‘the land of milk and money’. If you think, for the most part, these are the only two Swiss compulsions, think again. Just a few days in the country will throw so many new impressions at your inventory of Heidis and heifers, highestwealth - per - adult ratings and precious-as-gold Swiss francs. Milk and money, yes. But also bizarre bylaws, movie-star moments, kitsch carnivals and fashion to rival that of Paris. Just when you want to roll your eyes at how predictably ‘ plus-que parfait ’ it all is, you stumble across a little nugget that is so truly unusual or unexpected that it unbalances your expectations all over again.To protect citizens from a rude awakening, for example, Switzerland forbids the use of lawn mowers on a Sunday. It also forbids recycling on this day. But for the last 20 years, the country has run a programme that legally distributes heroin to addicts.
A LAND OF CONTRASTS
In Geneva, the country’s second most populous city, an atmosphere of ‘seriousness’ pervades. It’s not the spirit of self-importance one might encounter in neighbouring France, nor an air of rigidity as one may expect to find in nearby Germany – although, certainly, a Swiss precision has made this nation famous for its timepieces over the centuries. But you just know in your ‘knower’ that this is a significant city. Since it is home to the international headquarters of many UN agencies, and the Red Cross; has been a historical centre of Christian theology; and is the site where the Geneva Conventions, governing the treatment of wartime non-combatants and prisoners of war, were signed, this is not surprising. But then, drive along the banks of Lake Geneva in summer and you’ll encounter a five-kilometre stretch of kitsch fairground, so packed with merry festival-goers you’d swear this was a city of no work, all play. Extending along Quai Gustave-Ador and Quai Wilson, it’s part of the annual Fêtes de Genève (Fetesdegeneve.ch) and, evidently, the Swiss love a good fête. Bumper cars, flying chairs and spinning wheels line the busy boulevard, alongside dance floors with live bands and DJs, and stalls selling Swiss specialties or the national dishes of other far-flung corners of the globe.
This – the country behind the stereotypes – is the subject of author Diccon Bewes bestselling book Swiss Watching. He points out that in a land known for its cleanliness and courtesy, you’ll find some of the worst graffiti in Europe.Its citizens also consume the same amount of chewing gum per head as Americans, and most of it ends up on the pavement. And, while Switzerland gave us the Red Cross and an army knife, it is also the birthplace of Toilet Duck (1980). What’s more, its people own more guns per head than those of Iraq.And as for that flawlessly punctual public transport? The tram we alighted on our way to the airport came to a grinding halt, before spouting an alarming shower of sparks.We waited several minutes until the problem was resolved and we were able to continue with our delayed journey.
LIFESTYLES OF THE SWISS AND THE FAMOUS
Speeding along the immense façade of Lac Léman (that’s French for Lake Geneva) in a silver bullet of a boat is highly recommended. Reclined against soft, white leather that reflects the sun’s rays like the snow on the mountain peaks in the distance, there’s nothing quite akin it to make you feel like the star of your very own James Bond film. In fact, so much of Geneva is so very ‘Bond’ that it becomes clear why Switzerland features as strongly as it does in author Ian Fleming’s tales. Bond himself is half Swiss, on his mother’s side, and whether the suave and successful (oh-soSwiss) defender of humanity is staying at the Hotel
des Bergues in Geneva and weaving along Alpine roads in an Aston Martin, as in Goldfinger, or striking up a duet with Dr.No’s bikini-clad Bond girl – Swiss actress Ursula Andress – James is the very essence of Swiss sophistication. We might mention Basel-born Roger Federer here as a more modern incarnation of this je ne sais quoi, but he’s half South African, so we could be accused of some bias on that one.
Kristina Bazan’s blog Kayture.com attracts over a million readers a month. Aided by photographer boyfriend James, the stylish Geneva-based fashion blogger is ‘single-handedly making Geneva, Switzerland, the French-speaking fashion capital of the world’, as one international glossy framed it. Name a luxury brand, she’s worked with them, including a Chopard collaboration for her 20th birthday. Of course, Geneva offers up plenty of opportunity to get your hands on some of these famous names yourself (and the country’s own stalwarts – think Rolex, Ebel, Davidoff, TAG Heuer, Tally Weijl). Put your plastic to good use at the luxury stores on Rue du Rhône, or find many of the best names under one roof at department store Globus (Globus.ch). Parallel Rue du Marché offers other popular European staples, including H&M. For designer vintage, head to Vêt’Shop Vintage (Croix-rouge-ge.ch), run by the Geneva Red Cross.
Rue du Rhône is also home to Le Relais de l’Entrecôte restaurant (Relaisentrecote.fr). An institution here and in Paris, they don’t take bookings so you’re likely to be met with a queue at the door. It’s worth the wait. They also don’t take orders. To start, you’ll eat a salad of crisp, sweet lettuce leaves topped with plump walnuts and a heavenly mustard vinaigrette. This is followed by steak (tender, flavourful and cooked to your liking) and melt-in-your-mouth golden frites, all served with their trademark sauce – a rich, herb-based sensation. A second helping also comes standard.
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
Don’t forego the magnificence of the Swiss countryside. No beauty I have yet encountered quite prepared me for the sights of Champéry, a village 130 kilometres from Geneva, in the famous skiing region of Les Portes du Soleil. The streets and surrounding countryside are lined with chalets that feature carved balconies, sloping roofs and window boxes spouting puffs of red geraniums. (While there are lodges and hotels, these chalets offer a truer Alpine experience, and can be rented via sites such as Chalet. myswitzerland.com.) I mostly just sat staring at the snow-covered majestic peaks of the Dents du Midi (the ‘Teeth of the South’). I listened to the cowbells of wandering cattle and, through a telescope, watched waterfalls gushing down the mountains across the valley. Hikes will lead you through pastures, along riverbeds bursting with wild summer blooms and up shaded ravines, where rocky ledges plunge into deep, icy pools. The region also offers a multitude of summertime activities, including mountain biking, climbing and acrobranche (zip-lining) experiences. Wander the charming streets of the village, then drive the eight kilometres to the thermal baths and spa in the Vald’Illiez, Thermes Parc. Here, you can linger in indoor and outdoor thermal pools, whose mineralrich water springs from inside the Valaisans mountains at a temperature of 29-34°C.
As dusk falls, sip on a beer on the green lawns of Cantine Sur Coux (Cantinesurcoux.net) before you move inside to eat.The Roesti Campagnard is a soul-warming Swiss specialty of soft potato cubes topped with salty bacon, juicy pickled onions, a fried egg, slices of tart gherkin and lashings of Switzerland’s finest creamy cheese. Come nightfall, gaze at the blackest night sky punctured by glittering sparkles and free your cerebral cortex from anything remaining you might have had listed under ‘Switzerland’ before you jumped on a Geneva-bound plane.
Clockwise from top left Geneva-based fashion blogger Kristina Bazan of Kayture.com; Les Bains du Val-d’Illiez in Thermes Parc; Rue du Rhône is the most emblematic luxury retail street in Geneva.
The east part of downtown Geneva, as seen from Cathédrale Saint-Pierre.
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