Yodeling Vagabond in the Alps – Tour of Mont Blanc

Words and photos by Brian Leibold (Check out Brian’s Rules of the Road on Kindle!)
hiking in the alpsThe valley of Chamonix is set in arguably the most stunning location in Europe, with the great Mont Blanc overlooking it like a wise stern infinitely distinguished grandfather capable of making you feel lucky and inspired or low and humbled, according to his whim.

I arrived on a foggy night, and the clouds obscured the mountains.

There was a refuge called Gite Le Vagabond. This intrigued me, but the price for a cot was unfit for the vagabonds who they purported to attract, so I slept on a bench in a little hut by the train tracks on my ragged blue mat.

In the morning, the fog had cleared, and I woke up to a clear blue sky. Eyes and spirits seemingly magnetically fixed skyward, I embarked on the Tour of Mont Blanc, the TMB for short, a week long 200 kilometer hike beginning in the French Alps and continuing to the Italian and Swiss Alps.

Alps hiking adventuresSolitude if sought in the Alps can always be found, and for me it was always found in the early morning. Every morning I would wake up before six and would usually have about three hours before the rest of the (mostly elderly) hikers would start their day.

In these early hours, I would feel like the lone human viewer of the mountain musical symphony, my companions the chirping birds, the bored cows and their jangling bells, the tranquilly flowing water, the soaring snow-capped peaks, and the enigmatic forests. I would try to discern the age old whisperings of the forests and mountains.

I am inclined to walk fast, and the trees in particular were undesirous of this, I felt. They would silently express their disapproval at my quickness. What would I see walking quickly that I couldn’t see trekking slower? ¬†This is no race, least of all a rat race. Take your time, they seemed to say. They parroted the Ents, the trees of Tolkien, warning me against hastiness.

At one point, I became hopelessly lost in the midst of a ever-thickening forest. Beginning to actually become frightened, I cursed loudly for a few minutes. But the tall trees admonished me for my blasphemous unquiet, and seemed to whisper confidentially to each other,

“Who is this brash young American vagabond who comes into our woods and expects to never get lost?”

Alps Vagabond hikingThey shook their branches at me in the wind. When I quieted down, they welcomed me back saying

“Sit under our branches for a spell and quit your cursing and worrying. You will find the road again.”

Words of Wisdom: In the mountains and the woods, trek slowly, and engage in unhurried reflection. Listen to the Ents, and hasten not back to civilization. Do not give a moment’s thought of the things that burden you in the valleys and back alleys down below.

Thoreau says¬†“What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?”

Mark Twain, in his travels in the Alps, wisely writes that “All frets and worries and chafings sank to sleep in the presence of the benignant serenity of the Alps.”

On the hike, I liked that almost every person that passed would give a friendly greeting. In the French cities, this is unheard of. But in the mountains, it is the norm. Tony Hawks remarks on this in his book A Piano in the Pyrenees when he goes for a hike saying

Alps vagabond hiking“Every person we passed offered a jovial Bonjour! Every single person. It was almost as if the moment they left the speed, noise, and fluster of the town behind and exchanged it for the freedom of the countryside, their manners had changed.”

Perhaps it also has to do with the fact that in the city, the ruck sacked are often looked down upon. What are you doing? Where are you going? Get a job. Take a shower. Button your top button. Buy a lot of stuff you don’t need, and so become normal. Stop making us feel so uncomfortable by your strangeness. There’s nothing wrong with having a job and taking showers and buttoning top buttons. Neither is there anything wrong with not doing those things.

But, in the mountains, we all have the rucksacks and the muddy boots and are alike in that we are choosing (at least for a few days) to voluntarily remove ourselves from the hustle and bustle. We are all trekking vagabonds. So the natural feeling of freedom that comes when we are removed from our burdensome obligations combined with the incredible natural beauty of the Alps allows people the ease to smile at strangers, strangers who are alike in many ways. All greet all with the joy they really feel.

The trek continued. Every day there was a peak above 2000 meters. There is perhaps nothing more satisfying than reaching a peak after an arduous and long climb. The beauty seen below is enhanced by the climb’s difficulty.

John Muir, in his observations of Yosemite says “One must labor for beauty as for bread, here and elsewhere.”

Alps hikingIt is why going to the bottom of the Grand Canyon (and, more especially, coming back up) is so much more satisfying than simply gazing at its grandness from the visitor center. And it is why the view after hiking to a peak in the Alps rewards the traveler more than the same view when reached with the help of the gondola.

At the top of a mountain, the golden eagle, flying towards the golden sun, provides more joy than he would lower down. You have climbed to where the birds fly high above the cowbells. The wind, though fierce, seems benign and congratulatory, like it is applauding you somehow in all its frantic activity. The green unperishing ageless, yet at the same time youthful, hills with innumerable knotty roughened toughened trees and the tranquil Edelweiss flowers high up in the rocky soil soaked by the sun seem also to congratulate you. You have done well, they say, and you have not been hasty. Now, look out and see what we see, and be calm, as we are. And the snow-capped craggy Teton-esque mountains, inimitably eminent on their natural thrones, appear more inviting that they do imposing, as if they are responsive and open to you now that you have worked so hard climbing higher to meet them. They are still unknowable and silent and all knowing and unviolent, but in your proximity to them, you feel closer to unlocking their brooding mysteries.

As you descend, this feeling begins to fade, and as you reach the valley of Chamonix again, you look back up and feel small and unimportant and, well, human. You feel like what you are. But you look with pride back up at the mountains, remembering how you felt and knowing you can feel like that in the future. You feel that thirsting unquenchable desire to rise up high in the sky above the clouds. So, again, you climb.

Lake Como, Italy – A Beautiful Daytrip from Bergamo or Milan

There are few places I’ve traveled where I feel so completely at ease as the Lombardy region of Italy. I’m not sure if it’s the quality of the air, the familiarity of the way people look, the food, or something all together different, but Lombardy certainly speaks to my soul.

Lake ComoWhile Milan and Bergamo are both wonderful places to explore Italian art and culture, there really isn’t much better than getting away from the cities and visiting Lake Como – one of the most beautiful lakes in the world and a crown jewel of Italian masterpieces. Lake Como is the third largest lake in Italy.

Lake Como is shaped like a large inverted Y and has nine major towns and dozens of small villages along its shores. The easiest town to reach is Como since one can get a train from Milan, Bergamo, or elsewhere for next to nothing. The transfer station is at Monza, on the outskirts of Milan and from there you have a direct journey to San Giovanni train station in Como. Since the journey is only a few hours and incredibly cheap (6.25 Euro each way from Bergamo) this makes for an incredible daytrip. Another option is to come from Lugano, Switzerland through Chiasso.

Lake Como SwansTo come from further abroad you can take overnight sleeper trains from Amsterdam via Duesseldorf, Cologne, Frankfurt and Basel.

 

Of course if you want to stay (and trust me, you will want to stay) there are a great variety of Hotels and Hostels in Como and the surrounding towns that offer everything from luxury to simplicity.

Lago di Como sits at the base of the Alps and the top of the inverted Y sits amid gorgeaous alpine scenery. For those who are curious, Como is a border town with neighboring Switzerland.

Lake Como gardens and villasComo was a popular destination as far back as the Roman era and has a considerable history even before that. Touristic sites include the beautiful lakeside mansions and the Sacro Monte di Ossuccio or Sacred Mount of Ossuccio which is part of a group of chapels leading to a monastery and a UNESCO world heritage site.

Tremezzo, Griante, Menaggio, Nesso, Bellagio, Verrena, Bellano, Colico, Lecco, and Cernobio are the other towns that surround Lake Como. Perhaps you thought the Bellagio was only a casino in Las Vegas? It’s a beautiful little Italian town and like all the towns and cities around Lake Como VillasLake Como it has gorgeous villas, lush botanical gardens, and incredible churches – but the big draw is the views of the lake and the Alps surrounding it.

Getting around Lake Como is easy. If you have a car, motorcycle or bicycle – the roads are just fine. Buses are cheap and frequent between the towns but the best way is to take the boats. Like Istanbul, this is a region that relies on ferries to move from one place to another.

A funicular runs up one of the mountains and offers spectacular views plus some incredible sites within the town itself.

If you are interested in more than historic sites, Lake Como offers a huge variety of outdoor activities from sailing, boating, hiking, camping, walking, strolling along the water, fishing, and even kite surfing or flying lessons!

Finally, for a reader and writer such as myself, Lake Como is a special treat (not to mention as a geek, I appreciate that I’m actually at Star War’s Naboo) but- in literature we have:

Mark Twain who writes about Lake Como extensively in The Innocents Abroad. Ernest Hemingway used the Lake as a setting in A Farewell to Arms when his character Lieutenant Henry talks about taking a vacation to Lake Como. Victor Frankenstein married Elizabeth in the vicinity of Lake Como in the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley anLake Como Parkd Fyodor Dostoevsky mentions Lake Como in his novel Notes from Underground.

In addition there is Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities which has Maria Ruskin escape from New York to Lake Como and The Poems and Fragments of Catallus, In Praise of Como, Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed , The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal, August Strindberg’s magnum opus play Miss Julie, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan, Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame, and Gladys Theodora Parrish Huntingdon’s novel Madame Solario. There are certainly many more – and did I mention it’s also Naboo?

One thing for certain. It’s a beautiful and relaxing place and I look forward to returning.

 

Eating Horse Flesh in Chiasso Switzerland

Ah yes, Switzerland. A day of banking, Swiss cheese, chocolate, yogurt, smoked meat, and a bit of yodeling. I did it all in Chiasso. Cliche, yes – but oddly enjoyable.

My first pic of SwitzerlandThe day trip from Bergamo to Lake Como had cost me just a few hours and 6.25 Euro so I decided to splurge and take a trip across the border to Chiasso, Switzerland.

The train fare was 1.30 Euro and the trip took less than ten minutes as we slowly went under a mountain. I’m told that the Swiss love to make tunnels every bit as much as Koreans like digging. Anyway, it was a nice tunnel and then we were in Switzerland!

I set off on a whirlwind tour. I visited a shop that sold Swiss Army Knives and Swiss Watches but didn’t buy one because I don’t wear a watch and I only carry a carry on bag and so a knife would have been confiscated. After that I walked through the streets breathing the fresh Swiss air.

Swiss International Air Lines
Since I was in Switzerland, it seemed appropriate that I do some banking so I visited the ATM and got 50 Swiss Francs which I wasn’t entirely sure was enough to buy anything but wondered if it was a lousy conversion rate…didn’t know. But, I did some Swiss banking.

Chiasso Shopping CenterNext stop was the grocery store, because even though there were restaurants, I wanted to eat real Swiss products for lunch and I needed to see how much the beautiful Swiss currency would buy…so, I grabbed a Swiss shopping basket and walked through the Swiss aisles getting Swiss products – and by the way, I was hungry – but managed to control myself.

I bought some Swiss yogurt, some smoked Swiss horse meat, a big block of Swiss cheese, and three bars of Swiss chocolate (but no Swiss Miss).

I walked through the streets which were filled with now mostly closed shops since (and I never knew this) apparently the Siesta is a big deal in Switzerland. I decided not to visit the big International Duty Free Shopping Center but instead sat in a very green and clean little park eating my yogurt, cheese, horsemeat, and a bit of the chocolate.

Discover the joys of smoked horse!

Park in Chiasso, SwitzerlandI have to admit, I’d never eaten horse before but this particular cheval fume seche coupe was incredibly delicious. The Swiss yogurt may have been the best I’ve ever eaten. The Swiss cheese was ever so good and then the chocolate – my goodness. I was so overwhelmed with the very Swiss-ness of the situation that I did a little bit of yodeling (after looking to see that there was no one else in the park).

Finally, I decided to end the day in Switzerland in a spectacular fashion by walking to Italy. No border check, no nada nothing. I was afraid my Swiss Chocolate and Cheese would be confiscated, but all was well. By the way, the price for my groceries was 8.75 Swiss Franks which ended up being about 6 Euro – amazingly affordable!

If you would rather spend more time in Switzerland, here is a list of Chiasso Hotels or you can take the train a bit further to Lugano.

The walk back to Lake Como took a bit longer than I expected (since I had to go over the mountain the train had gone under) but I still had time to enjoy the beautiful place while munching on a bit of horseflesh before I had to catch the train back to Bergamo.

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