Category Archives: Switzerland

Bern’s Onion Market

Swiss capital’s unique fall food market.

swissflagSwitzerland has no Thanksgiving, but late November brings the Zibelemärit (Onion Market) to the quaint capital of Bern. This traditional folk festival is held on the fourth Monday of every November.

Farmers from the surrounding area bring over 50 tons of onions that have been artistically woven into braids to the federal capital, along with garlic. Colorful market stalls offer ceramic pots, vegetables, traditional market goodies and mementos. To help resist the winter cold, don’t miss the Glühwein stand with its hot mulled wine.

The bustle gets underway at 5 a.m. as hundreds of visitors from home and abroad flood the city. If you go, be sure to try savory cheese tarts, onion tarts and onion soup that are served in all the restaurants, filling the air with a heady aroma. Younger visitors scatter confetti in the streets and have fun at the fairground.

Special trains are scheduled by  the S-Bahn Bern and Swiss Federal Railways makes travel to the Zibelemärit easy. If you’re not within striking distance this year, consider it for 2017.

Roof-Less, Wall-Less Hotel Room in the Alps

Sleep in comfort & under the stars — for a price.

SwissFlagSometimes when hikers backpack, we pitch our tent but decide to “sleep out” as long as temperatures are comfortable and it doesn’t start to rain. Well-heeled travelers have discovered the joy of “glamping,” luxury tent camping derived from Africa’s posh safari camps. But here’s a new one. My friend Ursula Beamish-Mader of Switzerland Tourism posted a link to a Travel & Leisure item called “This Swiss Hotel Room Has No Walls, But That’s A Good Thing.”

The concept is that a beautifully made-up bed, presumably with fine linens and hopefully a down comforter, is placed against one wall in a mountain hollow for “sleeping out” in comfort.  It’s a project of Null Stern Hotels (meaning “No Star”), which briefly operated a luxury hotel in a nuclear bunker that is now a museum.

I admire the imagination behind this outdoor accommodation (which did get noticed by T&L), but paying $250 a night is a bit much, IMO, even though coffee and a breakfast salami sandwich are reportedly delivered in the morning. Did I mention that the “facilities” are in a public restroom 10 minutes away?

If you want to see a picture, click here.

Renovated & Expanded Olympic Museum Reopens

Lausanne museum reopens just weeks before ’14 Winter Games in Sochi  

OlympicMuseum-logoNumerous cities that have hosted the Summer and Winter Olympics have museums dedicated to “their” own Games, but the official museum for all Olympics is in Lausanne, Switzerland. This lovely lakeside city has the headquarters of the Interntional Olympic committee and is the place where the Olympic flame is housed between Games. The Olympic Museum reopens on December 21, in a sense marking the advent of the XXII Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia (February 7 – 23).

The Museum was closed for nearly two years for an extensive renovation by Lausanne architects Brauen & Wälchli that nearly doubled the exhibition space to 32,300 square feet, spread out over three floors. The emphasis is now on interactive presentations to engage the visitor. To that end, the museum boasts more than 300 screens and 1,000 objects to tell the stories of Olympic champions.

The greatly expanded Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, sits in a lovely park not far from Lake Generva.
The greatly expanded Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, sits in a lovely park not far from Lake Generva.

Two halls are dedicated to temporary exhibitions, and the surrounding Olympic Park has become an integral part of the museum, with art by Chillida, Folon, Niki de Saint-Phalle and Tàpies related to Olympic athletes and their achievements. Admission is free from December 21 to January 23 — making it the rare free European museum. I visited the Olympic Museum several years ago when it was neither free to enter nor as high-tech, high-touch as it is now. It was fascinating then, and now, it sppears to be even more so.

The Olympic Museum promotes the union of sport, art and culture and offers a collection of objects that trace the entire history of the Olympic Games. It’s where the legendary Olympic flame resides between games, a permanent tribute to those who live the Olympic ideal. The renovation allows the institution to look ahead to the 21th century, showcasing the extraordinary legacy and offering new experiences to visitors from around the world. To celebrate the Sochi Winter Olympic Games, the Olympic Museum  is unveiling a major exhibition called The Russian Avant-Garde and Sport, which will be on display from January 24 to May 11.  The exhibition explores sport in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s through the works of the artistic avant-garde, especially in the fields of photography, cinema and graphic design.

‘Eiger-Versary’ Coming Up

75th anniversary of the first climb of the Eiger North Face 

Eiger-logoMountains hold great allure for me. I like to look at them. I like to hike up them. I like to stand on summits and survey the world below me. But I’m not a climber, so the mountains I have “climbed” are those accessible step by step — no ropes, crampons of bivvy sack required. Still, I admire those with true climbing and mountaineering skills, none more than the men who made first ascents using boots, clothing and other gear that was long relegated to museums.

The last few weeks have seen anniversaries of other pioneering climbs — real climbs, not hikes like my ascents. I previously wrote about the centennial of the first climbs of Mt. McKinley and the 60th anniversary of  the Hillary-Norgay duo summiting Mt. Everest. There are claims that those were the second successful climbs of each, but previous ascents, while credible, are unsubstantiated because in one case (Everest) the purported first ascenders did not live to document the tale and in the other (McKinley), there were factual discrepancies.

The standard route up Eiger's formidable North Face as seen looming above Kleine Scheidegg near Grindelwald.
The standard route up Eiger’s formidable North Face as seen looming above Kleine Scheidegg near Grindelwald.

Not so of Switzerland‘s fabled and frightful Eiger North Face, one of the greatest north walls of the Alps, was successfully climbed for the first time 75 years ago. In the 1930s the Eiger North Face was considered to be the “last problem”’ of the Alps, and conquering it was the dream of many mountaineers from all over Europe. It was a not only a challenge, but it was a diversion from the storm clouds of war.  After numerous attempts that ended in tragedy costing 9 mountaineers their lives, a German-Austrian rope team made it. Anderl Heckmair and Ludwig Vörg, Fritz Kasparek and Heinrich Harrer reached the top on July 24, 1938 at 2.30, becoming the first men to successfully climb the North Face of the Eiger — and that climb really is a climb.

Everest and McKinley are remote and topographically complex. Not so with the Eiger, smack in the middle of Switzerland’s Jungfrau region, a landscape of soaring peaks, mountain valleys, rushing rivers and villages populated with people familiar with and knowledgeable about their mountains. The North Wall is a near-vertical face rising nearly straight up 5,900 feet — more than a mile — above the village of Grindelwald. No way to fabricate that success. While the “Eiger-versary” is one month from now, the village of Grindelwald will celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the First Climb of the Eiger North Face from July 9 to 12 with mountaineers and journalists from all over the world will meeting at the foot of the wall to commemorate this monumental feat.

Modern climbers with highly technical gear on the Eiger's North Wall.
Modern climbers with highly technical gear on the Eiger’s North Wall. Shutterstock image.

The Eiger North Face was the backdrop for the most exciting climbing sequences in a commercial feature film — “The Eiger Sanction” starring Clint Eastwood and George Kennedy that was released back in 1975.

New Eiger Attraction in the Grindewald Museum

The Grindelwald Museum will exhibit five of the most important events in the history of the Eiger being on July 2. A newly designed exhibition enables visitors to relive the successes and tragedies of the Eiger through historic pictures, files and articles that document over 150 years of its history. Did I mention that also like mountaineering museums?

Switzerland on Two Wheels, Two Ways

Pure Adventures’ two new bike Tours in Switzerland

Pure-Adventures-logo,jpgPure Adventures, which designs adventurous cycling vacations in Europe, has two new itineraries in Switzerland for 2013. In my book, Switzerland is the most beautiful country in Europe — and that’s saying a lot, because Europe is a continent filled with scenic splendor. If I were of a mind to undertake a gonzo bike tour, I’d want to sign on for one of these.

Tour de Suisse

TourdeSuisseThe first is a guided VIP trip June 9-15 for a maximum of 20 guests surrounding 77th Tour de Suisse. The itinerary dovetails with the June 8-16 race. Guests ride an average of 80 kilometers a day (about 4 hours), including grueling ascents, breezy descents and lovely cruising, along with access to team buses, mechanic stations and former Swiss pros at various stops.

The per-person double rate of 3200 CHF (1 Swiss francs = approx US$3,480) includes six nights’ lodging, all breakfasts and lunches, five dinners, cell phones, GPS, maps, professional Swiss guides, luggage transfers, van support, train transfers and bicycle transfers during TdS program, exclusive VIP pass and access benefits and use of a new BMC Racing bike for rent.

Geneva to Interlaken (Self-Guided)

PureAdventures-mountain;jpgThis self-guided, eight-day tour available from May through travels from Geneva to Interlaken along famous Swiss national cycling routes using late-model BMC hybrids and road bikes for use throughout. Among the beguiling destinations are Lausanne, Lac Leman (aka, Lake Geneva) for a boat trip, Montreux and wine country, Bulle (the entire old town is a Swiss National Heritage Site), Gruyères and Gstaad in the Bernese Alps.

The per person double rate of 1780 CHF includes atarts with arrival orientation, bike se- up, GPS
navigation, route book with maps and cue sheets with notes about sites and recommendations along the way, bike rental return handling by train fromInterlaken, emergency support during riding hours and all luggage transfers between hotels. The cost includes seven nights’ lodging, daily breakfast and one dinner — all in Switzerland’s most gastronomically intereresting region.

Pure Adventures, 6501 East Greenway Parkway (#103-439), Scottsdale, AZ 85254; 800-960-2221.

A New Rail Tunnel Through the Alps But None Under the Hudson

Switzerland gets a loo-o-o-ong railroad tunnel; metro New York/New Jersey gets a writeoff

Breaking through on October 15, 2010

Switzerland, with a population of fewer than 8 million and a genuine commitment to keep rail travel and goods transport alive and thriving, has completed the excavation for the new Gotthard Base Tunnel, at 35.4 miles the world’s longest railway tunnel. With the precision of a Swiss watch, the deviation from the plan was 8 cemtimeters horizontally and 1 centimeter vertically. The conversion is 2 1/2 centimeters per inch, so that deviation is miniscule.

Close to 20 years ago, Swiss voters approved the $10 billion tunnel by nearly a two-thirds majority, and it didn’t take long for workers to begin boring it under the Alps.  The tunnel, which is designed for two railroad tracks, took 12 years and eight workiers’ lives to bore from first bite of a drill in 1996  to breakthrough on October 15. I was in Europe at the time, and this engineering and construction triumph was covered on live television and made headlines. When trains start running in 2017, it will cut one hour off the current 3 1/2-hour trip between Zurich and Milan. One portal is in the German-speaking canton of Graubünden (Grisons) and the other in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino.

Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic, a major tunnel project between Manhattan and New Jersey appears dead. In a metro area of 20 million or so, a shorter but comparably priced tunnel project was killed by slash-and-abandon New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who pulled the plug on the $8.7 billion project that has been in the planning stages for some 20 years. Christie’s reason? New Jersey had committed $2.7 billion for this tunnel plus cost overruns that were expected to run as high as $3.5 billion, and Christie claims that his state lacks the funds to cover them. New Jersey is already in hole for $350 million (or is it $500 million?) for the tunnel that won’t happen.

Expected cost overruns? The Swiss would be astonished. Heck. They could have built half-a-dozen tunnels under the Hudson in that time and probably pretty close to budget. After all, if they can drill a 35.5-mile tunnel wide enough for two trains and bore within single-digit inches, they’d most likely complete the dinky Hudson River tunnel on time and on budget too.