Our Vantage Points

   Our view eastward from Birg tram station in Switzerland. El 8856 ft.

The Alps
About 20,000 infantrymen, a cavalry of 10,000 horses, and 37 fully laden African elephants, struggled over the western Alps and into the Po River Valley of Northern Italy.

Hannibal's military campaign for Carthage began in 218 B.C. when he captured Sagunto, the lone Roman outpost in Spain.  That same year, crossing the Pyrenees into Gaul (France), Hannibal proceeded to climb the great Alpine "back fence" of Italy with the purpose defeating the Roman Republic.  His crossing of the Alps took only 15 days including 2 days at the summit, stalled in a snowstorm.
This story of Hannibal and his elephants traversing the Alps caught even my fancy while sitting in a World History class as a high school junior.  But, being a reluctant history student, I didn't catch significant facts.  For example I somehow thought he was leading a band of barbarians from Central Europe and was crossing the Alps from Germany.  Actually, no one is certain exactly where he crossed, but it wasn't from Germany.  It's been a fascinating speculation for centuries.
The scene above is a view of The Jungfrau from just south of Interlaken on the road to Lauterbrunnen
Jona Lendering has an interesting article at http://www.livius.org/ha-hd/hannibal/alps.html.  Though feigning objectivity, he convinced me to favor the hypothesis of Peter Connolly who suggests that the pass of Mont Genevre (6,102 ft.) was Hannibal's route. This challenges the popular notion that Hannibal used the Little St. Bernard Pass.  Both passes are just south of Mont Blanc, that white spire piercing the clouds at 15,781 feet, the highest point in Europe.
Barely 2213 years later, Mary and I made two magnificent crossings of the Alps.  However, our accomplishment probably will not draw the gaze of historians.  Our plunder was too meager, we had fewer elephants, and our crossings were virtually bloodless.  To add insult to Hannibal, both of our crossings were done in the space of 4 days including two days in the sunny Po River Valley.  No snow storms.  We clearly broke Hannibal's record, but we will graciously concede to his handicaps:  He had no Opel Corsca and no paved switchbacks.

Switzerland
It was a hazy October morning when we departed the Paris suburb of Versailles.  We drove all day through the sunny French countryside, somewhat resembling sections of Ohio, mostly flat, but slightly hilly in places.

Then as we approached Western Switzerland, the terrain became moderately mountainous.  It was something like traveling into West Virginia.

Western Switzerland
By the time we reached Bern, the Capital of Switzerland, it was dark.  Traffic was light and the dimly lit streets were only moderately busy.  I had carefully mapped our course to this night's hotel; we were looking for Belpstrasse 43.  But the foot-long street names were difficult to find, let alone read.   Abandoning the signage, we reverted to the search method that saved the night in Versailles.   We stopped at a hotel that looked busy, where Mary simply asked one of the patrons on the street if they knew where we could find La Pergola Swiss Hotel.   "Just around the corner!" they replied in familiar American English.   Indeed, just behind this hotel, we found ours, a superb, clean and modern hotel tucked away on a short, alleyway, maybe 50 yards long.   No wonder we couldn't find the street name!

The next morning, it was a delightful drive through green Swiss valleys to Interlaken, a small, but world famous city at the isthmus of two long lakes, the Thuner See and Brienzer See.

Always present beside our highway was a railway with its trolley wires overhead.  Railroads are everywhere in Europe and all of them, it seems, have trolley wires overhead.  There are many gasoline and diesel powered vehicles on the highways, but not on the rails.  Electricity, produced by nuclear power, seems to be the energy of choice wherever it can be delivered by wire.


Ubiquitous here in the valleys and upper meadows of the Swiss Alps are Swiss Brown cows.  The Braunvieh originated here but were exported worldwide around the beginning of the 20th century.  Typically, each contented bovine has a big bell dangling from its collar, adding a bucolic one-note sound track to the profound silence that drifts down over these green slopes.  One half of arable Swiss land is in hay production, the raw material of milk and cheese.

Wow!  This really is Switzerland!  (Pinch pinch.)  It's the land of gingerbread and candy houses, exactly like the storybooks!  As we "turn each page" we look up expecting to see Mother's face.  Instead, we see the face of God.

At Interlaken, between the Thuner and Brienzer Sees, a right turn heads us south, up into a very deep and narrow valley toward Lauterbrunnen, a town much like Mammoth Lakes, California or Jackson, Wyoming, focused on tourism.  But here the towering cliffs and waterfalls are almost directly overhead.   OK, maybe Yosemite Valley is a better example... maybe.  These examples fail.  Sloping shelves above the sheer rock cliffs provide home sites for farmers and pasture for the bell ringers.   Tucked away in nooks and crannies of this valley are other communities including Wentgen and Stechelberg.
   Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland
Just beyond Lauterbrunnen we come to Talstation Schilthornbahn, the lower terminus of two cable trams.  One carries freight to Murren and the other carries people to Gimmelwald.  Both villages are on the shelf atop the same 1500-foot high rock face rising above Lauterbrunnen.

Recognizing our once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, we paid our money and trusted our lives to cables and pulleys for this special experience of the Swiss Alps.   About 30 of us at a time stood, crammed like sardines, in our gondola dangling like a ripe pear from a fragile twig.  Starting at the 3,000 foot level, we ascended toward heaven and entered Paradise at 4500 feet.  They call it Gimmelwald (Gimmel Vald). Directly east across the Lauterbrunnen Valley chasm is the rock face of Jungfrau, (Yoong frow) a huge mountain rising to 13,642 feet.  Its rock face abruptly rises almost two miles above the valley floor.  Jungfrau, along with the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc are among the more noteworthy features of the Swiss Alps.

The first building near the tram terminal is the largest in Gimmelwald.  It's the school for about 17 local students.  The permanent population of Gimmelwald is about 130 and is comprised of three extended families, three surnames.
 



The land is so steep that mechanized harvesting of hay is out of the question.   It's all done by hand and scythe.  Normally these farms could not compete on the open market.  But the primitive farming done here survives on government subsidies to preserve the values of "primitive industry."  Not only that,  by brilliant lobbying from residents, Gimmelwald has been officially declared an avalanche zone, thus not available for developers.  And so sleepy Gimmelwald dreams on, content to remain in the past, while we, and many other tourists, stop by to briefly indulge in the fantasy and spend a little money here.
At the outer limit of Gimmelwald, we stop and gaze at the magnificence of this place.  It's difficult to decide which direction provides the nicest view.  Here we feast our eyes toward the southwest with the Jungfrau at our back.

Heading back toward the tram station we pause for lunch on the deck of the Gimmelwald Pension, a small hotel.  Nothing makes a bratwurst or a bowl of onion soup taste better than to be engulfed in the quintessential bosom of the Swiss Alps.

The next gondola takes us to Murren, a much larger town where we immediately transfer to a third gondola going up up and up to Birg.  Looking down from Birg at this vehicle dangling from almost nothing, we gasp and seriously question the wisdom of riding this "contraption" again.


               From Birg with Murren in the distance.

But right now we can't be concerned about that.  We can only bask in the fact that our omnipotent God, who enjoys making stuff for His own pleasure, created these surroundings for our pleasure as well.  Being parents and grandparents gives us a special inkling of what God enjoys. I have no doubt that God is pleased as punch when we enjoy what He does for us and when we respond in gratitude for His work.
   From Birg: The Jungfrau (left) and Gimmelwald near her base (lower middle)

The Jungfrau is twice as high as Birg.
Back to the highways, our passage over the Swiss Alps was through Furkapass (7,976 ft) followed shortly by St. Gotthard Pass, about 150 miles northeast of Hannibal's crossing, and much higher.

Our trek through Switzerland ended at Cadro, Switzerland, high in the alpine hills overlooking Lugano, Switzerland to the south.  Cadro is a prestigious residential area, definitely not among the bright lights.  All was quiet and dark among these twisted streets until we happened upon a busy eating place.  I went in to find that it was deafening with Italian chatter and laughter.  I approached the busiest person in the place and asked in careful English if I was near Hotel Cadro Panoramica.  "Ahh!" she said, "We all know about "Panoramica!" Then she proceeded to show me with her hands, supplemented with her clear English, exactly how to find the hotel.  It only took one more stop at one of the hotel's restaurants to learn that the registration desk was up around another bend in the dark street and another 300 feet in elevation.  Just by continuing on, it would have been obvious.  But I would have missed mixing with these exhuberant people.

Our accommodations were in one of the many furnished tile-roofed cottages spread over a steep, yet well-landscaped, slope with an unobstructed view of the city lights of Lugano.

This is Hotel Cadro Panoramica, a favorite retreat for tennis players of the world.  Here, the only flat spot is a tennis court.
So to Cadro and Lugano we say, "Buona Notte."  (Italian is the language of this section of Switzerland.)

Italy
After Cadro, it was a day-long drive through the north side of Italy's very busy but pleasant Po River Valley. Our trek had us skirting the south edge of the Italian Alps. We overnighted at Vicenza, one of the small cities not too far from Venice. After Vicenza a reasonably short morning drive brought us to the canaled city of Venice where we trod the narrow streets until late afternoon, a walking tour of perhaps 5 miles.  There's more about that in the section: "Venice."

But our Venice foot tour ended poorly with a dead car battery.  I had left the headlights on.  Resolving the problem took more than an hour.

From Venice we drove northward toward the Alps of Italy and Austria.  Unfortunately, it was so late in the afternoon when we left Venice that by the time we started climbing into the Alps it became dark and we missed an hour of scenery.  The traffic on this winding 2-lane mountain highway was occasionally heavy.  About half the vehicles were large trucks, mostly southbound toward the Italian population centers.
Our overnight accommodations had been booked at the Hotel Meuble Villa Neve in the resort town of Cortina d'Ampesso, Italy.  Although it wasn't a Motel 6, they had left the light on for us!  Our reception was very good, with easy parking provided in the basement.  What a nice relief after prior experiences!   The hotel was not crowded; I think their main season comes with the skiers.

We arose early to enjoy the lavish breakfast we had become accustomed to in Europe.  It usually kept us going until late afternoon.  Just two meals a day were very adequate and efficient for this sightseeing life-style.
Cortina has an elevation of about 4,000 feet and is situated in Parko Dolomiti d'Ampezzo.  The area features Tofana di mezzo, a 10,640-foot mountain with skiing.  Although we didn't take the time to explore this community, this hotel and this beautiful valley in the Italian Alps will remain, as long as we live, a special part of our European Fantasy.  In our fantasy, we will bring our Coleman pop-up and set it up in the backside of one of these meadows where we can survey the majestic white-topped monarchs d'Ampezzo.  The Alps indeed have countless places to linger long enough to enjoy in this manner.  Although in real life it doesn't appear that RV camping in the wilderness is well provide for, we can fantasize anything we want.

Austria
From Cortina d'Ampezzo it's only 55 miles northward to the fertile Alpine valleys of Austria and another surprise.  Who would expect to find prime farmland stretching for many miles in the Alps of southern Austria?  It's obvious that the climate is good.  Fields are as green as green can be and the barns and houses are in pretty good condition, indication that farming in this area brings in an adequate income.
Approximately 80% of Austria is in the Alps, and Austria is in close competition as the country that occupies the most Alpine real estate.

At any rate, farming here in the southern Alps of Austria is an impressive enterprise.  Indeed, the farming industry throughout Austria is among the best in Europe.  But what impresses me most is that such successful farming occurs in these valleys amid the Alps.  It seems that all watering is done by natural rains, probably as plentiful as we find in the eastern end of our American Midwest.  I didn't see any sprinkler systems or even irrigation ditches around these Alpine farms.



An ancient castle muses over strange new implements below

I belatedly discovered that Arnold Schwartzenegger, of motion picture fame and now Governor of California, grew up in Thal, Austria, one of the small towns we drove through this morning.  Thal is less than 15 miles east of this farm implement dealer.

This road is as friendly and relaxing as we've seen anywhere.  It would take a hundred more Wednesday mornings like this for me to begin to weary of meandering through this Austrian picture book.  ... I wonder if Arnold ever regrets leaving this place.  California is nothing like this.
Although road 100 follows the River Drau, usually on our right through this valley, the river is mostly obscured by forest.  We have gradually descended from about 3000 feet so that when we reach Lienz we are at about 2000 feet above sea level.  Lienz is the major city in this area and it's where we begin to seriously ascend once more, in order to cross the backbone of the Alps.

At the 4230-foot level we come to a tollbooth to pay for our passage through Nationalpark Hohe Tauern, the largest nationalpark in Europe.  The attendant tells us this is private property.  We didn't mind paying.  But a national park is private land?  Interesting!  Maybe we could learn something from these Austrians!  But we didn't pursue the issue.

Before crossing through the main ridge via Hochtor Tunnel, we stop at the parking lot to view the grandeur around us.  Inside the tunnel the pavement has a thin coating of ice on the pavement and is showing tire tracks.  Snow remains piled in the parking lot.



The Hochtor Tunnel
Here the elevation is 8446 feet.
The grasses here, well above timberline, have a strange reddish color.  Looking south, the road we just traveled is snaking its way to the top.  Cotton is trying to clog the valleys, but briefly allowing the snow covered ridges to reign in the sunshine.

As we headed north, down from the summit of the Alps, we came upon a real log truck.  For a moment it felt like we were home in Oregon.



Logging the Alps

Because these are not the large logs that go to the lumber mill in Clatskanie, I had to imagine that these logs are headed for the paper mill in Newberg.

Trees of every sort are plentiful in the Alps below timberline.  And with the obviously great growing climate here, trees could be "forever" as they are in Western Oregon.  When you cut one down, you can have another 100-footer in 25 years, or it can be much taller if you have the patience.  Of course, in a managed forest there is a mature group always available for harvest.  From what I've been able to find, the Austrians strongly desire to keep their forests looking "natural."  I think that might mean: no clear-cutting.  We didn't see any clear-cuts or stair-step sections revealing clear-cutting methods.

Seeing these heavily wooded areas made me very curious about the Austrian lumber industry.  There are many nice wooden houses in Austria that appear to be less than 50 years old, so lumber is available.  And I've found out that Austria exports lumber around the world, even to the U.S.  Austria is a significant wood products supplier, but I understand that the Baltic countries surpass Austria.

To Hannibal, the Alps were daunting.  Today, nothing could be more pleasant.  The morning, the afternoon, indeed the entire day right up to finding our Salzburg hotel, was perfectly enjoyable.  It was the perfect beginning for the next two days of side trips from Salzburg.







Our hotel in Salzburg is located on Vogelweiderstrabe, a major street but with only moderate traffic.  The name of the hotel is Drei Kreuz  (The Three Crosses).  This is not a reference to Golgotha where Christ was crucified, but to Kapuzinerberg, the mountain rising abruptly at the end of Vogelweiderstrabe just a short stroll away from the hotel entrance.  Kapuzinerberg was the historic place of execution in Salzburg, but it also served us well by pointing us to our hotel.

Just around the corner and 6 blocks down toward the Salzach River is the oldtown of Salzburg.  Across the bridge is more oldtown with plenty of shops and small restaurants.


The Salzach River, centerpiece of Salzburg

From here, we crane our necks upward and discover the magnificent fortress, Festung Hoensalzburg, firmly established 400 feet up on the mountain called Monksburg.  The castle is accessible by trail or by a funicular cable car.
Downtown Salzburg directly below the castle, Festung Hohensalzburg
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born here in Salzburg on January 27, 1756.  He made the place proud with his wide range of musical compositions including the opera, The Marriage of Figaro and the symphonies, Prague and Jupiter.  Salzburg has several landmarks honoring Mozart, particularly here in Oldtown Salzburg.  But when he died in 1791 at age 35, he was buried in an unmarked grave in Vienna.  The grave marker came later as did most of his fame.

Salzburg is a musical city similar to Vienna, but in a lower register.  Each year since 1920 Salzburg has hosted the five week mid-summer Festival of Music and Drama, though during World War II the scope of the festival was necessarily limited.  But concerts are not limited to the summer; something musical is going on all through the year.

The real Von Trapps, immortalized by The Sound of Music, lived in Salzburg, but the musical added a bit, no... a lot of imagination to the story to make it more "interesting."  It's no surprize that filmmakers would do this.  The Austrians have no expressed quibble with Hollywood on this, because The Sound of Music fantasy contributes significantly to the bringing of US dollars into the Austrian economy.  The Von Trapp mansion is near the Hohensalzburg Castle and is available to tourists.  There are regular presentations of Sound of Music tunes mixed with other true folk music.  Just remember that Rodgers and Hammerstein's Edelweiss is not an Austrian folk song nor the national anthem, etc. etc.  But perhaps Doe, a Female Deer is pretty close to true Austrian folklore because the importance of music is high on the Austrian scale of culture. ...with the ending on dough.


Salzburg is indeed a pleasant city as cities go.  It has green areas, varied terrain, interesting sights, it's historic and it's not a pushy rat race.  But the thing I like most is that it's surrounded by some of the most beautiful country in the world.  We took in a couple of great side trips from Salzburg.


Berchtesgaden
T
he first side trip was to Berchtesgaden, just 13 miles straight south.  On our left was the Salzach river for a short distance. On our right the mountains rose abruptly almost the whole way to Berchtesgaden.  The area was beautifully wooded with a variety of trees.  About halfway to Berchtesgaden, we crossed into Germany, but didn't notice a sign.

Arriving at Berchtesgaden was a surprise, as the town center was nothing more than a few shops and a Nationalpark Information office.

The first thing we did was to take an exploratory drive by starting up a narrow side street that wound steeply up and behind the shops and residences.  It was so narrow that to pass an oncoming vehicle, one of us had to find a wide spot to wait while the other passed.
After passing garages and residences we quickly came to a wooded area at the top where we found two roadside shrines separate from each other.  Each had candles burning.  Shrines like these were found at other places in Austria and Germany.  They typically included a crucifix and the figure of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  I don't know who places these shrines here.  But they are good reminders of what Jesus did for all of us.




A Dairy farmhouse

A Berchtesgaden Church
One of the more popular tourist attractions in the area is Kehlsteinhaus (House on Kehlstein Mountain).  In English it is referred to as Hitler's Eagle's Nest.

The Eagle's Nest was thought to be Hitler's favorite hideaway, but this is not quite accurate.  This amazing place is built on a rock spur on Kehlstein Mountain at an elevation of 6017 feet.  Hitler indeed came here on occasion, but he apparently did not enjoy high places.

The house was built by Hitler's cohort, Bormann, in a display of extravagance.  A road with five tunnels was blasted out of the rock, at the end of which was a 400 foot tunnel leading into the mountain to provide access to a double-decker elevator.  Finally, the elevator provides vertical access to Kehlsteinhaus through 400 feet of solid rock above the tunnel.

Kehlsteinhaus was to be presented to Hitler for his birthday in 1939, but most of his visits occurred before then and he was not over-excited about it.

Although in April of 1945 the Eagle's Nest was slated for destruction by the Royal Air Force because it was thought to cover a large military installation, the mission was not consummated because the target was too small and difficult to hit properly.  There is evidence, however, that a gun emplacement was nearby.

So after the war, the Eagle's Nest was a popular excursion for Allied military personnel.  It was then developed as a public tourist attraction.

After doing our own tour of Berchtesgaden, I went into the Nationalpark Information Center.  The lady told me that the Eagle's Nest was now closed for maintenance. She was quite chatty and told me about a museum that featured a lot of memorabilia about the NAZI regime during World War II.  She said, "It was very difficult time."  Again, unfortunately, the Museum was closed.  October 13 was too late.

Scenes in The Sound of Music depicting the escape of the Von Trapps to Switzerland were shot here in the Berchtesgaden area.  Let me tell you, it's easy to agree that these hills are "alive with the sound of music."  And you can easily "see" the Von Trapps running through these meadows.  But in real life, this NAZI stronghold was definitely not the place to be if you were fleeing Austria in the late 30's.  In real life the Von Trapps boarded a train at the nearby station carrying their hiking backpacks, as if off to another hiking trip. They got off the train in Italy, leaving everything behind.  Hitler then closed the Austrian border.

Hallstatt
S
ome guys, probably out hunting, noticed salty water coming out of a mountain beside a beautiful lake in Austria.  The year was approximately 1500 B.C.  That was about the time Moses was being enlightened by a burning bush over in Midian.

After a number of years had passed, these Bronze Age people began digging into the mountain to bring out the salt.  Customers began to come from all around to dicker for salt. By 800 B.C., while these Bronze Age folks were advancing into the Iron Age, serious mining activities were under way.  The Hallstatt mine claims to be the oldest salt mine in the world. No other salt mine has stepped forward to challenge that.

But by 600 B.C. another very large salt mine at Hallein, near Salzburg, began operations. The Hallstatt mine began suffering from the competition.  Then in 400 B.C. Hallstatt suffered a huge landslide, never again to be the major source of salt it had been.  But archaeologically Hallstatt retains it's glory because the period from 800 to 400 B.C. is widely acclaimed, at least in European archaeology, as the Hallstatt Era.

Now let's quickly move to the Information Age.  It's October, 2005. Dick and Mary arrive at the place where salt came out of the mountain about 35 centuries earlier. The oldest salt mine is still here and they're giving tours!  Alas, the tour sounds more like a sporting event than a stroll, not what septuagenarians want to engage in.

But the little town of Hallstatt, Austria, population 1000, is in a perfectly idyllic spot, perfect for septuagenarians.  It's about 45 miles southeast of Salzburg in a more mountainous corner of what Austrians know as the Lake District. This town is particularly photogenic because it is squeezed between the lake and a very steep mountainside. We are not surprised that a landslide once devastated this town.  The mountain and the town are very close neighbors and even the best of neighbors must deal with their differences.

Hallstatt, its lake and its mountainside.
  • The two churches are near the center; Catholic on the left, Protestant on the right.
  • The main road bypasses the town via a tunnel through the mountainside.
  • The mid-tunnel parking lot overlooks the town, just left of the Catholic Church.
  • The Salt mine is in the mountain above the town and the tunnel.
  • The town plaza is in the center of the town just below the mid-tunnel parking.

So now you pretty much have the whole scoop on Hallstatt.  ... pretty much.  There's really not that much going on here.  There's no skiing here, no boat racing, no big shows or carnival rides, not even much shopping except for Bronze Age styled jewelry.  If you need excitement, maybe you could take the salt mine tour.  But don't you see?  About twenty percent of Hallstatt's charm is that nothing is going on.  Eighty percent includes its mountain/lake setting and the eye-feast you get just strolling around or sitting on one of the benches around town.

Sooner or later, words lose their impact on something like this.  So we'll just finish our description of the Alps with some final photos around Hallstatt.
Hallstatt Town Plaza
Mid-Tunnel Parking Lot
To understand the juxtaposition of these areas, note the two upper buildings shown in each.



The view across Hallstatter See looking southeast


We'll never forget Hallstatt


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