Northern Switzerland, Southeastern France
It seems so easy to get around here! The trams and buses run constantly and cover a wide area—and Samuel and Simone (our friends from Massachusetts—he grew up here) are staying a ten-minute walk from the central train station (we, by contrast, are an hour out in Winterthur—not so convenient but with a wonderful family).
Arriving mid-day after a beautiful train ride from the Italian border through the mountains, we took a couple of short walks downtown. The Landes Museum is a striking, massive castle directly outside the railroad station. The river is an oasis of tranquility, but the city as a whole does not seem frenetic.
We're getting an insider's view: a gourmet store with lots of free samples, swimming in the river against currents so strong that there's a metal fence to prevent people going too far—I got a nice fat bruise on my leg when I was swept into it. Old Town is very pretty, lots of elegant churches, winding alleys, and such. We particularly enjoyed a walk through two streets lined with art galleries and antiquarian bookstores—Schiffl‰nde and Kirchgasse (Church Street).
Also in the old city— a famous church with five long vertical and one round Chagal stained glass windows—very lovely, and not crowded.
On our final day, we rode out to Albisguetli—the last stop on tram 13—to climb the Uetliberg, a tall, scenic hill whose trails twist through a beautiful—and nearly litter-free—forest and climax in scenic views of both Zurich and the rural canton of Aarau. The lookout tower at the top brings the total height to over 900 meters, and on a clear day, you can see the Black Forest in Germany.
Then another scenic train ride and we were in French Switzerland.
Many Swiss slip seamlessly from one language to another, mixing French, German, Italian, and English—which is not one of the four official languages, but is very popular. As far as I know, I haven't heard any of the fourth official language, Romansh, which is an old, dying Latinate language used deep in the mountains, and which comes in dozens of variants. The same conductor will ask for tickets in Italian as the train leaves Lugano and in German as the train approaches Zurich.
We're staying in a chalet on a beautiful mountain, in this non-tourist town whose name translates as "last place to get chalk" (limestone).
My image of a chalet had always been of a large, prim, fairly fancy dwelling with flowers hanging from every shuttered window—and there are a couple of those right around here, used as fancy restaurants.
But most of those around here are simple cabins. Ours has no electricity and a water system that requires human pumping. The toilet is a very recent addition.
It's absolutely beautiful up here. One view overlooks the town and another, a green hillside with pastures, cows wearing bells, and some cropland. And at night the sky fills with stars.
We were here for August 1st, the Swiss national holiday of independence from the Austria-Hungary empire—in the year 1291!
Almost all the stores are closed (our host had to drive into France, about 20 minutes away, for party provisions). People gather for cookouts, sing folksongs, and shoot off fireworks. Usually, they build bonfires all over the hillsides, but with the drought this year, that was forbidden. And the official fireworks, which we could see from three different towns, were sharply curtailed.
This was once the center of the Swiss watch industry, and there are still a few factories operating. And it's home to the International Museum of Horology.
The collection is better for those with a good reading knowledge of French, since most of the individual exhibits are only explained that way. Still, there are some English explanations about the main points of clock and watch making, and videos in a choice of several languages. The collection is extensive, with many ancient timepieces, some of them works of art in their own right (gold, lacquer, inlaid wood, etc.). Outside is a futuristic carillon with tubular bells and a series of louvers that open and close as it plays music just before the quarter-hour, then chimes the time.
We also saw the neighboring art museum, which is small and unimpressive—but whose entrance hall is an amazing work of mosaics and marble.
The architect/artist Le Corbusier was born here, and at the art museum you can pick up a walking tour guide (with city map) to his local works.
All the museums are free on Sunday; if you arrive on a different day, just do the clock museum.
Our final activity here (after buying chocolate gifts at a local supermarket) was a pleasant surprise: the municipal pool. It's located in a beautiful park, is extremely well laid out with separate areas for diving, lap swimming,. and general water play, and has a much-utilized water slide. And the whole area is kept so clean that people actually remove the crumbs of their chips!
We had a brief layover in Geneva, just enough to walk around near the station. The city had that New York energy and feel. The neighborhood was upscale, touristy, full of watch shops, travel agents, money changers—and abutting oversize McDonald's and Burger King, both set up as European sidewalk cafes.
Far more cosmopolitan than Zurich, Geneva is full of people of all cultures and races. The Muslim presence is particularly noticeable.
I walked down the pedestrian mall just outside the station, headed toward the waterfront, and turned left there, alongside a small outdoor market. Stands sold fruit, alcoholic drinks, African handicrafts...across the street was a park with the oddest gazebo I've ever seen—like a fancy Gothic cathedral, full of buttresses, sculpted pinnacles, and such.
In the spring, we hosted a French teenager for three weeks; in august, we were able to visit Amelie's family in the southern coastal city of Toulon. Her father, Felipe, lent us a car—and also lent us Amelie, as a guide and interpreter for a very spiffy car trip through the Coeur du Var, medieval villages in the Provence hills northeast of Toulon.
We started in Pignans, a town that time forgot. On the main square, a few men languidly played cards in front of a cafe; no one else was around.
A quick turn under an old stone arch and we were in the medieval part of the city, built from the 13th through 17th centuries.
On this very hot day, I suddenly understood the whole concept of the medieval town. The high buildings and narrow alleys block out the intense heat. It's cool, always shady, and very pleasant even with no trees and few flowers. Not to mention quite charming.
The brochure that directed us here says there are remains of Roman-era houses, but we were not aware of which ones they were. The church, small and Romanesque, is from the 13th century.
We bought pastries at a bake shop advertising that everything was home-made in the ancient way—yet was very inexpensive (croissants for about E0.80, petit fours about the same, large slabs of cake for E1.52) and then drove the very few kilometers to Gonfaron, where we added a wonderful poppy baguette and some cheese, and enjoyed a picnic in the square. We had hoped to climb the tower but the door was locked. It was 1 p.m. and everything was closed for lunch, so we didn't try to visit either the organic goat cheese farm or the organic olive oil presser that we'd read about. And with three a children in the car, we skipped all the wineries as well.
Our next stop was Flassans-sur-Issole, where we climbed to the ruins of a medieval fortress. A few stone walls, a tunnel or two, and a beautiful 360-degree view fo the town below and the surrounding countryside.
By this time, the heat was getting to us, so we ended our afternoon with a swim in the lake at Besse-sur-Issole—not bad if you happen to be in the neighborhood, but not really worth going out of the way for. We didn't see the actual town, only the lake. And there are nine villages in the region, each with various museums, churches, outdoor attractions, craft shops, and more—so I guess we'll have to come back again for the rest of them.
Walking around Toulon, we went first through the vast open-air market: clothing, fruits, vegetables, spices, fish, olives and tapenaudes. Beautiful produce, mostly very low prices (fresh figs E2.70 to 3.50 for a whole kilo!) Olives, E5.50 to 8.00 per kilo.
Many Arabs and North Africans were visible around the market—staffing the stalls, shopping, and hanging out at the nearby cafes. Several North African stores, too. It's close by—just across the Mediterranean—and many immigrants come from Morocco and neighboring countries.
Toulon is very ethnically diverse. There are also blacks from the Caribbean, pale blondes from northern France, a small Jewish community, even a few Asians.
The Opera square, recently redone with palm trees, is very beautiful, as is a neighboring building just behind it. The waterfront is bustling and touristy, with shops of maritime odds and ends, pictures of the waterfront, and a few small tourist attractions like the naval tower and museum—one of the few museums in Toulon that charges money.
An unexpected pleasure was one of the free museums, dedicated to Asian art. While not enormous, the collection was amazing in its breadth and depth. Chinese and Japanese sections were arranged chronologically; the areas devoted to India, Tibet, and Korea were smaller and less well organized. At one point, one of the curators came up to me and gave a detailed explanation about some of the subtleties in one of the tapestries—information I would have never noticed on my own. Even from Nice or Marseille, this museum would be worth a detour. Toulon boasts a number of other free museums, but we didn't experience any.
Felipe and Benedicte were gracious hosts. Life at their house revolved around large multi-course feasts that went on for several hours—and around the pool and beautifully landscaped patio, where most of the family took several swims a day. Relaxing, refreshing, and very pleasant.
Provence strikes me as eminently livable, with a great deal more to explore than we could squeeze in on this short visit.
Leaving Toulon after three nights, we took a fast train to Nice, with lovely views of the Mediterranean beaches, then a subway-type local to Monte Carlo, where we had to switch to a bus because of tunnel repairs—switchbacking through the city to gain altitude. It looked very French (it is completely surrounded by France) and very wealthy. Then back on the train for two more stops. Just before the last stop, we crossed the river between France and Ventemiglia, Italy and immediately it felt like Italy again.
In all, that final day consisted of one car ride, five trains, two buses, five international borders (Monaco-France-Italy-San Remo subway station-Italy), no passport control, and nine hours. Driving straight through, Felipe says it takes 3-1/2 hours—but with missed trains, construction delays, schedules, and so forth, it was a long and tiring day.
Shel Horowitz, Editor of Global Travel Review and owner of FrugalFun.com, is the author of the e-book, The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook, and the creator of the Ethical Business Pledge campaign.
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