In early June, we spent a day in a suburb of Turin, Italy meeting with colleagues from the University of Turin, giving a seminar (E.), eating real pizza, and experiencing an ice-cream induced moment of pure nirvana (...immediately followed by a sugar coma). The next day, we turned northwards to join colleagues from the University of Padua as they converged with 80 students on the site of an unusually large ~2002 wildfire north of Turin in the Aosta Valley.
After a grueling hike, a tremendously knowledgeable Forest Service fire expert (foreground; colleague EL in background) explained the natural disturbance regime, what happened that day and why the fire got so out of control, and the subsequent management that was dictated by pure politics (like cutting down the dead trees just so they'd look like they were doing something). At least I think that's what he said, since he spoke in Italian. E. claims to have been able to follow him, whereas I recognized about 12 words.
Nonetheless, among the more interesting tidbits was the regional economic development plan, which included things like cutting canals across the slope to enable locals to fight future fires--and to irrigate their pastures, all of which have been seeded with a non-native 'alpine flower mixture' that the cows love.
After a nice long evening chat with more colleagues (and more pizza), we departed the next morning to cross the Alps into Switzerland over the 8100' Great St. Bernard Pass. Although every stretch had guardrails on the Italian side, there was virtually no protection on the way down on the Swiss side. Perhaps they figure it should not be necessary on a route that has been used since the Bronze Age.
After skirting around Lake Geneva and cursing our way through Lausanne, we strolled around the 1000-year-old old-town of Cossonay.
Although we had visited the abbey at Romainmotier back in 2012, since it was en route we paused this time to take in the medieval village surrounding it.
Not far away is the Dent de Vaulion, a 4900' peak in the Jura mountains that provides a unique view (well, on a clear day) of Swiss (the dark blobs below the clouds) and French alps as well as no fewer than 8 lakes.
The clouds only added to our appreciation of the medieval core of the small town of Vallorbe, which was struck by the plague no fewer than 9 times.
After getting caught in the rush-hour flow of French streaming back into their homeland after a day of gleaning Swiss Francs, we encountered Chateau de Joux commanding the pass. Remodeled and expanded many times since it's 12th century origins, the castle/fort remained strategically important right through WWI.
A bit further north the next day we came across the source of the Loue River, which suddenly springs out of the karst formations of the Jura mountains. The site has long been an important source of hydroelectric energy.
From there we drove further northward through the limestone mountains eroded by the Loue,
to reach the village of Mouthier-Haute-Pierre, which takes its name from a 9th century monastery. Like so many ancient towns, it was destroyed by fire (in the early 18th century) and rebuilt of sturdier material.
Further downriver is the village of Lods, which thrived growing grapes until the exotic (North American) Phylloxera aphid epidemic wiped it out (along with most of the rest of Europe's vineyards) in the late 1800s.
Continuing north along the river brought us to a 17th century stone bridge across the Loue in the small town of Ornans, with views of the old houses built on stilts along the river's edge.
Just a tad further north is the city of Besançon, which was settled during the Bronze Age within an oxbow of the Doubs River that is bordered by a hill. The Citadel atop that hill was built around 1700 by the Spanish and French on a typical star-shaped Vauban design. It is now a family-friendly museum packed with small children on the weekends.
From there we hightailed it north and east back toward Freiburg im Breisgau, pausing on the French side of the Rhine to look across vineyards and over villages toward the Black Forest.
Having recharged with champagne, good company, and plenty of croissants, the final push began the next day back in France with a pass through Alsace. Established as a center of viticulture by the Romans, the region has been alternately dominated by German and French influences throughout its history, retaining a Germanic language until after WWII despite being part of France for most of the time since the 17th century. Towns such as Itterswiller draw tourists to their immaculately maintained, brightly colored houses draped in Geranium baskets.
The core of Andlau, an old abbey and pilgrimage town, features half-timbered homes. The local forest ranger is credited with having killed one of the last bears in the Vosges Mountains in 1695.
Plopped on a hillside surrounded by vineyards, nearby Mittelbergheim stands out precisely because the houses do not; they have been left the original (smud) color of the local limestone stucco.
The central core of the small town of Barr, in the wine-flanked foothills of the Vosges, is filled with 18th century half-timbered houses, and a patisserie that produces a wonderful marzipan-laced raisin coffee cake.
Our final stop of the journey was 2500' up in the Vosges Mountains on Mont Saint Odile, which overlooks Alsace (and was overlooked that election day by 4 policemen carrying assault rifles).
Once the site of a 7th century convent, the current abbey dates to 17th and 19th centuries and once again includes gilded mosaics that sparkle even in the dimly lit chapel interiors.