34. St. Margrethen

 

 

 

After Buchs we grabbed a local train and took a 20 minute ride further down the Rhine to our last stop in Switzerland, at St. Margrethen. Our hosts were Tanja and Alex and their beautiful three children. Una and I were guests here on the ’14 trip, and it was great to see them again. We arrived around lunch time and left our bags, and walked to a very cool nearby attraction, The Fortress Museum Heldsberg. 

In 1940 the Swiss started worrying about a potential attack from Germany and Italy so they built some very sturdy underground forts along thier border. This one was constructed between 1940 and 1942 and overlooked Lake Constance and was within easy shelling distance of Bregenz, Austria and Lindau, Germany. Both towns are at lake level so from this height and armored, underground protection those cities would be laid waste if the Nazis made a move on Switzerland (although it seems nobody is arguing the Germans couldn’t have taken Switzerland, because of places like Heldsberg, it would have come at too high a cost).

From Wikipedia: The German plan for a Swiss invasion, Operation Tannenbaum, noted the presence of the Heldsberg position and concluded:

“A very desirable approach is to attack from the east at Rheineck, the shortest way to the enemy flank, but the mountainous terrain and the strong fortifications at Rheineck (Heldsberg) promise no success.”[1]

I left my battery in the charger that day! so no photos from the exhibits. Everything in the fort was in its original state, including the generators that still worked and could provide ventilation for the entire, vast network of passages and rooms. There were sleeping quarters, a mess hall, a sick bay with operation room, air-lock chemical warfare disinfectant chambers, ammo room, weapons room, command center, and gun batteries all over the place (with the original cannons and scopes you could look through  and train in on enemy targets, like the tourist boats crossing Lake Constance.) In one room they had a special, detailed exhibit about the AK-47. It appeared ol’ Kalishnikov himself had visited the fortress, sometime in the 90s. It looked like he was treated as a real big shot when he came to town.

It was fascinating and we stayed all afternoon.

At one point we were in the communication room. On the wall were maps and posters that detailed the plans for the axis invasion of Switzerland. In a display case were various samples of Nazi propaganda. There was a copy of Mein Kampf. The display said that during the war, you could find a copy of Mein Kampf anywhere in Germany. It was given by the regime to all newlyweds. It also said that the particular German version on display was very rare, as 1) Germans were quick to destroy their copies before the invading allied armies arrived, and 2) Mein Kampf was banned after the war and is still a banned book in Germany today.

I told Keenan about all this.

“But what about here in Switzerland? Can they read it here?”

“Hmm. I don’t know.”

A Swiss man was listening in and he piped up, “Yes, you can read that book here. We are like America, not Germany. Books are not banned!”

 On that note our tour ended and we had to get back to Alex and Tanja’s house, for they had invited us for a Swiss Raclette dinner. 

Pickles, potatoes, wine and melted cheese. Delish!

 

After dinner, fun in the basement. What a kick A & T’s kids are!

 

 

Next: Germany

33. Bad Ragaz

Bummer, our host in Buchs said that the weather forecast was looking bad and he strongly recommended against climbing the nearby peaks, which we -OK, I- had had my eyes on since the night before.

-So where do you recommend we go?

-I think you should go to Bad Ragaz. It’s not far, and it’s a real nice town.

Bad Ragaz is the home of Heidi.

   There are sculptures all over town, part of a civic project called Bad Ragartz. Get it?     

Bad Ragaz’ fame as a spa town goes back hundreds of years, when some hunters followed the path of the local river as it winded up into a deep canyon. They found steaming vents and hot pools, and it became famous for its healing powers. Later the hot water was piped out of the canyon and the town built a famous spa and hospital to take advantage of the therapeutic waters.

Here are a couple Swiss girls who I took it were staying at the hospital, recovering from injuries and enjoying the sculptures in the park. “Keenan, those girls are pretty. Go say hello!”

K glared.

It started to rain, so we took cover under a tree and lunched. This time, Emmentaler.

When we got back to Buchs we passed a lakeside  wedding reception.

 

Next: St. Margrethen

32. Last morning in Engadin

There was no rush to leave early, so we had a nice, slow breakfast with Johnny, who loved to talk about anything- sports, politics, the local history, Switzerland (Johnny is a proud Swiss!), etc. but the main thing on his mind was his son. Though his son did come by the house a couple times, he never stayed long enough for us to meet him. In an eyeblink, he was gone and over the hill to see his girl again. Johnny was worried about his only boy, Markus let’s call him. Markus was a strapping 19 yr. old who’s dream was to go to Canada and make it big in hockey.

“Is he that good?”

“Oh, he’s pretty good. He’s a star on the local team, but you know, in Canada everybody plays and the competition is tough.”

“So maybe not NHL level good.”

“Well, I doubt it, but I suppose he will have to go and find out for himself.”

What was heavy on Johnny’s mind was Markus’ apparent indifference to his studies. M was a smart kid who didn’t quite apply himself hard enough, in pop’s mind. His mother wasn’t real worried, figuring Markus would do fine, but Johnny constantly harped on the fact that M didn’t take his recent carpentry apprenticeship entrance exam seriously enough. “I asked him how it went and he just shrugged! I don’t think he passed. He didn’t take it serious enough. There was a written portion and an interview, and the interview included some questions in English. His English is good but I think he was lazy in the interview. He just doesn’t see how important this is! Without the license, you can’t make much money in carpentry, but with the license you can do quite well. (sigh)”

The night before, after dinner we went upstairs to have a beer with Johnny and meet his wife. Sophie was fun to talk to and we talked about her life in South Africa and her times in Holland with relatives. The conversation shifted to Markus and I sort of became the audience as Johnny and Sophie bickered over the future of their son. They both loved their only son but clearly had different ideas about how much to push him. Sophie would sort of shrug and say, “ahh, he’ll do fine, you’ll see.” while Johnny would shake his head, get red in the face and look over at me with a man-to-man pleading look that said, “can you believe this?”

I’d say Sophie had the advantage here because her English was better. She was comfortable while Johnny’s English suffered a bit when he got worked up.

The tension rose to an almost uncomfortable level a couple times but I could tell that Sophie was tough, and Johnny’s haranguing didn’t phase her much. Sophie, who had thick, jet-black hair and piercing blue eyes, would calmly make her case and then listen to Johnny fume, but never get excited herself. Tough ol’ Afrikaner!

After breakfast, Johnny took us for another walk. Workmen were drilling and installing a thermal heating system for a house in town. The concept is simple- drill a hole up to 120m deep and run a hose all the way down and back up. Circulate water through the hose and the water would heat up with the year-around warm rocks below and you’d never have to heat your house with electricity/oil again. It was a very expensive undertaking but over the years the savings in energy costs would pan out.

  

After watching the drilling operation for about a half hour, Johnny took us around town again, then left us to go for one more hike in the area, before heading out.

Another house of a well-off family. Note the post with devil’s head at top. Johnny didn’t know what that was all about.

We took a hike along the ski run that comes from the top of the lifts in Scuol. This would be the way to ski home from the local area if you were staying in Sent.

We didn’t expect to see Johnny when returned to the house to get our stuff, but as we entered and were walking to our room, I heard a hurried thud, thud, thud of feet on the old, wood stairs and Johnny came bursting into the room.

“The test! The results are in.”

“Your son’s test for the carpentry apprenticeship?”

  • Yes! Oh, it was addressed to him, but I just couldn’t help myself. I opened it and looked.
  • and?
  • He passed! I can not believe it! He really did it!
  • Wow! That’s great!
  • This mean’s he can go to the training and get his carpentry license.!
  • Fantastic!
  • You know, he must have been more serious about it than I thought. He fooled me, you know! He really did it!

Here was one proud, happy father. His joy overwhelmed him, and his worries of the night before vanished. For a moment anyway. After sharing this happy news with us and beaming with delight, he gazed toward the corner of the room and furled his brow and made a small frown. “But you know, it’s not easy. I’ll have to pay for his apprenticeship training and apartment in Zurich. It’s a big step. He’s got to take it seriously, but I just don’t know if he will.”

Johnny shook his head, wondering if his son could hack it. I tried to get the joyful feeling back.

“But he passed! You have to celebrate now!”

Johnny smiled. “Yes, that’s right! We’ll see!”

 

We said goodbye and promised to come back again some day. The bus to Scuol came in around noon and we got a 1 o’clock train. Our next stay would be in Buchs, just across from Vaduz, capital of Liechtenstein.

on the way

in Buchs In Buchs our hosts let us use the bicycles in the shed and ride down to the local supermaket, a German chain called Lidl. Everything was about 1/2 the price or less what we paid in Sent at the Swiss stores eatin like kings again!

this next Friends of the Bicycle place was dee-luxe, with a little pool in back

Next: Bad Ragaz

31. Scuol

The next day we got up and traversed over to Scuol, up the Inn Valley but lower in elevation than Sent. 

This is a powerplant below Scuol. Note the large holding pond. At night, when less power is needed, they use the excess energy to pump the water in the pond back up the valley, so it can run through the turbins again the next day.

In the village of Scuol.  Remember, there are four official languages in Switzerland. We happened to be in the far east of the country, where the Romansch language is still hanging on among less than 1% of the Swiss population. Our host, Johnny, was born here, but left when he was young to the German speaking region. Our other host was Johnny’s wife, Sophie, a South African/Dutch who could speak Romansch, fluent English and just about everything else. Johnny said his son, an aspiring hockey star or future carpenter, was more fluent in Romansch than he, and he (the son) was very patriotic and sympathetic to the cause of the Romansch people, and always spoke Romansch to his girlfriend a couple valleys over.

Sorry, no Romansch option on google translate, but they did have this explanatory sign up, in German and Romansch, which served as a Rosetta Stone for our Romansch studies later that evening.

 The German text reads (straight from Google),PREPARES it once joy, to remember MAYBE m 1696 were Tomas Hainrich and his sons Joan and Gallus build this house.  The coat of arms and the inscription bear witness to this.  It is a plant of rare consistency and with more original facades.  The facilities Interior is unique and has undergone a few changes.  The beautiful outstanding oven corresponds to the former construction.  Thus saving space in the kitchen, the fire was lower.  Such ovens were common in the Engadine.

Allegra! is the word you use to greet people. It seemed a bit all-purpose, like “servus” in Tyrol, or “aloha” in Hawaii. Bogn means bath and this was the local spa.

Here Keenan gets a drink from the local fount. One spigot is regular mountain water and the other is gaseous spring water with high mineral content, warmer and not so tasty but healthier we presumed.

I can almost understand this. Any ideas?

Today, lunch on the riverside. Our standard fare by now- cheese on chips, fruit, drink, and in this case, chocolate. Today’s cheese, a nice, swiss Gruyere.

Another picture where you set the camera to color saturation. They are a bit phony with the over-colorization, but I really like ’em. The feature gives the pictures a 1960s postcard look to them.

Often on this trip the thought in my mind was, “Hmm. Shouldn’t have tried to hit so many towns and just settle in one spot for longer, so we could do some high-alpine hiking.”

After a day walking/hiking around Scuol, we took the bus back up to Sent.

Here was the local Irish pub. Run by a local woman who some claim doesn’t much like outsiders, least of all the Irish.

There was still plenty of light to have a rest out on the patio and enjoy the view.   

Goofing around after dinner in the living room.

Next: We leave the Engadin Valley and travel into German Switzerland.

30. To Switzerland

 The next morning we took a little walk around town in Nauders.  Then we got our lunch at the supermarket and grabbed the bus into Switzerland.  Little hotel with a rock-climbing wall    

 Bus schedule from Landeck to Swiss towns.

 

 Goodbye, Austria.

 

 The bus went up the hill out of Nauders and then down a steep hill into the Engadin valley.

 When we arrived in Switzerland we had to change buses.  There were only one or two buses per day to the little village of Sent so we had to go Scuol and backtrack on another bus.

Sent is a beautiful, old town on a hillside up from the Inn River.  The Swiss like to let you know how old the houses are, especially these big mountain houses and ours had a sign that said 1550 or thereabouts.

 

 All three of our homestays in Switzerland will be at Friends of the Bicycle homes. Here’s Johnny, our great host in Sent, who gave us a tour of the town right after we arrived. 

 Swiss fire hydrant.   

Italian woodchopping machine.

Johnny told us a little about the history of Sent and the Lower Engadin Valley. This was once a poor region, with farming being the only means of making a living. The land could only provide so many jobs, so local boys with bigger dreams left for other parts of Europe, like Italy, Germany, and the the Low Countries. Being Swiss, they worked their tails off and returned wealthy. Then these nouveau-riche dandies built great houses, strutted around in thier tailored suits, had their pick of the local girls and raised big families with all that foreign-earned loot. Often the houses they built resembled the styles of their adopted countries. 

 German style turrets.

 

 Johnny said this was the epitome of the “Local boy makes good” house. The family here are descendents of a guy who studied law and had a succesful practice in Italy. You’ll want to avoid misunderstandings with these folks. 

 

 above Sent

 

After our tour, we took it easy for a while back home. These were the coolest lodgings yet on our trip. Keenan and I had the whole downstairs to ourselves, with three bedrooms, two toilets, a nice kitchen and a big living room, it was an area that could accomodate a dozen people easily.  The best part was the patio out back.

 

The cats loved hiding in the bushes.     This guy sneaked inside and hid under the blankets.      In Sent, we cooked our own meals.    This beer was only 85 cents (about $0.90 US) a pint. 

 

After dinner we played with the cats a while and then turned in.  

next: Wanderin around Scuol

 

 

 

29. Follow the Inn

Our route from Verona, current position, and intended destination in Switzerland. 

We said goodbye to Walter and Klaus and took our time leaving Alpbach. The weather was great so we decided to take a dip in the Brixlegg public pool before getting on the train. I was stung by a bee in this pool!

 

The train followed th Inn river. This is the mountain that overlooks the site of the Bilderberg, 2015 meeting. Here is it from another angle one year ago.

 

At Landeck you get off the train and grab a bus to continue following the Inn, up another valley to the South.   Last stop in Austria is the skiing village of Nauders. Another high alpine town I would have loved to explore.

We hadn’t arranged lodging. I figured we’d just walk around town and look for the zimmer frei (room available) signs on the side of the private homes that used to be ubiquitous around Austria. I didn’t see any at the beginning of my search around town and asked a lady who ran a pension what was up. “Oh, nobody uses that system anymore.”

I figured with smart phones, people everywhere make arrangements before they arrive in town now.

Luckily there was a tourist office, closed but with a room finding system that showed you a map. The second place I called had a good setup. 

We found our place and took a walk around town. Actually our pension and lots of other places still had the green and red “room available/room full” signs.

Good peaks for hiking and the Impreis supermarket in Nauders. Stock up here before you head into $witzerland!

“We do what we’re.”  

The high off the hog living was over. Our bon vivant German friends were no longer with us so it was back to bargain eating!  

Next: Lower Engadine Valley in Switzerland

28. Alpbach 2

The next morning we set out to scale the peak on the other side of the valley (the one I mentioned to K. while eating lunch at the top of the gondola life on the other side.)

The early going was through thick forest.

The trail had lots of panel paintings with iconic Catholic imagery.    I think they employed the same woman who did the touch-ups in Spain a couple years ago.     

 

   

This may look like the summit but it’s only the first peak in a series of three. You got up to a high point after a scramble and then had to descend down again into a ravine, before ascending to the next peak.

Here was a French family at the summit, which overlooks the Inn valley. The father walks up to me and asks in German if I would take their picture. I answered back in German and then he switched to English. They were a nice bunch and I spent a good ten minutes talking to them. They asked if I’d been to France and I mentioned our days in Nice, and then I said, “I’ve also been to the coast on the Pacific side. I was once in Biarritz and Hossegor.” -Eh, I think you mean the Atlantic side. -Yeah. Right. Did I say ‘Pacific’? Pierre was thinking, “Typical American level of geographical knowledge.”

 

This is looking the other direction toward the Inn valley, via Lover’s leap. I took one zoom shot of the couple on the bench, but deleted it for propriety.

This lightning rod keeps the wood cross from being zapped to a crisp.

I got Pierre to take our picture too.

Not a bad zoom on the little Canon.

 

Can you see the ducks and the chicken?

Notice the trough with fresh, cold mountain water. I’d been wondering if these water spouts all over the place were taking water straight from the streams, or underground springs, and how safe it was to drink. “Aren’t the Austrians susceptible to giardia?” I wondered. Turns out, you could poke around upstream of the spigot and usually find a filtering system at work. So the water was clean.

 

These trees were all planted in honor of long time guests to Alpbach. If you’d been visiting the town regularly over the course of 40 years, you got your name on the tree. The great majority of the names were from Germany and the UK.

 

     Keenan in the Alpbach meditation chapel.          

There was a reading room, with books from all the major religions and philosophies.    

 

Here are some of the earliest attendees of the Alpbach forum, which was founded just after WWII. 

 

I took this boring picture because on the way back to our hotel this crazy guy in a white VW Golf was driving wildly up the hill. He was slamming on the brakes and then gunning the engine again all the way up the hill, making a great screech each time.  I was a good 80 yards or so in front of Keenan. Drunken Hoerst, the driver of the VW, pulled up in front of me and said, “Hey baby, Yeah baby, Rock and Roll let’s roll it, a yeah baby!” He and a guy in the back seat (the passenger seat in front was ripped out) had a great laugh as they pulled into our hotel lot and walked across the street. K looked a little shook when he got up to the hotel. Hoerst had pulled the brake slamming trick on him.

 

Another open-air dinner with Walter and Klaus.    

 

Performance art in the street after dinner.

Next: On to Switzerland!