On the weekend of the 7th through 10th of February, I visited some dear friends in Switzerland. The area I visited is the French speaking Northwest portion of Switzerland.
Previously I had visited only the Eastern, German-speaking and Southern Italian-speaking parts of Switzerland, so this was an interesting change.
I took a train from Heidelberg to Mannheim. At the station I met a very nice young lady from Georgia (The country, not the state) who plays violin. We took a seat on the train and shared the quick ride (all too short...) to Mannheim and then went our separate ways. What happened between us upon my return is another story altogether... I boarded another train in Mannheim that was headed to Bern, Switzerland via Basel, a significant border town known for its Fasching (Carneval) parade.
At the border, we stopped at the German side, then rolled forward 300 yards into Switzerland. We then effortlessly passed the border and were smoothly on our way. I took this train to Bern, where I switched over to another train, and headed down to Lausanne, on the Lake Geneve shores. I spoke with another nice young lady on this part of the trip. She played guitar, and was met at the station by her boyfriend.
In the Hauptbahnhof (train station) in Lausanne I was met by Patrick and Bettina, my hosts, and their friend Laurent. We stopped off in a cafe to have a quick drink. I had a rather awful bitter Belgian beer. We then picked up our rental car, a little Renault Clio, a bright blue 3 door hatchback about the size of a Geo Metro or such. Laurent and I were tapped to be drivers. Since Laurent knew the area and the traffic laws much better than I, we let him drive first.
We headed off to the northeast around the lake, to the town of Montreux. We passed by the hotel made famous in Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" and stopped by the lake shore for a bit. We then progressed a bit further out of town to a very romantic castle situated on a small island just off of the shore called Chateau Chillon.
This castle is situated on a 300 meter by 160 meter rock which is separated from the shore by a 10 meter wide moat. On the lakeward side the rock drops off 85 meters under the water to the lake bottom. These factors make it prime real estate for defensive works, so this rock has a history of habitation from as far back as the Bronze Age.
The modern Chateau began to take form in the 11th century, becoming as it stands mostly by the 14th century. It has been used as a keep, a residence for tax collectors along the highway through the St Bernard's Pass, and a naval garrison for the Lake Geneve Flotilla. The castle has been restored and preserved since the end of the last century, and stands as a fine example today of medieval defensive architecture.
We toured the castle for about an hour, not really enough time to see it all, but very nice all the same. We saw the lower dungeon levels, which include an area where Swiss patriot Bonivard was imprisoned for four years chained to a pole. Lord Byron wrote a poem about it, and also left his mark among the other graffiti carved into the stone by countless generations of tourists and visitors (possibly prisoners as well)
Like anything of that age, the chateau evolved over time. Towers were raised, then raised again. Large arrow slits were narrowed to gun loops. Gates were widened to accommodate gun carriages. Much of the records of construction of the place from the 11th century onwards has been preserved in archives, so the history of the place is well known compared to many castles in Europe.
After the castle closed, we headed back to Montreux for a snack and another drink. We walked along the harbor a bit and saw the famous grounds for the Montreux Jazz festival held there every July. As darkness fell, we drove back to Nyon to drop off Laurent and have a nice meal at a local Italian restaraunt.
Nyon is located about equally distant from Lausanne and Geneve, so it was a nice center point to both locations.
After dinner I drove us back to my host's home. Home is a substantial 17th century mansion, built on a vineyard. The house is all of stone walls with wooden floors and roof. The first level is taken up with wine casks and other tools of the trade, while the top two floors are residential in nature. The place is positively palatial, large enough to have been divided up into three units. Each unit is still massive in scale, very roomy for nearly any size family.
As Saturday dawned, we rose and had a nice full breakfast, then headed off to Geneve. We parked downtown in an underground car park. We emerged into the light and browsed a flea market that was located in a park nearby. Like I have found most flea markets to be, this one was proof that one man's trash is another man's treasure, or is it the reverse case? Both seem to fit equally well.
We nosed around a bit, and I was interested for a moment in some craftsman's measuring tools. They were marked off in units I could not comprehend. The small scales appeared to be in 48ths, which is a bit odd. They seemed neither English or Metric, but in between. From their look and condition, I would judge them at least 100 but not more than 150 years old. Something of a mystery to me, I passed on purchasing any.
I received a great education on Swiss military service rifles by a couple of gentlemen who talked of them as I looked over a Schmidt-Rubin bolt action rifle of World War I vintage. The Schmidt-Rubin is somewhat unique among military bolt action rifles in that you do not rotate the bolt handle 90 degrees, then draw the bolt back to expose the chamber and load a fresh cartridge. Instead you simply pull it straight backward, and a system of cams in the rear of the bolt effect the turning motion for you. This speeds the rechambering of the cartridges, but is somewhat complex, and would probably get gummy in the mud of the Flanders Fields. Still, these rifles are exceptionally accurate, and the 1931 variant (the first dates from the 1890s) is still manufactured and is used by Swiss (and other) target shooters today.
Leaving the flea market, we headed for the University area and took in some rather pretty turn of the century architecture. Imposing structures of neo-classical design executed in stone. We passed into another park and visited a memorial to the heroes of the Protestant Reformation. Graven images in stone of Martin Luther, as well as other British and (mostly) Swiss religious leaders who sparked the division of Protestants from the Catholic church are depicted on a wall behind a fountain. Heraldry of the Protestant centers of Switzerland were executed in mosaic on the ground.
Up and then down again, we crossed the hilly streets of Geneve in search of St. Peter's Cathedral, from who's towers we could be afforded a view of all of the downtown and harbor areas. We found he cathedral closed until 1400 so we went in search of a meal. We stopped in a cafe rich with advertising signs of a bygone age, which would not have seemed out of place in Texas, as they even had a Corona beer sign. I ordered (or had ordered for me by Bettina, as my French is terrible) a traditional Swiss sausage meal, served with the ubiquitous Pommes Frites (French Fries to us Americans) as well as a local beer. The beer wasn't so good but I liked the sausage, even if it was a pretty heavy meal.
Off to the Cathedral. The interior was a lovely mix of Romanesque and Gothic styles. In Protestant tradition, the walls, which before the Reformation had been richly painted, were a uniform whitewashed gray. The church was very bright inside and had some lovely stained glass, which dates from around the turn of the century. The pipe organ at the back was enormous, delving into the 32' register, which will shake your fillings loose. A chamber off to one side of the main cathedral has been restored partially to its former glory of paint work, showing what it would have looked like prior to the Reforamtion.
For CHF3 (3 Swiss Francs) each we were able to ascend the outer towers which flank the main clock/carillon tower. Long stone spiral staircases lead up to the towers which afford such a lovely view of the harbor and downtown. We could see the site of the famous harbor fountain, which sprays bay water 100' into the air. It wasn't active that day, possibly because of the breeze, which is a pity. Looking out over the old town was a lovely sight, seeing the huddled rooftops and old but elegant buildings as they descend to the bay.
The tower's vantage served it well as a scout post for the fire department. A complex system of signals, which I don't completely understand, but which were displayed on charts, allowed the fire guard to inform the batteries of nearly the exact block that a fire was on.
The carillon in the adjoining tower has several bells that date back to the 15th century, along with newer iterations. Apparently the brass from a bell is reused to make its replacement when it has cracked or otherwise lost its usefulness. Several of the bells had been recast two or three times. There is an older fellow in the hills nearby who concerns himself with bells, and was tapped to cast the signal bells used on the tracks in the last Olympics.
Beneath the cathedral are historical digs of Roman vintage, but we didn't have the time to see both them and the tower.
Downtown again, and we made a short shopping excursion and I looked for a bank to convert my Deutsch Marks to CH (Confederation Helvetica, the true name for Switzerland) Francs. Saturday was Patrick's birthday, so we stocked up on supplies for a party in his honor that evening.
We crossed Downtown on our way back to the car, and passed the Opera House and several other grand edifices. As we were speaking English, we drew the attention of some skate rats (boards and rollerblades) who attempted to engage me in conversation with phrases like "Hey Dude" so I did my best to pretend that I didn't know how to speak skate rat and walked on.
We again crossed the Flea marked, and my eye was caught by a Remington Rolling Block rifle in .22 Long Rifle, from around 1880 or so. High in price and fair in condition, I passed, not needing a single shot .22.
We left Geneve and quickly drove home to catch the market still open. We grabbed some more munchies, and I was able to secure two bottles of Morand Abrigotine, an Apricot liquer. I was on a mission to find Abrigotine courtesy of my hotelier in Heidelberg, Beatta. Morand makes a variety of fruit based distilled spirits, but finding the apricot variety seemed difficult outside the region that the apricots are grown. I paid my CHF 65 (US$45) for two bottles and thanked my good fortune. (Beatta was very happy upon my return)
For the party, there were about 10 of us. We snacked and carried on conversations in a combination of French (where I was a bit lost) and English (all but a couple were surprisingly good) Everyone but me, I think, smoked, but in so large a room, it wasn't so bad a problem. Most everyone in Europe seems to smoke, which is really too bad, but hooray for them.
We traveled by car in a mob to a local jazz restaraunt, where we ate, drank, toasted Patrick and listened to a quartet of older men play jazz. Bass, two guitars and a horn player make up the ensemble, with the horn player alternating between Clarinet and Saxophone, with one (kind of poor) flute song. They played standards, everything from 30's Jump to Benny Goodman to Chicago.
We returned home through the seedy part of town, where there literally was a hooker on every corner, regular as lampposts. We arrived home safely and carried on the conversations until 2 A.M. when most guests left and I retired.
Sunday began in mid-morning, with another sumptuous breakfast courtesy of Bettina. We inserted ourselves into the Renault and pointed the nose northward along some scenic twisty roads headed for some more local history.
Our first stop was at the town of Payerne where we stopped off to view an older church.
Again, as with Chateau Chillon, the changes in architecture of the church could be seen, with this one being of a different period, Romanesque, and not as bright inside. The grounds consist of the chapel itself (still used, by appearances) an abbey, and sundry out buildings. All seem to be in use, to include the local court offices being in part of the structure.
In the chapel area there are some historical exhibits and a museum inside. There was also an art museum upstairs, and a room dedicated to mid-nineteenth century military garb and weapons, part of an exhibit on a famous local man who was a ranking adjutant of Napoleon during the Russian Campaign. There were 16th through 19th century weapons, notably a matchlock arquebus, and some flint and percussion lock muskets and rifles. There was also a nice uniform exhibit, maps and dioramas of his battles, and a collections of writings from the man himself.
I noticed something about the church which changed the way we looked at it and the other buildings around us. This area of central Europe, despite being in the mountains, is rich in limestones, of a period I do not yet know (sorry, I have no geologic maps with me) when this was a sea, before being lifted to the lofty heights it now has.
Limestones and occasionally sandstones are the material of choice for durable buildings in the region. Most of the limestone is grayish or off-white. The limestone used in this church, and other neighboring buildings in the town is a pale gray-greenish cast, and fine-grained. This indicates the presence of a fair amount of organic matter left in the rocks, possibly from a lagoonal environment, where oxygen levels in the water are reduced to the point where decomposition of the organic material does not take place fully. This gives an interesting history to the structure that stretches back millions of years to the making of the stone, rather than simply the couple hundred of the church's existence.
Our next stop was the town of Avenches (Aventicum to the Romans) where we visited several Roman ruins. The most notable are a coliseum and a theater. Both are purported to have held 8,000 spectators and date from the second century A.D. There are also the remains of a temple and a large sanctuary structure, but these are preserved only by stair footings and a couple of dilapidated columns, respectively.
The coliseum is much better preserved, and in fact is still in use today. In summertime plays and even rock concerts are held here. Its stands stand ready and the dirt floor of the coliseum is smooth and lightly gravelled. The center area is probably 50 yards long and a bit less wide, making a smooth graceful oval. The coliseum itself is let into the side of a hill, so that the top of the stands are at ground level along 2/3rds of its length. Along the entry arch side, the ground slopes down to the same level as the coliseum floor. The sides have been shored up with arched alcoves which give good strength against spreading while requiring little of the local limestone.
Completely surrounding all but the very ends (like the endzone areas of a modern football arena) are limestone benches. These benches have a small strip of grass growing behind each giving the whole area a mini-terrace look. Interspersed among the benches are stair wells. Two stairs equal one bench in height and depth, making for very smooth passage in and out of the building, a tradition again seen in modern municipal buildings and sports arenas. Patrick made the astute observation that at one time, some Roman's butt occupied each of those benches. The mind reels at the thought.
One endzone once was occupied by a small entrance tube, which was blocked in, probably when the buttressing arches were added. The other end is a grand entrance way, formed of three great arches. The center arch leads directly to the coliseum floor, while the two side arches lead into vaulted antechambers. These chambers let into a gallery which is about 5 feet wide which encircles the floor. It was here that gladiators, contestants, actors and animals were kept in waiting for the events, along with event officials and such. The gallery was formerly totally closed in with stone, with only slit windows looking into the arena floor. The roofing stones are gone for the most part, exposing the benches and chambers of the gallery.
The coliseum was said to have held more noble arts as well as bloodsports. Exotic animals as well as common slaves or low criminals graced the score cards to be beaten by noble gladiators. (Oh, Sparticus!)
A more recent (Medieval, possibly 12th to 14th century) tower has been added over the entrance arches. At its foot a modern ticket booth, complete with polished aluminum railing and glass fronted counter waits for paying customers. Neither adds to the beauty of the place.
About 1/4 mile from the coliseum we find the stair footings for the temple. Most of the footprint of the edifice is now covered by a modern blacktop street, but a well done three language (French, German, English) sign shows the original plan form along with a concept of what the temple might have looked like. Details of the archeological excavations show that little was lost to the ribbon of macadam. These informative signs are present at all four of the town's ruins, and provide a wealth of knowledge for those who stop to read them.
Across another road lies the remains of what was described as a sanctuary of some sort which was along the main Roman road through the area. This Roman road is now a bit more than a cart track behind a farmer's newly plowed field. All that remains of the sanctuary is the footings of the walls and a portion of two of the major roof columns.
Across the aforementioned field resides the theater. It is a theater in the half-round, with a semi circle of white limestone benches again with grassy terracing, though I think the grass is recent, as apparently this theater was once roofed. Again it seated about 8,000 loyal Roman citizens.
The stage was ample in size for tragedies or comedies of the day, with the front straight edge of the semicircle extended forward toward the road to make antechambers and rooms for the actors or what have you. A semicircular gallery around the curved back of the theater admitted patrons via tunnels through the dirt that emptied into the stairs between the benches. Little has changed in 2,000 years of municipal planning.
These grand edifices are all built up from cheery white limestone that has gone a bit to seed over 2,000 years of rain and dirt (and Roman butts). This stone is nowhere apparent in the exposures around town, nor in the hill of the coliseum, which is in fact glacial till, the dirt dredged and dragged along by advancing ice sheets. The nearest river is 15 km away, so all of this stone must have been carried overland for quite a way to build these constructions. This fact also led to the use of the theater as a quarry for local construction after its abandonment, a practiced stopped only a hundred years ago, so that little above ground of it or the other structures remains.
We skirted the sticky mud on the return trip and arrived where we had parked the car. Behind the lot is a grand 16th century castle, which was still open. It has the appearance of being used as the town hall, and one of the towers had an ongoing exhibit of historical aviation art painted by a local artist, which I found paradoxical in a 400 year old building. The architecture was grandly executed, with a unique detail in the tower's circular staircase: The upper half is served by a rope hand rail, but the lower half has a relieved handrail let into the very stones of the tower. This would have to have been carved as the stones were laid, as the tools won't reach as it stands now (the handrail is undercut within the groove, making it round in cross section.) A lovely touch. We left this grand place for our final engagement of the day: Fribourg.
Fribourg is a large and very old town that occupied a narrow river gorge between towering headlands. Traffic is served by several bridges, which soar to an incredible height over the river, with one being a bridge over a bridge! A narrow one lane auto-pedestrian bridge is surmounted by a large modern 4 lane highway bridge, which towers over 100 feet over the lower bridge!
We parked in a parking lot of a strip mall (a very nice one, though) around 1700 hours and began to explore Fribourg. Sunday was Fasching day there, where revelers burn the Old Man Winter in effigy and celebrate the last day before Lent. Fribourg is also home to what my hosts claim is the best Fondue shop in the known world. We made reservations for dinner, then began a short walking tour of the area. We headed down Stalden, a street with a pitch that makes Lombard Avenue in San Francisco seem tame. Stalden led down to a pleasant grassy spot on the bank of the Sarine River.
We went through the town, following the detritus of the parade, with tons of confetti, paper, streamers and other debris choking the streets. There were still costumed revelers in the streets, and beer tents had the local brew Cardinal, for sale, slightly warm, in cans. I ponied up the CHF 9 for a round and we three each had one, and immediately remarked on just how awful the stuff was. It is the local brew, however, and I try to support local breweries, especially when there is threat of takeover from a major brewer, as in Cardinal's case. The brewery goes back 200 years, so that says something (actually many things).
I have developed a taste for European bears, but Pilsners are none of them. The addition of a large amount of hops simply makes the beer bitter and have a metallic taste, especially in a can (duh?) Dark, roasted wheat beers with a thick, foamy, head are my drink. If you can fill a whole glass in under a minute, its not up to my standards.
We wended our way along the river and were treated to some fascinating examples of a thriving town based on medieval architecture. Tall narrow buildings crowded together, rolling up and down the hills. True to Medieval city planning, anything that is not a building must be a street.
We worked our way across the aforementioned doubled bridge and up the hill again for our rendezvous with cheese. Along the way, we saw a curious little tower, which is now a set of apartments, one room wide. This was formerly the excecutioner's residence. I probably disturbed the residents with my flash (darn 100 speed film) as I snapped a quick shot in the gathering gloom.
We stopped along Stalden street at a tavern that looked cool along the way down and quaffed a glass of cold hard cider each. The place definitely had rustic charm, with exposed timber (real logs, not squared lumber) roof beams, and paradoxically loud techno rock music for the wait staff and bar. I immediately alienated myself and my hosts by loudly toasting "Prost!" and slamming my glass down on the table. Traditional in Southern Germany, but alien in French Switzerland. Cést la Vie! Vive la difference!
Refreshed, we continued our journey towards dinner. At the appointed hour, 1900, we reached Cafe du Midi, our House of Cheese.
Fondue is a Swiss treat, whose origins are a bit vague, but seem only 100 years old or so. A bowl not unlike a wok is warmed, and rich white cheese is melted in the bowl. Other treats are added, and allowed to simmer a bit. (we chose a simple white wine and cheese combination)
The whole assembly, heater and bowl is brought to the table, where the occupants indulge in the fine dairy product by breaking a loaf of French bread into bite size pieces, skewering them on long wooden handled metal forks, and stirring them through the goo. Allow it to cool a bit, and then enjoy.
The only thing you can possibly drink with Fondue is warm tea or white wine. Anything else congeals the mass into a hard lump in your stomach that takes days, if not longer, to digest. Our chosen drink was a white wine that mixed well with the wine in the fondue.
Other ways of eating fondue are German, with potatoes in place of bread (gotta get that starch in there) or Chinese fondue, where meat is skewered instead. All are great for the cheese lovers of the world (being a Wisconsinite by birth, who lived 12 years on a dairy farm, I know the value of a good block of curdled milk).
Suitably stuffed, we waddled to the car, drove home and retired quickly.
Alas, Monday was my day to return to Germany. Another top notch breakfast from Bettina and then we were off to return the car by 0900. Total rental for the weekend was about US$200.
This done, Patrick, Bettina and I each went our separate ways, via public transportation, each of them with a place to go, work to do. I loitered around town for a bit, looking at the imposing banks and lovely sights of the town while I waited for my train.
I Can't say enough good things about the trains in Europe. Fast, quiet and efficient, they are truly a wonder that we lack in all but the densest urban centers in the US. I boarded my train and essentially reversed my route. I arrived in Heidelberg in the evening and took a cab home (DM10 from the Hauptbahnhof to my residence, the Hotel Rose in Röhrbach Markt)
So ends one of my favorite European Vacation experiences. If you get a chance to visit Switzerland, by all means, do so!