Friday, 24 February 2017

Swiss holiday - Part 2 - Maienfeld and Mountains

Swiss dream house.
Helvitica on the 2 Franc coin.
Continuing on my Swiss holiday, but I need to mention a few thoughts on this lovely little country. First thing is, if you haven't noticed already is that I have changed the font to 'Helvetica,' in honour of my time here. If you thought that was just a font, you're sadly wrong! Helvetica is the female national personification of Switzerland, officially The Swiss Confederation - she is The Goddess Helvetia or Helvetica, and appears on the national currency. She is shown on the coins wearing flowing robes, holding a large spear and shield emblazoned with the Swiss cross, and her hair in a wreath. The name comes from the Gaulish tribe that lived in the area before the Roman conquest. I also have to add that no Swiss person I asked could tell me who she was... Enough of the history lesson - here are a few things that took me just days to realise about this country:

The mountains of Switzerland.
  1. Church bells are always ringing. Somewhere. If it's not a church, it's a cowbell.
  2. The inside of churches are deadly silent - Church is not a place for kids or talking. Ssh!
  3. The only noise you'll hear in a church is the organist playing. There is often one playing, but by a real person who is sitting up there playing for anybody and nobody.
  4. Everyone puts their names on their letterboxes and doorbells. Normally the only name you get on your doorbell in Australia is 'Friedland' (a brand of doorbell).
  5. Mountains are everywhere - you can play the game of closing your eyes, opening them at anytime and if you don't see a mountain, you win. Good luck!
  6. People work a lot here - maybe because it's so expensive. You walk around a town or city during the day and it's mainly people going to and from work - Spain on the other hand, people never seem to be working, just sitting around eating and drinking all day.
  7. The beds are the warmest and most comfortable in the World, including backpackers beds. The showers are also set to the perfect temperature and run at this temp within 2 seconds and stay that way. Pure bliss!
  8. There is always a clock nearby - you always know the time in Switzerland. They do love their timepieces here!
Mountains Gandalf, mountains!
I'm ready!
Ah! Watch your step!
It had only been 2 days so far in this small but amazingly beautiful country, and I was in love. I have always had a thing for small European countries (Andorra, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg) and this one was growing on me too. 2 days and I hadn't climbed a mountain yet either - I felt so bad about that, so much so that on day 3 we headed for the mountains to rectify it immediately! This country is full of mountains, look out the window and they are everywhere, so picking on to climb wasn't hard. We decided on the Pizol mountains, not far from where we were staying. We parked the car and walked up to the start of the lift that would take us to the top where we would hike around. Everyone I met in Switzerland was extremely open and friendly - people even mistook me for Swiss sometimes and spoke German to me - and the woman at the ticket office was no different. She felt terrible that she had to charge me so much to get to the top and tried her best to give me the best price, which still turned out to be steep - 42f (nearly $60). 3 lifts later and we were at the top, 2200m - the first lift was a comfortable one, enclosed with cushioned seats, but the next two were the normal chairlift variety, made for when you've got your skis on and are going from slope to slope - great for a view of the mountains and general area, but cold. Although not really enough snow to ski properly, there was a probably a little too much to hike properly! Sometimes we struggled a little, falling hip-deep in the snow, but we continued on to the top and were rewarded with a view of a frozen lake, so decided to enjoy the scenery and stop for a quick snack.

Chairlift to the top of Pizol.
Where do you want to go?
Our lunch time view.
With lunch over, we walked around for a bit, trying to get that 360 degree view of mountains. When it got too windy and cold, we started the descent, heading for the bar to chill in the sun before getting the lift back down. Apart from the high prices that haunts all ski slope bars and restaurants, the smell of the food and just the thought of a beer or mulled wine is nearly irresistible - there is nothing like sitting in the sun, all wrapped up against the cold but feeling warm after a hike or ski, enjoying a good meal, completely surrounded by a wonderful mountain view and also in good company. This is Switzerland. Something else about Switzerland is the friendliness of the people - on the chair lift down, there was a young family with 2 kids, one girl about 6 years old and a little 3 year old boy. The girl was sulking a little, complaining that she was cold (Alicia translated), so being a teacher, I decided to talk to the child - I told her I was cold too. She gave me a look of confusion and shock, then asked her parents what funny language I was speaking! I started talking to the father, whose English was very good, and the little girl (now smiling and happy) started talking to Alicia and both kids in the end were showing off how much English they knew and didn't want us to leave - in fact the little girl invited us back to her house, as she lived in town! Most kids would stay angry and not want to speak in a foreign language to complete strangers, but these kids were amazing! That made me smile and kept me smiling for the rest of the day.

Going down?
Looking up in awe.
St Christopher on the church in Zillis.
Before heading home for the day, there was a very special place to see. I'd never heard of this place before, but when it was described to me I knew I had to see it for myself. The sleepy village of Zillis, with a population of just over 400 (I saw nobody though), isn't anything special on it's own - yes, it's a pretty Swiss town with churches, but it has one very special church. Saint Martin's Church (or San. Martegn) is a Romanesque stone church, which from the outside looks like the rest, but as you get closer you see a huge, 10m high painted Saint Christopher. This is covered by a small roof to preserve the artwork, which if like what was inside, dates from the 12th Century. Inside is the true wonder - the whole ceiling is covered with wood panels; 153 square wooden panels of around 90 cm each placed in 17 rows of 9 panels to be exact! Each have a hand-painted scene on them, from mythical stories and beasts to biblical events as well as the life of Saint Martin of Tours, the patron saint of the church and village. The panels around the outside are all strange, mythical creatures, symbolising evil while the four in the the corners are angels who represent the 4 wind directions, warning the church goers of the Apocalypse and Last Judgement. 

The 153 wooden panels on the ceiling of St Martin's Church in Zillis.
View from Heidihaus.
Maienfeld and Heidi's mountains.
Some else of note, which I only discovered afterwards, is that there a visual divide between the domain of evil and good with these paintings - a large Christian cross is formed by these patterns with the devil trying to tempt Christ with all the riches in the world at the crossing. The museum and the church were technically close, as we arrived at around 5pm, but being Switzerland, nothing was locked, so we went in for free. Even though nobody else was in the church, we were completely silent and in awe of what we were seeing. Incredibly preserved and nearly 900 years old, the panels have been restored but not painted over. It's hard to be staring up, bending your neck that far to see the ceiling, so mirrors are kindly provided. After a little while of just enjoying the art (via a mirror), we got back in the car and headed home - being winter and also surrounded by mountains, the sun here sets very early and it's completely dark by 6:30pm. So, early dinner, some wine and a movie and it was bedtime - ready for the next day! Today we were back in the car for a short drive to visit a place called Maienfeld in the Swiss canton of Graubünden.

A wonderful spot for just sitting and looking at the mountains.
The real Heidi!
Church in Maienfeld.
The town of Maienfeld, again, is nothing special itself - churches, stone houses, mountain backdrop, your run of the mill Swiss town, beautiful but not unique. The thing that makes this place special is the fact that it's famous for being the home of Heidi. The little girl of the Apls, Heidi is a novel written by Swiss author Johanna Spyri, and tells the story of a young orphan who was taken from the town and given into the care of her grandfather who lived up in the mountains. The story is so Swiss and everyone knows of it, but it was made famous by the Japanese-drawn cartoon from the 80s, and although the little girl had black hair in the original story, her hair was changed to blond for the TV - make her look more "Swiss" I guess. Again, the museum and general area was closed, being the wrong season, but we went anyway - following the signs that pointed the way to HeidiHaus, written in German, English, Italian and Japanese. Strange that you would get a sign in the middle of Europe in Japanese, instead of maybe French or Spanish, but Heidi is very famous in that part of the World and tourist come here just to see the village from the series.Because it was closed, there wasn't much to see apart from a few buildings, but the area was lovely - I wouldn't mind moving here myself!
Beautiful Switzerland - Hopp Schwiiz!

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Swiss Holiday - Part 1 - Chur and Arosa

My first view of Switzerland from the plane.
Time to visit Switzerland!
Switzerland is a country that I have never really explored properly. I know it's very close to Spain and Barcelona, only 2 hours by plane and also quite driveable on a road trip, and it's basically right in the middle of Europe too. I had in fact been to this little mountainous country twice before - once by accident. The first time I visited Switzerland was very short, as I was driving through France and missed a turn-off and ended up in Geneva. I had been visiting the lovely city of Annecy (still one of my most favourite places in France), and got back on the highway North and slipped across the border - I considered staying a bit but had other plans and so did a U-turn and got back into France. Sorry Switzerland! The second time was on purpose - it was a visit to the lakeside town of Lugano, just over the border from Italy. It was a day-trip, and although the town was very pretty, lake, swans and chocolate stores, it seemed more Italian than Swiss - it is a getaway town for the Milanese who want some nature rather than the industrial block that is the area around Milan. Both of those visits were nearly 10 years ago, so it was long overdue for another, and now had a local who promised me that I'd do it right this time around!

Chur - the place of the oldest settlement in Switzerland.
Churches everywhere.
A Swiss village in the moutains.
I landed early in the morning at Basel airport, excited but a still a little sleepy. Sometimes you don't realise in Europe how close you are to another country, but as I walked out of the airport there were two exits from the baggage claim - one for Switzerland and the other for France. Silly I know, but maybe it's an Australian thing, coming from a country/continent where your nearest neighbour is hours away on a plane. I was greeted and picked up by my good friend Alicia, whom I'd met hiking in Chile. I'd been nearly a year since then, and we'd stayed in touch (along with the two others from the group) and finally we were meeting up again! We drove from Basel to the city of Chur, close to where she lives, basically driving across the country in less than 2 hours! A car is a great way to see a country too, and this car trip was my first real look at Switzerland - mountains and more mountains, it was so beautiful! I did notice that the country is also quite industrial - along the highway there were numerous factories and power stations, not a complete eyesore on the landscape, but still a little unexpected. I guess there isn't much flat land here for building these kinds of things, and the Swiss do it as clean as possible, so before long you've forgotten all about the chimneys and go back to staring at the mountains soaring way above.

The church in Castiel and the beautiful hills of Luen.
Beautiful Chur.
The mountains behind Chur.
My friend's village is a short drive outside of Chur and is a very cute little place. Wooden houses with the winter fuel stockpiled up outside, a small church and even a square and one pub. Although not exciting, I never saw any of the 80 odd residents walking or even driving around, it was beautiful, peaceful and had some incredible views across the valley to the mountains reaching for the sky on the other side. Waking up in the morning I would be greeted by blue sky, snow topped mountains and a typical Swiss mountain village, all from the bedroom window! I could live here, I thought. I visited Chur the following day, and although it was cold, the sun was out and the sky was clear - problem is with these big mountains a lot of the town is out of the sun. Chur sits on the Rhine River within the Rhine Valley, as the river heads north along the border with Leichtenstein and Austria, eventually flowing into Lake Constance. It is also reputed to be the oldest settlement in Switzerland, with a settlement here dating back to 3900 BC and remains from the Bronze and Iron Ages have been found. The Romans conquered the area from the Helvetii people in 15 AD, and after The Empire fell, this region has been invaded many times, by the Ostrogoths, The Franks and even the Magyars (Hungarians), before becoming part of the Holy Roman Empire and eventually Switzerland in 1648 when independence came. It is a city full of history and beautifully typical Swiss architecture.

Shields on the main gatehouse of the Bishop's Palace, Chur.
The church in Luen.
The streets of Chur.
Although there isn't much to see as far as tourist attractions, there is actually plenty to see just by walking around and keeping your eyes open. The Episcopal Palace of the bishop of Chur was what I headed towards first, admiring the streets along the way of course. The Palace is more of a fortified city looking over the rest of the city, complete with high walls, a gatehouse and the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption, a 13th Century church. The crypt is much older than the main building, built around 770, and is said to contain the relics of St Lucius of Britain from the 2nd Century AD. A quiet Winter's day, nobody was around really, so we had the whole place to ourselves - it was beautiful, the buildings inside the walls were even more 'Swiss' than in the rest of the city, and the cathedral was quiet and lovely, but surprisingly small.

Beautiful painting inside the church in Luen.
Swiss fountains are amazing.
Every fountain is different.
Swiss cities are organised, clean and beautiful. Cars aren't double parked, people drive respectfully, and nobody seems to be doing anything even a tiny bit against the rules - nearly completely the opposite of many other European countries! I like order, being safe and feeling protected, but could I live in a place where you can't misstep without being noticed or even pulled up about it? It reminded me a little of Singapore - a colourful and interesting city, spotlessly clean and a place where nobody breaks the rules - you get looked at like a monster if you cross on the red! The other thing I noticed about Swiss cities, that really rang true when I visited Bern, was the fountains. Every fountain here is different, from the decorated taps and base of the fountain, to a statue standing proud over the whole thing. One I liked in Chur was a ram statue with huge horns. I'm not 100% sure, but I think that this ram is the symbol of the city or possibly the municipality of Arosa (which encompasses Chur). I also saw another of an armoured man, standing proud outside the church of St Martin, with his shield rested against his leg, a ram on it's emblem. Some small things like this are hard to find out exactly what it means - even locals may not know and it's too small or obscure to find on the internet. I like it - I will just make up my own stories! Chur was a lovely place, my first taste of city life in this country, and I think I was going the right way - from here it would be more traditions places, larger and even more beautiful cities, but I started at the oldest first!

Imagine waking up to this every morning? I did for nearly a week!

Birthday Weekend

The always impressive Pedraforca. Just beautiful! Hiking with a touch of snow. Winter was setting in by November, and although ...