Thursday, 28 July 2011
Cologne, Westphalia, Germany
For our summer holiday we had set ourselves the goal of driving to Greece and back. Anna sings with a choir that had arranged to sing in Augsburg in Germany so we would first head their, then to Switzerland for some walking and then catch the ferry to Greece from Italy. We caught the channel tunnel first thing in the morning then drove across Belgium and the Netherlands to Cologne where we were to spend the night before heading South. Cologne was a bit too rainy to be enjoyable but we were staying in a nice hotel in an old converted brick water tower and had a pleasant dinner in a beer hall in the old town.
Friday, 29 July 2011
Augsburg, Bavaria, Germany
We somewhat underestimated how long it would take to drive to Augsburg and as a result made the mistake of trying to explore the Black Forest. We got down to Karlsruhe around lunchtime and then headed off the motorway driving through the forest. The rain had started to pick up again and so we saw very little. We did however have time to stop for a beer and cake (much to my disappointment they did not have the gateau) before we had to get back on the road. It was then very slow going on the motorway past Stuttgart. By the time we finally found the hotel in Augsburg we had missed the reception the Mayor was giving for the choir and Anna had to rush to make a practice session. Afterwards we had dinner in another beer and sausage hall in the centre of Augsburg. The beer in Bavaria was a lot stringer and the sausage a lot better than Cologne, I went to bed feeling rather stuffed.
Saturday, 30 July 2011
Augsburg, Bavaria, Germany
The choir had arranged a number of tours of Augsburg and through lateness and a mix-up we ended on a tour of sites of the Reformation. Augsburg has a very rich past being one of the key cities of the Holy Roman Empire for 500 years and home to the powerful Fugger family. At the time the Catholic Church had a tidy side line selling Indulgences, guarantees of places in heaven, to such powerful families. Martin Luther preached against these practices and as a result was questioned in Augsburg in 1518 by the Pope's envoy who eventually went on to excommunicate him. Luther's followers as well as those of John Calvin in Geneva eventually went on to form a separate Protestant church.
After the tour we grabbed some lunch and then Anna had a final afternoon's practice before the performance that evening in Basilica of St Ulrich and Afra. Following this their hosts, a German choir, threw a party for them which went on well into the night.
Sunday, 31 July 2011
We set off not that early that morning for Zurich. We were due to meet a couple of ex-colleagues of mine Vivian and Martin, along with their partners, that night in town. Having the whole day we could afford to explore a bit. We toyed with going to Liechtenstein, famous for many things including being the only country in the world named after the family that purchased it. However in the end we settled for Appenzell , famous for cheese and classic scenery, which was more on our way.
We found a nice cafe in a square with scenic views sat down and got the shock of our lives. The Swiss Franc had been strengthening as a currency against the backdrop of instability in Europe. We realised just how much when we looked up at the cafe's menu and saw that the cheapest item on the menu, spaghetti, was £25! We girded our wallets and ordered a wurst salad and a rosti. Even then we got into an argument with the waitress when the bill came as she added an extra £4 onto the cost of the rosti, when we asked why we found out they had, quite unprompted, added some bacon as a garnish.
Nevertheless this should not put anyone off the magnificent scenery of the Appenzeller. After lunch we drove through miles and miles of beautiful rolling green countryside as dotted with hundreds of small red barns. The barns provide accommodation for both farmers and farmed, with the cows keeping the humans warm in the winter. Eventually we reached the Zurich See and drove along the lake shore to Zurich . Here we found our hotel, which thankfully had its own underground car park, and then got changed for dinner.
We had an excellent meal with our friends during which we learnt a bit about living in Switzerland. For example road fines are incredibly stiff and are based on a percentage of the combined salary of the couple, much to the horror of the ultra-rich whose wives are caught speeding. Or more peculiarly Martin lives in a block of flats where they are forbidden to flush the toilet after midnight! Anyway it was nice to see everyone and catch up with them as we had seen neither of them for a couple of years.
Monday, 1 August 2011
Voralphutte, Uri, Switzerland
We got up and set off South along the lakes towards the high alps. We drove past Zug and Luzern stopping briefly by the side of a lake at Sisikon to get some cash and admire the magnificent view of the steep sided lower reaches of the Vierwaldstattersee (Lake Lucerne). Here you start climbing towards the mouth of the Gotthard Road Tunnel, however just before this we turned off at the village of Göschenen and headed up its valley to the start of our walk.
The first section of our walk around the Goschenensee was to climb up to the Voralphutte, at 2126m about a thousand metres above Goschenen. We left our car at a car park in the floor of the valley and took a path initially parallel to the road which then cut up the steep valley of the Voralpreuse, a stream flowing out of the glacier of the 3505m Sustenhorn above us. It was a scenic walk with great views back into the valley and up to the mountains ahead as well as plenty of alpine flowers.
We got to the hut after three hours walking at around 1500. The Swiss Alpine Club provides amazing facilities for walkers in the alps with well laid out routes dotted with huts in some amazingly remote locations. Most huts have live in wardens in the summer months who cook for the walkers. The sleeping and eating arrangements are fairly communal but cosy, the ones we visited did not have showers. However its not cheap with some huts costing as much as 70 Euro per person per night, although this includes a meal, and they are popular so need to be booked in advance.
The Voralphutte was the nicest we visited on our circuit. It is situated on a spur at the head of the valley facing the Sustenhorn glacier. It has a wonderfully cosy eating area looking out through windows at the valley and sleeps forty in four dorms each divided into bays. Arriving early we were fairly lucky and were given a two person bay in our dorm, later arrivals were put into larger bays with six people sleeping side by side. When we arrived the staff were laying out the table for dinner and had put little name tags next to each place. They had clearly thought about it putting us on a table with the only other two English sounding names. We went to sit outside and read and enjoy the remains of the late afternoon sun.
Proving that it is indeed a small world the other English couple turned out to live in Islington not too far from where we lived. Keith and Alison were both in the legal profession, although Keith had retired from it to run his own company running guided walks. Through further coincidence Keith had also recently joined the board of governors of one of the schools in the same group that Anna worked in. Out of the other people at our table there were a young Swiss couple who spoke excellent English, and a very humorous Italian walker and his Swiss friend who were a bit less fluent. However it has to be said that as is always the case they spoke better English than our attempts at their respective languages.
Tuesday, 2 August 2011
Bergseehütte, Uri, Switzerland
I did not find it very easy sleeping in a room with ten other people so was slightly sleepy in the morning. We ate breakfast and headed off fairly early. It had turned out that our walking instructions were for a red path but there was also a more adventurous high alpine route round the valley. This included a higher level more direct route from the Voralphutte to the Bergseehutte. Unfortunately having parked further down the valley we wanted to move the car further up the valley to make a quick getaway on the last day so we had to retrace our steps down the river and back to the car.
At the top of the Göschenen valley the Swiss had dammed several alpine streams for power and this formed a small glacial blue green lake, the Göschenensee, which we were making a circuit of. We parked at the restaurant on the dam and then started climbing again, the nightmare of not following the high route was that we spent most of our days going up and down rather than working our way across.
The route started up a steep hill and before long got a broad shelf with glorious views overlooking the lake. This was slightly boggy however the path was in most places raised up to avoid the worst. Before long however we caught sight of the way up to the Bergseehütte, which at 2370m was 600m above the dam. It was quite an exhausting slog up a sharply zig-zagging track to the shoulder that the hut was situated on next to a tiny lake (the Bergsee) however once we got their the views made it worthwhile. It must have been 1400 when we got there so we sat down and had some lunch before dropping our bags off and going off for a stroll.
The huts on the route round the lake are not especially far apart so we had always planned to get to places early and then explore. However with the benefit of hindsight we would have been better off heading to the Chernalphutte which was up at the head of the valley and, as we found out from Keith and Alison later, actually a lot nicer than the Bergsee. Nevertheless we had a ramble round the hut, setting our sights on going to the top of a small hill overlooking the lake and back. This turned out to be quite a scramble over huge boulders, we discovered that the harder blue route to the Chernalphutte went this way. As a result we made what turned out to be quite a fortuitous decision to follow our book round the red route the next day.
On our return we grabbed our books and again enjoyed the last of the sun. By this point Keith and Alison had turned up, they had followed the high level route which had involved a bit of scrambling but sounded a lot nicer than going straight down, driving and straight up again as we had done. The Bergseehutte was a lot larger sleeping 70. It was used extensively by the climbers who were tackling the near by rock faces. As a result of its size it felt more like an expensive youth hostel and was nowhere near as cosy as the previous night. We has dinner with a Swiss family a man, his wife who was a yoga teacher and their daughter. We found out from the daughter that the reason they were so good at languages is that they were taught most subjects in a different language each year. Thus one year in German, the next in English etc, We had a good chat to them then turned in for the night.
Wednesday, 3 August 2011
Dammahütte, Uri, Switzerland
If the washing facilities at the Voralphutte had been rudimentary then those at the Bergseehutte were positively medieval. There was very little chance of getting more than a splash of cold water and always a queue for the toilets. Naturally half way up a mountain it is always going to be a tall order getting hot water for seventy people to have a shower so resigned to being grubby for a few days we had our breakfast and plodded off into the morning.
Our route to the Dammahütte involved climbing straight back down the mountain, walking along the shore and then across the head of the lake and finally climbing straight up again, this time to 2439m. The walk was scenic but fairly uneventful apart from having to herd some cows off the path. However when we got to the valley below the 3630m Dammastock mountain it became a lot more dramatic. The glacier had eroded the mountains over the years creating an amphitheatre of scree and ice. On one side a small black ridge a bit like a castle walls reached out and then did a sharp 90 degree turn creating a further bowl of scree. And it was up this ridge that we were heading to find the hut.
Up to this point in our trek we had enjoyed almost perfect weather, sunny but not too hot and no rain. However we had been told on the last day it would change and change it did. As we were climbing up to the ridge the heavens opened and it started raining and hailing. Had we been elsewhere on the walk we would have probably just headed for the car but half way up there was not much option but to stick with it. The climb was relentless, we would build up our expectations that the hut was over the next ridge only to have them dashed. But finally dripping wet we reached the hut.
The hut was definitely the cosiest on our trek. Inside were a family on a day hike sheltering form the rain and the two female hut attendants. The hut itself dates from 1915 and whilst it has been extended features a lot of the original wood panelling. The attendants took us in and put our boots in the warming tray and hung our socks on the stove pipe range then proceeded to cook us some much needed rosti to warm us up. Slowly our spirits and the clouds lifted and we were able to go out and dry off in the sun admiring the breathtaking panoramic views.
At this point some explanation of the sleeping arrangements should be given. The hut itself was literally two rooms, a cosy dining area with tables and the range in the lower half, and a loft above. In the loft there were two platforms either side of the room each sleeping seven people in a row. Outside on the edge of the precipice were the remains of a wooden shack which had once housed what must be the most scenic toilet in the world. However this situation had been improved considerably by the building of a modern block which housed the bathroom and the hut wardens rooms.
We thought given the rain we were going to have the place to itself, nobody else would make it up. However shortly after us two rather bedraggled girls appeared, then another family. Then around 1700 Keith and Alison turned up quite unexpectedly. They had again followed the high route which had involved walking all the way to the Chernalphutte. Once there the rain started so like us they sheltered whilst having lunch. There they had decided that they were not going to make it to the Dammahutte and were just going to plough through the rain and go back to Goschenen that night. So they had rang to cancel their place at the Dammahutte. However on passing by the end of the Dammastock valley the weather had been so nice they had changed their mind and climbed up to the ridge. This is a very full day of trekking and not knowing they would have a place at such a small hut they were taking quite a risk.
However they were not quite the last. We had just started our very hearty meal at 1900 when the Swiss family we had eaten with the previous night stumbled out of the dusk. They had followed the same route as the others but were slower and so had got totally caught in the rain. We all tucked in, drank wine and played cards to pass away the time til lights out. At last count I think thirteen people had made it up to the hut so there was literally only one spare space in the loft. Everyone tucked into their sleeping bags and with only the odd snore and fart breaking the peace I think most people had a sound night's sleep.
Thursday, 4 August 2011
Gubbio, Perugia, Italy
It was my best nights sleep by far. However whilst we were getting used to communal sleeping the bathroom arrangements were getting to us. Whilst the Dammahutte had probably the nicest bathroom of any, there was a shortage of fresh water on the high ridge to the extent that in the morning there was literally none at all the next morning, not even to flush the toilet. We had breakfast and headed off first as we were aiming to get half way down Italy that day.
Getting down was not too bad with only salamanders sunning themselves on the path to keep us company. Keith and Alison were behind us but we were on a mission to get on the road after crossing the stream at the floor of the valley we did not see them again. The final length of our loop around the lake was probably the most scenic as the steep drop afforded a better view of the lake itself. However we spent little time admiring it and were in the car and heading off by around 1100.
The Gotthard Road Tunnel was lengthy. On emerging we found ourselves in the very different scenery of the Leventina valley which we followed all the way down past Lugano and Lake Como to Milan. Here we stopped in Saronno , famous for its Amaretto, for lunch. After this we embarked on the long slog down the Italian motorway network to the coast. We were due to sail to Greece from Ancona on Saturday so had decided to recuperate in a spa hotel in Gubbio in the hills of Perugia close by. This left us with another 500km driving to do that afternoon. In the end after suffering large numbers of traffic jams and bad drivers we made it to the hotel around 2100, just in time for a very nice dinner followed by bed.
Friday, 5 August 2011
Gubbio, Perugia, Italy
We were staying in the Hotel ai Cappuccini, a converted Capuchin monastery (the coffee is named after the colour of their habits). I can thoroughly recommend it, the swimming pool is huge, the spa very relaxing and the food good. A lot of the old details have been preserved and the cloistered design provides plenty of respite form the heat. We spent a lot of the morning recovering from our walk, then ventured out to the old town of Gubbio.
This was well worth exploring even though it was a bit hot. The town was at its peak during the time of the Crusades, when its Duomo was built, and a lot of the buildings date from between this time and the 15th century when its importance started to wane. The old walled town is built on the lower slopes of a mountain so it takes a lot of energy to walk around. However by placing it on so many levels the founders made the most of the breeze coming down the valley and so it never seems too hot. That evening we had dinner again in the hotel's excellent restaurant.
Saturday, 6 August 2011
Gubbio, Perugia, Italy
We had the morning to kill before the departure of our ferry so decided to go and see the Basilica of St Francis of Assisi . Whilst not a big fan of churches this was well worth the visit. The Basilica and surrounding buildings sit on a ridge and can be seen for miles around. The Basilica itself features two chapels one above the other with St Francis tomb underneath. We looked around for a while then got in the car and headed for Ancona and boarded the ferry to Greece.
Sunday, 7 August 2011
Koropi, Thessaly, Greece
I would like to say the ferry journey to Greece was pleasant but frankly it was not. The ferry had too many people (and dogs!) and too little deck space, shaded and otherwise, to enjoy the journey. At least we had a cabin so had somewhere to get away from it all. We arrived in Igoumenitsa at around 1000 and then drove across Greece to Anna's parent's village stopping in Metsovo for lunch. At Koropi we had booked into a really nice hotel overlooking the village and the Pagasitic Gulf.
Saturday, 13 August 2011
Benevello, Piedmont, Italy
The previous week having been spent relaxing in Greece, it was eventually time to head back to London. We had realised the impossibility of getting back in two days so had arranged to spend a night in Piedmont before heading through the Mont Blanc tunnel and another night in Beaune in France before getting the Eurostar back. The ferry back had been worse even than going to Greece on account of the nicer of the ferry's two restaurants being inexplicably closed. We then again had to tackle the nightmare of Italy's motorways, finally getting to Benevello around 1800.
Here we stayed in what was without doubt the nicest hotel of our visit the Villa d'Amelia. The rooms of this converted farmhouse are stylishly decorated and the views out to the rolling misty hills of piedmont are gorgeous. We had dinner that night in some style, the quality of the food more than living up to the chef's Michelin star.
Sunday, 14 August 2011
We started out the next morning for Beaune heading North past Turin towards the Mont Blanc tunnel through the picturesque Aoost valley. The tunnel itself was monstrously expensive and the queue lengthy. On the other side we had the last surprise of our trip. Our car started to loose power on the outskirts of Geneva and instead of a night in Beaune we were forced to limp into Geneva. In one retrospect we were very lucky because the next day was a national holiday in France so had we broken down elsewhere our car would have been stuck in a garage. However in every other respect we were unlucky because Geneva is a phenomenally expensive place to get your car repaired. It cost us £400 and all that they needed to do was change one spark plug! Nevertheless we had a nice night in Geneva and made it on time for our Channel Tunnel Train the next night.