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Friday, 7 March 2008

Europe trip 2008 - Luzern to Campocologno

18th Feb.
Reluctantly, we departed the Luzern Lido Campsite (http://www.camping-international.ch/). In crisp sunshine we headed for Kussnacht and stocked up with autogas, then groceries in the huge COOP at Seewen (Prices seem broadly in line with those in the UK).
Soon back on our favourite spot by the frozen Lake Sihl.

19th Feb.
Minus 6ºC during the night, but the sky was clear again, despite our weather gizmo forecasting snow.
Drove the scenic route around the top of Lake Sihl, then up to a small ski area at Sattelegg. Some skiing going on, but only just. A pretty mountain road nonetheless.
Along Route 3 the view of Lake Walen was spectacular. Then we climbed the steep hairpins up to Flumserberg, the resort village for Flums. The midday temperature was 10 degrees and there was very little snow left on the ground, without the snow canon the run down to the gondola base would have been mud. We did however find a parkplatz for motorhomes (CHF 10 per night, pay at the Bergheim restaurant).

After lunch we moved on to Bad Ragaz, an attractive spar town and base for the Pizol ski area. Unfortunately, the aire de service attached to their wooded campsite is no more, so we moved on to Chur, a decision we later regretted as the campsite here (http://www.camping-chur.ch/) is now hidden behind a huge industrial estate and filled with static homes. A soggy, viewless pitch, up against the wash block, not our idea of camping heaven.
The plan was to use the Rhatische Bahn, or narrow gauge Rhaetian Railway, to climb the 1000m to Arosa the following morning.

20th Feb.
We awoke to the sound of rifle and machine gun fire, I kid you not! It was the Swiss Army, practising down the valley. I suppose in a small and mountainous country like Switzerland they don't have the luxury of disappearing to a remote moor for war games, but it's still disconcerting to hear gunfire within the boundaries of a major city.
Another clear, bright day so we donned our hiking boots and got the bus to the Bahnhof. The return train fare to Arosa is CHF 27.60, the journey taking around an hour. It reminded me of the Festiniog railway, with the red carriages and the tortured screeching of wheel against rail on the tight bends. There the similarities end however, the ride is silky smooth and the power take up from the electric drive effortless. It was a beautiful journey, some of it through deep snow. The highlight was the famous 100m Langwieser viaduct, a pioneering concrete construction in 1914 and still going strong.

Arosa (http://www.schneesicher.ch/) is a top level resort, both in altitude and style. Horse drawn sleighs await you as you step off the train (at a fixed price) and in the town you can buy expensive watches at the most expensive prices. On the slopes there are beautifully constructed snow jumps and halfpipes for the boarders. Not sure we would stay for Gay Ski Week though.
The ski station is a short walk from the train, but the one way trip from the campsite took us nearly 2 hours, a big slice out of your day's skiing. Instead we took the gondola up to the Mittelstation and walked the Wanderweg to Pratschli, a free bus bringing us back to Arosa. Again, contrary to our guidebooks, the campsite in Arosa is open in the winter, so that is an option.

21st Feb.
Moved on to Lenzerheide, (http://www.lenzerheide.com/) a couple of hundred metres lower than Arosa and spread out on two sides of the valley. Early on we saw a notice banning parking of motorhomes and caravans. All the major car parks are metered, though we did spy a couple of free parks near lifts later, if you are really determined to ski from your door.
We elected to stay at the higher of the two campsites, "Gravas" (http://www.campingtcs.ch/) which has direct access to the Crestas T-bar lift and is only 3 minutes walk from the centre of town.
22nd Feb. Lenzerheide.
The overnight temperature barely got below zero and the spring conditions continued - the birds were chorusing and Sue saw a black squirrel.

Our enthusiasm for skiing when the conditions are less than perfect has diminished, so we picked a pink Winterwanderweg route off the guide supplied by the tourist office. If you haven't a need for speed and adrenaline you can enjoy the mountains in a more intimate manner this way and get just as good exercise, very cheaply, without the hassle of lugging skis around.
Our hike would take us past two ski runs and we could see what conditions were really like. As we climbed we discovered that the walking pistes and turned to sheet ice, but they had been covered with wood chips, which give a far more effective grip than grit. Near the top there was little snow cover off the actual pistes. Very few people were about and the bar owner in the little hamlet of Sporz looked despondent as she closed up.
We glimpsed some deer picking at the exposed brown grass and some more squirrels – they really do look black against the snow, but perhaps very dark grey, not at all like the UK variety.

23rd Feb.
A pleasant mountain drive, through the narrow streets of Schmitten, then the 2.2 km Landwasser tunnel, up to Glaris, on the outskirts of Davos (http://www.davosklosters.ch/) Here there is an aire attached to a lodge/restaurant, that we spotted 3 years back. It has now expanded into a campsite with 76 pitches and its key merit is that it is opposite the gondola for the Rinerhorn mountain, plus a train station and bus stop. Its prices have expanded too (CHF 40.50 per night with electricity), but also included are Guest Cards giving unlimited bus and train travel and numerous other discounts. Thus you can ski all the Davos and Klosters mountains by taking the Rhatische Bahn or bus for no extra cost. (rinerlodge@davosklosters.ch). We were the only Brits on site again, most of the vans being Swiss or German, with a sprinkling of Dutch.

24th Feb. Davos.
Another brilliant sunny day and the snow was looking irresistible, so we got the ski kit out. The bruises on Sue's leg were still looking pretty bad, in fact I was surprised to see her get her boots on.
The snow however was disappointing, below the gondola station it was wet and heavy, worn through in places. To get to the top of the mountain there are only T-bars and after one session of that we had had enough.
We abandoned the pistes after lunch, put our hiking boots on and got the gondola back up for the Wanderweg. It's a long route down and it was nearly dark when we returned to the van, but very enjoyable, you just see more of the mountain this way. Boring Old Farts? Probably.

25th Feb. Davos.
Chill out day. Took the Rhatische Bahn into Klosters to see what royalty thinks is cool. Very quiet, no sign of Harry.
The station at Rinerhorn is a request stop and there is a box outside the waiting room with a button to press. On the box is a lovely picture telling you how not to do it!

26th Feb.
Another day, another resort. Savognin (http://www.savognin.ch/) This one has a lot going for it - a pretty alpine village, a modern ski base, 80km of runs and all chair lifts to the top. Plus a campsite with brand new facilities and a huge free car park with designated spaces for Wohnmobiles (including ours). If it had had some snow it would have been even better.
An unusual feature of this vast car park is that in the summer they flood it from the adjacent river and turn it into a boating lake. That explains why according to the GPS we had just parked in a pond - obvious really!

27th Feb.
Onto Bivio. This resort has only 3 three lifts, but does have the advantage of altitude: 1800m base, then the top lift up to 2650m. Its main claim to fame is the 18 dedicated ski touring routes (for those who like to walk up their mountains on skis before sliding down again).
There is a large car park opposite the main lift where you can park for CHF 15 a night, plus electricity for another 5 francs and the ubiquitous garbage tax of CHF 2.2 per person giving a grand total of CHF 24.4. Still, it was good value for a slope-side pitch. There is a French style aire de service unit but it's almost impossible to get the van near it, okay to dump the loo though.
The village, 20 minutes walk away, has a few hotels, bars and restaurants, but was very quiet.

28th Feb.
Our main gas bottle ran in the morning so our Swiss sojourn had to draw to a close.
Just over the Julier Pass from Bivio is St Moritz,(http://www.engadin.stmoritz.ch/) home of the Cresta Run and Polo on Ice.

With its huge frozen lake and elegant buildings alongside, you can see what the attraction used to be, but the sprawl of ugly modern apartment blocks and shopping centres have diluted St Moritz's charm. Regular road signs banning campervans from the car parks added to our sense of welcome. If you must stay in St Moritz there is a winter campsite alongside Route 29 towards Pontresina, but be sure to wear your white mink coat and Dior sunglasses when you catch the bus into town!
In the other direction, Route 29 gives you magnificent views of the Bernina Glacier, and the Bernina Express railtrack alongside.

There are two more big drive in and ski stations before you get to the pass, Diavolezza and Lagalb, with huge car parks that could accommodate a van or two, but be prepared for the altitude - over 2000m at base. The plus side is snow, heaps of it, off piste skiing obviously still in full swing.
The run up to the Bernina Pass itself was breathtaking stuff, all done in blinding sunshine. After the descent into Brusio the van brakes had gone a bit soggy but were OK after cooling off.
The Swiss Customs had a little surprise for us. According to the (charming) customs officer at Campocologno, because our 'van was registered at over 3500kg we should have filled in a “Deklaration fur die pauschale Schwerverkehrsabgabe” or Heavy vehicle surcharge payment form, and paid a large number of Swiss francs to the customs officer in Basle when we entered the country. As we hadn't, he was going to charge us a large number of Swiss francs to leave the country. But, we explained, the (grumpy) customs officer in Basle had said that if we didn't use the motorways we didn't need to fill in a form or pay a large number of Swiss francs.

The outcome of our negotiations was that the (charming) officer said that the (grumpy) officer was wrong, but because he was wrong and we were charming (possibly), he would let us off.
We had done our homework before we left and our understanding was that for vehicles under 3500kg, a vignette or sticker had to be paid for and displayed if you used any motorways. If the vehicle was over 3500kg a surcharge was payable instead - based on the type of vehicle and length of stay. BUT, if you didn’t use the motorways, i.e. stayed off roads with green signs – no problem. We still have to get a definitive answer for this one.

Our verdict on central and SE Switzerland?
Some attractive areas are blighted by ugly industrial developments, some towns by large, out of context buildings - but then you can say that about every country we visit. The larger valleys and industrial areas certainly have a smog problem, which is creeping into the alpine areas, but it does vary day to day. There was an almost complete absence of grafitti and litter wherever we went. Compared with some other European countries the overall impression is still of orderliness.

We always felt safe. In Luzern we passed women walking alone at night lakeside, even a guy wheeling himself in a wheelchair. We slept in several quiet car parks overnight and were never disturbed by individuals. The Police are around but take a very low profile, I don’t remember many light flashing, siren wailing, police cars.

The Rhaetian Railway trains are a joy to travel in, warm and spotless right down to the multilingual ticket collectors. The buses and trams are equally clean and mostly modern. The country roads aren’t despoiled by warning signs and road markings like they are in England. It was striking to see workmen making repairs, or felling trees by the side of the road, with only a truck and the tools they needed - the closed lanes, hundreds of cones and parked trucks with mega flashing lights, that the UK seems to require for a spot of hedge trimming, were notably absent.

The people we came into contact with were friendly and considerate, some extremely so. With the exception of some in the skiing areas, drivers were tolerant of a slow moving, hesitant, UK registered motorhome. Many of the young people have fluent English, and many have French if you don’t speak German.

Switzerland does not cater for motorhomes like France, Germany and Italy, but awareness is increasing. The smaller campsites are cheaper than the UK. The most expensive was Glaris Rinerlodge at CHF 40.50, but it was great value if you took advantage of the free travel card. The cheapest was Goldau at CHF 18.30. The lido campsite in Luzern was great, laid back, with top class facilities and the best WiFi access we’ve come across.
Autogas is thinly available in Alpine Switzerland – check out http://www.autogas-suisse.ch/ . The supermarket food prices were comparable to the UK, as were eating out prices – even in Davos and Klosters.

Would we go again? Definitely – go visit!

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