Friday, 26 December 2008

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, just like... (part 3)

In the past Brock has developed a bit of a reputation for waking up early on Christmas Day, even as recently as last year, 4am was considered by him to be a reasonable time to get up and start unwrapping his gifts. When Meg and Wayne were still undisturbed in bed at 7am on Christmas Day, it was as if a Christmas miracle had truly come. We had made phone calls to Australia the previous evening, to coincide with Christmas in that country, so once everyone was awake it was time to begin the process of removing wrapping paper.

Much to Brock and Quinn’s delight, Wayne and Meg had negotiated with the staff at the hotel to borrow the Christmas tree from the lobby the previous evening, so when the boys entered their parent’s room there were all the gifts spread out underneath a small, white Christmas tree. A highlight among the gifts was Marni (Meg’s Armani handbag, which she had actually made use of the day before) and which can be seen in the photographs of the floral clock in Geneva. Other favourites were a pink scrabble set raising funds for breast cancer research, and a collection of various delicacies from Australia including Cherry Ripes and Twisties.

As it was not snowing in Ville-le-Grand at that stage we jumped into Veronica and headed off for another explore around this section of France. Initially we headed up in the direction of Evian-les-Bains (where the water comes from) via the D1206. This took us through some very picturesque French villages to the town of Douvaine where we decided to stop for breakfast. This is part of the region of Haute-Savoie (which was annexed by France on the 24th of May, 1860) and which has within its boundaries Mont Blanc (the second highest mountain in Europe). This region has borders with Switzerland and Italy and contains some of Europe’s best ski resorts which might have been the prompt for the next change of direction that we made.

You can see from the photographs on our blog that the town was beautifully decorated for Christmas, with the town hall (which we parked outside) being particularly attractive. What astounded us was the number of businesses which were open on Christmas Day. We joined the locals walking to the bakery and, once inside, attempted to buy some croissants. Even trying to speak our basic French proved to be difficult here but eventually we were able to be understood and returned to the car with the sustenance we required.

Rather than continuing up to Thonex-les-Bains and Evians-les-Bains we decided to turn around and head down the A40 toward the Mont Blanc tunnel, connecting Italy with France. Once again the scenery was absolutely breathtaking; we drove along the valley with sheer cliffs leading up to enormous mountains peaked with snow, we passed ponds and rivers with were totally frozen over, while it was at times cloudy or foggy when the sun glinted off the mountain tops or reached down into the valley it was truly majestic. On the cliffs were perched chalets which must have had the most amazing views. The further south we went the more snow we encountered and eventually it was all around us.

As we were getting a little low on fuel we pulled off the road when we saw a service station connected to a McDonalds, however neither building was open. While we were out of the car, however, it began to snow and we were experiencing what we had wanted all along, a White Christmas. Near where the car was parked was a small snowman and this gave Quinn the idea to start throwing snowballs again. After one successful shot we jumped back in the car and drove a little further down the road to the town of Sallanches where we were able to refuel and look a little around the town.

Recent excavations have indicated the presence of a Christian community on the site of the town since the 5th and 6th century. Indeed, the presence of religious institutions dominated the city for hundreds of years, and included a Capuchin monastery and an Ursuline community. It was only with the turmoil of the French Revolution that this began to change and the focus of the town became the economics of spinning, beer and chocolate making. As Chamonix (the town at which the Mont Blanc tunnel begins) began to become a tourist resort, Sallanches benefited as people began to rest on their route in the hostels there. In 1840 (after a succession of floods, epidemics and fires over a number of years) fire destroyed the town which led to it being rebuilt with the assistance of King Charles Albert of Savoy-Carignan. It was in 1921, however, when the town was declared a “station de tourisme” and appropriate facilities were put in place to increase access to the ski resorts in the mountains which overlook the town that Sallanches took on the form it bears today.

There is a river that runs through the centre of the town and we parked beside it to take some pictures of the lovely buildings, the river itself, and the mountains which seem to hang right out over the town. Wayne went for a short wander to see if he could find an automatic teller machine but was unsuccessful. However, he did meet one of the largest dogs he had ever seen licking passers by while its owner chatted with some other people. Given that most of the signs in the town itself pointed up into the mountains to where the ski resorts would be it was decided that this would also be the direction that we would take.

As you might expect, the road up was winding and quite busy. Veronica proved her worth yet again, barely skipping a beat with her 4wd capabilities. Along the way we saw some of the most beautiful chalets; just like you see in the pictures at European ski resorts in the advertising brochures. The snow was thick by the sides of the road and we all remembered the show ball fight and snowman building of the day before. Consequently, when we decided to stop at one of the tourist information and lookout sites, a snowball fight eventuated, with even Meg getting involved. Brock and Quinn also lay down in the snow to make snow angels.

It wasn’t much further up the mountain to the ski slopes and we were all amazed at just how many people were up there. Coming from Australia, and having been part of families that always got together on Christmas Day, the concept of going skiing instead was a complete novelty. For Meg, the fact that it was also so cold would have been reason enough to avoid it. However, at the altitude that we were, we were above the clouds and the sun was shining brightly, making it a beautiful skiing day. We investigated the cost of going skiing ourselves, and then just sitting on a chair lift and travelling up into the mountains, but both were prohibitively expensive.

Two purchases were made, however, the first of these being a small green piece of plastic with a handle. This is a sit upon sled for Quinn, who is going skiing with the school in February. This is yet another point of departure for those of us raised in Australia. Quinn’s ski trip is in the Italian Alps (in fact, not that far from where we were at the time). The second purchase was some lunch, which we sat down to at a little café in the village. While English was readily understood, our understanding of what might be meant by some words in English proved to be inaccurate. When Brock and Quinn ordered hamburgers they did not expect a meat pattie, seared on both sides but still pink in the middle accompanied by lots of chips. We later discovered that they should have ordered from the sandwich menu.

Another interesting aspect of dining here was being able to hear the conversations of other people around us. While there were also lots of French, German, Swiss and Italian people around us, it was interesting to note that there were also a significant number of British people. Indeed, one family group of about 14 represented 3 generations of one family for whom this was a regular Christmas celebration. Should any of you want to participate in such a festivity at some time in the future, we would be more than interested in exploring the idea with you.

After lunch we descended back down the mountain, stopping at one point to allow Quinn to try out his sled. While it worked, it seems he should not be doing it in jeans next time because they got soaked through, however we have chalked this up to experience. Knowing that we had got almost as close to Italy as you can get without actually crossing the border we were happy that Quinn was going to be travelling to somewhere new with the school and we turned back toward Ville-le-Grand.

We had a nap in the afternoon before Wayne went down and set up the satnav ready for our trip back into Geneva that evening. Before we had left for Geneva a concern had been finding somewhere that would be open and reasonably priced for Christmas Dinner. We had the option of looking for somewhere which would do the more traditional Christmas meal, or do something totally different. Unsurprisingly, we chose the latter course once more and with Sally Satnav at the helm giving instructions (she was christened this after Brock found out how to set her speaking to English) we set out for the centre of town.

While Meg and Wayne had both been in cars (or taxis) which used satnav before neither had ever actually driven with one, so it took a bit of adjusting to the way it worked. After a couple of turns where we turned a little early (and faced the wrath of Sally) we soon sorted out everything and easily found the restaurant. Only parking looked to be as issue, as the centre of Geneva was pretty solidly parked out. However, the restaurant had some parking spaces down a very narrow alley, so while Meg and Brock went inside to confirm that we were dining there, Quinn assisted Wayne with parking Veronica (only a mirror was slightly bumped in the process).

The restaurant we had chosen was an Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurant which specialised in pancakes and crepes, which had Brock feeling particularly dubious about whether or not he would enjoy it. When we arrived we found ourselves in a beautiful old building with weathered wooden beams, fabulously decorated in an African style which we could only suspect was representative of the nations whose cuisines were its specialty. When we met the owner, Helena Goodman, our suspicions were confirmed. She made us feel very welcome, produced brilliant food, and heightened our inadequacies about language; she speaks 5 languages French, English, Spanish, Italian and Arabic.

We could not speak more highly of the food. While it was not what we are used to as a Christmas meal it was absolutely fabulous. Meg and Brock shared an Ethiopian dish, while Wayne and Quinn both sampled Eritrean meals. They were very tasty, well presented and left us wanting more. Dessert was also special, with Meg deciding upon an apricot flambéed dish (largely because the Brock and Quinn had never seen a flambéed dish before. Wayne and the boys all had an amazing chocolate crepe with ice cream and cream. If you are ever in Geneva and need somewhere to eat, please go the ‘The Melting Pot’, we can guarantee that you will be glad you did.

After a fabulous evening, with wonderful food and good company, we eventually dragged ourselves out into the cold (it was below freezing) night ready to make the trip back to our hotel. This time, we turned the satnav back off again because we wanted to go back through the city and look at the Christmas lights for Christmas night. It was spectacular down by the lake, with all the lights we had seen the previous day now lit up. The city decorations (which again we had only seen unlit by daylight) were also very impressive and made for a fabulous trip home. Quinn sat in the back trying to take photographs while Wayne stopped when he could to assist this procedure.

By the time we arrived back at the hotel we were all still excited about the day, the gifts and the food. Consequently, even though we knew we would need to be up early in the morning to drive to the airport and drop off our bags before returning to the Car Hire Office to drop off Veronica, we still found it hard to get to sleep. It may not have been anything like any other Christmas that any of us had ever had, but the universal consensus was that it was one of, if not the absolute, best Christmas' ever.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

I'm dreaming of a white...(part 2)

It is a lovely feeling to be able to wake up in the morning, look out of a bedroom window and see snow on the mountains just beside you. We had all been excited to see piles of ice (old snow) beside the hotel and in other places around Ville-le-Grand, now we had the prospect of seeing even more during this day. For Meg and the boys who had limited experience of snow before moving to the UK this day promised to be very exciting. The weather was relatively clear and the forecast called for snow in the immediate region. That the alps were so near made it all the more likely.

After the breakfast buffet at the hotel, our next task was to organise our transport for the remaining time we would be here. Because of the disappointment of the hotel not having the complimentary travel pass we had expected, and also because of the realisation once we were on the ground of just how close other parts of Europe now were, we decided to hire a car. This involved Wayne speaking to the receptionist (in a mixture of French, mime and English) and having her call the local car hire places. Without too much difficulty we were able to find a car that would be returned on Boxing Day morning and Wayne and Quinn set off to find the rental office.

This proved easier said than done as the French people we spoke to proved to be very like the Irish people we had encountered on an earlier trip. They were very happy to provide directions, it was just that those directions didn’t always bear very much resemblance to our actual destination. After a few false starts we finally found the office and were able to jump into a brand new VW Touareg, equipped with satnav, and make the drive back to the hotel to pick up Meg and Brock. The car was christened Veronica (because it was a ‘very new car’) and we drove off to explore some more of Geneva.

Wayne had never driven a left-hand drive vehicle before. Nor was he experienced at driving on the right hand side of the road. Consequently, his right leg still has bruises from Meg clutching at it whenever a car approached us in a manner which she found threatening. The trip into Geneva was relatively straightforward (and much simpler than the route that the taxi driver had taken the day before) and before long Wayne was demonstrating that he had been paying attention the previous day as we pulled into a carpark under Jardin Anglais, off Pont du Mont Blanc and within sight (if it had not been too cold) of the Jet d’Eau.

When it is working, five-hundred litres (132 gallons) of water per second are sent to an altitude of 140 metres (459 feet). The water leaves the nozzle at a speed of 200 km/h (124 mph) and at any given moment there are about 7,000 litres (1849 gallons) of water in the air. Unsuspecting visitors to the fountain--which can be reached via a stone jetty from the left bank of the Lake--may be surprised to find themselves drenched after a slight change in wind direction. It is one of the most famous attractions in Geneva, but unfortunately not operating while we were in the city. However, there were many other wonderful things worth seeing.

This included the fabulous Christmas decorations which adorned the Jardin Anglais. There were beautiful spiral, cone lights which dangled from trees and turned in the wind. There were other lights in strips, where the blue glow seemed to fall from the trees like snowflakes and then disappear a metre from where it had begun. Perhaps the highlight, however, was a tree covered in tiny bells. When we first spotted it a group of women were showing a toddler how it worked. The little girl laughed and laughed at the bells as they rang whenever someone ran their hands over the branches. To touch, it felt rough and cold, but the tingling effect that this produced was magical. We stayed and photographed each other, running our hands over the branches before moving on into the city itself.

One of the things that Switzerland is most famous for is timekeeping devices. If we had not realised that before we came, it would have been obvious from all the signage we encountered in Geneva. The airport was full of advertising for various well known brands including Tag Heuer, Swatch, Baume &Mercier, Cartier, Montblanc, Patek Phillippe, Eberhard & Co., Bulgari, Rolex and many others. Steps up from the carpark were similarly adorned and the shops along the waterfront in Geneva represented some of the headquarters of these famous brands.

Another of the famous things in Geneva is 'the floral clock', a symbol of the watchmaking industry for which Switzerland is renowned. Like the Jet d'Eau, it was the wrong time of the year to be visiting the clock, as very few flowers were blooming at the height of winter. In the past the clock was only decorative with its sole dial comprising over 6,500 flowers. At the turn of the century the new millennium provided it with decisive artistic dimensions thanks to the ingenuity of the gardeners of the Service of Green Spaces and the Environment. It is now composed of eight concentric circles, the colours of which vary with the seasons and the plants which make up the display. The seconds hand of Geneva's Flower Clock is the largest in the world (it is more than 2.5 meters long) so we stopped to take some photos.

Even more exciting for Meg than the clockmaking was the presence of other designer stores on what she has dubbed ‘the Rodeo Drive of Geneva’. Even though she was fervantly looking forward to the possibility of an Armani handbag for Christmas the next day, she still took the time to wander inside the Armani store to see if there was anything else worth looking at. Stores for Gucci and Fendi also received similar treatment. On these expeditions she was accompanied by at least one of the boys, while Wayne generally stood outside admiring the lake and the other scenery around him.

Another important destination was one of the multitude of chocolatiers that dotted the city. During the trip across we had read, in one of the inflight magazines, about the festival of the Escalade, which had been celebrated earlier in the month. This commemorates the defeat by the Genevan populace of the Catholic troops of the Duke of Savoy in 1602. According to tradition, it was the presence of mind and bravery of a Mère Royaume that prevented victory by the assailants. Legend has it that she threw a cauldron of boiling soup over the soldiers scaling the walls. Today, the people of Geneva remember this event by making chocolate cauldrons filled with marzipan vegetables, which they smash open while crying "Death to the enemies of the Republic!" We wanted to find one of these cauldrons to have as part of our Christmas celebration, however, they were thin on the ground (possibly because most had been smashed and eaten two weeks earlier) and those that were available were quite expensive. Despite walking into many a chocolatier we had to content ourselves with having lunch.

Before we headed back to the car we visited a wonderful toy shop called Franz Karl Weber which is spread out across three levels in the centre of the main shopping district. This place is huge and has everything from basic handmade wooden toys to all sorts of electronic games, jigsaw puzzles, dolls, train sets, stuffed bears and an enormous range of other animals. At first we were a little reticent because of a bad experience in a similar toy shop in Madrid, but once it was clear that the staff weren’t going to follow us around and shout if we touched anything, we had a ball. While hundred of different toys appealed, in the end we purchased only a Journey Around Switzerland board game marketed by the Swiss Tourism board which we hoped might increase our knowledge of the country.

Back at the car, we decided to head south, back into France, to have a bit of an explore with no fixed destination in mind. We headed back to Annemasse before heading south-west on the E21 (L’Autoroute Blanche) toward Valleiry and Vicy. When we reached the turn off onto the A41 we spontaneously decided to turn toward Annecy and see where the road took us. By this stage there were enormous quantities of snow in the fields on either side of the car and each turn in the road was met with new ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ while Meg tried to take photos from the unfamiliar right side front passenger seat.

At a particularly beautiful stretch of scenery near Jussy we left the main road in order to take some photos and Wayne turned Veronica up into the hills. This led us up through Andilly into an incredibly picturesque village named Charly. The road here was quite narrow but Veronica handled it with ease and we found ourselves up in a farming region above the village. At the first available stop we pulled to the side and everyone jumped out, throwing on gloves, scarves and hats. Very quickly a snowball fight developed, with Quinn proving more than able to outrun his brother but much less accurate with his snowball throwing than Wayne. After some falls in the fresh deep snow (and the initial loss of one shoe) all the boys set to constructing a snowman, with general commentary and instructions being shouted from Meg on the side of the road.

Our snowman was not classical in shape, nor in beauty. We had no carrot to use as his nose, or corncob pipe to stick in his mouth. Nor had we thought to bring balls of coal to use as eyeballs (next time we will plan better) but when the head was triumphantly placed on top we felt a deep sense of pride in our accomplishment. Upon reflection he seems to have been a woefully underfed member of the snowman community, but he was as tall as Brock. By now it was fully 4pm, the sun was rapidly disappearing, and the area was beginning to grow very foggy. As we turned on Veronica’s lights and drove down the road we wondered how local farmers would react coming across him. After doing a u-turn we saw him glowing slightly as we drove past and felt that someone might derive some pleasure from a meeting.

Our drive back initially avoided the main road as we ducked up the D18 before heading toward home on the E21. Because we were coming back from a slightly different direction (and at night) it proved to be somewhat harder to find the hotel than we had previously experienced. However, eventually we pulled into the carpark and were delighted to get inside where it was warm. After some food that we had purchased earlier on we had a couple of games of ‘Voyage en Suisse’ before heading to bed, full of expectation for the following day and what it was to bring.

PS. Meg would like everybody to know (not because she is at all competitive) that she won each of the three games of 'Voyage en Suisse' that we played. Given her sense of Geography, this is indeed a marvel deserving of being recorded.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

I'm dreaming of...(Part 1)

Christmas overseas was obviously going to be different from Christmas in Australia. For one thing, our extended families were not going to be there. For another, the weather promised to be somewhat colder (although Wayne vividly remembers being very cold at Lorne a couple of years ago). We were faced with a couple of options; try and recreate an Australian Christmas in the middle of England, or, go the whole hog and have a Christmas that was totally unlike any that we had ever had before. Without too much debate it was on the latter course that we decided and, consequently, on December 23rd we found ourselves waking at 3:10am ready for a 4am drive to Luton Airport.

None of us had ever been to Luton Airport before, although we had all seen it on the television program ‘Airport’ which was shown on television in Australia before we left. After dropping off Madge (our Nissan Almera that replaced Kylie the Mazda 323 after our trip to Manchester) at the airport parking, the bus took us up to the airport which, even at this early hour of the morning, was thronged with people. We had learned our lesson from our Madrid trip and were there in good time, even so, by the time we made the front of the queue they were putting out a last call for our flight. Once again, Meg and Wayne had kept the destination from the boys however, even when they read where we were going Brock identified it as Genovia and Quinn had no idea where Geneva was (so much for that excellent Geography mark!).

The flight itself seemed remarkably short, even to Meg who was the only one who didn’t sleep, a point which she still reminds the others about. She claims that this negates our previous status as ‘delightful travelling companions’, the boys assert that they had not had very much sleep and so needed a nap and that it is not their fault that Meg cannot sleep on aeroplanes. Coming into Geneva was amazing as we flew over the Alps, covered with snow and everybody was really excited about the possibilities that the next few days held.

On the ground, it was a matter of collecting our luggage and then boarding the complimentary public transport into the centre of Geneva itself. When you arrive at the airport the free ticket you are provided with lasts for 90 minutes, however, all hotels in Geneva give visitors a pass which provides them with free public transport for the duration of their stay. This is great because Geneva is well stocked with trains, trams, buses, and ferries all of which fall under this provision. What we hadn’t counted upon was that, even though our hotel was only 16 kilometres from the centre of Geneva (they use kilometres in Europe, so we had to reconvert back from the miles to which we have become accustomed) it was across the Swiss border, in France, and so was not covered by this provision.

However, at this stage we hadn’t discovered this important fact and so, after arriving at Geneva’s Central Station, we boarded a tram out to Moillesulaz, a suburb of Geneva on the border with France. From there we walked across the border to get a taxi through Annemasse (the beautiful French town on the other side of the border) to Ville-le-Grand, which was the site of our hotel. Now because we were travelling to Switzerland and assuming that we would be spending most of our time there, the money that we had we had converted to Swiss Francs. Of course, now we were in France they would not accept these, only Euros would do, so before we could even get in the taxi we needed to get some more money. Once this was done our driver took a convoluted route to the hotel and charged us 3 times the amount he had originally quoted (taxi drivers are the same the world over it seems). It was at this point that we found out the news about public transport and Geneva not being applicable in France, which was a bit of a issue given that we had planned to use public transport to get back into Geneva and explore.

The hotel staff gave us some helpful directions and we were able to catch a bus not far away (although the walk was cold enough to have everyone rubbing their hands) and then a train from Annemasse Station back into a station near Parc La Grange on the edge of Lake Geneva. As you will see by the photos on our blog, Geneva is a beautiful city. There is a fascinating array of architecture with lots of monuments and streets dedicated to famous people. We jumped back on another tram (the ticket we had bought at the train station gave us travel for the remainder of the day) and went into the city centre to tour the shopping district and see what we could. After looking at the shops, we wandered down to the waterfront.

Although it was cold, windy and overcast, Lake Geneva was still a beautiful sight. It was only the wind being more obvious, and the lack of toilet facilities that drove us back into the city. However, there were so many parks and gardens in Geneva itself that this was not too much of a hardship. Among the many things we saw was a statue dedicated to Louis Favre, one of Geneva’s favourite sons. While it seems like a massive undertaking even now, imagine building a train tunnel through the Gotthard Massif (a mountain in between Switzerland and the Italian border) in 1872. When Wayne first travelled to Switzerland with his family back in 1982 they had travelled through the Road Tunnel, which had only been completed 2 years earlier) but he had not realised just how long the railway tunnel had been there. Sadly for Louis Favre he did not live to see the tunnel completed but died while still working on it one day in 1879. In this, he was among 200 who were killed while bringing about this feat of engineering.

Eventually, a toilet was found near an Anglican Church (which was a bit of a surprise to find in Geneva, particularly when we discovered that it was part of the Diocese of Gibraltar). However, when Meg, Brock and Quinn descended the steps (the toilets were underground) it transpired that only the men’s facilities were opened. Consequently, we continued to wander the streets for a period longer looking for somewhere for Meg to gain relief. This gave us the opportunity to travel the Rue Rousseau named for another famous Genevan, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau was a major philosopher, writer, and composer during the Enlightenment, whose political philosophy influenced the French Revolution and the development of liberal, conservative, and socialist theory. His writings and music were also highly influential, but as it was getting late in the day (and no bathroom was to be found) we decided to return to Ville-le-Grand and Meg remained philosophical.