We spent one full day in Switzerland and would have liked to have spent more but the budget could not support it.
While in Sallanches, France, a friend from my Masters program at York University – who now works in Geneva – made a long trek through the mountains to come visit. We spent a lovely few hours catching up on many years gone by, and he provided some excellent advice as to where we should next head (thanks Mark!). We knew we were going to Italy, but instead of getting there via the tunnel under Mont Blanc (thinking it would be both expensive and that the scenery in the 11.6 kilometre long tunnel would likely be a bit dismal), we instead headed north out of Chamonix, over the Col de Montets into Switzerland and down into the region known as Valais. Blessed with a unique microclimate which receives lots of sun, this Swiss region is known for its grape and fruit production. Among all the countries in Europe, perhaps none other utilizes its land mass quite as intensively. As we dropped down into the valley, practically every inch of land was used to grow grapes and the terraces for doing so were incredibly steep.
Although this region is also known for its thermal springs, we unfortunately didn’t get a chance to check them out. What we did do, however, is poke around the charming little town of Sion – which Mark had recommended highly. Among its many historic buildings is the Valere Basilica which boasts one of the oldest playable organs in the world dating back to 1435. During our explorations, we also hiked up to the Chateau Tourbillon, an old castle which was built by the Bishop of Sion between 1290 and 1308. It provides a great vantage point to survey the valley.
From Sion, we headed east and climbed up and over yet another mountain pass (Simplon). By this time, the weather started to turn ugly. And so, in the fog and rain, we dropped down into northern Italy and holed up for the night at a somewhat dreary small town – Domodossola – where the kids were thrilled to have their first taste of Italian cuisine. Appropriately enough, it was pizza for all.
With one day remaining before we had to return the car in Milan, we headed for Verbania on Lake Maggiore in the lake district. While this area is known for its beautiful natural scenery, we didn’t see much of it as the weather was completely socked in. Nevertheless, Chris and I headed out for an afternoon walk and were struck by the fact that while there were enormous palazzos and summer homes, most of them were in very poor states of repair. The town and region has clearly seen better days.
On our way to Milan, we took the scenic route and headed over to one of the smaller lakes in the region – Lago de Orta – which was just beautiful. In the middle of the lake is a small island – Isola San Giulio – which (we were told) is often referred to as the Island of Silence due to the fact that there is a convent there in which sisters live in absolute silence. We learned later that the sisters work in conjunction with the arts community in Florence to repair priceless tapestries.
From here, we headed into Milan to reluctantly hand over the keys to our car, which we had dubbed “DJ VA” from the license plate. She’d taken us from Paris on a loop around France, up and over the Alps several times, and now down into Italy. Time to shift to trains and buses!