A Genevan dash ...

Geneva looks unremarkable upon arrival in its main station, perhaps like any other city. Its architecture is block-like and unappealing and gangs hang around on street corners. Rather than appearing a pristine Swiss city, it has the atmosphere of a rough French quartier. It isn't until you approach the shores of Lac Leman, where glamorous waterfront buildings have their name emblazoned in large, upright letters on the rooftops that you realise how wealthy the city is. Where Rolex, Cartier and Chanel sit side-by-side, the city meets the lake and a large jet of water spurts 140 metres into the sky at a speed of 200 kph.

The jet d'eau is perhaps the city's finest attraction. Water taxi services ferry city dwellers across the lake and back, providing tourists excellent photo opportunities. There is a nice little cafe situated on a promenade into the lake at the Bains des Paquis. In the summer it serves as a beach with fenced-off lake swimming; we watched a thunder storm approach over the nearby hilltops while sipping freshly squeezed orange, carrot and ginger juice. We dodged runners in the Geneva Marathon and wound through delightful parks with a plethora of pink and purple flowers. In one was an enchanting sculpture of a pony.

Walking around the Rive Droite, or Geneva's red light district, is astonishingly appealing. We stumbled across a little Moroccan bakery selling traditional sweets: typically an almond paste encased in fried dough. Excellent restaurants at reasonable prices are a feature too. We dined in Al-Amir, a lebanese restaurant on Rue Chaponniere. Fresh houmous as a starter and spicy vegetables with rice made for one of the best meals I have enjoyed out in Switzerland. Having hoped to practise my French, I was disappointed to discover that this is one of those places where locals reply in English, and the latter language seems to be the more commonly spoken.

People here are unassuming, compared to Zurich or Basel where the city has a distinct identity and a dress-code to accompany it. The old town is a quaint spot with a pretty spire and the usual cobbled streets. The city boasts some important attractions. The United Nations European Headquarters and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, to name just two. The UN building is pompously large and has a driveway lined with the flags of the nations - an impressive sight. Across the road, beside a patio of water jets, is a chair built to remind of the horrors of land mines: it has just three legs, the fourth being shattered.

We stayed over night in Hotel Les Nations, just around the corner. It is a charming business hotel with a homely feel and interesting exhibits on each floor, such as a collection of old irons. Worth a look is its Poya (traditional painting from the region that shows cows journeying to alpine pastures for the summer) which is the largest in the world. Meeting up with Tim's sister and brother-in-law, and seeing how much his little niece Charlotte has grown was a real treat. She is the smiley-est child with the most infectious giggle. Three-hour train journey back to Zurich was a bit of a bore, but revealed a scenic landscape of vineyards and mansions ...

The Nightwatchman's Tour of Basel ...

"This looks like an unauthorised assembly," says the nightwatchman and casts a suspicious glance across the group that has assembled beside Basel's Zschokke fountain. He gives us a once over, holding his lantern up to our faces against the dwindling evening light and announces that we may accompany him on his tour of Basel's old town. We follow his cloaked figure along St. Alban's Vorstadt - a quiet road that meanders between sixteenth century buildings. At intervals he explains the history of the area from the ice age until present day: a charming blend of fact and opinion - mostly formed by his overhearing gentlemen through open windows.

The walk becomes yet prettier as it ducks down a gentle hill and buildings rise up from the road on either side. As the light falls, traditional streets lamps cast soft beams and reveal tantalising sections of the scenery: a chunk of old wall here, a quaint fountain there. We peer through an un-shuttered window and see an ancient wooden-beamed ceiling. While a guided tour is one aspect of the tour, theatrics are another. Our guide, Rudolf Streif the nightwatchman, has a secret. She reveals herself early in the walk. Helena is the wife of a soldier, away with the army. She rides higher in society than Rudolf and his forbidden to him. But late at night, as he goes on his round, they meet awkwardly and display a mutual love.

The actors perform a hilarious display of cat and mouse - Helena appears from nowhere, gliding down a stairwell or dozing beside a fountain, and Rudolf disappears telling us he must "hide". Helena complains about her patronising cook at home, suggesting this as the reason for her evening outings. Rudolf hopes she may indeed have another motive: him. Spectacular highlights include a remaining tower of the old city wall, St. Albans Tor (a thirteenth century tower) and an array of old and intricate fountains. And how does the love story end? Well, perhaps you'll just have to attend the tour yourself ...

Some more snaps from Gruyères ...


Le Chemin du Gruyère

La Gruyere's picturesque medieval town Gruyeres nestles into an undulating patchwork of green meadows in Canton Fribourg. The scene looks like a miniature garden for the Gods, kneaded into shape by a giant's hand. The town's fairytale castle perches atop a mound with an impressive backdrop: the sharpened nodes of the Dent du Broc (tooth of Broc) and behind this peak, a jagged cliff rising vertically into the sky to create a distinctive lump. We spent the night in the Hostellerie des Chevaliers, a cutesy hotel with wooden-beamed ceilings and, from its perch just below the mound of Gruyeres, spectacular views across this landscape.

The first thing I noticed from our balcony was the tinkling of cow bells singing throughout the valley. This is perhaps a fitting sound for a region that is most famed for its cheese, Le Gruyere AOC. We enjoyed a tour of the Maison du Gruyere, one of the region's largest working dairies. Making cheese is a hard business: the smell and the humidity in the dairy, not to mention the strong stench of ammonia in the 'cheese cave' make for a trade that requires a strong mind. The process is somewhat magical, and getting just the right cheese is about touching and looking. We tried some Alpage cheese - straight from the alpine pastures. It has a lightly fragranced taste, thanks to the wide variety of plants and herbs the cows gobble (amongst the some 20kg of grass they eat daily) including clover, violet and thyme.

While the cheese is a fat, it's certainly good for you. Cheese making has been important to the economy of the area for hundreds of years. Le Chemin du Gruyere, a picturesque trail that meanders 11km between Gruyeres and Charmey, was used as early as the fourteenth century by farmers to export their cheese. The route is popular with tourists now, and it is easy to understand why. Among the highlights are Le Pont qui branle (the wobbling bridge), which in fact does anything but wobble. It is a solid wooden construction that forms an enclosed tunnel to traverse the River Jogne. The path continues through meadows of dancing dandelions, snakes beside the river then winds over to the Jogne Gorge.

Here, the landscape changes completely. High limestone walls reach for the thick canopy of leaves above, and sunlight dapples through creating a sheen on the mint-coloured water. Interesting geological features betray thousands of years of history, including wave-like fissures in the rock and huge boulders left behind in the river. The water was so still when we walked by, that these incredible formations were reflected flawlessly in it. There is a rather steep climb out of the gorge, but you are rewarded with views of the Lac de Montsalvens, a huge reservoir. You traverse its shore on a concrete walkway, with the lake to your right and a vast wall dropping down on your left.

Charmey is less touristy than Gruyeres and has a different backdrop. The mountains are more imposing, more like the Alps. High above on the Vounetz is a working dairy, and you feel you have come full circle. Other highlights in Gruyeres include the Giger museum - H R Giger did the artwork for the film Alien in 1979. It was really not my cup of tea - very graphic and sexualised in a disturbing way, but he was clearly a talented artist. There is an equally disturbing cafe adjoined to the museum. You walk in and immediately feel you have walked into the cavity inside a human's ribcage. There are structures resembling bones, intestines and goodness-knows what, all crafted in a stone-like material. The seats have an unerring black rubber surface, that you just don't want to sit on. A more pleasant experience was dining in Gruyeres' main square in the evening and being treated to an impromptu Alphorn performance. Alphorns, or alpine horns, look like giant smoking pipes - probably twice as long as a didgeridoo. Having always been a fan of Le Gruyere AOC, I now have a marvellous landscape to conjure in my mind next time I am enjoying bread and cheese!
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