Several European countries have a day of remembrance for WWI on November 11, so I decided to use the long weekend for a quick trip to neighboring Switzerland. I was a little alarmed to learn France has quietly started full border controls again as of Nov 9, even with other EU countries. As I was flying to Switzerland, I was regretting the trip a little – there’s so much “new” in my life right now that switching to German for the weekend felt burdensome. For the record, I don’t speak German, but I always try to learn basic courtesy words in the language of the country I’m visiting, so I know these words in German, Japanese, Arabic and a few others.
I was quite happy to arrive in Geneva and realize that it is a French-speaking part of Switzerland. Due to being a multilingual country, the common shared language seems to be English, so most people here were also pretty fluent when my French failed me.
In many ways, this area reminded me of being in Annecy in the French Alps. I discovered the first difference upon arrival though – my phone would not work without turning on roaming! Also, Switzerland is not on the Euro. Fortunately, I was able to get by just using my credit card without exchanging to Swiss Francs. TIP: Don’t accept the machine conversion – CHF trades almost equal to the dollar and my credit card reflects that, but the machines were charging much more – 9.10 vs over 9.60.
It was a lovely fall weekend, but one of my favorite things I saw were these huge chess and checkers games being played in the park – the chess board here was the only one not being used. It’s really great when fun ideas bring people outside and together!
Since I’d arrived with no plan, I headed to the old city center and found the old church. This was clearly another one of the differences as the church exterior looked very un-French. It reminded me more of styles I’ve seen in Germany or Italy with the dome. The interior was very similar to French churches though.
It’s quite interesting that the Cathedral appeared to be Catholic, but had information about the history of the Reformation inside. As I learned later, that’s because it is now a Calvinist church and was, in fact, the “home church” of John Calvin. To me, the most unique and lovely part of the church was the Maccabees chapel. I sat on a pew to look around and people must have thought I knew something special because they waited until I got up to come sit in exactly the same place (despite plenty of seating). Nope, sorry guys – I have the same view as you!
I don’t normally travel this time of year because the weather is unpredictable and COLD, so it was a lovely change to see a city starting to decorate for the holidays. Despite being a wealthy country, the exchange rate to USD is more favorable than the Euro, so I did a little shopping and enjoyed the holiday lights.
Despite being French-speaking, the people here don’t really look French. Some do, but there’s a heavy Germanic influence as well, plus other features I couldn’t identify (and after being here a while, you realize there are distinct features in people descended from the different regions).
Since Lake Geneva (aka Lac Léman locally) is one of the things Geneva is famous for, I decided that scheduling a cruise was a good plan, but during the off-season they are on Sunday afternoon primarily. I did walk around the lake and through the Anglais (English) gardens earlier, but decided that I should spring for the full cruise experience!
Saturday dawned sunny, but cold, so it seemed like a good day to wander through museums. The Natural History Museum has nothing on the British one (although much better behaved children), but they’ve made an attempt to present animals in their natural habitat rather than another “Hall of Taxidermied Horrors.” They also have a nice section about unusual animals that talks about their unique traits.
The top floor has the special exhibit, which is currently on dinosaurs. This was also well done and included sets for different eras that discussed the perception of dinosaurs at the time, contrasted with what we know today. Overall, I enjoyed my time here.
While looking for the museum of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, I ended up at the wrong place. It was a pretty building and had a lovely view from the second floor, but porcelains aren’t really my thing, so I left quickly. If they’re your thing, the Ariana museum is also free.
My favorite museum here was the Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum because it was so unique. You can cruise through it and only listen to the automatic portions or hit “stop” and enter a number for extra items (the headset is included). The quote below stood out for me because it’s true whether cutting those ties is voluntary or not – you lose part of your identity and bearings when separated from your loved ones. The good news, if the separation is voluntary anyway, is that you start to form a new identity that may suit you better, which is what I feel is happening for me . . . that sense of losing your bearings though, well, that’s an adjustment that simply takes time.
The museum discussed issues of humanity, of losing contact with loved ones, ensuring prisoners are shown basic decency, preparing for natural disasters and a temporary exhibit about how current ideals of beauty are leading young women to starve themselves and the social obsession with appearance.
After seeing how crystal clear and beautiful the water is, I was stunned to read they can’t reintroduce an animal here due to how polluted the water is. Hopefully this doesn’t include the lake! The most stunning thing on the cruise was seeing the city absolutely dwarfed by the mountains towering behind it. It’s easy to forget in Geneva that you’re in the Swiss Alps, but on the lake you can see that the mountains ring the entire city and lake.
The same cruise can be used for transport only, so there are stops at 3 towns along the lake, which bridges the French/Swiss border. The cruise dining room is a really classy place to sit and enjoy a meal and the views! I’d recommend walking around the boat though as I only discovered that the paddles are visible when I went to find the ladies.
It truly is hard to describe the majesty of the Alps or to even capture it in a quick photo, but you realize how incredibly high they soar when you see a town with the church steeple towering over it, then see the mountain rise and rise until the church steeple appears no bigger than a finger, yet the mountains continue stretching to the sky.
The kir I had on the cruise was the best yet and the starter terrine with fruit compote was parfait, yet the pheasant main dish was a tad overcooked and served with plain polenta on the side. Interesting combo, but not very flavorful – proof that even here, in a fancy setting, food can be hit-or-miss. Being the rebellious sort, I went out on the empty deck, despite the cold and watched the boat come into harbor. Of course, once I went out and didn’t promptly freeze to death, several others came outside to check it out as well. Folks, never fear being the first – you’ll usually have the best view! 😉
Final Tip: Swiss stores appear to be largely closed on Sunday, even in a major town, which is becoming less true in France. Also, even with a favorable exchange rate, only clothes and things like bottled water had good prices; tourist sites seemed a little expensive compared to France and eating out is CRAZY expensive. 9 CHF for a McDo’s meal (6.75 is the French price for what I order), 9 CHF for a Grande Starbucks latte and easily 20+ CHF for a plat (main dish) when you can do a whole menu (entrée, plat & dessert) for less in France – granted the serving size is a little larger here and my plat alone was more than enough food. Still, be prepared for your ~3€ (in France) pain au chocolat and double espresso to cost you ~7.50 here. I should also mention that the prices that I’m accustomed to are for rural France; however, I’ve found them to be pretty consistent in all of the towns I’ve visited. Marseille, La Rochelle and Toulouse clearly had more expensive options near the tourist areas and I’m sure prices in Paris would come as a shock to me.