Thursday, January 29, 2015

First Year Sampling Switzerland's Hiking Trails

With the Alps in our backyard, I'm surprised we didn't go out hiking more often during our first year in Switzerland. We made  it out five times for day hikes:
  • Zürich's Üetliberg
  • Five Lakes Classic Trek
  • Hike around Lauterbrunnen Valley
  • Liechtensteins Drei Schwestern Trail
  • Hike to Äscher Mountain Hut 
Afternoon hiking excursions from Zürich.

Zürich's Üetliberg

We had a month between landing in Switzerland and departing to Peru to squeeze in a couple last minute training hikes. Üetliberg is the local mountain that overlooks Zürich. It is a popular spot for locals catch some fresh mountain air.
Even those not interested in hiking come up here for a nice view of the city on a clear day.
Our GPS track shown on Strava. See higher resolution in Swiss Topo.

We started our hike at the edge of a neighborhood and headed straight upward. Once along the ridge, we walked several kilometers gradually moving up and down through forests and farmlands. Along the way we passed several huts serving warm meals, a small castle ruins, and a look-out fort. We got a bit carried away with the mellow terrain and we ended up heading home after dark.
Not exactly the type of hiking we're used to.
Remains of a small castle.
Last stop before turning back was the Look-Out Fort.
Our reward before catching a bus back home.

Five Lakes Classic Trek

This was our second hike in preparation for the Inca Trail. With the help of MySwitzerland, we found this alpine trail.
Much of the elevation is gained by riding a gondola and chairlift up. This worked well for us since we were working on getting our bodies more comfortable with thin air.
Crystal clear alpine lakes.
Our GPS track shown through Strava. Higher resolution in Swiss Topo.

From the trailhead, one must head in the opposite direction from the rest of the trail to visit the first of five lakes. Since we got a late start and were now racing to catch the chair lift before closing time, so we skipped this first lake. Much of the terrain was gray and rocky with patches of greenery peaking through. As we headed further up in elevation, there were remains of last winter's snow... or maybe they from this fall.
Getting a jump start to our hike with a gondola ride up.
Packed random heavy stuff into my pack to better train for our trek.
Clear enough to see Germany.
We saw four of the five lakes.

Hike around Lauterbrunnen Valley

We were familiar with this area from a prior snowboarding trip and heard this region is especially beautiful for hiking in the spring and summer. Even on a wet autumn afternoon, the views were very colorful.
Fog lifted just long enough to catch the view of some of the 72 waterfalls in the valley.
Our GPS track shown through Strava. Higher resolution in Swiss Topo.

There are numerous ways one can hike around Lauterbrunnen Valley. The route we chose started with a tram ride to the Grütschalp Station. From there we walked along the cliff wall to the village of Gimmelwald, down to the valley floor, passed waterfalls, through farms with grazing cows, and back into the town of Lauterbrunnen. If one arrives early enough, Trümmelbach Falls is another site along the way to Lauterbrunnen. Once back in town, there are numerous restaurants to choose from to replenish all the lost calories. We chose to treate  ourselves to fondue and Glühwein.
Starting and ending point: the town of Lauterbrunnen.
Between the villages of Murren and Gimalwald
Weather turned on us.
Moving through the valley farms.

Liechtensteins Drei Schwestern Trail - Liechtenstein's Three Sisters Trail

I have a dirty secret: I wanted to hike in Lichtenstein because I wanted to add another country to my count. Yes, I'm a country collector. Lichtenstein is very similar to Switzerland. The similarities include currency, language and its dramatic mountain scenery.

We allotted five hours to do this hike, which is the suggested time according to some websites. Unfortunately, Q mistakenly loaded the GPS tracks of a longer version of the hike, which forced us to turn back early. With looming thunder storm clouds in the distance, we wouldn't dare to extend our pre-determined turn back time. Despite not making it to our predesignated turn around point, taking the long cut on the way to our destination made the hike more interesting with its high meadow of wild flowers. I would encourage others to add a couple hours onto the hike and take the long cut on the way up. I hope to finish the trek in the future. The landscape was breathtaking, especially with the spring flowers in full bloom along the long scenic trail. Here is where one can find the original trail
Views of Austria, German, and Switzerland from the mountains of Liechtenstein.
Our GPS tracks shown through Strava. Better resolution through Swiss Topo.

The hike started off passing through a farm (near some intimidating looking steers), through wildflower filled high meadows, along cliff edges, down loose rock paths, along knife ridges, and back down slim paths hugging the rock cliff wall. Some points of the terrain require a bit more care. The loose rock paths made the trek more difficult as we were in constant fear of losing our footing and taking the fast way down - on our butts. Other portions were along cliff edges that would make one's head spin from looking down.
The hills are alive with the sound of music.
It was late spring and the wildflowers were in full bloom.
Before turning back we were in dramatic mountainous terrain with steep unguarded cliffs.
The way back was in grey rock terrain, which at moments was not for the faint of heart.

Hike to Äscher Mountain Hut 

Photos of this Hut inspired me to get out and explore Switzerland. I was thrilled to end our first year in Switzerland by visiting it.
The Äscher Mountain Hut is tucked into the rock face high above the valley.
Our GPS tracks shown through Strava. Better resolution through Swiss Topo.

This 9.3 kilometer trek to Äscher Mountain Hut takes one through alpine farms, by crystal clear lakes, up forested hillsides, by mountain huts, past a cave church, through a cave, and finishes off with views during the tram ride down back to the valley floor. Even though much of the trek is uphill, according to MySwitzerland, this is the least technical direction. Äscher Mountain Hut is shortly before one reaches the tram, providing a nice opportunity to reward one's self with a long lunch of Swiss Rösti topped with egg and alp cheese accompanied by wine or beer all while enjoying the valley view far below.
Moving up to the high valley farmland.
Even a walk through the valley is great for leisurely afternoon.
Q opted for Rösti with a saucy meat side dish.
Actual church in the side of the cliff wall - and you can attend their regularly scheduled services.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Malta in the summer of 2014

Our friends Nick and Yili visited Europe this past summer, so Laure and I decided to join them for part of their trip. Since they know how to have a good time on beach vacations, we joined them in Malta. Conveniently, it was place that Laure wanted to visit since her great-grandfather was Maltese.
We went under the boot!
We found an awesome AirBnB apartment in St. Julian's Bay.
With a great view.
Our favorite thing: enjoying the company of good friend and atmosphere over a glass of wine.

We read that it can be challenging to get around Malta by public transportation, so we rented a car and were able to see a lot more places. Thankfully my wife is an awesome driver and felt comfortable driving manual transmission on the left side of the road. Nick quickly filled the job as our navigation expert. Sadly, Google Maps was grossly wrong many times. I should probably go back more often to perform some ground truthing, as they say.
Our awesome driver.
Malta highlights.

Malta is undoubtedly most famous for its beautiful beaches, so we checked out a few of them. First up was the Blue Lagoon, which is reachable by boat from the main island. It is a beautiful beach, but due to its popularity, it can feel a bit crowded. On the other hand, it is fun to watch the crowds on speed boats going inner tubing with loud music and lots of booze.

On our way to the Blue Lagoon
Rug and Mochi joined us.
Juicy sweet watermelons.
Google+ made this Blue Lagoon photo look like a postcard.

We also visited another "beach" named St. Peter's Pool, which turned out to be very memorable in a unique way. It is hard to describe it as a beach because it is not sandy and its calm water is surrounded by a stony shore. So it is more appropriately named a "pool" instead of "beach". And since Laure hates dealing with the sand of normal beaches, this one worked perfectly for her.
A short walk to St Peter's Pool.
St Peter's Pool and its cliffy shore.
Someone gave Yili a sunblock mustache.
Who could it have been?
A popular activity at St Peter's Pool is to cliff jump into the water.
Nick decided to jump in a yoga pose.

Before visiting Malta, I did not know that it was once under Arab rule. You can see traces of this in their architecture especially in the older cities -- most prominently in their old capital, Mdina.
Mdina is charmingly old and very well preserved.
Maybe they cleaned it up to shoot Game of Thrones.
At times Mdina feels like a movie.

We also visited the current capital Valletta, which is relatively more modern but still has a lot of quaint streets and buildings. It also has a good number of people at least during the weekends (I have read that their weekdays are a little slower).

Valletta is nice for exploring by foot.
Valletta's old charming architecture.
The city felt like a mix of Spain, Morocco, and Egypt.
We found some quaint restaurants, bars, and gelatarias in Valletta.

We also visited a small fishing town named Marsaxlokk, which is famous for its seafood and their Sunday outdoor market along the harbor.
Fishing boats in Marsaxlokk.
Church in Marsaxlokk.
In honor of the World Cup, we performed the free kick crotch-block pose.
I'm sure you've seen it before.

Talking about the World Cup, we watched the finals in St Julian's. Although they had a huge public viewing outdoors, we decided to watch it at the bar downstairs from our apartment, which turned out to be a lot of fun.
World Cup finals at the bar downstairs from our apartment.
And also at a public viewing by the bay.

Before this trip, I had read about the lively night life in St Julian's. But when we checked it out, we felt awkwardly old for the scene. It seemed that the city constructed a designated party neighborhood full of big clubs with a very young crowd. In hindsight, we should have checked out the night life in Valletto, where the city seems to have a more interesting vibe and the restaurants and bars seem cozier and more unique. We'll keep this in mind for next time.

On a happier note, this has been the second year in a row that Laure and I met up with Nick and Yili in Europe over the summer. Last year we went in Tuscany and Florence). I hope that we keep this tradition alive year after year!
Until the next trip!