2: Swiss Surprise

Yawn. Another mountain.

Swiss cheese, fondue, chocolate, watches: These are some of the things we expected of Switzerland. It turns out, there’s a bit more than that.

Start with the spring produce: Switzerland is perched just atop Italy and is only a few hours away by train to the Mediterranean, so that should have clued us into its fresh fruit and vegetable market. The produce here is crunchy and fresh.

We did not expect to see cyclists up on the  mountainside Kleine Scheidegg trail, but there they were, introducing us to another Swiss national oddity – adventurousness bordering on recklessness. They brought the Red Cross to the world, making us think they are a cautious accident-adverse people. They are not. Their idea of safety does not follow a prevention-protocol, which makes sense – it is how they got so good at responding to disasters. They make so many of their own to start with, offering them plenty of training opportunities.

I had no idea that Switzerland has a keen wine industry. South-facing sloped farmland ribbed in vineyards surrounds our town and with French vineyards a stone-throw over the border, it makes sense that the industrious Swiss would get in on the act. As to why it never occurred to us that Switzerland is a wine-producing country: Some joke that it is because the French export their wine, while the Swiss drink all theirs themselves.

There is skiing, of course, but the Swiss are also passionate mountain-climbers, hikers and bicyclists. They love sports. Confusing us even further, they are also proliferate smokers. We cannot understand this.

They are conservative in their conduct, yet they also voted to build a facility for prostitutes to operate their business in Zürich.

There’s more. I knew chocolates heralded from this mountainous land, but so too does CaranDache watercolour pencils and crayons – the funky metal-tinned colours my sister-in-law used to paint clown faces on ours boys when they were young.

Racial and immigration issues headline frequently in Swiss news as the country, like the rest of Europe, copes with the flood of Albanian Muslims that pushed north in the wake of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, as well as Tamils and other far-flung political refugees who fled to Switzerland because of its liberal amnesty program. As Canadians, we are accustomed to hearing about immigration issues, but we had no idea that step-for-step, Switzerland has the same national debate going on that we do.

They love festivals, and they are crazy about music. It’s not just yodeling that tickles their ears: I have never seen such a large concentration of accordion players anywhere. They beat out the Americans when it comes to marching bands – they have them all over the place, some in costume and organized, while others who look like they decided to take their band practice out of the garage and on to the street, just for fun. The quality of music played by buskers here is outstanding. I am sorry to say it, but most of them would put Victoria buskers to shame.

What surprises us the most, however, is that such a geographically small place has such a globally large footprint – from the Red Cross to the United Nations to its international market for banking, pharmaceuticals (Roche, Novartis), watches, Swiss Army knives and more. They are a stunningly successful people who from so little have made so much.

But back to chocolate, more chocolate businesses than Lindt call this place home. So, too, does Toblerone, Frey, Nestle, Cailler, Camille Bloch, Favarger and more – it explains why despite the occasional scandal, Switzerland’s brand continues untarnished. After all, who can stay mad with a place so packed with chocolate?

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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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Music that needs to be explained along with the wreckless abandon of the Swiss

What is this swan thinking? Swans usually paddle languidly through calm waters, but this one must have been a teenager thrilling to the dangers of Thun's fast-moving waters.

The castle in Thun against a lovely blue sky.

Thun may not be the name that comes to mind when one thinks of wandering Swiss towns, but if you have the time, it is a lovely place with covered wooden bridges, and a sparkling clear river – the River Aar in fact, which runs through so many villages that we are suspicious that instead of one river, it is actually about 10 with the same name. It is possible the Swiss were tired of naming things. They have a lot of mountains to name, so why not just paste the same moniker on a bunch of waterways? Am I joking? See below. ***

The town has at least two dams on it, and we watched swans bobble through in the churning waters of one, not really sure they would make it. The current is seriously scary and so, of course, it attracts the human young as seen in this video clip (click here). As is customary with the Swiss, the surfers seen in this clip have no protective gear – no helmets, no life jackets.

This is the oddity with the Swiss – although they apparently strap on endless harnesses when scaling cliffs, they are otherwise unconcerned with drowning, head injuries, plummeting tremendous distances down mountainsides, ramming their bicycles into cars, and so forth.

They are a wonderful people, but I’m sure their mothers are all exceedingly nervous.

This explains the Red Cross, the Swiss organization that provides emergency response across the globe. They have developed a heightened emergency-response infrastructure, methinks, because they are a little weak on disaster-avoidance while also being  strong on adventure-seeking. No wonder they’re good at bandaging wounds.

In the meantime, I made a promise to post a video clip of Swiss street musicians that may be good, or not. I am at a loss to explain it. We came upon these men in yeti-costumes on the streets of Thun, singing in pained voices and playing wind instruments that made my ears hurt. If any Swiss person can tell us what this is (click here for a short video clip), please do

*** I make joke about many rivers being named Aar or Aare. It is actually one heck of a long river that begins and ends in Switzerland, running about 295 km (183 miles), and is the funnel through which all the water of Central Switzerland drains (17,779 square kilometres or 6,865 square miles).

Tomorrow: More Thun along with more photos