Travelling

Hiking route: Valle Verzasca, Ticino, Switzerland

Autumn is the hiking period for my family and this year we did three amazing routes. The first one was the 5 Lakes Route, an alpine route on Mount Pizol in the canton of Saint Gallen, described already in a previous blogpost. The second one was the Verzasca valley route, in the canton of Ticino.

For our hiking, we chose a cute small valley in the geographical centre of Ticino, the Verzasca valley. It is a rural and largely untouched valley with steep inclines and numerous waterfalls. It is formed by the Verzasca river that flows over rock through the narrow valley and has many natural rock pools and places to bathe. The Verzasca valley extends over a length of 25 kilometers in north-south direction. The altitude of the valley floor is from 500m to 900m above sea level, so the hiking routes along the valley are not too demanding. The surrounding mountains have an average altitude of 2400m, so the routes that includes crossing over a pass are of moderate difficulty.

We decided to do the Verzasca valley route from north to south, starting at Sonogno, the northest village of the valley that is accesible by car, and finish at Lavertezzo, more than 17 km away, from where we could take the bus back to Sonogno. The duration of the route depends on the website you check and the person that wrote about it and can vary from 3 to 6 hours. In any case, we considered it a full-day activity, especially since we did it two days after the alpine hiking at Mount Pizol and we were not planning to hurry around.

We reached the Verzasca valley by car from Tenero, at Lake Maggiore. Via Valle Verzasca runs north, along the Verzasca river. At the southern outlet of the valley the river is dammed, forming the Lago di Vogorno. We stopped at the 220m high dam, which is considered to be one of the highest dams in Europe and is famous for the “GoldenEye” Bungee Jumping, the setting of the opening scene of the James Bond movie “Golden Eye”. It is absolutely scary! Then we continued further north, to Sonogno, where the street ends.

Sonogno is a cute alpine village, with traditional stone houses and narrow alleys. A bit northern of the village and only about 15 min away, there is an impressive waterfall. You can walk right next to the small pool that the waterfall creates or a bit higher on a hill that give the opportunity of beautiful pictures.

The waterfall at Sonogno

The following morning we woke up early and got ready for our excursion. It is a rather easy to moderate route, with not big ascents and desents. Nevertheless, it is advised to wear proper shoes, especially if the weather has been rainy. In addition, it is better to carry your supplies of water and snacks, as there is nowhere along the path to get supplies.

Our starting point, the village of Sonogno is at 919m above sea level and more or less the highest point of the route. The path starts at its south end past the athletic facilities, with a beautiful bridge over the amazingly coloured river.

Verzasca river from the bridge at Sonogno. The colour is amazing.

From Sonogno, the path runs along the river from the right bank, till the village of Frasco, while the street is from the left one. At Frasco, we had to cross over the impressive Vecchio Ponte stradale and head to the left bank of the river, while the street continues from the right bank. This is quite common in all of the route: the path and the street are on opposite banks.

The path continues from Frasco to Brione firstly through meadows and traditional farm houses and then approaching again the riverside. At about the middle there is Gerra, where we saw a beautiful waterfall.

At Brione we stopped to have our lunch break. There were turquoise natural pools formed by the river around here and it was the perfect place to have our own outdoor bbq swiss style, with cervelas, the most typical Swiss sausages. We collected wood from all around the river banks and while I was cooking our sausages my husband decided to go for a swim. Well, it was a bit cold the water!

After a quite long break, we continues our hike towards Lavertezzo. As it was already past midday, the route became a bit less populated and it was nicer for us to pay a bit of attention to the river, that becomes more impressive from this point further. There are bigger boulders and formations where the turquoise and emerald colour of the river is more distinct.

About six hours after our start in Sonogno, we reached Lavertezzo, which is at 545 meters above sea level. It is a typical Ticinese picturesque village, with several stone buildings. Its main attraction, though is the 17th century double-arched bridge over the Versasca river, called Ponte dei Salti and known also as the Roman Bridge.

The impressive Ponte dei Salti

At exactly this point, the rock formations are enormous. Even if you don’t want to do the whole of the hike, it is worthy even just to drive up to this point and stop at the parking that is available exactly before the bridge. The river is much deeper here and it is a common place for bathing, although it is considered dangerous due to the currents.

Travelling

Excursion to Ticino, Switzerland

In September there were a few nice days and my husband and I grabbed the opportunity to enjoy the autumn nature. We went for a small excursion to Ticino, Ticino is special for two reasons: it is the only italian-speaking area of Switzerland and it is in and south of the Alps. Thanks to the latter, this area is a bit warmer than the rest of Switzerland and as a result a common destination of holidays inside the country. They advertise themselves as the most Mediterrenean of Switzerland!

Driving up the San Bernandino Pass. We didn’t go through the tunnel.

There are two ways to reach Ticino from the north: you have either to cross either the San Bernandino Pass from the east or the Gotthard Pass from the west. In both cases there are tunnels that can save the time to drive up the pass. But if you have a bit of time and the weather is nice, it is an always nice drive up the Passes. For our excursion we drove to Ticino from the San Bernadino Pass and we didn’t use the tunnel and on the way back we took the tunnel at the Gotthard Pass.

A nice bridge on our way from the San Bernandino Pass to Bellinzona.

My husband spent several of his childhood holidays in Ticino. So we drove a bit around the nice mountainous but sunny even in the end of September area. We drove through Bellinzona, the capital of the canton, and Locarno, which located at the northern shore of Lake Maggiore.

We then continued up to the picturesque village of Arcegno (387m above sea level), one of places my husband has been spending summers and walked around the small streets that are surrounded by stone houses.

And then we headed again down towards Lago Maggiore. The view of the lake from the village of Ronco is amazing!

Lago Maggiore. Switzerland on the left and Italy on the right edges.

We continued our descent towards the lake shores and the touristic town of Ascona (196 m above sea level). There we had a walk along the paved promenade and enjoyed the sun and a swiss-italian icecream!

The paved promenade at Ascona. It was a bit windy, but sunny and warm

After Ascona we decided to start heading towards the Verzasca Valley, which was our main destination in Ticino. We wanted to hike this beautiful and narrow valley, but the description of the hike will follow in another blog post.

Travelling

Alpine hiking route: 5 Seen Wanderung, Pizol, Switzerland

Hiking is considered to be the national sport of Switzerland. The hiking season starts around May and finishes around November, depending of course on the weather. This year, my husband and I did a bit of hiking and I am starting to enjoy it more and more. One of the most amazing hikes we did this year was the alpine route of the Five Lakes at the Pizol mountain, a peak in the canton of Saint Gallen.

The Saint Gallen Rhine valley with Lake Constance (Bodensee) in the back and Lichtenstein on the right.

The Five Lakes route, or Funf Seen Wanderung as it is called in German, is a mountain route that takes its name from the five alpine lakes that can be reached along the route. Besides the beautiful hidden lakes, it offers magnificent views of the mountain ranges around including the Churfisten and Alps of Graubünde and the Saint Gallen Rhine valley across to Lake Constance and Lichtenstein.

The Alps in the background

The total distance of the route is about 11 km and its estimated duration 4 to 4.5 hours. The easiest approach of it is to start from the Pizolhütte at 2227m and finish at Gaffia Station at 1861m. In total, it involves ascenting of 600 m and decenting of 1000 m. and is of moderate difficulty. The opposite direction is obviously a bit more demanding.

We reached Pizolhütte, the starting point of our hike, from the town Wangs, located at 509m above sea level, on the south of the canton of Saint Gallen, through a combination of gondola and chair lifts. The hut is located close to Wangersee, the first lake of the route. From there the path started climbing up and it offered broad view over the East Swiss and Austrian Alps. After about an hour of climbing, we reached Wildsee, the second lake at altitude 2493m above sea level. It really appeared as a surprise around a turn and it was breathtaking with its turquoise colour. From this point, we even got a glimpse of the Pizol summit (2844m).

The amazingly turquoise Wildsee (2493m above sea level)

From Wildsee, the path descented briefly, so as to reach Schottensee, the third lake of the route and a turquoise one as well. From the banks of Schottensee (2340m), the ascent began again, so as to reach the highest point of the route at 2500 m above sea level. From here we had an absolutely amazing view of the Churfirsten, the mountain range dominating over Walenstadt, my husband’s hometown.

The smaller but cute Schottensee (2340m above sea level) and in the back the Churfirsten mountain range

From 2500m, the path descended to the Schwarzsee at 2368m. As its name implies, this is a dark-coloured lake and it makes quite some contrast to the previous two lakes. It was about 5.5km to this point, so it was about the middle of the 5 Lakes route. As a result, we decided to have our short lunch break at this point and we were not the only ones!

The dark Schwarzsee (2368m above sea level)

After a half-hour break, we start the second part of our hike. 2.5 km or about an hour away from Schwarzsee, we reached the fifth and last lake, the green Baschalvasee (2174m).

The small green Baschalvasee (2174 m above sea level)

From this point starts the big and final descent of the route to the Station of Gaffia. It was quite some relief to reach it 4.5 hours (including the break) after we started!

From Gaffia we took the lift down to Wangs, enjoying the last views of the Saint Gallen Rhine valley with the Bodensee (or Lake Constance in English) in the back.

I am absolutely happy to have done this magnificent hike and, although as tiring as a 4-hour alpine hike with ascents and descents can be, it is so rewarding to have seen so beautiful views of alpine lakes and impressive mountain ranges! I do recommend it to anyone interested to see a beautiful area and experience Switzerland and the Alps!

Travelling

What to do on a leisure day in Basel

Hmm April is almost over! It has been such a busy month! It started with my best friends from the Netherlands visiting me and continued with two Easters. Why two? Because my husband is Catholic and I am Greek orthodox, so we had two Easters one after the other. In case you are interesting what is a typical way to celebrate Easter day in Greece, check my blog post from last year: Easter customs in Greece.

Anyway, today I don’t want to write about Easter, but about my new almost hometown: Basel. I say almost because we are not living inside the city. Although I grew up in Athens that has about 10 million inhabitants, I find cities far too big, crowded and stressful. But they are still interesting to visit, and definitely Basel complies with that description.

As I mentioned already, in the beginnning of the month three of my closest friends were visiting me. We were blessed with summery weather and of course I had to take them to visit Basel.

For most people, Switzerland is mountains and lakes. Well, Basel is not inside the mountains and doesn’t have a lake, but that does not make it boring. It is the third most populated city in Switzerland (after Zurich and Geneva and before the capital Bern), and it is really expanding with suburbs to France on the west and Germany to the north.

Basel’s heraldic animal, something like its mascot, is the Basilisk. It is an imaginary animal, a hybrid between a rooster and a serpent. Although it looks like a dragon, it should not be mistaken for one, as it has the head of a cockerel. A basilisk is not a big animal, but is so venomous that it can kill people with only its breath and wherever it touched was doomed to die. With a single glance, he can kill a person or turn stones to dust, the latter only as long as the sun is shining! Quite a frightening creature, no? According to the legend, there was a basilisk living in a cave in the Old town of Basel.

The city of Basel is full of statues or depictions of basilisks, so if you visit the city, you should or will see one of them. One of the biggest statues, is the basilisk standing at the south entrance of Wettsteinbrücke. It is one of the four old guardians of the bridge and it is quite impossing!

And if you walk around the city, the possibilities are quite high that you will meet a basilisk fountain. By the way, the fountain basilisk are in the actual size of the legendary basilisk.

One of the several basilisk fountains you can find in Basel. The legendary animal is supposed to be exactly of this size.

As I mentioned earlier, Basel doesn’t have a lake, but it has a big river: the Rhine. It has crossed almost of Switzerland, and at the point of Basel it is big enough to see the big riverboat going up and down. Except from the big boats, there are four small ferries too, spread between Basel’s five bridges. They offer a slower and cosier alternative to cross the river, compared to using the bridges. They are environmentally friendly, as they have no motorised assistance. They move with the power of the current of river and assisted by nothing but a steel cable, so that they do not drift downstream, but move back and forth the two banks.

Another fun activity in the Rhine is swimming it! It is still a bit too cold in April to do so, but as the summer will be peaking, there will be more and more people swimming down the Rhine. My husband and me did it last August, so you can see our experience here.

The view from the Mittlere Brücke last August! Do you see the swimmers?

Two of the most visited buildings in Basel are its Minster and its City Hall.

The Basel Münster stands out thanks to its red sandstone and its distinct coloured roof tiles. Its construction spans through several centruries, as the Minster underwent several expansions and alterations. The foundation of the building we see today took place on 11th October 1019, so this year it celebrates the 1000-year anniversary. It started as a building of the Romanesque style, but its final form has Gothic characteristics and was completed in 1500. It was first a Catholic church, but in 1529 it was transformed to Reformed Protestant one. There are several important people buried inside the church, such as Queen Anne of Habsburg, but I was more interested to the tomb of Erasmus.

If you are strawling in the Old Town of Basel you won’t manage to miss the City Hall. It is a massive, eye-catching red building. It is the seat of the Basel government and its parliament. Its foundation dates back to 1290 and it dominates the massive Market square. In front of it there is most times a market (surprise, right?), so the whole area is busy with people.

The impressive Basler Rathaus (City Hall)
And there is Market at Marktplatz!

Basel has several museums and loves art. One of its most beloved artists is Jean Tinguely. If you have not heard him before, do check him! His works of art are full of motion and consist of kinetic sculpturs created mostly from pieces of machinery that he was finding thrown. The only common characteristic of this creations is motion or noise. There is a big museum with a lot of his works eastern than the centre of the city, which my husband and I visited several years ago, when we first visited Basel. I totally recommend it, as it is an absolutely interactive museum. In most museums, they discourage you from touching the exhibits, but in this one they welcome you to press the buttons.

But in case you do not have enough time to visit a museum, you can still see a speciment of Tinguely’s art: the Tinguely fountain. It is located quite close to the central train station, just behind the Basel Theatre. You will see a few crazy creations moving and spitting water! It is mesmerising!

The Tinguely fountain (Tinguely Brunnen) at Klostergasse 7. The photo is not as interesting as the fountain is in reality!

P.S. Thank a lot girls for the nice visit and for the nice photos you made, so that I could use them in my blog post!

Travelling

Carnival in Switzerland: Liestal Chienbäse

This week was the last one of the Carnival in Switzerland. Most of the cantons celebrated the week before, but for general area of Basel the celebrations were the weekend 9/10 March and the big activities in the city of Basel were from Monday to Wednesday this week. The big Basel carnival was included in 2017 in the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage list!

Carnival is usually about masquerades and parades right? Last Sunday evening a special event took place in Liestal, the capital of Baselland. It is called “Chienbäse” and it involves a procession of burning bundles of pine wood and bonfires on carriages.

The big bonfire at some distance outside the city centre

According to the tradition, burning large piles of wood breaks the power of winter and with carrying the blazing bundles of pine wood, the Chienbäse in the local dialect, the warming power of the sun is transferred from the hill to the dark valley. So on Sunday evening after Ash Wednesday, in the town of Liestal they make really big bonfires on a hill outside the city centre from which they light their bundles and piles of wood and they carry them through the city gate and the centre of the town. The Chienbäse procession started in 1902 and has been taking place every year since 1946.

The first Chienbäse are coming

The procession is spectacular! It starts with torches and laterns followed by the Chienbäse in different sizes, based on the strength and zeal of the carrier. There are children, women and men who wear appropriate cover and carry their burning bundles proudly!

It also includes carriages with piles of wood. In one of them they had sausages around the bottom of the fire, which were getting cooked!

The big fire with the sausages on the bottom
The gate of old town Liestal
Travelling

Another interesting flight from Athens, Greece to Basel, Switzerland

Well you may have noticed that I was not blogging in February. I was on a long travel back south (something like down under as the Australians say!). By now I am back to my base in Switzerland.

I have flown countless times until now. But I always find seeing the world from above fascinating! In most case I have no idea where exactly we are. I find that when the airlines show where we are is quite interesting. Nevertheless, this is not so common anymore I think. By myself I can assume our relative position only where there are islands around or big mountains.

I flew from the Athens International Airport to the EuroAirport Basel Mulhouse Freiburg. If the weather is good and my seat nice (which means far enough from the wing) I distinguish quite a few parts of the route from north or central Europe to the south or the other way around as this time:

  • In Greece can see a bit of Athens, although I can’t tell exactly which part of the huge city it is, unless I see the Acropolis or the port of Pireus. Then follows the coastline to the north, with most distinct the interesting peninsulas of Chalkidiki and Mount Athos. Unfortunately this time Greece did not have the best weather. There was light rain in Athens and clouds in most of the country. I was also sitting from the left side of the plane, so probably I would be looking towards the mainland of the country and not the coastline.
From Google maps, how the Chalkidiki peninsulas look like from above.
  • After the general area of Thessaloniki, the plane flies over land, which is far too uniform for me to understand where we are. I can start getting an idea again, once I see a coastline with a lot of small islands scattered around: we are over Croatia! And in the distance over the sea it is the coast of Italy! I think it takes about an hour of flight from Athens to reach this point and by this time the weather had improved a lot.
A small plane rushing next to us and the coast of Italy in the background
  • At a point the sea finishes and we meet again the land. At this point we are flying over Italy! The pilot was kind enough to inform us about our position: from the left side I was sitting we could see Venice.
The end of the Adriatic and flying over Italy, with Venice in the background
  • Shortly after the end of the Adriatic, start the Alps! I love seeing the Alps from above. They are magnificent! Especially now in February they were full of snow.
  • Through the Alps we crossed over to Switzerland. Unfortunately, I have no idea which route we followed. Countries can seem to be so small when you fly over them… It did not take long to see another type of water I recognise: the Rhine. To be honest, I know that it is the Rhine because we were descenting to the Euroairport.
The Rhine from above and next to it probably the Grand Canal d’Alsace.
Travelling

Swimming in the Rhine!

There is something common between the two countries I have spent the last almost ten years of my life, the Netherlands and Switzerland: the Rhine. The Rhine starts in Switzerland, somewhere up in the Alps in the canton of Graubünden, and finishes in the Netherlands, going into the North Sea. And now that we live close to Basel, we go for a walk along the Rhine quite often.

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The view from the Mittlere Brücke Monday last week!

Monday last week we were once again for a walk and shopping in Basel and the weather was so nice that we decided to take the walkway right next to the Rhine. As we were approaching the centre of Basel from the north, we started noticing people floating in the Rhine holding colourful floating bags. It looked so funny! The closer to the centre and the Mittlere Brücke, we were seeing more and more heads and more and more colours! It was an absolutely brilliant sight!

Detail
A closer look to the previous photo. You can notice the small human dots in the river! They are uncountable!

As my Swiss husband explained, it is common in Basel to swim downstream the Rhine. It has nothing to do with normal swimming, where you leave your clothes outside at a point, go into the water and swim for a while back and forth and then you exit at about the same point and retrieve your clothes. The Rhine is a river with currents, so you enter at a point and the currents take you down to another point. As a result, you have to take your clothes with you. So the Swiss invented the Wickelfish!

Our wickelfish
Our two wickelfish

The Wickelfish is a watertight bag, resembling a fish. You put your dry clothes and belongings in it, you roll the opening of the bag (seven times according to the instructions), leaving the air inside. The Wickelfish floats thanks to the trapped air and doesn’t allow water to enter thanks to the tight wrapping.

wickelfish ready
The wickelfish ready for swimming!

Once you are finished with the packing, you enter the river together with your bag. There is a designated area where swimming is allowed, and you can enter at any point within this area. Of course it makes sense to enter as much upstream as possible. And then the fun part starts!

Map.gif
The official map of the swimming area. We are allowed to swim in the green areas (Source: SLRG)

Definitely, there are a lot of precautions that the municipality and the authorities insist on, so that swimming the Rhine remains fun. I list only the most important for me:

  • You should pay attention that the strap for hanging the wickelfish around you is connected to the end that has the velcro, as this will open by itself if there is tension on it (as for example if the bag gets tangled with a buoy or something).

  • The wickelfish makes it easier for ships to spot the people swimming, thanks to its bright colour. Nevertheless, swimming is only allowed in an area close to the shore. There are police boats patrolling all along the swimming area.
  • It is important to note, that the wickelfish is not a floating aid. You should be able to swim in order to enter the Rhine, as there is no lifeguard. The use of inflatable swimming aids is not allowed and you can get fined if the police sees you using any of them.
  • It is recommended not to go alone for swimming. It is also recommended to go with somebody that knows the swimming area.

After learning all this information, we checked the weather for the following day and we decided to try it for ourselves. How was our experience? Well, incredibly fun!

We were lucky that we joined a few colleagues of my husband that have been living in Basel for years and knew all the small secrets, such as where is easier to enter and exit because of the stones at the shore. Now we know these secrets too! In addition, thanks to the warm days we have had, the water temperature was recorded to be around 24 C, so quite warm.

Concerning the last point in the above list, I should note that it is not difficult to see where the swimming area starts. There are so many people swimming downstream the Rhine! And the ages of the swimmers we saw varied incredibly: from youngsters that were trying to ride the buoys (don’t try to do it, as you might get a fine), to old ladies that were enjoying a leisurely swim! In addition, the closer to the shore, the slower the currents of the river. Equivalently, the further to the middle of the river, the stronger the currents and the faster the swimming.

You might get the impression that you just lie in the water and the currents bring you down. Well, that is not true! Firstly we are talking about sweet water and not salty, so there is little buoyancy. So you do need to know how to float and keep yourself up in the water. True you don’t have to swim actively to move downstream, but we all had to help ourselves, so as to stay a team and head where we really wanted and not where the water takes you. The swimming area includes several obstacles, such as bridge piers and buoys, so it is important to avoid them.

Last Tuesday that we tried it ourselves, the water level was a bit low thanks to the really warm summer we have had, so the speed of the current was slower too. We entered at the earliest possible point, close to the Tinguely Museum and exited close to the lowest point, after the Johanniterbrücke. It took us about an hour to swim this distance, which was so surprising. But it was incredibly fun!

Map Rhine Swim
Our swimming route

Such a pity we didn’t try it earlier! If the weather remains good still, we are definitely going to do it again! After all now we know the secrets and have our wickelfish.