#9 Italy into Switzerland
Northern Italy May 26 - June 5, 2006
Revisiting the Ancient Egyptians in Torino
Late, heavy snows kept the bike friendly passes from Val d'Aosta in northwestern Italy into France and Switzerland closed and that left Map Man with unexpected time in our itinerary. It was too late to realize we should have seen the rest of Sardinia and neither of us were excited about dipping back down into the sometimes difficult traffic and pollution in the Po Valley. One day could be frittered away by revisiting the Torino's "Museo della Antichita Egizie", which we enjoyed in 2005. Having been in Egypt just a few months before, Torino's Egyptian museum would provide a nice refresher course.
We side-stepped the urban traffic issue and laid-over in Ivrea, an hour's train ride from Torino. The Museo was an easy walk from the main train station and the rail excursion made for a pleasant Sunday outing. And I can now say with certainty that Torino host's my favorite Egyptian museum. We enjoyed it the first time and they'd been busy enhancing it in the last 12 months (no doubt spurred by being recent Olympic hosts).
Most startling was walking into the renovated 2 rooms of monumental statuary--new exhibition space that was conceived by an award winning movie set designer. The dark walls, huge sections of dark mirrors and skillful lighting created an awesome environment for the dozens of stunning pieces. It was even better when we revisited the rooms after our lunch break when they were emptied of the crowds. The sanctuary quality of the space was more intense and the quiet background music we missed before could be heard.
They'd clearly been upgrading all of the exhibit areas in the
museum, though not all to the same degree. There was definitely more English
text and more overview information along the way. We rented the audio guides
this time and were glad for it, especially on the 3rd of 3 levels where there
was the least upgrading. On that upper level is housed a very special exhibit-- the
Tomb of the Architect Kha--a tomb that was not raided in antiquity. Last year we
were left wondering about the significance of the fabrics and daily-life goods we were seeing, this year its secrets were shared with us in the audio
As we had hoped, visiting the museum consolidated and refreshed our understanding gained from actually visiting Egypt. And Torino's museum is certainly a much more educational experience and more satisfying than Cairo's, despite Cairo's collection being more famous and larger. If you might be in the area, you can get directions, current hours, and free admission days from: www.museitorino.it.
The Italian Lake District
Despite the brainstorming sessions, we didn't generate any additional plans for using up the extra time in our schedule, so resumed heading north for the Italian Lake District. It had been increasingly hot and humid for a few days and I finally dug deep into my pannier to pull out my khaki-colored riding pants to replace my sunlight-absorbing black ones, even though the predicted 90°F temperature didn't seem to materialized for our Torino outing. But I felt mighty silly a few days later when we took shelter from the snow in a nice stonework nook for garbage dumpsters.
I believe it's the first time we've dined with a dumpster,
but we were glad for the opportunity. The sunny overhead skies in the morning as we left Biella were flanked by
threatening rain clouds to the north but we had hoped to skirt along them. We
were actually at the top of our day's climb instead of just near the top as we
the winds delivered the rain directly to us. Having watched it for hours, we
didn't expect it to be a passing shower and looked for cover to don all of our
raingear. Once under a scant eve, I spotted the dumpster across the road in its
cozy nook and thinking twice about it was enough. Clearly designed for 3 dumpsters
instead of the 1 it housed, dry and odor free, it looked inviting. And it was
perfectly positioned to shield us from the wicked, swirling winds.
As the rain became laced with snow, our thoughts shifted from just digging out the buried rain gear to also dallying in the shelter to eat lunch. It was a little early, but our usual town square benches would be wet and wind-chilled later, so this looked like our best bet for our daily picnic. If we were lucky, the worst of the storm would pass in the time it took us to eat and bundle up and if we were really lucky, neither garbage depositors or collectors would be by to make us feel even more foolish.
I thought about taking a photo but by the time we were through eating the plunging temperatures had left our fingers numb and us short on the will for doing anything but the essentials. In the 2 hours we'd ridden, the temperature had dropped 20°F and while we ate it dropped another 7°--down to 46°--almost a 45° drop from what had been predicted on Sunday in Torino. We not only were digging out our raingear but also all of the cold weather clothing that we could locate with fumbly fingers.
Our bit of good news was that both the rain and snow did stop by the time we were ready to said goodbye to our dumpster shelter; the bad news was that the warming climb we had expected didn't materialize. The double arrows on Bill's map indicating 7-12% grades were printed in the wrong direction: instead of our numb fingers and toes being warmed by the steep climb, they were further chilled by a steep descent. Luckily, there was no snow or ice on the pavement but the green hills we admired before lunch were now dusted with snow.
My hands were terribly cold and I could barely feel my brake levers between the chill in my hands and the thickness of my 2 pairs of gloves. But unlike most miserably cold and wet days, we actually left this weather behind us. The long, cold downhill ride eventually put us into the next valley and it had entirely escaped the weather event. The pavement was dry and the locals must have thought we were mad to be bundled up as we were.
Bill was the first to comment that even on the steep, 10% uphill grade we were soon doing in all of our heavy clothes, he wasn't sweating. Though it was sunny and in the mid-60's, we were still chilled to the bone. Our leg muscles screamed at the effort, being cold in an athletic sense and in a literal temperature sense too.
When we finally warmed enough to strip down to our summer-weight clothing, my hands and feet were still cold to the touch. An additional stretch of 10% grades did finally warm them, though that night in hot showers both of our bodies remembered the chill. I felt like my hands that had been warm for hours were lecturing me in the hot shower--they remembered the noontime insult and were being stern with me about not repeating it. Bill, who is less prone to deep chilling, also found his body to be insatiable in the hot shower that night, despite the comfortably warm intervening hours.
We finally had a room with English on the TV that evening and learned a huge low pressure system had blanketed the Europe from Britain south, plunging the temperatures and whipping up the winds. The folks in relatively balmy Munich were building snowmen at the end of May and the meteorologist's were reporting on who was currently being clobbered by the winds. Warm spring days in Berlin and Paris had succumbed to the 50's and you had to look to Athens on the edge of the weather map to find anyone enjoying the 70's on June 1st.
For the next week, every day was a surprise from a weather
standpoint. Near the Alps in northern Italy, we happened to be right on the
edge of the extremes, so the general European forecast wasn't much help in telling us what our days
would be like. The splendid news in this wild weather system was that it was
coming out of the northwest. The winds were icy cold like they had swept across the
glaciers of the Alps, if not of the Artic, but they were like a magic wand in
sweeping away the Po Valley pollution from the Lake District.
We soon found ourselves on Lake Maggiore as we did last year, but this year when the clouds cleared, the skies were a brilliant blue. Last year, every photo we took had a hazy backdrop. But unfortunately, upon arriving at the Lake we would be biking north, into the winds. We longed for some clever compromise by which the winds could still hold the pollution at bay without also holding us back.
Usually about once a year we find ourselves having to buy way-up on lodging to get lodging at all, but in 2006 it instead was happening about once a month. Our arrival at the wildly popular Lake District was well before high season but happened to coincide with the unknown to us "Republic Day". And not only was it a lucky 3-day holiday weekend for the Italians, it seemed to be the beginning of the traveling season for the Swiss and Germans too. We stopped early to begin the search for lodging on Friday afternoon but had the Italian hotel clerk known the "Snow ball's chance....." expression, he would have been using it.
After rejection from a string of desk clerks, I patiently waited about 10 minutes while another clerk made phone calls to an offsite manager for her upscale hotel. I was clueless as to the issue: was it a questionable cancellation, an out-of-service room being put on line, a downed computer system--I couldn't tell. But running short on options, I resolved to curb my usual impatient streak and instead wait in calm and grace. While I waited, I negotiated with myself for my top price. Bill and I had settled on one, but he was suffering a set back from a persistent cold and cough and was in no condition to ride for several more hours on a hunt for accommodations. An additional ten, twenty, thirty, forty Euro's--my price point was going up rapidly as I politely smiled and waited.
When the clerk finally confirmed she had a room for the 2 nights we requested, at 110€ per night, I calmly said that would be fine. We'd been paying 70€ a night and had wished those prices were lower and normally would have walked away, but today we were grateful to get off the road. Bill needed to stop and he needed another rest day, so I chalked it up to a medical expense and didn't bother to convert it to dollars. This time we couldn't even comfort ourselves by saying that the Dow was strong or the dollar was strong--on this occasion it was "a spent it and forget it" situation.
Just a few weeks earlier in Courmayeur near Monte Blanc we also had to buy-up to have a room, though it had been in the depths of low season. On the May 1st holiday weekend in Bonifacio, Corsica we also got stuck paying much higher prices to have a room at all. And in Cairo our inability to make advance reservations at our preferred hotel had us buying-up to ensure a place to stay when we arrived. We hoped that this will be the end to an unusual streak of getting caught paying for more expensive rooms, but it was not.
The disappointing fact is that buying-up doesn't usually get us much more than significantly lower priced rooms. In Bonifacio and Courmayeur, our more expensive rooms were more cramped than what we'd been getting for less money on the preceding nights. I was relieved that the one room available in our Verbania hotel on Lake Maggiore didn't have a lake view, assuming that the price would have been even higher. As expected, the last room they had was at the end of the hall, around several corners, looking out on to a couple of back alleys. Our newly but not quite completely remodeled room was unusually spacious. And almost better for me than the lake view was it being a corner room with big windows on 2 sides--probably the only room on the floor with so many windows. The bright light and rush of fresh air made it like being outside without fending off the brisk winds. CNN on the TV and free wifi by hanging out the window took a little of the sting out of the high price.
But despite the snow, the winds, and the high prices of getting to and being in the Lake District, it was great to be back. The Lake District has a long tradition of giving the city dwellers of Torino and Milano quick getaways to fresher, cooler air in the summer and delightful green spaces. Gracious old estates, grand hotels, and gardens abound. Charming buildings on little islands prompt many to take the boat rides out to them. On the clearer days, sharp-edged snow capped mountains can be seen can and even visited for a day trip, including the Matterhorn. And just seeing roadside signs to places we visited last year like Domodossola, Simpione Pass, and Stresa were enough to bring even more delightful memories flooding back into our minds.
Ticino: The Very Italian Canton of Switzerland June 5- 10
After Bill's recuperation day at the Italian end of the lake, we headed north for the city of Bellinzona on the river feeding Lago Maggiore, hoping it would be cheaper than the nearer Swiss lakeside city of Locarno. We were bowled over in 2005 with Locarno's prices, even for crummy accommodations. And to make matters worse, this year we were discovering that our Republic Day holiday weekend in Italy had coincided with the 3-day Pentecostal holiday in Switzerland and Germany. But despite the extra competition for lodging on the 3-nation, 3-day holiday weekend, the plan worked, and we easily found relatively budget-friendly lodging in off-the-lake Bellinzona. Even after a week with 2 rest days, Bill was still gasping for air on our mostly flat ride along the lake and then river due to the cough-phase of a nasty cold, so yet another lay-over day was in order to aid his recovery.
What we didn't understand upon arrival was that Bellinzona is a destination in itself because of its UNESCO World Heritage Site medieval castles. It proved to have a charming old town that we spent all day visiting instead of the expected 1-2 hours of sightseeing out of a presumed study day. Of course, the beautiful, sunny weather added to our strolling pleasure. The city audio guide that was loud enough for 2 to share for a little over $4 was loaded with more satisfying details than most. Though hiking up to the higher 2 castles was more than Bill was up to, we thoroughly enjoyed the electronic guide's introduction to the city and the main castle, Castelgrande.
Real estate professionals know that the 3 most important things to remember when buying property are "Location, location, location" and Bellinzona's location was enviable by the standards of all eras. For the first Neolithic settlers around 5,000 bce who were looking for a place to call home after the glaciers receded, Bellizona was perfect. It was situated on the huge granite outcropping in the bottom of the freshly carved glacial valley that had somehow survived the glacier's destructive forces, making it an exceptional perch above the swamps below. And a natural recess in the top of the impermeable rock was as good as a well with its propensity for collecting rain water.
Later peoples, like the Romans, also coveted the defensive
qualities of Bellinzona's monolith, especially since it was a natural sentinel
at the base of 3 passes across the Alps. All those who vied for power in the
region targeted control of this hunk of granite. Much later in the 14th century, it
was the Milanese who called Bellinzona the northern boundary of their empire and
who fought to control the access to the passes.
The Italian influence on Bellinzona was furthered by Florentine architects being recruited to design early walls to extend the reach of the castles and by Italian clans from farther south building their own nearby family fortresses. The outsiders, the Swiss tribes, repeatedly attacked the Milanese fortresses at Bellinzona.
And it was startling to also learn from our audio guide that the lovely agricultural roads that we traveled on for miles to Bellinzona have only been protected from disastrous flooding of the valley-shaping rivers since the 1920's. The tidbit was a good reminder that most, but not all, of the forces defining the area were ancient.
Italian or Swiss?
While in Bellinzona and then other parts of Ticino (tee-chee'-no) canton, the balance in our minds was constantly tipping between "It's Switzerland" and "No, it's Italy." The street signs, the overheard conversations on the streets, and the names in the Bellinzona cemetery we walked through were decidedly Italian. But the new currency passing through our hands at the grocery stores said "Switzerland;" while the language of the store clerk said "Italy".
The prices in the food stores were definitely those outrageous Swiss prices--prices high enough to keep our visits to the country short. Even in Bellinzona, which dips south and looks on the map like it should be a part of Italy, the grocery prices soared. A smallish cauliflower was about $4.50, more than double what we usually pay, and as before, the sizes of the produce shrank to that of miniatures. The cute little apples were of poor quality and outrageously priced, like everything else. But despite the jarring and typically Swiss prices, the easy, outgoing manner of the people around us was definitely Italian.
Like the rest of Switzerland, Ticino had that tidy, contained look that makes it easy to believe it has always been that way. And the stunning bronze statuary on family plots in the Bellinzona cemetery--statuary that outshines many cities public art--did speak to the legendary wealth of the Swiss. The calm and contained, almost sedated, ambiance of the communities felt typically Swiss.
The modern residential areas were very Swiss with their neat and thoughtful lay-outs, carefully maintained green spaces, frequent play areas,
ample bike parking,
free doggie pooper scooper bags, and traffic calming devices. Some light
industry buildings nestled against residential neighborhoods looked like they
were from an architect's
concept model with their exterior decors perfectly blended with the homes. These
businesses had their own cantilevered shelters for the cars, manicured
lawns, and picnic tables. One could easily imagine smiling adults happily walking
to work in these pleasant mixed-use districts.
An ample supply of the characteristic red painted park benches, free public toilets, accommodations for bikes, and people biking like it is as ordinary as eating were as prevalent as in other parts of Switzerland. There is an orderliness, a neatness, a predictability about Switzerland that is very comforting for the traveler and it was alive and well in Ticino despite the strong Italian overlay.
The glaring contradiction in Switzerland's "neat and tidy" look was the hodge-podge nature of the budget lodging. Because of the budget-breaker prices in Switzerland, we started at the bottom instead of somewhere in the middle of a town's lodging selection, usually upgrading a bit from the cheapest rooms by trying for a private bathroom. But that price range often put us in rooms like the one with printed aqua blue sheets laid against the brown and green bed covers that contrasted with the electric blue lamps and curtains, which clashed with the bright yellow shower curtain that was a substitute for a door to the toilet area. Though every day's lodging was different and we occasionally found a room that felt like a good value, even in Switzerland.
Last year, outrageously priced national bike route books and annoying bike routes became entrenched in the darker side of our image of what is typical about Switzerland. This year we vowed not to invest in their route books and instead to wing-it with ordinary road maps. But their reputation was elevated a bit in 2006 in Ticino as we stumbled upon road signs for route #3 that happened to aim for San Gottardo Pass, which was where we were headed. This route, that could be followed by the posted signs alone, didn't punish us with rough, steep paths but kept us off the busy streets and had us meandering through the flood plain farm land. Like in Italy, it was more successful to go with the 'discovered' routes rather than the 'searched for' ones.
Though Italian was THE language, sometimes it was hard for us to know what language to use while in Ticino. Often when I cobbled together my little Italian sentences, the distressed listeners would reply in German, the most likely first language of tourists in the area. But when Bill offered German first, he often got blank stares. We don't know if it was a politics thing and that they only wanted to use their German if it was their choice or if they didn't like his textbook, High German as was the case elsewhere in Switzerland.
In the end, there was no denying that we really were in Switzerland while in the Ticino canton, but slipping across the border into the Italian region of the country eased the transition, both because of being able to use our Italian scripts and because of the much friendlier people.
Heading Towards Passo del San Gottardo
or Saint Gotthard or Sankt
Gotthardpass (Italian, English or German)
Constricting Valleys Concentrate the Transportation History
Our approach to Passo del San Gottardo on the northern border of Ticino canton kept turning our heads towards the history of the area even though we didn't see much in the way of museums. It was the convergence of things that repeatedly had us pondering the history, both because of the obvious Swiss-Italian tug-of-war and because of the very visible compressing effect of the geography on the transportation systems.
Like many of the high Alpine mountains, the mountains in the
southern Swiss Alps are separated by
deep, narrow valleys that were carved by thick, slow moving glaciers and then
further shaped by fast moving rivers. The narrow
strip of water-leveled land on either side of the valley-floor river gave inhabitants a
cherished opportunity to
occupy flat land. And it was a bit of land at more merciful, lower elevations.
Prehistoric and modern residents had the luxury of getting around in these
flattened areas without the Sherpa feet needed on the steep slopes and enjoyed a
shorter snow-season than on those living higher-up. And
the millennia, these winding, narrow valleys with a strip of flat land at gentle inclines were of
course irresistible magnets for transportation.
Perhaps the transportation route began as a wild animal trail along the water or a migratory route, or perhaps had its origins as an ancient footpath for prehistoric hunters. Thousands of years later the Romans would have drawn on some of the wisdom of the old route when they engineered their straighter roadway to support trade or enforce their authority over the area. And often the modern road through the valley that is suitably quiet for us on bikes is now the less used 'old' road, often the road with its roots in antiquity.
The odds of us being on an old road through a valley are always greater if there is also a parallel freeway to suck most of the truck traffic off the smaller road. At the steep ends of the mountain valleys in northern Italy and Switzerland, the steady-grade and straighter expressways generally had the vehicles alternating between charging through long tunnels gouged in the rock and whizzing atop ribbons of concrete supported on impossibly high, spindly legs. Luckily the freeways were usually up high enough that we don't even hear their rumble.
Also ducking in and out of their own purpose-built tunnels would be a pair of train tracks running up the valley, often near the freeway. The trains were less likely to follow the ancient routes as rail beds are usually made on grades of 4% or less--grade considerations that didn't restrain other mountain travelers. The trains spend less time on bridges and expanses leaping across the valley than the cars and more time in their tunnels. In Switzerland, the trains even do spiraled loops as though traveling on route inspired by a 'slinky' toy, usually built inside the mountains. We would often only get a few glimpses of the of the trains to know that they were circling around inside the rock. The quick looks at the rail service sometimes rewarded with their own novelty, which was being loaded with long haul trucks, as apparently it is cheaper to have a train lug them over the mountain than drive them across.
The river that slowly made the valley attractive for all this transportation would also still be present, yet we were left to imagine its role in transport. Water transport (especially downstream) is so much less effort than any other mode, that little stretches must have been used for some cargo in the past though we saw no signs of it in modern times. As we pedal along, I am always amused by the camaraderie of the transportation systems forced by the narrowing of the valley: we on our old road paralleling the river, and the higher-up trains and freeways going in the same direction.
These steep-sided mountain valleys force everyone to travel a
similar route though at different speeds and it's always a little reminder about
the history of transportation to have them all so visibly lined up--or even
stacked up at the
constricted ends of some valleys. Our old road would climb up with the aid of tight switch-backs and the
freeway and train would leap over the river on bridges and dive into dark tunnels
within the mountain.
Passo del San Gottardo's Place in History
Passo del San Gottardo that we would soon cross over was a classic model for our understanding of the history of Alpine passes. San Gottardo was a favorite route of the northern Celtic tribes and it was known by the Romans, though it was not one of their preferred tracks. It again become an important route in the 13th century after the construction of Devil's Bridge at relatively lower elevations eliminated the bottleneck on the path. It was used for centuries after that as a major commercial route, with local farmers and their pack mules and horses carrying the cargo. In its heyday in the 18th century 2600 tons of food, raw fibers, fabrics, and paper a year were hauled across it in either direction by 2 or 4 legs.
San Gottardo Pass was the shortest route through the Alps and was used year round, with men chipping ice off the trails with axes and other hand tools. The first tunnel in the Alps was built on the route in 1707. The 9 mile long train tunnel was built in the 1870's at about the 3,800' level to avoid the top of the pass at 6,900' and the old rail way still includes several spiral tunnels. It wasn't until the road was upgraded for autos in the 1920's that pack animals and their owners were put out of the haulage business. Almost 100 years after the train line was opened, the 10 mile long auto tunnel was built through the mountain, leaving us with the old cobble-stoned road that goes to the top of the pass.
History Repeating Itself
These mountains are still getting holes for transportation bored through them and we saw the latest tunnel work that was begun in 1999. The 35 mile long tunnel is expected to take 10 years to complete and is currently the largest project underway in Switzerland. We had ridden for miles next to a neat little covered conveyor belt wondering what it was for. We'd seen the end of it, where it was depositing massive amounts of what appeared to be mining tailings on the side of the valley, filling in the rough slopes along the freeway with pebble-sized rock. Later when we arrived at the other end of the belt, we learned that it was depositing the rock being removed for the tunnel. Miles up the other end of the valley we passed by more mountains of this expensive gravel. These piles of gravel again illustrated one of the delightful aspects of these steep mountains--most everything is eventually forced into the narrow valleys, giving us a chance to learn the other half of the story.
Bill was still struggling to completely recover from the lingering effects of a respiratory infection and wanted to postpone the big breathing effort in cresting Passo del San Gottardo yet another day (yes, he did eventually get well). A layover for some hiking from the tiny village of Piotta on our approach to San Gottardo looked perfect. He had spotted a funicular on his maps that ran between the valley floor and about the 5,900' level, which should afford some great panoramas.
Once at the top of the funicular the next morning, we felt a little snookered to discover that the lake in the photos wasn't the charming morainal lake that we expected to loop around but instead a dammed reservoir for a hydroelectric plant. And the mountain tops views were good but not as grand as we had come to expect at the top of mountain lifts.
We settled on
taking a short hike higher up the steep slopes that were mostly free of snow for more
scenic views than circling the reservoir would deliver. And the sightings of several dozen hard-to-photograph marmots (or
'marmotta') scampering around drew us even deeper into the mountains. The marmots were perfectly camouflaged
against the spare and mostly brown grasses and had plenty of large burrow
entrances for making quick escapes.
After we recovered from the initial disappointment of seeing the barren reservoir area and were treated to a couple of dramatic views higher up, we became more interested in the history of the hydro operation. The funicular was built in the 1920's and claims to be the fastest funicular in the world. Their statement that it has a stretch with a 87.8% grade was easy to believe. Even more curious, this funicular was built in tandem with the pipes that pour water down from the lake into the hydroplant at the base of the funicular. And from the looks of the discreetly placed logos, it appears that the hydroplant was either wholly or partly owned by the regional rail line that is powered by electricity.
The somewhat disappointing hike did serve its primary purpose, which was to give Bill a "relative rest" day, and then it was time to turn our attention to tackling our first Swiss pass of the 2006 riding season, Passo del San Gottardo.
Where We Are: 8/5/06
We arrived in Berchtesgaden in southeastern Germany on August 2 and it began raining that night. The 5-day forecast left no hope for seeing any peaks while hiking in the pretty mountains so we shelved those plans for another year. The hiking boots got packed up and hauled off to the post office in a hefty 26 pound box stuffed with treasured maps, guide books and history books. Since we were shipping back the bulky boots, we decided to lighten our load a little for our remaining months of riding.
We are laying over an extra day in Berchtesgaden in hopes of not riding in a downpour when we leave on Sunday. We've ridden in so little heavy rain this season that it is hard to make ourselves get out there and do it. Our reluctance is aided by the memory that riding on German dedicated bike paths in the rain often means slogging through more than a little mud. And besides, we can always use an extra day to work on our backlog for the webpage.
Next, we'll head generally north and west through Germany. But Map Man's ever-vulnerable plans have just be disrupted by us remembering that there is a special temporary exhibit of Egyptian underwater archeology finds in Berlin that we need to see in the next month before it moves on to Paris. Now we have to devise a day trip to Berlin via train or budget airline to see the exhibit before it leaves.