When I was a young boy, my favourite place was undoubtedly my grampa’s house; he lived there for a start. A funny, kind and generous man and a gifted pianist, when my uncle and father moved out of the family semi-detached bungalow, he took the opportunity to use the spare room to construct an elaborate system of fully-functional model railways. While I look back now and see this as evidence of my grandfather’s craftsmanship, as soon as I became aware of the Railway Room’s presence as a child, I became infatuated with the trains and scale model cars in the tiny townscapes, as many other children of that age would.
The railways themselves were elevated around five feet or so from the floor, allowing easier operation of the trains and also granting some useful storage space below deck. Here, along with vacuum-sealed clothing and other various household goods, were my father’s collection of Dinky cars, a View-master device and several picture disks. The cars, retained for my enjoyment I suppose, normally transfixed my attention, but occasionally I would pop a picture disk into the View-master and goggle at the rudimentary 3-D stereo images. If I’m being honest, the content didn’t exactly grab me in the same way the small metal reproduction of American coupes and construction vehicles did, but there was a reason for that.
All but two of the slides (and I’ve checked; they’re on my bedside table as I type this) were of the small European country of Switzerland. That the images would be a way of viewing a faraway land by proxy isn’t surprising, as the production of picture postcards was one of the driving forces behind the formation of View-master’s parent company, Sawyer’s. But why so many of Switzerland in grampa’s house? I didn’t know the answer.
But as I grew older, and my tastes expanded to include things that weren’t cars, or robots that transformed into cars, some of the images on the reels began to sing to me. Quietly at first, the photographs of unlikely tunnels through mountains, alpine switchbacks, vertigo-inducing cable car runs and buildings perched precariously above sheer precipices began to pique my curiosity about this strange land, and I suspect also fostered my interest in civil engineering.
The mystery of the Swiss stereoscopic images, the walking stick with plaques bearing the name of various Helvetian towns and villages affixed to it, and why grampa’s house bore the name ‘Arosa’ above the front door, were finally revealed to me in the mid 90s. It transpired that my great-great grandmother had actually been born and raised in Geneva, the French-speaking Westernmost Swiss city. A student of voice and viola at the Conservatoire de Musique de Genève, she had at some point met my English great-great grandfather, also a gifted musician, and they settled on the English Riviera. Their son, unsurprisingly, was also a musician, and at the age of 21 he accepted an offer to become organist for a church in Glasgow, where he met my Scottish great-grandmother, and the rest is another blog post entirely.
It would appear that the family, including the young grampa, would holiday in Switzerland, specifically a small town in the south-east called Arosa. Evidently, grampa was fond of Switzerland, and his appreciation has been passed down to me, additionally fired by various documentaries on the Swiss’ ingenious solutions to transporting themselves through the Alps. A few years go I began to long to visit, if only to see the city where my great-great grandmother was born, but this fancy took the form of a driving or perhaps more fittingly a train tour of the entire country, something that would take a fair amount of planning and more pointedly a good deal of money. Money that shows no sign of materialising any time soon.
As such, the notion had taken something of a back seat until a few months ago. I’d just completed a part time HNC in Architectural Technology which along with working full time, had reduced my leisure time to a minimum, and I wanted to kick up my heels and indulge my lager tooth. Talking to my friend Emily on MSN one night, I made a throwaway suggestion that we hadn’t seen in each other in ages, and I’d like to celebrate my HNC, why didn’t we go for a night out in Edinburgh? Emily then took it upon herself to suggest that we instead look for some cheap flights to Europe from Edinburgh instead? I wasn’t averse to the idea, and so she went away to look at times, prices, destinations, etc., and came back with some possibilities. The second, as far as I recall, was Geneva, and of course there was no need for any further suggestions as far as I was concerned. Emily went above and beyond by finding a relatively cheap hostel for our three night sojourn, and we were all set.
Our flight to Geneva was scheduled to take off from Edinburgh at 7:06am or some other similarly ungodly hour, which provided something of an obstacle to West Coast based me. However, Emily’s boyfriend Stephen offered to put us up the night before, and drive us to the airport in the morning. As I’d already booked the Thursday off work, this would allow me to make my way across to Fife at my leisure, perhaps spending a little time exploring Edinburgh. And that’s exactly what I did.
Day One – Thursday: Edinburgh
It’s fairly easy to get to Edinburgh from my home on the outskirts of Glasgow by bus or train; I took the latter, changing at Queen Street for Waverley. As a Glaswegian, I’m not supposed to admit this, but I do adore Edinburgh…or the cityscape at least. It’s ornate, but absolutely gorgeous, like Castle Gormenghast has broached universal membranes and penetrated our reality. I’ve been to the capital about half a dozen times previously in my 30 years, but never for very long; it’s always been for a gig, to meet a friend or the occasional rugby match. As such, I didn’t know much of the city outwith Princes Street and the Scottish Parliament (my father’s former employers had their headquarters in Holyrood); to address this, I decided to make for Leith.
As someone that has a professional interest in architecture and has a deep-rooted love of football, I was keen on seeing the newly completed East stand at Hibernian’s Easter Road Stadium. My fascination with football stadia can quite often outstrip any curiosity in what’s happening inside them, and I have to say my delight at noting the voids cut in the cellular beams on the facade of the North stand were in the shape of the club’s old logo; this is a damning indictment of my personality. After Hibs’ ground, I took a leisurely walk down to Leith Docks for no other reasons than to see the sea and have a browse around the Ocean Terminal shopping centre. It was a lovely day, putting me in mind of the eponymous Proclaimers song, and I took a bus back into the city centre for lunch. Edinburgh has long been renowned for its excellent bus network, which led to bemusement when the now infamous tram project was announced (for much of the tram’s route, it will double up areas already amply serviced by buses).
I bought some bits and pieces and ate in Princes Street Gardens, underneath Edinburgh Castle, with warm sunshine beaming down on me. Afterwards, I walked up and around the castle and down the Royal Mile before climbing to the top of Calton Hill and taking in the frankly astounding view. Then it was time to head to Fife.
I knew beforehand that Geneva was going to be an expensive trip, but I wasn’t quite prepared to pay £8.75 for a single bus journey from Edinburgh to Leven, a trip of 30 miles or so. Although, in retrospect that doesn’t seem too bad given the prices people in Britain have become accustomed to paying for transportation. Upon arrival in the small town of Leven, I was met by Emily and we bought smoked sausage suppers before eating them on the seafront in the shadow of the disused Methil Power Station, which was possibly the highlight of the entire trip.
After food, I was introduced to Stephen’s four barmy cats (one of which would sleep the entire night between my legs on the sofa) before we visited the pub Stephen manages. There we drank Guinness and I marvelled at the poor condition of the seating in the lounge before returning to the flat to get some sleep before our early morning flight.
Day Two – Friday: Geneva
Come slightly before dawn, I got to see our awaiting chariot; Stephen’s car is the same model of similar vintage as the first car he ever MOTed as a trainee mechanic. Apparently. It’s a silver-grey 20 year-old Volvo 740 Estate which is slightly odd because my childhood home sat adjacent to a Volvo engineering depot and both my parents independently claim my first word was, inexplicably, Volvo. It all added to the theme of the trip I guess. I managed to doze throughout most of the drive to Edinburgh airport and the flight to Geneva itself only really waking at passport control at Geneva Airport. As a non-EU country I hoped I would get a stamp in my passport, an occurrence that is becoming increasingly rare these days, but instead they read the biometric data and waved me through. Foiled.
My work colleague had advised me travellers could collect free train tickets from a machine at baggage carousel 3, valid for one journey into the City itself, and so within half an hour or landing we were walking along Rue de Lausanne looking for our hostel, and this didn’t take long either. With a few hours before we could check in we instead ventured down to the Lake itself where we blissfully did absolutely nothing for an hour or so before returning to the hostel to check in.
After a short nap to shake the travelling out of our hair, we wandered over to the Old Town, a cobble-stoned maze of sandstone townhouse lined narrow streets, mapped onto a fairly pronounced incline. We saw St. Pierre Cathedral and the tiny Calvin Auditory before making our way to the western shore of the Lake where we planned to catch a water bus back to the northern shore. We’d each received a travel card valid for all modes of transport in the Geneva area as part of the accommodation package, and when we reached the opposite quay we thought we might as well just jump on the water board departing from the adjacent jetty which heads westwards, out into the main body of the lake, and towards the Quai Gustave Ador. Lake Geneva is a very big body of water, and this point wasn’t even a twentieth of its overall length along its southern shore, but it felt far enough out of the city to be an ideal place to relax and enjoy the afternoon sun. We were beginning to feel the effects of our walking, so we kicked off our shoes and bathed our feet in the surprisingly chilly water, only removing them when a sociopathic swan approached. We lingered until the return boat approached, bought some food from a nearby supermarket and retired for the evening. We were visiting CERN in the morning.
I have a very keen, if astronomically amateurish interest in physics. I think I first became aware of it shortly after I’d chosen to study chemistry at Standard Grade level, and it grew when I began to take an interest in photography where it’s a key element, and since then I’ve been battling manfully to try and teach it to myself. I would love to study the subject at Higher or even degree level, but I feel I would need to start from scratch. I’ve read A Brief History of Time, Six Easy Pieces and even A Short History of Nearly Everything, and despite my enthusiasm for the topic, I don’t appear to retain much information. Quarks, gluons, baryons; they all blend together in my mind with Treknobabble. I found myself trying to explain to a work colleague why I wanted to visit the Microcosm museum at CERN, but I couldn’t explain to him what the purpose of the Large Hadron Collider was; I knew they accelerated particles to near the speed of light and collided them in an attempt to facilitate the creation of another sub-atomic particle whose existence has been theorised and has been dubbed the ‘God’ particle, and that’s when my understanding began to run out on me.
Day Three – Saturday: Geneva
Nevertheless, early on a Saturday morning, Emily and I took a tram from the railway station to Les Vernes, which afforded us perhaps our first glimpse of everyone’s mind’s eye view of a stereotypical Switzerland; rural houses, farmland greenery and mountains rolling away in the distance. After we disembarked our CERN-bound bus, it took us a while to find the museum itself, its entrance tucked away as it is in the complex’s main visitor reception, and if I’m being completely honest, I was a little disappointed in the quantity of exhibits, if not the quality. After concluding our tour, we used the excellent transport system to skirt the north and west of the city to visit the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum, which is genuinely affecting, and if you’re in the area I strongly recommend you visit.
Afterwards, we walked down Avenue Appia, past the Mahatma Gandhi memorial to the Broken Chair memorial and the gates to the grounds of the Palace of Nations. I’d seen images of the Broken Chair before, but I’d never realised one of the legs was (intentionally) missing, a symbol of the lives lost, ruined and changed permanently by landmines worldwide. With that context in mind, it’s quite a profound piece of artwork. After a brief sojourn back to the hostel for some food and rest, we set out in the late afternoon to find the Reformation Wall, located in the grounds of the University of Geneva. Alighting from a tram at the Plainpalais, we noticed the circus was in town (we could hardly miss it); meandering round the site, we found there was a zoo, with entry charged at 6CHF. We bought two tickets and wandered round. I’m not sure I’d ever actually seen an elephant in the flesh before, so to be a metre or so away from one, even an elderly looking one with seats strapped to its back and giving short rides to excited children, was fascinating, if completely undignified for the animal itself.
There were other beasts; zebras, camels, Shetland ponies, horses, monkeys, tropical birds and some deranged llamas that sucked the bars of their compound. Then it was off to the Reformation Wall, via the Conservatoire de Musique and the University grounds where people converge to play games of chess and draughts using oversized plastic pieces on boards painted on the ground. While I’m an atheist, I was baptised into the Church of Scotland, as were many of my forebears. If ‘Presbyterian’ can be an ethnic group, then it’s one I fall into most heavily, and so it felt strangely like a pilgrimage to view a statue of John Knox in the city where he was first exposed to John Calvin’s ideas. In fact, at the feet of John Knox’s statue is a shield depicting the Lion Rampant, Scotland’s Royal standard.
In the evening, we caught a water bus from the River Rhone to the Quai Gustave Ador and walked back west towards town along the shore of the lake, mainly to get a closer look at the Jet d’Eau. Apparently first installed in the nineteenth century as a pressure release device, the city soon came to appreciate the jet’s aesthetic value, and installed it in a prime location on the lake itself. The water can reach a height of some 140 metres, and while all literature claims it is illuminated at night, we found it was switched off by early evening during the weekend we were there. Still, the jet has become inextricably linked with the city itself. Returning to the hostel’s neighbourhood however, we found that the supermarkets all shut at 6pm on a Saturday evening and don’t open again until Monday which is a local custom I find utterly bizarre.
Day Four – Sunday: Geneva
On the previous two days, we’d managed to see a fair amount of the attractions the city had to offer, and Emily wanted to see the country. Specifically, her interest was piqued by mention of a cable car to the top of a mountain just over the border in France. It was only half an hour away, so we packed our passports and jumped on a bus. We needn’t have bothered taking our papers, as the border checkpoint was closed, and it was a short stroll to the base station. I must confess at this juncture to having a mild fear of heights, or to be more accurate, a pathological fear of plunging to a bone-powderisingly painful death from height. While I can sometimes feel a little uncomfortable flying but have more or less become relaxed doing so, a few seconds after the cable car departing the base station I began to feel deeply concerned, mainly because my brain had decided to analyse the cable, the height we were at, the speed we were travelling at and decided that this was not right, not right at all. Cold sweat didn’t cease to pour from the palms of my hands until we had reached the top and I’d consumed a hot dog and a can of Heineken from a little cafe for the very reasonable price of €8 (that snack, atop a French mountain, might actually have been the highlight of the trip).
After refreshments, we decided to keep climbing the mountain; it wasn’t particularly tall or onerous and the weather was terrific, but it was still a fair old hike. We reached a small cafe with an adjoining Buddhist centre, had another brief rest to drink in the view, before deciding to head back down the mountain (and the bloody cable car) and back to Geneva and the next item on our itinerary. As I mentioned earlier, I’m quite fond of football stadia, and Geneva has at least one football stadium of note; the Stade de Genève holds 30,084 and was completed in 2003, just in time to help Switzerland co-host Euro 2004. We arrived to the south of the stadium, passed through a interestingly graffiti-filled underpass and a timber bridge over the railway yard, but I must confess to being a little disappointed in the stadium exterior, being as spartan as it is. It does however have Perspex glass doors that you can peer through to see the pitch through the vomitories, and completing our circuit of the exterior, we found two pitch and media zone passes for the international match between Switzerland and Italy played on the 5th of June of this year, in preparation for the World Cup.
After some food back in the hostel, we made our way down to the lakefront for the last time as I wanted to take some long-exposure photographs of the city at night. The jet was again switched off, which was disappointing, but I managed to get a few decent pictures of both the River Rhone and the lake. Then it was back to the hostel as we had an early flight to Edinburgh in the morning.
Day Five – Monday: Geneva to Edinburgh to Glasgow and conclusions
The return flight wasn’t great to be honest; it was delayed by 45 minutes or so, we had to stand in queues at passport control, customs, the gate and so on. Normally I wouldn’t moan about these types of thing, but I was hungry and tired and wanted to get home. I got separated from Emily at passport control in Edinburgh, paid the best part of £15 for bus and train tickets, another £5 for food, and nearly two hours later I was home, in a rain-lashed Glasgow. I did enjoy Geneva; I liked the atmosphere of the city, the transport system, how clean it was. I’d love to move their, live in a little flat in Carouge and learn to speak French. I don’t know if I learned anything more about the type of person my great-great grandmother was however; Geneva I would say is a very French/International city, due to its location and political/business roles. Presumably Madam Jutz would have had a similarly French/International outlook, but I’m not sure I’ve seen anything more than one small flavour of Switzerland. There’s presumably a reason why my forebears holidayed in Arosa; perhaps that’s the place to visit on my next trip to Switzerland. I know one thing for certain though; I need to take more spending money next time. One spaghetti Bolognese in the Italian restaurant near the hostel would have cost me 22CHF; I only took 70CHF with me for the entire three days.