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. 


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92: Geneva, Protestants + Catholics and Bookshops

Geneva is garbage, so people say, but we’re not taking anyone’s word for it. We’re going to check it out ourselves today.

We heard the same thing about Zürich and that turned out to be a lovely city with just about everything an urban sightseer could want – including some place with James Joyce’s name inscribed on the wall, but with Germanesque – or was it French? – hieroglyphics so we’re not sure what that was about.

Geneva is home to the CERN collider, some giant underground tunnel where scientists say they are trying to do something with particulate matter, but we suspect it is just a massive public-funded man cave.

It’s also the home of the Red Cross, the U.N., and the location where in 52 B.C. Julius Caesar blew up a bridge. Some say it is also the home of the Reformation, but I thought that was in Germany, but then perhaps it really was all over Europe. Surprisingly, the Reformation was actually intended to reform the Catholic church itself as opposed to dividing it into two Christian entities.

Off the Shelf English Bookshop - Oh glory be!

In what may have been the genesis of Swissness, in 1533 A.D. some Catholic priests tried to incite the citizens to massacre the Protestants, but this being Switzerland (well, not in 1533, but sometime later it would become Switzerland), the Catholics shrugged and said whatever.

That wasn’t the end of it – there was back and forth, a few street riots and so forth  until a treaty was signed that agreed Genevans could choose their own religion, which certainly is in line with what Jesus seemed to teach when he told people to investigate for themselves the claims about him. Seems fair enough. Otherwise this country would have turned out to resemble Iran, religion-optional-wise.

But we are not the type of tourists to troll museums and investigate such lofty things: Dave has discovered Geneva has a bookstore with an English section. It might even be an entire store of English books, which will be something like uncovering the Holy Grail in this land of Languages-Other-Than-English. That will be Stop One of today’s trip.

English bookstores are to be prized. In our time in Spain in the days before Amazon.com and The Book Depository (the real name of a European online book supplier, that seems completely unaware of the American cultural significance of the words “the book depository”) we fed off a tiny airport-store-like bookstore that had one little rotating tower of English books, forcing us to become fans of Maeve Binchy romance books. For some reason Irish authors are popular in Spain. Maybe they do it to poke at the British.

FASCINATING SIDE NOTE: Rick Steves, American travel guru par excellence is well-hated in Switzerland for this fact: Geneva does not even figure into his guidebooks. In fact, Geneva does not appear even in his index, although Lake Geneva does. How’s that for a slap in the face? Yet, Geneva’s tourism office, in very offended tones, says most of their tourists come from America, so even U.S. citizens know to ignore Steves. Sniff. How about that for  travelogue tiff? I will put on my impartial journalism cap and let you know whether to skip this city or not).

SECOND FASCINATING SIDE NOTE: One year ago today we left our Victoria, B.C. home to come here.

Besancon: French, German, Austrian, Spanish, Roman, Hungarian, then French town.

You don't expect to see an elaborate Egyptian display at a small French city with a population of about 120,000, but the French are known for their elegance, so why not?

A four-day weekend, such as we have just had, is a great time to take off to places further afield, but we did not do that.  Not because we didn’t want to, but because we have not fully adjusted to the vigour that Europeans apply to their “mini-breaks.”

In other words, by the time we got down to booking train tickets and hotels, there was not a seat or a bed available. We could not have gotten onto a train to Vienna unless we were prepared to ride Tom-Cruise-style, that is, on the top, while engaged in hand-to-hand combat with a John Voight look-alike.

We should have remembered this from our time in Madrid, when we discovered that six-hour, two-hundred mile traffic jams on the highways leading out of the city over long weekends was a normal event.

And so we satisfied ourself with shorter jaunts – the earlier trip to Neuchatel being the first. That turned out exceedingly well, and so we braved the French border once again (you may remember our last venture into France started with getting electronically kicked out of three hotels, before landing in an expensive Waldorf).

We headed to Besançon, an ancient town settled by Gauls in the Bronze Age (1500 BC) in the oxbow of the river Doubs, and, because its location presents such a strong military advantage, Julius Caesar’s boys naturally showed up and said, “We’ll take that.” Which they did.

We think of modern Europe’s borders are being permanently marked with indelible ink, but the Europeans did not treat it that way.

Besançon was part of the Holy Roman Empire, then was accorded independence, which is a way of saying no military power would defend it, and so it subsequently came under the Habsburgs (through marriage, not war, although some would say the two are the same).

Museum of Fine Arts and Archeology with origins dating back to 1694, although this building, a former grain hall, only dates back to the 1800s. In the 1960s its interior was completely refurbished by Louis Miguel, a man who is forever doomed to only be addressed as "a student of Le Corbusier." He deserves better. The interior is spectacular. Did I mention this town has only 120,000 inhabitants? And yet they somehow pulled this off. We mock the French, but we have to hand it to them. They have culture.

That means the Austrians – or was it the Hungarians – were in charge, and then, in some kind of closet-cleaning decluttering exercise, they handed it over to Philip II, King of Spain.

Spain is nowhere near Besançon, and as soon as the Spanish realized the inconvenience of managing such a far-flung district, they tried to hand it back to the Austrians via marriage, but the Austrians were not to be fooled for long and less than a hundred years later, the Spanish discovered Besançon had somehow crawled its way back into their closets.

That was in 1667, but whether it was French, Spanish, German, Prussian, Hungarian, Austrian or just plain Catholic was not decided yet,  because French monarch Louis XIV fancied Besançon and claimed it, but then lost interest and within months ‘forgot’ it on Spain’s doorstep.

It boomeranged back to the French, then in 1814 the Austrians had a change of heart and bombarded the city. Finally, the Germans, probably sick of all the back-and-forth, grabbed it, but finally it ended up back in French hands after the Nazis were routed out, but not before executing 100 French resistance fighters there.

What all this leads to is that Besançon has a fascinating museum with great archaeological finds, including an intact Roman soldier’s helmet and a second-century BC Neptune mosaic. The museum is 100 years older than the Louvre, and is a good place to see the works of Matisse, Goya, Picasso, as well as an Egyptian mummy display.

Egyptian stone works are right out in the open, and I couldn’t resist drawing my hands along the pharaoh profiles, touching the same granite and sandstone as the long-ago artisans, which I really should not have done, at least that’s what the museum security detail told me, but the rebuke was brief, as though the French are resigned to their collection of sculptures and hieroglyphics getting pawed by Americans.

Which I am not. I am Canadian, but why tell the French that when they are so happy to think otherwise?