Or: the Trials and Tribulations of an Uptown Girl with a Boyfriend from Old Europe

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Location: Basel, Switzerland

Monday, March 12, 2007

Tour de Suisse, Stage 1

Despite my efforts to organize the apartment, one week after my move-in, our place is still completely unsettled. Slowly, things are getting better, but not fast enough for my tastes. Thanks to the Basel recycling center's odd and rather inconvenient opening hours, empty boxes and crumbled balls of packing paper still block our windows. Since we've run out of cabinet space, even after an emergency trip to Ikea on Wednesday, random packages of food - a jar of peanut butter, Viactiv calcium chews, tins of tea - remain on the kitchen table. Two enormous wardrobe boxes squat in our bedroom, because the closet has yet to be equipped.

So how does a girl like me handle a mess like that? Run away! Run away!

Yes, I'm afraid that by the end of the week, I was completely fed up with finding homes for the books, cookware, and clothes that had joined us from America. So Friday morning, I fled with Swissy Pie to Locarno, a town in the southern canton of Ticino, where he had a meeting.

By car, it was only about 3 hours away, but once we were through the Gotthard tunnel, it felt like we were in another country altogether. The architecture changed, favoring stone over wood, and earthy terracotta and parchment tones over bright blues, yellows, and greens. The signs changed, to Italian rather than German. Even the Alps felt different. In the north, the mountains are massive, dominating the landscape with sheer planes so steep that even moss has trouble clinging to their stones. But down south, they're somehow softer. The rocks seem browner and crumblier, and fall away at a gentler, less vertiginous pace.

By the time we reached Locarno, I already felt as if I were on vacation. And the small, quiet little town, hemmed in between the bristling Alpine foothills and glittering Lake Maggiore, did its best to maintain the illusion. Crisp white sailboats drifted lazily about their moorings. The magnolias were in full blushing bloom. Palm trees ringed the shore. I had to look twice to make sure I wasn't hallucinating. Palm trees, in Switzerland?

Alas, we couldn't stay long. By mid-afternoon, we were on the road again, winding through Centovalli to cut across Italy. It's an extraordinarily scenic drive. Narrow roads twist up mountains, through small bucolic villages, and across ancient arched bridges built over impossibly deep gorges. Peter Jackson could have easily shot Lord of the Rings here, though it probably would've been a great deal more expensive.

We reentered Switzerland through the Simplon Pass. At 2000 m, it's one of the lower passes through the Alps, which is why it's still open this time of year when all the other Alpine roads are closed. Still, a thick crust of snow frosted its slopes, and we saw a few solitary skiiers making tracks through the otherwise unblemished white. It was quite a change from the view that morning!

Now we were in Wallis (or Valais, depending on one's preferred language). But we still had to go north, and when I looked at the map (not to mention the horizon), I almost lost it. There were quite a few mountains directly in our way, but no roads open to take us there! (Did I mention the passes are all closed for winter?) We'd have to detour all the way to Geneva! The traffic was awful! It would add hours to our trip!

Silly Un-Swiss Miss! Never underestimate Swiss efficiency: if there's one thing they're really good at, it's digging holes, both through mountains and down into the ground. So naturally, there was a tunnel we could take. But we couldn't drive through it (which is why it didn't show up as a solid line on the map). Instead, we had to get on an auto train.

So we drove up to Goppenstein, where the train began, paid the fare, pulled directly onto a narrow flatbed rail car (right behind a minivan), and turned off our engine. About 20 seconds later, we felt a soft bump.

"Did some idiot just run into us from behind?" I asked indignantly.

No: the train had just started to move. Within a minute, it had rumbled up to a respectable speed. Ahead yawned the opening to the tunnel. And then we were plunged into absolute darkness.

For fifteen minutes, we sat sightless, accompanied only by the shakes and squeals of our own train, and the occasional flashes of life from passenger and cargo trains hurtling from the opposite direction. It was strange. It was disconcerting. It felt like a combination of the Thunder Mountain and Space Mountain rides in Disneyland, except a lot less fun.

We were in there for what felt like a long, long time. There's not much one can do in the dark (though Swissy Pie wisely took a quick nap). I suppose we could've turned on the lights in the car, but I didn't have any reading with me. Even if I did, all the bumping and jolting probably would've given me motion sickness.

So I was really pleased to finally emerge on the other end, in Kandersteg. From there, it was a quick descent to Thun, and from Thun, and easy cruise on the autobahn to Bern, where we were stayed for the night before heading back into the mountains for some skiing Saturday. But more on that in another post...

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Blogger swissmiss said...

Oh I love Locarno. We actually never make it into Italy because I'm so happy just to stop at Locarno.

March 14, 2007 at 12:32 PM  
Blogger Un-Swiss Miss said...

I definitely want to go back! Fortunately, so does my boyfriend... he wants to cycle Gotthard Pass. If my current state of wimpiness keeps up, I fear I'll be driving the team car.

March 15, 2007 at 5:15 PM  
Blogger Expat Traveler said...

wow! How beautiful.. Those colors of blue and beautiful flowers are making me so jealous..

Ok - we actually are getting some blue skies and also a bit of flowers but nothing like the weather you've had in Switzerland...

The things I miss... wanna trade?

March 31, 2007 at 3:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I had to look twice to make sure I wasn't hallucinating. Palm trees, in Switzerland?" sorry, why hallucinating? switzerland is not only montains with snow, switzerland is plced near south-europe, so the clima is between middle and south europe! thera are many palms in south switzerland, and also in on other places in nord switzerland, example around vierwaldst├Ątter lake, lake geneva, thuner lake, valais, lake zurich ......!

March 7, 2008 at 12:02 PM  

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