How Do You Know When Spring Has Arrived In Geneva? Check The Chestnut In Old Town

How do you know spring has arrived?  Flowers, spring showers, sundresses or swimming in the lake?  In Geneva’s old town, there is a tree, a chestnut, that is the official harbinger of spring.  Well, maybe it’s only the quasi-official harbinger, but it’s good enough.  In Geneva’s Old Town, on the Promenade de la Treille, is a tree whose first bud marks the official arrival of spring (Marronnier Officiel).  It’s known as “l’eclosion” which translates as “the hatching” or “the blooming” but in this case means “the budding.”

The first bud was charted since 1808!  It has always come sometime between January and the beginning of April, varying considerably (but generally getting progressively earlier).  This year, it arrived on March 13!  It’s official, spring is here.

Since observations began, several trees have been used.  The original from 1818  to 1905, the second from until 1928,  and the current since 1929.  The current tree is so bent over that it has to be propped up with a pole.

In 1808, Marc-Louis Rigaud-Martin began recording the tree’s first bud, likely out of a kind of scientific curiosity.  Since 1818, all the dates have been recorded on a parchment-roll in a special place in Geneva’s State Council chamber.

Workers of the city stroll past the tree over periodically during the key months and even use binoculars to examine the tree in greater detail.  Once, an employee hastily returned from vacation during exceptionally warm weather to avoid missing it!  They know exactly where on the tree to look as the first buds always appear on the eastern side.

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What You Can Learn From License Plates In Switzerland

In Switzerland, license plates are assigned based on experience, thus low number plates usually indicate someone who has been driving a long time (i.e., an old person). Larger cantons (GE, ZH, etc.) have more cars and so the numbers on the plates extend much higher.

Very low numbers (e.g., “GE 3”) usually are assigned to taxis. On government cars have a single letter (instead of the canton): “A” for administration, “M” for military. There are no personalized license plates.

Diplomatic plates are all over Geneva.  They have CD in a blue square on the left of the plate.

Each canton (like a state) has its own abbreviation.  When you are in the parking lot of a ski resort, you are easily able to tell where the other skiers live in Switzerland.  I find looking at them is helpful in learning the coat of arms for each canton.

The abbreviations for the cantons (listed in German, French Italian and English) are:

Often, you see EU (European Union) plates in Geneva.  It’s understandable given our proximity to France.  Sometimes, you even see foreign plates.

I once saw US plates while I was riding on the bus.  Sorry, I couldn’t get a photo.


 

Snow Report Geneva

“First we’ll make snow angels for two hours, then we’ll go ice skating, then we’ll eat a whole roll of Tollhouse Cookie Dough as fast as we can, and then we’ll snuggle.”- Buddy the Elf.
They don’t have Tollhouse Cookies here, but we finally have snow!  It was our first time seeing snow in Geneva.  Winter in Geneva, it is grey and cloudy.  The beautiful snow was a welcome change and no one seemed to mind the mess it made.
I didn’t bother getting dressed or putting on makeup, but downed a quick cup of coffee, put on snow pants, tied up my snow boots and ran out quickly with my camera.
Severe snow storms covered southern Europe and extremely cold temperatures are forecasted in the upcoming days.  North and east from where we are, people have gotten stuck in cars.  A few have actually frozen to death.
There was already a good amount of snow in the mountains, but it’s always nice to have more when you are skiing.  It snowed into the afternoon.  We got quite a bit, but I’m sure the Alps got even more. Unfortunately, they have also warned of strong avalanche danger in the alps.  Last week, someone was killed by an avalanche in Chamonix.
Today’s newspapers did not make it into their boxes.  At 8:00, the boxes were still empty.
Genevans were sledding, having snowball fights, and walking their dogs in the snow.  I didn’t see anyone on skis.
The city busily cleaning up the snow (a nice change from cleaning the streets) and by mid-day, the worst of the mess was over.  Although I didn’t see a single snow blower, people were out with salt and shovels, clearing the walks in front of every building.
 

Top 10 Posts

I’ve had a lot of fun doing this blog and am surprised by how many people have checked in to see what we are up to.  Thanks.  Here are links to my top 10 most popular posts thus far:

1.     Fabulous Fabian Cancellara
2.     Proof That I Will Write About Absolutely 
        Anything
3.     Fall Fashion Trends
4.     I Love Rick Steves
5.     Expat 101 Lesson Six – How To Exit A 
        Parking Lot
6.     Driving In Switzerland
7.     Naughty Naughty, I Got A Speeding 
        Ticket
8.     B.Y.O.K. – Bring Your Own Kitchen
9.     Belgian Trappist Beers
10.   A Glorious Hike In The Shadow Of The 
        Eiger  

Here are a few of my favorites that didn’t make the above list:

He wants to be my top all time post.  Unfortunately, he cannot seem to top Fabian Cancellara and toilet paper.  I love him and he’s still tops in my book.

Big Changes To Geneva’s Public Transport

Geneva is surrounded by mountains, sits on a lake and two rivers run through it with only a handful of bridges. We heard a rumor that to encourage people not to drive in the city, the lights over the bridges and at key intersections are very short and timed awkwardly (they are, but who knows the reason).

Note the rivers, the bridges, the lake, the old city…  You can see why we love not having to drive every day.

You can see some of the choke points on the night view above.  Note the black areas that are rivers and lakes.   One of the first things we did when we arrived in Geneva was purchase public transport (TPG) passes. We have used them every day since. TPG transport has been safe, clean, on time and convenient. Excluding free things and perhaps the occasional great deal on wine, I think it is the best value in Geneva.

Bad iPhone pic of a sticker (I’d never seen a sticker on one before) I saw on todays train saying it was so much better before (in French).  Today, many lovers of TPG were not feeling the love. Today was the first big day of TPG’s new, drastically different schedule and routes.     Common complaints included:

  • Busses and trams were not on time (something that never happens in Switzerland) so riders had to wait for long periods.  A friend missed her doctor’s appointment because her bus was so late and had to wait a half an hour in the freezing rain for the next bus.

Delays caused by too many vehicles arriving at the same time

Escalade

No, I’m not talking about a giant SUV.  I’m talking about a pretty cool party. Geneva’s Escalade commemorates the Protestant city of Geneva‘s defeat of the Duke of Savoy‘s Catholic troops in 1602.
I’m not really sure, but these might be Geneva’s version of Paul Revere?  If you’re going to visit Geneva, this might be the best time to do it.  It’s a really cool festival that’s part spectacle, part party and very accessible.  You’re in the middle of it so you’ll experience it with all of your senses.  The sounds of drums and fifes echoed through the city walls, while the smell of mulled wine (vin chaud) wafted through the air.

Here’s the deal. Charles Emmanuel I the Duke of Savoy wanted Geneva’s wealth. Genevans wanted their independence.  Many of them were religious refugees and would have had no where safe to go if Geneva had fallen to Catholic France. They also wanted to keep their money instead of giving it to the Duke.

When the Duke’s troops attacked, grandma threw a pot of boiling soup over the city walls as they attempted to climb them.  She then woke up the city so that it could defend itself.  Pretty much, they celebrate not their city not being overtaken by the Savoy and not becoming part of France.

It’s historic in the best possible way.  They have parades.  The old town is lit up by people carrying torches.  They really did fire the muskets!  They were so loud.  It scared the heck out of me… and the kid next to me.  They fire cannons too.  People dress up in period costumes.  Some are even on horseback.  The Passage de Monetier, a secret passage in Geneva’s old town is open for only this one night.
How do you celebrate grandma’s victory?  In the most quintessentially Swiss way. Chocolate!  They make giant tureens (cauldrons) of chocolate with marzipan vegetables (to be like granny’s tureen of soup).  Stores like Migros and Co-op sell the “vegetables.”  I bet it’s really easy to get kids to eat these vegetables.  They also have tasty street food and (of course) mulled wine.

Children dress up in costumes, kind of like they would in the US on Halloween.  We didn’t see any risqué costumes like you do there.

The cannon was louder than the muskets.  Unfortunately, there are not enough occasions where shooting off a cannon is permitted.  If you can get away with it, it definitely says celebration (or attack). There’s also a race/run that takes place weekend of or preceding the night of the 11th It usually starts in the  Parc des Bastions, where the Savoy troops congregated before attacking the walled city, and goes through Geneva’s old town, before finishing near the start. It’s a big deal here and everyone gets involved; you’ll even see families and running together.   There’s even a youth race and a costume run.

*Escalade translates from French into English as climbing.

 

 

Alberto Giacometti Slept Here

The other day, I was walking down a street in our neighborhood (Geneva‘s Eaux-Vives) and I saw this plaque.  Being an art fan, I knew immediately who this was.  Since he’s not a huge art fan, I had to explain why I was so excited to him.
 
It says “Here lived from 1943 to 1945 Alberto Giacometti 1901-1966 Swiss Sculptor and Painter”.  I knew that he was Swiss, but never imagined that I’d live in the same neighborhood that he did.   He had been living in Paris, but when the Nazis occupied France, he returned to neutral Switzerland.
Alberto Giacometti is perhaps the most important of the modern humanist artists.  His works are especially interesting because they are complex, show conflict and portray a depth of human emotion.  For example, the figure is simultaneously flat and rounded, strong and fragile, stark but filled with humanity, abstract fragments are put together make a whole…  The skin of his figures crumbles and crawls but the figure remains invincibly upright.
Many artists were impacted by the World Wars.  Some say Giacometti showed human beings holding their own in the midst of war’s devestation, humanity surviving the trauma.
At some point his eyes started to glaze over, so I knew I had to make it more interesting for him.  I’ll do it for you too.   At 16, he contracted the mumps which rendered him sterile.  Let’s just say that this damage to his left him with some lingering issues with women, the body, what it means to be a man, etc.
By the way, a version of this one “The Walking Man” sold for over $104,000,000, making it one of the most expensive works ever sold!

 

Tourist’s Geneva – St. Pierre Cathedral

When you look at Geneva, the building that stands out is the cathedral on top of old town. It’s called St. Pierre Cathedral.  On your first clear day in Geneva, go to the top and enjoy the view.  In addition to the stellar view, the building’s history tells you a lot about the city of Geneva.
 
They’ve started excavating underneath St. Pierre Cathedral and found Roman ruins* (visit the archaeological site to learn more).  The site was continuously occupied until the current building was built in the 12th century. Back then, it was a Catholic church.  When the reformation arrived, it became a center of the Reformation.  The cathedral is best known as Calvin’s home church.  They even have his chair inside. 
 
Calvin’s chair

The Reformation brought changes to the building as well. It’s philosophy of austerity impacted the interior of the cathedral.   Ornaments were removed; colors were whitewashed.  The Calvinists didn’t believe in religious images, so statues, alters, paintings and furniture were out.  The windows are just about the only thing they keptCompare this to St. Peter‘s Cathedral in Rome and you can really see the austerity, solemnity and restraint.

To get to the top, you will climb 157 steps up to the North Tower.
Don’t get spooked out by the twisty stairs or the attic-type space, keep heading up.
Don’t stop when confronted by wire cage.
If you continue, you will be rewarded.  Aaaahhhh.  There it is, that’s the shot you came to get.
*There are Roman ruins throughout Switzerland.  I even stumble onto them during my runs (there’s a ruins of a Roman villa in the Parc des Eaux-Vives).  We saw them in St. Saphorin and Sion has Roman roots.
 

Geneva Expat 101 Lesson 3 – The Best Fondue In Geneva

Finally, I have gotten to the really important things for expats in Geneva.  The Buvette at the Bains de Paquis has the best fondue in Geneva.  As much as I want to bring you the scoop, I am certainly not about to eat every fondue in Geneva.   Regardless, I stand by my statement.  Here’s why.  It is really good fondue.  At 20 CHF, it is reasonably priced.  The best part though is the location, its wonderful view and relaxed atmosphere.  This is your view.  Outstanding.  I rest my case.

It is a great place to bring out-of-town guests.  When my mom was visiting, we brought her here (by boat from Eaux-Vives) for a very memorable evening.  She ate it up.  Heck, I ate it up.  Literally.

 

St. Bartholomew’s Day

Cathedral Saint-Pierre (Calvin preached here) 

Geneva was a center of Protestantism and the Reformation. The St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, the slaughter of several thousand Huguenots (Protestants) in 1572 triggered a fast in Geneva the next year to remember those who were killed.

Reformation Wall*

St. Bartholomew’s Day is the first Thursday in September.  Over time, it lost its religious significance. It is now associated with eating plum tarts (yum).** Since this is Switzerland, banks, post offices, shops, restaurants and bars close. However, unlike Thanksgiving, which also falls on a Thursday, you don’t get a four-day weekend. I did some shopping to prepare yesterday. You should take the day off too. I will be.  He will be working, remotely.

The whole ten all lit up at night

* The people on the wall are Theodore Beza, John Calvin, William Farel and John Knox.  On one side are: William the Silent, Gaspard de Coligny and Frederick William of Brandenburg. On the other side are: Roger Williams, Oliver Cromwell and Stephen Bocskay.

**People were supposed to abstain from meat on a day of penitence, and plums happened to be in season.