Sunday, April 02, 2017

Train to the Alps

We covered all the remaining bases on our last morning in Milan. Coffee at the little downstairs shop, then on to the kiosk to buy the New York Times. It’s funny how you develop little relationships with people in a very quick manner – the woman at the kiosk recognized me on the second morning and we had a running joke about the “tre e venti” that the paper cost. I used her to unload my chicken-feed euros, she was glad to have them. I told her it was our last morning and that I really enjoyed her city. She rattled some friendly response and shook my hand. On average, I find myself really liking the Italians.
My planning paid off, there was a taxi at the stand by the newspaper kiosk so we were on our way within a minute. This cabbie did not take us on an unsolicited tour of the city like the one in Rome, so we pulled up within 15 minutes. We got coffee and croissant and killed the time until departure.




Milan Centrale station was opened in 1931. It is not only one of the busiest in Europe, but one of the largest, and in fact the biggest in Italy. It is 660 ft. wide and 236 ft. high at the entrance. There are 24 platforms and each day the station services around 330,000 passengers. It has high speed rail connections to every major city in Italy and many to the north in Europe. Our train was a hybrid, high speed when it could be but with numerous stops - the 150-mile trip takes about 3 hours. Coincidentally it followed the same route as the slow hot train we took to Como two days ago.
The scenery beyond Como was spectacular. Italy slowly changes to Switzerland as the miles tick by, and Alps start to appear on both sides of the line, framed by beautiful glacial lakes. I like Como, but I liked Lugano and Bellinzona ever more. Little by little the merged zone gives way and Switzerland takes charge – broad green valleys with tiny chateaus clinging to the sides of the hills. Down below, wooden barns with tall peaked roofs surrounded by Swiss Brown cows, munching on the grassy meadow. After Italy, which much like Spain looks brown and weedy and parched, these places were positively verdant as well as extraordinarily tidy.









About an hour and a half before the end of the trip you enter the Gotthard Base Tunnel. Opened for full service in December of 2016, at 35.5 miles it is the world’s longest and deepest base tunnel. The train company is so proud of it that they give a little spiel just before entering in Italian, German, French and English. It’s an odd experience to travel for 20 plus minutes in absolute darkness. Not like traveling by night where the darkness is broken up regularly by lights in towns and on houses or buildings. In this case, it’s pitch black outside for the entire duration. I dozed off.
The Alps slowly faded off into the distance and our route aligned with the Zürichsee, Zurich’s grand lake. Twenty-five miles long and 2 miles wide, it is formed by the Linth River which forms in the Glaurus Alps. Unlike many glacial lakes (including those we passed yesterday) the color is not that characteristic blue green, but rather deep blue. The lake sits at 1400’ elevation, but its drainage basin tops out at more than 14,000’ Zurich resides at the northwest end.
We arrived on time and were met by our friend Chris. She’d graciously purchased passes for the amazingly extensive tram system, and so it was only a matter of a quick transfer (serendipitously placed by a grocery store) before we were on the tram to our apartment. This one lies out in the suburbs, not the city center like we normally do. After what seemed like a chaotic treasure hunt we found the right building, correct floor and the actual apartment. (I won’t go into the details of this place, suffice it to say Air BnB had pitched us some interesting balls on this trip, and I will talk about all of them in detail in a final blog.) We had great dinner at Chris’ apartment, capped by some exquisite Amaretti, the kind of cookie I could spend all day eating, getting up only to refresh my Americano.
After a good night’s sleep, we took the tram (I’m loving these!) back to Chris’ for our day of adventure. We had coffee and the Swiss version of croissants and then hiked down into town. There is an extensive, neat, clean and safe system of parks and trails throughout Zurich. A walker’s, mountainbiker’s and birdwatcher’s paradise. Our route followed a stream that was broken up here and there by tiny waterfalls. Birds were singing and spring flowers blooming. It was a grand trek, and frankly, it made me want to move here tomorrow.
Eventually we came out on the lake and took a walk along the water. Like most big city spaces there were tons of people doing Sunday things, and the occasional performer. I stopped to look at the birds, Mute Swans, Mallards, Great-crested Grebes and some random ducks that were new to me. I think I needs to start packing a small pair of binoculars, because this walk reminded me again that I miss out on the bird life just about everywhere we go.






We took a tram up the hill to the area around the Dolder Hotel, passing FIFA on the way, home to those venal international sports bribe takers. They do have a nice campus though. There was even a small stable at the top of the complex with some raggedy ponies of indeterminate genealogy believe it or not, a Gypsy Vanner. We had lunch at a renovated country inn, spinach salad with bacon and egg and we split a plate of trout mousse and slices of smoked fish. Dessert was a classic Napoleon which was about the best I’ve had. Certainly made even better by the setting and the company.

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