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Weird and Wonderful Switzerland - Part I

Switzerland is one of those places where you expect prim and proper and organised and clean and chocolate and cheese and fondue and mountains and lakes. You expect to see the majestic Swiss Alps, crystal-clear water in the many rivers and lakes, some cows in the countryside, wooden chalets, and watches keeping time on every corner. Of course, your expectations of the natural beauty is simply inadequate when faced with the reality, but some of the sights that you’ll find there is not what you’d imagine in your most extravagant flights of fancy. This list is not complete by far, but it includes some weird and wonderful things we saw in and learned about Switzerland.

Jet d’Eau – Geneva

The famous landmark of Geneva originally had a practical purpose: to release excess pressure from a hydraulic plant. Built in 1886 at La Coulouvreniére, with a height of 30m, it made such an impression that it was decided in 1891 to move it to a more prominent location on the lakeside, where it spouted the water 90m into the air. In 1951 the Jet d’Eau was re-formatted. Now it pumps 500 litres of water per second from a partially submerged station that uses lake water (not municipal water) through a 10cm-wide nozzle at a speed of 200km per hour, to create a fountain that is 140m high, with 7000 litres of water in the air at any given moment.

Just halt your thoughts there and think about it. 140m is about as high as a building with 30 floors. The water moves almost twice as fast as the speed limit on our national roads. Every second 2000 glasses of water pass through the nozzle, and the total volume of water in the air at a time is equal to about 21000 cans of soda. Imagine that!

The Other Queen Elizabeth – Geneva

On the CGN Pier, right next to Lac Léman, is a peculiar statue of a most interesting person.

She was born Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie, married to Emperor Franz Joseph I at age sixteen, which made her the Empress of Austria, a title she carried longer than anyone else until her death at age 60.

My investigation into her story led me first to her list of titles. It seems she had 47 titles (if i counted correctly.) She was an empress for 44 years. She had four children, two of whom died before her. She was obsessed with her appearance and did her best to prevent anyone painting or photographing her during the second half of her life to preserve the image of her beauty. She was born in modern-day Germany, married to the Austrian Emperor, traveled often to Hungary and was assassinated in Switzerland.

Actually, it was her older sister who was considered by the Emperor’s mother to be a suitable bride, but in an act of uncharacteristic defiance, he chose Elisabeth instead. Their life together took many intriguing turns and she was killed by a man who actually wanted to assassinate someone else.

Her story reminds me of another beloved royal lady, Princess Diana. Both were married at a young age, both had difficulties adjusting to formal life at court, both had strained relationships with their mothers-in-law, both sought to help people in charitable ways, and both died unexpectedly.

Bonivard’s Prison – Chateau Chillon

Chateau Chillon on the shores of Lac Léman is supposedly the most-visited tourist attraction in Geneva. Tourists swarm there and when you approach the castle from the lake, it’s clear why. It was built on nothing more than a large rock just off the shore of the lake, which creates the illusion that it floats on the water.

In Roman times it was a guard post on a strategic route through the Alps. The construction of the castle we see today must have begun somewhere in the early 11th century, and its purpose then was control of the Burgundy-Saint Bernard Pass road. From the mid-1100’s onward, The Dukes of Savoy occupied it during summer months. Petter II added much to the structure in the 13th century.

In 1530 Francois de Bonivard, a political prisoner, was imprisoned here for 6 years. He was shackled and could only walk around as far as his chain was long.

Lord Byron, the well-known British poet, wrote a poem in 1816 calle The Prisoner of Chillon in which he writes this about the dungeon at Chateau Chillon:

… A double dungeon wall and wave

Have made – and like a living grave

Below the surface of the lake

The dark vault lies wherein we lay:

We heard it ripple night and day;

Sounding o’er our heads it knock’d;

And I have felt the winter’s spray

Wash through the bars when winds were high

And wanton in the happy sky;

And then the very rock hath rock’d,

And I have felt it shake, unshock’d,

Because I could have smiled to see

The death that would have set me free . . .

This might seem just a wee bit macabre, but when you stand inside the dungeon, you understand completely the illusion of being below the water and the fear that might grow from that. Isn’t life that way sometimes? We find ourselves in an uncertain situation. We see obstacles in the form of solid walls and only a sliver of light or hope passes by on the far side of the chamber each day. And we hear the constant, menacing, beating of the waves outside and we assume that the threat of water is so high and so close to pouring through the little window and flooding the room that we start believing that our imaginings will surely come true. But if we could see the circumstances from another perspective, we would see the castle from outside – the water reaching no higher than the rocky foundations upon which the walls were built, and indeed no threat at all to the people inside.

This is the first installment of our most quirky experiences in Switzerland. Keep an eye out for the stairless tower, a waterfall not made for humans, deep-fried cheese and more in future posts.

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