Saturday, 10 March 2012

Switzerland 2012: Lausanne

Until this week, I knew next to nothing about Switzerland, except that it's a place with well-made utility knives, chocolate, cuckoo clocks, chalets, and secret bank accounts. Also, I knew it was neutral in world affairs, and supplies the Vatican's guards. In other words, I had a very limited and stereotyped view of the country, derived almost exclusively from how it is portrayed in films. After having visited Switzerland for a grand total of about 48 hours, I can't say that I am much more educated about the country, but at least I have seen some of it, and spoken a little of one of its languages, and eaten a whole lot of its cheese. Not a bad start.

Avon Gorge Hotel, Bristol, UK
The road to Switzerland led first through Bristol, where my husband and I spent the night in the Avon Gorge Hotel, just a couple blocks away from a place where my husband lived while doing his PhD at Bristol University. It was a grand-looking old hotel that had the sort of circuitous and inexplicable hallways I've only ever seen in British establishments. To get to our room on the second floor, we went up a flight of steps, down a hall, down 2 steps, down a hall, down another half dozen steps, and down another hall. You'd think that we'd have worked our way back down to the front desk by then, but in fact we had arrived at our door. Because we checked in after sunset, we couldn't enjoy our balcony or its view until the next day:

Our balcony

The iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge, which requires a 50p toll. Unfortunately, the tollbooth is not manned, and does not accept 5p or 1 pound coins. Guess who didn't have exact change and held up traffic until a good Samaritan saved the day by donating spare coins?

Our room had many interesting features besides just the balcony. The decor was very tropical-British-colonial, and our bathroom had this handy little bottle opener next to the toilet, which is good because I always like to take my drinks into bathrooms and expose them to all the toilet germs:

Recently I've been reading a few blogs about vintage styles, so I couldn't help but notice the incredible retro faucets at the sink. These are some serious hunks of rock:

Our trip to the airport and flight to Switzerland were both pretty uneventful. I didn't have a window seat so, unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to see either Geneva or the Alps from the air. However, the mountains make their presence known pretty much everywhere, so I was able to get plenty of good views later on. Official entry into Switzerland involved a rather unusual immigration process. The officers gave most passports only a cursory look and waved the bulk of passengers through very quickly. My American passport garnered a bit more attention, and unlike my British flight-mates I got a visa stamp upon entry and departure. I am not sure why I was treated differently, but I'm not going to complain about anything that fills my passport pages--I ordered an extra-large passport specifically for that purpose.

The airport is next to the train station, which is where we needed to go in order to get transportation to Lausanne. We purchased our tickets using automated machines that only gave instructions in French; it is moments like that when I am grateful to have studied that language for 8 years. I was amused to see that children and pets counted as 1/2 and 1/4 people, respectively, while adults counted as 1 person apiece. One thing I immediately noticed was that the train station was exceptionally clean; also, true to the exacting standards of the Swiss, our train departed right on time. 

One of my main enjoyments when traveling somewhere new is seeing the countryside; I suppose it is the biologist in me comparing ecosystems. Unfortunately, I couldn't snap any good photos of Lake Geneva because trees kept getting in the way of my view. That was not, however, an issue with the mountains:

Even the unattractive towers in this picture can't ruin the spectacle of the snow-covered peaks in the distance. Although this particular field is empty, most of the agricultural areas we passed were devoted to grapevines; this region of Switzerland is renowned for its wines. There were vineyards of all shapes and sizes, from tiny plots in someone's backyard up to massive, industrial-scale growth, and they were crammed into seemingly every spare inch of space. Here's a blurry one, as seen from the train window:

Once we arrived in Lausanne, which is only about 45 minutes away from Geneva, we opted to walk to our hotel rather than hail a taxi. According to the various Internet maps we consulted, the walk should only take about 15 minutes and cover a distance of about 1 mile. One thing that Google doesn't accurately convey is vertical distance as well as horizontal distance; it turned out that we were trudging up steep inclines and climbing steps left and right. This wouldn't have been so bad except that I was wheeling my suitcase along behind me and it was making a terrible racket because much of the ground was cobbled rather than paved. With a little help from the iPhone's GPS capabilities, we eventually found our way to Hotel Crystal, which sounds fancier than it was. However, it was conveniently located in the heart of the shopping district and offered a lovely view of Lausanne's Notre Dame Cathedral:

Lausanne's Notre Dame Cathedral, which was built in the late 12th and early 13th centuries in the Gothic style. It is apparently considered to be the finest Gothic structure in Switzerland, and one of the top ten examples of Gothic architecture in Europe.)

We were also positioned diagonally from a bell tower whose bells chimed out every hour, but paid particular homage to the hours of 9 AM, 12 PM, and 6 PM, ringing for minutes on end. Sadly, my attempt to record video of this seems to have ended in failure, as I cannot find the movie anywhere on my camera. Suffice it to say, the acoustic display was incredibly loud. Here is where all the noise was coming from:

(You can just barely see the bells above the cupola on the left)

Farther down from the tower, both vertically and horizontally, was the bustling shopping and restaurant district. We had two particularly fine establishments within seconds of our hotel's front door: Starbucks and McDonald's--wherever in the world you go, there they are!

The whole reason we were in town was so that my husband could give a lecture at the University of Lausanne. His host, a researcher at university, escorted us to Les Brasseurs, where we could have both drinks and dinner. Simply because he could, my husband ordered a liter of beer--or, in British terms, 2 pints. It's an amount that many people would drink in one sitting, but it looks ridiculous combined into a single serving rather than brought in two separate glasses:

Florian de Fal steals a sip from the half-empty liter of beer

For dinner, I opted for the Swiss version of pizza, which is called flammenkueches, or "flamed cake." Basically, it is a thin dough covered with toppings such as cheese, meat, more cheese, vegetables, and even more cheese. Honestly, I've never seen so much cheese in my life. As soon as we walked into the restaurant, it was all I could smell--and believe me, it was a powerful scent. The pull of fromage was so strong that I ordered La Trois Fromages, which came with goat cheese, herby cheese, and reblochon. It was delicious, as was my husband's rosti montagnard, which came with raclette (another Swiss cheese), ham, and an egg on top. Thinking I would finish the night off with a nice light dessert, I ordered pommes cannelle et glace vanille, or cinnamon apples with vanilla ice cream. Little did I know that this also involved dough; it was kind of like an apple pizza, with thinly sliced apples layered over dough and then topped with the ice cream. I guess I should have anticipated this development, because pastries are such a prominent part of the cuisine in this area of the world.

After dinner we headed up to an Asian-themed bar (in terms of decor, at least) called Karma, where I had a cute little pot of jasmine tea that I managed to pour all over the table while trying to serve myself. My husband and I peppered his host with questions about Swiss culture--in particular, its government and political policies. I can safely say that I now know more about these topics than I ever anticipated; my only worry is that I will mix up these facts with the ones I am currently learning for my "Life in the UK" settlement test (but that is a whole other blog entry). I learned that the original Latin name for Switzerland is Helvetica, and that the reason we have a Helvetica font is that its designer was Swiss. The Swiss motto is the Latin phrase meaning "One for all, all for one." Who knew the original Musketeers were from Switzerland?! Also, I found out about a whole new language that I didn't even know existed: Romansh, which emerged from the "Vulgar Latin" spoken by Roman conquerors of the country.

The next morning my husband and I enjoyed the continental (literally!) breakfast at our hotel before he went to campus to give his talk. The breakfast was, as you might predict, about halfway between what you'd find in France and what you'd eat in Germany. It had the delicatessen-like array of cheese and cold sausages that we'd previously encountered in Bielefeld, plus all the croissants, baguettes, and other freshly baked breads that you always find in France. Luckily, there were also "normal" things like yogurt and cereal, plus a juice machine that made fresh orange juice on the spot.

Once my husband departed, I set off to wander around the city and see what I could see. I passed through the weekly Wednesday market at the Place de la Riponne and, yet again, smelled the very strong scent of cheese wafting through the air. I went up to the cathedral and admired the intricacy of its carved front door:

I was a bit disappointed at all of the reconstruction work that's been done, since it is very obvious--you can probably see it in the image above. I don't mind the idea of restoring an old building, but I hate how obvious these restorations are. When I got home and did a little research, I was surprised to find that the work had been done in the late 19th century, since most of these newer stones look like they could have been laid in the past 10 years. I was more impressed by the style of the fire hydrant outside, since it was an unexpected place to find such attention to detail and artistry:

After leaving the cathedral area, I continued to wander around the city and take in the sights and sounds. I passed an amazing street band busking in front of the noisy-bell building near our hotel; they sounded kind of Latin but I am not sure whether they were South American or traditional European. Although they played their instruments well, the impressive bit was their multi-part harmony. I thought I might go back later and see if they were selling any CDs, but by the time I returned to the square, they had vanished. There were plenty over other musicians sprinkled throughout the area, though--including an older man playing a strange device that sat in his lap and had a crank that he repeatedly rotated. I think it may have been a hurdy-gurdy, but I only say this with the benefit of hindsight and Wikipedia; I didn't get a very good look at the time. He was singing songs that were very clearly old folk tunes, and which sounded interesting but incredibly out of place, given the setting.

One of the weirder things I saw during my wanderings was a bus driver holding up traffic at a stoplight while he repeatedly vomited out the window of his vehicle. I can't say I've encountered that during any of my previous travels. Other bizarre sightings include a strange style of lingerie in which the bottoms reach all the way up to the top of the ribcage, just under the bra, and, elsewhere in the same store, cooking salt flavored with the stamens of Swiss alpine flowers.

Unfortunately, that is about the extent of my sightseeing, since I was suffering from a sore back and couldn't comfortably walk around for more than a couple of hours. I did manage to stay on my feet long enough to buy a new pair of boots, which I was hoping I could do in order to take advantage of the nearly 1:1 exchange rate between Swiss francs and US dollars; it was much cheaper than shopping in the UK.

That evening our host took us out to fondue, which apparently is a Swiss specialty. I'd never really thought about that before, but it makes sense--fondue is usually made with some variety of Swiss cheese, and it's exactly the sort of warm, comforting meal that would be dreamed up by people who live in a cold, snowy climate. The only drawback was that the entire meal consisted solely of bread and cheese, and by this time I was fairly certain I was morphing into a human-sized piece of cheesy dough thanks to what I'd been eating for the last day and a half. I asked the waitress if there were any vegetables available, such as mushrooms or broccoli, that I might dip in the cheese; this elicited a look that combined disgust, amusement, and confusion, and ultimately produced no results. Luckily, I was able to order a salad instead. There was so much fondue that even Florian got in on the action:

By the time you are done eating a pot of fondue, a crispy crust of cooked cheese has coated the bottom of the dish. This is considered to be the best part of the meal, but of course can only be eaten by those who have the patience to chisel it free, as well as the room to stuff it in their already well-laden bellies. Our host told us that he normally likes to throw an egg or two in the dish and have a cheesy, eggy delight at the end of the night, but he also admitted that it can be difficult to eat something that rich and heavy at that point in the evening. All I know is, it's a good thing these people live in such a hilly place, otherwise they'd never burn off all the calories and fat they consume each day.

The next day we lounged around in our hotel room until noon, at which point we checked out to the sound of the bells clanging away across the street. We headed back to the train station--a journey that was much more pleasant in reverse thanks to the fact that gravity was assisting in the movement of my suitcase, rather than trying to prevent it. We were a bit worried that our return tickets to the Geneva airport would not be valid since we hadn't specified that we wanted to take the journey on a different day than when we'd set out on our trip, but luckily we didn't have any problems.

Sasha contemplates the Swiss countryside
The rest of the trip went smoothly, unless you count Sasha's pouring hot tea all over his lap during the drive home from the Bristol Airport. Switzerland is an hour ahead of the UK, so although we arrived back home around 9 PM, it felt more like bedtime; I always find traveling so exhausting, plus airplane rides invariably leave me with migraines. The best part of climbing into our bed was returning to normal-sized pillows--the ones we had in our Swiss hotel room were flat little square things that offered absolutely no support.

However, that's really my only complaint about the whole trip; well, that and the fact that I wasn't spry enough to spend more time exploring the city. I'll just consider this reconnaissance for further trips that will be longer and involve a) time spent on a boat on Lake Geneva, and/or b) skiing in the Alps. At least I know that if I start pining for a taste of Switzerland to hold me over until those future visits, I have a nice bar of Lindt chocolate sitting in my cupboard.

1 comment:

  1. That is really eye opening. Thanks for the inside view!