Peace and Quiet in Geneva

It sounds silly but Switzerland was something of an enigma to me. Even after moving to Europe I continued to think of it as a faraway place of peaceful international negotiations where civilisation is in its own category of advancement. After our weekend in Geneva I am reassured that Switzerland is of this planet; I would return without hesitation. I believe our impressions of Geneva are the same as many travellers – clean and quiet with understated wealth.

Our trip began with an extremely early alarm on Saturday morning so we could make it to St Pancras station in time for our train to Gatwick airport. I mentioned in an earlier post that one of the attractions of our flat was its proximity to Heathrow but this was clearly the judgement of ignorant new comers. All our upcoming holidays are booked with EasyJet who claim Gatwick as their home ground. In any case, we got to the airport in good time and found some breakfast. The flight only took 1 hour 15 minutes – I can’t say I remember being on such a short flight before! I half expected to hop out of the plane and land in the Tasman.

Upon arrival we were pleased to find their train ticket machines easy to use. (Of course they were) The train to the city was only 7 minutes and our hotel was just across the road from the train station. Both Richard and I were thankful that most people can speak perfect English because our French is virtually non-existent. After saying “bonjour” at the hotel we had already utilised about 20% of our combined French vocabulary. The expression of sheepish bewilderment whenever someone spoke to us in French often gave away the game and without skipping a beat the conversation would continue in English.

The pace of our holiday in Geneva was different to our previous weekends away. We had no plans and the air of the city seemed to encourage relaxation. After leaving our bags at the hotel we walked towards the lake and let me tell you, it was absolutely brilliant to see water that wasn’t brown! The wind that blew along the lakefront was chilly but refreshingly clear. Before moving to London I would have thought it an exaggeration to say this but it really felt like the air was blowing the dust of the big smoke off me; the tiny grains of dirt and pollution from using the tube every day and walking on London streets which never really leaves you or your home.

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There are a couple of obvious things which represent Switzerland, and Geneva. One is of course watches, or rather as we should now call them, timepieces. I have been told that in New York there is a Starbucks at every corner, and from experience I know Sydney has a Pie Face at least every block, but watch shops in Geneva are even more prolific! Everywhere you look there are watch shops and/or ads for watches. After a filling but expensive burger meal (CHF40!) we decided to check out the famed Patek Phillippe museum. At the entrance we were instructed to relinquish all bags and cameras so unfortunately there are no photos of the absolutely magnificent collection housed there. We were part of a rather large tour group that afternoon which didn’t always work since, as our guide said, there were a lot of us but the time pieces are very small. My tactic was to be close enough to listen to him and then return to the displays after the tour to see what he was on about.

We were told that the guiding principal of Patek Philippe is to make the best quality time pieces, period. The collection highlights some magnificent displays of artistic skill and scientific progress in timekeeping. Richard and I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the company and also seeing the design and technological evolutions that have taken place since the company started. Our guide was some kind of super nerd when it came to the history of time pieces and Patek Philippe work. He provided excellent commentary in a great French accent, including noting that a particular Breguet piece “was made for Marie Antoinette but she never saw it because well, she was decapitated”.

We were both knackered after a long day so after dinner we retired to our hotel to relax. By relax, I mean we lounged on the bed in thick bathrobes watching the England v Wales rugby game. I’ll admit that after watching the first half I thought England would win and so fell asleep. It was only in the morning that I found out about the thrilling second half which would come to only be the beginning of England’s world cup woes.

Sunday’s in Geneva are even quieter than Saturday’s. Perhaps it is an indication of how exhausting our new life in London is, but we both slept like babies much later than we normally would. I certainly woke up feeling more refreshed than I have in a while. We had nice coffee and pastries at an excellent café called Boréal. It was here that I broke out my newly rehearsed phrase “je ne parle pas français”. I also had a “parlez-vous anglais?” up my sleeve but I spoke so slowly that I didn’t get to that before the waitress said “English is fine”. I felt so uncultured!

Just before midday we visited St Pierre Cathedral and did a tower tour (we’ve deemed that tower tours are almost always worth it). This was also an unguided tour so we progressed up the narrow winding staircase on our own. As we were climbing up the tower the bells began to ring causing us to feel like cartoon characters caught inside a bell. The cacophony felt like it went on for some time. Once the bells had stopped ringing and we reached the top, we were able to enjoy a simply spectacular view of the city and the lake.

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After lunch we headed to the iconic “Broken Chair”. It was a bit of a walk away but we were in no rush so didn’t see the need to catch public transport. Although while I’m on the topic of public transport, Geneva is so incredible in that basically all buses and trams are electric! The quietness of the city was definitely helped by these quietly humming vehicles.

Onwards to the Broken Chair.

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The sculpture was installed in August 1997 to encourage all countries to sign the Mine Ban Treaty in an effort to help mine victims and clear mine areas. Ten years later the work was reinstalled to invite countries to participate in the banning of cluster munitions.

Right behind the Broken Chair is the United Nations. It was closed at the time but we were able to see the NZ flag in the impressive row of flag poles lining the entrance. Unfortunately it was too far back to be captured in our photos.

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The rest of our Sunday was spent visiting various souvenir shops stocking up on chocolate. Most of it is being sent back to New Zealand actually! The chocolate is truly delicious in Switzerland. It has a creamy deliciousness which often means I eat more than I should! The excess is justified by the fact that I’m on holiday but I’m still undecided as to whether that’s a good thing or not.

The relaxing weekend did not end the way we planned, however. At the airport we purchased over-priced sandwiches for dinner and waited for our flight. It was delayed. We were meant to leave at 9:45pm but at around 9:15pm we were informed that our plane had not arrived on time and that we would get more information at 9:45pm. At 9:45pm this “more information” moment was extended to 10:15pm. And so on until about 11pm which led me to believe they had no idea where the plane was. Finally we heard that our plane had landed and we had a gate number. At Geneva the airport closes at night, with the last flight of that day typically being at 10:45pm so the only passengers floating around the airport were the poor souls on our flight. We gathered at the gate and waited. At one point, the lights outside went off as if to emphasise that the airport really should be closed by now. 11:45pm rolled around and we were able to claim free drink and snack vouchers because our flight was delayed by 2 hours. The drinks and snacks soon ran low leaving us with a bag of crisps so salty I felt my tongue shrivel up on contact. The chips went in the bin and I enjoyed my water as we continued to wait. Soon after that we commenced boarding and were taking off around 12:30am. Both of us were already quite exhausted because waiting is remarkably tiring, but our journey wasn’t over yet. Upon arrival the long queue at customs caused a sinking feeling in our stomachs. A muttering of our fellow passengers confirmed that we were not alone in our frustrations. We joined the foreign passports line which moved agonizingly slowly and made me wish for re-entry as simple as smart gate back home. It took more than an hour for us to exit the airport which feels like it should be a celebrated milestone in the journey except we had missed a train and had to wait another 40 minutes for the next train. More waiting! By now it was about 2am and freezing outside. We sat in a little waiting room on the platform (thank goodness they have those or we would have frozen solid!) and settled into the quiet solitude of exhaustion. Trains often travel very slowly through inner city areas which is frustrating at times and super annoying when you’re as sick of travelling as we were. We got home just before 4am. I had lost my relaxation from Geneva and replaced it with a cold.

Geneva isn’t at fault here at all though and I would highly recommend a weekend away there to anyone in the area. Our next stop is to Oslo – look out for the next post!

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