Tunnels, bells, and cascades in Switzerland

After our late wake-up in Milan, we didn’t have much time to meander around. (Those black-out drapes in the hotel room really work too well!) Since the hotel was in an area with no local restaurants and few shops, we just took off in the car hoping to spot a grocery store before we got on the Autostrada.

As luck would have it, we were making an unscheduled detour from our route and that brought us to a panetteria. We were getting hungry and I was busy doing the usual Milan traffic thing, which means driving like I’m in a video game, when Eleanor shouted “PANETTERIA!” To raise this to a miracle required the availability of an open parking space nearby, and so we felt doubly blessed when we scored that too. To be accurate, it was on the sidewalk, but that’s where they park here.

When in Europe I tend to go for muesli and yogurt for breakfast, although I am easily tempted by a good pastry. I’ve been carrying around a half-empty box of Dr Oetker’s “Vitalis” FrüchtMüsli since we left Germany, and whenever I can get yogurt I mix the two together. So we came out of the panetteria with pineapple yogurt, two small pastries filled with nutella (for later), and an apricot tart, and made a quick breakfast while parked on the sidewalk.

Yogurt note: The best yogurt I’ve found in Europe is in Germany. I wish I could take a few dozen containers home on the airplane.

Traffic note: Driving in Milan is only slightly crazy, far better than Rome. The abolition of 2-stroke motors means that the urban streets are now breathable, too. Anyone who has lived in the Boston area can easily handle Milan.

From there it was straight to the Autostrada and rather quickly to the Swiss border. The border dips south there, so from Milan to the Italian-speaking portion of Switzerland is not far at all. The route passes through the stunningly beautiful Lakes region of Italy, up past Lugano, and then into the Alps—almost every inch of which is scenic. We only wished there were more frequent pull-outs for the many places we wanted to stop and take pictures.

Right after the border on the Swiss side there’s this unusual piece of architecture. It’s a shopping mall. We tried to stop and take a look inside, but couldn’t find the entrance to the parking lot! This was a solid 20 minute detour, during which we found a sign telling us where to enter. Following the directions, we found only an exit.

Our route this time would take us over the San Bernadino Pass, toward Chur. The tunnels begin on the Italian side, and get longer as you head north. I didn’t keep track of the number of tunnels we passed through, but three or four of them were longer than 1 km, and the longest was 6.6 km. After that one, I noticed that the exit ramp signs had changed from ‘USCITA” to “AUSFAHRT”, indicating that we had passed from the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland to the German-speaking part. The tunnels are the only times the road is not scenic. In a way they are a break from the almost overwhelming vistas, allowing time to digest what you’ve seen.

We saw a castle ruin high atop a hillside and stopped off to explore it. The ruin is unmarked from the road and there is no signage indicating its presence, but the narrow dirt road leading to it is easy to find. A short walk up the hill revealed an old and still active church, then the ruins, and then a surprise: the area of the ruins has been nicely refurbished with walking paths, modern bathrooms, and open grass for gatherings.

We had walked right into someone’s private gathering, perhaps a family reunion. They had elaborate tents set up with food and even a dance floor. Nobody seemed to mind our presence, so we wandered around for a few minutes and took some pictures.

I have been meaning to note the sounds of this country that we’ve enjoyed all week. Our favorite sound is the cow bells in Switzerland. Once in a while we’ll go past a field with cows or goats and hear the clanging of their bells, which sounds like an orchestra of bells tuning up for a performance. It’s a little like the sound of bells that you sometimes hear atop sailboat masts in the harbor.

The other sound that I love to hear is the church bells. They are different in every town. The first time I heard them on this trip was on Sunday in Weilburg (Germany) at the Airstream gathering, and they were fantastic. I’m pretty sure we could hear more than one church at a time, ringing those huge bells for all they were worth. It’s an old-fashioned sound that you rarely hear in the US anymore. They ring on Sundays but also in some towns they ring out significant hours, so you can be pleasantly surprised by a bell at unexpected times.

Along this route we also saw a lot more of the snowmelt cascades that I mentioned in an earlier post. It always seemed that they were located where we couldn’t exit the highway, so we have few pictures of them. We finally got a good opportunity to photograph this one. Multiply this by about 50 and you’ll have an idea of the scenery along the Furkapass.


Today the goal was St Gallen, Switzerland. We had no preconceptions or guide book references to steer us here—it just looked interesting and was along our route back. It turned out to be an excellent “find”, not touristy but filled with interesting things: great architecture, a huge pedestrian area in the downtown, students doing some sort of rituals (which involved singing and towing a little wagon filled with alcohol, often wearing costumes), and (my favorite) the Mühlweggbahn.

The Mühlweggbahn is just a little funicular that goes to the upper part of town, but it had a couple of the hallmarks of being worthy of exploration: (1) the rail car disappears into a tunnel; (2) we had no idea where it went and there was little explanatory signage. So we bought a pair of tickets from the machine and rode it up the tunnel. At the top we found ourselves in a quiet residential part of town with, yes, more gorgeous views and beautiful buildings. It’s a lovely place, Switzerland.


Today is our last drive, back to Frankfurt. The weather has turned gray and much cooler so we are finally getting a chance to wear the long sleeves we packed. The church bells have been ringing this morning, reminding me that it’s Sunday. In Switzerland that’s a bit of a problem because of very limiting Blue Laws in this country—we are going to have to be clever in order to find breakfast—but we have read up on the exemptions to the law and have a few ideas where we can get something to eat as we depart St Gallen. In any case, in a few hours we will be back in Germany and wrapping up our trip.


  1. says

    Nice to see you’re enjoying the vistas and sounds as much as we did. It can be a little overwhelming, in the best possible way of course.
    We saw as much as we could in the time we lived in Vienna, but it’s a hard experience to convey with just words and pictures.
    On a side note, you may or may not have noticed that there are very few “Minarets” in Switzerland? Only churches?
    The Swiss decided they didn’t want any more built back in 09, and that was that. The Swiss are just a tad xenophobic.
    Enjoy the drive.