Heidiland: love of nature, vineyards and brown grasshoppers

A few days ago we went to Maienfeld to hike near the area that Johanna Spyri used as a setting for her 1881 novel, Heidi. Since I moved to Switzerland I been reminded of Heidi weekly because at work there is a weekly social event whose start gets announced with a broadcast of Heidi’s theme to the whole office. So when I saw that there was a hiking area named after her I talked to Loes and she agreed to go.

Maienfeld
Maienfeld

Maienfeld, with almost 3,000 inhabitants, falls in the “small and cute village” category. Most windows have hearts in them, you can see fountains with clear fresh water and basins made of light blue mosaics, when you’re on the street you see amazing views of the surrounding mountains in all directions and you easily see toy tractors next to expensive Porsches.

The hearts that decorated many of the windows in the area.
The hearts that decorated many of the windows in the area.
Heidi Alp
Heidi Alps

After we got on the hiking trail and as we were leaving the village we passed next to large vineyards peppered with small medieval walls and towers. It was about 8.30am so the light was soft and surreal.

Vineyards early in the morning.
The end of a large vineyard early in the morning.

During the easy hike up we saw all sorts of Heidi-themed elements: a Heidi Village, a Heidi Farm with goats and a running chicken, wooden statues of Heidi characters, Peter’s stable, signposts with excerpts from the novel and description of the surroundings, you get the picture. Unlike other themed places we’ve been to these theme elements had great taste and weren’t commercialized at all.

A goat meditation group. They barely moved in the nearly 10 mins that we spent there.
A goat meditation group. They barely moved in the nearly 10 mins that we spent there.

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Besides the beautiful view of the Chur Rhein valley and the realization that this was obviously a grasshopper-dominated area, we also met several Japanese people (I like baffling them by greeting them in Japanese with the few bits that I still remember) and an Oak plantation sponsored by people from the area. As I’ve come to expect, there was a 400 years old tree which made me realize how much older the mountains are and consequently how insignificant the length of human life is compared to them…

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Heidi with her grandfather and her friend Peter.
Heidi with her grandfather and her friend Peter.
The Chur Rhine valley.
The Chur Rhine valley.
A face on the trail.
A face on the trail.
Trying to look like this.
Trying to look like this.
My beautiful companion.
My beautiful companion.

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If I had to summarize this hike I would call it “Love of nature, vineyards and brown grasshoppers”.

Trogen to Appenzell (Alpenpanorama trail)

On Sunday we escaped the intense rain that was falling over most of Switzerland. This time we tried a new national route, stage 2 of Alpenpanorama Trail, as it passes through the smallest canton of Switzerland, Appenzell. The name means “cell (state) of the abbot (of St. Gallen)” and religion had indeed a strong influence in its history: the canton is divided into two parts, the Protestant one and the Catholic one, and the capital. Appenzell is also completely surrounded by another canton, St. Gallen, because at some point in the 1300s the abbot of St Gallen taxed the people of Appenzell too much, they rebelled and eventually they became independent. The canton also has a fame of being the most conservative in the country.

We started the hike in Trogen, the capital of the Protestant part, and a place best known for its Kinderdorf Pestalozzi (Pestalozzi Children Village), an organization established in 1946 to accommodate and educate children affected by war. Whoever planned the Alpenpanorama trail had the great idea of making it pass next to the village so that was our first sight of the day.

Kinderdorf Pestalozzi (Pestalozzi Children's Village)
Kinderdorf Pestalozzi (Pestalozzi Children’s Village)

After a number of grass hills and cows we entered a forest of tall pines. From that moment on until the end of the hike I think we came across two couples over the course of the next four and a half hours.

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Trogen itself is at 750m above sea level so it didn’t take us long until we reached points from where we could see kilometers in every direction.

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The most memorable part of this hike was the large expanse of yellow flowers (flowers are not in my circle of competence) that the photo at the beginning and the following photos show. It wasn’t the view itself what I remember most, it was the fact that the trail was completely covered with grass, it made me feel more connected to nature.

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My happy hiking companion.

On the plus side we only got about five minutes of rain. On the downside that was more than amount of direct sunlight that we got.

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For lunch we sat down on a bench in front of a mud cow playground. It was either that or risking eating under the rain. Initially the cows in the field across us were randomly scattered but as we ate hummus the cows started to orient themselves in our direction and approach us, like those puppets in scary movies or like the Doctor Who Weeping Angels. Luckily a single thread protected us from them. When the cows finished orienting themselves the resulting scene first reminded me of Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase, then I started looking around for an escape route.

Cows keenly interested in our hummus.
Cows keenly interested in our hummus.

Our next action after lunch was getting lost. This time we didn’t take the wrong direction, somehow we suddenly were on the wrong track. All the dirt and the trail being blocked by a pile of wooden logs should have been a strong enough cue but well…

A moment after the guide got lost. Meanwhile, in his mind: "Hmm, I like this part of the trail, it looks very rough and natural".
“Hmm, I like this part of the trail, it looks very rough and natural”.

After going down a steep hill with waist-high grass we found the trail where we continued until we reached an area with several interesting items.

I believe this was a sheep house, Loes disagrees. We still don't know the truth.
One of the various little buildings that I’m sure were sheep apartments. Loes, though, disagrees.

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Naked hikers are welcome.
Naked hikers are welcome.

We left this nudist friendly area through another mud field that made us extremely grateful of wearing Gore-tex hiking shoes.

The culprits of the chocolate cake like trail. To be fair they let us pass when we reached their point.
The culprits of the chocolate cake like trail. To be fair they let us pass when we reached their point.

The rest of the trail took us through more rolling hills with impressive views of Mount Säntis and the mountain chain around it.

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Dark forests.
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Rolling hills.
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Eventually we reached the town of Appenzell, known for its wall frescos but we were quite tired so that will have to wait until the next visit.

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Trail stats:
Distance: 13km (~4h20m)
GPX file
More info

Staffelegg to Brugg (Jura Crest Trail)

Yesterday we almost hiked from Staffelegg to Hauenstein and we almost saw its five passes. Instead, due to an unjustifiably confidence in my prep skills combined with me field testing a new hiking app, we took the wrong turn after getting off the bus and went in the opposite direction.

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I recently read about the power of visualizations so for this hike I prepared: I visualized where the sun would be during most of the hike, where we would begin and end. I also flew through the route with Google Earth and visualized us walking it. Now, yesterday provided us with an incredibly valuable learning experience, I learned that: the brain won’t remember a thing out of visualizing a whole route through Google Earth, remembering where the sun will be during a hike is useless when it’s cloudy, the weather app’s “clouds” tab is actually the “rain” tab, the “clouds” tab is the tab with the little cloud on it, when you don’t see your destination in signpost after signpost it’s a heavenly sign, pay attention.

In any case, I’m sure it rained a lot on the other direction.

A wooden owl.
A wooden owl .
One of the various forests we crossed.
One of the various forests we crossed.

The Jura Crest Trail is one of the seven Swiss national hiking routes and it connects Zürich with Genève. Yesterday the weather was so bad over most of Switzerland that we had barely any options. Compared to our previous hikes the most salient parts of this hike were how smooth the landscape looked and the lack of cowbells, people and sunlight.

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A future pizza.
A pizza in the making.

While we were eating our home-made hummus half-way through we met a friendly local from Aarau who was training for a multi-day hike later in the year. His dog liked to break branches apart with its teeth and I got to practice my German listening skills while Loes did the talking. I was really happy to catch most of the conversation although I wasn’t able to express it in words.

Spotted on the garden of a house in Via Enzo Ferrari.
Spotted on the garden of a house in Via Enzo Ferrari.

We also came across a 700 years old lime tree outside of Linn whose falling branches were being held by tight ropes. A couple was setting up a picnic table next to it with huge clouds in the distance.

A coming storm (no, we were faster :D).
A coming storm next to the couple setting up the picnic tables.
Arriving to Brugg AG.
Arriving to Brugg AG.

It wasn’t the hike we planned but we got valuable memories from it.

Einsiedeln to Schwyz (Via Jacobi)

Today’s adventure started in Einsiedeln, in the canton of Schwyz. This time we decided to one stage of the Via Jacobi which is part of “El Camino de Santiago”.

The first part of the hike ran through a wide valley outside of Einsiedeln. The weather looked challenging but the forecast promised no rain over the following hours and we are trusting people.

View right outside of Eisiedeln.
View right outside of Eisiedeln.

We saw various small Christian chapels and altars along the way as well as a fancy-looking convent for Benedictine nuns. Like in previous hikes we came across few people, mostly runners, mountain bikers and old people strolling around.

The other photo we took of us was at the top of the mountain and we look... let's fresh, let's put it that way :D
Posing while we still had energy to smile 😀

A couple of hours later we found a bench right next to the river, literally a meter away from the water, to refuel. And then we started the ascend. The sky was still covered with clouds but luckily, a bit later, when we reached the top it cleared up and allowed us to enjoy these views:

Mount Kleiner Mythen (Smaller Mythen)
Mount Kleiner Mythen (Smaller Mythen)
Approaching mounts Kleiner Mythen and Grosser (bigger) Mythen.
Approaching mounts Kleiner Mythen and Grosser (bigger) Mythen.
Kleiner Mythen on the left and the Alps at the back.
Kleiner Mythen on the left and the Alps at the back.
The alps in the back with Lake Lucerne in the front.
The alps in the back with Lake Lucerne in the front.

These surroundings make me forget about work, about projects and basically about everything. It’s one of the most powerful tools to develop mindfulness and to relax. When I’m in these kind of places my mind shuts up and looks, it’s breath-taking.

Anyways, after enjoying the views we started the descend which took us through a dense forest down to the town of Schwyz.

Cookie Monster inside a tree.
Cookie Monster inside a tree.

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And after a few more fantastic views we got on the train, saw a lot of people with hiking gear that we had no idea where they were hiking, and eventually we got home happily tired.

Lake Lauerz
Lake Lauerz

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Today’s trip made me think how amazing and humbling it is that all of this beautiful complexity developed from something as simple as atoms of hydrogen colliding which each other, slowly building up to more atoms with different properties, and slowly getting together to form planets, mountains, lakes, life and us. I find it fascinating.

Hiking from Richterswil to Pfäffikon SZ

Yesterday we decided to go hiking. We are thinking about eventually walking long trails like the Via Alpina, the Appalachian Trial and the Pacific Crest Trail but we need to start somewhere closer to what we can do today so we decided to start with Route 84 stage 4 which is a comfortable 16km hike near Lake Zürich.

We started the hike in Richterswil, a short train ride away from home.

Zurich lake.
Lake Zürich at 9am.

The first leg of our hike took us through a narrow ravine covered in a dense forest. Due to a heightened sense of confidence and adventure (I forgot to check the map) we didn’t enter the actual route 84 until about 45 minutes later but I tried to convince Loes that our detour was nicer than the official route.

Alien messages carved into wood.
Alien messages carved into wood.

Other than a couple of men walking their dogs we didn’t see other human lifeforms until we got out of the forest and into a lake.

The little lake was called Sternenweiher (“Pond of Stars”), but the proud restaurant next to it decided that Sternensee (“Lake of stars”) had a better ring to it. In that area we also saw people doing morning runs and, here and there, women riding what looked like huge war horses.

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Taking a break through the hilly prairies after the lake.

Slowly, as the sun rose, we were rewarded with views like this:

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A bit later we arrived to Samstagern, a little village west of where the actual route 84 actual passes through.

Samstagern's emblem.
Emblem of Samstagern.

Villages around here are not like the villages I remember back from Spain. At one point we a garage that looked more like a little house with a Porsche Carrera in it and, two spots away, a tractor. Most of the people we saw were old people gardening. But besides these displays of being skilled with money we also saw the coolest mailbox I’ve ever seen:

Mailbox reproduction of the house next to it.
Mailbox reproduction of the house next to it.

Also in the same village:

Fire hydrant with a personality.
Fire hydrant with a personality.

After a few more villages population density quickly dropped and, for the bulk of the next two hours, we walked alone surrounded by trees doing what Loes and most of 126 million Japanese call “Shinrin-yoku“.

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Up and up we went with nothing but grass, cows and trees.

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Something that I’ve noticed since we moved to Switzerland is a specific blend of nature and old along with order and cleanliness. For example the wall of the next photo is almost falling apart but still has some dignity about itself. However everything around it clean an in order: the pails are aligned, the interior of the room to its left is also in order and the trolley with the rolled tube is cleanly parked. The floor, both outside and inside, is as clean as a random Japanese city. And this is only one instance. Inside the various forests we passed by we saw plenty of cut wood logs neatly piled, aligned with the road and impecable.

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As we continued climbing we kept receiving larger and larger doses of beautiful scenery. Standing there listening to chirping birds and taking in the views was energizing.

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Which doesn’t mean we stopped paying attention to the small things.

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Soon after midday we reached Etzel Kulm (“Hill of Etzel”), the highest point in our day trip.

Etzel Kulm, 1098m.
View from Etzel Kulm, 1098m.

The area had some props like the following last century cart as well as a restaurant and a parking for cheaters.

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After a break where we finished our delicious home-made hummus we started our way down.

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Fresh pine leaves. First time I see them like this.

The descent felt more steep than our ascent and it was also much more crowded. We still managed to get good views of the valley surrounding the area. The snowy mountains at the back? That’s the Alps.

Descending Etzel Kulm.
View of the valley descending Etzel Kulm.
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Click on the image to see the nice details on the shiny leaves.

And from there on to Pfäffikon we were drained so nothing to report.

It was a beautiful hike, totally recommended.

Bellinzona

At around the time we visited Konstanz we also went south, to Bellinzona, literally “war zone”.

The city is known for its three castles (UNESCO World Heritage) and is located in the valley of the Ticino River. As you can guess by its name it’s recorded history is mostly battles. At several points in the past it has been independent and it also has belonged to Italy, France and Switzerland. When you see the surrounding valley it’s easy to understand how strategically important it must have been as a safe pass through the Alps.

We started the visit with the castles:

Castlegrande.
Castlegrande.
Castle Montebello.
Castle Montebello.
Castle Montebello.
Castle Montebello.
Castelgrande.
Castelgrande.
View of castle Montebello (front) and Castello di Sasso Corbaro (back).
View of castle Montebello (front) and Castello di Sasso Corbaro (back).

And after Castelgrande we decided we had had enough castles and we went down to the old town to visit the main churches. The first one, Church di S. Maria delle Grazie, had a beautiful fresco:

Church di S. Maria delle Grazie.
Fresco at the Church di S. Maria delle Grazie.

And two surprises for which I’m sure there is a rational explanation:

I'm sure there is also a good reason for wolves eating people.
I’m sure there is also a good reason for wolves eating people.
Dish of the day: beheaded children.
Dish of the day: beheaded children.

In summary: beautiful little town that feels pretty medieval with very interesting surroundings. I wonder what it was like to live here hundreds of years ago.

Konstanz, Germany

We recently made a day trip to nearby Konstanz, right on the border with Germany.

The city is a well-known shopping destination for Swiss people because of low prices and easy access but the city has more than that. Inhabited since the Stone Age, in the 1400s the town-state asked the Old Swiss Confederacy to become a member but they were weary of large members and they voted against it. It’s also the home of the Council of Constance, where the Church fixed a pesky situation with three people claiming to be the Pope. The city preserves many of its old buildings because during World War II its inhabitants let the lights on at night making bombers believe it was part of Switzerland (which would have fooled me as well). And one more tidbit: Ferdinand von Zeppelin, the inventor of eponym aircrafts, was born here.

The first thing we did when we arrived was go to the flower island, Mainau, a ten minutes bus ride away from the train station. Luckily the weather that day was on our side and we were able to enjoy all its colorful flowers.

Something to cheer you up on the way to Konstan'z flower island, Mainau.
A reminder to cheer you up on the way to Konstan’z flower island, Mainau.
Inside Mainau's butterfly house.
Inside Mainau’s butterfly house.

Besides lots of flowers and a mini-zoo Mainau had a butterfly house. Walking inside it I felt like being in a dreamy slow motion world. You couldn’t turn too quickly because you could smash butterflies coming from your sides behind or hovering near the floor. And when they stopped they hypnotically made you stop.

Flowers.
Flowers.
More flowers.
More flowers.
This is clearly a Zerg Queen unit from Starcraft.
Clearly a Zerg Queen unit from Starcraft.

All this delicacy and order reminded me of Japanese etiquette and respect. I felt like a good person for no logical reason.

And more flowers.
And more flowers.

After this we took we said by to the flowers and to the enormous Lake Constance surrounding it and we strolled around the beautiful old town. After a visit to the cathedral, churches and narrow winding streets we headed to the station and managed to catch our train with a minute to spare.

Waterfront near the old town.
Waterfront near the old town.
A recently restored building  dating from 1294. Mixed feelings about copy-pasting that fresco.
A recently restored building dating from 1294. I have mixed feelings about copy-pasting that fresco.

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All in all it was a nice place to spend the way.