For many people who have never been to Switzerland, perhaps a few things which come to mind are the snowy Alps, fondue, and (not to forget) very expensive. It should not be confused with Sweden, and one should not stereotype the Swiss as Heidi clones and yodelers. Despite being a small country, Switzerland is surprisingly full of diversity and contradictions, which makes it a fascinating place to visit in Europe.
Switzerland hadn’t been top on my list of places to visit, but it soon piqued my interest during my first year as an assistante in France. Around this time three years ago (how time flies!), I spent about five days traversing the rich, landlocked country to discover its main cities and attractions. I was able to get time off from teaching to go, since my schools had an awkward gap between the weeks (I alternated between teaching at a collège and lycée). Didn’t want to spend a long weekend stuck in my flat in a small town, so I decided to take a quick trip out of the country.
After I got off work on Wednesday noon, I headed back to my flat where I hastily packed my bags and caught three buses (yes, three!) to Paris. Although I was living in Normandy back then, which isn’t so far from the French capital, I was also in a small, rather isolated town. The nearest train station was eight kilometers away, which meant I either had to ask a colleague for a ride over (which they usually were happy to oblige, but I didn’t want to constantly ask) or take the regional buses first to Rouen, then a Ouibus to Paris. I often settled for the latter– while it took twice as long to reach the capital, I saved money and I didn’t have to bother my colleagues for a ride. I survived the three buses over, and
I arrived into Paris close to 22:30 (yes, it took that long!). Unfortunately, there happened to be a strike that entire day (and night, so it appeared!), which messed up bus stations and journeys everywhere. I was originally supposed to be dropped off at gare de Bercy, but due to the situation, the terminus was moved to another location. The thing was, I had to be at Bercy, because that was where I needed to take the overnight bus to Geneva– I explained my situation to the bus driver, who was kind enough to drop me off at the meeting point for the overnight buses– from there, my overnight bus left at midnight, and I did my best to get settled in for the seven-hour journey.
It was my first time ever on an overnight bus– at first, I’d been apprehensive about taking it, but overall it turned out to be fine. I may not have gotten the best sleep on-board, but it got me to Geneva without a problem. We had a quick rest stop at 3:00, and we made it to the French-Swiss border around 6:00. There was actually a border check, since Switzerland isn’t part of the Schengen zone. A couple of guards climbed aboard the bus, and we had to show them our passports. One of them took a look at my U.S. passport and asked me few, simple questions in French (e.g. “Where are you coming from?” “Why are you coming to Switzerland?”) before handing it back. That was about it– no scary interrogations, as I’d imagined before.
Our bus finally pulled into Geneva around 7:00. I was already ready to be done with the journey, and I immediately jumped off once it parked– it wasn’t until about 30 minutes later when I was already out of the bus station that I realized, in my quick getaway, I’d left my umbrella on the bus! Considering that it was winter, and that Switzerland isn’t necessarily the driest country in Europe, I was pretty peeved at myself for forgetting my umbrella– I was fortunate that it didn’t rain while visiting, though (exception being Zurich, my last stop)!
I’d arrived too early for anything to be open, so I headed to Geneva’s train station where I exchanged some money (euros to Swiss francs) and used the Wifi/charged my phone inside one of their cafes. Bought an overpriced breakfast (7 euros, or 8 CHF) inside, too, as I figured out my plan to visit Geneva for the day.
As Geneva is situated on the French-speaking side of Switzerland, I didn’t have much trouble navigating the streets while in town. I took the tram to the Palace of Nations, which is the headquarters of the U.N. I came too early, however, since it wouldn’t be open until 10:00. Before leaving to see other sites, I quickly peeked through the gates where dozens of world flags stood in unity, and I also gazed at the towering Broken Chair sculpture that’s supposed to represent the resilience of landmine opposers in the late 20th century.
On my way to Lake Geneva, I passed by a couple of other notable landmarks in the city. One of them was the bâtiment des Forces Motrices, a former hydro power plant that now serves as an opera house. It was interesting to see an opera house half-submerged in a water basin, which is architecturally-appealing, to say the least.
I then reached place de Bourg-Four, which had the St. Pierre Cathedral. Historically, it’s the church of Calvinist founder John Calvin in the 16th century– although I didn’t go inside, there’s suppose to be a wooden chair upon which Calvin himself had sat. From the fortified walls outside the church, I got some nice views of the neighborhood.
Soon enough, I reached Lake Geneva: situated in both France and Switzerland, it’s one of the largest lakes in western Europe. It is home to the jet d’Eau, a fountain within the lake and the main attraction of Geneva– I came in hopes of seeing it, but unfortunately, I discovered that it was turned off for the winter. Aside from that, it’s said that one can see Mont Blanc from lake Geneva on a clear day, but sadly, the weather wasn’t clear enough that day. A bit disappointing, but otherwise it was a pretty lake.
I returned to the Palace of Nations just in time for it to reopen at 14:00 after lunch break. However, it wasn’t until I got to the front of the line that a worker told me that it was by guided tours only, which would last 90 minutes– the thing was, I had to catch a BlaBlaCar at 15:30 from the train station, which meant I wouldn’t be able to make it in time. That said, I decided to forgo the visit with a heavy heart, and I headed to the train station to wait for my ride to my next destination in Switzerland.
My time in Geneva was short, as I’d planned only to pass through it on my way to another city in Switzerland. Although I’d spent perhaps no more than seven hours sightseeing, I think it was enough to get a taste of what the global city, home to Europe’s U.N. and the Red Cross, had to offer. While I wouldn’t say that there’s so much to do there, its close proximity to France makes it a perfect gateway to the rest of the country.
More of my past visit to Switzerland coming soon!