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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Loveless Lausanne

Sculpture on the waterfront at Lausanne's Olympic Museum.

By all counts, we should have fallen in love with Lausanne, but it did not happen.

Lausanne, parked on the north shore of Lake Geneva is part of Switzerland’s “Swiss Riviera.”  What does it have?

Okay, Lausanne's waterfront is not without merit. It has many charming wharfs.

Old town? Check.

Castle? Check.

Thousand-year-old cathedral? Check.

Lakeshore walkway complete with bobbling marinas, beaches, views facing south to the French Alps?

Check. Check. Check. Check.

And yet, something was missing. We mused that we had reached that saturation point again where the sight of one more soaring buttress produces only a yawn and the notion of climbing castle steps makes us check our watches and review the outbound train schedule. It doesn’t seem possible but it happened even during our time in Spain, which possibly is home to the most amazing architecture and somewhat intact bi-millenial Roman structures on the continent. As Dave says, it’s a sign that it is time to go home. But we are still four months away from that.

And so, for those of you who have stumbled on this blog through a Google search on Lausanne, here is a word to the wise: Skip it.

This is the more walkable portion of the Lausanne lakefront promenade. It got narrower than this and was surfaced partially in uneven flagstones, making the 4-8-foot possible drop onto the rocks below all the more exciting.

The lake-shore walks along Montreux are wider and prettier. The medieval old-towns in Neuchatel, Bern and Zürich are more intriguing. The castle Chillon, near Montreux is the one to see. For inspiring cathedrals and churches, head to Solothurn. For bridges, cafes and more entrancing waterfronts, see Lucerne and Thun.

If you cannot stop yourself from going, the waterfront settlement Ouchy, which is actually Lausanne’s original townsite that was moved uphill to a more defensible position, is okay, although be wary of your footwear. The concrete walkway is surprisingly narrow and lacking in guard rails.

Lausanne is also home to the Olympic Museum, which was closed for renovations when we were there. The gardens are still open, where visitors can check out outdoor statues that confirm that the quality of public art definitely took a dip in the 1970s and 1980s.

Switzerland is regarded as a relatively safe place to travel, but as always, the rule for tourists is do not hang around train stations and do not give money to  panhandlers who may be part of a troop watching to see where you keep your wallet. Lausanne was one of the few places we’ve travelled in this lovely country where we had the sense we were being pegged by pickpockets. It has a more active street population than other towns, which takes away from some of its beauty.

Some loitering Lausannites gave us the creeps.

 

 

Second stops in the small spots of Switzerland.

Just another quiet church music rehearsal.

Switzerland has any number of sites worth seeing a second time, and one of those is Solothurn, where for the second time we stumbled into the Jesuit Church (Jesuitkirche) on the main drag and for the second time, happened into a music rehearsal. Do I detect an echo? (click here to hear what we heard and to see the camera pan over the ceiling frescoes)

Architectural detail in frescoe-jewelled High Baroque architecture found in Solothurn's Jesuitkirch, built in the late 1600s. We had showed up in the Spring and walked in on a colourful folk-gospel rehearsal featuring a female soloist whose voice matched the High Baroque building’s rising arches and columns. This time, we got a “horse of a different colour” with a choral and classical music performance, just for us and a few others drafted in off the street to enjoy the moment. It’s times like these that we have to suspect God loves to show off the good stuff.

Switzerland has a little of everything, including Christian martyrs that the Romans beheaded in the 3rd century, and who are remembered in statuary at St. Ursen Kathdrale. As is usually the case, the Romans did not mind the Christians worshipping God, they were just peeved the Christians refused to acknowledge Rome's deities, demonstrating that what ticked off people then, ticks them off still.

I grew up in a university district with some fairly interesting friends who came from families of broad talents and skills, among them, a few professional symphony musicians.  Maybe my music tastes were crafted during those impromptu violin and piano concertinas that served as intermissions from discussions on international politics, biochemistry and the mental dysfunctions of our track coach. Ever since, my ear has preferred the roughshod uncut take on a musical piece, something like Susan Boyle’s first run at “I dreamed a dream” on Britain’s Got Talent in 2009. The heart and giftedness in her uncoached version of that song tops any of her later polished productions.

Which is to say, if you go to Solothurn, or any Swiss town for that matter, be sure to step into the churches and see what’s going on there. Odds are, there will be nothing but grand architecture and maybe the sale of souvenirs, but it seems that in Solothurn, the odds might be excellent that you will see something that you will never forget. Church music, living room jam sessions, rehearsals in unexpected places, these are the things that make memories that will go with us for years to come.

Oh yes, and chocolate. Chocolate makes memories, too. Speaking of which, Solothurn is home to a number of chocolateries, where visitors can idle the afternoon away comparing, cooing and slipping into chocolate comas. Not a bad way to pass the hours.

Other things to see:

    • St. Ur or St. Urses or St. Ursen Kathdrale on a sunnier day

      Kunstmuseum – A small art gallery with big art history, including work by Picasso, Cezanne and other masters. This vibrant museum also hosts modern art exhibits that are as good as anything to be seen in major cities.

    • St. Ursen Kathdrale – This church has been closed to the public, we believe due to renovations (remember our language limitations), but you can still enjoy its exterior, as well as a 250-stair climb up its bell tower for fabulous views. Note: Do not attempt this if you have a family history of heart disease. Click here for a description of the vertical march and to see our sunny-day visit to Solothurn in the Spring.
    • Altes Zeughaus – Weapons museum that we are sure is lovely, but we were too cheap to pay admission, so we offer no appraisal on its merits.
    • Rathaus – An appropriately named office building for the municipal government. In keeping with the foot-dragging policies of municipal governments everywhere, this building was constructed over a period of 235 years. Think of that next time you go to your town hall asking for street lights on your block.
    • Fortified walls, towers and gates – Stroll through the old-town to see remnants of these structures left over from the 1600s.

When things go right

Solothurn's St. Ur's cathedral roofline. We climbed up 250 poorly lit, uneven wood and stone steps to the top (see people there on the right tower - they look like ants. 15 minutes later, that's where we were). Because this was the trip where nothing went wrong, we did not plunge to our deaths. Nice.

My albatrossness began in early childhood, when my Uncle Guy gave me my first lesson in the fine art of fishing.

At 4 a.m. we hiked out to a sparkling clean river with rock waterfalls. At 5 a.m. we returned to the camper. Uncle Guy sported a hole in his ear lobe … this in the day before men got their ears pierced except in fishing accidents … his favorite childhood lucky fishhook was somewhere at the bottom of the river and my right leg was scraped up and down from plunging into a hidden rock crevice as we crossed the waterfalls, bringing the water right up to my chin.

Uncle Guy fished me out – the only catch of the day and one he restrained himself from saying he’d like to throw back.

A year or two later, my Aunt Rosie listened to Uncle Guy’s account and determined that the flaw was in the teacher, not the student. She took me fishing at Rainbow Falls in the Whiteshell. It was the first time she had ever seen anyone hook a seagull.

Fast-forward a few decades and my older brother brought his boat out to our cottage for a fishing excursion. It was the first time he had seen someone hook a loon.

The common thread in these accounts is not fishing, although that might seem reasonable. It is travel. In every instance, bags were packed, gas tanks filled and coolers jammed with sandwiches. It makes my one-city-four-hotels story of Paris appear in a new light.

Solothurn's main promenade.

It’s also why I’m a nervous traveler. I don’t think things are going to go wrong. I know they will.

This is what makes the last weekend so amazing. We hopped the train for a short 15-minute ride to Solothurn, a village so un-noteworthy that even Rick Steeves (our travel guru) gives it no mention in his guidebooks.

It turned out to be the best day-trip yet. And nothing went wrong, ergo I have nothing to write about it except to say that Solothurn, despite it’s somewhat weird name, is outstanding for its baroque architecture, narrow cobblestone streets, Italianesque styling and museums where entrance is by donation (we figure $10 is about right).

Click here to see a 54-second video of Solothurn’s marching band – sorry that my videography skills are substandard. I’m working on it. As Dave says, much would improve if I would just stand up while videotaping. I was standing up.

Solothurn's clock tower.

Dave's ancestor? We don't know. Solothurn art museum held an original Van Gogh, Cezanne and Picasso - not bad for a village of 15,000 and canton (state) of about 245,000..