Monday, 18 October 2010

Switzerland ! Yodel-ay-hee-ho!

Lake Geneva
No, I wasn't yodelling as I flew into Geneva for my first ever Swiss visit on 21 March 2006. We arrived at night and I’d already briefed myself on the location of the train station, right next to the airport terminal. In fact it didn’t look like a railway station at all, with its glass façade resembling more an office block. But I went inside and then down an escalator to the ticket hall which was deserted. Where was everyone? I spotted a row of ticket counters to the right, but none seemed to be open. No ticket machines, either. What was going on? Were they on strike? No, this was Switzerland not France, so it couldn‘t be that. Then I spotted a sign for trains to Geneva, and followed it, down another escalator to a platform where a train was waiting on the track. But the sign on the platform said Bern, or Zurich, but NOT Geneva. Luckily there was a conductor waiting by the train, so I asked him if the train was going to Geneva. He told me it was and that it was about to leave and that I should get aboard. But I didn’t have a ticket. “J’ai pas encore acheté un billet“, I told him. He told me to walk down the platform to the second class carriages and get aboard. So I did, and travelled gratis into the city of Geneva in possibly the nicest train that I’ve ever been on in my life
It really was a super train - comfortable, stylish, and most of all, empty. Well, almost empty. I remember just two other people in the carriage - a young woman working on a laptop, and someone else. I settled into a cosy facing seat, stretched my legs, and lay back to enjoy the seven or eight minutes journey. Through the window I watched the suburbs slip past in the dark, in a kind of serenity and peace. I felt comfortable and fully relaxed, and was rather disappointed when the brief journey ended. But I also wondered if I would have to explain at the barrier why I did not have a ticket. But there was no barrier, and I was soon walking out of the station.

If you go down an escalator to the platform at the train station at Geneva airport, you go up an escalator (or stairs, I no longer remember) to the platform at the station in Geneva itself. Therefore, it was down an escalator (for example) to find the exit, and then onto the street. And it was there that I had one of the most serene experiences of my life, which was composed of many factors: the night; the silence of the street, with very little traffic, despite it also being a bus and tram terminal; but most of all, that irresistible feeling you get when arriving in a new place, a place where nobody knows you and in which you know nobody. All these things seemed to come together when I stepped into the street, and the feeling was so calming that I lingered there for several minutes before heading off to my hotel.

I’ve stayed in some crummy hotels…. I may have mentioned it before, but it’s one of those things that I never weary of repeating…. but this hotel one was a gem! I liked the room so much that I even took a photograph of it.

The next morning I got out of bed around six and looked out of the window. In the distance, to the left, I could see the Alps with their snow-topped peaks. It was exhilarating, but too early to get up proper, so I went back to bed for another hour or two. The next time I look out of the window a hazy mist had descended, obscuring the mountains. It was a mist that was to remain for the most of the day.

Geneva is a city of some 1.24 million residents in the greater metropolitan area, and is Switzerland’s most populous city after Zurich. It stands where the Rhone meets Lake Geneva, and is the capital of the Republic and Canton of Geneva. It is one of Europe’s most important financial centres, as well as the headquarters of the Red Cross and many agencies of the United Nations. The flag of the canton of Geneva is divided vertically into two parts: ‘yellow (hoist) and red (fly). In the hoist a black double-eagle with a red crown, beak, tongue, legs and claws, cut in half by the palar line. In the fly, a yellow upright key with its ward towards the fly’. The eagle is the symbol of justice and the key the symbol of ecclesiastical rule and responsibility. The flag is also two shields impaled: one half the Holy Roman Empire, the other one of the keys of the St. Peter’s, viz. “the keys to heaven”. It’s also pretty cool.

I made my way down a road (probably the Rue du Mont Blanc) towards the lake, expecting at any time to see Geneva’s most famous landmark, le jet d’eau, the highest fountain in the world. It is out on the lake, a magnificent spectacle and, because of its size, pretty damn difficult to miss. But I arrived at the lakeside, and no sign of it. Where was it? It’s true that there was mist over the lake, enough to almost completely shroud the mountains on the far side, the Left Bank, but even so…. It just wasn’t on. (I mean it just wasn’t on that I couldn’t see the fountain, not that the fountain wasn’t on, although, as I soon found it, it indeed wasn’t on, which just wasn’t on….I know what I mean.) I took a few photographs and then crossed over the truly spectacularly unremarkable Pont du Mont Blanc bridge, about which the only things of interest were the flags of Switzerland, Geneva and the United Nations fluttering on either side. And I swear there was a spring in my step, for I was on a mission - to track down Geneva’s amazing disappearing fountain!

Pont du Mont Blanc

On the other side of the bridge is the English Garden, which in my frenzy I completely missed. I turned left and headed along the Left Bank (this would be the Quai Gustav Ador) towards where my map (I’d bought a map on my way from the hotel - did I mention it? - one of three that I was to amass during the day) located the fountain. But as I closed in on the spot, there was still no sign of it. I finally arrived at jetty going out into the lake, the Jetée des Eaux Vives, with a beacon at the end. My map informed me that the fountain was near the end of the jetty. So I walked out along the jetty, past some gentlemen fishing in the lake, but still no sign of the fountain. If my calculations were correct, and they couldn’t be otherwise, it should have been right in front of me. I looked all around. I felt disappointed and on the point of despair. And then I saw it, or rather saw the spouts from the which the water should be spouting. But of the water not a drop. Someone had forgotten to turn it on. Or maybe there was a problem with the plumbing. Whatever, I had solved the mystery, and it was time to do some exploring. So I took a few photographs of a swan, in order to prove that it was impossible for me not to, and then turned my back on the lake.

All European cities have a historic old town and Geneva is no exception, and it was there that I now headed. But, as always in my travels, I had done very little homework, and so my tramping around the historic streets was random and haphazard. This is the way it is when you have the curiosity of a water vole. But I took some photographs of statues that I came across. One of a gentleman with a lowered countenance, his hands behind his back; another of a certain Pictet de Rochemont, 1755-1824. Charles Pictet de Rochemont was the man who prepared the declaration of Swiss neutrality which was ratified by the Great Powers in 1815. He is therefore an important Charlie in Switzerland’s history.

I finally arrived at what I now know to be the Place Neuve with its magnificent grand théâtre. Just opposite there is a park with giant chess pieces. Then it was downhill all the way to the Rhone, and another statue that I liked so much that I photographed it twice. It is located on the Quai Turrettini, and is called Aigle de Genève, Eagle of Geneva. There is an almost identical statue, which I did not see, which stands at the opposite end of the quay, this one depicting a woman and an eagle. They were erected in 1939 and are the work of Frederic Schmied (1893-1972). They are said to symbolise modern man and modern woman as seen through the eyes of totalitarian regimes in Europe. The eagle too is symbolic of something, though of what I cannot say.

I made my way down the quay and as I approached the lake I saw the jet d’eau for the first time. They’d turned it on! I took a photograph (naturally!) and then headed off to look for a pizza. I had one, the biggest one I’ve ever had, in the Dolce Vita restaurant next to the Hotel Bernina opposite the railway station. It was also the saltiest pizza that I’ve ever had. Then it was back to the lake.

By now the sun had broken up the haze and the afternoon was pleasantly warm for the time of year. I sat on a bench near the lake, where I witnessed a strange oriental ritual. I don’t know which country they were from - Japan? China? Korea? - but they were three components, a man, his wife, and their teenage son. They stopped near where I sat, and the man took a photograph of his wife and son against the backdrop of the lake. He then gave his camera to his wife, who photographed her husband and her son in exactly the same place. Then he gave the camera to their son, who in turn photographed his mother and father, always in precisely the same place. The family then walked just a few yards up the lake, where they repeated the ritual all over again, the husband photographing his wife and son, then the wife photographing her husband and son, and finally the son photographing his mother and father. A strange ritual indeed.

I basked in the March sunshine a while longer and then got up, shouldered my shoulder bag on my shoulder, and headed off towards the station. My 24 hour Swiss séjour was drawing ineluctably to an end. I stopped off in a post office to buy a postcard and a stamp, picked up my second map of Geneva, this one free, and reached the train station. I wrote my message on the postcard and then set about trying t find a post box. Certain that there would be one in the station, I looked high and low, until finally, with the help of an attractive woman who forsook (it’s the only word) her tiny shop to help me look, finally found one. Then I looked for a ticket machine for a train to the airport, couldn’t find one, couldn’t be bothered to wait in a long queue to buy a ticket, so decided to take the bus to the airport. Mistake! The uncomfortable and crowded bus took a full half hour to get there.

Geneva Airport is self check-in, so I self-checked in, picked up my last map, and waited on the hard metal seats for the flight to be called. Soon after I was on my way back. My brief séjour (I don’t mind using the same word twice) was over. But I vowed to return one day and take the train along the lake to Lausanne, but haven’t done so, and maybe never will. Then again, as Fats Waller used to say, “one never knows, do one?”

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