Saturday, July 2, 2011

Did I mention the tunnels?

Happy Canada Day everyone!

Italy is the land of tunnels. On our way in from Monaco we felt like groundhogs playing “where’s my shadow?” as we popped in and out of tunnels along the Mediterranean coast. Our drive out from Milan to Chamonix was no different.

We found a secret passage to France. I think it is still secret because it is so darn expensive. It cost almost $100 to drive from Milan into
France! Can you imagine the stink in
BC if we tolled the Co
quihalla like that? Mind you, we’d have to have driven the road THROUGH the mounta
in instead of winding it up and over
a treacherous pass. After driving in and out of tunnels for about 30 kilometres, most of which were one to three kilometers long, we came to the grand daddy of them all: the tunnel under Mont Blanc (Monte Bianco, White Mountain). This tunnel is 11 kilometers long! It takes 10 minutes to drive it. They have speed and distance warnings all the way through with cameras flashing periodically to remind you they are watching. As we emerged from the other end the police were there pulling people over. After a few worrisome seconds, they waved us through
. They are serious about that tunnel.

The rest of our time in Chamonix was spent climbing and flying. We flew up chairlifts, large gondolas and personal sized gondolas. We flew down luge runs and hiked across Alpine meadows. We would have swung through the trees as well but the Parcours course was closed. The luge turned out to be more like a roller coaster you can control. You slid down rails and had a hand brake but no helmet. It was definitely fun but hard pressed to compete with the gondolas. The chairlift was exciting because there was no casing around you. The air was surprisingly warm. We rode the chair up and down the top of the mountain. Having never ridden down, it was quite exciting, let me tell you. We decided it must be close to what it feels like to paraglide. It’s very steep and the views a
re spectacular. One of the cool things about the chairlift was that it could carry mountain bikes. You would take your bike to the top and then ride down. Several people were doing just that. Looked fun. We opted for the less fun “hike across the Alpine meadow in the blazing sun for tw
o hours”. Okay, it was still fun but having the adrenaline rush of racing down the mountain with the wind in your face would have been nice too. Again, the views were stupendous.

At the end of the hike we came to a point where a paraglider was preparing to take off. We watched him strap himself in to what looked like a very cozy banana, then fly the parachute like a kite until whoosh, he was up and gone. It looks much more appealing than the old hang gliders. The paragliders were going all day from the
time we came out of our apartment
ntil the time we went home. They could stay up in the air for hours. They looked like huge colourful birds sailing around high in the air.

The drive from France to Switzerland was short. France does not make use of the tunnel so we drove up into the mountains and then down into the valley beyond and voila, we wer
e at Montreux, Lake Geneva. Montreux’s big claim to fame is their Jazz Festival in July. We arrived just in time to watch them set up. Switzerland definitely wins the prize for most expensive. We spent $44 for lunch at McDonald’s. We toured the Castl
e Chillon where the Savoy family staked their claim back in the 1100’s. They built the castle on the lake with the mountain on the other side. Anyone trying to move through the land had to com
e that way so they built a tower and set up a toll. Europeans are big on tolls. Okay, not sure there was a toll but they did control who came and went. Their family crest looks suspiciously like the Swiss flag so they must have had a real impact.

The castle was well preserved and restored and we enjoyed wandering through. Perhaps the family favourite was the latrine, however, where they had posted information about latrines from the middle ages. One particularly endearing quote was “perhaps the most noble and upstanding plant in the forest is the holly because nobody wipes their behind with it”. There are several ways we could run with this but as this is a family blog I’ll just point out that of all the reasons my parents could have chosen the name Holly, this one is my favourite.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Halfway to Heaven

We spent four days in Chamonix, France riding the gondolas up and down the mountains and hiking the French Alps. The days were long and hot and extremely rewarding. Who knew it would be so hot up on a glacier? We got more sun during this time than in the past three months in southern Spain and Italy. It was also outrageously expensive but you only live once!

The first day we bought our two day family pass and tried not to look at the Canadian exchange while hitting the “okay” button. We flew from Chamonix up to the mid-station in about 10 minutes with 70 other tourists all laughing nervously as our stomachs dropped out with each tower pass. The cable car did a great impression of a Fun Park ride as it zipped along. We then caught the second “telepherique” from the mid-point to Aiguille du Midi, the high point of the Chamonix gondola rides. At the top, we dished out another hundred dollars to ride the three km gondola to Helbronner, Italy.

This particular “telecabine” takes about half an hour to traverse between the glaciers and mountain peaks offering unparalleled views. As we drifted above the snow, we watched the mountain climbers snail along in short chains and Rhys announced he was coming back one day to walk in that snow. It had that kind of effect. The snow below looked like the back of a Beluga whale at some points and seemed deceptively close. However, we were so high up that there were no towers between the two points of the gondola. Three kilometers and no towers you say…impossible. Well, no, one “tower” is a rock peak where the gondolas squeeze through the rock. That was interesting. The second “tower” has no base. It floats in mid-air, suspended between two peaks by long cables. That was also interesting. I felt a bit breathless by the time we reached Helbronner and was glad to escape the cabin. They have a line the station there that separates Italy and France. Naturally, we had to jump back and forth visiting several times.
The return trip was just as spectacular, made even more so as we got a close up view of the rock climbers scaling the face of the rock our telecabine docked at when we reached Aiguille du Midi again. We took the elevator up (yes, you aren’t really high enough yet) to the top of the peak and enjoyed our status of being “half way to Heaven”. It may be as close as some of us get so we took advantage of it. From here, we returned to the mid-station by cable car and then hiked 2.5 hours across the alpine meadows to Montenvers to see the ice caves and ride the train back to Chamonix.

We stopped early on the hike to eat. We were all ravenous and although we had made huge sandwiches, we all managed to inhale them in record time. NOT fast enough to avoid two donkeys who obviously heard me offering tomato to my family and decided to share our lunch with us. One of them was dog-like in his approach, quietly munching grass on the side of the trail and not looking at us but creeping towards us ever so slowly until he was practically on top of us. He then waited expectantly for a treat but sandwich meat and tomato were not his idea of treat food so he meandered away after some time.

We started our hike in high spirits after lunch. It was beastly hot, even with a cooling breeze and it wasn’t long before we all started feeling the drag of exhaustion. Julia asked how long we’d been hiking and we’d only made it ten minutes. Okay, it may have been more but we hadn’t really checked the time when we left. We filled up the water bottle in a creek and enjoyed the ice cold water on the walk. The views were amazing and kept us going for quite a while. Then the thought of ice cold treats at Montenvers spurred us the rest of the way.

We were pretty much done by Montenvers. It was 3:30 in the afternoon and we had started the day at 8:00. We gamely took the gondola down to the glacier and hiked the 400 steps further down. The glacier recedes by 3-4 metres every year so they had signs showing where it had been previously. They keep having to add more steps. The ice cave was awesome. Having never been in an ice cave, this one was impressive with basic sculptures and drippy walls. There was a man with his Saint Bernard set up inside for tourists to have their picture taken with the dog. He charged 6 euros for the privilege. The dog wasn’t bad at posing and they were doing a brisk business. Imagine. I wonder how much we could get for tourists to pose with Sparky? On our return trip up we travelled in Cabin 5 which we all thought was apropos. Our last adventure of the day was taking the rack and pinion train back down the mountain to Chamonix. We arrived at the base by about 6:00 and by the time we walked home we were all ready for bed.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Lake Maggiore

We went to the Lake District for the day. This is a highly recommended area but for those of us who live in BC and regularly visit places like Shuswap, the lake is beautiful but not unusually so. However, it was a nice day filled with comparisons and longings for Shuswap.

Stresa is a little town on the shore of Lake Maggiore where the rich and famous like to stay. We felt a bit sorry for them as it didn’t really have anything on Totem Resort at the Shuswap. Ernest Hemingway stayed here twice: once after being injured in the First World War and once again in 1948, staying in the same room. That room is now called the Hemingway Suite and runs for a couple thousand dollars a night. Winston Churchill also stayed here on his honeymoon. Nice hotel, nice view, crazy price.

There are a few little islands dotted on the lake where a very wealthy family built their palaces. They started with one on “Isola Madre” (Mom’s Island) and built a very dark, forbidding looking place in the 1500’s. Mom must have been a real gem. The whole island was landscaped into gardens and the walk around was beautiful. They have plants from all over the world including a few Cedars. They are tall and majestic, as big as the columns in the churches over here. They also stocked white peacocks and other interesting fowl. Again, a nod to Mom?

Their palace on Isola Bella (named for the wife, Isabella) is much lighter, airier and more livable. I’m pretty sure the new wife took one look at Dracula’s castle on the other island and insisted on a new living space. Either that or her family did. However, the basement is done in “grotto” fashion and looks like some sort of torture chamber. It just goes on and on and on so they must have used it. I think it was meant to be a cool place to hang out in the heat of summer but these guys had a weird sense of “charming” if you ask me. Obviously, whoever built Mom’s place was still alive and kicking and had input on the new digs. Or maybe it was the in-law suite… The whole island is also landscaped with exotic plants and animals.

The family still visits this home every year for a few weeks and since the flag was flying up top, we assumed they were home. This gave us pause. What would it be like to come home to have tourists crawling in and over your downstairs rooms? You couldn’t use your gardens because they’d be all around there as well. Does the family just sit upstairs quietly gazing out at the lake? Granted, the views from both palaces make these amongst the nicest in Italy. Every door and window looks out onto the lake. The soft breeze blowing through is pleasant and comfortable. Surrounded by elegance, you can see how lovely it would be…when alone.

We walked along several waterfront promenades and hobnobbed with the elite and elite-wannabe’s in Stresa for almost the day before heading back to reality.