Thursday, March 5, 2009

Genève and Lausanne

To travel from St. Gallen to Geneva is to traverse the length of the country of Switzerland. In four hours we saw the nation in a microcosm – compact villages, global cities, calm lakes, hilly pastures and stark Alps. We decided to make a stop in Lausanne on the way to Geneva. From the train, we had a view across the vineyards surrounding Lausanne over Lake Geneva to the French Alps. I had really hoped we would be able to take a walk through the vineyards and do some wine tasting, but the weather just wasn’t up to par when we were passing through.

We only ended up spending a few hours in Lausanne – just enough time to quickly go through the cathedral and give ourselves a workout heading up the steep hill to the center of town.

Lausanne is smack dab on Lake Geneva. Peaceful surrounds, nearby terraced vineyards dotting the hillside leading down to quiet waters, with the Alps rising as a backdrop – to me, one of the prettiest parts of Europe.

Arriving in Geneva was like entering another country. Compared to German Switzerland (where our town of St. Gallen is located), the French part of the country is diverse, lusty, busy, and a little dirty – with an attitude to boot. A welcome change from the sometimes rigid, often perfect, and always deserted atmosphere in our neck of the woods. Plus, we were surprised that everywhere we went, whether it be on the train, at a bar or restaurant, or even on the street, EVERYWHERE, you could overhear someone speaking English. It almost felt like we were in an extremely well-dressed version of a major American city… almost. European-ness is just oozing from every corner of Geneva, from the impeccably dressed important-looking politicians and businessmen, to the cobblestone streets, to the Alps and lake framing the city, to the late-night dining and the outrageous prices. Geneva is really my kind of place (except for the outrageous price thing).

As soon as our train arrived we headed for La Clèmence wine bar, located on the city’s prettiest square.

We certainly can’t run with the moneyed crowd that seems to dominate the city, but we can definitely pretend like we can roll. Phil ordered a couple of glasses of the cheapest wine on the menu and we settled into an outside table to enjoy the atmosphere and the view …

… and the people-watching as the sun slowly went down (we did our best to ignore the cigar smoke wafting into our faces from the old dude sitting at the table next to us – ew – was so distracting that Phil couldn’t keep the camera steady).

After we finished our wine and began to shiver from sitting for too long in the cold drizzle, we headed to Place du Molard for dinner.

Café du Centre is a mirrored café of the likes you see on many street corners in Paris. But a peak in the front window screams that this is a café with a difference – mounds of oysters, heaps of fresh fish, and piles of escargots beckon passerby.

We started with roasted scallops on a bed of greens tossed with a pistachio vinaigrette and garnished with edible flowers - all surrounded by a mint lime sauce. Pistachios added a nice crunch and the mint lime sauce was a brilliant and innovative addition that complemented the rich scallops.

I don’t often eat cod, so I ordered it roasted on a bed of olive oil mash with a side of herbed carrots. Everything required salt and pepper, but the freshness of the cod was obvious. And you can’t go wrong with glazed carrots.

Phil’s sea bass on a bed of spinach with basmati rice was overwhelmed by the lemony drawn butter drizzled under, around, and on top of everything…

But he didn’t let it spoil the experience.

The service was impeccable and the local sauvignon blanc hit the spot. We left the restaurant around 10:30pm, just as things were getting hopping… on a Sunday night. When do these people sleep?

We tried to keep up with the locals by heading to an American sports bar… and drinking Leffe. Yes, this seemed an appropriately Genevan experience. Watching European soccer on a big screen television late on a Sunday night in an American bar, drinking a Belgium beer surrounded by a multilingual crowd. I guess we fit right in.

The next day Phil headed off for visits with his class to the World Trade Organization and Nestlé. I decided to sleep in and do some sightseeing. I discovered that Geneva is home to some impressive world records, such as the tallest fountain in the world at 140 meters…

… and also home to some not so impressive world records, such as the longest park bench in the world.

It also has some of the smallest artichokes I’d ever seen…

And the cutest (and most expensive at around $35 each) patriotic chocolate/marshmallow creations EVER.

All of the sightseeing made me hungry. Chez ma Cousine was the perfect spot for me to affordably quench my appetite.

A half a spit roasted chicken, a heaping plateful of provençale potatoes, a bowl of salad with Dijon dressing, two glasses of a local Gamay and a two hour nap. Priceless. Actually, it cost 21.50 francs and was the best deal in town.

You can probably guess that Geneva is one of the world’s most international cities, since it houses a large number of global headquarters and governmental agencies. Some estimates claim that foreigners account for almost 50% of the populace! There is no better place to witness this international hodgepodge than the Paquis neighborhood (the location of our hotel). There’s an edge to the neighborhood, with colorful, attractively dilapidated architecture.

And most of all an endless range of ethnic restaurants, shops, and people. The Olé Olé tapas and wine bar was indicative of the flavor of the city. A modern space with high ceilings tucked down an unassuming side street in Paquis, it was an unexpected find in the area of the train station.

Our mixed tapas platter was truly a world on a plate – smoked meats, shaved parmesan, roasted poblanos, pissaladiere with anchovies, eggrolls, roasted potatoes, teriyaki chicken, tartlets, and Thai chicken skewers, washed down first with a 2003 Castilla la Mancha then a recent vintage Rioja. The platter was big enough to be a dinner for two and at 30 francs an excellent way to pinch pennies while still hanging in the cool joints around town.

The next day, after an illuminating and refreshing (?!) trip to the Evian factory in neighboring France, we stayed in Paquis for a quick, hip lunch at the Indian and Sri Lankan Piment Vert. One serving of Kukulmas pisuma, chicken in coconut milk sauce with daal, tomatoes, basmati, and papad, was plenty to fill us both for the train ride home.

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