Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Bern, Switzerland

My original plan was to visit Bern (Switzerland's capital) on a Sunday. Why? All the shops are closed and there's zilch traffic which makes exploring the old town area more enjoyable. Unfortunately it was due to rain on Sunday so I switched to Saturday. Turned out to be a big mistake as Saturday is market day and the old town area was chock full of stalls and people. So, me being a flexible kind of guy, I decided to cycle to Thun (20 miles away) and return to Bern in the afternoon when (hopefully) the farmers market is over.
Passing through a village a road sign announced a schloss (castle) nearby. Usually a castle means high walls, fortifications and so on but, sometimes it's just a big house as this one turns out to be. The date 1760 inscribed above the front door tells me when it was built.

The Aar River runs through downtown Thun (population 42,000) and forms Lake Thun. The castle and church tower above the town.

Restaurants line the river banks and on the right you can see several people in the water doing stand up kayaking/surfing.

That's a covered bridge for pedestrians and cyclists.

This is a backside view of Thun Castle.

Passing through a villlage I came upon some farm tractors noisily idling alongside the road. Don't know what they were doing (the drivers spoke German) or why the drivers were dressed up but the tractors were spiffy looking.

I went up to each tractor driver and asked if they spoke English. Nope. Were they on their way to a parade?

Looks to be the same model tractor as the previous photo but it's lighter gray color.

This red beauty with the fancy black upholstery makes me think it wasn't used for farming but maybe for fancy occasions like funerals and weddings.

I was cycling through an underpass and came upon a half-dozen guys spray painting (graffiti) on the walls. It isn't a cheap "hobby" as a can of spray cost about $10. First you have to spray over the previous" work" and then you do your thing. One of the guys says it will take a dozen cans for his work ($120). "Yeah but" I ask, "is what you're doing legal"? I'm told it is.

So, they spend all that money, use all that time doing their work and for what? Exposure? I don't think so as it's on a concrete wall in a little used road underpass which gets zilch traffic passing through except for the occasional lost cyclist (like myself who took a wrong turn through farmland) or hiker passing by.

I ask, "So, you guys paint your works of art but, what's to stop another group coming tommorrow and spray painting over today's work"? Several guys look at each other and just shrug their shoulders with one saying "that's the way it goes".

I passed this building and did a double take. What are those things? Ants, termites, worms? Looks like a closer inspection was called for.

Even upon closer inspection I still don't have a clue as to what they are advertising or promoting.

Passing through the town of Belp I spot about 30 fire trucks of all shapes, sizes and ages parked on school grounds and of course nosey me has to check it out.

It turns out to be a festival with fire trucks and emergency vehicles from towns, cities and villages up to several hundred miles away getting together. However, most of the vehicles aren't state-of-the-art but, classic and historic. Very cool.

The vehicles are sent out to perform tasks and points are awarded. The fire truck approaching me was built in 1928.

Definite 1950's look to this one.

Hook and ladder.

Points are awarded for looks. Hence the flowers.

VW bus

I've visited the company/factory that produced this emergency vehicle. Great for zipping up hillsides and going off-road up steep terrain..

Another classic.

I got off the paved road and was cycling on a dirt trail running alongside a river. Came upon this ferry service taking hikers, walkers, bikers to the other side. The boat is attached to steel cable
wires running across the river. No motor is used as it's powered by the fast moving river current.

It's a nice hot day (85 degrees) in early September. Saw lots of people in inner tubes pass by. In this photo there's a man and woman in the water swimming past.

Here they're playing cricket as I make my way to Bern's city center. That's the backside of Switzerland's parliament building in the background.

Returning to Bern in the afternoon proved to be an even bigger fiasco. Besides the farmers market still going on there was a rally by one of Switzerland's major political parties in progress in front of the parliament building. Many streets were blocked off and hundreds of police in riot gear were patrolling the area. I was snapping pictures of the picturesque river gorge directly behind the parliament building when a police officer (in full riot gear and brandishing a rifle) approached and asked if I'd like him to snap a photo of me. "Sure", I said.

This is Parliament Square in front of the parliament building. Rallies, protests and demonstrations are pretty common. About 5,000 people are here today.

Bern has about 20 of these fountains in the downtown area.

The colorful statues above the fountains are hundreds of years old. Nice cold drinking water flows out the fountains--great for filling up my water bottle on the bike.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Fort Cindey, Switzerland

I'm at a narrow pass about 60 miles from Geneva, Switzerland, 30 miles from Italy and the formidable Alps. Through the centuries there have been fortifications on this site. The only direct route between France and Italy passes through this narrow pass. I snapped this photo from Saint-Maurice Castle which has been guarding this pass since 1476. Note the train tracks (which pass through a tunnel), the highway, then that's the Rhone River on the other side of the trees and finally there's another road in the far right of the photo.

In the right of this photo is Saint-Maurice Castle. Right above it you see a cone-shaped structure-part of fortifications built in 1830. Just on the other side of the car is the Rhone River. Now, you can't see it but way above the cone-shaped structure is the entrance to Fort Cindey as well as Grotte aux Fees ("Cave of the Fairies").

Believe it or not, this small natural opening behind my bike is the entrance to Fort Cindey (built between 1940-1946 and housing 173 soldiers) and Cave of the Fairies. This limestone cave was first explored in 1831 and it runs for several miles in various directions including the big attraction: a 253 foot high underground waterfall--purportedly the world's highest waterfall in a natural cave. To the right of my bike is an outdoor restaurant. It's a good hike to get to this point as there is no road. The switchback dirt trail leading up here is a pain as every six feet you have to step up over a log. I mention this because I didn't feel safe leaving my bike unattended at the closed castle and ended up lugging it all the way up.

I specifically waited until a hot day in August (expected to reach 90 degrees) to visit the fort because I knew it will be very cold inside the mountain. The Cave of the Fairies is the lure here with the fort not very well advertised. Fort Cindey was decommisioned in 1995 and have guided tours only in the summer.

The tour starts at 10:30 AM and lasts two and a half hours. The guide talks to me in French and from what I understand he's saying the tour will be done in French. "No problem", I reply. Wow, nobody else shows up and it looks like it's just the two of us. We enter the cave and follow the dimly lit and wet trail for about a 100 yards. The guide then hangs a left and up these stairs where he unlocks a thick steel door (no sign signaling this is the entrance to Fort Cindey). After entering, the guide locks the door, holds up the key and places it into a vest pocket. He tells me in English "in emergency here's the key". Whoa, I've taken several of these below ground and inside-the-mountain tours of former military installations and never had the guide say this. Jeez, is he thinking he might have a heart attack or something else and I'd be trapped inside this fortress?

So, it turns out my guide does speak some English and it works out well between us. After closing the initial steel door we pass through two more steel doors which serve a purpose. If we had been outside and there was a gas attack we would need to stay in the chamber between the two steel doors for hours while the air is filtered clean.

The Swiss are known for their feats of engineering whether it be tunneling through mountains or building bridges over seemingly impossible terrain.

My guide, who I guess to be in his early 70's, used to be the chaplain at this fort before it was deactived in 1995. The reason he's in great shape probably has to do with him walking up and down the slippery corridors plus, he must have unlatched, opened, closed and latched at least 30 of the steel doors like the ones seen in this photo. The door he is about to open used to be the munitions storage room.

The munitions room. It now displays bazookas, grenade launchers, uniforms and other items. It's amazing how they dug into the mountain and then built the various rooms. There's an industrial-size kitchen as well as a 20 bed hospital and a 23,000 gallon water reservoir (a three month supply of water). How difficult it must have been to get cement, bricks, drilling equipment and so forth up here. Horses, mules or sleds couldn't get up that dirt trail I came up on.

Officers barracks. Two to a room with a sink.

Soldiers barracks. Four to a room and no sink. Soldiers slept in shifts.

Washing up and shaving area. There are showers.

This is one of the big guns. The fort was equipped with two 105 mm guns in individual casemates (range up to 15 miles), four 90 mm anti-tank cannons and five heavy machine guns with telescopic scopes. It took a crew of nine to operate one of the big guns.

This is a view out from one of several observation posts. The mirror lets the observer see the anti-tank/artillery cannon sticking out of the cliff face. Why? The gun crews can not see outside. The observer notes tanks or infantry approaching, then relays this info (via phone) to the command center deep inside the fort, the command center does the calculations and then calls up the cannon crew with the coordinates on where to point the cannon.

It's at the end of the tour that I learn about the hidden aerial cableway. This is how supplies and equipment were brought up. The cab seats four and there's a weight limit of 1,000 pounds. Since this is the most vulnerable part of the fort a massive 15 inch steel door closes this off. The guide lets me shut the door and it has to weigh several thousand pounds.

While in the fort I looked through the telescopic scope on one of the machine guns and could clearly see this canal and tank barriers in the distance. In this photo look in the middle and to the barren white cliff face to the left of the forest of trees. That's where the cannons are facing out. From that distance the machine gun could easily mow me down, firing a thousand rounds a minute!

Here's another view of tank barriers lined-up in rows. Why are they still there? Hey, you think it would be easy removing 'em?

At the end of the tour I was absolutely freezing as it must have been forty-something degrees inside. Of course I was wearing a winter jacket but my hands had almost become numb. I was in such a hurry to get back outside into the hot air that I passed on making my way in the cave to see the waterfall.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Chartres, France & Dijon, France

My bike and I hopped on a train in Paris and took the hour journey to Chartres (population 40,000). Why? To see the famous Chartres Cathedral.
It was drizzling upon disembarking from the train and right after snapping this photo it started pouring rain. The Gothic-style Chartres Cathedral was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1979. Besides having an impressive collection of stained glass windows you can readily see what else is unique--the mismatched spires.

The streets of Dijon (population 150,000) contrary to what you might have heard are not mustard colored. This photo shows Ducal Palace, formally known as the Palace of the Dukes and Estates of Burgundy. Built in the 17th and 18th centuries it now houses Dijon's city hall and a fine arts museum.

Half-timbered buildings abound in the old town area of Dijon.

It's market day and Dijon has a permanent building for many of the vendors.

It's at one of these stalls though where I experience Dijon's fame for food. A long line formed at one of the vendors and I found out why. It was thick slices of pork roast with stuffing (how they stuffed it into the roast is a mystery to me) with green beans and meat juice poured over--absolutely fantastic!

This grandmotherly-type is wooing visitors into a restaurant.

I normally stop at the local tourist office and pick up a brochure on sights to see in town. Usually though I pretty much see all by just cruising up and down streets with my bike. Near the outskirts of Dijon I came upon a walled-in compound with extensive grounds and a mixture of buildings. This wasn't on the list of places to visit. It turns out this was a monastery back in the late 14th century and in 1833 a mental asylum. Now, it's a pyschiatric hospital.

So, I'm cycling around the place and I pass a large courtyard with the building pictured above in the middle. I look inside and see a large well but, above the well are life-size stone figurines.

I've come across the Well of Moses. This monumental stone sculpture dates back to 1399. It consisted of a large crucifixion scene surrounded by the figures of six prophets (Moses, David, Jeremiah, Zachariah, Daniel and Isaiah).

This sculpture sat uncovered out in the open from 1399 until the 17th century. Then, evidently someone said, "hey, this thing is cracking and peeling from the elements--I think we should enclose it in a building".

This is Moses.