Flowers in the Lower Swiss Alps

Down the years we walked in the Swiss, French, Italian, Austrian and German Alps, and always admired the alpine flowers. Magnificent colours in frequently exquisite plants. But we have never experienced such a profusion of species as we found on top of the Chaserrugg. As discussed this summit is 2262m and this is clearly an optimal altitude and orientation for many alpine species, and a Blumenweg (flower walk) has been created to great effect. I will say no more, the photos speak for themselves.

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Walking in the Lower Swiss Alps 2

Continuing on, we have walked pretty much every day we have been here in the Toggenburg Valley. Even on rest days we will have done an easy walk. For example, today we did 13 kms in 4 hours in the valley beside the fast flowing, falling river, then steeply uphill on the other side of the valley for 300 m then returning down to Nesslau, our local town and the car. It was even hotter than normal – 35C and we sank a couple of lagers very fast at the first Gasthaus we encountered. The hardest walk we have done was earlier this week. Walking from the house at 700m up to the nearest high point at 1110 – Wolxenalp. Then steep down through forest to the Steintaler River at about 800m, then very steeply up again through forests to the peak Tanxboden at 1443m which just happens to have a restaurant. Returning the same route, the overall walk was 5.5 hours excluding lunch stop and approx. height gain of 1000m.
The high point, in all respects was the summit Chaserrugg at 2262m. However, we admit we cheated and took the funicular and cable car. While there are perfectly good options to ride say half way and then walk, we decided that we wanted more time at the top because there are amazing walks right from the summit. There are three summit walks, 1) the Blumenweg a flower walk, 2) the rundweg, an extension of the flower walk that goes right out to high points and 3) the summit walk going up to the highest point of the peak. In all we spent several hours at the summit and had the energy to do justice to the high walks, particularly the blumenweg, which I will cover in a separate post.
Another highlight for us was meeting the lady from the local ski club, who was acting volunteer chef for the ski lift operator. We met as we returned from one of our very long, high walks and she invited us to join her on the deck area for a cold drink, and then proceeded to invite us to stay for dinner. We had great fun and returned the following day, by request for morning coffee and to provide an entry for the ski clubs journal, which amazingly has been running since 1975. Needless to say she has been invited to Cork!
I mentioned the highly organized approach to walking there is in the Alps generally which makes it very easy to plan appropriate routes and find your way. Here in the Toggenburg we are located at the western end of the popular walking area and we found it easy to locate walks of the right grade with minimum travel to and from the start and finish. In general we selected lower level walks starting in the valley or from the house between 650 and 750m and as focused on routes with a maximum of around 1400m. There are numerous cable cars a little further up the valley and it would have been very easy to drive, take a cable car up to say 1200m and then walk a contour path and return via another cable car. And indeed we have done this previously in Austria, where we used the bus to return to our startpoint. But this visit we found more than enough walks often without using the car, and with the exception of Chaserrugg always without using a lift. The advantage is that you get to “climb” the mountains with lower cost. And this is not an incidental – cable cars and the like are not cheap!

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Birds Have the Last Word

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I mentioned we have several birds of prey on the Toggenburg property; buzzards of some sort seemingly nesting in the tall mature trees in front of the old house. The activity in the early morning and evening is considerable and the traffic to and from the trees, together with much mewing suggested one or more nests.
Last weekend we drove over to see my brother and his family, just the other side of Litchenstein and in a valley about 500m altitude in the Voralberg area of western Austria. They mentioned they are plagued with small rodents, mice, voles etc. The general opinion is that the unusually warm winter resulted in the rodents continuing to breed right through the winter and the population has exploded. And sure enough, we tripped across half a mouse right on the doorstep that a neighbour’s cat had caught.
Unusually, and presumably as a direct consequence, birds of prey have taken up residence in the valley. And across the day, whenever we looked up there were the birds circling, and also frequently diving from height to snatch yet another unsuspecting mammal. My brother thinks the birds are buzzards or kites, or a combination of both. As ever it’s quite hard to make positive identification with birds on the wing, often at a great height.
Back at Toggenburg we had become pretty sure that our birds were Honey Buzzards. The yellow rear beak, plus honey coloured top colouring plus the distinctive white flashes under the ends of the wings were pretty conclusive. A German bird book in our house library also indicated Raufbussard or Rough Buzzard as a possibility to be considered. The following evening we noticed great activity in the trees. A great deal of flapping, mewing and birds flying in and out of the trees, often two or three at a time, seemingly playing together, and then disappearing into the trees again. The noise level increased and then we saw perhaps three or four adults flying together followed by six or seven small seemingly black birds. Initially we thought, hey what are the crows doing with the buzzards? But quickly we realized we had a couple of families here. The smaller birds were clearly fledgings with the signature light colour over wing. Their flight was similar to learner drivers; they knew what to do but putting it into practice was difficult. Over flapping was a common problem. One minute the sky was almost black; then they continued on down the valley and disappeared.
From cacophony to quiet in just two minutes. We scratched our heads. What had we just seen? Our guess, but it’s only that, is that there was a small colony in the trees. After the fledgings flew the nest the adults felt the need to move quickly to higher, safer altitude in the high meadows or forests. We have seen solitary buzzards since then, but certainly not the numbers in the colony. Even more interesting is that the regular, smaller bird population has returned. We had remarked that the level of bird life on the property was low, and clearly this is what happened. Birds of prey scare away the smaller species, but as soon as the bigger birds leave, normality returns very quickly.
There’s a salutary lesson here – the bird population lives in parallel to our society. Like us they are impacted by issues such as climate change or security threats; but they are clearly more than able to adjust to changing circumstances as the need arises.

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Hiking in the Lower Swiss Alps

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We are now in eastern Switzerland. From Lake Constance and Bregenz we drove due south west for about 90 minutes to the Toggenburg – a steep sided valley some 30 kms east of Zurich. This is the mid-level Alps; peaks around us are about 2500m, and although much lower than the core Alpine areas, still offer intrinsically the same walking experience.
Through Guest2Guest we have use of an old farmhouse for a couple of weeks, situated above the valley floor at 750m. It took some finding; it’s off a rough track and then down a steep grassy slope – 4X4 vehicles only. The house is completely constructed from wood over 200 years ago and has been sympathetically modernized inside with all mod cons, but in a highly environmentally friendly manner. It’s quiet, no WiFi, no TV. About 10 minute’s drive from the nearest town in the valley floor.
But the walking is right on the doorstep! Yesterday we did an exploratory walk, picking up a Wanderweg just metres from our door and following to a restaurant at about 1000m. We walked around a nature reserve close by then descending by the same route. An easy walk, overall time 3 hours, approx. height gain 300m.
Today we followed the same wanderweg to 1000m and then picked up a circuit (rundweg) which provided access to a higher ridge, which we took to 1575m part of a longer distance path. A more difficult walk, overall time 5.5 hours, approx. height gain 900m, distance 17kms.
It’s a while since we did alpine walking. The first thing we remember is the incredible steepness of the hills. The “in your face” and “never ending” effort required, particularly in the typical Alpine summer temperatures. And crucially the great care needed to descend safely. But the benefits of Alpine walking haven’t changed. Wherever you walk, the routes are incredibly well organized and signed. The maps are excellent and available both as ordinance survey quality (1km = 3cm) as well as tourist information level leaflets that provide guidance on timing, difficulty etc which are very helpful in route planning. And the hills and mountains are literally covered in walks, together with huts, restaurants and cafés. And there are no expensive information boards or similar. There are three types of walk defined in the OS maps and shown with different legends. The Wanderweg is a hiking route. Intended for all walkers they do not place particular requirements on users. The Mountain Hiking Trail is intended for experienced users who are sure footed, unafraid of heights, physically fit and experienced mountain hikers. The Alpine Hiking Trail in addition to the Mountain Trail category requires users to be physically very fit, Alpine experienced with adequate gear.
On a practical level the signage approach hasn’t changed in years. Colour coding which seems to be a European wide standard, is implemented as sign posting and repeater flashes along the route. Like the UK the paths give access across farmland; however, it’s noticeable that there’s great cooperation in place. There are almost no stiles – we have only seen one so far. Instead farmers use an insulated handle with a hooked end to allow the walker to open and close electric fences. No maintenance, dead easy for all parties. Also, we note farmers are good at communicating risks – one sign we saw today said (in German), Beware, Mother Cows Suckling – keep your distance because mothers will protect their calves.
But in the end the Alpine experience is the majesty of the towering mountains which provide the backdrop for the extraordinary neatness of the high-level meadows and the profusion of flora and fauna. The meadows are a profusion of classic Alpine flowers which bring so much colour to the hills. And the birds of prey are amazing in their ordinariness. They are everywhere. Buzzards and I think Red Kites glide, climb and dive everywhere. To either side of the old house we have two rows of high trees, some very old pines and deciduous species. We see the great birds sitting in the tree tops, then flopping in and out of the trees with such regularity that suggests they have nests there. And from time to time there are several of the birds in the air together, swooping low above and around us. The garden surrounding the house has been left in a natural state, just long grasses with a few shrubs, and the butterflies are prolific.
It’s noticeable the hills at least around here are not very busy. Whilst there’s lots of people around the heads of the ski lifts and restaurants, as you head out onto the paths it’s very quiet. And yet July is the peak summer tourist season. And from our previous experience in the French, Italian and German Alps, we know that the real tourist season is in winter and the higher level Ski Lifts are closed in summer. Walking is clearly important, but very much second priority to the winter tourist business. What’s not to like? As walkers we get privileged access to amazing walking routes that are not over crowded, at no charge.
Having established a basic understanding of the available walking in the Toggenburg we plan to walk a good few routes over the next week and will report in due course.

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Beautiful Bregenz in Festival Mood

 

We arrived in Bregenz last night. Found the SeeCamping site right on the shore of Lake Constance/Bodensee and pitched. It’s a great site, huge but not crowded. The facilities are brilliant, typical Austrian/German. Visitors are as usual a mix of German, Austrian, Dutch, Czech, French and Belgian. No Brits in evidence. We walked into Bregenz this morning and for once did the tourist thing – visiting churches, exploring the town, planning a boat trip, arranging bike hire. But the overriding thing in Bregenz right now is the Festival. Pity is it starts on the 18th – we will miss it by 2 days. However there’s still lots to see. The last time we were in Bregenz we were amazed at the shore side set of the then Tosca performance. That was ten years ago? This year the opera is Carmen and, while the same fantastic shore side idea is being used, the set is very different comprising huge playing cards, not surprising given the plot. As we walked past the set in brilliant sunshine we saw what appeared to be climbers on the cards high up above the set, using very obviously technical mountaineering rope techniques to scale, traverse and swing from card to card. Of course the cards simulate the wild spots on the mountains and provide the backdrop for smugglers and soldiers, presumably stuntmen, suitably expert in mountaineering, who mime parts as they climb around the simulated mountainside. What we saw, and kept us interested for quite a while was part of the rehearsal, complete with music. Great fun. Of course we will miss the performance but this was just as interesting.

I note opera buffs are a bit dismissive of all this, suggesting the Bregenz production is just an “opera for everyman”. But why not?

We then wandered back to the campsite via the Kloster Mehrerau – a large, relatively newly built Cistercian Abbey with a history going back to the 11C. Now it must be said we realized the proximity of the Abbey at about 3am this morning. It’s really only one field away from the camp site, and of course as an active abbey the monks are called to early morning prayer with the bells. And in addition the bells are rung every quarter and on the hour. Strangely this is only through the night. During the day the bells are silent! Anyway it’s not all bad news – the Abbey with the lake as a backdrop is a very impressive building including a school and also provides a Klosterkeller – an open air restaurant in a large courtyard with an excellent, very reasonable menu. We sampled the beer and wine and made a plan to return tomorrow evening.

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Can Boris Johnson Learn From History?

Churchill

Today we visited the exceptional Historical Museum in Strasbourg. But it is more than just yet another museum; it is based at the heart of Europe, in the Capitol of Europe, and in a place that provides so many historical lessons for us all. What many will not remember is that Winston Churchill himself had a major hand in establishing this Capitol of Europe, and we wonder if  Boris Johnson ever reflects on this?

The Strasbourg Historical Museum provides an excellent overview of the city history from medieval to modern times. The exhibits and displays combined with location sensitive audio presentation give great understanding of how the city evolved. I’m not going to even attempt a summary but it’s worthwhile remembering that Strasbourg has been a major crossroads in Europe since prehistoric times. That for centuries Strasbourg was a free city as part of the Holy Roman Empire with an independent constitution and many aspects of democracy such as councils, corporations, clear areas of power and responsibility and practices to ensure no group or individual abused their power. The city was the centre of development of printing the technological revolution of its time that spread with lightning speed. The city was free, then German, then French, then German and then again French. Similarly with religion. While the city avoided serious physical damage during the great wars of the 19th and 20th century there were periods of harsh Germanization, followed by Frenchification and then the brutal period under Nazi rule and then the subsequent purge of all that was German after 1945.

On September 19, 1946, Sir Winston Churchill delivered his famous speech in Zurich calling for the creation of “a United States of Europe”. Britain’s wartime leader was highly regarded across the continent for his role in the defeat of Nazi Germany. His call for reconciliation between France and Germany, and “the re-creation of the European family”, struck a chord for both the victors and the vanquished emerging from the destruction caused by two world wars. He was a major inspiration for the European movement that led to the creation of the Common Market, and, ultimately, to today’s European Union. “Churchill was called the father of ‘Europe’, and he said much to justify that label,” the British journalist and political commentator Hugo Young wrote in his history of Britain and Europe.

In 1949 Churchill gave a major speech in Place Kléber, Strasbourg. Later he spoke at the first meeting of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, Churchill delivered his speech in French, and said, ‘We are reunited here, in this new Assembly, not as representatives of our several countries or various political parties, but as Europeans forging ahead, hand in hand, and if necessary elbow to elbow, to restore the former glories of Europe. There is no reason for us not to succeed in achieving our goal and laying the foundation of a United Europe. A Europe whose moral design will win the respect and acknowledgement of all humanity, and whose physical strength will be such that no person will dare to disturb it as it marches peacefully towards the future.’ And, if anyone should suggest that Churchill was deliberately excluding the UK from Europe, just re-read the text; he was being all inclusive.

Today in Strasbourg Winston Churchill is remembered with the Winston Churchill Building at the European Parliament – which provides meeting rooms, common departments, and services (restaurants, nursery, libraries, etc.) for the MEPs. Also with a Tram Stop in the city centre.

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It just so happens that this week the Brexit process enters a new critical phase in which Teresa May moves to define a softer Brexit, and that the British Foreign Secretary, the blundering Boris Johnson along with other ministers resigned in protest. Many will be aware that Johnson would like us to see him as a modern-day Churchill. He has consistently invited us to compare him with that historical giant. Perhaps we should remind Johnson of a comment made by Churchill in 1948, in a speech to the House of Commons. He said, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
It seems incredible for someone who has clearly studied and written about Churchill, that he should fail to learn the lesson that a united Europe is essential to ensure a peaceful future.

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EU Parliament Delivering Government for Grownups by Grownups.

Strasbourg Hemisphere

Thursday 5th July 2018: As the midday voting session approached, the parliamentary chamber – known as the hemisphere, rapidly filled up. First up was the voting for the third reading of the controversial report on Copyright in the Digital Single Market. In case you haven’t heard, it can be summarized as legislation to update copyright for the internet age. To force the giant internet platforms like Facebook and Google to pay news organizations, musicians and others before linking to their stories or materials and require all uploaded content to be checked for copyright infringement. There has been considerable debate on the proposals over the last two years; some would say Google et al have been stirring up social media. Campaigners have denounced the provisions as unworkable and run a petition called “Save Your Internet” which garnered 700,000 signatures. But supporters of the report say the changes will protect and allow copyright owners to win back money from internet firms that profit unfairly from their work. It might be an EU bill, but it clearly has worldwide consequences!
There were very short speeches, they are all timed and strictly enforced, by the committee chair and the primary opponent – German Green MEP Julia Reda. With electronic voting the close result was known immediately – 278 in favour, 318 against and 31 abstentions. There was jubilation from those against because it is quite unusual for votes to go against committee proposals, not least because there are excellent committee systems that ensure the often highly complex and diverse Europe wide stakeholder interests are well understood. We understand subsequent to the vote that there is an expectation that there will be open debate that it is hoped will lead to compromise, giving copyright holders more power without destroying the open principles upon which the internet was founded. This is democracy in action.
We were very fortunate to be present for this highly unusual event. We had taken the tram to the parliament building the day before, but because the Polish prime minister was speaking, we were unable to get access. So yesterday we arrived early and had no difficulty gaining entry. In fact, the visitor gallery was very quiet all morning apart from the constant stream of tour parties who would be ushered into the visitor gallery and stay for perhaps 15 minutes and then leave. We were there for almost the entire five-hour session and remained captivated throughout. However, we suspect many tour group visitors would leave with a very skewed view of the proceedings. At any one time there were rarely more than a couple of dozen MEPs in the chamber. And the contributions were all very short. Passing visitors might leave with a reinforced view that the EU Parliament is powerless and a complete waste of time.
The first item on the day’s agenda was a debate on participation of persons with disabilities in the EU election process. Many MEPs spoke including several obviously disabled individuals and while there was a lot of overlap, many introduced interesting ideas. Others made telling comments that the overall participation in EU elections is disappointingly low and that any efforts to increase disabled involvement should be part of the wider effort to encourage general interest. We were however disappointed that our very own disabled MEP Brian Crowley was once again not at the session. The Commissioner for Justice, Věra Jourová wrapped up the debate and responded to many of the speakers. There is clearly a very healthy and ongoing engagement between commissioners and MEPs.
There were then three sessions on foreign affairs. A very lively and at times emotional debate about the overturning of recent mayoral elections in Moldova highlighted the extraordinary capture of power in the country by oligarchs loyal to Russia, with widespread corruption, banking fraud and misuse of the justice system. The point was made that Moldova was on a path to EU membership, supported by a big majority of the population and that this situation is further evidence of the tensions between Russia and Europe already demonstrated in the Ukraine. High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Frederica Maria Mogherini outlined the deep engagement of the EU in this area and specifically actions that the EU expects to ensure reforms in the areas of judicial independence, electoral practices, media independence. She emphasized that this is the EU supporting Modolvan citizens, representatives of which were at the parliament yesterday, and that continued EU funding is contingent on reform activity.
There were then debates on Somalia and Burundi. MEPs and Mogherini made the point that these countries are among the most troubled nations in the world and as a result are primary sources of largescale migration to the EU. At times it seems the plight of the deeply troubled African nations is insoluble. Mogherini summarized the actions the EU is taking in the areas of humanitarian support including shelter, water, health care as well as security situations and emphasized the transfer of responsibility to local actors as being the only long-term solution. In her wrap up Mogherini stressed the continued humanitarian support through local partners, but announced the suspension of direct financial support to the administration of Burundi, the only country to have withdrawn from the international criminal court together with a deterioration of the situation in the country. Political freedoms are disregarded, arbitrary arrests and extra judicial executions have now become commonplace. One is left with the impression this is an area that the EU is struggling to get to grips with at a time that migration is becoming a major issue.
Throughout the day it was clear MEPs were constantly entering and speaking and then leaving the chamber. So at any time, apart from the voting, it would appear to the casual observer that few MEPs are actively engaged. But of course, many are following the debates on live feeds as well as continuing meetings with stakeholders, committees etc and this was demonstrated by how rapidly the entire chamber filled for the midday voting session.
We were left with the overriding impression that this is a highly professional organization. Superbly chaired, managed to the minute with procedures and practices that facilitate engagement of MEPs as well as interaction with the commission and executive with a great deal of informed, constructive debate. Inevitably we compared this demonstrated professionalism with the obvious incompetence in recent times of UK and US administrations. We suspect MEPs will be happy to see the back of showmen like Nigel Farage whose only contribution to the EU parliament has been entirely negative. In contrast the EU parliament gives all the signs of delivering government for grownups by grownups.

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