Saturday, January 31, 2009

Geneve, Switzerland (Dec 28-30)

Getting to Geneva was not as easy as we thought it would be. All of the direct trains from Nantes were booked so we needed to take a train to Paris and then take another train to Geneva. Luckily our hostel in Geneva (Geneve in French) had 24-hours check-in so it didn't really matter when we arrived. By this point in our trip we were very tired. So two fairly long train rides weren't totally unwelcome. The ride from Paris to Geneve was very pretty. We passed through miles and miles of open land dotted with villages that looked like they came straight out of an old war movie. All of the houses and buildings were made out of the same kind of bricks with red tile roofs. The vast majority of the grass was still green even though it was the end of December. One thing that I kept noticing were large sections of trees that appeared to be planted on gridlines. It was rather odd because they would appear in random open areas away from the nearest village. The only explanation I could come up with was that the trees were planted after one of the World Wars to try to make the countryside look less war-marked. The countryside became increasingly hilly as we got closer and closer to Switzerland. The mountains started to work their way into the scenery and then all of a sudden we were right against a mountain range following this beautiful steely blue-green river. I've never seen water that color before. It was the perfect color to go with the surrounding mountains though.

Once again we got to our destination right around dinner time. We set off in search of dinner right after we checked into the hostel. After several disappoints we found a sandwich shop that also had some other thing. I got a samosa and an orange. The samosa was not good. It tasted like powdered soup mix. The orange on the otherhand was great. I had been taking a daily vitamin every morning but I think my body was starving for fresh produce so the orange tasted much better than it should have.

The hostel we were staying at had the earliest breakfast we had encountered yet. I was hoping that it was a hot breakfast since they were being really strict about having your room receipt to get breakfast. No such luck. I did opt for the museli instead of corn flakes for the millionth time. One very pleasant surprise was the continuation of real coffee instead of instant stuff. They also had amazing instant hot chocolate. I have no idea how you can make powdered hot chocolate mix taste that good but the Swiss have figured it out. They did let you go back for more coffee and hot chocolate which made up for the average food selection.

One advantage of having to get up ridiculously early for breakfast was that we had plenty of time to reserve our train tickets to Milan before Leanna's friend J.J. arrived to show us around. Geneve to Milan was our last train trip and I was very happy when our reservations were made and I didn't have to think about it anymore. J.J. is an alum of Leanna's fraternity and is living just outside Geneve while his wife gets her masters at the University of Geneve. He was gracious enough to volunteer to show us around for the day. I was so relieved to not have to plan out the agenda for that day.

We began our tour by walking down to the shore of Lake Geneve. At that point we should have seen the Jet d'eau aka really big water fountain that shoot water waaay up into the air. It has become one of the images associated with the city however it was turned off that day so we couldn't see it. We walked around the edge of the lake to the more touristy part of the city. The edge of the lake as parks and gardens all along it. A cool feature of these green areas is that when the city decides that it need to cut down a tree, they turn the trunk/stump into a scuplture instead of grinding it down to nothing. One of these green spots is also home to the Floral Clock. The Floral Clock is a tribute to the city's clock making heritage. In my opinion it beats out Manneken Pis for the most over-rated tourist attraction. I feel like they could have done much better than a clocke shaped flower garden that had to be downscaled after construction because tourists kept backing into oncoming traffic trying to get a picture of it.

We walked up, literally up, to the older part of the city next. Old Geneve is located at the top of a hill within the city and it is a steep hill. Once you make it to the top you can look out over the newer portion of the city, see the church that Calvin preached at, and look over gardens comissioned by Swiss royalty back in the day. We wandered the cobblestone streets and hung out at a playground overlooking one of the gardens. We were sitting on some rocking horses when an "active-seniors" tour group walked by. We got some of the funniest looks as they stared at three 20-somethings sitting on rockers made for much smaller children. We definitely had a good laugh over that encounter.

We made our way down from the old part of town and wandered into a park that had a memorial to men who were very active in the Reformation period. It is interesting to see a big marble memorial to these men although I suppose they were only viewed as heretics by the Catholic church. We continued to walk through the city observing objects of visual interest such as the colored-glass ceiling of the University of Geneva library and a circus site where two national circuses alternating setting up camp for 8 months out of the year. I was shocked to see circus tents set up at the end of December but at that point we were on our way to lunch and I was too hungry to think about it much. Adjacent to the circus was a "modern nomad" aka gypsy camp made up of RVs. Leanna's mother has specifically warned us to watch out for the gypsies so we shared that anecdote with J.J. as we headed for a restaurant.

We were going to go to this Ethiopian restaurant but it was closed for lunch on Monday so we had to search out a plan B. Plan B surfaced as Chez Octtavio- a pizzeria/Italian place. Since arriving in Europe I have become increasingly skeptical of anything referred to as pizza. I was not expecting to get anything like good pizza until we got to Italy. However Chez Octtavio proved me wrong. We each got serving platter size pizzas that were delicious. Mine had lots of mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, and pesto on it. I was so happy to have hot, tasty pizza and before we arrived in Italy! We devoured those pizzas so quickly it was pretty impressive.

With happy tummys, we set off to J.J.'s house to pick up motorized transportation and head into the Alps. Technically J.J. and his wife live in France but they live so close to the border that Geneva city transportation runs through their town. J.J. and his wife live in a small modest apartment with an awesome view of the Alps. The funny thing is that at least 80% of the houses in the town share this view so it's not a huge selling point within the area itself. From J.J.'s place we drove up a winding road to the summit of Mt. Saleve. After flat ground and cities for over a week the drive up the mountain was probably even more breathe-taking than it would normally be. We could see pine trees, and snow, and more mountains, and isolated clusters of houses. The top of Mr. Saleve was clear of trees which allowed us to take in the beauty of the scenes around us.

On one side of the mountain you looked out over Geneve. The city and Lake Geneve sit at the bottom of a gap in the mountains. The valley was covered with a blanket of mist which meant that we couldn't clearly see through to the city. I didn't really care that we couldn't see the city because I was in complete awe of the mountains. On one side of the mountain you saw the ring mountains surrounding Geneve. Looking out on the other side of the mountain you saw even more peaks including Mt. Blanc and Mole. Every peak was covered with snow. I couldn't stop staring. I took so many pictures just trying to capture the beauty of the snow and the sun and the mist and the shadows. I ended up with some very pretty pictures but none of them truly did the scene justice. As we stood and stared out over the mountains, a nearby group of people were para-skiing. They were flying large kites and using the wind to propel themselves on skis around an open patch of snow. It looked like a lot of fun but I probably would have fallen off the mountain with my natural grace or lack there of. We finally left the summit when a snow storm appeared on the horizon.

For dinner we wanted a good hot meal. Warmth was an element we has been missing lately and hot food sounded especially appetizing after spending a good chunk of the afternoon on top of a mountain. Leanna and I had been planning on getting fondue for most of the day but changed our minds when we got to the restaurant. Leanna got a steak and I got another traditionally Swiss dish called raclette. My mind also collapsed while ordering so I could do was point at what I wanted because I could form the word "raclette" for the life of me - this was my one really bad "American tourist" moment for the entire time I've been abroad so I've decided to forgive myself. Raclette is melted cheese served with onions, pickels, and potatos. I had my doubts when I read what it was but Leanna assured my it was delicious and it did turn out to be very tasty. As part of my meal, I also got a smallish cutting board of meats, cheese, and bread. I felt uncomfortably full by the time I was finished with everything but my stomach was also thrilled to not eat another sandwich.

The next morning we were set to move on to Milan. We got up early and walked down to the lake shore to see if the Jet d'Eau had been turned on (it hadn't) and then went to the Coop to spend our remaining Francs and stocked up on food for the train ride to Milan. We must have been a site with our rucksacks and handfuls of Swiss chocolate, trail mix, and beer. Leanna also got some of the hot chocolate mix we had at the hostel. I wanted to but I didn't think I had enough room in my pack.

Our train to Milan was not a fancy eurostar train like many of the trains we had taken thus far. It actually had comparments (like the Hogwarts Express!) and a hole onto the tracks for the head. We were lucky that we each got a window seat because much of the trip was through the mountains and completely breath-taking.

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