Thursday, January 9, 2014

Les Vacances de Noël - Christmas in Geneva

Lake Geneva and its trademark Jet d'Eau water fountain
First of all, Bonne Année! Happy 2014! Here's to a New Year full of happiness, new adventures and great success!

After a refreshing two-week break, I'm slowly settling back into my old routine...less than 8 weeks left until our next break (not that I'm counting or anything!).  I do have to say that I had the most unconventional Christmas ever, but I know that it will make next year's holidays at home with my family and friends that much more special for me!

I hopped a train bright and early on December 22 bound for Geneva. Unfortunately, due to my geographical location in France, getting to Switzerland took a bit of time. [Click here to see a map of where I went!]  Train #1 took me 40 minutes west of Forbach to Metz, while Train #2 brought me from Metz all the way up north to Paris (essentially 2 hours in the opposite direction of Switzerland).  In Paris, I had an hour to change train stations, which was kind of a tease as I had to pass through all my favorite old haunts to get to Train #3 which was finally bound for Geneva.  Four hours after leaving Paris, I arrived in Switzerland and was extremely surprised to exit the train station into unseasonably warm temperatures - three days before Christmas and it was nearly 55 degrees out!

First glimpses of Lake Geneva and snow-capped Mont Blanc in the background
Bumbling around, I found our hotel and was a bit disappointed with it's lack of...umm...warm fuzzy Christmas cheer? Peeling paint, coffee-stained curtains, and a community toilet/shower in the hallway? Not really what I was envisioning! I had a few hours before Eric was due to arrive, so I hastily left our hovel and went down to poke around the shores of Lac Léman (aka Lac de Genève, also known as Lake Geneva).

On the Jetée des Pâquis, a popular beach in summer
Swan Lake?!
One piece of info about Geneva that I failed to realize before booking a vacation here: Geneva is EXPENSIVE!!  Yeah, people warned me of that when I said I was considering Switzerland as a holiday destination, stupid me failed to listen or do further research to find out what that actually meant. In my head, I was thinking Paris is expensive, but you lived there for 6 months without any problems, so what's 4 days in Geneva? Wrong!! For example, a delicious kebab sandwich with a side of fries (common Turkish street food found everywhere in Europe), which you can buy from between 4 and 7 Euro in most cities, cost 20 Swiss Francs in Geneva! With the current exchange rate, that's $22 for a sandwich. We're not talking high-class, five-star sandwiches made with organic ingredients - this is more like grease-up-to-your-elbows, you're-gonna-need-10-napkins-to-wipe-your-face messy, unsophisticated corner store food.  And don't even get me started on McDonald's "Value Menu"...

Swiss Francs? Or the newest type of Monopoly Money?
Regardless, even though we were spending Christmas thousands of miles away from our families, we were  in Geneva afterall and were determined to make the best of our situation.  Fortunately, the city has a lot of free museums which we were planning on visiting to give our wallets a break.  Unfortunately, Switzerland takes their holiday breaks really seriously.  When I arrived on Sunday, everything was closed (normal for Europe). Some things were going to be open on December 23 (shops and a few museums), but everything closed by mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve, and Christmas was a wash as well.  

The 3-Legged Chair which stands in the plaza before the United Nations HQ, a symbol of the fragility of peace and the devastation caused by landmines
Eric and I took advantage of the warm, sunny weather and headed over to check out the United Nations headquarters on the far side of town.  We had heard that you could go on guided tours of the Palais des Nations and thought that'd be a neat experience. And it probably would have been, had it not been closed for Christmas break.  So we strolled down the street to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum...which was also conveniently closed!  We have such good timing, it's unbelievable.

American Ambassador White, representing Westfield at the UN!
The United Nations
International Red Cross & Red Crescent Museum
I did manage to visit the Maison Tavel, however.  It's the city's oldest private dwelling and now a museum about the urban development of Geneva, providing a glimpse into the lives of its residents throughout the ages.  Interactive exhibits showed how the city expanded, was ravaged by invaders and fires, and ultimately became the city it is today.  Old coins, medieval armor and weapons, and household objects from many centuries are on display, providing a comprehensive understanding of how the city developed.  The only thing it failed to explain is why everything costs so much there...a comment for the suggestion box, perhaps?  

The Maison Tavel's impressive model of Geneva in 1860, crafted out of copper and zinc
Eric and I did some more wandering in the oldest section of Geneva, with its narrow cobblestone streets, and decided to climb to the top of the Cathedral of St. Pierre in order to get a bird's-eye view of the city and its surroundings.  Belonging to the Swiss Reformed Church, it's best-known as the adopted church of John Calvin, historic leader of the Protestant Reformers (the Calvinists).

The Chapel of the Maccabees, a superb example of Flamboyant Gothic architecture inside Cathedral St-Pierre
The look-out tower atop the cathedral once served as a fire watch post
View from the top! Lake Geneva and the Old City
Hello French Alps!
One of the cathedral's intricate bell towers
Geneva also has a large bas-relief monument called the Reformation Wall to commemorate the city's influence on the radical theological shifts in thinking which took place during the 16th century.  In a nutshell, the Protestant Reformation was an attempt to reform the Catholic Church by people who thought it had become corrupt - the sale of indulgences (where people could pay money to be absolved of temporal punishment for their sins) and rampant simony (the buying and selling of Church offices) didn't sit well with many people.  Situated in Bastions Park on the grounds of the University of Geneva (conveniently founded by the Reformer John Calvin), Reformation Wall tells the story of the Protestant Reformation, showcasing the history, individuals, and important literature so central to this movement.

Statues of the Reformers: William Farel, John Calvin, Theodore Beza and John Knox
The park also has quite a large area with giant chess and checker boards, quite the hub for well-dressed older men who assemble to test their game strategies while sipping coffee and puffing away on cigars. But hey, it was free entertainment! So Eric and I enjoyed the sunshine and played what can only be described as the world's longest game of checkers with our tire-sized game pieces.

Game time in the park! Green Bench photo... earlier Blue Bench photo! (from Spain)
Speaking of things that are long - and benches - our next stop ironically was the World's Longest Bench!  Measuring 126 meters (413 feet) long, the bench on Promenade de la Treille offers those who sit upon it a beautiful view down over the lower city, with the picturesque snow-topped Alps in the background.

Enough room for me and all of my friends!
The Alps
While in the neighborhood, the two of us headed over to see the Natural History Museum (also free!), and if you really enjoy learning about the geological formation of Europe, you're in for a treat! There was even a hands-on exhibit about the creation of the Grand Canyon that Eric particularly enjoyed...

"The Grand Canyon: The World's Oldest and Largest History Book"
Enjoying the lovely weather, we sauntered along the lakeside to take in all the gorgeous views...

Lake Geneva's trademark Jet d'Eau water fountain spouts an amazing 132 gallons of water per second 460 feet into the sky, leaving over 1800 gallons of water in its path at any given time
Hey there little buddy
Seagulls catching some rays by the lake
In an effort to save money, we opted to stock up on some food from the grocery store and eat back at our hotel instead of unloading lots of cash at restaurants. The whole situation was quite comical, as mealtime turned into a picnic on our bed (which was barely big enough for one person, nevermind two!).  We did buy a lot of delicious Swiss cheese and enjoyed the free samples of Swiss chocolate at the supermarket while we shopped - a win-win situation!  Wash it all down with some local wine and you almost forget you're eating dinner on your bed!  

Eric showing off one of our gourmet dinners: cheese, turkey and a crispy baguette, some fruit & wine for dessert!
And then, it was Christmas Eve! After spending a good part of the day (window)shopping, we decided our hotel room needed a little bit of Christmas cheer.  We obviously weren't about to buy a Christmas tree, so we did the next best thing: snapped a branch off of a big decorated tree in the center of town and brought it back to our room.  Not having any decorations on hand, we improvised: dental floss bows! Prop that bad boy up behind the heater and you've got yourself one heck of an impressive tree, let me tell you...

The tree that was to become our victim...
Tada! Our beautifully decorated Xmas tree, complete with my festive stocking from the US!
It was better than no decorations, but pretty pitiful nonetheless! My parents had thought to mail me my Christmas stocking from home full of little presents, and I had brought it along so I'd have something to open on Christmas morning, so I hung it on the radiator and pretended it was hanging by the fireplace. Merry Christmas, I guess?

The Old City, all decked out for Christmas
Then it was time to get all dolled up for our Christmas Eve dinner reservations! (Yes, we splurged on an actual dinner at a restaurant!)  We had decided to go for a traditional Swiss restaurant and booked a table at a place called Au Petit Chalet.  They had so many delicious cheesy dishes to pick from, it was hard to decide, but we settled on tomato & cheese fondue with bread and mini roasted potatoes to dip in it. So delicious and definitely worth the splurge - 27 Francs for the fondue vs. 20 Francs for a sandwich!    

And the next thing we knew, it was Christmas day! After chowing down the hotel breakfast (which was surprisingly really good and actually the sole part of our stay at the hotel to look forward to every day), Eric and I opened up some presents and then headed out for our holiday excursion: a 3 hour cruise on Lake Geneva - in frigid temperatures and pouring rain, wahoo!  

Our cruise ship
Thankfully the ship stayed sort of close to shore so we had something to look at, because the fog was thick as pea soup and masked what I can only imagine would have been some amazing views of the surrounding snowy mountains.  We had bought second-class tickets and ended up having the entire section of the boat to ourselves - everyone else had splurged on the first-class section which included a three-course least we had our choice of seats! 

The World's Most unconventional Christmas EVER!
The Swiss Flag
Rain! And the mansions on the Swiss side of the lake - at least the water was a beautiful shade of aqua!
Hanging out with all our friends in second-class
Lake Geneva straddles the border between France and Switzerland
We returned from our scenic cruise and headed back to the hotel once again for another picnic on our bed - nothing but the best for Christmas day!

We used only our fanciest china and most expensive silverware
Nothing says "Merry Christmas" like flan!
We filled the rest of our day playing Candy Crush on our cell phones, watching French trivia shows on our snowy TV, Skyping with our families at home who were actually have fun, and searching for somewhere to go for dinner.  Just like in the movie "A Christmas Story," no restaurants were open except for Chinese ones. I had done some searching online for cheap eats in Geneva, and we settled on a Chinese place called Boky, whose sole questionable recommendation said "Some praise its extensive Chinese menu, some say it's gross, but one thing's indisputable: it's hard to find a cheaper dinner in the city center than here."  While the food was relatively cheap and actually really tasty, the restaurant sits just outside the city's red light district, and we were subsequently seated next to an escort and her client who were having less-than-savory conversations in broken English all during our meal...definitely a Christmas dinner to remember!

Christmas Day orange chicken!
While our Christmas 2013 experience was a bit unorthodox, we couldn't help but laugh at the ridiculous nature of our adventures and both decided that next year's celebrations with our families will be that much more special! Geneva is definitely a neat locale to visit, but unless you come with deep pockets, I'd say a day trip to the city is sufficient.  With the Christmas segment of my break behind me, Eric and I said goodbye on the 26th and I hopped on yet another train to head to Öhringen, Germany where I'd spend the rest of my vacation with my roommate Meike and her family at home...

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