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.

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