Here we are at the end of February and thus our Swiss tour has ended and we are heading back to Genoa to reunite with our bicycles! We can’t believe how quickly the month has passed, especially this past week which we spent in the most excellent company of the Allan family in Zermatt. It was certainly one of the big trip highlights. However, before we share about our ski vacation, we’ll fill you in on the rest of our adventures through the French speaking part of Switzerland.
We had never heard of Lausanne beforehand, but it was an interesting place to discover. It is the fourth biggest city in Switzerland (although with only 150,000 people in the core!) and, besides having a very nice historical centre, it has a lot of cultural attractions. It’s probably best known for being the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee, and therefore home to the Olympic Museum. However, it also has 22 other museums and we really enjoyed Musee D’Elysse, a very nice photography museum. The exhibit we saw was of Hans Steiner who was a Swiss photojournalist, whose main work was from the 1930s-50s. His work really showcased was life was like in Switzerland in this era.
In Lausanne we stayed with more Warm Shower hosts, a couple by the name of Didier and Fanny. They currently lived in a renovated farmhouse but had spent two and half years living in Vancouver! It was great exchanging stories about that part of the world… in fact, Fanny had worked a couple of months at MEC and we enjoyed seeing lots of familiar gear and apparel! Fanny and Didier were very generous with their time, home and food, but also with information about Switzerland. We learned about Swiss politics, and also about some of the current projects going on in their fields of work: biotechnology and ecological sustainability, which are two very relevant Swiss topics!
Our success with Warm Showers continued in Geneva, where we stayed for three days with the newlywed couple of Raph (Swiss-born) and Meghan (from Pittsburgh). They took us out to our first Swiss restaurant for a great meal, entertained us with good conversation and gave us great tips on how to explore Geneva. We were museum-goers while in Geneva and enjoyed visiting the Red Cross Museum, the Patek Philippe Watch Museum, an exhibit on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and toured the United Nations. We also visited the cathedral in Geneva, where John Calvin was a priest in the 16th century; consequently this was the location from where he helped strengthen and propagate the Reformation movement. Figures like Calvin and Rousseau clearly show the importance that Geneva had in history, but the city has not limited itself to its past; Geneva continues to be a worldwide leadership hub and thus a truly international city. It was fascinating for us to see so many influential organizations all in one place. We can see why Meghan chose Geneva to study International Development! We must admit, however, that the price of Geneva was overwhelming (it’s the fourth most expensive city in the world). In attempts to get wireless, we bought a McDonalds coffee after getting off the train and were shocked when they asked us to pay 5.60 CHF (the CHF is basically on par with the Canadian dollar). Oh well…. when in Geneva….!
Geneva was also a location of great happiness and reunion as after saying goodbye to Raph and Meghan we met the rest of the Allan family at the airport! The excitement was monumental, and expectations of a great vacation were certainly exceeded over the next seven days. We stayed in a quaint flat in Zermatt, which is a ski village/resort in the Alps centered around the iconic Matterhorn. The scenery was absolutely breathtaking (National Geographic accurately describes it as a “stupendous mountain universe”) and it was often difficult to ski with such surrounding beauty. We were also lucky enough to have incredible weather to experience this place in: lots of warm sunshine! The ski culture in Zermatt (and presumably all the Alps) is quite different than back home, with restaurants scattered across the mountains at all different altitudes; they all served absolutely DELICIOUS food and the sunny days allowed us to eat most of our meals outside on the patios. The ski runs were beautiful, very long, and the beginnings of some were so high (3800m) we felt the effects of altitude. They all were all in quite relaxing conditions, most were well-groomed and with only gradual descents (although sometimes the runs got a bit too narrow). It was interesting getting up to these high heights, the resort had incorporated many different forms of transit: gondolas, chairlifts, trains, funiculars, telecabines and t-bars! How Swiss of them. In general, everything was very “Swiss” in Zermatt. For example, there is also a village bi-law to maintain a traditional feel to all new buildings, and Swiss cuisine of CHEESE dominated every eatery! Speaking of cheese, we certainly indulged throughout the week but our fromage-experience peaked (Matterhorned?) with a Friday night fondue, reputably the best in town, and most definitely the greatest pot of melted cheese we could ever imagine.
But without a doubt the best part of our week in Zermatt was spending time with Laura, Meredith, Barb and Scott! Being apart for so long really made us realize how incredible these four people are, and we felt extremely lucky to get to spend time with them. An especially great part of the week for Caitlin was that for the first time ever all five Allans were able to enjoy a whole day comfortably skiing together; Meredith’s skills on the slope are now unbelievable!!! Barb and Scott’s patience has certainly paid off. Beyond the skiing, it was so great to share WONDERFUL conversation, delectable food, Swiss (Fondente) wine, and relaxed accommodations (centering around stylishly upholstered cow-hair couches…) The week felt extremely full, but still went by too quickly. We can’t express enough how thankful we are to have been visited and spoiled by such wonderful people. We miss them lots, but will look forward to reuniting again, and with everyone else we love back home, in the summer.
And speaking of our return, we have officially bought plane tickets so know that we’ll be back on good old Canadian soil on July 2nd, after a one week stopover in Iceland! Buying our tickets, however, has made us realize that although we still have four months of travel, our trip is more than half over! So, we are ready to make the best of the rest. We are really eager to get back on the bicycles. Our time in Switzerland as “backpackers” was incredible travel, but we do miss the luxuries of cycle touring! On Monday, we are getting on a ferry for Barcelona and spending the next month exploring eastern Spain. We’re starting to practice our “por favour”s!
We thought before departing for the next country on our European adventure, we’d take a moment to reflect on our impressions of Switzerland. We thoroughly enjoyed exploring this tiny nation; cost aside, it was our favourite country thus far. Certainly our taste buds enjoyed the visit… you can’t really go wrong with a country that prides itself off of cheese and chocolate! Switzerland was visually appealing as well. The mountain backdrops were obviously incredible, but we thought the cities were reflections of the surrounding scenery: refreshing, clean, and beautiful. And although, like the mountains, aspects of the Swiss cities we visited were timeless, we thoroughly appreciated how forward-thinking they were. For example, as we admired Bern’s animated mechanical clock tower that has been running since the 1500s, we could also revel in the incredibly quiet and frequent trams passing effortlessly passing through the pedestrian-only space.
We felt extremely safe in Switzerland. Clearly, many people do… according to our hosts, Swiss leaders don’t feel the need to walk around with bodyguards. We found other aspects of the political system interesting as well: the leadership is made up of seven ministers, each with differing roles and the one figurehead rotates each year. This seems to be a stable, albeit slow-moving, form of governance. The Swiss are able to physically vote on different issues, and do so several times throughout the year. Furthermore, if an individual wants to initiate a national vote they can do so on any topic after collecting 100,000 signatures. This political process is very attractive to us, who are often frustrated with government decisions but feel unable to do anything. Of course there are downsides to such a system, but we feel it is a good one. Another “downside” to Switzerland is the high costs of things, but we ultimately appreciate this as you always receive quality products and services.
We might also be biased towards Switzerland because of the people we met in this country and the hospitality we received from them. We feel very lucky that we stayed in Switzerland for a month and stayed with friends or family every night. The people we met were all very interesting, intelligent and open-minded, and each very generous. Despite the colder temperatures outside, we found the Swiss homes we visited (as well as the cafes, restaurants and museums) to be full of warmth. We felt very, very comfortable in this country!
And so comes the end to our journey through this small but mighty country! We certainly hope to return one day, but now we have our sites set on warmer places.
Alec and Caitlin