Lois and I are nearly current in our cyber-journalism. So we can now provide some updates about more recent goings-on. We’ve been loving our stay in the Lake Como region of Italy. Lake Como is in northern Italy, so far north that the crest of the mountain we see rising just across the lake from our apartment is in Switzerland. We decided to take a day-trip north of Lake Como to the St. Moritz area of Switzerland – about a two-and-a-half-hour drive, well beyond the border. The weather had turned very warm and muggy after we’d been at Lake Como for a week, and we were looking for a bit of relief in the high Alps.
The reader is asked kindly to forgive one more roadway diatribe. There are no roads I’ve seen in Europe that are as absurdly narrow as the Irish byways, but the roads in the lakes area of northern Italy come close. The drive up along Lake Como from the town of Como to our current hometown of Lezzeno is a harrowing one. There is an institutional reluctance in Italy to make any changes whatsoever to old buildings – even when they press so closely upon a roadway (once designed for horses and carts) that two cars cannot squeeze by. So when the road passes through an old town (and almost all towns in this area are old), it becomes not much more than an alleyway between buildings made of unforgiving stone. On one preposterously narrow road, we spotted a reassuring highway sign that read “C’e spazio per tutti,” (There is room for all), and we laughed hysterically until the next camper van nearly drove us off the cliff. After our experiences in England and Ireland, we’d become more used to narrow roadways, but with Italian drivers thrown into the mix (one recent author described driving in Italy as a “blood sport”) it became a new and even more terrifying experience. I’ve learned to retract the external side-view mirrors of the car in order to avoid having them permanently retracted for me. Lois has once again wisely offered to take over driving responsibilities for our next car rental in southern Italy.
Driving in Switzerland was actually a relief to me because the Swiss are masters at building roads, railways, tunnels and trams through the most impassable geography. A Swiss hairpin curve is a stroll in the park compared to a straight road along most of the towns on Lake Como, which we discovered as we drove higher into the Alps.
The Bernina Pass in Switzerland is said by some folks to be the most spectacular pass in the Alps, although most other alpine countries in Europe would certainly be happy to offer up their own “most spectacular pass in the Alps.” Bernina is nonetheless glorious — far above the treeline.
On the drive up the Bernina Pass, even though we were well into Switzerland, it was clear that we were in an Italian-speaking region. Towns had Italian names – Vicosoprano, Soglio, Castasegna – as did hotels and restaurants. Even as we crossed the pass and began the descent toward St. Moritz, there was still a sprinkling of Italian names – including Diavolezza (an Italian word that means “devilness” as best I can figure). Diavolezza is a mountain that overlooks a glacier not far north of the crest of the Bernina Pass. It may seem odd to name an icy mountain after the lord of hellfire and brimstone, but in Dante’s Inferno the diavolo was a gigantic, three-faced winged beast (trinitarianism apparently applies even to the underworld) at the very center of Hell in an icy lake that was frozen by the bitter winds created from the beating of the diavolo’s bat-like wings. The three mouths on the three faces of the beast are snacking on the traitors Judas, Brutus and Cassius respectively for all eternity. So to give the name Diavolezza to an icy, wind-whipped mountain that devours mountain climbers, hikers and skiers seems about right. We decided to adopt a Swiss approach to hiking. We took the Diavolezza tram, which whisked us from near the roadway up to a mountain ridge at 9000 feet while we listened to the sound of cowbells underneath us….. reminding us that we were indeed in Switzerland.
As we approached the top of the tram we saw a long expanse of white material covering a snowfield that was roughly the size of a football field. This is a new strategy designed to mitigate the retreat of glaciers that results from global warming.
After looking at the vast expanse of glaciers surrounding us, it was clear that the attempt to protect all of these glaciers in this manner would be a task tantamount to the one that confronted Aristophanes’ “birds” in his comedy of the same name. The winged creatures were attempting to blockade the skies in order to prevent smoke from sacrificial offerings from reaching the heavens, thereby starving the gods out. After we ascended into the heavens of il Diavolo, we exited and marveled at peaks like Palu and Bernina (which rise to over 12,000 feet) and the massive Pers and Morteratsch glaciers that still glisten and grind down the valleys between them in mid-August. We took far too many photos, a few of which appear below.
Then we began our “hike.” The mountain we trod upon was a gigantic pile of rocks without a discernible trail. As we scrambled over a chaos of talus, the only signs of a trail were what appeared to be a random assortment of red or blue markers painted on stones.
We scaled a rocky ridge that afforded a beautiful view of the mountains to the south as well as Lago Bianco, a lake that, true to its name, has a whitish hue due to the presence of an immense amount of glacial silt.
We decided to make our return hike into a loop and eventually regretted it, as the experience of hiking devolved into an experience of clattering down a cascade of loose granite on all fours to the bottom of the rock pile.
We returned to the cafeteria at the top of the tram for a snack, hungry enough to dine on Judas or Brutus, our vegetarianism notwithstanding. If you have never been to Switzerland, however, you may not be aware that snacks (and everything else) in Switzerland require what Italians would call a “sacco di soldi” (sack full of money). We had only a modest amount of soldi in our sacco by the time we’d paid for the tram-ride; so we took our nourishment in the form of scenery. At the base of the tram we returned to the car and continued our descent from the summit down to the delightfully scenic town of Pontresina, hemmed in so closely by mountains that the steep slopes that rise straight above are traversed by rows of avalanche fencing, providing what could only be a false sense of winter security to the utterly vulnerable residents below.
Pontresina is a German-speaking town. We managed to find a café, and, in switching from Italian to German, I deeply confused the two languages (as well as the waitress). We ordered a couple of pretzels and some coffee for the price of what in Italy would have been a full lunch. Afterward we returned to the car and meandered along the Ova da Bernina, a blue-white torrent that has it source in the vast glaciers we had just seen, until we reached St. Moritz, the town that hosted the Olympic winter games in 1928 and 1948.
St. Moritz is a jarring juxtaposition of elegant old-world buildings (in the part of town called St. Moritz Dorf) and Soviet-inspired architecture from the 1960’s (located primarily in a part of town appropriately called St. Moritz Bad). I’ve heard Europeans refer to the style as neo-brutalism.
By the way, this is the same cubist style that characterizes most of the universities in the California State University system – including the one in Sonoma County – which should perhaps be renamed Sonoma State Bad. St. Moritz’s greatest asset, in my opinion, is St. Moritzer See, a glittering, rich blue lake at the base of the town surrounded by peaks that rise 4000 feet above the lake. The ‘See’ is encircled by a walkway where Lois and I strolled as the sun was just dipping below the pinnacle of Piz Nair.
St. Moritzer See looking toward the mountains that loom above Pontresina
After circling the lake, we climbed a flight of stairs leading from St. Moritz Bad to St. Moritz Dorf and entered a much more uptown, brick-paved pedestrian area lined with old churches, hotels and attractive, upscale shops overlooking St. Moritzer See. It was grand…..
as were the prices in stores and restaurants. By this point, we had long since worked off the pretzels we’d eaten in Pontresina, and starvation was beginning to set in. After perusing the menus of even some of the more ‘modest’ St. Moritz restaurants, we realized that we would have to head back into Italy in order to be able to afford survival. We drove along the valley leading southwest out of St. Moritz and came upon lake after gorgeous lake.
It was too much for us. We forgot about being famished and had to stop to gawk…again and again, culminating in a long pause at Lake Silvaplana, where we watched the winds whipping kiteboarders across the water, framed by mountains and the setting sun. There were dozens of them skimming across the lake, apparently celebrating the recent decision to add their sport to the next Olympics.
Dusk was coming on, and we resumed our drive back, immediately reminded of our desperate quest for the border…and affordable food. Still far short of the Italian border we came upon a pizzeria in a small Swiss town…with these sorts of views.