85: Swiss Saturday Shopping

Biel's thriving Saturday farmers market is a good place to shop.

It is Saturday on the Easter four-day weekend, which in Switzerland means it is time to jam the shops to load up on food.

Tulips on the steps of the Biel old-town Church (we think it is Catholic-turned-Dutch-Reformed). This congregation was listed in Lausanne's register in 1228. The current church building dates back to the late 1300s.

Not that we can load up on much, what with our miniscule camping-cooler-sized fridge, but we will do what we can, because the shops were all closed yesterday and will be closed for the next two days.  Today is the retail oasis in the sandy desert of commerce in our little town.

People also leave garbage on the church steps. It must be a pick-up zone.

It takes some effort to adapt to Switzerland’s restrictive shopping hours. Back home, the horror of two non-shopping days would be soothed by a full-freezer, amply stocked kitchen shelves and a refrigerator happily humming as it cools buckets of produce, deli meats and other foodstuffs.

There in North America, on any given day, 20 people could drop in unannounced and we would be ready to put on a spread that based on the usual contents of our larder could include: Barbecue meatballs, meatloaf, mesquite chicken, spaghetti, pizza, lasagna, quiche, chili dogs, Kraft Dinner, homemade soup, hot rolls, and ice cream.

The Swiss carry their flower bouquets upside down. Also, Swiss men carry pink plaid shopping bags and seem wholly unaware that in a North American school ground, this would get them beat up.

Here in Europe, they would get three Ritz crackers and a thin slice of Brie.

Once, when our Canadian mountainside home was cut off from civilization by a sudden and deep snowfall, locking us in with our adult son and his three friends – young men with corresponding elephantine appetites, we were able to keep everyone fed for three days and still have slabs of frozen pizza in the freezer should the snowfall extend their stay even longer.

Were that to happen here with our tiny food stores, the result might a lesson in how swiftly companions can turn to cannibalism. The horror.

On one of Biel's main thoroughfares, edging onto the medieval town district.

Biel's medieval village is relatively small but we still got lost in it while trying to find a particular clothing/coffee shop. Getting lost is good: It brings us to charming little vignettes like this tumble-down hidden courtyard.

The Swiss love shutters.

90: Junking Geneva + Random Numbers

A Genevan bridge with the towering fountain in the background. Geneva can do better.


Junking Geneva

Stepping off the train in Geneva, one is met with the forked road conundrum. Turn left and go to Switzerland. Turn right and go to France.

I was sorely tempted to go to France, only so I could say I went to France two weekends in a row. That sounds so much more glamorous than if I were living in a Canadian provincial border town in say … Alberta, and I could say “I’m going to Saskatchewan for the day,” and do it just by crossing the road. I’ll bet there are French people in Alberta who right now are thinking about skipping over the border to Saskatchewan and bragging about it later. I’ll bet they have French relatives in France who do not know what a non-event provincial border-jumping can be in Canada.

And while I’m rambling, in my reporting days, Saskatchewan was the provincial name that earned the most derision when mentioned in interviews with non-Canadians. They doubted it existed and when confronted with the realities of the geographical gap that its absence would create, they doubted anyone would burden any place with such a long and convoluted moniker. I think it is a cool name just for that reason. But I drift from my topic which is: Is Geneva really all that bad?

The only bridge adornment we could find in Geneva was an open-air statue and "museum" about the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) who left Geneva at the age of 16, and who irritated the city leaders to such an extent that they burned his books here, but later capitalized on his fame by erecting a statue. A small detail: Rousseau spent two months at St. Peter's Island in Biel/Bienne and counted it as the happiest time of his life.

No it is not. But it does have a few problems,  beginning with a snooty waiter who forgot he was in Switzerland where the cultural practice is to extract as much money as possible from tourists by being polite to them. I’ll come back to him later.

We rolled through the train station and ran into Geneva’s first tourist foible. The train station is nowhere near the tourist district-proper. One has to walk through the city’s ordinary downtown, which is not extremely ugly, but it certainly lacks the quaint accordion-player charms of other Swiss locales. When we came upon the River Rhone, it was strapped with bridges that were all function and no fashion. This is a huge drawback for a Swiss tourist spot. Every town seems to have cute bridges here – even Olten, Switzerland’s not-so-great small town, has a lovely covered bridge.

We can probably blame Julius Caesar for the lack of charming bridges. After all, he is reported to have blown up or burned a bridge in Geneva, and maybe the city planners were forever-more discouraged from investing in bridges. After all, if a titan is going to roll into town and burn the thing, why even bother?

We found our way to the city’s historic district, which is surprisingly small for  such a globally renown city, but once inside it, we enjoyed wandering its winding narrow streets and old stone buildings – and yet, there was something missing. We cannot say what. It eludes us.

What Dave looks like when he sees steak on the menu for the same price as we would pay for an entire strip of prime beef tenderloin back in Canada. Math on this statement: 1 steak/$70 in Switzerland, or 15 steaks/$70 in Canada. Or maybe it was $60? No matter - it is really high up there as far as our restaurant pricing sensibilities go.

We found our way to a small half-filled open-air cafe’ where we asked to sit at a table that was half-sun/half-shade – perfect for Dave and I whose preferences for sunlight differ. The maitre’d, on hearing our request, raised his shoulders in that classic Frenchman shrug and protested, saying the table arrangement was for four, not for two.

Cafe-Creperie Saint-Pierre, Geneva

We didn’t see a line-up of diners waiting behind us, so we politely persisted, but he instead put us at a table right next to the shade/sun one, also a table for four, that was completely in the sun (he pulled the table arrangement apart so we were then technically at a table for two). We overlooked this mildly peevish behavior until we opened the lunch menu and saw $35 poulet and $70 bouef. If customers are going to fork over that much money for a plate of food, they should be able to sit anywhere they like, even the kitchen, or perhaps while standing on the maitre’d’s toes. We left.

Next to St. Peter’s Cathedral where John Calvin delivered his inspiring sermons during the Protestant Reformation, we found a quaint creperie where we dined on buckwheat crepes filled with cheese, mushrooms, spinach and chicken. They were delicious and the service staff were delightful.

Over the last week:

For the curious – blog stats report:

  • the country with the highest number of readers for this little blog was Canada
  • the country with the lowest number of readers was the United Arab Emirates
  • the most popular search engine term used that landed readers was “jungle design.” I cannot explain that.
  • the weirdest search engine term that landed readers was “Ringo Starr McDonalds.” I cannot explain that either.
Tomorrow: Geneva’s genial side. 


93: Biel’s Alstadt – Worth Another Look

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Biel/Bienne, our small town in the heart of Switzerland’s watchmaking district, home to Rolex, Swatch, Swiss Timing and a bunch of other timepieces I can’t afford, has a lovely old-town, unique in Europe for this one fact: It has not succumbed to franchise retailers.

The street-level storefronts in many European medieval districts are jammed with H & M clothing, Bata shoes and Ochsner sporting  shops. It makes for a lively people-packed tourist quarter, but it does take something away. Biel has tiny little shops with not a single franchise name in sight, which I find more charming than I would have expected, being a such a devotee of the expected and ordinary as that I am.

The downside is that this part of town is really most vibrant on Saturdays when a huge farmers market takes up the main courtyard and the little chocolatiers, butchers and flea-market stores are open. The upside is it feels more real than the brand-name endowed and much-populated avenues of Lucerne and Zürich – although both those cities are amazing and must-see stops here. I’m not trying to deride any urban council’s attempts at revitalization, just making an observation.

Take a look in the slideshow above. See if you can find a McDonalds.

 

 

Getting lost in 20,000 easy steps

I get lost almost everyday, so poor is my sense of direction, but Dave is of another breed, a type that innately knows where he is all the time. This is one of the reasons I married him. He works better than a compass and comes with the added bonus of holding my hand when leading me around. Compasses are not so compassionate. Also, I keep losing my compass. Dave is a foot taller than me, so I can usually find him.

In a rare moment this weekend, however, Dave was as lost as I, and I blame Basel for this. Look at this map:

Which way is north and south is hard to say when you're in this maze.

We ended up turned around somewhere near Bartusserplatz, a name that to the English ear sounds like a bit of a joke, and that is what we thought the tourist office was playing on us. We roamed the streets in the rainfall, in something of a daze trying to find the city gates, which really are worth finding. They are classical medieval gates that bring to mind Europe’s castle-storming history.

Basel Spalen city gate dating back to sometime between 1080 and 1398.

The city was once surrounded in walls and splendid gates, but in 1859 a city council decided to demolish the whole works but for a few gates, which goes to show that the stupidity of city/municipal councils is a time-honoured tradition that carries on in a lively manner even today, especially in Victoria, B.C., where the regional overseers allowed a crazy-8 traffic circle configuration on an uncluttered highway that serves the airport and ferry terminal, giving tourists heart stoppages in unknown numbers. But I digress…

We often walk about 12,000 to 14,000 steps on a single day of touring, but in Basel we went over 20,000, marching almost 9.5 miles, of which at least six miles were spent completely mystified over our location.

We have come back from this fog with advice for those aspiring to visit Basel. Here it is:

  1. Find the river and make it your reference point. There is no help in making an intersection or any roadway a reference point because they are as thick as the wool in a tight-knit scarf, not to mention that the Swiss are quite lax about street signage (this is probably in case Germany decides to invade, in which case the German army would have to ask for directions; quite an embarrassment for an invading army).
  2. The tourist office will tell you to take a bus from the train station to the historic quarter. Ignore this advice. The walk is less than 10 minutes and goes through a charming park and some pretty streets.
  3. Do not ask a local to place you on the map. We tried. They don’t know where they are either.
  4. When lost, just keep walking. The saving grace of all old-town districts is that they are not that large and eventually you will come out on either a freeway, at the train station or possibly in Spain, all easily identifiable on a map.