Naomi non-visit

Or, alternatively: French train failures

Or, in the end: Solo mission along the Jura Crest

The setting: Canada day weekend, though not as strongly celebrated on this side of the pond, go figure. Two old Canadian friends on different sides of the Alps. Mad email/ skype conversations to plan a weekend getaway to the French Pyrenees. Plans made approximately 48 hours before the adventure is set to begin.

Insert unforeseen French holidays, and the result is an attempt to squash all North American style spontaneity. Sigh, all the trains were booked, and thus Naomi and I were unable to continue our tour of the world’s mountains together.

Undeterred, though terribly sad that I would miss Naomi, I set about preparing for a different weekend getaway- a 5 day hike along the Jura Crest. This ridge runs along the north of Switzerland from Zurich to Geneva. National hiking trail # 5, an area I always wanted to visit even though it is only a ridge within the flat ‘upper land’ of Switzerland. No dramatic mountain valleys, but an impressive expanse of uplifted rock providing gorgeous rolling hills, lake views, and quiet high altitude pastures. I was intrigued.

On the map, I planned to do the stretch from Weissenstein (translated: white stone) to Ste.Croix, along the section of the ridge to the north of Bielersee and Lac de Neuchatel (note the language change!) in 5 days. My final destination being a rather famous cliff pictured on all of the Swiss hiking websites. So I had to see it, which was a good enough reason to keep on walking. This was key, as indeed the motivation all had to come from within…. this was going to be a solo mission.

So with a full backpack- tent, sleeping bag, mattress, plenty of food, and what seemed like a handful on unnecessary ‘warm’ clothes, I started out early Thursday morning. The train runs along the ridge, more or less, all the way to Geneva, so I had my first impression early on of the uniqueness of the ridge jutting out from the yellow and orange patchwork of agricultural fields and dark green forests in the country-side.

To get up onto the ridge, I faced a grueling but beautiful ascent up the Weissenstein. The trail dates back to 1664, so I’m told, and the stairs are carved into the rock. To add an ounce of safety, steel wire has been added as a railing. Even without a backpack, the trail is demanding as it heads rather straight up, but is cheek-to-cheek with the white quartz-limestone and provides a magnificent backdrop for the fluorescent summer leaves.

Hiking up the 'white stone' cliff

Once on the ridge, I made my way West, over a few summits now and again, walking through many many cow pastures and glancing down to see the Aare river, and eventually the Bielersee and Lac de Neuchatel. And about the language change- this is the area known as the Roestigraben between the French and German speaking parts of Switzerland (here is a map from an older post). I didn’t see any noticeable ditch to mark the change, but my greetings along the trail switched from ‘Gruetzi’ to ‘Bonjour’.

blue white green- crest colours
Looking along the ridge
Typical ridge pasture

The walking was my favourite part. If my feet could have gone longer (or my back, hips or knees) I would have walked until sunset. The weather was perfect, the brilliant blue skies, the scent of the blossoming flowers, the clanging of the cow bells. It was a fully absorbing experience. And meditative as I slowly made my way along, up and down, checking the map every so often, and seeing almost no one on the trail.

On Friday it was Canada day, and the evening weather was fine! Lazing around on the grass, drawing, writing, reading- what a lovely way to spend it. I was lucky enough to pass through a little tourist spot earlier in the day and picked up freshly baked bread and some of the biggest cherries I have ever seen. So in honour of my country birthday, I made a typical German cake. Happy Canada Day!

Black Forest Cake- chocolate, marshmallow, and cherry

Each night I spent in the tent. Heading off the trail some distance, out of the way, and preferably with a plentiful supply of strawberries. But with the lovely open blue skies, the nights were shivering cold, down to 7C. Even with 2 pairs of pants (one merino wool!), 2 shirts, a scarf and toque, I couldn’t keep warm enough and often woke up to shake myself warm or cover myself with more layers. Because of this I cut the tour down one night, and skipped a section by train to be able to still make it to my destination. A bit of a disappointment but none the less part of the challenge of going it alone I suppose.

My home in the hills
Breakfast buffet
Sweet pick-me-up

Well I don’t often end up with pictures of myself on this blog, usually I’m on the other side of the camera, but I took quite a few photos this whole trip, and a few even with camera pointed back at me. This one I particularly liked for the way the eyes are framed by the shadow and hat (note! and scarf). I also don’t look exceedingly tired like I do in the later ones 🙂

Into the sun

Finally on the Sunday I made it to the end- Creux de Van! After 3 days of walking along lovely hills and pastures, I was craving something a little more dramatic, a little more Alp-like, and look what I got.

Creux de Van

This canyon is essentially on its own within the crest, and is a huge attraction as on one side you have a magnificent cliff dropping into forests, and on the other an incredible few back of the crest, the lakes… and maybe even some of those Alps off in the distance.

Looking back to the beginning

Even with the lovely weather, the far distant Alps were also covered in cloudy haze, until Sunday when they appeared the entire stretch of the horizon. With Mont Blanc being the most impressive, I could almost see Naomi on the other side 🙂

Alps peaking up

Though it did have to end on this high note. I descended back down to the Lac de Neuchatel to catch a train back to Zurich, passing through the fields that I had looked onto for the last 4 days. Taking a last deep breath of the Jura air, enjoying the sun on my face, and the weight of the pack, I was left with a lovely contentment of a mission complete and an amazing experience.

Final road home

Next time, Naomi will come too!

Scottish Highlands

Vacation! As much as living in Zurich is a dream, I was excited to get out of the city and really experience some unaltered nature (or at least unaltered in the last 100 years or so). So my boyfriend and I headed into the Western Highlands of Scotland for 2 weeks of camping and hitchhiking.  The people, the views, the hiking, the porridge- all made it a truly unique experience, and I’ll try to explain as much as I can here, but more pictures are posted elsewhere (just e-mail me if I didn’t send you the link). So…

Scottish Highlands July 2010

This title shot was taken at Sandwood Bay, in the far North, at the very end of the adventure. But I’ll back up to Edinburgh, where we began. We went to the old pubs where with live musicians play the traditional songs in the corner with their beer within arms reach.

Ambient celtic tunes
Singing of his long lost lady/ ship/ sheep/ whiskey

We explored Edinburgh’s main sites, the castle and high street. I was taken in by the old architecture, particularly the rooftops.

Edinburgh castle
Old town by night

Edinburgh is on the Southeast coast so we packed our backpacks and headed all the way to the west coast to a namesake town, Wemyss Bay. Not where the family comes from, but named after a salmon fisherman by the same name who was keen to get the town into a trading port. Now there is a picturesque train station, ferry pier, and not much else except many melancholy holiday homes.

Train and Ferry station

One ferry and many car rides later, we began our first big walk, doing the last 2.5 days of the West Highland Way footpath (though some of the locals do it on a rainy Sunday). The views were wonderful- rolling green hills that gleamed in the sunlight (when it was around) and were accented with dark purple heather, white fuzzy sheep, pink sandstone, grey granite and the black remains of the slow burning peat fires.

West Highland Way at Glencoe
The sheep were as common as the rain

In Scotland, you can camp wild (anywhere you please as long as you are respectful), so we tented along the route. For the efforts of carrying our tent and food, we were rewarded with amazing sites in remote valleys and bays. However, that also meant that we kept our food supply light. I am a huge fan of oatmeal, especially when camping and it is not new to me, but apparently it is called, through a rough translation, ‘wheat slime’ in German and would not be eaten by a rational person. However, it is decidedly British and lightweight, and perhaps that helped make it palatable for 10 straight days.

porridge!

Moving up the coast towards the famous Isle of Skye, we stopped at one of the popular coastal caravan holiday sites with beaches and coves. We found our own little  bit of land to camp on, and had the first rainless day for a while and a beautiful sunset.

Sunset over our private bay

Oh and I need to mention that ‘summer’ in Scotland means only 80% chance of rain everyday (I guess instead of 100%)… what a treat. So rain pants (thanks for the tip, mom!) and backpack covers were always on hand for the coming rain shower. But it wasn’t cold, and you get used to it quickly, sort of. 🙂

Off to Skye, where as we headed deeper into the highlands, we saw more and more Gaelic. Most of the locals from this part and the outer islands (the Hebrides) grow up speaking Gaelic first, English second. The language was dying but has had a strong comeback through government interest, and from the young people who have taken a keen interest in their heritage. Now there is BBC radio and a college in Gaelic. (FYI, I recently learned that the CBC radio broadcasts into 9 Native Canadian languages). Gaelic is fun to listen to but impossibly hard to pronounce correctly.

Gaelic at Skye Ferry

On Skye, we explored the ocean cliffs and poked around tide pools for anemones. It was especially rainy which created an interesting effect as everything became connected by the water- where it landed, connected, saturated, flowed, and ultimately ended up in the ocean in front of us.

Attempted geology lesson

The cliffs were fascinating with flat and smoothed-out layers, vertical drop-offs, and caves.  And I’m hoping a geologist I know has some answers to their formation (hint hint).

tide pool exploring below the cliffs

We moved campsites everyday to try to get as far North as we could. So we left Skye and arrived at a very cool castle on a spit into a freshwater loch (lake) which we took over for the night. Beautiful speckled sunlight helped to ease overactive imaginations about spirits living in the castle ruins…

Castle and chapel in back
The castle looked a little sturdier than the tent

A few more adventures on the way North, including a random stop at a fishing town, Sheldaig, to find a campsite on a very rainy night. To dry off we headed to the local pub, and ended up having the most amazing experience. In short, the locals got us up and dancing to the live cover band, brought us into their home for the after party where we sang, drank whiskey/tea (depending) and passed around the hand-smoked salmon and cheddar cheese with 1/5th of the town (that would be 20 of the 100 locals) until past 4 in the morning. And this was with the 20-somethings to the 60 year olds. From the 26-year-old who has travelled the world but came home to Sheldaig where he plans to live the rest of his life, to the 57-year-old who has been fishing the same waters as his father off of Sheldaig. We could not have felt more welcomed, and as we left the next day we were greeting people on the street like we had always lived there. Very special.

And finally we come full circle to our final destination in the very North, Sandwood Bay. An unexpected and unbelievable white sand beach amongst the hills. Not only was it like a small oasis in the Highlands, but the weather even turned around and was hot! I got to wear shorts (yah something other than rain paints!) for the first and only time on the trip.  We camped in the sand dunes and had a very fun day at the beach! Which is a phrase I would never have expected to say in this part of the country, but surprisingly the North coast has quite a few of these little spots, which was apparently known by John Lennon as it was a favourite vacation spot.

Beach and dunes and sun
Dazzling sunset

Hitching our way back down to Edinburgh was slightly exhausting and the necessary trial to impress upon us the significance of the experience we just had. We had come over 500 km by foot, ferry and car (carbon neutral to boot), kept smiling through days of rain, licked our lips after 45 packets of oatmeal,  drank the peaty spring water, fought off the midges and horseflies, navigated the twisty coastal roads, were saturated with every shade of green, interpreted the thick accents, connected with the land every night and the people every day. I would not say it was easy, but it was certainly worth every effort as I was continually astounded at each new location.

Coming back into Edinburgh there were only 3 plans in mind: hot shower, (veggie) haggis with neeps and tatties (mashed turnips and potatoes), and sipping whiskey while listening to live folk music. So I finish with the last…

golden warmth

Naomi visits: a short burst of winter

I would be lying if I said that my excitement for friends who get an opportunity to cross the pond doesn’t have a slightly selfish component… so when my good friend from McGill, Naomi, was given the opportunity to work on her Master’s degree in France for 6 months, I was sure to convince her first of the improved academic conditions and fine chocolates that would be at her disposal in France… and then promptly set a weekend when she could come to visit!

So a few weeks ago, brave Naomi hitchhiked with a friend from Southern France all the way to Eastern Switzerland- no trouble at all, and carbon neutral to boot!

 3 days went by too quickly, but with plenty of highlights.

The first, though probably not the best, entertainment of the weekend was sitting in on one of my craziest lectures, given by the head of my program- a brilliantly abstract mathematician-psychologist, who pulls ideas from almost every discipline and only happens to be in environmental science because the city screwed up the planning when they discovered that his neighbourhood had been inappropriately placed on a unremediated brownfield. He thought he could do it better, so he not only started to read up on the subject, but started a new discipline at ETH for it- Human-Environment Systems, and has recently finished a book on the topic as well. (I’ve recently gotten around to the ‘school’ page of this site, so check it out for a few more ideas about HES).

From there, we explored the city- stopping into interesting stores and seeing all the major sites. Being as touristy as we could despite of the rainy weather.

Impressions in Zurich

As is tradition, we took a series of self-portraits for a range of expressions: see if you can spot ‘it’s ok to keep speaking, but know that I don’t understand that language’, or ‘the more body-language I use must mean more comprehension’, and ‘Naomi’s in Zürich!!’

An evening in Zürich presents endless opportunities, so after visiting with my dog, Tiger, we went to a cinema-bar (a great idea that needs to be brought to Canada) for some of the craziest mixed drinks ever. Naomi had something with a Basil-Lemongrass mix, and I discovered a Carrot-Lime combination.

Guard dog
carrot basil creations

Sundays are perfect for hikes, because everything is closed, we thought… So even with a little rain in the city, we thought we would head up into the nearby hills for a leisurely tour. But as the bus climbed higher, the hills started to get a little whiter on top. I was shocked to see that not only was there snow still up high, but that it was still snowing!

A few pics of the fun that we were about to get into…

First signs of trouble
Crossing the line

It became particularly exciting when our rain jackets and shoes were soaked through, the snow was starting to whiteout the trail ahead, and our lighter melted while trying to start a fire 🙂

 
But we succeeded to make it over the pass and even take a few heroic pictures on the way. Frequent chocolate stops kept morale high.
white is the new colour for spring
victory against the elements

On the way down, we emerged into brilliant fresh green and ended the trip walking through a mountain river gorge where water (now in the liquid form) was the theme. Springs dripping around us highlighted the bright leaves. A few spectacular streams and waterfalls also appeared as little gifts which I took as the reward for making it through the snow.  

neon
snow melt
two chicks

 Thanks for visiting, Naomi. Miss you xoxo

From the city to the mountains with Andy

Later in October, I had a special visitor from England- Andy. Special because it had been 5 years since we had last seen each other! Previously in 2004, we had both volunteered in Costa Rica on a sea turtle conservation program. E-mails are a pretty incredible way for keeping in touch (nudge nudge, wink wink).So, we both were only a little concerned that meeting at the train station might be tricky, since neither of us was covered in mosquito bites, dressed in rugged beach clothes, or glowing from weeks in the Caribbean sun! No problems though and we had a great weekend checking out Zürich.

The first night down in the old town for dinner, there were some lovely reflections on the Limmat river of the Fraumunster church.  This was followed by an adventure to a friend’s house party complete with dance floor in the living room, video projections on the ceiling of another room where there was a fierce  pac-man competition in progress on the hand-made arcade game and of course a few black lights… rather unique. Not to mention that each room was heated by wood stoves!

 The next morning, a bratwurst and bun from a well-known street grill gave us energy to walk around the University of Zürich’s overgrown botanical garden. It has been a beautiful fall, and the trees throughout the garden were at different stages of dropping their leaves.

A little oasis in the middle of Zürich. We heard and spotted quite a few birds that Andy identified as Robins, Great Tits and Blue Tits.

But then a stop at the famous Sprungli bakery which is home to the Zürich specialty “Luxemburgli” got us thinking about chocolate for our train ride up to the mountains.  

We were able to grab some chocolate from Merkur (the place of the ‘slabs’ of chocolate seen in a previous post) and hop on our train up to Schluein. We felt that grapes were enough to balance the chocolate covered pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts, apples and mangoes even!

Views from the train were beautiful as we went from the lower hills into the mountains. Here we are passing Walen Lake.

A few more photo shoots up in the mountains at my Aunt’s house…

 

The morning that we were in Schluein was especially foggy in the valley, but the cows didn’t mind.

 

 

These are rather condensed tales of the visits but there was more hiking, more eating and more photos throughout this weekend. It was another great visit full of laughter at old stories and from the new ones being created.

 

Old friends always have a great grounding effect and remind me of where I came from. Even with the huge amount of work that piled up over these two weekends, I was very happy to have had some old faces around.

Schluein

This is the town Lisa (my Aunt) lives in with the gang of Freddi, Mia, Nora and Ruby. I go up (about 2-ish hours from Zurich by train) whenever I feel the need for some family time or a little open space.

It is the ideal place to get to know Swiss living (this last weekend we had fondue and made our own pasta!), take some fantastic walks through the surrounding hills with my Uncle Frederic who is a mountain guide and play with my cousins, Mia and Nora, and the dog, Ruby.

The town is in the area of Flims and Laax which are famous ski resorts in the area. The summer hiking on the ski hills makes for dramatic vistas onto the surrounding Alps.

Some photos for you to get the idea… 

View from Lisa's Living Room
View from Lisa’s Living Room

The big trees on the left are walnut. Lisa and I went out to pick them as the tree drops them over the fall. In a month or so, they harden up and develop their lovely buttery taste.   

Lisa and Nora
Lisa and Nora
My lovely Aunt and baby cousin.
The Mountain Hut above the town of Laax
The Mountain Hut above the town of Laax
The mountain hut that was built by Frederic and his friends. They go up here for three weeks a year during the legal deer hunt. At dawn and dusk they are 30 feet up in the air suspended from their favourite strategic tree waiting for the elusive Red Deer… this year was a bad year (blame it on the hard winter, was what I heard the locals whispering) and only 3 deer were shot amongst them. We hiked up to the hut once to meet them when they came down for lunch. Sitting around over wild mushroom (that they found on their way down) risotto with a bunch of smelly, unshaven, and deer-obsessed mountain men was a funny experience. As I sat there listening to Lisa translate with my eyes wide, I must have looked a bit like a deer myself. It certainly blew away any previous notions about Swiss hunting that I had.
The Flims Stone, the local area is known for this formation
The Flims Stone, the local area is known for this formation

 Taken from the town of Flims, this outcrop is the backdrop throughout the town and is instantly recognizable once you have caught a glimpse.

Flims Ski Hill
Flims Ski Hill
We made our way around the open face of the ski hill with the Flims Stone in the background.
Cool mushrooms everywhere
Cool mushrooms everywhere
I could probably do a whole post only on mushrooms…
Blueberry picking with a sleeping Nora
Blueberry picking with a sleeping Nora
Our path went through a huge blueberry patch. We ate our fill and talked about our safe escape from scurvy. Nora did not partake.
Freddi and Ruby
Freddi and Ruby
The distant mountains just started to clear out of the fog as we finished the hike.

Environmental Science Master’s Weekend

What a weekend! I just got back from two days up in the mountains with my fellow Environmental Scientists. With plenty of new faces and new stories, the weekend was full of meeting people and discovering their backgrounds, their reasons for coming to ETH, and testing their Canadian geography (which proved to be quite good, but foruntaley not enough to know all the stereotypes). 

Other than learning about one another, the conversations dealt heavily with language- native languages, comfort in foreign languages and all the diverse cultural aspects that relate directly to local language. It was fascinating and the big questions for myself and my friend, Andrea, who is from Ontario, were about the Quebec ‘accent’ and that Irish slang they have going on in Newfoundland. Amongst the French speakers, a good ‘Ouai!’ always found common ground as they were all keen on learning to speak it. I never would have guessed…  🙂

I’ve provided a handful of the best pictures from the weekend to show some examples of what real Swiss people look like, a working tropical greenhouse, and plenty of breathtaking views as we hiked below, through and above an incredible fog.

Our first stop of the weekend was a tropical greenhouse using waste heat from a nearby Natural Gas compression station. The heat is used to warm the greenhouse to grow organic fruits for local markets and high end restaurants. An incredible project that has brought investment into this small agricultural area, as well as captured some of the huge energy off of the compressor station (they said about 100 GW hours of which about 50% is captured through the greenhouse and heating a local hospital).

The group headed to the tropical greenhouse
The group headed to the tropical greenhouse
Looking over the papaya plants to the banana palms
Looking over the papaya plants to the banana palms
My favourite: Tilapia ponds providing nutrient filled water for the plants!
My favourite: Tilapia ponds providing nutrient filled water for the plants!

They also employed a Greenwater System using Tilapia fish (which at maturity can be sold as food) in ponds where the water is recirculated to the tropical plants. The murky green water, which gives this system its name, is full of nutrients from the metabolic processes of the fish and is ideal for the plants as well as for the fish. The whole system comes very close to being nutrient and water neutral. A very impressive setup!

Next, we were headed up to a mountain area called Napf. We had a few stops along the way to take in the incredible view and taste some local food. First though, we were in a small village with some locals who asked  us to take their picture. Well, I snapped one too because they were just too great.

Real Swiss People in front of a typical Swiss mountain house
Real Swiss People in front of a typical Swiss mountain house

We hiked about 3 hours, through mostly open fields looking out over the neighbouring valleys, villages and grazing areas. As we got higher we began to get closer and closer to the misty clouds/ fog above us.

Looking out
Looking out
Local vegetation
Local vegetation
Into the fog
Into the fog
It felt like we were entering into another world...
It felt like we were entering into another world...

Then we met some goats!

DSCN4365
Out of the mist...
I bonded with this one
I bonded with this one

Then we found who the goats belonged to- the farmhouse at the top of this rise had a stand selling their dried sausage, goat cheeses, and apple cider. I love Switzerland!

Mid-hike refreshments
Mid-hike refreshments

A little further up and we passed out of the clouds and were on top of the Napf! A lovely old farmhouse that fed and housed us (as well as some of the other hikers that made it up). Our group wandered around looking into the mist below and thoroughly enjoyed the moment of floating above the clouds.

Napf
Napf
Jumping at sunset above the clouds
Jumping at sunset above the clouds
horses around the house
horse around the house
The view at sunset
The view at sunset

 We eventually made it in for a typical alpine meal and some tasty dessert. Plenty of story-telling and singing ensued but we knew what was awaiting us the next day- the 4.5 hour trek down.

Meringues, ice cream and whipped cream!
Meringues, ice cream and whipped cream!

Overall, the hikes were stunning, the food was great and the company proved to be very entertaining. A 10/10 for this one.