Geneva – 13 June
My 20th birthday! What a day to go to Geneva – home of the League of Nations and its successor the United Nations, of UNHCR and the WHO, of CERN and the Jet d’Eau! And what a day for that French train strike to rear its ugly, socialist head once more! Not complaining, of course, I love being saddled with a lengthy wait on the fringes of Grenoble for a coach to Geneva and having it blow a tire within sight of the city. But hey, I did get there, and the day certainly improved. Even still, there wasn’t enough time to do much except visit the UN for an hour, catch the last two minutes of the CERN exhibition because it closes at 5 and then wander along the side of Lake Geneva. On the plus side, there was a very large quantity of knit-bombing across the city which is a huge plus and definitely a grand reminder of home. Also I received lots of lovely birthday messages, so thanks everyone for that 🙂 Photos!
My general opinion of Geneva? It’s okay, but less than I expected – all the international organisations bring vast numbers of expats so it’s hardly an authentically Swiss place to visit, and beyond what I’ve just shown you there’s not a lot to see (although I would have liked more time to actually see them!) But I may be wrong – I won’t consider myself an expert by any stretch of the imagination. The public transport is fast and efficient, and it’s very clean. ALSO! You can go to the supermarket Migros, and get yourself 400 grams of legitimately delicious swiss chocolate for something like $2, if you get the M-Budget brand. It’s brilliant. That legitimately was the highlight of my day. The UN tour is pretty lacking since most of its operations are closed to everyone but the press and dignitaries, so all we could do was walk around and look at some empty rooms. CERN would have been good – especially since the exhibitions were free and had some great stuff in them, but with only 5 minutes it was hardly worth the tram ride. If you’re really organised you can get an actual tour inside CERN, but they get booked out literally months in advance, so I couldn’t. On the balance of things, I would be happy to go through again and give Geneva another try – even if it’s on the way through to somewhere else in the country, because as you’ll soon learn, it was all uphill (into the Alps :P) from there!
Luzern – 14 June
Today I left Geneva and went east, to the German-speaking Switzerland and the city of Luzern. I dropped my bag off at the hostel (Luzern Youth Hostel of YHA/Hostelling International, pretty decently-priced, peaceful but accessible location, buffet breakfast and swiss army knives for sale in the lobby, very clean and efficient) and headed back down the hill into the town. Now, I didn’t really know what to expect from the city. I had originally intended to stay in Bern, because the real attraction was going up into the mountains, but there was nothing good available there so I took myself to the next nearest decent-sized city to find a place, a place to dump my bags and leave. But Luzern is anything but a place for that purpose. Considered the cultural capital of Switzerland, I found in Luzern an unexpected gem. On the first day, I immediately picked up a tourist info guide, which included a map but also a suggested walking route around the centre of town, with little bits of information on the dozens of sights scattered within the tiny area. Luzern’s old town is something like the Lyon one – it’s a retail sector, with shops on basically every surface and occasional vast drifts of tourists getting off from their tour buses to sample the five meters around them before rumbling off. However, because Luzern is really quite a small city, under 100,000 people, this old town actually was the commercial and social centre as well. It has a reputation for being good for startups and small, high-skilled firms (lawyers, consultants, designers) so they were all over the place as well. In any case, I spent the next several hours without getting bored, wandering through 14th-century bridges, adorable little churches, squares with towering frescoes on every surface. I even managed to score some free chocolate – apparently in Switzerland they like to put vouchers for free stuff on the tourist brochures, I suppose figuring that for every person like me who just goes in for the free stuff you will have a dozen Chinese or American bus tourers spending ALL THE MONEY (there’s one particular square where all the buses stop and all the examples of this kind of shop are, and in these shops there is more Chinese writing than there is English than there is German. They know their target market – and not just the dodgy souvenir shops, either: people come to Switzerland for the finer things, and so the four-storey jeweller’s selling $100,000 watches is majority Chinese as well).
I also had a look inside the Luzern history museum, unassumingly tucked away behind a restaurant off the main areas, and it turned out to be excellent as well. It was all arranged by theme across four floors, and each item had instead of a label a little barcode, which you could scan and it would tell you what it was in whatever language. Because the themes weren’t at all chronological or even logical sometimes, you could also scan specially coloured codes to take you on a tour on a specific idea or era. It was a weird and wonderful place. And made even better by hourly theatre tours, where a staff member would dress up in a period costume and take you into the back vault, where there were minimalist sets and artefacts they would bring out and talk about in character. I wasn’t going to go originally because it was all in German, but when there were only two other people (and I think they might have been French Swiss :P) and the tour guide (who I had been chatting with a bit earlier) came upstairs to invite me to join in, I went with it. Though I understood perhaps twenty words in an hour-long tour, it was still a highly enjoyable experience. Apparently (this was explained afterwards) she had been playing a maid in the fanciest hotel in Luzern, during the period where it was a Monte Carlo or Las Vegas, the city for playboys and millionaires to let off steam in Europe – so she was doing the washing, then showing us the gaming tables, then (for some reason) acting out a scene from the Sisters Kamarasov, and then setting the table and giving us the ten-course meal, then helping out with visitors arriving at the station. It was all marvellous. But not only that, they also had a completely different temporary exhibition on, about sound. You went through a corridor that completely removed all the background sound, grabbed a pair of seriously fancy noise-excluding headphones, and went around listening to different sounds. Of course, everything was in German, Italian and French (in Switzerland you must translate everything official into at least three languages, usually English is the fourth and Romansh gets left by the wayside with only about 30,000 speakers) which meant I spent about 5 minutes listening to swing without realising that the static that I assumed was a vintage record sound was in fact meant to represent different conditions and how that affected listening to music at the same volume. I also enjoyed the big circle of hand-pedals (pictured below) which represented a bunch of sound effects and music loops which you could make hilarious symphonies that only you could hear. Huzzah 😀
There were also some funny moments, where happenings in Luzern tickled my happiness. I think, overall, this day in Luzern was one of the best.
Luzern International Church, Zurich and the Rhine – 15 June
Today I planned to visit the only English-speaking church in Luzern, and then head on a day trip out of the city. Up until the night before, I hadn’t really known where I wanted to go. I had been told that Interlaken was really pretty, but since the 90s it seems that it has developed into something of a serious tourist trap – good only as a stepping stone to elsewhere. So I went looking for something else, and turned up the Rhine Falls, Europe’s largest waterfall, and just a short 2-hour train trip away via Zurich. I’d also never been to Zurich and I found a group of locals running a tips-tour (that’s what I’ll call it now, rather than a free tour – actually this one turned out to be entirely free, I think, just in general they’re not), so it seemed like a good idea to stop for the afternoon there, take the tour and continue on for an early-evening viewing of the falls. It certainly was a good idea on both counts.
The international church was rather different to the equivalent in Barcelona one week before. They had a hymnbook and an order of service, with no songs written before the 1980s, and the talk was an impassioned defence of young-earth creationism. I get the impression that this was slightly different to the normal running of things – the pastor was away so they had a guy from the church council speaking, and he was into quite traditional styles of worship and science-religion dynamics, though he was clearly informed of the current arguments for the harmonisation of young-earth biblical interpretation and science (sourced from the magazine Creation – which as far as I’m aware is not itself young-earth but can clearly be used to argue that way). I have issues with all sides of the argument, and as someone not expert in cosmology, biology, geology or anything of the kind I don’t consider myself someone with authority to comment on creation. I could tell that his views were controversial among the congregation, but I have read a decent amount about this and he did bring up some interesting points I hadn’t heard before. My question to you is: who was Esau’s wife? Anyway, it was interesting enough and the people were nice, but I had once again to bail because time was a-ticking and I needed to get to Zurich as soon as possible.
The journey to Zurich was pretty pleasant, and when I got there it was reasonably simple (once I got my offline maps app working and it stopped thinking I was in Luzern) to get myself down to the tour location. The impression that it gave me was that Zurich has been throughout its history both extremely important and very quiet, usually simultaneously. You have Einstein studying here, the two biggest Swiss banks operating out of here, the Romans building up the city here, and the city being ruled from a nunnery for hundreds of years; but also building the train station to host public events in, having one public park in the oldest inhabited part of the city with no grass, just dirt, and spending 600,000 francs to hire an industrial crane as a public art project for a year. The tour was only about an hour and a half because by then you’d kind of covered all of it. But we did all get a voucher for a free, very tasty brownie at a fancy restaurant at the end of the tou. I can certainly recommend visiting Zurich for the afternoon and finding a local to take you around – you can see the world’s most expensive street, for starters – and then heading on out of there. It’s very clean and very fancy and very quiet. Also, Swiss public transport is extremely punctual and very efficient, and very comfortable – I noticed that training around and seeing the trams in Zurich. And that is all.
Next up was a train north to the town of Schaffhausen, capital of the canton of Schaffhausen, which borders Germany (in fact, on the way there, I think I edged into Germany a bit!) The Rhine Falls were about 3km away, but after spending a bit of time waiting for the suburban train to take me another stop across to the smaller station closer to the falls, I decided instead to find a pathway along the river and just walk down there. Turns out there was a clean a quiet bike/walking path that ran the whole way down the river to the falls, once you found it. The walk was exquisite – green and leafy, the river amazingly clear and imperceptibly accelerating along the length until it was flowing rapidly just before the falls. There were loads of little houses overlooking it the whole way along, some even backing onto it with their own little swimming/boating staircases down into the river. It was absolutely beautiful, and here are some photos.
And then, I hit the falls.
I can highly recommend a walk along here – or really, a walk along any part of Switzerland’s water system. You don’t need to go to the mountains to get into its stunning natural beauty. It’s all over the place. And here, to illustrate this and to round off my post, is a view over Luzern lake on my arrival back after my day out.