded riverbed stones that are of varying sizes and colours are on the way out. They are understandably not the easiest to traverse, rendered as they are into miniature hillocks by the pressures of time, the substrata and, of course, the weight of traffic.

Cobblestone in Biel/Bienne's historic quarter. The lack of uniformity in each stone's size suggests these are not from China.

It is perhaps a testament to Europe that its historic districts are far from static museum pieces. They are well-traversed, so its roadways are best if upgraded so that people don’t trip on every other step.

Solothurn, Switzerland is also home to genuine cobblestone, as are any number of tiny Swiss villages. The cobblestones date back to the 15th Century, and were usually taken from local riverbeds, hence each area’s stone roads are a stamp of the region’s individuality. I love the more recently added black paving stones, but they are the same anywhere you go in Europe or North America. I would have imagined they all come from Northern Ontario where black granite is in abundance, but more likely these streets are from China. Check out this supplier.

According to Wikipedia – a not necessarily reliable source of information by the way – some cobblestone roads have heritage-designation and are protected, but I could not get a single government office to verify that.

European cobblestone is not necessarily in danger. It can be purchased where else but the U.S. Here is one California, supplier who will happily ship it to you anywhere you like – maybe even back to Europe.

The grey 'path' along this Solothurn, Switzerland street is relatively new. If you look at the raw umber-toned stones in the courtyard and roadway, you will see they are of an older vintage The absence of uniformity in the street stone's sizes, colours and their rounded edges suggest they are much older and possibly drawn from nearby riverbeds (River Aar).

Here's a closer look. Given the flatness of this cobblestone surface, it appears that it could be a relaid "sett" from the 1800s, but it also could be the original locally drawn riverstones.