Planes, trains and automobiles provided transit for our month long excursion to the Swiss and Italian Alps. It was American Airlines that transported us from Albuquerque to Amsterdam, KLM that carried us to Zürich, then, the ever efficient and punctual Swiss train system glided us to Zermatt, home of the Matterhorn, and back to Zürich, from where Swiss Air took us to Venice and a rented car got us to the Italian Dolomite Alps. Along the way, we used trams, funiculars, cable cars, cogwheel railroads, and chair lifts to reach some of our destinations, not to mention shanks pony.
It all started on Memorial Day, May 30th, when our neighbor gave us a ride to the Albuquerque airport. With our TSA PreCheck boarding passes, security was a breeze and we were soon on our way, via DFW, to Amsterdam, very much enjoying the comfort of our Business Class cubicles. A visit with my older brother Dick is always an included stop when traveling to Europe. This trip was originally planned for 2020 the year Dick turned 95, so this year he had turned 97 and we were certainly looking forward to seeing him.
Our nephew Wim picked us up at Schiphol and being a very tall person, he was easy to spot in the crowded arrivals area. Wim lives with his girlfriend, Marina, in Middelburg, a small picturesque town about two hours south of Amsterdam. On the way to Middelburg we stopped in Spykenisse where Dick lives, still in his own home. At 97, Dick still looked good, a bit frail and using a walker, but mentally sharp and a good sense of humor. After our visit with Dick we continued on to Middelburg where we stayed three nights at the Fletcher Hotel near the city center. Wim and Marina entertained us with walks along the North Sea dunes and a sail on De Arne waterway in a rented motorboat.
On June 4th, we had a morning flight from Schiphol to Zürich. In order to avoid any potential traffic problems driving from Middelburg, we spent the night before the flight at the airport Citizen M Hotel. By this time we had become aware of the extreme labor shortages at Schiphol, including baggage handlers. So that night, at the Citizen M Hotel, we repacked our bags making sure we had all essential items in our carry-ons. We also took time to walk from the hotel to the departing passenger check-in counters so we would know exactly where to go in the morning. We also decided to leave plenty early in the morning to battle the long check-in and security lines. During our reconnoitering, we had observed insanely long lines of people queued up to check-in.
We left the hotel at 5:30 AM with our bags in tow. When we approached the long queue, we were directed by a friendly KLM staffer to follow the signed priority path that bypassed the long line of disgruntled travelers. It turned out that Jane had had the foresight to purchase the priority boarding option that came with the economy ticket. That saved us hours of waiting in line. Instead, we got to wait several hours at the departure gate, but we were able to relax a bit in the crowded gate area and read our books. The wait at the gate turned out to be a bit longer than expected, however, because the KLM flight to Zürich was delayed an hour. That created some anxiety because we had only a short window of time to catch our train from the Zürich airport to Zermatt. But it all worked out fine. Our single checked bag was the very first bag to arrive on the baggage carousel. After quickly retrieving the bag, we hustled from the baggage claim area down an escalator to the train platform and were comfortably seated in a designated first class quiet car with time to spare for our journey to Zermatt.
In 1865, the British mountaineer Edward Whymper became the first person to scale the Matterhorn. This feat turned Zermatt from a small agricultural village into a Mecca for climbers, skiers, and hikers. For me, the objective was to photograph the iconic, pyramidal peak of the Matterhorn. Geologists call this unique shape a glacial horn. Originally, when collision of the African and European tectonic plates created the Alps, the Matterhorn was a dome shaped mountain. Subsequent ice ages covered the dome shaped mountain with glaciers. These glaciers eroded cirques on three sides of the mountain creating the unique shape of today’s Matterhorn.
At 14,690 feet, the Matterhorn creates its own weather and is often shrouded in clouds. We were fortunate during our five-night stay in Zermatt with the photogenic mountain being visible about half the time, mostly in the mornings before obscuring clouds would form. From Zermatt, there are several ways to traverse higher up the mountain to obtain different views of this glacier formed horn. Not all the lifts were operating yet during our stay, so some of the photo locations I wanted to visit were not available. However, the Gornergrat cogwheel railway was available to take us up to 10,000 feet in elevation. We used this unique train several times to take us to different trailheads along the route.
Jane had gotten us a fantastic accommodation in Zermatt, a two room suite, with balcony, at the Perren Hotel, very close to the train station. Some of our best views of the Matterhorn were from the balcony. Lifts going up the mountain did not start running until about 8:00 AM well after sunrise at 5:30 preventing alpenglow photography. Early on several mornings, however, we watched sunlight descend on the rocky face of the mountain from the comfort of our room. Of course, I was out on the balcony with my camera.
From Zermatt, we trained back to Zürich for a five-night stay at the Marktgasse Hotel in the city’s historic old town district of Niederdorf. We explored much of old Zürich on foot. The hotel was near the Zürichsee, a large lake in Zürich, where throngs of people gathered to stroll along the waterfront and frequented sidewalk cafés. The opera house was also located near the lake and provided free performances on an outdoor screen where people gathered with folding chairs and spread blankets to watch an opera. We actually had tickets for an indoors performance of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Ballet at the opera house. It was a non-traditional, avant-garde, production with colorful costuming, great choreography, and superb dancing. During our stay in Zürich we also enjoyed a day-trip by train to Bern, the capital of Switzerland.
Our time in the Swiss Alps ended when we packed our bags, boarded a tram to the bahnhof (train station), trained to the Zürich airport, and flew via Swiss Air to Venice to start the next phase of our European excursion. At the Venice airport we rented a Fiat 500, stick shift, compact car with just enough trunk space to hold all our bags. With the help of Google maps Jane navigated us through the maze of airport roads to get us to the autobahn and on our way to Cortina d’Ampezzo, our first destination in the Italian Alps. Jane had rented us an apartment in Cortina d’Ampezzo for five nights and we day-tripped from there.
The Dolomites are part of the Southern Alps and are uniquely different from the rest of the Alps due to the lighter color of the dolomite base rock. When the Alps were formed, millions of years ago, this area of uplift had been coral reefs in a tropical see. Like the Matterhorn, ice age glaciers eroded the uplifted mountain range into the spectacular peaks, pinnacles and escarpments visible today. Elevation wise, the highest peaks in the Dolomites only range just over 10,000 feet or so. At approximately 5,500 square miles, the Dolomite area is about one and a half times the size of Yellowstone National Park.
I had done my research and developed a detailed itinerary of places to photograph in the Dolomites. We drove to some of location, including some picturesque lakes, but mostly we used cable cars and chair lifts to reach the higher alpine valleys where the bare Dolomite peaks and massive cliffs were impressively close. Although the trails are well marked, the trail markers are not always easy to spot. We found ourselves turned around and going somewhat it circles at times, but we were never really lost. The trails were well groomed and easy to navigate but I found that, no matter where you started or what your destination was, there was always an uphill grade to conquer.
After our stay in Cortina d’Ampezzo, we moved to Ortisei for a five night stay at the grand Hotel Stetteneck. We found the Stetteneck more conveniently situated than the apartment in Cortina for walking into the village. Ortisei is a very popular destination and we observed many groups of hikers, young and not so young, walk through the pedestrians-only village to the chair lifts. The age range of hikers we passed on the trails was amazing, from young families with toddlers and baby-carrier backpacks, and a dog, to men and woman obviously at least my age, or older. The Dolomites are riddled with cable cars and chair lifts. Every high alpine meadow we visited had numerous lifts going in all directions on the mountain. I told Jane that if we were to ski here, we would need a GPS to find our way off the mountain. We enjoyed Ortisei a lot and had some wonderful day-trips from there with amazing mountain views.
From Ortisei we traveled to Corvara for our last four nights in the Dolomites. We stayed in the Hotel Italia where we also had a two room suite but the décor was very stark and we did not “warm up” to the suite. One of the longest and steepest cable cars we rode was in Corvara and the views at the top were spectacular. I spent a lot of time working on panoramic compositions there. Also, there was a regional “Bike Day” while we in Corvara where cyclists were given free reign and roads were closed to vehicular traffic. That day we embarked on long hike and ended up in the village of Colfosco where we took a cable car to an alpine rifugio for a much needed lunch break.
Like the Swiss Alps, the recreational infrastructure in the Dolomites is exceptional. There are cable cars and lifts everywhere. Trails are well maintained and signed. Signage in the Dolomites, however, can be confusing. A trail or roadway sign may appear to indicate direction to three different locations when it fact it is only one location in three languages, German, Ladin, and Italian. At the top of every lift there is a café or rifugio offering food, drink, and often rooms. Roads throughout the Dolomites are steep, narrow and winding. They are a magnet for speeding sport cars and daredevil motorcycles. We encountered those continuously as we traveled to our photo destinations, not to mention cyclists slowly peddling up the steep grades or coasting extremely fast downhill.
On our fifteenth day in the Dolomites we left Corvara, turned south, and headed back towards Venice. That night we stayed at the Marriott Hotel at the Venice Airport. We repacked our bags again for the journey home. On the morning June 28th we boarded our American Airlines flight back to Albuquerque, again enjoying our business class cubicles, and arriving in Albuquerque near midnight after a twenty hour travel day. It is always good to be home again.
To see some additional photos of the Matterhorn and Dolomites, return to the homepage and go the Europe Gallery to Switzerland and Italy.