Decades ago when two of my elder brothers used to collect postage stamps we used to find the ones of Helvetia very attractive. Helvetia is nothing but the historical name of the Swiss Confederation. The name is derived from Helvetii, the name of the tribe that inhabited the Swiss Plateau before the Roman conquest. The name Helvetia is still used on the coins and postage stamps of the country.
Whenever one talks of Switzerland, the Alps and Geneva are often associated with it. Among the Swiss cities Geneva is so well known that not many people know that it is not the capital of Switzerland. It is far better known than the capital Bern about 200 kilometres away in the east. Geneva is a “global city”. It used to be the seat of the League of Nations, the first inter-governmental organization that was established to maintain world peace after World War I in 1920. Even now it has many United Nations specialized agencies and other international organizations headquartered there. My brother used to be in one such UN agency – the General Agreement on Trade Tariffs which later morphed into the World Trade Organization.
Geneva is a city of diplomats who are based there working for various international organization or those accredited to several UN agencies. No wonder, it has a disproportionately large expatriate population. Geneva is also an important financial centre ranked third most important in Europe after London and Zurich. It also has the third highest quality of life after Vienna and Zurich.
A picturesque city, Geneva has two mountain chains around it – the Alps and the Jura. It is situated at the Western end of Lake Geneva. It is here that the river Rhone, after entering the Lake earlier, flows into France and eventually falls into the Mediterranean Sea. Hills and water bodies combine very well to make Geneva an enchanting place. The Lake is the largest body of water in Switzerland among quite a few others. It is so large that it is reputed to have seen a tsunami wave long ago in the 6th Century. A large number of yachts of varying sizes are always seem to be berthed on its shores – confirming the saying that Switzerland is the playground of the rich and influential. In fact one comes across a jungle of masts of yachts at Interlaken too, a few scores of miles away to the east.
The Lake also has what is known as the most famous landmark of the city which is featured in the city’s tourism literature. The Jet d’eau (Jet of water) is one of the tallest fountains of the world which is visible from all over the town and from high up in the air. Situated at the confluence of the Lake and River Rhone it jets about 500 litres of water per second to an altitude of 140 metres. Installed in 1951 the Jet d’eau looks fascinating at night, lit as it is with multi-coloured lights
From Versoix we would travel to Geneva every other day as it was only around 10 kilometres away. There were frequent trains running back and forth. Swiss Railways, the French acronym of which is CFF (it has two other – SBB in German and FFS for Italian), have a legendary reputation for punctuality. The time tables are replete with arrival timings that looked difficult to observe but Swiss rails seem to do that effortlessly. Once I took a train from Geneva to come to Versoix that showed the arrival time as 16.28. As I got off the train at Geneva I happened to notice the clock right in front and it showed the time 16.28. The trains are fast, comfortable, safe and very dependable.
One could see high-end cars on Geneva roads in large numbers, i.e those that were so rare on Indian roads almost 30 years ago. Audis, Porsches, Mercedes, Alpha Romeos etc. were very common. Curiously, I don’t remember to have seen any Cadillac there. Perhaps, the European luxury cars were more preferable making the the car-scape there very interesting. In Geneva we noticewd for the first time automated muti-storied unmanned parking facilities. Obviously, they made extensive use optical character readers (OCRs) coupled with electronic sensors. In India automated parking facilities have just arrived.
One remarkable monument that Geneva has is what is known as the Reformation Wall. The Wall is on the grounds of Geneva University founded by John Calvin, a French theologian and a pastor during Protestant Reformation. It honours individuals and events of Protestant Reformation by depicting them in statues and bas relief. Statue of John Calvin, the most important figure of the Reformation is also on the Wall. The wall was built in 1909 to commemorate the 400th birth anniversary of Calvin and 350th anniversary of the establishment of Geneva University. Founded in 1559 by John Calvin it started off as a theological seminary and a law school and over the three centuries it gradually moved towards a full-fledged secular university dropping its religious credentials.
I happened to visit the local postal headquarters to check out their ways of doing things. It was entirely different experience. Unlike in our (Indian) office the corridors were entirely empty with no lower grade officials gossiping or lounging in the corridors near the doors of the officers . The doors were all shut and one had to knock to hear a faint “Oui” from inside after which one could you to open the door and walk in. Most impressive, however, was the way the Swiss postal system handles gold. Gold is something which is an important part of their parcel traffic. Wherever it is handled, including the conveyor up which it goes for dispatch, heavy security is ensured having iron grills all around. The security is so tough that none can get a hand to any of the parcels. The place was entirely sanitised.
Among the culinary delights was Raclette, a Swiss dish that is native to a few parts of Switzerland. It is basically melted cheese with potatoes. Cheese and potatoes is quite heavy combination. If I recall, cheese on boiled potatoes is heated to be served with some spices. Another delight was escargots which are nothing but land snails that are eaten in France and Spain. We had never had it but as it is cooked with a lot of butter it was pretty good in taste. One has to use a special tong to hold it and turn the contents of the shell into one’s mouth. It seems the snail is removed from the shel and cooked with garlic, butter and chicken stock and placed back in the shell which, obviously, is also cleaned up
Geneva has a number of places nearby that are good for a day out. Places like Signal de Bougy, Neon, Le Pont, Vallorbe are close by. My brother, however took us to little more distant places like the Top of Europe and to Chatau de Chillion. Write-ups about them will follow