Sunday, October 23, 2011

Huf Haus

This short post will introduce you to a company you may have never heard of!  Huf Haus is going to celebrate its 100th birthday next year – and I’m lighting a candle for it.

Richard and Michèle had their home put up on their prepared site in Montreaux in a matter of days!  While prefabricated homes are becoming more common, Huf Haus homes go beyond the usual with an integrated post-and-beam structure, solar panels, and double to triple-paned windows everywhere.  Huf Haus has merged art and engineering, with a green twist.  You can enjoy their website here.

Richard and Michèle's home - front view
The home came with everything built in: cabinets, sinks, electrical outlets, heater vents, and electric shades that operate without a sound.  The house is well-insulated and airtight so it maintains its temperature.  Not to mention it is open, airy and has great views out every direction!

Richard and Michèle's home - side view
Unlike some prefab houses, you can design your own house so it is unique - within certain constraints of the system of course.  The entire structure is built in a factory and then shipped in pieces to your site.  You stay away while the team does their job, and then in about five days you have a house!

While Huf Haus began in Germany, you can see from their website they are rapidly expanding to other countries.  I guess people need a place to put all their IKEA furniture!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Adventures at Les Rochers-de-Naye

On Sunday, Michèle and Richard took us to an incredible alpine area, Les Rochers-de-Naye, near Montreaux.  In fact, Richard had a lot to do with the revitalization of this area.  As an engineer for one of the most well-regarded railways in Switzerland, Richard had both the creative vision and the critical follow-through skills to bring new activities that draw people to this area.  He also did engineering on top of that with one highlight being the development of a method for trains to switch from narrow-gauge to regular size tracks!

We began by taking a GoldenPass cog railway partway up to this alpine area.  Richard had Darrell all decked out for a climb on the relatively new Via Ferrata route in this area. Via Ferrata (Klettersteig in German) are fixed climbing routes.  They vary in difficulty, but most require regular climbing equipment (harness, helmet, etc.) plus a special “Y” attachment device so the climber is always hooked to something.  The climber moves only one of the branches of the “Y” at a time, so is always attached.  Here is an image of their route from the via ferrata website.

Darrell and Richard's route - dotted lines for the top section
Via Ferrata have been around since the mid-1800's, but were more well-developed during WWI primarily by the Italian military.  There are now hundreds of routes in Europe (where they are free) and some in the United States (where of course crass commercialism is in force).

If you are interested in the history of this sport, you can read it at the Via Ferrata site.

While the two climbers started their adventure, Michèle guided me on an easier route.  We went through some snow, but it wasn’t climbing a rock face!  Phew!

Michèle on our route
Meanwhile, Richard was guiding Darrell on the Via Ferrata - using a lot of patience and skill to help Darrell conquer sewing-machine legs and visions of long drops!

Don't look down!  (Picture courtesy of Richard)
When we got to the top, we walked past the Marmot pens (more on that later!) to the top of the route.  I tried to look over the edge to see Darrell and Richard climbing, but I couldn’t handle it.  My stomach churns just thinking about it now.  So Michèle used my camera and got some pictures of the guys getting to the top!

Darrell survives! (Photo courtesy of Michèle) 
After Darrell got his ground legs back, we had a lovely lunch, and then continued our alpine adventures!

From the station we went through a long tunnel to the restaurant on the other side of the mountain. There are more tunnels in Switzerland than holes in Swiss cheese.  Many were developed for military use – it takes work to maintain neutrality – and some of these are still hidden. This one, however, goes to a nice restaurant with an amazing view in the summer and then gets converted to an enchanted tunnel to see Santa in the weeks before Christmas. This brilliant idea took one of the slowest seasons for the railway and made it one of the most popular! The Swiss Santa keeps a seriously large log book of whether children have been naughty or nice; and probably determines whether they get coal or oranges for Christmas. No Christmas stockings here though.  They keep their socks on their feet.

Tunnel goes from station on left to back side of hills.  Note marmot pens to right.
You can also see the square enclosures (on the right of this picture) for the six species of marmots that are part of Marmot Paradise, another family-friendly draw to this area.  Besides the pens, there is a free exhibition that helps you discover many things about the 14 species of marmots around the world.  You can even see the inside of a burrow.  They had in-burrow cameras for some time, but the marmots seemed to enjoy munching on the wires, so those aren’t in place anymore!  To read more about this (and to see some of the species of marmots) you can go to Marmot Paradise here.  Richard and Michèle had some interesting stories about maintaining ecologic integrity while developing this attraction, and we found it very nicely done.

For over 100 years there has also been an alpine garden at Les Rochers-de-Naye.  Michèle is presently the president of the group overseeing this garden, so we got an insider’s tour.  We had to wade through some snow, and only a few plants were still blooming, but it was still incredibly beautiful.

Michèle in front of the little hut that serves the alpine garden.
The alpine garden has numerous microclimates and there are over 1,000 species of plants from alpine areas all over the world!  They are part of the international seed bank program so follow very strict rules for how they collect and grow their seeds.

Well-labeled plants in their vertically structured microclimates!
One of the first plants you see in the garden is the Swiss Edelweiss.  They also have edelweiss from other parts of the world!  I could do an entire blog on this garden – and I really want to come back when it is in full bloom!

My first edelweiss!
To celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the garden, a local Buddhist group built a stupa here in 1996.  Of course, this caused some disturbance to other people, so then a cross was also erected across the way.  At least it was a peaceful way of resolving differences!

Buddhist stupa in honor of the now 115-year old alpine garden!
After the alpine garden tour, we went to see another attraction, the yurts!  Seven Mongolian yurts have been set-up to accommodate overnight guests.  They were made in Mongolia, and the furniture is Mongolian as well.  They have been reinforced to support extra insulation for the winter snowpack here though.  Since Mongolia is a high desert, the normal yurt doesn’t need to support as much snow as a hut in Switzerland does!

Inside of Mongolian Yurt

Outside of a different yurt (the colors inside match the doors).
Before we caught the last train back to Montreaux, we climbed to the top where there are displays showing the names of the mountains in view.  While we had been in glorious sunshine all day at 2,042 meters (6,700 ft), the area near the lake was still covered in some fog.  There is only fog in October; Darrell surmises it is from the still-warm lake water meeting the cooling air above.  You can see the mountains ringing the lake and helping to hold in the dense moist air.

Above the fog at Les Rochers-de-Naye
We could also look back down at the station and "mini-Mongolia".  The alpine garden is between the two rock outcrops above the train tunnel that is in the middle of the photo.  Quite a diverse place!

Alpine garden, tracks and tunnels, station, and mini-Mongolia!
Our wonderful hosts and guides!
Thank you again, Richard and Michèle, for another amazing day!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Sailing and Château in Montreux

Our new friends, Richard and Michèle, whom we met at the Monte Rosa hut, invited us to visit their home in Montreaux.  This post is the first day of our wonderful weekend with them!

When we got off the train in Montreaux, Richard met us right on the platform!  We walked the short distance to look at the lake and see if there was enough wind for sailing.  Though most Americans call it Lake Geneva, it is called Lac Léman in French and Genfersee in German!  The first recorded name of the lake is Lacus Lemanus from Roman times.  But, whatever you want to call it, Lac Léman is a beautiful lake and the largest lake in Switzerland.

Here are some statistics on the lake from my favorite first resource, wikipedia - Max. length – 73 km (45 miles), Max. width – 14 km (8.7 miles), Surface area – 580 km2 (224 mi2), and Max. Depth – 310 m (1,020 ft).

Richard and Michèle have a stunning home - but I will save that for a later blog!  So, after a cup of coffee and packing some warm clothes for the lake, we were out the door.

Darrell and I tried to stay out of the way while Michèle and Richard readied their beautiful sailboat - a J/100 for those sailors among you.  The winds were fairly light but we made great progress across the western end of the Lake.

Michèle at the tiller.
Richard with the sheets.
If we had continued to sail south, we would have ended up in France for dinner!  Instead we headed back to the harbor.  On the way we saw a beautifully refurbished steamboat that has been sailing on the lake since 1910, and then we got to roll on the waves it created as it went by!

101 years old, and still gorgeous!
With Michèle’s light hand on the tiller, we arrived smoothly into the harbor.  Their sailboat is moored off the main docks so they use a small dinghy to get to and from the boat.  Here is Michèle directing Darrell on where to row.

A good system: Michèle directs, Darrell rows! 
When we got back to the house, Michèle cooked us a special Swiss dinner, while we watched the sunset over the lake.

Michèle in her gorgeous open kitchen

Sunset over Lac Léman

Michèle and Richard on the patio, with the last glow of the day’s sun.
After dinner we drove down to the lake and then walked along the shore towards Château Chillon.  There are flowers that bloom all year long and line the path.  Weeping willows overhang and the expansive view across the lake is très romantique!

The castle was having a special night called “La Nuit de L’epouvante” or Night of the Scarecrows.  We didn’t see any scarecrows but it did look like Halloween with children and adults dressed in costumes, especially ghoulish ones!  There were plenty of witches around, which enhanced the remarkable exposition on medieval torture.

Le Château Chillon
Château Chillon is one of the best preserved medieval castles in Europe.  It is built on a small island, and if you drained the Lake, you would see it is perched on a sheer cliff that plunges 300 m - like diving off the Eiffel Tower.  During medieval times, the path by the lake served as a major thoroughfare between southern and northern Europe.  Due to the steepness of the surrounding area, the route was controlled by this nub of land.  It’s history as a stronghold dates back to at least 1150.

The special exposition was on the witch-hunt in this area during the 15th to 17th centuries.  We learned a little too much about different methods of torture to be comfortable.  The dungeon also held a political prisoner/scholar, François Bonivard, from 1530-36 whose story gave rise to a poem by Lord Byron entitled “Prisoner of Chillon” after he and Percy Bysshe Shelley visited the château in 1816.

Château dungeon where prisoners were kept.
In fact, there are so many writers, musicians (home of the original Montreaux Jazz Festival of course!), and artists that have lived or been influenced here, that the city had benches made along the lakeshore with buttons to push to get audio of their works.  Unfortunately, many of the recorders in the benches don’t work anymore…

As we left the château we had changing views of witches, ghosts, and bats from the light display.  It was such an amazing experience to see the château at night on such a special evening!  Merci Richard et Michèle!

Bats on the Château

Monday, October 10, 2011

Kirchlindach Views

It has been a quiet week in Bern, mostly working, especially as our weather has changed from those crisp golden days of autumn to the colder, wetter days of looming winter.

Darrell gave a talk on his research Friday at PAGES (PAst Global changES) where he is working.  And Hanna arrived from Stockholm to begin work on a large paleoclimate data base with Darrell.

Darrell and Hanna in the field
Martin invited us for dinner at his house - and so, when the rain broke on Sunday, we found ourselves on a walk near his home.  Kirchlindach is just to the north of Bern and these photos area all looking back to the alps - glowing with fresh snow!

Kirchlindach, then Bern, then the alps!

On our hike up to a viewpoint we found a beautifully etched plaque with all the mountains drawn and labeled.  It turned out that Martin and his father had made the plaque 25 years earlier for the 800th anniversary of Kirchlindach!  It had amazing detail and matched the view perfectly.

Notice the cows in the foreground!
When we got to Martin's house he explained how the weather fronts work in Switzerland; he can tell by his view to the mountains when the rain is going to come, or when it is going to be clear.  The mountains obviously play a huge role in the weather here.

Closer view of this quintessentially Swiss landscape
We all enjoyed a delicious dinner by the fire, with the alps glowing pink as the sun faded.  And then we capped it off some of Martin's homemade walnut liqueur.  The perfect ending to another beautiful day!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Vineyard Views

Late September and early October have been living up my idea of a perfect autumn with warm days and crisp nights.  The sun is bright, the leaves are changing color, and it is just glorious out.  Darrell and I loaded up his bike basket for a trip to Biel/Bienne, the officially bilingual city to the west of Bern.  It is only 16 miles as the crow flies, but our route on regional bike path #64 was a longer meander.   We biked past a horse show, some industrial areas, small villages and farmland.  These sunflowers are still in full bloom!

The sunflowers still think it is summer
The Swiss bike routes try to keep you off the main roads and so you end up seeing many things you wouldn’t if you were just cruising by on the highway or on the train.  For instance, would you want to miss this?
Some Swiss chickens can go 60 mph

We entered a thick fog about halfway to Biel and came across six teams playing the interesting game of Hornussen.  We had to look it up when we returned home so we could learn more about it.  You will get a better sense of this game if you watch the short video (Hornussen video) but I will describe the basic idea below.

How can you see the hornuss in this fog?
Teams of up to eighteen players are spread out in a line on a very long field.  At one end is the launcher, which is a curved metal ramp.  The hornuss (hornet) is a small rubber projectile, a bit like a puck, that is placed on the end of the launcher.  It gets its name from the sound it makes as it zings through the air.  The hitter swings a long, flexible stick that connects with the hornuss and sends it flying at speeds of up to 200 mph and distances of 300 meters!  The fielders (from the opposing team) try to knock the hornuss down with large square placards.  It is hard to spot the hornuss because of its small size and speed, so it leads to some comical running and flinging of placards.  Points are scored if the hornuss hits the ground without having being stopped by a placard or someone's face.

According to Wikipedia, the earliest reference to Hornuss is found in 1625 in the Bern canton when there was a complaint about breaking the Sabbath.  Two men were fined the then princely sum of 20 francs for playing Hornussen on Sunday!

The fog lifted as we approached Biel.  Our route took us a long a diversion canal that outflowed from Lake Biel (one of three large glacial lakes in the area) into the River Aare.  We had a picnic at the lake shore and then continued up into the hills toward our destination.  Martin, one of Darrell’s colleagues in Bern, had invited us to his family vineyard on the far side of Lake Biel.  We first climbed up, up, up into the foothills of the Jura Mountains just outside of Biel to this pavilion viewpoint overlooking the town.

Darrell at the viewpoint pavilion
The bike ride continued on a crushed limestone path high above the lake.  We exited the woods onto a sunny slope covered in grape vines.  There are numerous small vineyards in the area and it was a popular walking place for both locals and tourists.

Vineyards, Lake Biel, and the town in the background
Martin’s family has two sections of the hill covered in three varieties of grapes.  They had just harvested ten days before and sent the grapes to be processed by a vintner in a town not far away.  The family doesn’t have a home here, but they have built a solid shed to store food and camping gear in for when they come to work on and enjoy the land.

Martin cooked us an amazing dinner over the campfire
We sat at the picnic table with a spectacular view of the hillsides, the lake, and even the moutains of the Jungfrau region.  It was a little foggy, but we could see the snow-covered peaks, and on a clear day you would have an incredible view of the entire range!

Martin's family wine
It is a pretty good life when you are with congenial people eating delicious food and drinking wine from last year's harvest, with an amazing view.  A special toast to my dad today.  I love you dad.

After dinner, we walked our bikes down to the train station at the bottom of the hill and took the train back to Bern.   It was a lovely day.