(eTN) – Against the closing of spring and just as summer was about to hit, our car zoomed along the curvy asphalt, passing several “Ausfahrt” signs with France miles away. Had we not confused ourselves with the German “Ausfahrt” from the French “Sortie” (both mean exit) we could have been on the French autoroute by now. The further we drove, the more it became apparent that we had come the wrong way. How on Earth had we ended up on the Swiss motorway equipped with a map and guided by a disorienting British speaking GPS? We didn’t have a clue.
It wasn’t long ago since we had left the airport in Basel which straddles the borders of France, Germany and Switzerland. Several miles and along the busy motorway, it was all too late to turn back. Another turn on a wrong exit can lead us either to a long stretch of mountain pass, a dead end or even worse, in Germany!
In an attempt to save gas and ourselves from further confusion, we decided to stay on the same road traversing the German-speaking part of Switzerland. The feeling of being lost, the unexpected adventure and the sense of excitement while musing at the unfamiliar spreading countryside, can offer the ability to inspire dreams in children and of fellow travelers. Perhaps this little detour would be a welcoming relief, a thought that my travel partner and I both agreed. From the windows of our French rental car, just as the sun started to peek through the sleepy clouds, Geneva’s landscape began to take form.
My early memories of this second most populous city in Switzerland were of hostile traffic lights, although pedestrian friendly, greatly prolonged our travel time. Then there were bankers in fancy suits with smug faces and swollen egos, branded luxury shops next to cuckoo clocks, costume jewelry, chocolates and life insurance signs. Out of these few mental postcards, a personal favorite of mine is the alluring Lac Leman otherwise known as Lake Geneva. Depending how you look at it, for some it takes shape of a crescent. If one allows the imagination to take over, it resembles more of a recumbent croissant.
It is also, as the Genevois say, a giant liquid-mirror reflecting the city’s neutrality and diplomacy. Whatever time or season, its waters exude serenity. The lake draws everyone into its shores and offers all a piece of their own paradise. Could it be that nature called upon us to find our paradise? That we were destined to miss the first turn only to realize that there is something greater awaiting us on the second?
Charlie Chaplin built his villa in the hushed village of Corsier Sur-Vevey and his deep feelings for the lake echoed in his words, “With such happiness, I sit out on our terrace at sunset and look over a vast green lawn to the lake in the distance”. English actor James Mason, like Chaplin, settled into a modest life in Corseaux, a commune in the foothills of Mont-Pelerin. In his biography, it narrates a happy marriage and a contented life in Switzerland as seen in a photo with his wife, Clarissa ambling near the village where they live, with Lake Geneva in the background.
The composed geographic characteristic of the lake didn’t escape Graham Greene’s gaze while finding fervor writing his 1980’s novel Doctor Fischer of Geneva or the Bomb Party. It was later adapted into a film starring James Mason (in his last role) as Dr. Fischer himself. Lord Byron’s The Prisoner of Chillon, a poem that I have read many times during high school was written after his trip to the medieval Chateau de Chillon standing magnificently on the banks of the lake.
Tranquility beckons and just around the corner inspiration lurks. Perhaps it’s the reason why many artists frequented Lake Geneva, a sort of cocoon that awakens the creative imagination. It was easy to comprehend why Ernest Hemingway made it his refuge when he wrote his classic, A Farewell to Arms. An unforgettable story of two lovers caught between the rising horrors of war. Here is where Mary Shelley also gave birth to Frankenstein’s character.
When we reached Geneva, the traffic began to build up just when we were crossing the Pont du Mont-Blanc bridge. If we continue to go around the lake, the towns of Vevey and Villeneuve, would offer a changing landscape, characterized by rolling hills leading up to the Alps. While castles, hamlets and wooden chalets dot the northern banks alongside vineyards that cling to the steeping hills. If we head south, the drive promises a more rugged scenery where the framing mountains of Savoy and Valais serve as a picture postcard backdrop. Yet, as our time was limited, we decided to leave the in the corner and stroll around close to the shore.
It was easy to fall in love with the view. The snow-capped mountains towering from the background, the pencil-fountain spurting water into midair. Like fireworks, the water bursts into droplets and mists, and just before they plunge back to the lake below only to be spurted out again, light passes through creating a fanciful rainbow. Ducks bobbled and ferries crisscrossed the languid waters carrying local passengers and romantics tourists in search of inspiration.
The hoisted red flags with white cooped crosses in the middle danced in tandem with the early morning breeze that blew in from the mountains, heading down where the Rhone River flows. As I gazed in the direction of the river, my heart swelled with joy and instantly felt that France is within arm’s reach. After all, this is the river that runs through southeastern France and upon reaching Arles, convenes with the Mediterranean.
We started to walk to the opposite side of the banks. The cobbled streets seemed to embrace idle wanderers or in our case, lost travelers. Early joggers came to and fro, and so did the old ladies with their miniature dogs. There is a fondness for small things here. Just like the city itself, small but the whole world is somehow squeezed in this tiny part of Switzerland. Add the lake and its multi-lingual residents; I think that’s where the true charm lies.
Our journey ended on the western shore of Lake Geneva in the city of the same name. We found the welcoming sign of a “fan” which turned out to be the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. My Asian roots got the better of me. Pulling my travel partner’s hand, we wandered inside to seek repose after a well earned accidental detour. Our stomach grumbled smelling the freshly baked bread and lovely croissants. Before long, we took the pleasure of a satisfying guilt-free five-star breakfast at Café Calla. A cheese glass dome is a draw during Sundays evenings here. I tried sampling some of the best Swiss cheese, chomped cold cuts and Swiss salamis, and sipped coffee in the inspired Parisian terrace while overlooking the Rhone could have not left us a more inspiriting impression.
It was time to go home. As we headed back to the car, getting ready for the second leg of our journey with high hopes of finally arriving in France, I looked around once more and painted a mental picture of the lake. Perhaps, missing the turn sometimes can potentially lead one to unexpected paradise even for a fleeting moment. My travel partner hit the gas and turned the knob of the car stereo. The lights started to turn red. Almost immediately we were lost in the traffic and in the background was Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road singing “With a chance to make it good somehow. Hey what else can we do now? Except roll down the window and let the wind blow.”
Jan Sevilla is a quixotic nomadic and a writer by accident with some difficulty of having her subject agree to her verb.