Switzerland August 1 – 4
When I started planning for this trip, I only had a 15-day Tour du Mont Blanc camping trek by Exodus, Iceland, October foliage and my German friends in Dusseldorf and Berlin in mind. Then various ideas emerge: I end up having an interesting itinerary. The first half of the trip would be more on hiking including the Tour du Mont Blanc trek, a 7-day hotel- based Dolomite Mountain hike in northern Italy and a 5-day pilgrimage walk from Tuilanin Portugal to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. For the second half of my trip, I would revisit other-worldly Iceland with four friends for ten days hoping to see the amazing northern lights. Then, I meet up with friends in Monaco to see a yacht show. In October, I would look for foliage before spending the last week visiting friends in Germany.
Bad news! My knees, legs and back have been troubling me after I have booked the tours, my flights and accommodation. Before leaving Hong Kong, I consulted two doctors and had x-rays which show worsening problems of the spine, knees and hip bones. I have been advised not to walk too much and avoid carrying heavy things. What should I do? NO PROBLEM. I am always mentally prepared: I have been living with my disability while always making full use of my limited ability, resources and time available. I have bought new knee and back support and other stuff. If I am unable to walk 10-20km a day, I can take public transportation instead. I would get to my destination and enjoy whatever comes along!
July 31 Monday: Hong Kong (GMT+8) -Doha, Qatar (GMT+5)
I booked my return flight to Europe this time with Qatar Airways which offered a good price several months ago. My flight departed Hong Kong on time before 7pm and I arrived in Doha after 10pm local time. I did not sleep at all and spent the whole time watching films and videos.
During the 8-hour transit, I used the lounge free with my Priority Pass. I had passed through Doha a couple of times and am familiar with this lounge. Unfortunately this time I was disturbed by a few children who screamed. As the family room is not isolated, noises can be heard all over the lounge. I was annoyed as their parents and the staff had done nothing. The management should have designed the lounge in such a way that the family room is located in a different area with sound-proof partition. Luckily I was so tired that I managed to doze on and off a couple of times.
August 1 Tuesday: Doha – Geneva, Switzerland (GMT+2)
The flight to Geneva was delayed for almost an hour. It finally took off after 8:30am. I had a scenic flight over Iran, Turkey, Croatia and Italy. I could recognise the route I had taken in Iran in 2010. I arrived in Geneva around 2pm local time. The Swiss are considerate and generous: arriving passengers are provided with a free ticket on public transportation in Geneva and free WiFi at the airport and the train station. I stayed in the Geneva Hostel which is three bus stops away from the train station. The hostel is well-run, clean and proper. It also gives all lodgers a free pass for the bus/tram/ferry. This is a great idea!
I have been in Geneva a couple of times. But I hardly know the city. Hence I decided to spend my time exploring the city. I left the hostel after 5pm and walking towards the lake which is one block away. As it was the National Day, there was a festive atmosphere with locals and tourists everywhere. I intended to walk to St Peter’s Cathedral in the old town. As it was a hot day with the temperature reaching 30ºC, I decided to take whatever came along. So I found myself on Tram 12 heading to Carouge. I got off at Carouge Marche, with a pretty church, a large shady square with many cafes and restaurants. I was thirsty and had a cold beer before taking Tram 18 to the train station. I was back in the hostel after 8pm. Then I met Janice, a young Malaysian girl travelling on her own. We heard there would be fireworks around the lake around 10pm. Wetook a walk to the lake to see how the Swiss celebrate. We saw sporadic fireworks from all directions. Nothing compared with the scale of fireworks we have in Hong Kong and Malaysia. We were told a good display of fireworks would take place on August 12. We headed back to the hostel and watched fireworks for another ten minutes from the top floors. I was exhausted and had an excellent sleep.
August 2 Wednesday: Geneva
My plan for today was to visit a couple of museums. My original picks were Mamco (Modern and Contemporary Art Museum) located in a factory. I walked through the canal area and had a good time. As Mamco is not open till midday, I decided to move on. I walked to the old town and arrived at St Peter’s Cathedral. Built between 1160-1252 on the place of a basilica from the 6thcentury, it is symbolic in terms of religious development of Switzerland and historical development of the city. During the reformation period, interiors of the cathedral was vastly demolished. Luckily the Chapelle des Macchabé built in 1397 with beautiful Gothic paintings and stain glass, the pulpit and most of the painting at the tops of the pillars were preserved. I like the chapel which is atmospheric.
What I enjoy most is the archaeological site lying beneath the cathedral which reveals the history and development of the town several centuries before the arrival of the Romans. The excavations began during the renovation of the cathedral in 1970s. The findings are amazing. With an audio guide which cost 5 CHF, I saw numerous artefacts, original walls, the Roman Crypt, Monk’s Cells, the Allobrogian Tomb located right at the centre of the cathedral. The audio shows are informative and interesting.
My next destination was the Ariana Museum devoted to ceramic and glass art work. This collection with over 20,000 objects lasting 1,200 years was bequeathed to the city by Gustave Revilliod. This private museum is located in an impressive and grandiose Neo-Classical and Baroque mansion with huge pillars, large arched ceiling and gleaming marble floors. Visitors can see the permanent collection for free. As a token of appreciation, I paid 7 CHF to see two special exhibitions (one on its new acquisitions and another on old enamelled glass and ceramics from Switzerland).
It was hot and I did not want to walk. Once again, I took a city tour by bus. FirstBus 11 took me to Bout-du-Monde which is a few stops from Carouge. Then I took Bus 21 which ends at Gare des Eaux-Vives. I found Tram 12 nearby and made my way back to the train station. In this way, I have briefly seen a good part of the urban area south of Lake Geneva. I was back in the hostel after 7pm.
August 3 Thursday: St Gallen & Locarno
Louise my friend in Geneva kindly purchased two day passes (45 CHF each) which would enable me to take train and bus all over Switzerland. Today, I took the 6:42am IC train to St Gallen to see its world famous Abbey before travelling to Locarno for its film festival.
This is my second visit to St Gallen as I stayed with a Swiss family for a few days in 1981. The city located south of Lake Constance, evolved from a hermitage built in 612 by an Irish monk Gallus (ca 550-620 or 640) and was a centre famous for producing quality textiles since the 15th century. Today, the Abbey of St Gall, a perfect example of a great Carolingian monastery with a history spanning from the 8th century to its secularisation in 1805, is a World Heritage Site. Given its history, this small city has many beautiful old mansions and an elegant and relaxing ambience.
I bought a ticket to visit the library and paid for an audio guide which is excellent with detailed information about the abbey and its history, the cathedral and its architecture, the library and the complex. The conventual area was rebuilt in baroque style from 1755 to 1768. Though I am not a fan of Baroque architecture, I like the cathedral which is equally impressive and beautiful. It is bright, airy, simple but grandiose with white walls, tall pillars dotted with lovely angels. The ceiling paintings in dark tones in stark contrast to the white background is striking.
The Abbey has an impressive architectural ensemble including an ancient abbatial church (the present day cathedral), two towers, ancient cloister, arsenal, the Children’s and Guardian Angel’s Chapel grouping around the main square of the abbey. I bought a ticket to see the high Baroque library which represents one of the most beautiful in its era. The library, founded by Saint Othmar (c 689 -759), the first abbot of the abbey, is one of the richest and oldest in the world. Its collection holds 2,100 manuscripts dating back to the 8th through the 15th century and over 160,000 volumes of old printed books. On display is the earliest-known architectural plan of the abbey drawn on parchment. The hall designed by architect Peter Thumb in Rococo style constructed between 1758-67 lined with book shelves on two levels with natural lights coming through the windows is most beautiful, enchanting and peaceful. I can spend the whole day in the Abbey and the library!
I took the 2:12pm train to Zurich and had to change two more times to get to Locarno. I finally checked in a B&B around 6:30pm. The main old town square was condoned off for film screening during the festival. I found 25 CHF (or euro, I forgot) for a ticket too expensive and decided not to see the 9:30pm screening of a French movie. But if I were around for a few days, I would have brought a day pass or seasonal ticket for 45 and 110 CHF respectively.
I enjoyed roaming around this small town by the lake. As there was musical performance opposite my B&B, I had a drink and listened to folk music till 10pm. But the loud music and noise went on and I could not sleep till the noises were gone well after midnight!
August 4 Friday: Monte San Giorgio
I got up at 6am and was just in time to catch a glimpse of sunrise from the roof. With the day train pass, I moved on to Mont San Giorgio, a World Heritage Site. I took the 7:18am train to Lugano and then another train to Mendrisio. I arrived at 8:53am but the bus to Meride would not leave till 9:33am. It was almost 10am when I finally arrived at this picturesque village perching on a gentle hill side in Lake Lugano.
About 240 million years ago, the area had a tropical climate and a sea full of coral, fish, long-necked reptiles and turtle-like creature. When mines were dug in the area in the second half of the 19th century to extract oil from bituminous shales, fossils of these animals were discovered and over 10,000 well preserved specimens have been found in this sea basin. They include large skeletons of vertebrae up to 6m long. A number of ‘first discoveries’ of species have been made here. This site is compared to Ischigualasto / Talampaya (same period on land) which I visited in Argentina a few months ago. I bought a ticket (8 CHF) and paid for an audio guide (3CHF) and had a wonderful tour looking at extraordinary specimens which are the best I have seen so far!
I left the museum at 11:30am. I could walk to the top of Mont San Giorgio (two hours one way) or take the 12:09pm bus back to Mendrisio or walk downhill to see another archaeological site of an old settlement near Tremona on the way back to Mendrisio. I took the last option.
It was a pleasant walk through the wood. Then I found a beautiful restaurant in the wood where I had a nice lunch and half a bottle of wine for 41 CHF! I finally took the 3:19pm bus to Mendrisio before boarding a train to Lugano. Then I took another train to Zurich and another to Biel. Altogether, I took five trains before arriving in Geneva at 9:45pm. Though the train connections convenient and user-friendly, it is still time-consuming. I indeed had a long day seeing Switzerland by train. No regret though!