91: Geneva: Get Up + Go, Or Not?

Wiki-excerpt on Geneva's fountain: Five hundred litres (132 gallons) of water per second are jetted to an altitude of 140 metres (459 feet) by two 500 kW pumps, operating at 2,400 V, consuming over one megawatt of electricity.

New York, London, Geneva – there are some city names that everyone knows, yet there is just one in this mini-list that travel-guru Rick Steves ignores altogether: Geneva.

That fascinates us. After all, who doesn’t recognize the Geneva Convention, which undergirds international humanitarian law. I have even read the thing, not to better myself but just so I could get smarmy with a friend whose favorite phrase was “in violation of the Geneva Convention,” which it turned out he had not read, just as I suspected. Nevertheless, it is a fun weighty document to throw around in a debate, so I don’t really hold this against him.

Geneva’s tourist bureau is pretty mad at Rick Steves for overlooking them, but they should think again. What do they have that would draw Rick Steves, who pares his travel advice down to typical North American vacation spans (“best in 22 days,” “best in 14 days”) and tourist mini-breaks of a few days?

Rick Steves is not Geneva’s biggest problem. Bern, Lucerne and Zürich are, not to mention the dozen teensy Swiss villages that are so charming they easily beat out Geneva as a great day-stop (Thun, Neuchatel, Appenzell, Solothurn …).

On paper, Geneva has it all: A lake, a river, a promenade, an old-town, a storied and gloried past and the French Alps for a backdrop. For the well-heeled, there is Cartier (as plentiful in Switzerland as Wal-Mart in America), Louis Vuitton and Chanel. And yet, there is a problem, best symbolized with Geneva’s 110+ year-old fountain.

The thing is one straight spout jetting up from Lac Leman (also known as Lake Geneva). It sends five hundred litres (132 gallons) of water per second up to around 460 feet at 124 mph. This height leads to the boast that it is the tallest in the world. Geneva should be nervous about this: As soon as this claim comes to the attention of engineers in Dubai, they will build a 1,000-metre fountain.  But to get back to Geneva: A plaque at the base of the stone jetty by which visitors can stroll out to the fountain jet explains that the water’s white appearance is due to a special nozzle that injects tiny air bubbles into the water.

Would that be like the same nozzle hardware stores sell for $1.29 that can be fitted over kitchen taps? Seriously, Geneva, the city who gives the world the Red Cross, you can do better. If in over 100 years it has not occurred to you to do something else with your fountain besides inject air into it (Old Faithful does that without any special nozzle) and cast a light on it at night, then you need to convene a new committee to travel the world to see what else has been going on in fountain technology lately. San Diego’s Sea World would be a good starting place.

This is one of two stones brought down by glaciers during the Ice Age. Known as Pierres du Niton (Neptune's Stones), this stone was once used as the reference point by which the Swiss measured altitude, says the writers of Eyewitness Travel: Switzerland.

If that does not suit, they could also hire a grouchy old man to randomly point the spray at passersby – as unpleasant as that might be for tourists it would at least add an element of excitement and unpredictability to the site.

The fountain says that Geneva thinks going big is enough, but it is not. There is, in fact, a sense of bigness in Geneva’s downtown, a sense that this is truly a working city with practical matters on its mind. That is not a bad thing, but the town leaders are goofy to then get snooty when a leading travel guru rightly identifies it as such and gives it a pass.

But all this is not to say that Geneva is not worth the visit. It is, provided you have already seen Lucerne, Zürich, Bern, Neuchatel, Thun and Solothurn.

Tomorrow: More on Geneva and what to see/do there. 

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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.

Eating like Europeans

A rarity in Europe: Water served automatically. Usually it must be ordered and it costs as much as any other beverage.

We stumbled into a delicious find while visiting Appenzell, a village in the Alpstein limestone range, near Mount Santis  in Switzerland’s Northeast corner.

We arrived off the tram from Kronberg hungry, as we always are after an invigorating ride over the rails, so finding a restaurant was foremost in our minds. There are different ways to find restaurants, and we have developed our own methodology. We check our favorite travel guide-book – Rick Steves’ Switzerland, then wander the cobblestone streets in a confused manner as though we don’t have a guidebook at all, all while staring at the guidebook’s map, then at the buildings.

Lokal takes its gelato seriously. Mmmmmm .... gelato.

As though foreordained, a shop catches my eye and Dave, trying to hold to our original gastronomic purposes, waits outside to study the map/guidebook while I peruse the store shelves where I always find everything is much too expensive. It is true, I am cheap, but when I find a pair of shoes that sell for $267 while I am wearing the same make for which I paid $110, I am none too impressed. Shopkeepers perceive this and pretend to speak no English. Either that or they are insulted by my harmless questions about their retail ethics.

By the time I exit the store (or stores), our hunger reaches the fussy level, our pace increases, my interest in shopping diminishes and our path takes on a pinball trajectory, that is to say, we hurry from one Rick Steves-recommended restaurant to another, finding some minor flaw with each one that sends us on our way again.

We go through about a half-dozen restaurants in this manner, judging them by the shallowest, yet truest of means: The customers at the outside cafe look sick of each other’s company and there is no food in front of them, suggesting a long wait and tardy service; a funny smell comes out of the kitchen; the posted menu is only in German, stoking our fear that we will accidentally dine on horse or rabbit meat; the place is empty; the low lighting through amber glass windows prohibits suitable scrutiny of the food and the list goes on.

We look for places populated by locals on the grounds that they are the best judges of a restaurant’s fare, so it may be that a bistro we came across named “Lokal” twigged a subliminal familiarity, predisposing us to looking favorably on it, and then we found a mention of it in our guidebook, where Rick Steves labels Lokal’s offerings as the opposite of Swiss fare. That seemed like an endorsement to us fearers of horse meat, so in we went.

At this point, we were starving and a little glassy eyed, which the server may have recognized because she spent a lot of time explaining the menu to us, which was very kind, however, it prolonged the ordering process and we weakened even further. Eventually, I ordered a crepe filled with banana gelato, which shows just how vulnerable we had become.

Dave using the classical pointing method to order his lunch. He has no idea what he is pointing at.

Dave pointed out sandwich fillers from the display case in such a random manner that by the time we sat down he could only identify his sandwich contents by their colours – “red things,” “green stringy things.” If there was horse meat in it, we would not have known because we are unfamiliar with the colour of cooked horse meat (when raw it has a burgundy tone not often seen in beef).

So we sat down and accepted our fate, only to find that it was all good. Lokal happens to specialize in its focaccia bread, and it was superlative, soft and not too chewy as is too often the case with North American focaccias. The preserved tomatoes and peppers were lightly seasoned and bit back just enough to tease the tongue.

The crepe was perfect, although I did feel weird having a frozen dessert wrapped inside a hot crepe. Maybe this exists elsewhere but I don’t think I’ve ever ordered it. This is the beauty of being a fussy eater – I’m easily impressed and look on old staples as crazy new concoctions.

We took on the attitude of Europeans who when they take a table are practically leasing it. We ate everything, then jumped up and ordered some more, lounged, ate more, enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere along with other loafing diners as though we were hanging around in our mothers’ kitchens. The two women servers – who may have been proprietors, they looked that engaged in their work – were pleasant and helpful, unobtrusive, but ready to deliver more goodies at the slightest sign of hunger pangs.

The gelato is made in-house of local dairy and “Alpstein” water, which pours down from the limestone Santi Mountain  – and is without any artificial dyes. I sampled the chocolate, walnut and banana. The chocolate was fabulous, but I am a chocolate addict so am rarely disappointed. The banana gelato was strikingly intense; the walnut gelato was unique, subtle, and very very good. In all, Lokal offered about 16-20 varieties and if I lived there, I would have tried them all.

Check out the restaurant’s (German only) website here or enter Lokal Appenzell into Google and click on “translate this page.” I give this understated eatery the thumbs up. Sandwich: 8 out of 10. Gelato: 10 out of 10 (yes, a 10!). Crepe – undecided. It wasn’t really filling as a lunch item, but it was delicious. Price: $37 for a continuous stream of food for two, very reasonable for Switzerland.

What’s wrong with Switzerland

This is not me. Judging by the dozens of paragliders floating over the valley, the Interlaken is an excellent place to catch an updraft. Dave spotted one glider just jump up on a mountain side and take off. Not jump "off," just jump "up." The laws of physics and gravity appear to be suspended in Switzerland.

What’s wrong with Switzerland is that it has mountain peaks that stand on tiptoe at over 13,000 feet above sea level. I’m only five feet above sea level. You can see how scary the Alps can be for someone like me.

We decided to check out (not go up) some of those mountain heights in Switzerland’s famous Interlaken region. After two hours of travel via Swiss Rail for the return-ticket price of $80 for two of us, we arrived at the valley floor of Lauterbrunnen, a quaint Swiss village surrounded by quaint Swiss farmyards that looked very much like Vancouver Island’s Saanich Peninsula, except where the peninsula is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, the Lauterbrunnen valley is surrounded by mountains.

Dave calls this a “material” difference.

Lauterbrunnen cemetery - placed suspiciously close to Lauterbrunnen gondola

We began what appeared to be an aimless stroll by admiring the Lauterbrunnen cemetery, without argument the tidiest, least-scary graveyard I’ve ever seen, except that only six kilometres away is what I call the Gotten Himmel gondola ride, a five-minute 1,600-foot sweep up from the valley-floor to the mountain-clinging village of Gimmelwald (4,593-feet).

Gotten Himmel means “God in Heaven” and certainly my mind was on spiritual matters, being so close to the resting place of the dead and the gondola, an efficient agent of death if ever I saw one.

The enchanting stroll along the Lauterbrunnen valley, that ends at Recipe for Death gondola ride.

I started to climb the wrought iron fence into the cemetery, reasoning that I might as well just lie down and take root, rather than go through the heart-stopping gondola ride, but Dave convinced me we would just walk the valley and see its famous 10 waterfalls. That the gondola was at the end of the valley and we were walking in its direction did not mean we had to get on it.

The sun was hot, the views hypnotic and the walk long, so that by the time we arrived at the gondola site, I had temporarily lost my mind, which is the only explanation for how I found myself standing in line with a gondola ticket in hand.

I made the ride, without screaming, which proves that living-in-denial is the roadway to achievement, even a modest achievement such as getting through five-minutes of this (click to see 54-second clip of end of ride).

More to follow, including a mountain-side restaurant review.

Murrenbach waterfall plunges 417 feet to valley floor. Lauterbrunnen is a classic glacial valley with near vertical cliffs on both sides.