61: Cantons and Canada

Switzerland, the land of many cobblestones and cantons.

Today is Labour Day, making it a public holiday in 10 of Switzerland’s 26 cantons. My husband’s work is in a canton that does not designate this a holiday, while some of his coworkers live in cantons that do, and so the question is: Do you take a holiday based on the address of your workplace or your home?

Even the Swiss seem uncertain.  When asked if staff should come in to work, a Swiss executive referred the question to the Human Resources Department, but based on past experience, my guess is that the head of HR is on holiday. One fellow lives and works in different cantons that both call today a regular work day, but he comes from a former communist-ruled country where Labour Day was practically a holy day so based on that criteria, he is staying home.  No one seems fussed about this.

If you live in the right canton, such as Zürich, you will enjoy 15 paid public holidays. If you live in the wrong one, like Appenzell, you  only get eight.

Coming from Canada, a land of 13 provinces and territories combined, we often see the nation is somewhat uneven in its application of rights, responsibilities and privileges. For example, in Ontario, medically necessary travel is funded through the government, while in British Columbia, residents have to go to a registered charity for help.

And while the federal government appears to be overseeing a  national health care system, the fact is that British Columbia demands monthly fees from its citizens (just like a private insurance company, gasp), while Manitoba only asks that you live inside its borders to qualify. How B.C. politicians get away with this and why voters put up with it is beyond me.

But to get back to public holidays, some Canadians get more, others not so much. Nationally, workers get nine paid days off; provinces add to that, but not at the same rate. British Columbians only get one extra day while at the other end of the country, Newfoundland/Labradorites enjoy as many as seven provincial holidays.

The rest of Canada says nothing about this because it seems reasonable compensation for having to live in Newfoundland/Labrador.

But to get back to the question about whether my hubby should go to work today, the answer is yes. He is contractor. He only gets paid if he shows up.

Public holidays in Switzerland

Public holidays in Canadian provinces by federal dates and provincial dates. 

81: Cobble Gobble: Is China invading Europe one cobblestone at a time?

This cobblestone in Geneva may have been relaid (sett) in modern times, but it is a good example of the use of water-polished eclectic riverstone.

Our little town of Biel has a medieval district laced in cobblestone lanes that slope into the foot of the Jura Mountains.

This gap-toothed cobblestoned street in Bratislava is pretty old and dilapidated, but you can see by the squared edges that these are still quarried stones and are therefore relatively modern.

Not all is as it seems. The cobblestones are not genuine from the Middle Ages as is the village. They are in fact the same black-basalt-coloured cobblestone granite pavers you can have laid in your driveway.

We’ve seen these types of pavers throughout Switzerland, France, Italy, Slovakia, Germany and Austria. They are a menace, in that in some places they are creeping in over ancient cobblestone streets because they provide a smoother surface. Nonetheless, they are still preferred over asphalt, which is what you will find in the charming cultural centre of Basel’s old-town. Shame.

Authentic cobblestone streets can still be found: Bratislava has the most beautiful uneven cobblestone surfaces, which unfortunately I cannot find in my photo-files, dang!  The only photo I can find is of a 1800s “sett” street. Setts hail from the era when squared and quarried stone became more available and towns started replacing local riverbed stone with the flatter setts.

Even impoverished Bratislava is upgrading, so the old rounded riverbed stones that are of varying sizes and colours are on the way out. They are understandably not the easiest to traverse, rendered as they are into miniature hillocks by the pressures of time, the substrata and, of course, the weight of traffic.

Cobblestone in Biel/Bienne's historic quarter. The lack of uniformity in each stone's size suggests these are not from China.

It is perhaps a testament to Europe that its historic districts are far from static museum pieces. They are well-traversed, so its roadways are best if upgraded so that people don’t trip on every other step.

Solothurn, Switzerland is also home to genuine cobblestone, as are any number of tiny Swiss villages. The cobblestones date back to the 15th Century, and were usually taken from local riverbeds, hence each area’s stone roads are a stamp of the region’s individuality. I love the more recently added black paving stones, but they are the same anywhere you go in Europe or North America. I would have imagined they all come from Northern Ontario where black granite is in abundance, but more likely these streets are from China. Check out this supplier.

According to Wikipedia – a not necessarily reliable source of information by the way – some cobblestone roads have heritage-designation and are protected, but I could not get a single government office to verify that.

European cobblestone is not necessarily in danger. It can be purchased where else but the U.S. Here is one California, supplier who will happily ship it to you anywhere you like – maybe even back to Europe.

The grey 'path' along this Solothurn, Switzerland street is relatively new. If you look at the raw umber-toned stones in the courtyard and roadway, you will see they are of an older vintage The absence of uniformity in the street stone's sizes, colours and their rounded edges suggest they are much older and possibly drawn from nearby riverbeds (River Aar).

Here's a closer look. Given the flatness of this cobblestone surface, it appears that it could be a relaid "sett" from the 1800s, but it also could be the original locally drawn riverstones.

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. 

Train versus Plane

Our first stop in Vienna: Schonbrunn Palace, where we arrived shortly after 8 a.m. due to our early morning train arrival. It turned out to be a good thing, because even in December, the place was filling up by the time we left a few hours later.

Only 25 Euros to fly to London? I’ll take it. 50 Euros to Rome? Okay. 47 Euros to Barcelona? Not bad.

Also, not really true. Yes, there are fabulous flight-deals to be had, but here’s the fact: Even a one-hour flight will take a 1.5-hour train ride to the Zürich airport, which itself takes 2-3 hours to navigate thanks to the presence of line-ups like we’ve never seen before. Also, for some reason the Swiss believe that taking a direct route to anything only allows too much lounging among its passengers, creating an air of sloth, and so the guided march through Zürich airport is something of a maze that loops passengers through much of the airport, only to end up back in the same zone from which they passed through 20 minutes earlier.

I wish this were not true, but it is. I like a stroll as much as the next person, but not so much when toting luggage, worrying about border officials, and getting the impression from the forced march that our gate is in the next Canton. If it’s rough on me, a daily walker, I can’t imagine what it is like for those whose fitness level lags. Possibly these marches are a survival test to weed out the weak.

Dave in our "grande" train compartment complete with overhead windows. Small, but very comfy.

But I drift. All of the above explains why we favour train travel, even though it appears to take longer than fly-time, which it usually doesn’t. For example, the total train, plane and automobile trip to Leipzig from our hotel is about eight hours – the same amount of time as it takes to take the train alone, with much less stress.

Our trip to Vienna and Bratislava was made on the overnight train that departs Zürich at 10:30 and arrives in Vienna at 7:30 a.m. The whole price for two adults to travel return was 700 Swiss Francs (CHF) to ride in the luxury compartment that has its own bathroom complete with shower, a double bunk, plus a small seating area with a cafe-sized table and two chairs in front of large picture windows to enjoy the views. To ride in the compartment without a private bathroom costs 24 CHF less. We only know this because Swiss Rail messed up our booking and we ended up in the second-rate compartment on the trip home. It was a sardine-can experience, but not too bad.

A note to the weighty and heighty: The bunks are very narrow.

700 CHF is a lot of moolah, but here’s a little market comparison on our upcoming trip to Venice (I am too lazy to figure out what it would have cost for a flight to Vienna). We are taking a day-time train leaving at around noon from Biel, switching trains in Bern with a short stop in Milan, then on to Venice for 630 CHF for two return tickets.

If we were to fly, the total cost would have been 500-580 CHF. We would have missed the chance to stroll through Milan, and the fun of a train ride through the Swiss Alps. The total travel time on the train will be seven hours (including the one-hour stop in Milan).

The travel time by air with the train to Basel (where we could catch a flight), plus the requisite two-hour airport-waiting/marching time and fly-time would be five-to-six hours, not including the time it would take to find our hotel on the other end, which would probably be an hour, bringing the grand travel time total to, you guessed it, seven hours.

Pack as lightly as possible for train travel. Even luxury compartments are small.

Part of which would include the indignity of passing muster at airport security.

This is nothing to say of the varying environmental costs. I admit, I don’t pay attention to the environmental impact when I’m travelling, but I’ve noticed rigid environmentalists travel as much and more than I do, so I don’t feel bad about that. But if an environmentalist is reading this, shame on you for travelling by air. It sucks up the fossil fuels to a Suzukiesque-screaming degree.

Note: If we lived in a big city with an airport, we might fly more often, but we’re 1.5 hours away from major airports by train.

Second note: Another intriguing aspect of train travel is the immersion into local culture. When riding in the regular cars, you are surrounded by the locals as they go about their regular lives and it is something of a sight to see. For some reason, air travel has a socially insular quality to it, perhaps because the seats all face forward. On trains, passengers face one another, allowing for easy observation and the opportunity for conversation.

Christmas Market in Our Little Town


This is a cauldron of gluhwein (mulled wine) over an open fire, sitting in a bed of wood chips and evergreen boughs, surrounded by around 200 people drinking the gluhwein, under large canopies. What could possibly go wrong?

A few blogs back, I suggested that small-town Christmas markets tend to have better offerings than big-city markets. I still stand by that – for Canada. Not so much for Switzerland, at least not so far.

Our little town’s Christmas Market booths are very much like those in Zürich. The downside of both is that aside from gluhwein, the emphasis was light on local handmade goods. On the up-side: Zürich had lively street performances going on, so the Big City wins this time around.

That is, unless one of the features of our town’s street market goes awry. A pedestrian corridor has been layered in wood chips, adorned with logs and evergreen boughs, in the midst of which the Swiss keep two hot fires burning beneath two large cauldrons of steaming wine. This is surrounded by about 200 people drinking the mulled wine, with most of the space protected under large canopies.

This is the kind of thing that would make Vancouver Island fire chiefs sit up, take notice, then pass out from horror.

Some day, this photo will appear on some "ghost" website, alleging ghosts walk the streets of Biel/Bienne. Note: Not ghosts. Just a slow shutter on moving targets on a dark street. Still, pretty cool photo.


Not ghosts, not at all.





Naughty or Nice on Zurich’s Streets

Watch out, little girl, you might get a SMACK!

It’s not everyday that an old guy spanks me with a broom and walks away without a bruised solar plexus.

But we’re in Switzerland, and when in Switzerland, do as the Swiss do, which is to tolerate stranger-on-stranger slaps. The stranger in question was Schmutzli, a dark-natured counterpart to a Santa Claus-like figure whom the Swiss assure me is not at all a Santa Claus, but a Swiss Father Christmas. Santa Claus, it is said, is a North American creation. I’m sure someone will argue with that, but that is how the Swiss see this.

Wherever Father Christmas strolls the streets in his characteristic red costume, Schmutzli is not far away in a hooded brown monkish robe, brandishing a twig whisk with which he punishes bad children, or if there are no children around, a middle-aged woman who mistakenly comes within reach.

The Swiss are a fun, friendly people, even when they roam the streets beating people with sticks.

Schmutzli later informed me that he was paid by the municipality to play his role, and that Zürich has plenty of Father Christmas and Schmutzli pairs roaming the streets. Nice work, if you can get it.

Smacking strangers in a tourist-district, however, calls for a certain amount of diplomacy. First, Schmutzli is in costume, which makes him appear less threatening. Second, as he delivers the spank, he smiles benignly and applies only a light, judicious touch, cause who knows, maybe someone has grabbed him by the neck and pushed him into the ground before, such as a woman fresh off the plane from New York or perhaps he has met my Aunty Rosie.

And finally, Schmutzli carries a large sack full of goodies, which he offers after the ceremonial “beating” of the bad child.

Santa has an evil twin!

While our own brush with Schmutzli and his twig-broom was uneventful, the tradition does have its nasty side. It is reported that a boy in Lucerne was chased and beaten by a band of teenage self-appointed Schmutzli. Yikes.

In some traditions, Schmutzli abducts children, which explains why this tradition fails to gain traction in North America. The season would be thick with lawsuits. That would certainly make a Merry Christmas for lawyers.

You can learn more about Schmutzli by clicking here. 

Tidbit: I once interviewed a priest named Father Christmas. I got his name through the New York Dioceses who assured me there were several real Father Christmases in Canada and the U.S. He was very jolly. 

Big city lights

Light's appear to float above a Zürich old-town lane. The lights are hung pendant-style on lines that dangle from cables strung between buildings on either side of the street. They look like giant fireflies when they move in the breeze.

Unbeknownst to the rest of the world, Zürich’s Christmas lights have been clutched in controversy. It began when the Swiss, forward-thinking people that they are, decided their light display gobbled down too many watts, and so they put themselves on an electric diet, replacing the incandescent light bulbs with LED.

That led to a dismal showing the following year when the Christmas lights did not so much shine as that they glowed like dying embers. The city was cast into shame. This year, the city promised a return to glory with even better LED lights.

Depending on who you believe, LED lights consume about 1/10th the energy of their incandescent cousins, but only if you only use 1/10th the lights. I don’t know the math on the number of LEDs now strung along Zürich’s beautiful streets, but my guess is that the numbers and therefore, the power consumption has gone up. I can’t wait for the day that Zürich puts up ten times the LEDs it did in its inaugural LED year, thus nullifying their ‘progress.’

For reasons not known by me, LED lights also do not photograph well.

A posh outdoor cafe in Zurich.

There is some discussion among film professionals about images photographed in LED light as being flat and lacking texture. I don’t know about that, but a glance at my photos from our tour of Zürich suggest this is true.

At home, I am an LED nut, using these lights to add a lovely glow to my Christmas lighting decor, but the truth is, there are a lot more light strings running through my yard than there used to be, making me wonder if LED is the aspartame of the electric world. It’s meant to help us reduce kilowatts/calories, but in the end, we just consume more, but without the guilty conscience.

LED aficionados also praise LED lights for their longevity, claiming they last eight to 10 times longer than incandescents. I’m sorry to report that this has not been my experience. I have already had to replace LED light strings that were only five years old. This does not beat out my old incandescent twinkle-lights’ lifespan.

Nevertheless, Zürich’s display did look lovely, although a little dim. It will appear dimmer still in these photos, and that’s too bad.

Christmas markets here and there

Zürich Christmas Market - like any other market, but with boughs and lights.

Do one million Swiss Francs of crystals a Christmas tree make?

That is the question posed by the Swarovski tree, a crystal-encrusted tree in Zürich (with similar trees posted across the world).*

It stands in Zürich’s train station, towering over rows of huddled tiny evergreen-topped sheds that altogether make up Zürich’s famed Christmas Market.

Swarovski-jewelled Christmas tree. Who is the star in this display?

At 95 buckeroos per ornament, that is some tree. Bloggers and Youtube-posters report the twinkle costs one million Swiss Francs (the amount cannot be found on the Swarovski website).

It begs the questions about whether this is Christmas. My knee-jerk reaction is that it is not.

It is far removed from the first Christmas when a teenage gal inhaled the aroma of manure as she gave birth to her illegitimate son, after suffering the sting of rejection from the town’s innkeepers (who probably would have found a room for her had she been a centurion’s wife). If you’ve ever been turfed out of an emergency room while in massive pain, you might have an idea of how rough a night it was for Mary and Joseph.

But that illegitimate baby’s message, as anyone who has read the Gospels will know, is that neither poverty, stink, politics, or oppression matter so much. While his followers hoped for an overthrow of Roman rule, Jesus discarded the topic, pointing out that his kingdom was not mired in such earthly trivialities.

His point, if I read it right, is that these outward things need not affect one’s inner life or value. It is the heart that matters, not the hearth. As far we know, he never waged a petition campaign to force innkeepers to take in labouring mothers, although through the centuries that came after, his followers built hospitals in the spirit of his message. Doubt me? From where do you think the word “Saint” in front of so many hospitals came from?

But this is not to diss Swarovski who to their credit subscribe to a historically correct moniker for their display. They call the tree what it is: A Christmas tree. Not a holiday homage, festive festooning or anything silly like that.

As a writer steeped in the conviction that everything means something, I could say the shine of the crystals points to heaven, a place not yet found on any map, but which another writer called “the enduring myth.” How can you explain it when so many people sense its presence?

The crystals are one thing, but it is the tree that catches my eye, a creation harvested not from a factory, but a forest. It points to another creator, who is the subject of great debate, especially at this time of year. From whatever side you argue this, the tree is brilliant workmanship.

So here’s to Swarovski for the shiny bits, and here’s to God for the tree, Christmas and all that it means.

*Click on this link to see tree locations across the globe.

Switzerland’s “Toronto”

Zürich police station. You know that if the police station, usually the most functional of buildings, looks like this, the city is going to be spectacular.We said we wouldn't go to Zürich, in light of the recent terror-threat a la bin Laden's demise, but woke up Saturday morning with the day stretched out in front, shrugged our shoulders and said, "Why not?

We said we wouldn’t go to Zürich, owing to the terrorist-threat associated with the demise of Osama bin Laden, but then we shrugged and said, “Why not?”

These two words might be the famous last words of many, but not us, at least not this weekend.

We were partly intrigued by the number of Swiss who almost, but not quite, spit upon the mention of Zürich. They hate it.

Marcel, a well-traveled Swiss geography teacher, told Dave if there’s any part of Switzerland that can be missed, it is Zürich. Our concierge shudders at the mention of it.  Our most helpful front desk clerk, Daniela who scales glaciers and thinks cliff-climbs are a leisurely way to get from one point to another, crinkles her nose and rolls her eyes when she hears its name.

“The place is full of bankers running around,” she said.

And that is the clue to Zurich’s low-standing in the eyes of the Swiss. It is to the Swiss what Toronto is to Canadians, what New York is to Americans and what London is to everyone. An expensive, over-rated, self-absorbed metropolis.

Grossmunster Church profile,which I originally posted incorrectly as Fraumunster. Thank you to alert blog-reader for the correction!

But we didn’t think so. First of all, we showed up on a Saturday and no bankers were in evidence. They were likely resting in Monaco from their week of racing  from one financial institution to another, clutching fistfuls of lucre as they went.

It was an amazingly beautiful city with a train station that rivals Paris, but much less smelly. It fronts onto Lac Zürich, that on Saturday was dotted with white sails and swans so big that they have to gate the boat launch lest the things pad their way up onto the streets and take over the city.

The river that flows from the lake is a clear jewel-green. Its cobblestone streets roll up and downhill, meeting, then fanning out in random directions, none of which that can be said to be “right” or “left,” making following the guidebooks suggestions somewhat difficult, except that it turns out there is no wrong way to go. Every lane is charming.

The fabulous Fraumunster Church.

I couldn't resist photographing this street-side kiosk - is it the adult Lucy's "The Psychiatrist is In" booth, a la Charlie Brown?

It’s older “tourist” district is so large that it is something like seeing eight heritage districts at once. It goes on and on.

We visited massive stone churches, one with 1970s stained glass windows (Fraumunster), which might sound like a mistake, but these windows are perhaps the only artistic/architectural feature hailing from that decade that are worth saving. They are vibrant and unique.

We dined at a street cafe, trolled through shops, some so well-laid-out with such fascinating goods  that to buy something would throw the whole decorative ambience into disarray. It was just perfect as it was.

Fraumunster Church, which still has its mid-13th century presbytery, along with these 1970s stained glass windows by Marc Chagall. It's a wonderful trans-centurial marriage.

Dave checks out a three-wheeled car. What is the point of that?

Zürich's river front, not far from where it opens to Lac Zürich.

Europe's ugliest bridge, according to travel guru Rick Steves. And yes, it is.

Unusual ornate architecture in Zürich, Switzerland. Stood out among Zürich's Gothic and Baroque architecture.

Zürich police station. It is possible this is a torture scene, or a possible warning about how one's lawyers are about to excise one's property to fund a defense, but it sure is different.

Riverside park in Zürich's tourist district. Plenty of quaint, expensive shops that are worth browsing just for fun.