Archive for October, 2012

Experiencing the Top of Europe on the Jungfrau

October 14, 2012

We have been home almost two weeks now.  We never quite caught up on posting about the remainder of our trip until now (and we slipped in a post for Columbus 🙂

Before we get into the last post about the “Top of Europe,” here is what we plan to do with the blog after the trip. Most likely once or twice per week, we’ll try to post content much like you’ve seen so far.  There is so much much history, culture, art, nature, and many photos going along with these items which we want to share.  Hopefully you will like reading about it as much as we like writing about it.  So check back in occasionally or sign up for email alerts over on the right side of the page, as we would love for you to continue the journey with us.

Eiger Monch Jungfrau

The Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau Peaks

We wrap up our trip with a breathtaking journey to the “Top of Europe,” and we mean that quite literally. At 13,642 feet above sea level, the Jungfrau peak is the highest point in Europe and almost everything becomes strenuous. This is one of three peaks clustered together, the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau. Some stories say the mountains represent the monk (Mönch) protecting the maiden (Jungfrau) from the evil ogre (Eiger). These peaks also front Europe’s longest glacier, the Great Aletsch Glacier (14 miles long, 3300 feet deep). All combined, it creates a panorama of the kind of beauty that can bring tears to your eyes.

Jungfrau View

View of the Valley Beyond the Peaks

To get to the Jungfrau, we took a cogwheel train through a tunnel system in the Eiger, which began construction in 1893 and was completed in 1912. At the top (11,716 ft), we came out at the Sphinx astronomical observatory, clinging to the high point like some sort of lopsided shanty. Appearances aside, it offers an astounding view of the both the heavens and the earth.

Sphinx Observatory

The Sphinx Observatory

From the observatory, you can wander through a network of tunnels leading outside for the 45-minute hike across the edge of the glacier to the peak of the Mönch for a delicious and well-earned meal at the Mönchsjoch HĂĽtte (Mönch’s Hut), a little way station perched on the side of the peak. Here you can enjoy a decadent concoction of bread smothered in 1/2 inch of Swiss cheese, ham, sausage, and all topped with a fried egg. It’s OK–hiking at that altitude burned those calories off pretty fast.

Great Aletsch Glacier

The Great Aletsch Glacier

On a side note, literature fans will also enjoy the fact that JRR Tolkein once toured the Berner Oberland area and was inspired by what he saw. The beautiful and gentle Lauterbrunnen valley became Rivendell. The glacial river rushing through the Lauterbrunnen valley at the foot of the Jungfrau also flows through Rivendell as the “Brunnen” river. The Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau make their appearance as the three peaks of the Misty Mountains in Khazad-dĂ»m: Caradhas, Fanuidhol, and Celebdil–where Gandalf battled the Balrog. Tolkein loved the lore of Northern Europe, but he was enchanted by the geography as well.

Jungfrau from Valley

Tolkein’s View of the Jungfrau

The valley itself is astoundingly lovely, with rough snow sheets melding into rolling pasture land. You can watch the occasional avalanche or herd of ibex above you in the mountains.


Some Ibexes…Ibeces…Ibexi…an Ibex and Another Ibex

Celebrating Columbus Day

October 8, 2012

Today is one of those wonderful holidays where some lucky folks are off of work or out of school. The rest of us are a little jealous. But it is an American holiday, and sometimes it’s good to stop and think about why.Why are we celebrating Columbus? It all starts in 1453. Prior to that year, the Europeans enjoyed the exports of Asia (i.e., the Indies) by land travel. These products included spices, exotic fabrics and ceramics, opium, and the bubonic plague. This trade had been booming since around 200 BC, during the Greek and then Roman empires. But when the Ottoman Turks took over in 1453, the land routes suddenly became quite hostile and the Europeans began turning to the sea.

Marco Polo

Marco Polo spearheaded the sea trade movement.

Christopher Columbus (or CristĂłbal ColĂłn in Spanish) was a mariner and self-educated man who enjoyed the works of Marco Polo, Ptolemy, and Pliny the Elder, as well as the Apocrypha. He would later produce a book explaining how his exploration was a fulfillment of biblical prophesies. His brother was a cartographer, and together they cooked up this great idea involving bad math, worse geography, and a fast route to Japan by going west instead of east.

columbus math

The math just didn’t work out…

Tradition tell us that his idea was rejected because everyone just knew the world was flat and he would sail right off the edge. Reality tells us that his idea was rejected because everyone knew his math was bad and his route wouldn’t work. His proposal was turned down by Portugal, England, Genoa, and Italy–even Spain, at first.

Columbus Planned Route

Geography Just Doesn’t Work That Way

Then, in 1492, flush from their victory over the Moors, Ferdinand and Isabella saw him one last time. And they decided to just go with it. Columbus would get his ships, his crew, and his titles of Admiral of the Ocean Sea and Viceroy and Governor of whatever country he found (plus 10% of all treasure).

Columbus subsequently discovered the Bahamas, Cuba, Panama, and some parts of South America in his four voyages. Not North America, though–that goes to Leif Ericson, about 500 years earlier. And Giovanni Cabot, who sailed in the name of England, and thus was not popular with colonial America. We adopted Columbus as our champion instead. Out of spite.

Christopher Columbus Portrait

Columbus was in, Cabot was out.

Columbus died in relative prosperity, enjoying a quiet apartment in Spain, though he spent a short stent in jail for committing atrocities against the natives under his governorship. The Crown also stripped him of his rights to a cut of the treasure, which his heirs eventually won back after his death. He now resides in Sevilla, Spain.

Columbus Tomb Giralda Cathedral

Tomb of Columbus

Avenches: A Rainy Day with Swiss Romans

October 4, 2012

Switzerland is a beautiful country, with rolling hills blending into majestic, wild mountains. The farmland is fertile and the climate in the lowlands is temperate, dotted with clear lakes and glacier-fed rivers. And with such mountains surrounding the country, the passes become strategic. Put all of these features together in an area, and you have the perfect location for a conquering nation to establish a colony.

Such as the Romans.

Around 500 BC, a tribe of Celts, the Helvetii, settled in Switzerland. In 58 BC, a young, upwardly-mobile Roman general named Julius Caesar conquered the Helvetii and absorbed the tribe into the empire. As germanic tribes invaded Helvetica and began posing a threat to this northern territory, Augustus Caesar (27-14 BC) sent the Helvetians back home to defend the borders. A city was established named Aventicum (after the goddess Aventica), which expanded as Tiberius (14-37 AD) sent more support to the northern borders. The city thrived and swelled with a population of around 20,000 under Claudius (41-54 BC), who established a trade route through the area. Tacitus tells us it was the capital of Helvetica in 69 AD, thanks to Vespasian, who grew up in Aventicum and made it a Roman colony.

Rome She Wolf

Roman She-Wolf in the Roman Museum, Avenches

This was a typical Roman city, with all the normal features: two theaters, baths, an imperial cult temple, a temple to Mercury, a forum, a geometric residential area, aqueducts–all tucked behind a protective Roman wall featuring 73 watchtowers. Gladiators fought in the amphitheater against each other, bears, wolves, and lynxes. People lived and died, their families building memorials to the dead. All the difference was, instead of building with glistening marble, they mostly used native limestone and BĂĽndner schist (black rock with white quartz found in the Alpine region).

Golden Bust Emperor Marcus Aurelius Avenches

Golden Bust of Marcus Aurelius Found at the Imperial Temple in Avenches

When Rome fell, Germanic tribes moved in. The walls were repaired in Medieval times and more towers were built. Eventually, the Latin name took on a French flavor and became Avenches. Today, it is about 1 1/2 hours from Bern. The ruins are open to the public and the artifacts are displayed in the Medieval tower-turned-museum that overlooks the amphitheater.

Roman Theater Avenches Aventicum

Roman Amphitheater in Aventicum

Thus, on a drizzly, cloudy day, we took a train and found ourselves in the little town of Avenches. First was the museum, which gave us a great insight into the daily life of “northern Romans.” There were three particularly interesting finds: The gold bust of Marcus Aurelius (ca. 80 AD) from the temple and the remains of a statue of Agrippina the Elder, Augustus’ granddaughter, Tiberius’ adopted granddaughter, Germanicus’ wife, and mother of a den of vipers, including Emperor Caligula (37-41 AD, guy tried to make his horse a consul) and Empress Agrippina the Younger, wife of Claudius and mother of Nero. The last is a funerary stele dedicated to Pompeia Gemella,the “educatrix of the emperor.” Many historians believe this “emperor” was none other than Titus, who would go on to level Jerusalem in 70 AD before being crowned emperor. Much of Aventicum’s later success is ascribed to the tender feelings Titus had for his hometown and childhood nurse, Pompeia.

Pompeia Gemella Stele Titus educatrix

Stele Dedicated to Pompeia Gemella, Nurse to an Emperor

To get to the ruins, one must hike through plowed fields and cow pastures. But they are there and are splendid. The watchtower in the wall has been repaired and one of the city’s 5 aqueducts is visible. The amphitheater is still used for events, and baths are being excavated and repaired. And if you go on a rainy day, you will leave thoroughly soaked, and completely satisfied from contemplating historic ruins…all by yourself.

Cigognier Imperial Temple Aventicum

Roman Wall and Aqueduct Aventicum

The Repaired Roman Wall and Aqueduct

Switzerland- Land of Mountains, Trains, Gondola Lifts, and, Well, Cheese (and Chocolate)

October 3, 2012

Switzerland, small and landlocked in the middle of Europe with the Alps on the southern border, is a beautiful country with a postcard-like ambiance across most of its land. For us, given our interest in nature, hiking, mountains, trains and more, we wanted to give it a shot.  Since we were already across the pond, plane tickets were cheap. Through a handy-dandy guide book, we found a lady who rents part of her cabin (sectioned off much like an apartment or B&B room) for less than most hotel rooms you would find driving across the U.S. Put all of that together and you have a room with a view like this….

Gimmelwald WindowView

Our View in Gimmelwald, Switzerland

This is a view from our cabin in the little town of Gimmelwald. The Google map link below will give you an idea about where this is in the southern central part of the country. If you are a Google Earth user, search for this town name in Switzerland and tilt the view to see the elevation, and you will get a good idea of the mountain terrain in this area.

So a little about Switzerland. Historically, the land area of Switzerland has Greek and Roman history just as many other European and near-east countries. Although you don’t typically think of Rome when thinking about Switzerland, you do have Roman archaeological sites in the country, such as Augusta Raurica in the north central part of the country and Avenches, located close to Bern, in the central part of the country. The 12 and 13th centuries saw the rise of the “Old Swiss Confederacy” (the common CH abbreviation you now see for Switzerland, which is Confoederatio Helvetica, Latin for “Swiss Confederation”). This era brought many of the communities of the central Alps together. This union allowed the Swiss to fight against other European powers, such as the Habsburg Empire, and win some notable victories, which established some level of Swiss independence in the region. However, due to some internal weaknesses and the power of the French in the Napoleonic era, the Swiss did fall under French rule for a short time. That French rule ended toward the beginning of the 19th century, with the Swiss reestablishing independence and also beginning the long road of Swiss neutrality, which is still in existence today.

The attitude of neutrality even precipitates down to their animals.  Walk along the quite mountain trails between the villages and try to pet the goats, cows, sheep, dogs, and cats along the way. You will find they accept the petting, but very nonchalantly, and may walk away at any time and stare at you indignantly, as the cow below did to us. Hey, it’s Switzerland.

swiss cow

Neutral Swiss Cow

Just up from the village we were residing in is the peak of the Schilthorn. This peak is notable for a revolving restaurant perched at the top (@ 9,744 ft.). The restaurant and the associated viewing platforms offer spectacular views of the Eiger, Mӧnch, and Jungfrau peaks across the valley. These peaks are commonly noted as “Top of Europe,” which is served by the highest running cog-wheel train in Europe.

eiger monch jungfrau switzerland

The Three Peaks: Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau

Also, the restaurant at the top of the Schilthorn is one of the main settings for the film, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” a James Bond 007 movie from the late 60s. They blew it up in the movie, but, luckily, it is actually still there and serving a delicious “007 Breakfast Buffet” at 10,000 feet.

Schilthorn 007 Restaraunt

Breakfast at 10,000

Over the next day or two, we’ll dedicate a few other posts to some Roman ruins we visited and the peak of the Jungfrau.

Madrid’s Art Neighborhood: The Good, the Bad, and the Picasso, Part 2

October 2, 2012

We’re home safe and sound, but we’ll keep posting about our trip (we got behind–spotty Internet access can do that). Part deux of our tour of Madrid’s art museum neighborhood ends with us at the popular modern art museum, the Centro de Arte Reina SofĂ­a (Reina SofĂ­a Art Center).

Normally, we are not modern art fans. But that’s generally. There are pieces of modern art that are both iconic and extraordinarily moving. That is the art in which the creator is using the medium to express intense emotions, ideas and feelings that are too distorted, subtle, or fluid for a classic canvas. This is what brought us to the Reina SofĂ­a, home of two famous Spanish Civil War-era artists: Pablo Picasso and Salvador DalĂ­. The current curator of the museum has quite cleverly matched some of the masterpieces with films from the same eras, which provides a fascinating insight into the culture behind the art. Thus, with our trusty guidebook in hand, we immediately made a beeline for the museum’s pièce de rĂ©sistance: Picasso’s Guernica.

Centro de Arte Center of Modern Art Reina Sofia

Reina SofĂ­a Art Center

The Spanish Civil War began in 1936, with the Nationalista party and Franco’s coup d’Ă©tat. Franco was a fascist, and had the backing of both Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. The painting takes us to April 26, 1937 on a bright market day in the Basque capital city of Guernica. The city was filled with farmers and shoppers from the countryside, as well as war refugees, swelling the normal population. Around 3:40 in the afternoon, a German warplane appeared over the horizon, but this was not alarming–until it began bombing the bridges and roads leading into the town. Then more warplanes appeared and the real bombing began. For 3 hours, the town was a roiling mass of panic, animals screaming in fear, people rushing to escape. But there was no escape. Those that survived the bombs long enough to make it to the streets and hills were met with machine gun strafing, like shooting rabbits fleeing a warren. By sunset, the once-proud town was leveled by Hitler’s first experiment in saturation bombing, by Franco’s leave. The time and place were strategic: Franco needed to make an example and the bustling, independently-minded town offered the most horrific opportunity for casualties.

Bombed Building Guernica

Remains of Bombed Guernica Buildings – Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H25224 / CC-BY-SA

Picasso, a Spaniard, was in Paris, France, brainstorming for a mural he was to paint for the World’s Fair when he received the news of the atrocity. All ideas were forgotten, and he began the work of his lifetime. In a matter of weeks, he presented the 286-square-foot mural to the world. The painting itself, a study in cubism, resembles broken shards jumbled and pieced together. Nothing is as it should be. Chaos reigns even in the very color and composition of the images. A bare bulb lights a nauseatingly monochromatic scene of unmitigated terror–a man trapped in a burning building screams as a woman runs, dragging her wounded leg behind her. A dying horse, pierced by a broken spear, has thrown its rider, his severed arm still clutching a sword. Someone looks out the window to see the turmoil below. A mother raises her face and her voice heavenward as she clutches her dead child in her arms, Picasso’s own pietá. Above it all, a fighting bull, the symbol of Spain’s courageous spirit, bellows in impotent fear and the dove of peace fades helplessly into the background.

Picasso Guernica

Guernica by Pablo Picasso, 1937. Oil on canvas. Centro de Arte Reina SofĂ­a.

The world was shocked and horrified by the gritty imagery, having till then only seen the sanitized version of events that Franco permitted it to see. Suddenly, nations were aware of the losing battle being fought by the Republicanos and the chilling efficiency of the fascist war machine. Now they knew what this brutal trinity was capable of, but did they realize this was the prelude to the even more egregious genocides of World War II?

Today, the Reina SofĂ­a houses this work of art in a room by itself, where you can stand and reflect on the heartbreaking events that lead to its creation and those that continue on today around the world. War is a truly terrible thing, but, sadly, as long as there is evil in the world willing to exploit the innocent, then we can only hope there is a greater good willing to rise up and protect those in need.