Photos by David Cogswell
The train trip from Gstaad took us through a great panorama of jaw-dropping mountain scenery, clouds hovering below the tops of the mountains, broad expanses of bright green grass and forest on steep mountainsides, quaint farmhouses and contented looking cows grazing.
When we came into view of the vast mirror of Lake Geneva and the city of Montreaux spread along the silvery shore and climbing up steep cliffs, it was breathtaking. So this was Montreaux, the home of the great jazz festival! No wonder there was such magic in the word whenever anyone uttered it.
When the train pulled into the Geneva station I stood by the door ready to hop off the train as soon as the man outside finished unlatching the door. When the door slid open he greeted us with a cheerful “Bonjour!” At that moment I knew I had passed into a different world.
Then I understood what Pascal Prinz of Switzerland Tourism had meant when he said that a well-rounded introductory trip to Switzerland should include more than one language region. Pascal was our tour leader for the Study Tour of Switzerland, for which he designed the itinerary in conjunction with EuropeToo, one of the divisions of the Isramworld Portfolio of Brands.
The trip had started with a stay in Zurich, which was a German city. The dominant language and culture were German. So this is Switzerland, one might say. But then when you get to Geneva, you experience something so strikingly different it doesn’t feel like the same country.
It felt like a French city, more Latin than Zurich. The French connection to Algeria and Africa was much more present than in Zurich, with more Africans and more people of color in the streets.
Everything about it felt very different from Zurich. The atmosphere was fundamentally distinct. Both are charming, I might add, but in strikingly different ways.
It’s intriguing to the point of being puzzling how these cultures weave together as components of Switzerland.
READ MORE: Dispatch Zurich: Introduction to Switzerland
Although the German sector feels predominantly German and the French sector feels like France, the people living there identify with Switzerland. They distinguish themselves proudly from the Germans and the French. They are Swiss. They embody some of all the others surrounding them, but they stand apart, independent.
I did not make it to the Italian sector, but I presume some of what I observed in the German and French sectors would carry over. These places are what they are as products of their long individual histories. Long before the borders and nations of today’s Europe were in place, these cities had their own individual identities and lineages going back hundreds of years. They still embody those separate lineages, and yet they are united into a single entity called Switzerland.
The Swiss German language is distinct from the German version of the language. I was told that since Swiss children learn proper German in schools, while they speak a Swiss dialect on the streets, they are able to understand the Germans, while the Germans have trouble understanding them.
From the train station we were literally walking distance from our hotel, Le Richemond. We walked through a few colorful and lively blocks to reach it. Our hotel contrasted greatly with our hotel in Zurich. Both were centrally located, attractive, comfortable, friendly and well-managed hotels. The Hotel Glockenhof in Zurich was a four star. It was simpler, more functional and businesslike.
Le Richemond was a five star, much more colorful, wild and glossy. When you walk into the lobby you are confronted by a shiny porcelain statue of a panda with wild splashes of color a la Andy Warhol created by sculptor Julien Marinetti. The lobby is decorated with a number of smaller pieces by Marinetti of pandas and bulldogs.
It had the feeling of Parisian hotels in which you can see the work of the designer in every corner of the hotel. There’s a flamboyance and artistic flair in every design element, and practically everywhere you look the designer challenges you with some thought provoking element. It’s a stimulating, lively environment.
Le Richemond is a block from the waterfront of Lake Geneva, and a few doors down from the historic Beau Rivage, which inhabits the top level of luxury and prestige and is ornate in the most traditional sense.
The 150-year old Beau Rivage was the favorite home away from home for Sissi, the beloved Empress Elisabeth of Austria, wife of Franz Joseph I who was seen as the epitome of style and grace in her day. Sissi was a guest of the hotel when she was murdered in 1898, a dubious distinction, but the hotel celebrates her history as a loyal guest.
We explored Geneva feverishly, touring the old city with a guide who gave us much of the historical background of the city. We attended a wine tasting at Lavinia restaurant. We had an amazing tour of the Patek Philippe Museum, which showed us many examples of watchmaking going back to the 16th century.
Geneva is the historical center of watchmaking, and the amazingly intricate machines that are preserved in that museum will give you second thoughts about whether we as a civilization are progressing forward or sideways.
Being in Geneva, I was reminded of many other things I had known about Switzerland before and I learned many new things about it. Obviously it was the birthplace of the Geneva Conventions, which created an international legal framework that outlawed torture and delineated some terms by which international conflict might be made a bit more civilized.
Did you know that Geneva was the site of the invention of the World Wide Web? It was invented by Tim Berners-Lee, a British scientist, at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in 1989.
How about this one? Geneva was the place where Mary Shelly wrote “Frankenstein.” It’s the European headquarters of the United Nations. It’s the birthplace of Calvinism. The Red Cross was founded in Switzerland. It is known as the most staunchly neutral of nations. Situated in the center of one of the most war-torn regions in the world, Switzerland has managed to stay out of wars since the 1500s.
Of course, there are so many Swiss commonplaces in our world that even if you think you don’t know Switzerland, you know parts of it intimately. There is Swiss Cheese, Swiss Army Knives, the Alps; the lakes. Swiss wine is so good they drink it themselves and don’t export much so it remains a well-kept secret.
Ah Switzerland! I sing in rapture to you!
One of the best things about Geneva was that the train station, which was a few minutes walk from our hotel, is actually a six-minute ride from the airport, and since the trains leave every 10 minutes, there is no appreciable waiting time.
So, after two very busy nights in Geneva, it was time to end our trip. At least the departure was easy, and that eased the pain of separation.