89: Genial Geneva: Not So Bad

Cathedral Saint-Pierre, Geneva, Switzerland. A Romanesque-Gothic structure dating back to 1150 A.D., which took 150 years to build. A church has stood here since the 4th Century and before it, a Roman temple. There is an archaeological dig and crypts beneath it. The church went from Catholic to Protestant in 1536, when it was stripped of its icons and other adornments that Protestants view as a form of idol worship, but that Catholics look upon as markers of the faith and examples from the lives of early saints. See notation below.

Daniella, one of our favorite Swiss friends, crinkled up her nose at learning we spent a day in Geneva.

“Why ever would you go there?” she asked, staring at me for signs of mental instability.

“It’s a ‘world city,'” I said. “It has the U.N., the Red Cross, the Geneva Convention, it’s the seat of the Protestant Reformation.”

“Yes, but whyyyyyy would you go there?” she repeated.

Why indeed.

John Calvin's preaching chair.

But many do go to Geneva, possibly on mandatory business travel, and those people still want to know what to do once they’ve checked into their hotel room. One suggestion would be to get on a train to visit Gruyeres or Montreux, in other words, to get out of town as fast as possible, but it is not necessary.

Geneva does have many charming niches, high-end shopping, and as noted, the “seat of the Protestant Reformation.”

This is a literal statement. John Calvin (1509 to 1564), arguably the most influential thinker and theologian in the Reformation, and also a humanist lawyer – yes, a lawyer – preferred to give his sermons sitting down, which leads to suspicions that his sermons might have been a tad too long. On investigation, however, we discovered the chair in which he sat was/is a straight-backed wooden thing with no cushioning whatsoever. I could probably deliver a seven-minute sermon in it, tops.

Ooooo, dredging equipment. This photo shows that this blog values engineers and those inclined toward technology.

Tourists with an engineering bent can enjoy the dredging equipment currently parked in at the mouth of the Rhone – which is surprisingly shallow for a waterway feeding off massive Lake Geneva.

The city has many parks which will be beautiful once the trees are in leaf (in Geneva’s defense, we did get there at the turn of Spring when greening-up was just starting). One-quarter of Geneva is parkland – that’s something to think about.

Bastions Park has a charming open-air cafe for lounging away a sunny day, large chess boards enjoyed by many, and shady promenades, as well as the historic statues marking the city’s fulcrum point in world history – that is, statues of the fathers of the Reformation. I say “fathers,” but I’m sure there were “mothers,” too, but they didn’t make it into the statuary.

This accordion/violin/vocals duo from France gave Geneva's old-town a wonderful musical air. They were truly amazing. They would not give us their names, however, they said they were called "Children of the World." They also accused their countrymen, the French, as being unappreciative of the musical arts and so they came to Switzerland to perform where the people are more cultured. Take that, France, from your own cultural citizenry.

Nearby, is the city’s old town, along with Cathedral Saint-Pierre where Calvin preached, and to which many French reformers fled religious persecution in France. It’s all sweet and fluffy now when Catholics and Protestants jost about on theological points, but back then it was a matter of life and death where disagreements could end in rather nasty bloodshed, the intensity of which is best illustrated by the Catholic Church digging up the bones of 14th-Century Bible translator John Wycliffe 40 years after his death, just so they could burn what was left of him (some say his bones were just crushed and scattered). Suffice it to say, emotions ran high.*

Bastions Park, Geneva

It may seem to not matter so much to some, but these were the seeds of the freedom of expression and worship  that the Western World now prizes. It was when a bunch of Christians sought to weed from the then Catholic Church it’s powerful political core and return it to what nowadays would be called its grassroots origins, that is, the Gospel of Jesus Christ who had never held any worldly position of power or even aspired to such.

So, historically, a visit to Geneva is a little like a visit to Leipzig, Germany which triggered the fall of Communism and the Berlin Wall. The cobblestone lanes are charming now, but it doesn’t take much imagination to envision the intensity of emotion and peril that the city streets once hosted.

Notation on blog accuracy: The dates given on historical events, such as when churches were built, protests staged, and so forth, are taken from the best source I can find. Often, however, we see different dates expressed in travel books, academic websites and reliable legitimate media sources, as well information given in the site’s brochures and signage. This is a conundrum. I list the dates that are agreed upon by the most reliable sources, leaning heavily toward the local sources who would have most familiarity with the subject. If it’s a draw as to which date is more reliable, I list the range of dates given.

Also of note: Ancient structures usually have multiple “additions,” and so this blog lists the earliest date for a still-in-existence portion of the structure. This probably explains part of the confusion over dating.

*Another note: To be fair on the question of the first English translation of the Bible, Catholic apologists point out that when the Bible was printed in Latin, it was not as exclusive as it seems, because Latin was the language of the educated classes. I am not a theologian or a church historian, so this is as far as I will go on this topic. Please post angry letters through this blog’s contact page. 

 

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Leaving Leipzig

Leipzig Nikolaikirche, the birthplace of the teardown of the Berlin Wall.

Some bad things have happened to my family in Germany, like European airlines extorting money from us in $500 chunks to let our dog or a bike pass through Frankfurt airport, and then my Dad was arrested there for refusing to be an informer for the Soviets. Tough luck, that.

The Berlin "Wall" as it appeared around the time my father tried to cross into West Berlin.

But none of those things occurred on this trip to Leipzig, so hopefully our bad run with Germany is over, which is a good thing because, gosh, their food is much better than expected, and certainly better than what they fed my Dad in that jail.

Leipzig has some sadly decomposed old grand buildings, such as the Astoria, which are almost as interesting to look at as the medieval quarter of town. The city’s northern outskirts are somewhat depressing, stretching out in decayed old industrial zones perhaps still lagging behind due to Communist rule even 30 years after the Germans gave the Soviets the boot. Nevertheless, the city centre outside of the historic quarter is lined with beautiful old architecture.

Leipzig's Astoria hotel, a grand old dam now in serious disrepair.

Less well-known to North Americans (but very well-known to Germans, I imagine) is that Leipzig was a beachhead of sorts during the Second World War. The Brits and Americans were busying themselves with bombing Berlin, when one night the Germans launched a significant concentrated counterattack, punching a big hole in the Allied Forces air fleet. The next night, the Nazis readied their forces for a repeat performance only to have the Allied fighter planes skirt around Berlin and hit Leipzig hard. It was a shock to the Germans, as the Allied Forces had never gone that far into Germany, and in fact, it was thought at the time that such a distance was out-of-range and safe from airstrikes.

Leipzig also housed a concentration camp. As the Allied Forces moved in, 12 Nazi guards torched a bunker with 500 prisoners in it, many of them Russians and Czechs. As some prisoners escaped the flames, they were gunned down by the 12, and those that escaped the bullets died in the electric fencing. Very few lived to relate the story. It’s the sad and shocking history of Germany, and another testament to the fact that there is no army so savage as a defeated one.

Hard to believe the culture that nurtured those 12 guards is the same one that was home to Bach, Mendelssohn, Goethe, as well as being the birthplace for Schuman. Leipzig still has a vibrant arts community, a university and parks, although I only walked into one park and immediately turned around as it seemed to have a derelict population. Probably nothing wrong, but why take a chance?

Bach statue outside of Thomaskirche where he is buried.

Bach's burial site in the austere Thomaskirche. We hung around outside the building one night, listening to an organ playing. Most of the lights were out, and the church was dark. It was beautiful and haunting.

If I had learned German instead of French, I would know what this inset statuary is all about at Thomaskirche. As it is, I don't know a thing.

Leipzig, a past that is dark and light. An amazing place, and worth the trip.

Lovely affordable Leipzig

I was a little harried after a few hours on Germany's warp-speed highways, but my nerves would soon be settled by fabulous German/Italian cuisine.

European travel tends to have an eviscerating effect on the wallet – it can be very pricy, however, our limited journeys thus far have taught us that getting off the beaten track changes that.

In France, we choked on Paris’s restaurant prices, but in Besançon, a small French village near the Swiss border, we found the architecture stunning and the food just as good at only a smidgen of the Parisian cost. We have not seen enough of Germany to draw the same conclusion, but our three days in Leipzig suggests the trend might continue there.

Along Leipzig’s lovely cobblestoned avenues are scores of open-air cafes. It is possible that some of them served substandard food but we did not find any such establishment.My restaurant advice to anyone visiting Leipzig is this: Dive in. The food will be lovely. If you find a lousy restaurant, let me know. I don’t think you will, though.

San Remos vegetarian ravioli

I dined in the San Remo street pavilion under a towering heater and square umbrellas during a brisk windy day and didn’t feel the bite of the cold at all, so enchanting was the meal, the second-best ravioli I’ve had over the past 40 years (the best was at a Winnipeg Folklorama festival pavilion in a Grant Park arena, where scores of Italian mammas slung out homemade ravioli to die for, this was back in the mid-1970s – since then, I’ve not found any pasta that rivals it).

At San Remo (why are so many good restaurants named San Remo?) at Nikolaistrasse 1, (www.sanremo-leipzig.de), for the meagre price of 8-Euros, you get a fetching plate of vegetarian ravioli with a butter-cream sauce. The pasta’s filling suggests squash, a hint of garlic, and some kind of lentil, although the waiter informed me with his limited English that it was probably chopped carrots that offered the slight crunch.

This restaurant boasts that it won Germany’s best ice cream in 2010, although it is not clear to me what contest gave them this title. Nevertheless, more convincing was the endless line-up that formed at this restaurant’s outdoor ice cream kiosk all day long, no matter the weather. I walked past the restaurant kiosk numerous times in the days that we were there and never saw it wane. And so naturally, I tried out their ice cream for dessert, even though the generous plate of ravioli had left little room. The ice cream had a soft homemade texture and supported the “best of” boast. It was delicious.

We dropped in twice at Bitt-burger, which I think is also on Nikolaistrasse, but might be one block west. It’s famous for its beer and has a distinct Germanic look and name, but has fabulous Italian food. Give it a go. You’ll love it.

Night dining in the rain at "Barf Street" - my translation of this Germanesque-tagged avenue. It is absolutely fabulous. Do not miss this spot if you're in Leipzig.

The entire lane that is regrettably named Barfußgäßchen is packed with restaurants of many types. We had a lovely evening meal there at a place I cannot name, but you could probably safely land at any table and come away gastronomically content.

As always, watch the other patrons to see whether they have any food in front of them, or if they wear peeved expressions – we did see at least one restaurant over which the clientele were casting a foul mood, so we assumed the service would be slow there and kept our distance.

This brings me to a piece of Dave-advice on selecting a restaurant. Besides the above (checking for the demeanor of patrons, as well as making sure there are patrons to start with), he favors going to restaurants populated with middle-class middle-age-and-older clients. He said they’re old enough to not try to impress anyone, they know good food and they’re not inclined to overspend just to say that they did.  It’s a method that has worked for him so far.

Leipzig Zoo, better than you’d think

Two giraffes vie for a choice mouthful of greenery within a few feet of the viewing deck. Zebras and other ungulate species as well as ostriches shared the sweeping pastures..

I’ve been to the San Diego Zoo, the Sydney Zoo, too many aquariums to mention, and all kinds of fun places, none of which makes me an expert on how to rank a zoo, but if I were an expert, I’d rank the Leipzig Zoo way up there.

It is the first zoo I’ve visited that was as intriguing for its landscape and architectural design as it was for the critters that live there. To begin with, taking a quick glance up and down the pathways, you wouldn’t be sure that animals do live there.

That’s because all the enclosures are shielded from the walkways with bamboo and forest greenery. To see the animals, you have to step off the trail and into an auxiliary path, or an enclosed hut that features a soft bed of bark mulch to quiet your footsteps. In many instances, the humans seem more enclosed than the animals, as they view the animals through glass windows, which further dampens the sound of human traffic.

The thoughtful set-up of the enclosures doesn’t end at the viewing platforms. The enclosures themselves are well-treed, and often you see the animals peeking around the greenery, and I’m sure they like it that way.

The giraffe and African plains enclosure differs, and reasonably so. Here the giraffe feeding troughs are placed at elevated heights, putting the giraffe’s heads just a little below a wide viewing platform and restaurant, giving everyone a great close-up of these lovely graceful creatures. The giraffes didn’t seem to mind the gawkers at all and moved about lazily, occasionally “fencing” with their necks over the meal which appeared to be large bunches of parsley. I could be wrong about that, but it sure smelled like parsley.

The Leipzig zoo is worth a visit, even if its pricey. It has endless structures for children to climb, plenty of coffee and food kiosks, lots of benches, shade, and abundant parking one block over.

Adult price: 17 Euros, ouch. That said, by the time I finished walking through the zoo (by the way, I got lost and had trouble finding the exit, so make time for that when you’re planning your day) I did not feel ripped off. It is worth every penny.

Children price: 10 Euros.

Food prices inside the gates: Reasonable. No need to pack a lunch.

Washroom facilities: Plentiful, clean and some are done in funky hut styles.

Time to walk through whole site and see almost everything if it’s just adults going through: 1.5-2 hours.

At an all-out sprint: 35 minutes

With children under the age of 8: Three days (okay, seriously, it is an all-day zoo trip. Plan to be there for 3-5 hours).

Special tip for elephant fans: Line up at the zoo gates before its 10 a.m. opening and sprint for the elephant enclosure once you get through. Do not stop to look at the weird bearded bears. The elephants bathe/swim at about 10:15 a.m. You can watch them either above water or below. It is very cool. They might bathe more often in the summer, but in October, when I was there, they skipped their afternoon bath.

How do I get there? Click here for the map, and scroll to the bottom.

A word to the wise: The zoo features a huge jungle greenhouse called Gondwanaland. Do not go inside unless you don’t mind walking in a slow river of humanity for upwards of 45 minutes through jungle heat and humidity.

Do not turn your camera on, the humidity will mess with its lenses. The path winds through the forest where monkeys swing loose, and if they land on you, don’t make a fuss, just wait for the monkey to move along. There are plenty of signs warning against feeding or trying to interact with them.

Also, beware of dropping bird poop.

The path eventually winds up to the rooftops. It is very cool, but also very hot so I put on my reporter-face and zoomed through the crowd to get the heck out of there. It also features a river boat ride, which looked good if you wanted to melt off about 17 lbs. in 30 minutes.

It all looked amazing, but the only drawback is that it’s difficult to find a shortcut out, although I eventually did do just that. If I had not, my estimate is it would have taken 1.5 to 2 hours to make it through the building.

My only criticism: There should have been more staff in Gondwanaland to direct the crowds. Sometimes it wasn’t clear which way they should go, and certainly it was nigh unto impossible to find an early exit.

You can learn a lot more about the zoo by clicking here. Get your Google page to translate it if it turns up in German or Ukrainian.

Click on a gallery photo to get an enlarged view.