Saturday, April 5, 2014

Zurich, Switzerland

This is my second time to visit Zurich. The first time I came to visit was in 1995.  I attended my first professional conference in Tampere, Finland and took trains down to the Italian Alps for a European Fieldweek. At that time, I had the opportunity to spend a couple days in Zurich which I found to be a beautiful and old city. I was also a poor graduate student at the time and ran out of money by the time I reached Zurich so that I had to call my parents and ask for enough funds for food and lodging to complete my trip to Italy (which may have been the only time in my life that I had to do that). It is nice to return to the city and not be quite so financially constrained. Even today though, I am traveling on a budget and was shocked when my first night dinner at a hotel restaurant came to 100 Swiss Francs (which is more than $100 USD). I actually found it hard to have a decent dinner for less than 50 Swiss Francs and even the grocery stores where expensive at about 4 Swiss Francs for a bagged salad of mixed greens that said it would serve 1-2 people.

I am still keeping the costs down during my travels so I booked a room at the City Backpacker Youth Hostel in the old city. It took me walking the town that night and the next morning before I realized that I had stayed in this same hostel during my visit in 1995 almost 20 years ago. They had apparently just opened then, but have been doing well ever since. It is located above a restaurant called the Spaghetti Factory and you have a nice path past the kitchens on the way upstairs to the hostel. It is very centrally located and cheap for 33 Swiss Francs for a shared room (with five other people).

I also tried a new housing experience for me which was renting a space through Airbnb ( As their tagline reads, you can stay in over 34,000 cities in 194 different countries.  I first heard about this online space rental plan from colleagues that rented spaces in Melbourne for the 2014 WorldDendro conference. You rent directly from the owner or tenant in the space (through an online booking and payment system) and can book anything from a couch through an entire place depending upon your budget and needs.  I rented a great place in a fancy part of Zurich for $77 USD a night when most hotels would cost about $200. With this space, I got use of a kitchen, large room with a nice bed, and (in this case) a projection system with a 2.5m screen where I could sort all of the pictures that I had taken over the past month. Marcus was a great host and actually fixed an internet connectivity issue that I was having on my two computers that ISU's IT department could not help with. I really liked staying in Airbnb spaces because you get to meet some of the locals and experience life in the city rather than a cleansed version that a hotel would present.

The city, as I mentioned above, is old and beautiful. I spent most of my time walking the winding streets in the old city and took some long walks at night and in the morning during sunrise to take pictures. After a month of the small town experience in Rafina, Greece, it was quite a change to come to one of the wealthiest cities in the world. It currently has 1.83 million people in the metropolitan area and has been continually inhabited for the past 2000 years. Its earliest inhabitants date from 6,400 year before present. It is situated on the Limmat River as it comes in to Zurich Lake which has provided a lot of resources for the inhabitants throughout history.

The Zurich Opera House was a beautiful place even at night. It was constructed in 1891 and has been the home to the Zurich Opera ever since.

I also visited the University of Zurich Botanical Gardens which was a short walk from my lodging in town. This was a beautiful place with three clear geodesic dome climate controlled houses, so that it is lush even in the winter.

The city has many old churches and ancient buildings that give it a wonderful character. Between the water and the skyline of the old church steeples, it was hard to take bad pictures in the city.

Even the doorways are amazing with heavy wooden doors and fancy carved stone casements. These doors definitely express the opulence of the city as well as the permanency of age that exudes from the city as a whole.

My host where I was staying in Zurich suggested that I take the train up Uetliberg Mountain just outside of Zurich to climb the tower and get the view of the city and the lake. This was an awesome view and I could just see the snow-capped peaks of the Alps along the southern horizon.

The public transportation is amazing and timely. I rode trains, trams, and buses all over the city as well as walking the half hour from my lodging to the old town. I will post more on the Swiss public transit system in a later post, but it was a great way to get around Zurich and even had swift trains to Bern and Innsbruck, Austria. 

Sculling seemed to be a popular sport in the town. When I went down to Zurich Lake to take photographs at sunrise, I saw at least six different sculling crafts on the water from single person to eight person crews.


University of Bern Dendrochronology Lab

The University of Bern Dendrochronology Lab ( is directed by Prof. Markus Stoffel and is very active with post-docs, visiting scientists, PhD, and Masters students. The lab is located in the Institute of Geological Sciences at the University of Bern. I had the opportunity to spend some time at the lab and have a three hour seminar with presentations by many of the lab members. This lab focuses on natural hazards research using tree rings (check out the recently published book Tree Rings and Natural Hazards edited by Markus and others which is available on They examine rock fall history and work with land managers to better understand the hazards of geomorphic events that could affect populated areas or roadways. According to their website, they examine a wide variety of geomorphic events such as debris flows, floods, rockfall, snow avalanches, landslides, erosion, and volcanic activity. They are also doing some very interesting work imaging scars inside whole trees using tomography and are also doing some climate response research.

Lab Personnel:
Prof. Markus Stoffel - Lab Director
Dr. Juan Antonio Ballesteros Canovas - Post Doc
Dr. Christophe Corona - Post Doc
Dr. Johannes Edvarsson - Post Doc
Dr. Virginia Ruíz Villanueva - Post Doc 
Dr. Yong Zhang - Visiting Scientist 
Sébastien Guillet - PhD student 
Clara Rodriguez - PhD student 
Romain Schläppy - PhD student 
Annina Sorg - PhD student 
Daniel Trappmann - PhD student 
Laurence Fazan - Master Student 
Elisa Salaorni - Master Student

As is the European Standard, they are using the LinTab measuring system (,english/) with the TSAP software (,english/index.html) for visual and statistical crossdating. They have four LinTab measuring systems that they keep fairly busy. They collect cores but much of their work is completed on cross sections of injured trees.

Finally, I would like to thank Juan and Dan who were great tour guides in showing me the wonderful town of Bern.

Bern, Switzerland


Bern is the federal capital of Switzerland. It is a very quiet city with just 137,919 people in the city and 600,000 including the whole metropolitan area. It is easily accessible by rail with just a one hour train ride from Zurich.

I only had a chance to spend three days in Bern, but I definitely felt connected to Bern and Switzerland as a whole. The row houses with walkable streets and shops below them felt very welcoming. The public transportation enables one to easily move around the city and country without much difficulty.

As a visitor, I found it to be very expensive.  I stopped for a light dinner and a drink which it cost 52 Swiss Francs (more than $60). It was a rather light dinner so that I found I was eating cheese and chocolate later in the day back at the apartment I was staying at. A couple people told me that the salaries compensate for this expensive cost of living and it definitely seems that the Swiss would benefit in world travel because almost every economy would be cheaper than what they are used to (and the level at which they are paid).

Juan Bellestrio and Daniel Trappman (Post doc and PhD student in the Dendro Lab) where great tour guides. My first evening (after stopping for a beer), they took me to the Swiss Federation building which is the national governmental offices, the famous clock tower in the city, Einstein’s house, and the Munster Church. They ended the evening by taking me to the Bear Pit which was a great restaurant on a hillside where some of the bear are that the city of Bern is named after (probably not the exact same bears). Later when I was looking at a guide for what to do in Bern, they systematically listed all of the places that they had taken me to, so I felt like I had a good starter course on sightseeing in Bern.

My first two days, I had the opportunity to tour the Dendro Lab and meet its members (see the next post on this lab and the people involved). I was even treated to about three hours of presentations and discussions about their research and I got to present some of my fire history in hardwood tree species work. Later on the second day (after a great lunch at a Turkish restaurant) I presented our pandora moth work at a geography seminary with 30-40 people in the audience.

Markus Stoffel (director of the Dendro Lab) suggested that I take the Gurtenbahn up the mountain for the views of the city and to climb the church tower. I spent my last day enjoying the sites from those dizzying heights and a tour of Einstein’s apartment and museum.  Gurtenbahn is a furnicular which is a set of two tram cars that balance each other. They used to be powered by loading the waste water on the uphill car, which would then bring that to the bottom of the hill while pulling the other car to the top of the hill. Although the day was a bit hazy with moisture in the atmosphere and some pollution, it was very peaceful to spend a few hours on top of this hill just on the margin of the city. There is a high concentration of song birds that make the mountain their home and six falcons that were taking advantage of the thermals. You can go to the website for Gurtenbahn and they have a virtual reality 3D tour of the hill top that has the sound of song birds chirping away. Their chirping song was an almost continuous companion during my visit. Sadly, the day was too hazy to see the peaks of the Bernese Alps in the distance, but this location offered great views of the city and surrounding suburbs. They had a tower on one end of the hill with a spiral stair case to reach the top. This was a great perch to see in all directions and to spend some time watching the falcons swirl through the air and occasionally screech to each other.

I spent some time at Einstein’s Kaffe and touring his apartment at Kramgasse 49 where he stayed from 1903-1905 as a patent clerk. In 1905 is when he worked on his papers on the light quantum hypothesis (for which he received the Nobel Prize), Brownian Motion, and the Special Theory of Relativity. This apartment building has been converted to a museum with preservation of the space and artifacts from his life and time in Bern.

I really liked the cellar doors that led to shops below the main street level.  Much of the old street was lined with these shop entrances and charismatic doors.

The Bern Münster Church was one of the highlights in Bern. Construction started on this building in 1421 and was not completed until 1893. They were doing some restoration on the building while I was there.  The tower is 330 feet tall (which is just short of the tallest tree in the world which is a coast redwood in California that is 379 feet tall) and had an outer spiral staircase that you could climb to a top terrace for a view over the city. This was a very nice view although I felt a bit precarious in a tight stone enclosed spiral staircase that was attached to the outside of the building.

Another of the main tourist attractions in the city was the large clock tower (or Zytglogge meaning time bell) in the center of the city. The tower was first built in AD 1218-1220 and a clock, bell, and astronomical clock where added in AD 1405. The tower and clocks have been renovated many times in the past 800 years, but remains as a center point for the city of Bern.