Archive for June, 2012

4 June 2012

My business in Geneva got over early and I decided to use the opportunity to have a look around. Geneva is a very tourist friendly city. In fact, the city authorities provides all those that stay in hotels with a pass that allows free transport in public transport like trams and buses. This is the first first time I have seen such an arrangement in any city and I have to say that once you get used to the transport systems, this is very convenient especially  as taxis are very expensive.

I have found that the cathedrals in most cities have good stories and so my first port of call was the Saint Peter’s Cathedral. It was within walking distance of my hotel and so I decided to walk there. On the way I passed by Lake Geneva with its iconic fountain that rises 140 metres into the air. It pumps out water at the rate of 500 litres per second.

Geneva itself looks like any other Western European city – quite organised and orderly.

Just past the lake is the famous flower clock, which is a symbol of the great watch making traditions of Geneva. It was rather busy with many tourists (including Indians) posing in front of the clock. It was a bit of a wait to get a moment with no one blocking the view!

I was particularly interested in the Cathedral as Geneva has a history of having been the protestant equivalent of Catholic Rome. In 1536, a person named John Galvin arrived in Geneva. He was fleeing the persecution of Protestants in France. St. Peter’s at Geneva has been a Christian place of devotion since 4th Century and John Galvin tried to bring in Protestantism but was expelled from Geneva in 1536. However, he made a triumphant return in 1541 and Protestantism ruled in Geneva till 18th Century. The French influence won over then and Geneva returned to Catholicism. Geneva is a city that speaks French even now and all the road signs are in French.

St. Peter’s Cathedral stands on a hill, as is the case with most places of worship. I have noticed this with Hindu temples as well; devotees have an urge to build the edifices for their gods at the highest points in their settlements. The Cathedral itself is a Gothic style building and resembles many others that I have seen in France and Italy. However, the interiors are not very rich, probably because of its Protestant past.

John Galvin preached from this Cathedral and the chair he used is still kept here. In keeping with the Protestant traditions, it is a simple, practical chair with no decorations.

There are two towers in the Cathedral – the North tower and the South tower. The North Tower offers panoramic views and is accessed through a steep flight of steps and you can then cross over to the South Tower. There are two big bells in The North Tower called “La Clemence” and “La Bellerive” and the former is rung for significant events in the city. These are very big bells and there are five smaller bells in the South Tower.

Until this time, I was not very impressed with the Cathedral as it was rather spartan because of the Calvinist influence. It looked like any other large church but not as ornate as one finds in places like Italy. I had read that there was an archaeological site which had been excavated under the church. I was in two minds on whether to look this up or not as I felt I may be squeezed for time for the next item on the agenda, a visit to the United Nations building in Geneva. In the end, I decided to give it a shot, especially as I was finished with the cathedral rather quickly; what a fortunate decision that was!

In 1976, the Cantonal Archaeological Service started excavating the site under and around the cathedral. This provided a wealth of information about the city and the site on which the current cathedral stands. This information is arranged as an exhibition, spread over 3,000 square metres.

Geneva first started as a settlement on the shores of Lake Geneva and the first traces of human presence go back to 11,000 BC in the Palaeolithic period. The Allobroges (Celts) ruled Geneva from around 330 BC till they were over thrown by Julius Caesar in 58 BC during his Gallic campaign. From then on, Geneva remained a Roman town till about 400 AD and then became a Christian community.

The site on which the cathedral stands today became a sacred spot at around 100 BC when an important Allobrogian chieftain was buried here in this site overlooking the lake, the port and the bridge over the  river Rhone. He must have been an important chieftain and that must have been why a monument was built for him. The skeleton can be seen even today and it was a strange feeling to look at the skeleton of a person that lived more than two thousand years ago. It was also interesting to think that the same spot remained a place of worship despite it having passed through different belief systems – the Allobrogians, Romans and the Christians. The skeleton does not have a head as that must have been removed to take to another place of worship.

I have always been curious about the practice of burying the bodies of famous people in churches. This site started out as the burial ground of an Allobrogian chieftain and later on, a Roman crypt was built here. Later on, when Christianity arrived, there was a cult of relics and more bodies were buried here. So, I guess this interest to bury their important people in places of worship or converting the tombs into places of worship was something that was carried over from Pagan beliefs to modern day religions.

The excavations themselves were quite interesting. The site started out as a single small building and developed later on into a complex with multiple buildings meant for different purposes like worship, living etc. Over a period of time, these all finally got incorporated into the very large building we see today. Given below are some of the interesting sights from the excavations.

Mould used for making the “La Clemence” bell, fifteenth century

Pots from second century

Heating room for corn processing, third or fourth century

Mosaic on the floor of the reception hall dating back to AD 400

Mosaic on the floor of the reception hall dating back to AD 400

My next stop was the United Nations building. This building was originally built for League of Nations between 1929 and 1938 and is called Palais des Nations. It was expanded in 50s and 60s and there are two parts to the building now. The building itself looks impressive form the outside. The view with the flags all lined up was very nice indeed.

Right outside the main entrance to the Palais des Nations is a huge sculpture of a broken chair. This is a huge wooden chair with a broken leg, constructed out of 5.5 tons of wood and is 12 metres high. Swiss artist Daniel Berset was the sculptor. It was a project of Handicap International and was conceived as a reminder to the devastating effects of land mines and cluster bombs. It was first erected in 1997 and was intended to remain for three months till the signature of the Ottawa Treaty. However, as is often the case with UN, the signing of the treaty got delayed and about 34 countries including India are yet to sign it. The sculpture became very popular with the public and it remains there even today, even after having been temporarily removed in 2005 to allow remodeling of the Palais des nations.

I felt that this was a very aptly conceived sculpture which effectively conveyed the damage that land mines cause. These mines are often using during a war and rarely removed after the war is over and these lethal devices stay active and trigger off when some unsuspecting soul steps on those. The damage that results is often the loss of a limb. The broken chair conveys this message very strongly.

Access to the building was reasonably easy and I was in time to join the guided tour. We started off by seeing a couple of meeting rooms and the walking through some corridors that were filled with a lot of art work. All of those have been donated by various countries.

The League of Nations part was more impressive than the sections added later. The main attraction was the Council Chamber of League of Nations. The most impressive aspect of the room is the gold and sepia murals painted on the walls and ceiling. This was a gift from the Spanish government and was painted by the famous Catalan artist Jose Maria Cert between March 1935 and May 1936. It depicts the progress of mankind through health, technology freedom and space. The guide explained it as a series and pointed to a picture as the culmination of the series. This shows five muscular men, representing five continents (wonder which one of the inhabited continents they left out), coming together and holding a weapon (a bow).

I felt it rather odd that a room dedicated to the promotion of peace would have people holding a weapon together instead of destroying it. So, I looked it up on the web and found that the culmination of the series is actually that of the five giants holds their hands together in triumph.

Interestingly, one person in the tour asked the guide whether the diplomats that sit in this room and take decisions know the meaning of this art work. She was at a loss for a proper response on that one and after a momentary silence, said that she expected them to know as they were diplomats!

The views as one looked out of the corridor connecting the League of Nations building to the new building were very good. We also a saw a peacock on the lawns and that elicited a lot of excitement from the group.

The tour was soon over and I walked back to the entrance to catch a bus. I was walking past the park that surrounds the building and suddenly, I saw a statue of Gandhi. It was a solitary statue in the midst of nothing – looked forgotten and lost. This struck me a bit and I stood there for a few moments looking at it. Gandhi, arguably the biggest promoter of peace ever, the man who showed that empires could be defeated without resorting to violence, the man whose messages are perhaps the most relevant today in a world tottering on the brink because of greed and hatred, sits forgotten in the very place that supposedly works towards promotion of world peace!

As in any old city, there is an old town in Geneva too and that is around the Cathedral area. I went back there to have a walk around the place. After sauntering around a bit, I dropped into an English pub. There were not many customers there and I struck up a conversation with the bartender, Phil. A couple I had met at the UN building had told me that they had just come from a visit to CERN (European Organisation for Nuclear Research), where the research on the Higgs-Boson particle was progressing. When we were talking, I told Phil that I would have liked to visit CERN. He then told me that he was doing his research for his Ph.D. thesis at CERN! He is from Boston and having finished his Masters there, is doing research at CERN. He was not on the Higgs-Boson project and was involved in research on metrics and measurement, related to nuclear particles. It was nice to talk with Phil and as I left I could not but be impressed with this chap who was working as a bartender to fund his studies.

3 June 2012

As my business tour extended over a couple of weekends, I was searching for ideas on places to go near Geneva, when a colleague suggested Chamonix and a close look at the Mont Blanc peak in French Alps. I looked it up on the web and found the place interesting as there was the easy option available of seeing the Alps at close range! So, off I set off on a coach from Geneva to Chamonix on a Sunday morning, a journey of about 90 minutes. Within 20 minutes of setting off from the bus station, we crossed into France. I was thinking that this border must have seen a lot of action during World War II with prisoners escaping from France and other countries trying to get into neutral Switzerland. With the SCHENGEN visa norms, the bus did not even stop at the border crossing.

The road itself was quite scenic and we passed some nice looking farms and soon started getting glimpses of the mountains.

The plan was to get to Chamonix and then take a cable car upto the top of a peak called the Aiguille du Midi, which is at a height of 3842 metres. The cable car was built in 1955 and at that time, was the highest cable car (or Téléphérique as the French call it) in the world. The ride is completed in two sections – first to an interim point and then on to Aiguille du Midi; the second section has no support pillars in between.

There were good many tourists that day and we were a bit squeezed in the cable car. As soon as we left the ground, fantastic views started opening up and cameras were clicking away regardless of the fact that most of us only got reflections of the flash from the glass walls of the cable car!

As we approached the summit, we saw two climbers starting off on a trek. It was an awesome sight to see two lonely figures on the vast expanse of snow.

At the summit of Aiguille du Midi, there is a cafeteria and various viewing decks. It was very windy and the weather was not very good. Mont Blanc itself was shrouded in clouds and so we could not get a view of that but still the views all around were just fantastic. I moved out to a platform all by myself and as I stood there taking the views, I spied the two trekkers down below – two specs on a snow shelf.

I had never understood what made people want to climb mountains and trek across them; someone in the cable car had called them as “adrenaline junkies”. However, as I stood there in the Alps with all its majesty, I also wanted to go on such a trek, camp out and lose myself in this beauty; and I am no adrenaline junky. I could sense the excitement and fun and challenge of the climb; there is a sheer exhilaration in this. These mountains are such a draw!

Vallee Blanche is a famous ski route in Chamonix and many trekkers start their journey to Valle Blanche from Aiguille du Midi. There is a short tunnel dug out of ice that leads onto a ridge on the face of the peak and the trek starts from there.

When I went through the tunnel and on to the ridge, I met two climbers who were about to set off on a trek to Vallee Blanche. I wanted to have a chat with them to understand how they would figure out the route, where they would stay the night, how they would locate crevasses and steer clear etc. Unfortunately, I found out that all my English was of no use in this remote corner of France. I understood that they were going to Vallee Blanche and planning to stay the night in a tent. They seemed very enthusiastic and were quite friendly. I waved them off on their trek and went back through the tunnel.

Later on, I mentioned this incident to the colleague who had referred this site to me and he narrated an incident of how he had gone on this very same climb sometime ago and how they had a narrow escape after one of them fell into a crevasse. That was scary stuff indeed and I toned down my climbing ambitions to a more gentle trek – maybe I can do that one day!

I went to another of the viewing terraces to try and have a look at Mont Blanc but it was still clouded over. I kept clicking away but was once again reminded of my acute lack of photographic skills as I looked at the results.

On the way back, I stopped at the midway point and walked around. As I sat on a rock looking at the Aiguille du Midi, I thought how it might have been when the first climb was done in 1818. What hardships and challenges must they have gone through! The mountain was very imposing and even looked a bit ominous; it somehow reminded me of a strong beast. The cable car was coming down and it so tiny against the backdrop of the massive mountain and was, in a way, a reminder of how puny we are when pitted against nature.

Chamonix is in a valley with mountains on both sides and we had a good view of it as we came down in the cable car.

The village itself is fairly small and is nice and cozy. It has quite a long history and the first mention of the valley dates back to 1091. Early settlers were some Benedictine monks but the living conditions were so harsh that the valley was very sparsely populated. In the 1700s, interest picked up in Alpine climbing and with that Chamonix started to grow. In 1760, a Swiss aristocrat named Horace-Benedict de Saussure offered a reward to the first person to scale Mont Blanc and he himself made an unsuccessful attempt in 1785. In 1786, two Chamonix men, Michel Paccard and Jacques Balmat achieved the climb and Chamonix was established firmly on the Alpine map. Winter Olympics was conducted at Chamonix in 1924.

In the square in the town, there is a monument to Horace-Benedict de Saussure, with Jacques Balmat next to him, pointing to Mont Blanc.

There is a river called Arve that passes through Chamonix. This fast flowing river receives it water mostly from Alpine glaciers like the Mer de Glace (which was the next item in my itinerary) and flows right onto Geneva. In my mind, I had thought that rivers and streams that are fed by melting snow would be pristine and clear and I was surprised to learn that the water is generally very muddy when the snow melts and true enough, the water looked anything but clear.

We had planned to have lunch in the village and I found myself looking forward to it. A Hungarian lady from our group was seated next to me. Her name was Catalin and we fell to talking about Hungary and I used the opportunity to ask her about life during the Communist regime and now. She was about 35 when the regime fell and she remembered that time very well. Her view was that they are better off now, even if they are exposed to the perils of globalization and the attendant issues like unemployment, depression etc. When I asked her what the main difference is, she said it is the freedom they enjoy now, which was never the case earlier. I was reminded of a very similar comment made by a taxi driver in Bucharest when I asked him a similar question.

Right near Chamonix is the biggest glacier in France, called Mer de Glace. This glacier can be viewed from a place called Montenvers, which is at a height of 1,000m from Chamonix. The glacier has a surface area of 40 square kilometres and a length of 7 km. A rack and pinion train takes you upto Montenvers and the distance is covered in 20 minutes. The rack runs between the tracks and this helps the train to make the steep climb.

The train moves up the mountainside through pine trees and tunnels carved out of rock. It was conceived in 1892 and became a reality when the first train steamed into the station at Montenvers, in 1909. A slight drizzle had started by the time we got to Montenvers and so, I did not get much time to look at the glacier. Here again, I was surprised as I was expecting an expanse of sheer white but was greeted by something that looked more grey than white.

There is an ice cave that leads into the innards of the glacier but that was closed for some maintenance. Here also I met a few people who had just come after trekking the glacier. They were part of a group that was going to scale a peak and this trek on the glacier was a kind of training in preparation for that climb.

The glacier has a thickness of 120m at its centre but has been reducing in thickness by about 3 to 4m every year since 1988. The glacier is advancing at a pace of 120m every year but shrinking by 125m each year as well. So, it is shrinking faster than it is growing. It was sad to think that this glacier might be gone in the near future; such are the effects of global warming. There is a photo at the station which shows the position of the glacier in 1909 and one can easily make out the difference in height between then and now.

With that somber thought, we trained down and got on to the coach to get back to Geneva.