18: The Lists

Switzerland has reawakened my love of shutters. They are everywhere, they are beautiful. I want some.

I have a friend who loves lists. I find it freaky, because I thought I was the only list-amaniac on the planet. Now I know there are more listers out there, probably all walking at an awkward angle (listing to the right or left).

My listing-friend blogged her 2011 year-in-review lists, which made me laugh until my eyes watered. I won’t say that I laughed until I cried, because I have four brothers and if they sense weakness in me, they will go in for the kill.

I have so many lists, the favorite one being: What cottage projects should we do this summer? At this point, many men will recognize that last sentence was in code. It really means: What cottage projects should he do this summer?

Switzerland’s House of Parliament, centre of government in Bern.

He, being my hubby Dave, does not like this list.

I also have lists of things I want to do – he does not like this list either because it includes interior house-painting projects. I am only five-feet tall, so Dave knows this means he will come home one day to find that I have painted any number of rooms, but only up to my highest reaching point. He is on the hook for all painting projects above the 6.5-foot mark.

I’m thinking of this because today I announced that after eight years of owning our latest house, I just last week figured out what colour I want to paint the bathroom. Dave knows this means he is going to be painting the top 2-3 feet of  wall space. I don’ t know why this bothers him. After all, I do the larger part (if he got to write in this blog, this is where he would point out that I sometimes leave the trim and fiddly painting parts for him to do) (good thing he doesn’t have the password to this blog).

But enough about that.

In the spirit of listing, here’s a list of things I like best about Switzerland.

  1. Chocolate: Lots and lots of chocolate.
  2. Medieval towns: Somehow medieval towns do not seem to have been bombed out in either of the world wars. I could be wrong about this, but if I’m right, it shows that even in war, there is a civil regard for architectural beauty. On the other hand, there are many signs of re-construction, so I probably am wrong.
  3. Restaurants in parks: For some reason, Victoria, the city where we live most of the time, equates eateries in parks with fecal/nuclear/toxic environmental contamination. People who hold those views should visit Europe, which has perfected the eating-in-the-parking experience into the sublime. A dining establishment or ice cream stand does not represent the end of the world as we know it.
  4. Canals: Instead of stormwater drain systems, the Swiss have open canals, fenced in charming wrought-iron, filled with swans, ducks and other waterfowl and lined with trees. I cannot think of a single reason Canadian cities don’t follow suit (hello, Ottawa). Think of the fun ice-skating trails winding through the cities this would create (hello Winnipeg).
  5. The Swiss: Switzerland’s jerk-to-nice-person ratio is about one jerk for every 150 nice people. That is a stunningly good ratio.

Something else I don’t like about Switzerland/Europe:   A lax attitude toward refrigerated meats and eggs, not to mention warmer dairy cases than would ever pass muster in North America. I know the meats in this photo are cured, but that is not enough for me.

Here is a list of things I like least about Switzerland.

  1. Chocolate: There’s entirely too much of it, and it is everywhere. How am I supposed to get into a bathing suit this summer when chocolates can be found in the meat, produce, dairy, bakery, pharmacy, cookie  and beverage aisles, not to mention at aisle-ends and check-outs.  Even after I go past the check-out at our closest grocery store (which is in the basement of a downtown building), at the top of the escalator is – what else but another kiosk of Lindt chocolate.
  2. Medieval town maps: Medieval towns seem to predate the concept of grid-based urban planning, so the roadways go along in charming little forest-path patterns, which is absolutely wonderful for photography, but not so great when trying to find one’s way through what is effectively a cobblestone maze. I wish the maps were better, as well as the street signs.
  3. Restaurants: Restaurants here are pricey. How pricey? A colleague of Dave’s recently spent two weeks in London, returning to Switzerland to declare London restaurants very cheap. Seriously? Who else emerges from a London eatery calling it a bargain but someone acclimatized to the high cost of dining out in Switzerland? That’s how expensive Swiss restaurants are.
  4. Canal litter: As a former parks commissioner, I know there is no amount of structural design that will completely thwart ne’er-do-wells, but I think Switzerland could raise its canal fences from about 3.5 feet to a higher level to reduce stolen-bicycle-littering (yes, this is where missing bikes show up). It also would keep kids from leaping over the rail, although no Swiss child would do that. They are born sensible.
  5. The Swiss: I love the Swiss, I do, but I am suspicious that their tolerance for prostitution, narcotics and public drunkenness stretches a tad too far.
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33: What I Will Miss, Item Two

St. Stephen’s Church, Vienna

I will miss the grandeur of old stone churches both stark unadorned Protestant and elaborate ornate Catholic ones. I will also miss how the Europeans re-imagine old architecture in new ways, such as the light show they throw on Vienna’s massive St. Stephen’s Cathedral at night. Unforgettable, too, are the rivers of tourists clicking digital cameras at the sculptures of saints inside while milling around people at prayer. There is something time-warpish about seeing stone figures of long-ago Christians juxtaposed with today’s Christians in the pews surrounding them.

Tourists and congregants mix it up inside St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna.

 

39: Saint-Ursanne: Founded by Rogueish Irish Monks

Saint Ursanne’s town core appears to have been a fortress that steps up into the Jura cliffs.

Saint-Ursanne is reportedly home to the sarcophagus of St. Ursicinus, a 7th-Century Irish monk exiled from France’s Burgundy region, although it is not clear if Ursicinus himself was exiled, or if he was merely following St. Columbanus who was most probably exiled, but may have just left the area due to continuing annoyances with the Frankish bishops.

Apparently, when the French called St. Columbanus to court to defend his observation of the Celtic dates for Easter, he simply failed to appear, but gave them the courtesy of a letter in which he reportedly said the bishops might include other important topics among their priorities besides the ancient Celtic religious calendar, all of which goes to show that Europeans have been rubbing each other the wrong way long before the Eurozone was introduced.

A replica of a statue of St John Nepomuk stands at the midway point of Saint-Ursanne’s Pont Saint-Jean Nepomucene. Built in 1973 by Laurent Boillat, it takes the weather-beatings, while the original statue carved from red sandstone hewn from Basel’s region is safe inside a nearby museum.

St. Columbanus is, by the way, the patron saint for motorcyclists, although how that happened I do not know because it would be 1,100 years after Columbanus’s death that motorcycles would be invented.

No matter. Intriguingly enough, Saint-Ursanne was packed with motorcycles the day we were there. I did not photograph any because motorcycles seem visually incongruous with 12th Century architecture. Not everyone will agree with me about this.

Despite this town’s close proximity to the French and German borders, there was no mention in  the brochure of how it weathered either World War, particularly WWII when the Swiss were readying to head for the hills in response to a threatened German invasion. There is an engraved marker in the cliff by the train station that lists WWI dates, so we might assume that Saint-Ursanne was among the Swiss observation points during that conflict.

Saint-Ursanne will be honoured this year (2012) by the Tour de France, which will pass through it around July 7th.

Tripadvisor only lists two inns in Saint-Ursanne. A Google search shows a little more than that. A nearby company rents kayaks and canoes for a paddle in the River Doubs.

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41: Saint-Ursanne

When people think of little Swiss villages, the picture floating about in their minds is probably very much like Saint-Ursanne, a tiny 12th Century village we tramped through this weekend. Saint-Ursanne’s warped clay-topped buildings back into the Jura Mountains white limestone cliffs, and overlook the River Doubs and beyond to picturesque grazing pastures.

The train passes above Saint-Ursanne, more than through it, and so the town is a charming 10-minute hike down the Jura cliffs over this cobblestone street. The walk back up is about 30 minutes. We did see a bus take passengers down, but not up. This would be in keeping with Swiss tradition, which is to climb inclines at every opportunity. I’m joking. I’m sure there is a bus ride up the hill, but not that we saw.

The atmosphere here is lazy, with an almost Spanish sensibility, although we were mindful that this is still the shoulder season in the tourist calendar, and the town’s proliferation of antique shops and cafes suggest the place is packed with travellers at the peak of the season.

It is a lovely place to while away an afternoon.

For those interested in church history, it is home to the Maison de la Dime, the area’s bishop-prince’s house where the church’s tithe was held. A tithe today is understood as one-tenth of  a person’s income that is given to God, or because God does not trouble himself with banking, what with owning all the real estate there is, and being able to make more should the need arise, the money is given to the church. Some churches today accept tithing through debit machines and I am sure automatic withdrawals can be arranged, but back in the 1500s, tithing was a somewhat messier business as it represented one-tenth of all livestock and crops. This necessitated the prince-bishop’s storehouse.

Non-church-goers back home in Canada/U.S.: Keep your goats, sheep and other livestock at home should you decide to visit a church. Most churches consider visitors akin to houseguests and do not ask for your tithe, be it in money, cheque, plastic or livestock.

Visiting an historic church in Europe: We’ve never been asked to pay admission, although a few churches keep out a donation box.

74: Living with language indignities plus can cold sores make you go blind?

The streets of Biel/Bienne, where I am working on a career as a social pariah.

There’s not much more refreshing than having ones personal medical information shouted from the pharmacy desk to the enjoyment of other shoppers.

First a little back-story: I have nearly all of my life carried the virus that produces cold sores – also known as Herpes Simplex Virus 1. This is not the more nasty Herpes Simplex 2 sexually transmitted disease. I emphasize: Not.

Rather, this is the one that produces the little fever blisters on the lip.

I got the virus the same way many did: By growing up poor. It is a true fact that more people in the lower classes have cold sores than in the more economically elite strata, even in supposedly egalitarian Canada. We the poor were more afflicted because we tended to share toothbrushes (yes, I shared a toothbrush with my four brothers – there is no amount of therapy that will reconcile me to this), our linens were laundered less often, and so forth, making the spread of contagion all the more swift.

This is, by the way, the same reason in past eras that poor people succumbed to deadly contagion long before the rich – the poor or orphaned often shared beds, hacking and wheezing on each other through the night. For those who protest, take it up with the lecturers of first-year Sociology and historians of epidemiology.*

But I drift from my topic.**

I went through life looking on the occasional cold-sore eruption as a minor inconvenience until 1985. That was the year that my friend’s son developed a cold sore lesion in his eye. Cue: Ewwwww and Gadzooks!

This is a rare affliction that usually clears up, however, it does put the cornea at risk of scarring, not to mention the conjunctiva and rarely and most dangerously the retina. This is, also, produced by Herpes Simplex Virus 1, which suddenly did not look so benign.

Thus was born The Great Contagion Containment Campaign that continues on even today. We do not pick off each others plates,*** share glasses, straws, forks, spoons, towels, and so forth in my household. I’ve disciplined myself to keep my fingers away from my mouth, especially when a cold sore has erupted. When I prepare food, my hands are washed repeatedly through the process and I only taste-test using a spoon that is then immediately thrown into the dishwasher. I even use surgical gloves when kneading or handling dough. I would no sooner double-dip on any food than I would slice off my baby finger. The prospect of licking batter off my fingers is as abhorrent as eating food off the floor.

I’ve occasionally been accused of taking this too far; that is until I point out that shutting down the disease-highway is a two-way street that benefits everyone, especially as I’m a carrier.

It is, of course, impossible to completely seal off contagion, but in 30 years of marriage, my husband remains in the clear and I’ve raised two boys to adulthood and neither of them has the virus. My doctor is in awe of my accomplishment.

Which brings us to the present: At the moment, I have a cold sore in the corner of my lip. Yesterday, I steeled my nerves and plunged into the pharmacy where by Swiss convention I must speak with a pharmacist before purchasing products that in North America are right out in the open on the shelves where we untrained laypersons just chuck them into our shopping carts with barely a thought. How I miss that shopping experience. But I drift again.

To ease my way into the conversation, I first asked the pharmacist for a cold cough syrup, sending her on the cold-virus track. After she had delivered it, I made a sad attempt to list the brand names of all the cold-sore cremes I know, none of which she recognized. The words cold and sore paired together mean nothing in German or French (or Italian, but I wasn’t going to try that language, I have enough trouble with the others).

I pointed to the cold sore on my lip and said it was a cold-virus-produced blister. A light of understanding crossed her face.

“You have herpes!” she announced.

“No, I do not have herpes. Not really. It’s just a cold sore,” I countered.

The word “no” threw her right off track, but I managed to steer her back in the right direction, at which point she announced even louder, “You have herpes! Herpes!”

And so she continued at increasing volume until I glumly agreed, “I have herpes. Yes. I do.” After all my denials, she gave me that look pharmacists reserve for clients suffering from mental conditions, a mix of pity, judgment and distrust.

She handed me a tube that cost roughly eight times what I would pay in Canada. I did not flinch. I paid, and then I crawled out of there as fast as I could.

Dave thinks this is not so bad. “You’ll never see those people again, and the odds are that no one else in the store understood English,” he said.

Easy for him to say. He works in an English environment all day long. Meanwhile, I’m busy in the community building my reputation as a social pariah.

* If you want to know more about cold sores from a reliable site, check it out at Web MD.

** I am always drifting from my topic. But on another note: You don’t have to be poor to get a cold sore. I wasn’t suggesting this at all. I was just recalling a lecture I heard at university. I do believe, however, that it was poverty that spread cold sores in my family. How else can one explain one toothbrush for five kids. Just typing this triggered my gag reflex. Excuse me.

*** That’s not entirely true. No one picks off my plate, because I am the disease vector. See, there is a positive side to having cold sores. I, however, have been known to pick off my husband’s or kids’ plates, but only with a clean fork.

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. 

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.

 

 

Can we get out of here?

Thank you Wikipedia for this photo. This is an F-15 Eagle. This is not the bird anyone wants to see soaring overhead.

Our trip to the “police’s stranger population” office as it is word-for-word translated, passed without incident, except for the part where they took our residency cards away.

I am not normally alarmed by this, except that the last time I took a flight out of Switzerland, the border control officer scowled at me until I produced that same card. I understand Switzerland’s insistence on seeing my residency card on the way in, but why on the way out? Can I leave here without that cute little pink-and-powder-blue plastic-coated card?

I am genetically tuned to flight. While one side of my family engaged in a slow migration across Canada, taking over 400 years to get from the St. Lawrence Seaway to the prairies, the other side wears the motto, “Let’s get the heck out of here now!” or as my father once described it “Run!” He was a man of few words, but that was because he was saving his breath for the big sprint out of Eastern Europe.

But I digress a little. Exit visas are a little-known dirty secret of some countries. I do not believe this will really be a problem in Switzerland, although if it is I will happily skip across the border into France, even if I have to walk the Jura Mountains to do it.

We hope these guys aren't waiting for us.

A friend of ours discovered the importance of exit visas when he and his young family landed in one of those little-known Middle-Eastern nations that form a mere fingernail on the map. Unfortunately, in his wake came the U.S. Army and they were ticked.

Now that I think about it, I can’t remember if he and his wife had children yet. No matter.

So while Saddam was getting kicked around the block by his mom for inciting the infamous “mother of all battles,” (at least, I hope she was kicking him around), our friend, let’s call him Sam, decided there really was no place like home, especially as home did not have any  Combat F-15 Eagles soaring overhead.

That’s when Sam found out he had an entry  visa, but not an exit  visa. Even though both begin with the letter “e,” they are very different, especially in the minds of border agents.

How long would it take to get an exit visa? Well, all the bureaucrats were busy hiding under desks, so visa processing was somewhat slowed down.

Sam, who happens to be a published author, does not realize this is his best story ever, mostly because he is emotionally incapacitated while retelling it. How he escaped remains sketchy, although he does recall an embassy official chiding him for not bringing two passports with him so that he could use the one without an entry visa stamp to flee the country.

We do not see much of Sam any more. Our lives have gently diverted away from each other, but I still count him among my friends, because it is very cool to know someone who has once sincerely uttered these words: “I want the next flight out of here. I don’t care where it’s going.” *

Which leads us to the important question: How do we get two Canadian passports, and is it too late to ask?

On the other hand, if we are stuck in Switzerland, which I’m sure we’re not, at least we will have plenty of chocolate to calm our nerves.

*He ended up in Greece, which at the time of the Kuwait invasion was okay, but today would not be so much fun, so I hope we don’t run into similar problems.

 

Bratislava the Beautiful

Despite rampant graffiti, vacant streets and widespread signs of urban rot, Bratislava is a European city and therefore, still rich in magnificent architecture. What makes it outstanding in some measure is that it is a living urban museum of its past. Like all European cities, attempts are ongoing to wash out signs of WWII and the economic trashing it produced, so if you want to see something before municipal planners hit the “delete” button, go to Bratislava. Slovakia may be in the economic basement, but there are signs of an upward swing. And if the money should present itself, it might start facelifting-away those markers of its sad history. Why not? The Berliners did it, eradicating all but a small strip of the Berlin Wall? Still, as an anti-revisionist, I hope they leave some scruffy bits.

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What to Skip on Your Trip

 

I could have missed this, but I'm glad I didn't.

Every destination we eye brings forward the ultimate travel question: What sites can we skip?

It runs counter to the usual travel query – what are the must-sees.

That is the wrong question. It works backwards in that it assumes an infinite amount of time is available whereas even the most summary of polls will pile on a backlog of tourist-to-do’s that at the end of your journeys will evoke a haunting suspicion that you have left the “must-sees” unseen and for years to come as you ruminate on your travels, it will be in an air steeped in the stench of bygone opportunities.

And that is not what you paid for when you ponied up to the travel web-site and booked your holiday.

So edit your list.

The ultimate travel satisfaction is not in aiming high, nor low, but for somewhere between mediocre and medium. Forget those travel-writers who make it sound possible to see it all in 36 hours (a la New York Times travel section).

We have taken serious runs at seeing cities in 36 hours, but to keep up with the NY Times version would require copious consumption of Red Bull and absolutely no sleep (although this would save on hotel bills).

And so, I have been to Paris, but not the inside of the Louvre (long line-up).

I have lived in Spain and not gone near the lauded Camino del Santiago pilgrim walk (I read the Bible and learned that heaven does not require hiking, although if you like a good walk, go ahead).

I have been to Germany and not seen a holocaust museum (although I heartily believe that everyone who complains about Israel being knee-jerk over-defensive should visit at least five holocaust museums).

But I drift from my point, which is, what can you skip on your trip? Well? What can you skip?

More ramblings on this later.

A view of Vienna from the hill overlooking Schoenbrunn palace is beautiful, but could I have missed it? Yes. I could have.

I am always glad to see any statue that was not created between 1940 and 2010, so I am happy I did not miss this. On the other hand, Europe has about 893-gazillion horse and warrior sculptures, so if I did miss this, I would not mind terribly.

Crossing the Rhine at Basel

Jumping back to our rain-soaked trip to Basel of a few weeks ago, here’s a photo of a water-going vessel that takes nothing to work: No fuel, no wind, and no substantive human effort, although it does require a good current in the water.

From inside the fahri - passengers sit on wooden benches around the edge of the boat - a few are inside a cabin, but most are outside, so if it's raining, prepare to get wet.

Four of these boats (called fahri) bring passengers across the Rhine for 1.60 Euros a head. The heavy timbered boats are tethered to a line strung across the Rhine (they are spread out across the river, so there’s only one boat to a line). The captain shifts a large lever at the bow of the boat which sets it off into the current that pushes it along the line, gradually drawing the boat to the opposite shore.

The captain explained that it’s the direction of the lever that determines which way the boat will go. The boat travels at this oblique angle, which is a little weird to think of a boat that doesn’t ever go straight. The ride only takes a few minutes. Is it worth 1.60 Euros to drift across the Rhine? Sure. Why not?

Rhine ferry-crossing.

The perils of public transport

Train-traveler packs one, two, three bottles/cans in full view for the trip.

Drunks were everywhere this weekend.

At the Bern train station,  a dread-locked man bark loudly in the face of passengers stepping onto a train.

The passengers stoically looked the other way while he pressed in, determined to make his presence known, if not felt.

Drunks upset the delicate social balance where we all agree that when we venture out, we not bark at others, and if we cannot stop ourselves from barking, then at least we should stay far enough away so that our victims are not soaked in our saliva spray.

Is it too much to ask? Apparently so.

This guy must be going on an overnight trip.

Staggerers,  shouters, boorish keg-carriers –  I judge you all.

A red-faced young man carried on what could have been the longest yodel ever as he stood on the train platform. A few minutes later, he smacked himself down in the quadrant of seats behind ours on the train, still yelling. He could have been singing, or bragging, or screaming ‘Help me, I am about to fall into an alcohol-induced coma.’

Given the unpredictability of drunks, especially that their moods  switch swiftly from party to sour to let-me-punch-someone-in-the-face, we quietly moved to another car.

At Fribourg's covered bridge. Isn't it charming? We could barely notice it, thanks to booze-soaked wanderer.

Last week, on the train to France, a tattooed scramble-haired man in an agitated state sat across the aisle from us,  hissing into his cell phone. Was it a drug deal gone bad? Was he going to take it out on us?  It did focus our minds, but not on the French countryside.

This weekend, as we got off  the train at Fribourg, we were happy to leave the drunken yowler behind, but after we made the walk down Fribourg’s plunging cobblestone streets and through its rustic wood-beamed covered bridge, we heard a familiar sound.

The skinny yowler staggered into view. How was it that he was still standing?

Eroded limestone hangs over the river at Fribourg. See the fisherman in the lower right corner. He is having a good day, because he has not met our drunk.

We had just taken out our map to plot our course, but the yowler, not the map, was going to decide where we would go.

He turned away up a narrow side road, his arms flailing, his head cocked oddly, while he continued in that strange thin bellow.

We took the road that he did not, and it was an enchanting road, but it lost some of its allure as we kept an ear open for the yowler.

For the first time since arriving here, I missed my car.

Fribourg's 40-metre long covered bridge, called the "Bern Bridge," dates back to the 17th century and is made of stone, wood and dirt. Yes, dirt, which is also the reference that I make to drunks.

Chillin at Chillon

Chateau de Chillon

As cottage owners, and therefore owners of an old-fashioned outhouse, we were fascinated to learn of 700-year-old toilets inside a Swiss castle near Montreux. What design, what wood choices, what the heck …. how did the French/German/Swiss make a toilet last this long when all over Canada, wooden outhouses are sagging at the floorboards?

And so we went to Chateau de Chillon, built on a rocky island on the shores of Lake Geneva (locally known as Lac Leman) over the centuries. The site was held by the French Savoys since the 13th century until 1536, when they skittered away in the night after the Germans shot two rounds at them.

Dave checks out secret exit through which French escaped. They had to have run right by their torture chamber prisoners to do it, among whom was Francois Bonivard (1493-1570)who was jailed for being a political upstart. He was made famous by English poet Lord Byron in the poem "The Prisoner of Chillon."

The French, some how forgetting their position’s military advantage (the castle was considered impenetrable), decided they needed to be elsewhere and snuck out through a secret passageway during the night, effectively  handing the keys over to the Germans who must have been a little disappointed to have dragged their cannons all that way when they could have simply showed up and shouted up the castle ramparts.

The castle is the melding together of a conglomeration of structures, and it shows as it weaves and bobs around the island. Despite it’s four grand staterooms, it lacks the palatial air of Spanish castles. Nevertheless, it was more fun to troll through because it had the air of a real working fortress, although that unfortunately included a torture chamber, complete with original etchings of biblical figures on the wall, scratched in by the hapless victims imprisoned there.

Pretty sober stuff that struck home as we toured the castle during a smashing thunder and lightning storm, with waves crashing outside against the island.

Rugged, beautiful, cruel.

But definitely worth seeing. Admission is only $12 an adult, a very decent fare.  It took us two hours to tour the entire castle, which appeared small, but it curves up and down, to the point that visitors quickly lose their orientation, and the only way to be certain of your location is to keep checking the numbered rooms, all 46 of them, which are handily described in a brochure that comes with admission.  According to my pedometer, we walked about 2.5 miles, which doesn’t seem possible, but my pedometer hasn’t lied to me yet.

Yes, I photographed the 700-year-old toilet. I have no class.

The toilets, by the way, were indoors, and simple wood planks set into the stone walls. The “refuse” would tumble down a large stone chasm that curved and eventually opened to daylight, by which we can only assume the refuse ended up in the lake.

Indoor plumbing was tricky back then, because the opening into the wall could be used by an attacking army as a way to crawl inside.

Maybe it was the thought of soiled Germans emerging from the latrines that made the French think they would just as soon not fight, which some might say, has become intrinsically entwined in France’s military history.

If you go, a happy little sign outside of the castle says it’s a 45-minute walk to Montreux along the waterfront promenade. It took us 60-minutes in a pouring rain and cutting wind, however, it was invigorating. For one thing, we were the only tourists on the promenade, which meant we didn’t have to do a two-step to navigate through a crowd. Secondly, it’s a lovely walk that starts out through some nondescript

Charming little courtyard. Must not have been so charming though, when the torture sessions were on downstairs.

hedges and eventually opens to a wide path flanked with mansions on one side and botanical gardens fronting the water on the other.

You will pass a casino made famous by Deep Purple’s song Smoke on the Water, which refers to the time it burned down in the 1970s when a patron lit it up with a flare gun. You can go in there to eat, but they will want to take your belongings, your coat, and seemingly your identification while you’re inside. Dave and I measured the wisdom of leaving our valuables with the sort of people who run casinos and decided we’d rather brave the storm outside. It was only a 5 or 10 minute walk from there to a McDonalds, which we did not stop at, although we thought of it because it is the only affordable “Swiss” restaurant we have found so far. Instead, we went onto a pleasant lakefront cafe, which  I will write about tomorrow.

Click on photos for close-ups! 

A Paris riot – or just random running?

 

As we crossed the Pont d’lena bridge on the northwest side of the Eiffel Tower, we heard a loud jingling noise. Was it Christmas?

The noise grew.  Young men with Middle-Eastern complexions were racing around us in what looked like the start of a riot. Oh good. Something to write home about.

It was actually Dave the Alert who noticed that only dark-skinned men were running, their rings of souvenirs filling the air with their musical jingling. It was a very contrary scene.  On the one hand, we felt the pressure of herd-behavior and wanted to run. On the other, the jingling made me reach for my wallet and look around for a Salvation Army kettle.

I did not notice the runners’ ethnicity right away, but I was cognizant of the fact that France’s controversial new prohibitions on face-concealing burqas had just come into effect.

Joanne, perspiring from recurrent hot flashes, not from near-almost-mob-trampling. Seriously, hot flashes are more scary.

Yes, I’m writing it just like that. It’s politically incorrect to notice anyone’s race/ethnic-origin these days, but as a retired reporter, I just say it like it is, and it is like this: Recent ethnic-group-targeted-law + Middle-Eastern males in flight = Get the Heck Out of There.

I could take the oblique route and say no blond middle-aged women were seen fleeing the scene, but that’s only because I (blond middle-aged woman) have 1. a bad Achilles tendon, and 2. am too dense to realize when something is happening, even if something is Middle-Eastern males running at high speeds through a city famous for Muslim-youth riots only a few years ago.

Soldiers, arms at the ready, patrol Paris's streets.

Within seconds, we found ourselves standing alone on a broad swath of pavement that moments earlier had been packed with people. This could not be good, and then we saw the reason for the running. His strut drew attention even from across the street – a Paris police officer. We quickly ascertained that those fleeing from him were unlicensed vendors, and maybe even illegal aliens. Who knows?

The police made no attempt to chase down the vendors, who actually raced through a line of armed soldiers, who also made no move to apprehend. It was clear this was just business as usual, although for the remainder of the time we were at the Eiffel Tower, the vendors kept a watchful and anxious eye out on the crowds.

Sadly, the police officer and soldiers refused my request to take their photo. I did not argue. This will surprise police officers in Victoria who know me, but it may have been because of the assault rifles and Glocks in full view, and the fact that I was a guest in a foreign country, and so on my best behavior.

Tomorrow: Thieves in Paris – cute, adorable, efficient.

A French garden and an Italian squabble

A giant circular pond of green brackish water in Tuileries Garden attracts sunbathers.

As I sit here in our Swiss flat with the patio door open, an Italian domestic spat is going on downstairs.  It’s what we call a “breaking story,” so I’ll report on it in italics (how suitable) as I enter today’s scribblings on our trip to Paris.

It is a testament to spin doctors of all generations that the word “garden” is imbedded in the name Tuileries Garden, which are the grounds outside the Louvre.

I use the word “grounds” deliberately, because it suggests a flat, uninterrupted horizontal space, which is what we found, instead of the expected cultured urban forest.

The woman’s voice climbs upward into an elegant aria, accented by a few words here and there from the man. I have no idea what they’re saying, but it sounds like an argument over him spending too much time on the phone with his mother. 

A 19th-century sculpture, or a modern-day visitor in Paris's midday sun?

Who would have thought the French would lay a belly of gravel as a garden centerpiece?

The garden (term loosely applied) is almost 500 years old, so we looked forward to strolling beneath broad sweeps of mature shade trees. It was not to be.

Paris must have a very hostile climate, because in its few scattered groves, the trees that it did have were about the size of the cherry trees we planted in our backyard in 2004.

The woman lectures at machine-gun speed, the man responds in short resigned sentences.

A later generation of Tuileries’ garden planners circa 19th-century, probably seeing the trees were not doing so well,  trimmed the gravel flats with stone sculptures of human figures in various stages of angst, foreshadowing the postures of modern-day visitors withering under the sun.

The Louvre, the mobs and some guy on a horse trying to get through it all.

A door slams! The woman has left! 

How did the sculptors know? We were fascinated by their foresight. Either that, or the heat stroke brought on by standing in the furnace of a stone-and-gravel chamber has rattled our senses.

We now understand the French Revolution in a new light, which had some of its most poignant events occur in the summer heat. Of course the French were cranky. What else could they be?

As for the Italian revolution downstairs, the woman is back. I knew she would be. She tells the man she loves him. He tells her the same. She says something else. He grunts. Her voice goes up – yes, they’re back at it again. 

The "garden" outside the Louvre.

Someone comes into the room – the mother-in-law perhaps? She has a more mature voice. The couple’s tone softens. The woman takes a few cloaked stabs at the man, then, the sound of cutlery, and the older woman’s voice.

Ah, she is solving their argument with food, the force that has sustained Italian culture over the centuries. 


 

Tomorrow: More Paris – the homeless, the fake riot and train-station thievery. 

And now,  in the spirit of fairness, despite my whining over their parks-board decisions, Paris is beautiful. Here’s the proof:

Charming little cafe near the Notre Dame Cathedrale. According to its signage, the cafe has been in operation since 1594, ie. shortly before my ancestors decided they had enough of this place and bolted for Canada. This in no way should be taken to reflect my family's opinions on French food.

Pont Alexandre III: Beautifully embellished bridge, and like so many Paris sites, built for the 1900 World Fair. Cannot imagine what a dull place Paris was, architecturally speaking, before the World Fair.

Grand Palais des Beaux Arts: Art nouveau iron and glass structure erected for the 1900 World Fair.

A rental bike post outside of our hotel (Waldorf Arc d'Triomphe on rue Pierre Demours). These stands were all over Paris. We didn't rent any bikes, owing to our terror of French roadways and the drivers that populate them, but saw quite a few being ridden by tourist-types.

I have no idea what this is.

Cathedrale Notre Dame de Paris: Christian site since 250 AD, church building started of one sort or another existed on or near here since the 4th century. This building's construction began in 1163.

The cemetery at Montparnasse, burial-place of many notables including Emile Durkheim (pioneering sociologist), Simone de Beauvoir (French philosopher, author), and the Roy family, of which we may or may not be related through my maternal great-grandmother.

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.