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.
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

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.
October 1, 2017

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.
Citrus is a big thing in these parts.

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.

Stockholm for Radiohead

Earlier this month I was very lucky to be able to go to Stockholm for just a couple of days, and while there to see Radiohead play a concert. The concert was at the Ericsson Globe, which turns out to be the world’s largest spherical building. You see it from miles off and it’s further away than it looks. The show was just fantastic; Radiohead were flawless and although my seat was off to the side of the stage and precipitously high in the arena, the sound was excellent and I could see pretty well. Here are some photos from Stockholm, and also of some stellar alpine sunset views from landing in Geneva on the return flight.

Arriving in Stockholm.
The Ericsson Dome.
After the show.
Stockholm’s ubiquitous stone lions.
Gamla Stan.
Approaching the Alps.
Lac Léman (Vevey and Montreux), and looking into Valais.
Mont Blanc out the plane window.
Dents du Midi, Grand Combin, and Mont Blanc at sunset.
June 24, 2017

Prealpine walks in Spring

This spring and early summer, Tanya and I headed to the Prealps to get some walking in while the snow melted up high. We first headed to Les Avants, famous for its narcisses flowers. From there we walked up a well-worn path to Sonloup, then up past the Goille aux Cerfs and across crests and valleys. A short steep climb got us to the Col de Lys, next to the similarly named Dent, from where we had wonderful views across a lot of the Alps. We headed down the other side of the Col to eventually end up at Les Sciernes d’Albeuve, where we cooled down in the shade before catching the train back to Montreux. Along the way we saw narcisses flowers, marmots, and a solitary ungulate (it was in the distance and we couldn’t quite decide whether it was a bouquetin or chamois, but it definitely had hooves).

Tanya pointing out Lac Léman.
Just above Sonloup.
View northwards from near the Col de Lys.
Narcisses and melting snow.

Another weekend we went walking near Les Plans sur Bex in the Alpes Vaudoises. The weather forecast was for storms in the late afternoon so it was with some trepidation that we set out from Le Pont de Nant. It was a hot day and we sweated our way up to La Vare and the valley behind the giant Argentine.

Tanya is quite the strider.
La Vare.
Tanya at the Col des Essets.

After a while we got to the Col des Essets (2029 m), where snow drifts were still hanging around. From here we could see clear across to Les Diablerets, which was rapidly being covered by cumulus clouds. We had a quick lunch then made a fast retreat back to the Pont de Nant, as the storms grew and rumbled in the distance.

Looking back from the Col des Essets.
Les Diablerets (3210 m).
La Vare again.
Almost down and still no storms too close.
Tanya feeling height limited at the Mobility Car station.

The last of our spring walks was in the Prealpes Fribourgoises, when we walked from Les Baudes, past the Cabane de Bounavaux, and up to the Col de Bounavalette (1996 m). It was a short walk but one that was exceptionally rich in both wildlife and precipitation. We saw two baby foxes, a giant snail, some salamanders, and a whole herd of chamoix. And it rained for the second half of the walk.

Bouquetin statue at the Cabane de Bounavaux.
More Narcisses, this time in the rain.
This waterfall was really quite big.

Biking around Lavaux

Tanya and I have been making a habit of riding from Lausanne to Vevey through the hilly paths of Lavaux. The roads are mostly car-free and weave steeply through the vineyards. The ride is roughly 20 km, with stunning views all the way. Here are some photos from this spring and early summer: some are from these rides, and some are from the shore of the lovely Lac Léman.

The classic Lavaux view that never gets old.
Sunset at Lutry.
View from a favourite bar, Jetée, on the lakeside.
Lutry Plage view.
June 11, 2017

Spring skiing in Zermatt

On a clear day above Zermatt, like we had last Sunday, it is impossible to argue with the Matterhorn’s status as the iconic mountain. It’s very impressive. Just look at this thing!

On Sunday, although it was sunny on the Swiss side, on the Italian side the valley filled up with cloud that swirled and rolled over the col next to the mountain. I made a little timelapse to show the cloud movement and the Matterhorn’s nice plume.

Cloud on the Italian side of the Matterhorn.

It’s already May, but there has recently been quite a lot of snow falling high in the hills, so the skiing conditions were excellent.

Cervin (top), Tanya (bottom).

This is Pete’s Matterhorn Manual:

The conditions changed substantially overnight, and it snowed all of the next day. This meant that we had loads of incredible fresh powder to ski, but also that it was almost whiteout conditions. The snowboarders borrowed poles to get across some flat sections in the fresh snow.

Georgie and Pete enjoying the powder.

The Matterhorn’s status is strong and it remained just as iconic even when we couldn’t see it. Cheers, Zermatt!

May 7, 2017

The Alps from the air

Last week I was in Vienna for the excellent European Geosciences Union conference. I had a great time; it was scientifically inspiring and there were schnitzels. I flew from Geneva and was lucky to get amazing weather for both the way there and back, which meant the views over the Alps were extraordinary. I spent the flight glued to the window, trying to name the peaks I could see passing below. Quite soon we left the region that I know, and there were just mountains upon mountains stretching into the distance. There are a lot of alps in the Alps! Here are some photos from the plane window.

In a Fokker 100 you can be uncomfortably close to the engine.
Taking off from Geneva. Mont Blanc and the French shores of Lac Léman.
Lac Léman and Valais, Grand Combin and Mont Blanc.
The Matterhorn in the distance.
North face of the Eiger with Mönch and Jungfrau.
So many more mountains!
On the way home — Lausanne, Lac Léman, Grand Combin and Mont Blanc.
May 3, 2017

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