Sunday, September 30, 2012

Around Lake Zurich

Zurich spreads around both banks of the northwest end of Lake Zurich. Carved by glaciers millions of years ago, the lake is quite deep –- nearly 500 feet –- and hence rarely freezes in the winter. In Zurich, the lake drains into the Limmat River (above).

Lake Zurich, known to locals as Zurichsee, is formed by the Linth River with headwaters in the glaciers of the high Alps to the south of Switzerland’s largest city. The water is very clean and is fed into Zurich’s water system after it’s filtered and purified.

The best views of the lake are from Uetliberg Mountain overlooking Zurich and the quickest way to get there is a short train ride from the Hauptbahnhof in Old Town. The top of Uetliberg features a 2,700-foot viewing platform and a restaurant.

Gina and I also took the boat ride around the lake, another fine way to view the picturesque villages and stately villas south of Zurich. The views of the city and the snow covered mountains were gorgeous.

On our trip to Lichtenstein and Heidiland, we stopped at Rapperswil, the City of Roses, on the south side of Lake Zurich. Besides its famous roses, Rapperswil features a quaint old town and is known far and wide for the Circus Knie, a family-run circus that has been traveling the country since 1919.

Zurichsee is clearly the focus of life –- both literally and figuratively –- in the canton of Zurich, as seen from the tower at Uetliberg (below), with the foothills and the headlands of the Alps in the background.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Jungfrau Region

Which mountains have fascinated me –- more than any others on the planet -- since I was a young lad? The Alps, of course. Stretching across seven countries from France to Slovenia, the Alps formed millions of years ago as the African and Eurasian plates collided.

My grandma –- Emilia Gemma Brichetto Cargni –- used to weave tales about her husband (my grandfather, Carlo Guiseppe Cargni) leading caravans through the rugged Alpine terrain from his home in Chialamberto, Italy into France and Switzerland.

Later, as a budding mountaineer, I became intrigued with the Eiger (above, left), a key peak in the region along with Jungfrau and Monch. These “big three” peaks are embedded in mountaineering legend, particularly the Eiger, whose precipitous north face has claimed many lives and remained unconquered until 1938.

Though the mountain was first climbed in 1858, it was another 80 years before the dreaded north face was successfully negotiated by an Austrian-German team of four men, including Heinrich Harrer, portrayed by Brad Pitt in Seven Years in Tibet.

The Eiger (ogre) is the easternmost of the ridgecrest that extends across Monch (monk) to the Jungfrau (maiden). The north face (“nordwand” in German) of the mountain –- one of the six great north faces of the Alps –- rises nearly 10,000 feet above Grindelwald and other inhabited valleys of the Bernese Oberland.

Leaving Interlaken for the long day’s climb to Jungfraujoch, our tour bus dropped us off at Lauterbrunnen, where we picked up a train for the ride to Kleine Scheidegg. Lauterbrunnen (below), which means “pure fountain” because of the falls cascading into a u-shaped valley carved by a massive glacier during the Ice Ages, is a classic Swiss mountain town and a great base for nature lovers.

As the train proceeds through Wengen and Murren past rolling green hills filled with Swiss chalets, neatly stacked woodpiles and cows munching on summertime grass, the views just keep getting better. As we approached Kleine Scheidegg, the fearsome north wall of the Eiger looms eerily over the little mountain village.

It was here in Kleine Scheidegg that Swiss industrial magnate Adolf Guyer-Zeller had an audacious idea that led to one of the great engineering feats of the early 20th century: the railroad king would blast a tunnel through the rock of the Eiger and Monch and construct a cogwheel railway to the summit of Jungfrau.

Recognizing the potential for the tourism industry, the Swiss government approved the plan and construction began in 1896. Though Guyer-Zeller dies in 1899, the project continues and workers make rapid progress in the tunnel.

However, the mountain took its toll, with worker deaths resulting from accidents with explosives. In 1912, the tunneling crew finally breaks through the glacier in Jungfraujoch, creating Europe’s highest altitude railway station at 3,454 meters above sea level (that’s 11,332 feet, higher than the summit of Mt. Hood).

Construction costs amount to 16 million francs (about $16 million), twice as much as originally estimated. The completed tunnel is 9.3 kilometers long (nearly six miles) and ascends 1,393 meters (nearly 5,000 feet) from Kleine Scheidegg to Jungfraujoch. The tunnel took more than 3,000 men a full 16 years to complete.

Departing into the tunnel from Kleine Scheidegg, we ascended through solid rock and stopped at two viewing platforms at Eigerwand (2865 meters/9,399 feet) and Eismeer (3,160 meters/10,367 feet), where we witnessed a “glacier wonderland.” Arriving at Jungfraujoch, we immediately went outside for a look.

The views were as advertised. Lonely Planet describes it like this: “Sure, everyone else wants to see Jungfraujoch and yes, tickets are expensive, but don’t let that stop you. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip that you need to experience first hand.”

Climbing the stairs to the viewing platform, the landscape took our breath away. Clouds danced around the summits of the three peaks while a river of ice known as the Aletsch Glacier (below) –- the longest in the European Alps –- twists its way downhill like a serpent.

Guess there’s a reason more than two million people a year visit Europe’s highest train station set among swirling glaciers and icy behemoths. A meteorological station known as “The Sphinx” sits adjacent to the structure at Jungfraujoch.

The site also features the Ice Palace, an enormous cavern in the ice that covers over 3,000 square feet with countless niches and passageways. Crystal-like sculptures featuring eagles, penguins and seals (below) transform grottos into a shimmering art gallery.

The Ice Palace, created in the 1930s, has to be constantly recut. With so many visitors generating warmth, the labyrinth has to be cooled to minus three degrees Celsius. Some parts of the Ice Palace move up to 15 centimeters (about six inches) per year.

After scurrying about the site taking pictures and lunch in the cafeteria, we were then herded into our group by our tour guide “Kid” (a native of Vietnam whose name is much longer) for the trip back down to Kleine Scheidegg.

Most on the cog train succumbed to the altitude and slept soundly on the ride back down, but Gina and I had a great conversation with an Indian couple that had recently relocated to San Francisco.

At Kleine Scheidegg, we took the alternative route back to Interlaken through Grindelwald (below), where the train descends directly under the north face of the Eiger. The views of more glaciers and Wetterhorn Mountain had people scrambling for their cameras.

When we arrived in back in Zurich, Gina and I hightailed it to the Hotel X-tra and crashed. Unlike the castaways on Gilligan’s Island, this was no three-hour tour. More like 12 hours.