Top of Europe

Trip Start Nov 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 21, 2006

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Saturday, September 16, 2006

I know most people don't say this, but I was looking forward to going to Geneva. Honestly, there's a reason why most don't. There's not a whole lot to the city, it's more purpose built than anything, meant to serve an international community as it houses an office of the United Nations and the Red Cross' headquarters. You walk down the streets and hear all sorts of different languages -- more than just the French, German and Italian that are the country's official languages -- and it has nothing to do with tourism. I had Geneva high on my list more because I wanted to hang out with my friend Roland, one of my best friends since I've been gone. That I was also with Adrian -- who, if he hasn't been my best friend (do I sound like a third-grader yet) during my travels has certainly been the one person I've gotten to know the best -- only made it better.

Roland proved to be an excellent host, supplying us first with an excellent breakfast of croissants and other French pastries (he himself is French, he couldn't help it) before taking us on a tour of the city. He was a superb tour guide, giving us all sorts of tidbits and pieces of information we would never get by doing it ourselves or by reading a tour guide. It made me excited for all the other cities where I'd be visiting friends and would be able to see their home town through the eyes of a local. We wound through side streets and stared in disbelief at the unbelievable restaurant prices (we'd be dining at home in Geneva), and hit the one main non-museumy tourist attraction -- the Calvinist church. It was strikingly different from the grandiose Catholic churches of Spain and Italy, but still Adrian and I were getting a bit churched out. What this one was particularly good for were the amazing views of the city, Lake Geneva and the Alps that slowly fan out in the distance. Once that was over we took a stroll through a park and played a mega-sized game of chess while some drunk Americans sang to us. After that, mind you this took all of about two hours, we were lost for things to do so we hopped on the tram and went to the lake.

A quick note on Geneva public transport. On a continent full of stupid transportation systems, Geneva might win out. Most European cities are just begging for people to cheat the system. Basically, you can hop on a train, bus or tram without having to pass through any sort of turnstile or dealing with a driver so you can easily travel without a ticket. If you're caught without a ticket, you'll get fined, but rarely is this ever checked. These cities are inviting people to not pay. It can be kind of fun to play this sort of "transportation chicken" but frankly I prefer a system like in New York or Italy where you have to pay, insert a ticket to be let through the turnstiles and, on top of it, don't have to hold onto the ticket throughout the ride to prove that you have in fact paid. Geneva not only uses the system of the former cities, but they have an extra wrinkle. At each tram station there's a ticket machine to buy your ticket. The only thing is, the machine won't give you change. Each ride costs 3 Swiss francs, but if you only have a 5 franc coin, well, you're paying nearly double. God forbid you only have notes. Only recently have they implemented a system in which if you put in too much money you can contact the company and they'll send you a refund. So what the city of Geneva is doing is getting on their hands and knees and pleading for any backpacker without correct change to cheat the system. Thankfully the system is enforced about as much as it makes sense.

We enjoyed a few lakeside beers, taking in the unseasonably warm and sunny weather before Roland had to go to work. Adrian and I were left to our own devices until 1 when we reunited with Roland and were taken to a club across the street from his restaurant. And here's a piece of advice on clubbing in Geneva (and Switzerland in general): only do it if you have a really strong dislike for your money. The only entertainment we got (for a Friday night it was kind of lame, fairly empty and apparently most of the clientele were strippers and prostitutes -- not that I'd use them, but I could only imagine the fees in Switzerland) was staring at the menu. The Swiss franc is basically on a 1:1 conversion with the Australian dollar so we all had a fair sense of what the prices meant in our terms -- Roland and I because we were recently there and Adrian because, well, he's Australian. And we were all fairly certain that a small beer -- not even a pint -- was not worth 23 Aussie dollars. We all agreed that we had never tasted a vodka that was worthy of or warranted 380 bucks for a bottle. It was, as you might imagine, a fairly sober night.

The next morning we got up and visited the famous fountain that shoots about 140 meters high. If you've seen a postcard of Geneva, it was probably of that. Then we got our bags, took a free tram ride to the train station, said our goodbyes and Adrian and I were off to Interlaken. On the ride, especially the Bern-Interlaken leg, we knew we were going to be in for a treat the next few days as we wound along a lake and toward snow-capped mountains. Interlaken sits nestled between two lakes (as the name implies) and stands at the foot of the Alps. It is also only rivaled by New Zealand in the multitude of opportunities it gives you to drain your bank account for the right to try to kill yourself. But most of all, it is Switzerland as you imagined it. There have been few places I've been that have been exactly as I've expected (many places have been so foreign, I had no idea what to expect), but go to Interlaken and you're in the Switzerland of your dreams. The fields are immaculately green, the houses are all wooden chalets with brightly colored flowers on all the sills and a river slices through the valley leading up to the snow-covered Alps. The pictures we took, let alone the words I just wrote, can't do it justice.

Our first day we climbed Harder Klum to try to get an eye-level view of the Alps. It was a great time as we found an empty grassy patch to eat our lunch and play our speakers, but sadly it was a little too hazy to get a perfect view of Jungfrau -- the most prominent peak and the "Top of Europe." Later that night at our hostel we decided to screw views and go for the real thing and splurge on the train up to the top. Since we didn't want to splurge too much we had to take the first train of the day, which meant being at the station at 6:15 to save about 40 francs (as it turned out I didn't save anything because I had a Eurail pass, I just lost sleep). For someone who left at the end of an unusually warm November and spent the last nine months in summer (or pleasant spring at the very least), I was a little out of my element walking on snow again. But to say I stood on the highest peak in Europe -- in the Swiss Alps no less -- was unreal. And it really is amazing up there. Adrian went on and on about how he hates using the word "beautiful" to describe something, but there really isn't a better word for it. At one viewpoint you're face to face with a mountain. At another point you're looking out and in theory you can see at various times Italy, France and Germany. Sadly, borders aren't outlined like they are in the movies, so I can just assume I saw them. Walk to the other side of the viewing platform and the Alps and glaciers are laid out before you. Stunning. Our last bit of business before getting off the mountain (one of the stipulations of the discounted ticket was also having to be off the peak by noon) was doing some of the activities. The first one we did (and as it turned out only) was going down a hill on discs because it was free, and free is good. Since we were the first ones down there we also had the best runs on the fresh ice. It also helped that we had Gordon, our resident crazy Scotsman, to give an extra push. Then we went to check out the dog sled rides because Cynthia, a Cal-Berkeley student studying in Europe, wanted a ride. For a mere 8 francs you get to be led around in a circle by a pack of dogs. Once. And the dogs are out of shape so after a short run it's a labored effort to pull you around to the starting point. The only good thing I got out of watching this mess was it helped me solve a mystery that had been bugging me for months. Ever since I heard that gawd-awful Shakira song I'd been trying to figure out what she sounded like. The closest thing I could come up with was a muppet, maybe Kermit, singing while also trying to swallow its own face. Then I heard one of the huskies winging before it got fed and thought to myself, "I've heard that voice before." Mystery solved.

When we got down off the mountain we found a restaurant that wasn't too overpriced and split an order of fondue. And with that checked off the list, Adrian and I were content with our time in Switzerland and escaped with our bank accounts intact. That would last only as long as our next stop -- Munich.

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