Sam Young – Environment, Energy and Economics Fellow – Master of Environmental Science and Management, University of California – Santa Barbara – Earthmind Intern
I mostly participated in day trips out of Geneva on the weekends. Of the whole summer I spent 4 weekends out of town (1-2 per month). Geneva is in close proximity to many great places to visit – not that Switzerland is a particularly big country. Gruyères was the most delicious place I visited, Chamonix the most stunning, Zurich the most fun, and Pamplona (Spain) the most exciting (but NOT close by!).
Gruyères is a small town about an hour drive outside of Geneva where one can experience the three C’s of Switzerland: Chocolate, Cheese, and Castles. For 9 of us it was cheaper to rent two cars than to take the train. Driving along the north coast of Lac Léman I got my first views of the Alps, vineyards dating back to the Roman era, and Montreux. We were all breath-taken. At Monteux we turned northward into the countryside. Our first stop was the Callier chocolate factory in Broc. This is a destination not to be missed! The tour takes you through an animatronic history of chocolate including conquest of the Americas, its ban by the Catholic Church as an “intoxicating substance which causes the blood to boil with sin”, and how it came to be in its modern form. The smell of fresh warm chocolate increases in intensity with each room you pass through, tantalizing your senses until you feel as though you cannot take anymore. Then finally you enter the sample room, where all the Callier products are out for you to taste. I have been convinced that it is indeed possible to get drunk off of chocolate. We followed the tour with a frosty glass of Gruyéres milk in the café, which might have been the most satisfying experience of my life.
After the chocolate tour, we headed to the Gruyéres Cheese Factory. The tour here had far less showmanship than Callier, but it was fascinating nonetheless to see the source of Gruyéres Cheese. We sampled our packets of progressively aged Gruyére – the older samples were, the more they smelled like feet. That however did not stop us from enjoying an order of Gruyére fondue. Following our tour we purchased a small bottle of wine and wandered up to the Gruyéres Castle. The town inside the castle walls has largely been preserved as a historic monument, save the Alien themed bar (go there, it’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen) and museum designed by the creative artist behind the Alien and Species movie franchises. Inside the castle itself we watched a video on the medieval history of Gruyéres. Apparently they were attacked by Bern for no reason, signaling the start of the kingdom’s decline (due mostly to the poor financial management of the King and severe debt to Fribourg rather than being defeated in battle). I have yet to hear Bern’s side of the story, but I think Gruyéres left out a few details.
Chamonix is a small ski town in the shadow of Mont Blanc. At just over 4,800 meters (almost 16,000 feet) it is the tallest peak in the western half of Europe (or all of Europe depending on who you ask – Wikipedia seems to consider Turkey and the Caucuses part of the European continent with peaks above 5,000 meters) and straddles the French-Italian border. The narrow valley is walled by near vertical slopes on both sides boasting rugged peaks which are mostly above 3,000 meters, and commonly receive snow through the summer. Again, we found is was cheaper to rent a van and pile 7 of us in rather than take a bus for the hour drive out of Geneva. The van was manual, and being the only one in the group with experience (albeit VERY limited) driving stick I was nominated to drive. I’m fairly sure I burnt out the clutch and pissed off a lot of French people in the course of our trip – I had a knack for stalling at almost every stop.
We opted to hike the Lac Blanc trail as it was short, we were short on time, and the weather was uncertain. This was easily in my top five most stunning hikes I have ever done – the other four being long journeys into the North American back country. After an hour hiking in the alpine with total exposure to the rocky crest of the French-Italian Alps draped in clouds and painted with glaciers, we arrived at Lac Blanc. There was a small cabin that served hot chocolate, so we stopped for a snack. At only around 2,300 meters or so there was snow on the ground still in June. That did not stop Cam and I from taking a (quick) afternoon dip in the lake. The temperature was a bit shocking, but all part of the experience right?
Going to Zurich was perhaps the first time I felt that I was actually in Switzerland. It is on a lake much like Geneva, but towering snow covered peaks dominate the horizon. The city is very clean with tall pointy roof tops and many beautiful large clocks prominently displayed. And perhaps the biggest difference form Geneva, all the progress I had made learning French was useless. French has similarities to Spanish and English, so I can often make a relatively educated guess when reading a sign. When it came to Swiss-German I was completely lost, almost like my first day in Geneva all over again. Fortunately we had some native speakers to guide us – and most of the people in German Speaking Switzerland seemed to speak English.
I had traveled to Zurich for the annual Street Parade. For those of you that have been to Love Fest in San Francisco, this is the same idea but even bigger if you can believe it; for those of you that have not experienced this imagine a slow moving parade where every float is its own rave and a million half naked and costumed people dancing in the street. I traveled by train with a friend from the program who knew people in Zurich. We anticipated just meeting his friends and going straight to the festivities. Rather she took us to her family home in a very upscale suburb, and served us an elaborate spread of cheeses, bread, chicken, salad, and wine. As we dined in style over-looking the lake, we could hear the beating bass as the parade kicked off. Several bottles of Italian Chardonnay later and after exchanging questions about life in Switzerland versus life in America, we went off to the parade. There we met with several of our hosts friends, got invited to a roof top party, and eventually ended up back stage as her boyfriend was one of the performing DJs in the parade after party. What I think amazed me the most was that the streets were spotless the next morning when we boarded the train back to Geneva.
The story of Pamplona is rather long, so I will present a semi-abridged version. I had long fanaticized about running with the bulls. Finally I had my chance to do it – I was in Europe during the Festival of San Fermin, and nothing was going to keep me from attending. Flights to the Basque region were quite expensive, Bilbao being the closest airport Easyjet flew into, so I and the 4 others I recruited to embark on this adventure with me opted to again to rent a car and brave the 9 hour drive. First the GPS was set to avoid highways and tolls. We were in the hills near Annecy by the time we figured this out. Add one hour. Slow but steady and on our way we made our way to Montpellier where we tried to have lunch on the Mediterranean. Add one hour. Winding through a maze a streets we ended up in some muddy back bay where there was no beach and it was very windy. We got a sandwich from a small roadside stand and had lunch partly out of hunger and partly out of stubbornness. After lunch and refueling we were back on the freeway – in dead stop traffic. Add 5 hours. A flipped truck had caught fire and emergency crews were occupying all lanes in both directions. As highways in France are all toll roads, exits are few and far between. So we sat there playing cards in the middle of the road as others played soccer and sunbathed. It was like a scene from walking dead with empty cars on the road as far as you could see, but with soccer and sunbathing instead of zombies. Eventually traffic began to move again as the crowd cheered, and we were again on our way (Sur ma route became a theme song for the journey). Near Bram as the sun was setting traffic warning signs were flashing for something ahead in Toulouse. Refusing to be stuck in traffic for another 5 hours we took the next exit into the Pyrenees. Add one hour…or subtract 3 hours, I’m not really sure – at this point it didn’t matter all that much. Through the dark we could make out the silhouettes of the cliffs and peaks of the Pyrenees which seemed as though they would be stunning in full light. At Foix we encountered the most majestic castle that I personally had ever seen on top of a cliff overlooking the city. Here we began to descend back out of the Pyrenees to the main highway to Zarautz where we would sleep for an hour before waking up to catch our bus to Pamplona.
At 6am or so we arrived in Pamplona. My fellow travelers and I drank our ceremonial red bulls, and said farewell as they headed to the stadium to watch. As I walked through the streets toward the Encierro I began to comprehend what I was about to do. A jovial Australian walking nearby handed me a jug of Sangria to calm my nerves. His nerves were apparently quite calm already. Many of those who had bussed in from Zarautz walked to the halfway point to the arena. Perhaps my judgment was impaired from combined influence of sleep deprivation, adrenaline, red bull, and sangria, but I decided that I was going to run the full length if I had come this far to participate in the running of the bulls. I stood near the statue of San Fermin and shouted the prayer along with the crowd asking the patron saint for protection in this insane thing we were about to do.
The rocket went off signaling the release of the bulls. No one moved. We could hear hooves on the pavement and the clanging of bells approaching and yet no one moved! Now what I later learned is all the crazy people who start at the beginning have a machismo thing where they wait to see the bulls before they start running, and others simply refuse to be the first to run – like a gnarly game of chicken (or bull I suppose in this case). I waited about 2 seconds in disbelief that nobody was running and then just took off by myself. Everyone else began running as soon as I started. I sprinted for what seemed like minutes (later when I watched the news video it was only about 30 seconds) and began to slow a bit as I wondered where the bulls where. At that moment numerous wild eyed Spaniards looking backwards began sprinting past me. Sure enough I turned around and there they were – 6 Spanish fighting bulls and 3 steers to herd them. I tried to get out of the way, but got shoved back into the street. I immediately ran back and jumped on the fence. I felt as though I kept a decent distance between myself and the animals, but watching the video playback I was less than 10 feet in front of the lead bull when I finally managed to get out of the way. You don’t run with the bulls, you run in front of the bulls get out of the way, and then run behind the bulls. If you don’t then you either get trampled or gored…or both.
We ran the rest of the track and entered the packed bull fighting arena where hundreds of people were cheering for us. It was the greatest euphoric high I had ever experienced – to face very real injury and death and then run into a stadium cheering you on for surviving. In the sensory overload, it slipped my mind that there was a second group of bulls that had been released. The crowd in the stadium parted with cursing in at least three languages as the bulls charged in. I followed suit. After the last of the bulls had been corralled, they like to release a “calf” for the crowd to “play with the bulls”. In fact it was a young steer with rubber tips on its horns to prevent it from goring anyone. Two people were knocked unconscious. The “calf” began to charge me as I ran in futility. I could hear it coming. I could hear it breathing. I could smell it. And then I could feel it. Fortunately I fit right between its horns, so I ended up sitting on its face before it flung me into the air – somehow still upright, my legs still trying to run as though they might get traction in space. I landed mid step and continued getting out of the way – fortunately the calf had already gone after another “playmate”. “Taking the bull by the horns” has a very new and real meaning to me.
Once the strange game was over the stadium emptied and revelry began in the streets. I reunited briefly with my fellow travelers, before again separating as they caught the bus back to Zarautz while I remained to attend one of the events at the stadium. The competitors would taunt the bulls and then do acrobats over the charging animals. I was in disbelief watching these mean run head on towards a charging bull and do flips over it! Following the awards ceremony (not sure how they scored this), parades, music, dancing, and showers of sangria were well underway in the streets. I joined the hedonistic march through the city, and together we danced, sang, and drank. Finally it was time to catch my bus, but the bus never arrived. This may be time to comment on Stoke Travel. Stoke Travel is a party oriented budget accommodation that caters to travelers seeking to attend the large festivals Europe has to offer. As part of their package in Zarautz they offer complementary return bus rides to Pamplona. The company also happens to be run by Australians in their early twenties who seemed to be constantly drinking. This in mind I probably should have known to triple confirm the bus schedule for the day as they decided to cancel the next two scheduled rides form Pamplona due to “lack of interest”. My phone was dead, and in Zarautz, so I could not contact my friends who had returned on what turned out to be the last bus of the day to come pick me up with the car. With the promise I could get a bus at 9:30pm I continued to explore Pamplona and the San Fermin Festival. Promptly at 9pm I arrived at the bus station, waited, and by 10pm no bus had arrived. I eventually purchased a ticked with another company to San Sebastian, and then took a cab to Zarautz. None of the administration was around to complain my grievance to, so I hung out with the night staff who provided me with beers and the consolation, “She’ll be right mate”. We stayed up under the moonlight overlooking the Spanish north coast exchanging stories until just before dawn. Finally reunited with my group in the light of the next morning, I ate a quick breakfast and stumbled into the car to begin the long journey back to Geneva. I learned two things from this, 1) Fly to Spain, 2) if irresponsible hospitality staff strands you, buy another bus ticket and sort out the grievance later – don’t rely on them a second time to send another bus.
Megan McCarroll – Global Health Fellow – Duke University – IOM (International Organization for Migration) Migrant Health Intern
One wonderful thing about Geneva is its relative proximity to so many beautiful and interesting places. I am an avid hiker and was thrilled to be spending my summer so close to the Alps. My favorite place was Interlaken, Switzerland, which is a 3 hour train ride from Geneva. I loved it so much that I went there twice. In my humble opinion, I think that if a future intern had just one place to travel to, it should be this place. When I say Interlaken, I am actually referring to some mountain towns a short train ride away from Interlaken, the main town in the area. Don’t just stay in Interlaken, or you will miss out! Many people have heard of Grindelwald, the famous town at the base of the Eiger’s face. That is a beautiful town, though touristy. I would recommend staying there a night and hiking the Eiger trail, which is not too difficult and is easily one of the best hikes I’ve ever done (and I’m from the west coast 😉 ).
From Gridelwald (Grund station), you can take a fun mountain tram up to alpiglen, where the trail starts, and you hike to eigergletscher. You can take a tram from eigergletscher down to the other side of the valley to its main town, Lauterbrunnen. This side of the valley is less touristy and absolutely stunning as well. I would recommend walking from Lauterbrunnen to Stechelberg; then you can continue hiking up to Gimmelwald, or you can take a tram.
Gimmelwald is worth googleing. It has 130 residents and has a hostel called the Mountain Hostel. The atmosphere is warm and friendly, and the surrounding mountains can keep you staring in awe for hours, even from the bathroom window! You can really feel the authenticity of Swiss mountain life on that side of the valley. Any hike you do from there will be amazing, but the North Face trail is probably the best. My heart aches for Gimmelwald. Do yourself a favor and go there.
So…the one hurdle? Switzerland is really expensive. I recommend looking into the half fare pass (120 for one month, or 180 for a year). If you are planning on traveling by train in Switzerland, this pass will save you 100s of dollars. If you can get a group together, RENT A CAR! Manual shift is cheapest if someone can drive it. And travelling with fellow interns is fun! Happy traveling!