There are plenty of window seats to choose from as we pull out of Cointrin International but at Cornavin the carriage starts to fill quickly. I soon realise that I’m sitting on the wrong side – the Swiss follow British running practices! Determined to find a window seat on the ‘correct’ side, I make my way to the dining car.
The Swiss rail system is every bit a marvel, and a complete joy to experience. Trains thread their way through the length and breadth of the country, connecting the largest towns with the tiniest of hamlets. Schedules are frequent, connections seamless, fares affordable and the trains themselves are comfortable and always punctual! Better still, the dining car is alive and well here and continues to uphold the gold standard in timeless rail travel – table linen, chinaware, waiter service and a full menu!
For me to ride these trains is nothing short of a privilege and the dining car brings back pleasant memories of saloon travel in India. I tuck into my croissant, take a sip of my stiffly brewed Lavazza, and check off ‘most desired rail system’ #2 from my list 😉
The city of Zurich, the country’s largest, is practically centred on Hauptbahnhof, its bustling rail terminus. Not for nothing have the Swiss Federal Railways branded their major rail stations ‘Rail City’! In fact, the city’s prime retail artery, and the most expensive one for retail in Europe is Bahnhofstrasse or ‘station street’, and it begins right outside the south portal of the station!
I walk along the Bahnhofstrasse, making my way down to Niederhofstrasse, where my hotel is. Dropping my bag off, I board tram #4 towards the Seefeld quarter of the city. The Heidi Weber Museum is closed on Thursdays, but regardless, I have every intention of paying homage to the last building designed by Le Corbusier, an architect who left his mark in cities across India, and who’s face continues to adorn the 10 franc note in the country of his birth.
Zurich is a walkable city for most part, and exceptionally pedestrian friendly too. In fact, the current mayor has set out to ensure that no pedestrian has to wait more than 40 seconds to cross a street, no matter how busy the intersection might be. The little time that I’ve spent here, I can already attest to that!
But for any distance of significance, there is a remarkably efficient network of trams and buses to choose from, and for a little less than 10 francs, you can avail of a 24-hour pass, which gives you unlimited access to public transit in central Zurich. And that includes the boat! I hop on to one such from the pier at Zurichhorn, and make my way north along the lake, into the Limmat River, where it sets me down at the Aldstadt or old town.
Located on either side of the river, the Altstadt comprises an area once enclosed by the city’s ramparts. No more than a square mile in size, the old town is mostly pedestrianized, featuring steep cobblestone streets and plenty of little alleyways, dotted with independent stores and many a colourful flag. Medieval guild houses, known as Zünfte, line the banks of the Limmat, while lofty church towers, with distinct clock faces, define the skyline.
Charming as the old town may be, it is decidedly touristy. But a little distance away, and up one of the steeper slopes, lies Lindenhof, a historical site dating from the Roman era. Remnants of the same are still discernible but the area now serves as a recreational space, where the locals engage in a game of giant chess, a few amongst them play Pétanque, and others simply take in sweeping views of the old town, with the twin towers of the iconic Grossmünster church framing the scene.
It is past 6 in the evening and I’m back on the Bahnhofstrasse, in the throngs of the evening rush hour. Office-goers walk hastily towards Hauptbahnhof to catch their train; others wait impatiently for the bus. A steady procession of trams, their bells ringing, ease their way through a crowd of jaywalkers. Bars are packed with the post-work set, men and women in suits are everywhere – inside shops, grabbing a quick bite, on the phone! Buzzing like a big city would, this is a very different side to Zurich I’m seeing, and I’m loving every bit of it 😉
In the adjacent district 4 (the city is made up of 12 districts), and not far from the Bahnhofstrasse, lies Langstrasse, a neighborhood that has, for the longest time, held the notoriety of being Zurich’s red light district. In the last few years however, things have begun to change, and today, your more likely to run into a trendy bar or restaurant than a drug dealer or brothel!
Langstrasse is also the city’s most diverse quarter, with over 40% of its residents foreign born! To honour that fact, I meet with my ex-flatmate who hails from Ukraine, along with his girlfriend who’s visiting from Argentina, at a local establishment by the name of Gambrinus, where we are served by a waiter from Bangladesh, and proceed to order the most German of Swiss dishes, Zürigschnätzlets – strips of veal with diced mushrooms, in a wine and cream sauce, served with a side of Rösti – not for the faint hearted!
The town of Interlaken lies 120 km to the southwest of Zurich in the Bernese highlands. It is the gateway to the Jungfrau region, a hugely popular destination in the Swiss Alps. A succession of three trains gets you up to Jungfrau, climbing over ten thousand feet between them, to what has aptly been named the ‘Top of Europe’. At 11,332 ft above sea level, the station at Jungfraujoch is also the highest in Europe!
The passage there is nothing short of spectacular and gives new meaning to the old adage, the journey is the destination! Through a steady rise in altitude, one encounters a series of rushing rivers, thickly wooded hillsides, wild flowers on rolling meadows, and the accompanying smell of pine. Waterfalls plunge from sheer bluffs and the craggy snow line beckons in the distance. Occasionally, the vista is punctuated with a hiking trail and that picture-perfect chalet.
To experience this all in the centenary year of the most storied mountain railway in the world, is a dream come true for me, and it only gets better when I realise that I can slide the window down, stick my head out, and not be reprimanded for breathing the fresh alpine air!
The Swiss have long been pioneers of mountain railway technology, but even for them, Adolf Guyer-Zeller‘s plan seemed a bit daring. More so when you consider he proposed the idea in 1893. Construction on the 9-km long railway (the last of 3 one uses to get up to Jungfrau) began 3 years later and took another 16 to complete, with the majority of it being tunneled at an incline of 25%, through the Eiger and Mönch mountains!
Alighting from the train and feeling a bit light-headed for it, I push past scores of tourists and resist the lure of eateries such as Bollywood (!), making my way outdoors to the ‘plateau’. It is a chilling 0.2 C, with a wind speed of 34 km/h, and I’m certainly not dressed for the occasion. But a little discomfort is worth every minute I spend here.
Looking down at the seemingly endless sheet of white that is the Aletsch Glacier, and trying to trace the path of the Jungfraubahn deep within those mountains, I wonder how Mr.Zeller would have felt, at this very spot, a 100 years ago..
It is shaped like a crescent, spans two countries, has a catchment area of over 3000 square miles and is one of the largest lakes in Western Europe. The French call it Lac Léman, the Germans refer to it as Genfersee, and in English it is simply Lake Geneva. No doubt, it gets its name from the City of Genève, which in turn, practically wraps around the southwestern tip of the lake.
If the lake is the defining feature of Geneva, Jet d’Eau, a water jet that rises almost 500 feet, is the city’s most famous landmark, situated at the point where the lake empties into the Rhône River. And to experience it all, I don’t have to go very far, as my cousin lives practically a stones throw away 😉
Best known for being the seat of international diplomacy, Geneva, the second largest city in Switzerland, has often been nicknamed ‘peace capital‘. The European office for the UN, the ILO, WHO, UNHCR, ICRC, WTO, ITU, WMO – the list of abbreviations is endless – and they’re all headquartered here!
The Red Cross is not only based here but also has a museum dedicated to it, and of all the museums in the city, it’s the one I want to see most. Much to my dismay, however, it is closed for renovation till 2013.
But Geneva is also the capital city of watchmakers, so the next best thing to do is head down to a watch museum. In comes Patek Phillipe! Located just off the Plainpalais, this 3-level museum, dedicated to the most coveted of Geneva’s watch brands, houses the personal collection of the company’s owner & CEO, Phillipe Stern.
An absolute must for the watch collector or aficionado, this museum is every bit a revelation, and I come away completely awestruck. Photography is strictly prohibited within, but the first line of the watchmakers’ famous ad campaign sums up the experience best. You never really own a Patek Phillipe!
I glance at my humble Tissot, and it is almost time for dinner. My cousin suggests going ‘across the border’ for the rest of the evening, and surreal as the idea seems, I accept gladly.
Passport in hand, we board local bus route F, which originates from behind Cornavin station, and will take us to Ferney-Voltaire. The Canton of Geneva shares over a dozen border crossings with France, and although the border control stations are still in place, traffic flows to ad fro without so much as slowing down. Bringing along the travel document, it seems, was quite unnecessary!
Practically a suburb of Geneva, this tiny town of a few thousand people was once home to French philosopher Voltaire, whose statue continues to preside over the main square. Ferney‘s Saturday market has wrapped for the day so we head over the hill to Voltaire‘s chateau. The late 18th-century structure is magnificently lit, its grounds dotted with picnic tables and merrymaking locals. Food stalls offer a variety of delectables and a Gypsy Jazz band performs live. We couldn’t have planned this any better – having just stumbled upon Bastille Day celebrations in France, we join in on the fun 😉
Nyon lies 25 km northeast of Geneva, along the lake. Although technically in the Canton of Vaud, it is still considered a part of the Geneva metropolitan area. A lot larger than Ferney, it features an upper and lower town, with the former being built on the site of Roman ruins. Several narrow, traffic-free streets, quaint cobble-stone squares, a museum dedicated to porcelain, and an imposing castle dating from the 13th-century, make this town worthy of a day trip. For fans of European soccer, Nyon is of great significance as UEFA is headquartered here! And for those familiar with Tintin, Nyon features prominently in The Calculus Affair.
There are frequent departures from Cornavin, the trains taking no more than 15 minutes to cover the distance. By ferry, however, it is more of a voyage, taking a leisurely 2 hours! Compagnie Générale de Navigation sur le lac Léman, or CGN, operates a fleet of 18 vessels, serving both countries along the lake, flying the French flag in the fore, and the Swiss in the aft. Of these, 5 are paddle steamers, some of them over a century old!
My return to Geneva is on board the SS Rhône, which, 85 years ago, was the last paddle steamer to be built in Switzerland. Immaculately well maintained, the vessel features two levels of accommodation, a full-service restaurant, and its own ticket booth! For a little less than the value of a Corbusier note, I upgrade myself to first class, knock back a beer and take in the beauty of Lac Léman!
Apart from its old town and some of the UN buildings, which sit atop a hill, Geneva is relatively flat when compared to Zurich. Construction generally does not exceed 6 stories in height, making for a very level city. Geneva is, however, flanked by two mountain ranges, the Alps and the Juras. Within the Juras is the mountain of Salève, and that’s where France comes in handy for a second time!
Its bus # 8 on this occasion, another local service from Geneva’s city centre, which deposits me at the border town of Veyrier, in about 20 minutes. Veyrier sits on the base of the Salève and the Téléphérique, a cable car, whisks you up to an elevation of 4500 feet in a matter of minutes. From my vantage point there, Geneva looks strangely compact, and I begin to appreciate why the Salève is often referred to as the ‘balcony of Geneva’ 😉
Despite being the second largest city in the country, and the seat of many an international organization, Geneva continues to have a small town feel to it. And this is epitomized no better than in the neighbourhood of Carouge. Located just south of the Rhône, and a short tram ride from the city centre, Carouge owes its late 18th-century foundation to the King of Sardinia. There isn’t much of an Italian lineage to be seen today – in fact more people speak Portuguese here than Italian – but that doesn’t take away from the charm of this little nook of Geneva.
Old stone churches sit beside little public squares, where colourful potted plants daintily earmark the boundaries of a cafe. Water gurgles out of a beautifully sculpted water fountain, as locals lounge in the outdoors – some reading the morning paper, others just soaking up the sun – the calm broken occasionally as a tram trundles through. This could be Sunday in Nyon, or Yvoire, or Coppet, or perhaps even somewhere in Sardinia, but this is, in fact, Monday in Geneva!