Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Vacation in the Alps

We recently had a week of vacation, during which we rented a car, packed the tent, and traveled through the western Alps. We started out driving through Switzerland before crossing into Italy over the Splügen Pass. We then reached our first goal, the Lago di Como, nestled between mountains. We stopped at some small picturesque towns on the western shore of the lake, but the highlight was probably the Villa di Balbianello, probably known best for being the filming location of several scenes from Star Wars: Episode II and Casino Royale. After visiting the city of Como, we made our way towards the next lake over, Lago Maggiore. Here we stopped in Stresa, which has some very nice turn-of-the-century architecture. Our campsite here were, as on Lake Como, dominated by trailers and campers. Our little tent was quite lonely, but that was to change soon. The next day, after a quick stop in the small town of Orta San Giulio, we made our way to the Aosta valley, which has several impressive castles guarding the way. In the town of Aosta, we saw the Roman sights (yes, they had already settled there), and visited the well-preserved upper parts of frescoes underneath the ceiling in the church of Sant'Orso (the lower parts were destroyed in the 15th century during renovations). After seeing a branch of Grom, we couldn't resist and got some gelato. Our goal for the day was the mountain town of Valnontey, where we found a very nice campground with a fantastic view of the Gran Paradiso massif. The next day, we did a day hike to the Lake of Loie and the Alpe Bardoney, a summer dairy farm. Although we were hoping to see ibex and chamois, they were not to be found. We did see a bunch of marmots, though, and heard them whistling to each other. On the way back, we did a detour to the waterfalls of Lillaz before returning to the car and the campsite. The next day, we drove the rest of the way through the Aosta valley and through the Mont Blanc tunnel (incredibly expensive) to reach the French city of Chamonix. Although we were initially planning on taking the cable car up to the Brévent and then hiking down, that side of the valley was in the clouds. The other side though was in the sun, and so we took the cable car up to the Aiguille du Midi instead, from which there was a fantastic view over the entire Mont Blanc massif. For dinner, we went to Le Dahu in Argentière that my parents had already been to many times several decades earlier, and had a traditional cheese fondue. From there, we made our way through the foothills to Annecy, and drove by two castles nearby. Since we were determined to avoid staying in Switzerland as much as possible (because it's incredibly expensive), we found a campsite just outside Geneva but still in France. Out of the mountains, we were now unfortunately back in trailer-park country. Following Lake Geneva, we passed through several nice towns, each with its own picturesque castle, until reaching Lausanne. After a quick sightseeing tour of the city, we changed (becoming the best-dressed people at the campground) and attended the public Ph.D. defense of a friend of mine. The next morning we encountered some of the first clouds and rain of our entire trip while continuing along Lake Geneva and seeing some more castles (a highlight being the Château de Chillon near Montreux) as well as stone-age menhirs. Then it was back in the direction of home, with stops in Gruyères (where we bought some cheese, of course) and Fribourg, before spending the final night in Bern. Sunday, the weather had become completely rainy, so the sightseeing tour of Bern was rather quick and hasty. A pity really, because the city seemed very nice (if also very sleepy on this Sunday morning). Then, after two more quick stops for a castle at Burgdorf and the waterfalls of the Rhine in Schaffhausen, it was back home to Ulm.

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