Üssers Barrhorn

Üssers Barrhorn, at 3610 m, is (probably) the highest mountain in Switzerland accessible by an ordinary hiking track. The walk up crosses moraine and scree but no glaciers and nothing technical. The hike starts in Turtmanntal, the valley between Val d’Anniviers and the Mattertal, which has long been on our list of places to explore — so in September Tanya and I headed there to walk up the Barrhorn.

Turtmannsee and the Turtmanngletscher.
Turtmanngletscher.

We started our walk from Hungerli Unnerstafel, at 1900 m. From there we quickly gained height, scooted around the Turmannsee, and got to the Turtmannhutte at 2519 m. From there the terrain was marmot-filled grassy slopes until we passed through a steep gully with chains and emerged at Gässi. Suddenly, we could see that we were gaining height on the glacial plateau of the Brunegggletscher (yes, it has three gs). I love how in the mountains it’s possible to move what seem like insurmountable features into the distance, and this just by taking one step after another.

Near Gässi.
Looking across the Brunegggletscher to Weisshorn behind.

Just after the 3000 m mark we took a left turn and followed a steeper path across frozen scree and snow underneath Inners Barrhorn, to join up with the main ridge and the last push to the summit of Üssers Barrhorn. Arriving above 3600 m, the altitude clearly made its presence felt.

Tanya tackling scree.

On the summit it was incredibly cold and there was a sharp wind blowing, but the view was just magnificent; we could see across to Weisshorn and Bishorn, the Brunegggletscher was spread out below us like an icy quilt, and to the other side the Dom hid its peak in the clouds. We ate a quick lunch while being closely watched by a rather hopeful alpine chough, and then headed down.

Summit views from Üssers Barrhorn at 3610 m.
Brunnegghorn (3833 m), Weisshorn (4505 m), and Bishorn (4153 m).
Brunegggletscher and Turtmanngletscher.
Peering down to the Undere Stelligletscher.
Chocard à bec jaune!
Tanya poses with bird.
Tanya photographs bird.
The Mischabel group.

It was after leaving the summit and walking along the higher path under Inners Barrhorn that we looked back and saw Üssers Barrhorn from its most spectacular angle. The ridge fairly drops away on one side and the mountain forms a giant wedge into the sky.

Üssers Barrhorn in all its glory.
Precipitous cliffs near Schöllijoch.
Walking down.
Closeup of part of the Brunnegggletscher.
Tanya in her element.

It was a long walk back to the car, but we made it in good spirits and having thoroughly enjoyed the hike. I mapped our path with the ever-reliable map.admin.ch, and this walk was 21 km with a 1717 m climb from start to peak. What a fantastic day out!

Descending from Gässi.
December 11, 2017
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La Luette sous les nuages

Keytie came to visit me and Tanya in September, and together we went into the Alps for a walk to La Luette. We left Lausanne early on a Saturday morning, and caught the classic yellow postbus up to Arolla. Nut-cracker birds sang from the Arolla Pines as we walked up through the valleys to the Pas de Chèvre for lunch.

Approaching the Pas de Chèvres (2854 m).

At the col it was snowing lightly; the path down to to the Vallée des Dix goes via steel ladders that were burningly cold to the touch. We crossed the Glacier de Cheilon, following markers put down by the good folks of the Cabane des Dix, and arrived at the cabin in time for a wander around the surroundings and a quick ramble up the ridge of the Tête Noire.

Stepping onto the Glacier de Cheilon.
Glacier power!
Arrival at the Cabane des Dix.
The amazing Cabane des Dix.
Keytie and Tanya on Tête Noire (2981 m), just next to the cabin.
Pigne d’Arolla (3790 m) pops out to say hi.
Moonscape near the cabin.

The next morning we got up early. Peering outside into the blackness, the stars were out and it was clear. But after our quick breakfast we looked out again to discover that it had started to snow heavily. As we set off to follow the moraine towards La Luette the ground was rapidly being covered by snow and we followed cairns to stick to the proper route.

Mont Blanc de Cheilon at dawn.

We arrived at the Glacier de la Luette just before dawn. The clouds were heavy and low and it was still snowing lightly, and even as the sky lightened the visibility was bad. We ended up waiting at the edge of the glacier for a long period before, finally, the clouds lifted enough that we felt comfortable to head up onto it. It was cold and while we waited we ran in circles and jumped up and down to keep warm.

Glacier de La Luette.
Glacier rest-stop.

The weather held as we got to the col and moved up to the summit of La Luette. Whereas the top had been bare rock the day before, it was now covered in snow which gave it a much more wintery air. At the summit it started to snow again and we didn’t waste any time before heading back down and off the glacier.

From the ridge, the view down to the Glacier du Giétro.
On the summit – 3548 m.
Looking down to the Lac des Dix.
Heading down.

On the way back to the cabin we were buzzed by a drone belonging to the cabin guardian, who wanted to see where we were up to. With the weather forecast to continue to change we ate a quick lunch and then started walking down to the Barrage des Dix.

La Luette from the cabin.
Mont Blanc de Cheilon (3870 m).

Just as predicted, rain and clouds started to appear from the west. As we descended the scenery regained its greenness. There was a herd of ibex high on a distant hill, and in the fields below the Swiss cows were entirely unfussed by the cold change. We contoured around the lake and arrived at the dam just as the snow started in earnest.

Amazing rock folds on a boulder next to the Lac des Dix.
Lac des Dix.
Frozen garden.

The weekend was fantastic — a great tour with wonderful company, a nice summit, about a thousand marmots, and weather that cooperated for the most part. You can’t really ask for more!

Snowflakes at the Barrage des Dix.
November 8, 2017
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Chicago

From New York I flew to Chicago to attend and present my work at a research conference. My flight landed at dusk, and there was low cloud that gave the flat fields next to the city a dull grey air. The plane flew low over these fields for what seemed a long time, and after landing we taxied for a seriously long way to the terminal. Chicago gets full marks for having an excellent airport connection by train, and I was quickly in the centre of the city, where it dawned clear and blue the next day.

The Chicago River.
Skyscrapers, lots of skyscrapers.

Chicago’s a great city. I enjoyed learning about its architecture, ate a deep dish pizza, saw the city from high-up in the John Hancock Tower, and revelled in the public art scene. Here are some pictures from the stay.

View from the John Hancock building.
Impressive roof-top swimming pool.
This spider was on the outside of the 95th floor.
The John Hancock Building.
Dusk on the river.
The Bean (aka Cloud Gate) by Anish Kapoor.
Crown Fountain by Jaume Plensa, in Millennium Park.
Cool street art.
Deer, by Tony Tasset.
Chicago skyline.
Flying back to Europe on a 747-8.
October 29, 2017
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New York City

In late August, when it was still warm in the northern hemisphere, I spent a glorious few days in New York City on my way to a conference in Chicago. I flew direct from Geneva, which was an efficient way to go. I always love to follow the plane’s progress on the entertainment system map. On this flight, I particularly enjoyed the “context” map that showed no more information than the main one. I also noticed that the sites of famous shipwrecks were marked. Showing the location of the Titanic disaster strikes me as a particularly unlikely thing to think might be of interest to passengers who are, just for example, currently crossing the Atlantic.

So much context.
Nice patterns, just before landing at JFK.

I landed at JFK mid-afternoon on a sunny day, took the train to Penn Station, and stepped out into bustling Manhattan. I love New York City. Its energy is contagious. I hadn’t been there since 2006 and found that, happily, my memory of how awesome it is was accurate. In Union Square Park there were buskers of all types, dancers and bike riders, old people playing against young people at backgammon and chess, skaters, hippies, a guy practicing electric guitar. In Times Square one of the giant screens was advertising Switzerland’s peace and quiet. I wandered the West Village to see where Bob Dylan once hung out. Every neighbourhood has a story that’s still unfolding. I did a lot of walking: covered the High Line from end to end, explored the East and West Villages, saw squirrels in Central Park, walked through SoHo and Chinatown, crossed the financial district, wandered mid-town, and visited the hipsters in Williamsburg.

Window washers.
In another time and season, this was where the cover photo for
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was taken.
The PATH train station at the World Trade Center.
Lower Manhattan seen from the New Museum.

I visited MoMa, the New Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, which I found particularly powerful. At the Whitney there was an exhibition of Calder mobiles, which were breathtakingly gorgeous. At certain points during the day an attendant emerged to make these sculptures move, as per their original intent. The museum called this process “activating” them; I called it “poking them with a stick”. As well as the galleries, New York is of course filled with great public art and street art.

Tristan Eaton’s mural Liberty, Little Italy.
Tiger by Sonny.
214 Lafayette, Manhattan.
Yaaas Hillz! Williamsburg.
Street art in Williamsburg.
Spiderman by Space Invader! St Mark’s Place, East Village.
East Village.

I visited the Ground Zero Memorial and went to the viewing deck in the new One World Trade Center. The view was fantastic.

One World Trade Center.
Manhattan.
Looking over to Brooklyn.
Sun and shadow.

One evening I went to the Brooklyn Bridge Park to get a view of the Manhattan skyline at sunset. Helicopters hovered above and there were hundreds of photographers with tripods. I ran the battery out on my iPhone taking panoramas.

Sunset over Lower Manhattan.

I walked back to Manhattan across Brooklyn Bridge. The bridge has a cycle way and pedestrian path next to each other, and the cries of frustrated cyclists yelling at misplaced walkers punctuated the night. One guy was reduced to letting out repeated high-pitched screams; to his credit it did work to clear the path a bit. The view of the city was so great by night that I walked the Brooklyn Bridge again the next day to see it during the daytime.

Brooklyn Bridge views.
Brooklyn Bridge.

It was a quick visit to New York, but a great one. I believe people when they say there is no other city like it. The energy, the food, the mix of cultures, the skyscrapers, the music — what a fantastic city!

Flying to Chicago. Bye for now, NYC.
October 29, 2017
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Platthorn

Here are some photos from a walk up Platthorn (3345 m) in August. Platthorn is right next to Zermatt; we originally thought about walking to the Mettelhorn, but decided against crossing the glacier without a rope. The walk from Zermatt went via the Trift hotel and the climb up covered 1700 m vertical. One highlight of the walk was a lagopède alpin (a rock ptarmigan) with a few of her little ones, all taking a dustbath on top of a rock!

At the Furggji col (3185 m), looking towards Weisshorn.
Glacier patterns.
Mettelhorn (3406 m).
Tanya on the summit of Platthorn (3345 m).
Matterhorn attempting to come out of the cloud.
Zinalrotthorn (4221 m, left) and Schalihorn (3975 m).
Weisshorn (4506 m) in cloud.
Looking towards Ober Gabelhorn (it’s hidden in cloud) and the Triftgletscher. Check out those moraines!
The hotel at Trift.
Zermatt.
October 29, 2017
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Aletschgletscher

I’ve meant for years to go and see the Aletschgletscher, the Alps’ largest glacier. It’s in the eastern part of Valais in Switzerland. Recently I finally made it there for two day walks, and it’s just as spectacular as expected! The first walk was from Moosfluh up to Bettmerhorn, and along a beautiful rock ridge to Fiescherhorli and Eggishorn.

Tanya walking by the Aletsch.
Aletschgletscher.
Our now-standard hiking lunch — cheese and crackers.
Bettmerhorn (2857 m).
Panorama of the whole Aletschgletscher.
Looking up to Konkordiaplatz, with Jungfrau (4158 m), Mönch (4107 m), and Eiger (3970 m).

Another walk took us from Fiescheralp up and over a col to the Märjelen-Stausee, then out and along the glacier and in a loop via Hohbalm back to Fiescheralp.

Matterhorn in the distance.
Lots of chocards à bec jaune!
Heading home.
October 1, 2017
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Italian lakes

Tanya’s Mum Cathy came to visit us in July. Together, Tanya and Cathy and I went to the Italian lakes for a fantastic long weekend. We stayed in Stresa and Verbania on Lago Maggiore, and took day trips to various places nearby. Here are some photos from that weekend!

At Robièi, above Val Bavona in Italian-speaking Switzerland.
Lago del Zött.
Val Bavona.
Val Bavona.
Val Bavona, where houses were built into and around giant fallen boulders.
Orta St. Giùlio on Lago d’Orta and the Isola St. Giùlio.
Tanya and Cathy at Lago Maggiore.
Sunset at Lago Maggiore. The big peak in the back is Weismeiss in Switzerland!
Approaching Isola Superiore dei Pescatori, Lago Maggiore.
Isola Superiore dei Pescatori.
Isola Superiore dei Pescatori.
Lago Maggiore.
Lago Maggiore and Isola Bella.
October 1, 2017
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Barcelona, July

Back in July I was in Barcelona for a conference; I loved the chilled out feeling of the city and was lucky to have the chance to visit La Pedrera by Gaudi.

La Pedrera.
On the roof of La Pedrera.
La Pedrera.
Barcelona.
October 1, 2017
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Cycle touring in Provence

Tanya and I went on a wonderful summer holiday this year: we went cycle touring in France. We were initially indecisive about where to go. In the end it came down to a decision between possible extreme heat in Provence or possible snow in the alps, and we chose the warm weather. It took some complex juggling of train tickets to get us and our bikes a few hundred kilometers south, which reminded us that the Swiss system without reservations is wonderfully simple. But we got it sorted out, and after rolling downhill to Lausanne train station we travelled via Geneva and Lyon to the medieval city of Avignon.

My fantastic new bike — a Surly Disk Trucker. It has gears!

Avignon is a charming walled city next to the Rhône. It was the home of the Papacy in the 1300s, and there is an enormous Papal palace built into the rock in the centre of the town. I found the palace impressive but cold and menacing, its high white walls too sheer; it was presumably designed to show power and supposed superiority. The palace had pretty gardens on one side, from which we could see over the river and caught a glimpse of the famous Pont d’Avignon, and the cycling-famous Mont Ventoux in the distance.

Prière Universelle by Ndary Lo, outside the Palais des Papes in Avignon.
“By beak and claws” — that’s a pretty epic motto, Avignon.

Here is a map of where we rode. You can click on the different parts to see distances and height gains if you’re interested.

Day 1

Our first day of riding started warm and got hot. We first went to the Avignon tourist office to ask them the best way to ride to the nearby Pont du Gard — they didn’t know, couldn’t say really, didn’t have any map that showed cycling routes. It was like we were the first cyclists to ever go to the tourist office in a major town in a major cycling region. Perhaps we were? If so, I hope the trend catches on and they get some cycling information. We set off towards Pont du Gard following Google Maps, which in short order directed us down a dirt road that gradually got smaller and rockier until it became impassable. Lesson learnt! We backtracked and, using a mixture of GPS and cunning, made it to Pont du Gard for lunch.

Not a good road, even if Google says so (this was the good bit).

The Pont du Gard is a Roman aqueduct that has been there since 40-60 AD. The weather was warm and I tried to imagine the people who built it toiling under a similar hot sun. I wonder if they ever imagined it would still be there almost 2000 years later? The engineering of the Roman aqueducts is incredible. The gradients are ridiculously low so that the water is moved the furthest possible distance. This one was originally 50 km long and descended only 12.6 metres in that entire length.

Pont du Gard.
Tarascon, Provence.
Tarascon, Provence.

We continued on busier roads to cross back over the Rhône to Tarascon, then on bike paths and up a last steepening to get to Les Baux de Provence. Les Baux is simply spectacular; set amongst limestone outcrops and on top of a hill, a ruined medieval castle on top. The road to the village was cut straight through solid rock. We wandered the town late in the evening when it was very quiet with almost nobody around.

First view of Les Baux de Provence.
Les Baux de Provence.

Day 2

On our second day of riding we headed east in the sun, grabbed lunch in Eygalières, navigated a maze of highways and bridges to cross the Durance, and were happy to find a signposted cycle route that lead into the Luberon. The countryside opened up after Les Baux, to dry wine country and appealing rocky hills.

The cycle routes were great in that they were far from car traffic, but I am sure that whoever put the sign posts up had never actually ridden the route on a bike. Some turns were marked and others weren’t, and they had the unfortunate habit of using a left-pointing arrow to mean “continue straight, passing to the left of the sign”. We figured this out in the town of Coustellet, after dutifully taking four left hand turns and ending up where we started.

We crossed the Pont Julien, another Roman bridge that was built in 3 AD and has been in essentially continuous use ever since. We finished the day at Roussillon, where cicadas were singing loudly and the red ochre under the town glowed at sunset.

Pont Julien.
Ochre cliffs in Roussillon.
Roussillon.

Day 3

Day three was our rest day, but we still rode a bit to keep to our schedule. We pushed through a rain shower to Gordes, which is very beautiful but not very friendly, then north into Lavender country. As we passed the Abbaye Notre Dame de Sénanque the skies really opened. We stood under trees in the abbey’s car park, getting soaked despite the foliage, and waited for the storm to pass. A beautiful section of gorge took us out of the Luberon (for now) and we stopped at the cat-rich hilltop town of Venasque for a stormy night.

Gordes.
Tanya shaking her fist at the weather.
Gorge section.

Day 4

The next day was clear and sunny with just a few clouds clinging to the hilltops. The air was fresh and cleaned by the rain. We set off north, wound through a few little towns and then climbed through the stunning Gorges de La Nesque. The road climbed steadily for about 18 kilometres before delivering us into the plains near Sault.

Fresh air.
Route planning.
The road climbing through the Gorges de la Nesque.
Looking back down the gorge.

Sault seems to be a mecca for two things: lavender watching, and cycling up the famous Mt Ventoux. We combined cycling and lavender by riding a 30 km “lavender” loop in the afternoon, past rolling fields. I was struck by the lovely way the lavender fields change colour depending on the viewing angle — they go from slate grey to green to bright purple. Also on this section of the ride we passed through multiple swarms of bees who I guess were between lavender fields at the time. It turns out it’s hard work to ride uphill with your mouth clamped shut to avoid accidentally scooping up bees. At various points I would yell “more bees!” to Tanya, who, ever watchful, had already noticed them and would reply with a muffled “mmhmm!!”.

Lavender in front of Aurel.
Passing through Aurel.
Patchwork fields.

Day 5

We had train tickets back from Marseille and our original plan was to ride all the way there, but it quickly became clear that we didn’t have the time. Tanya rang the SNCF with the idea of changing our tickets to leave from a nearer station, but every time the SNCF phone service passed through minutes of menus (on roaming charges) before announcing there were no operators available anyway and hanging up without further ado. So we decided instead to catch a train to Marseille, and on day five of our ride we headed south again.

Mont Ventoux and lavender fields.
Near Sault.

We ended up at the tiny town of Bonnieux, which offered fantastic views across the plains to Roussillon and Gordes.

Bonnieux.

Day 6

Our last day of riding was an easy one; we rode downhill to Lourmarin and out to Pertuis, from where we could take a regional train to Marseille.

A field near Lourmarin.
Pertuis train station and the end of our ride.
On the train to Marseille.

Once in Marseille we just had to get our bikes a few blocks over to a hotel — tricky riding in heavy traffic &mdash. The hotel kindly let us put our bikes into their seminar room for the night, and saved us the worry of leaving our bikes outside in a major city. We went walking through the Vieux Port at dusk.

Fort Saint-Jesn.
Cathédrale la Major from Parc Émile Duclaux.
Vieux Port de Marseille.
Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde.

The next morning we had a couple of hours before our train, so we walked up to the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde to take in the view of Marseille and the sea. It was a warm day and Marseille was gorgeous in the sun; it was with some regret that we headed to the train station, and our holiday came to a close as we hustled our bikes onto a TGV and sped back to Geneva.

Marseille.
Les Îles de Marseille.
September 18, 2017
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Toscana and Cinque Terre

Oh Italy! What a wonderful place. The trip to Florence from Lausanne is extremely easy – it involves a Swiss train to Milan, an espresso-length wait, and then an Italian FrecciaRossa high speed train to Florence. The change from Switzerland to Italy is obvious as soon as you step onto the cracked tiles of the train platform, but while things may be more worn, it’s through these gaps that life appears. In Florence the squares were filled with people drinking wine in the summer evening, and like a mountain peak between valleys the duomo appeared unexpectedly and close, looming over the ends of alleyways.

I had been to Florence once before, but it came as a shock to realise that it was 19 years ago that I was last there. An awful lot has changed in that time, but Florence looked similar to how I remembered. I was pleased to discover this time that it’s a city with a great street art scene.

Seen on a morning run.

In the evening we found our way to the giant Visarno Arena where Radiohead played a stellar concert. The show was incredible, and they played Let Down which I have long wanted to hear live and was just as great as expected. In town after the show the streets were still filled with people wandering, and trinket sellers in each square sent glowing fluoro-coloured spinners high into the sky.

Ponte Vecchio.
Ponte Santa Trinita.
Radiohead’s concert apparently affected the city traffic a bit.

The next day we moved from city to country, to an Agriturismo place a little further south. In Castellina in Chianti, not realising we were well into wine country, we asked for beer in a bar which was somewhat of a faux pas. Our misstep was quickly overshadowed by a pair of travellers who had parked their vespa illegally next to a t-shirt shop. That kind of carry on might be accepted in Rome but it was not going to be allowed in Castellina. The shop owner smoked a cigarette outside while pacing and staring daggers at the misplaced scooter, and made a very suggestive hand gesture when the perpetrators returned.

The agriturismo farm was lost at the end of a dirt road in idyllic Tuscan country side; from the farmhouse you could see across olive groves and fields to an Etruscan tower. Our hosts were wonderful and their dog Arturo (“Oh, Arturo!”, said with fond exasperation) spent his time laying on his side in the sun. At night we ate at one long table with all the guests, and were served simple, delicious, local food, with plenty of wine and a coffee to finish. And the table was visited by a huge stag beetle, which was a rare thrill.

We visited Siena the next day for a quick walk through the gorgeous old city and a peek at the sloped Piazza del Campo. We happened on a church, looked inside and found that they have the preserved thumb of a saint kept in a little glass box. The old city and the piazza were excellent but the thumb was just unsettling. We left Siena and drove to the sea.

Siena’s Piazza del Campo.
Siena rooftops.

Levanto is on the coast, south-east of Genova and just outside the Cinque Terre national park. We arrived and walked straight to the beach to swim in the salty sea. The next morning we took a train through tunnels and underground stations to Riomaggiore, at the far end of the national park, to walk the length of the Cinque Terre.

Levanto.
There were many oleander plants. For something poisonous I must admit they are pretty.

In Riomaggiore it was hot and there were thousands of people crammed into the little walk ways. The picturebook village spilled down to a little harbour in which boats were coming and going and a group of kids were daring each other to jump from a high rock. The normal walking route along the sea cliffs was closed, so instead our walk took us through the village and up a big hill that separates the first two of the five Cinque Terre towns.

Boats in Riomaggiore.
Riomaggiore harbour.
Piazza Vignaioli, Riomaggiore.
Castello di Riomaggiore, above the town.
Looking back at Riomaggiore.
The view out to sea, from the top of the hill.
First view down to the next village, Manarola.
Manarola.

The walk over to Manarola was steep and sweaty; once there we had the first of a few swims in the sea that day. Trying to get changed into swimmers amidst a throng of other tourists was awkward and harrassing, because I have not mastered the changing-under-a-towel technique. I felt like I was one mistimed gust of wind away from accidentally ruining some poor traveller’s holiday pictures. The relief of the cold water was worth the effort.

Looking back at Manarola.

After Manarola we continued walking along the hot hilltops, passing by the clifftop village of Corniglia and stopping for another swim in the swell in Vernezza.

Lemons in Corniglia.
Corniglia.
Citrus is a big thing in these parts.
Vernazza.

From Vernazza there was one last walk to get to Monterosso al Mare, the last of the five villages. In the middle here was a kind of cat refuge — signs noted that passers by should pat and feed the cats, and indeed there were two cats waiting for pats and food. I never quite worked out the full story, but the cats were friendly.

Cat photos.
Real cat.

Cinque Terre was beautiful and it was great to experience through a day’s hike in the summer heat. After our train back to Levanto we ate at a pizza shop that had lots of large trophies lining its benches; it turns out that there are world championships for pizza making. The day after our Italian adventure drew to a close as we headed back to Switzerland via a short stop in Orta San Guilio on Lago d’Orta. I’ll say it again — oh Italy, what a place!

Isola San Guilio.

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