Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Swiss Holiday - Part 4 - Zurich and Bern

From the mountains to the city.

The city of Zürich.
A fountain with the flag of the city.
Moving from Chur and the East of the country, we drove Westwards towards the big cities of Zurich and Bern. My time in the mountains was up - I was a little sad, but I was also looking forward to this change, a real chance to see city life in Switzerland. Waking up in the morning, looking out at that mountain view from the window, I knew I was going to miss it. The weather today had turned - no longer the blue skies of the past week. It was colder, white and cloudy. Heating turned up in the car, we set out for Zürich - the view was cold and cloudy, like a single white sheet draped over the skyline. As we got closer and closer to the city, I saw more drivers from Zürich on the road - the people from Chur and Arosa don't like drivers from Zürich and say they are the slowest, most stupid drivers in the country. State rivalry at it's best - but by the end of my stay here I started to see that they were indeed a little slower than the mountain folk - maybe it's just a City VS Country thing instead. We parked just outside the city centre and decided to walk in and get the tram out, figuring we'd warm up a little on the walk and by the time we were ready to go home we'd be frozen and need a quick route back to the car.

I just love Swiss fountains - interesting and functional!

View of the Limmat River and the East bank from the viewpoint.

City selfies.
Zürich rooftops.
Sadly the weather hadn't improved at all - it was still very, very cold, my fingers froze a little more every time I took a photo, and the sky was quite depressing. A fog also sat over the city, hiding views of the lake and the mountains that I had been so looking forward to seeing. Braving the cold, I got my camera out and made the most of my visit here. Zürich is not the capital of Switzerland as a lot of people mistakenly think, but it is the largest city, with a population of 400,000, and both it's airport and railway station are the busiest in the country. Zürich has been constantly populated for over 2,000 years, the Romans founding the city in 15 BC, calling it Turicum. Although it's population doesn't make it a metropolis, or even a large, important city like London or New York, it has been ranked quite high on many of the lists made for "quality of life," Monicle Mag put it at No. 1 in 2012 and even Mercer rank it highly every year - I think the small population plays a part in this too. It's also a global city as far as the financial world and research industry goes too - mainly due to the low tax rates for such companies. The Paradeplatz, the main square of the city, in the Bahnhofstrasse area (Downtown Zürich), is one of the most expensive strips of real estate in the country, home to the Swiss banks and head office for UBS and Credit Suisse. Although all banks are thieves and bastards nowadays, the Swiss banks have the reputation of stashing black money and even hiding Nazi gold from victims of the Holocaust, and in 1999 a lawsuit cost the banking industry more around $1.25 billion. They seem to be doing alright though - spare change for them I guess.

Downtown Zürich.

the Grossmünster of Zürich.
Pretty streets of Zürich.
I enjoyed walking around the city and seeing the sights, despite the cold and terrible weather. At least it wasn't raining, so my spirits weren't dampened apart from the fact that I knew the city wasn't being shown in it's best light. The river is the main attraction, apart from the lake, and from a viewpoint on the West bank I could imagine what it would look like on a sunny day. The Zürich cathedral is called Grossmünster, or 'Great Minster,' and is  a Romanesque Protestant church that sits just off the river, commanding a view of the lake and the rest of the city. Built on the site of another church, said to have been commissioned by Charlemagne (Charles The Great), a Frankish King in the 8th Century - he chose the site when his horse fell to it's knees, over the tombs of Felix and Regula, the patron saints of the city. Members of the Theban legion, they were threatened to be executed along with the rest of the unit in 286 due to their mass conversion to Christianity, the two brothers we eventually caught, tried and executed in Zürich. After their heads were cut off, the miraculously stood, picked up their heads and walked forty paces uphill and prayed, before lying down and dying. This is the spot where the new church would be build - the present-day Grossmünster, which took 120 years to build (1100-1220). Sounds silly I know, but recent archaeological evidence confirms the presence of a Roman burial ground at the site, so maybe it was true... apart from the decapitated bodies getting up and walking. Inside, sadly, is nowhere near as large or as impressive as the outside - it was small, had a plain ceiling and no impressive stonework at all.

Simple yet beautiful - that's Switzerland.

The busiest train station in Europe.

The Bern Zytglogge.
Albrecht von Haller at Bern Uni.
After a kebab lunch (which I might add cost 10f for just a kebab - but an awesome one!), it was time to leave Zürich and head for Bern, the capital of Switzerland. Many people think that the capital is either Zürich or Geneva, much like Rio is to Brasilia, Sydney to Canberra, Toronto to Otawa, and so on - the capital is not always the famous one, the city with the most people or even the prettiest, and sometimes it's a geography thing (Madrid is the dead centre of Spain for example). The naming of Bern, according to the local legend, states that Berchtold V, Duke of Zähringen, the founder of the city of Bern in 1191, vowed to name the city after the first animal he met on the hunt, and this turned out to be a bear. Some people also say that it was named after the Italian city of Verona, which at the time was known as Bern in German. Bern was made the federal capital in 1848 and hasn't looked back - it is not a boring political city at all. Although it only has around 400,000 people, small compared the rest of Europe and the World, it is a bustling city with lots of things happening and also things to see. I arrived on New Year's Eve, just in time for a siesta before heading to a private house party to celebrate the night. For dinner it was a typical Swiss meal of Raclette - cheese on small metal plates is heated from above by flames, while the grill on top is where you cook vegetables and potatoes, then pour the melted cheese over these. Yum! I also had a Fondue while in Switzerland, even though I'd had it a few times before, I'd clearly not actually had it as it was never in Switzerland!

Houses and church along the river.

Sunset in Bern.

Anna Seiler Fountain.
Bern's main street.
There is a saying in Switzerland that says you don't 'bring in' the New Year but rather 'skate it in,' so this is what we did! We rented boots and skated around the man-made ice rink in front of the Government building in the centre of the city. We had champagne and wine while we skated and other people were launching fireworks in the square next to us. Compared to a normal NYE, it was quite tame, but very civilised and far less drunk. Families were out, people behaved themselves and although there were some puke puddles on the street, there weren't any big fights, arguments or any other disorderly behaviour - very Swiss and quieter than an average Friday night out in Sydney. By the time I went for a walk in the afternoon of the 1st, the city was all cleaned up and looking beautiful again. This was my first chance to see the city and I was quite impressed. The Historic Old Town of Bern became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, and the city is also ranked highly on the top places to live. The medieval city is where most people spend their time and where the tourists go too - it's a strange contradiction though, as you see 500 year old buildings, paved streets and wonderful architecture, there is still the 'taint' of modern life - fast food chains occupy once-wealthy merchant's houses and big 4x4's driving through little back streets. Still, there are trams which are quiet and environmentally friendly which take people back and forth along the long streets, most people walk, preferring little shops to shopping centres and there is no real rush about it. I didn't get much of a chance for exploration as the sun sets at around 5:30pm here at this time of year, but I was excited and ready to be up and out tomorrow for more.

Beautiful houses in the University suburb of Bern.

Bern after a dusting of overnight snow.

The child-eating Ogre.
Another unique Bern fountain.
One thing that really stands out here in Bern, apart from all the lovely buildings, churches and cobbled streets, are the Medieval fountains. I've mentioned this before when I was in Chur, but here in this city they are something special. The most famous fountain, and possibly also the weirdest I've ever seen, is The Kindlifresserbrunnen. It was created in 1545 by Hans Gieng (sculptor of another famous fountain in Bern called "Lady Justice") to replace a wooden fountain, and the new one depicts a sitting ogre eating children. The word 'kindli' is a Swiss German diminutive for child ('Kind' in German), and the literal translation of the whole word is "Fountain of the Eater of Little Children". The creature is thought to be either represent a Jew (as he is wearing a typical pointed hat) as an expression of a blood libel, or what most Bernese think is the Krampus, a mountain creature who punishes children at Christmas who had misbehaved. Either way, it is a fascinating yet horrible carving - the creature is stuffing naked babies into his large, open mouth, head-first, while a sack full of the next victims hang at this waist, all crying and trying to escape the ogre's grasp. Another, The Zähringerbrunnen, was built in 1535 as a memorial to the founder of Bern, Berchtold von Zähringer. The statue is a bear in full armour, with another bear cub at his feet. representing the one that Berchtold shot on the Aare peninsula as he was searching for a site to build a city.

The scariest (and also one of the most interesting) fountain statues I've ever seen!

Snow and sunshine - perfect day for a walk!

The Mediveal City of Bern.
Bern's Aare River.
The weather in Bern, although very, very cold, was mainly sunny and lovely. It hadn't snowed since I'd arrived at all (something that people were quite worried about as it's not normal at all), but on the night of the 2nd it did snow a little, leaving a white, snowy blanket over the city. What else can you do but quickly put your boots on, grab your camera and head out? That's what I did - a whole day out exploring this beautiful city. I started from the house, which is in the university neighbourhood of Länggasse, sitting on a hill above the rest of the city. The Universität Bern is a beautiful old building, it's grounds white with fluffy overnight snow, trees icy and frozen, making everything look like a Winter wonderland. It has a good view of the city and also a lovely cafe at which all the students sit and sip their expensive Swiss coffee. I headed down into the Medieval part of the city, find yet more of Bern's 100 unique and wonderful fountains, including the Anna Seiler Fountain, which shows a woman pouring water into a bowl and represent the founder of Bern's first hospital in 1354. I also wanted to see the Bern Minster, the famous Zytglogge as well as the 'Bern Bears' that people had told me about. I love this city!

Houses overlooking the river, with the Minster behind.

Bern's Parliament building as people 'skate in' the New Year.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Swiss Holiday - Part 3 - St Moritz and Appenzell

Hopp Schwiiz! This is what you hear when Federer gets on the court - Go Switzerland!
One of the many very expensive hotels in St Moritz.
Crack crack! It's safe, but it was still scary.
Switzerland is great, I was having a wonderful time, and so far I hadn't even visited any of the major cities - but that would come later. While in the East of the country, it was all mountains and beautiful towns, so jumping back in the car, we headed South, towards the luxury alpine resort town of St. Moritz. Situated in the canton of Graubünden, the most southeastern part of Switzerland. The town sits at 1800m above sea level, and has a population of about 5000 people, but during the Winter months it is packed with the Upper-Class skiers and Jet-setters (mainly from Russia!). Not my kind of place really, people walking around in sun glasses that cost more than my whole ensemble (and then some), fur ringing their necks and pure-bred dogs, looking just as fluffy and posh as their owners, walking around on blinged-out leashes. I have no problem with what I wear (clothes are for warmth and comfort), I'm fine with having very little money, and can only laugh at some of these people who pay so much for a hotel here and wear such terrible clothes - money may bring security but it won't give you style. Just to give you an idea of the place, this town has some of the most expensive resorts in the World - a night's stay in a 5-star suite, queen sized bed, mountain views and a 'modest' 55m2 (a normal 2 bedroom flat in Spain), for only CHF1,500 ($2,000). This is more than most Spanish people earn in a month, and I could live on that for 2 months in South America - yet is just the tip of the iceberg as far as hotels go. The town, apart from being super-posh, has hosted the Winter Olympics twice, in 1928 and 1948.

The drive to St Moritz - I never get tired of seeing mountains!
Ice skating in St Moritz.
The lift to Diazolezza.
I didn't spend any time in the town, as it's all just expensive shops and hotels, milling Russians in brand-everything spending their cash, but we did stop just outside for a look at the frozen lake. I'd never actually seen a frozen lake for real, let alone walk on one, which is what I did. It was scary yet exciting - not that slippery either, but on occasion there were a few cracking sounds from under my feet which made my heart jump, fearing a fall into ice-cold water and a watery death within seconds. In reality, the ice was at least half a metre thick in most places and there were loads of people on it, skating and sledding - I wasn't the largest on the ice so there was no danger of falling through. I tried telling my heart that, but when does it ever listen to your head? Around the edge of the lake in front of the town, a snow-track had been laid down, allowing people to Nordic ski, while others skated around in the middle. We drove through rich kid's ski town and headed towards the Dizvolezza ski slopes - taking another expensive chair lift ride to the top. At 3000m above sea level the Berghaus Diavolezza offer splendid 360 degree views of snowy-white mountains. The mountains form a kind of ring, jutting up around the Bernina Glacier, and make the natural border between Switzerland and Italy. The highest peak is Piz Bernina, an impressive 4049m, but we were hiking towards Munt Pers, which at 3,207m, is now slouch either. 

The view from Diavolezza.
The ski resort and our 'peak' behind it.
Sunset from the chairlift going down.
We walked past all the skiiers heading for the slopes and also the tempting smells of hot food and the promise of cold beer being served at the refuge - we needed to make a move or we'd miss the last lift down. I'm not making excuses - although I'm not the fittest hiker or climber, I do ok - but I hadn't been feeling very well for the last week. Since finishing up work just before Christmas, I'd had a bit of a cold, fever, runny nose and sore throat, which was still persisting a little just before New Years. Maybe it was my cold, the deep snow and hard to follow path, but maybe it was the altitude a little too (3,200m), as I struggled a little and found myself out of breath most of the way. I laboured on, Alicia way ahead of me as usual, and finally made it to the top. Of course the view was completely worth it - the World always looks better from the top of a mountain. Time to rest and relax, take in the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction, wishing that life could be like this every day, and of course some photos. Knowing our time for the last lift was running out, we thought it was 4:30, we hurried down as fast as it was possible with the deep snow and my frozen body. We got to the station and found out that we had missed the last lift, the 4:15, by 5 minutes - I couldn't believe it! We were lucky enough, however, to be offered a ride down with the staff - if we didn't get this option, it would have been to pay a ridiculously high price for a room for the night, or spend the next 3 hours walking down at sunset, hoping not to be run over by a snowplough. In the end, this can be chalked up as another great experience with a smile on my face at the end of the day!

Frosty trees on the drive to Appenzel.
Small church in Appenzel.
Inside the St. Mauritius church.
Driving through small towns and villages is always a treat - off the tourist trail, buildings that rarely get photographed, the quiet countryside, you also get to see how local people go about their daily lives and even talk to people (and not be asking for directions or prices!). While this is lovely, it's not always possible, and sometimes you need to be on that tourist trail - there is a reason why lots of people visit certain places after all! I was lucky though - although there are always tourists, it wasn't the season for it - so prices were probably lower, less people, but on the other hand not everything was open. One of these places was the town of Appenzel. The drive itself was worth it - cruising along small, windy roads, single file traffic, but not in a hurry because it's so beautiful out the window.

Greener and softer - the Appenzel region.
The buildings of Appenzel.
Lichtenstein is across the river and Austria only 19kms!
On our way, we drove right past Liechtenstein and it's capital Verduz - to me this is so strange still, even after years of living in Europe, but to be able to just drive through, or past, another country in a day is exciting. It's not hard sometimes here, Switzerland itself is small, but it's also bordered by 5 countries - Liechtenstein is only 25kms long as well. Just after my child-like excitement had passed, we came to a T-intersection - we turned left, but if we'd turned right, we would have crossed the border into Austria! The landscape changes here - from the sharp, tall peaks of the South, to the more rolling hills of the Appenzel region in the North. This area is famous for being the most Swiss of the Switzerland - it retains the rural customs and traditions such as the ceremonial descent of the cattle in autumn and cultural events such as folk music and rustic dances. I was hoping to see a yoldelling concert while I was here but no such luck. Something special I learnt later was that Appenzell is also known for it's institution of Landsgemeinden - democratic assemblies held in the open air. Every male and female citizen over twenty years of age must (under a financial penalty) appear personally and vote on local issues every year. Swiss people not from this area also say that the locals eat dog - something I'm not too sure is true (I saw none on the menu, but maybe it's a home-cooked dish...), just another way of making fun of your neighbours I guess!

A very elaborately designed and painted hardware store sign.

Appenzel earrings - worn in the right ear by men only.
Got a spare 1000f ($1400)? You need this then!
Walking around this car-free town, I felt a little like I was in a time-warp, going back hundreds of years. The traditional wood-panelled buildings, signs on store doorways and just everything seemed to be from a quieter, simpler time. Stores displayed their good in shop windows, and some were open to tourists as well - some offering traditionally made, Appenzel belts from real cow hide (fur still on) as well as traditional clothes - metal suspenders, leather shoes, embroidered vests, and single earrings (for men) - that every good Swiss person should own. Something else very from traditional here are the local pastries, called a Beiber. Yes, just like Justin, they are flowery and doughy. Made with layers of marzipan and gingerbread with honey dough, they are tasty and much better than the silly boy who sings pop songs. It felt much colder there than anywhere else I'd been so far, but I kept forgetting that it was December and Winter - the sun was shining and grass was green, it was deceptive! We ducked inside the church for a bit of quiet and to warm up a little - I love the churches in this country, and yes, there was an organist playing. We also had a very traditional Swiss meal at a restaurant in the main square - Älplermagronen with churizo and Rösti. The first is basically a Swiss version of Mac and Cheese topped off with a sausage, the Rösti is similar to a potato fritter, and was originally a breakfast dish eaten by farmers. Both were very filling and cheesy, and nearly put me into a very contented food coma!

Traditional belts from Appenzel.
Lichtensteig not Liechtenstein!
The church in Glarus.
On the way home, going back a different way, we went though Glarus as well as Lichtensteig. This is not to be mistaken for the country of Liechtenstein! The place was quiet, as Swiss people are always working hard, but we walked around and enjoyed the peace and quiet if the streets and the beautiful buildings. There was a big Christmas tree still up and decorated, shop windows full of seasonal gifts and I also learnt a new word, schnäppchen, which quickly has become my favourite German word! My favourite street name is in Chur, Süsswinkelgasse, but my new word means "bargains," so when used with the word Jäger (yes, as in Jägermeister, which means "Hunt Master" or "Master Hunter"), it means "Bargain Hunter," which is great! I would love to learn German - I think it's a very interesting language, and supposedly fairly easy for English speakers to pick up. So far my holiday was a week down, and with New Years Eve dawning, it was time to head into the city - first stop Zurich then continuing on to Bern.

Goodbye mountains... it's time to hit the cities!

Birthday Weekend

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