Dear fellow travellers
May Day may still be more than a fortnight away, but Zürich takes time out today for an early spring festival. Rain looks set to put a dampener on this year's Sechseläutern. This is a peculiarly Swiss occasion. The name refers to the "six o'clock bells" and marks the time of year when, with the evenings slowly lengthening, it becomes possible still to enjoy some daylight after finishing work. For many Europeans, it is the changing of clocks on the last weekend in March that symbolically marks the end of winter evenings, but in Zürich it is very definitely Sechseläutern that augurs the change to spring evenings.
Highlight of the event is the burning of the Böögg, an effigy of a snowman that represents the evil spirit of winter. This homely little event takes place on the third Monday in April in the city centre and as the flames lick round the head of the Böögg, the bells of St Peter's Church peal to announce the end of winter.
The Italia expedition anniversary
Eighty years ago today there was all manner of frantic activity in Milan as Umberto Nobile and his crew prepared the Italia airship for its long flight to the North Pole. Two weeks earlier, the twenty crew members had visited the Vatican where the Pope blessed the venture. Now, on the fourteenth of April 1928, a Saturday, the final preparations for departure were underway, with the Italia being loaded with supplies and crew members making their final farewells.
In the small hours of Sunday morning, Nobile's team set out from Milan on the first leg of the long journey north. Heading northeast, the Italia was buffeted by its first storm, but undaunted Nobile's team pressed on to cross the Alps at dawn. Throughout the Sunday they chugged north, eventually reaching their first port-of-call, the town of Stolp on the Baltic coast (nowadays Slupsk in Poland), at breakfast time on the Monday. This mid-April flight of the Italia was the start of a journey that had epic, heroic and tragic elements.
The Italia and its crew spent more than two weeks in Stolp preparing the craft for the Arctic journey ahead. Already on the thirty-hour flight up from Milan they had realised that the Italia would benefit from a number of alterations.
You can read more about the Italia expedition in an article in the May 2008 issue of hidden europe. And throughout the coming months, we shall record on our website, eighty years to the day, the various stages of the Italia's journey - its passage over Stockholm, en route landing in Spitsbergen, a long diversion east over the Arctic, reaching the North Pole, and the craft's crash landing on the polar pack ice. Rescue efforts cost the lives of many volunteers, including that of the pioneer polar explorer Roald Amundsen. Just visit www.hiddeneurope.co.uk and follow "polar quest: Nobile" to read about the Italia journey.