Thanksgiving with Friends, Geneva and Rome
When last I posted we were arriving in Geneva. We went to Geneva to visit with friends who used to live in Fort Smith. Minoo and Bernie Sheehan left Fort Smith maybe six years ago now. They lived in Calgary for a few years and then moved to Geneva almost two years ago now.
When we arrived in Geneva we were shocked that there was no customs to pass through at the airport. We flew in from Madrid so maybe that is why we did not have to go through customs. We just collected our bags and then walked through the exit that said nothing to declare and we were in Switzerland. We were met at the airport by Minoo and her youngest son Trevor who was home sick that day from school. How nice to be met by friendly faces at the airport. We are used to just arriving and then struggling to figure out how much it will cost to get into town.
We went to Bernie’s office to meet him for lunch. He works for the World Trade Organization. It involved us getting security passes by leaving our passports with security. The cafeteria in the WTO is quite amazing. Everything from full hot cooked meals to fresh sushi. It is apparently quite normal in Switzerland to have a full hot cooked meal for lunch.
After lunch, we strolled along the waterfront behind the WTO building. The lake, Lac La Mon (I think), is the largest lake in Western Europe. On one side it seems to be Switzerland and the other side is France. I did not quite realize that France was so close by. In fact, where they live, just outside of Geneva, you can drive into France in less than 5 minutes. When Bernie and Minoo said that they had ordered the turkey from France I was thinking that it was being shipped in or something. In reality, that meant driving into the grocery store in the closest town across the border in France.
It was Canadian Thanksgiving when we arrived in Geneva. Bernie and Minoo prepared an amazing turkey dinner. What a great way to help us feel more at home. And a great way for all of us to feel truly Canadian halfway around the world. I think I ate seconds and thirds. After dinner we just sat around reminiscing and catching up. It was so nice.
On our second day in Geneva (or just outside), Bernie was off to work and both Ethan and Trevor were off to school. We had Minoo for the day to play tour guide. We drove into Geneva and parked the car. We walked around and saw the large water fountain that sprays high in the air in the lake near the city centre. Then we took a small train tour around the streets of old town in Geneva. I guess these small trains are quite popular in Europe. It was the first time I had ever rode one but it was a good way to get the highlights of the city. We also looked for a couple of geocaches but only found one. Finally, we had lunch at a pizza place downtown.
Next we went to Cern. Cern is the location of the Large Hadron Collider. I am not a physicist but am admittedly a geek for this kind of thing. You cannot go down where the particle accelerator actually is but there is a great display of what it is all about. I do not fully understand it all… few do I think. However, Cern was created by the European countries to help stop the brain drain of European scientists to the United States. It is a particle accelerator that is 100 m under the city of Geneva. I think it is about 28 km of tunnel basically in a large circle. Protons are accelerated at nearly the speed of light by very strong magnets in opposite directions. The protons then collide in the centre of a large highly sophisticated detector. The collision of the protons creates a release of energy and anti-matter that simulates the conditions 1 millionth of a millionth of a second after the Big Bang. By simulating these conditions and testing for certain things, physicists hope to better understand the nature of the universe and the nature of matter. This understanding of physics has contributed to things like nuclear medicine and the treatment of cancer. Nicola and Minoo were clearly less impressed than I was.
The next day in Switzerland, we got to go with Bernie and Ethan to the Cailler Chocolate Factory tour. I suppose I should mention that we also stopped in a small Swiss mountain village but next to the chocolate tour, all else pails. I forget the name of the village however, like many other villages, it has a castle. We just parked and walked uphill through the small cobblestone streets. I think this was mostly about having the experience of what these villages are like. If we had more time, we might have stopped for cheese fondue. I think that is the thing to do in these places. The village was quaint. We did not go in the castle but wandered around the outside which was good for me.
The chocolate tour was very impressive. You pay 10 € for adults and kids are free. The tour takes about 20 minutes as you are led through a series of doors and displays that highlight the creation of chocolate and the development of the Cailler company which is now largely owned by Nestle. At the end of the tour however is the biggest highlight of the whole tour. Now fully equipped with the knowledge of the origins of chocolate, how it is made, how to appreciate it and more, we entered wonderland. You enter a room that is not that large, however, as you proceed around the room, you can sample each of the different types of chocolate that they make right there in the factory. I am sure that I easily ate way more than 10 € worth of chocolate. We were also equipped with some small baggies to sneak some samples out in. That was a lot of chocolate and we were on a major sugar buzz for the rest of the day.
When we got back to Bernie and Minoo’s, Minoo had prepared a Persian dish that Nicola had been bugging her to make for years. I am not sure what it is called but it is a kind of parseley stew served with rice and crispy potatoes. Minoo had told Nicola and her mom about this many years ago back in Fort Smith but never did make it. When we were coming to visit them, I think that Nic may have commented about the dish. It was quite delicious. Not sure I have ever eaten anything Persian before.
After dinner, we had a rousing game of the Train Game (Ticket to Ride). We love this game and used to play it with Bernie and Minoo and others in Fort Smith back in the day. Now we were playing it with Bernie, Minoo and their two sons… in Geneva. How fun… a great way to relive some memories… in new style.
When we booked our flights, we thought that the Sheehans were leaving for Venice on the 19th so we booked a flight out on the 17th. Turns out that we could have stayed a couple more days to visit. As it was already booked though it would have been too expensive to change the flights. Remind me not to book a 6am flight again though during this trip. I booked it too keep the cost of the flight down but poor Bernie had to get up at 4am to drive us to the airport. What a trooper! Sorry Bernie… but thanks anyway.
Thanks to all the Sheehans for being amazing hosts. You helped us get a small taste of Switzerland. Most importantly though it was great to see you guys again. Maybe next time it will be back in Canada.
Next we were off to Rome, Italy. We have both been to Rome before so it was not a destination about a new experience. It was simply the beginning location of our 21 day Mediterranean cruise. We tried to find an inexpensive place to stay in Rome however everything seems pretty expensive. A dorm bed in the hostels in Rome is 30 € so 60 for two of us which is about $90. We thought about getting out of Rome and going to an agriturismo. Agriturismo is where you go stay on a farm somewhere. It is like a bed and breakfast on a farm. Then we looked at homestay.com. We thought we had one and then they got back to us late and said that they did not have room. So, at the last minute before we left Geneva, we booked a cheap hotel in Ostia Antica, a suburb of Rome.
This hotel was alright. It was $55 per night which included breakfast. The internet was not great but we still managed. Ostia Antica is a small area nearer to the sea. There are ancient Roman ruins there which are actually better than Pompeii. I guess given that they were not destroyed by a volcanic eruption helps. It costs about 10€ to get it but we totally lucked out. As we were walking in, an Italian man gave us two tickets that he was not going to use. We wandered around the ruins for about 3 hours for free. Love a bargain!!!
Our hotel was about 1km from the centre of town. We walked in a couple of times. One day just for lunch and to see the sights. Another time to go to the ruins. The day we went to the ruins we had actually planned to go into Rome. However, when we asked the front desk about how to get in he advised us not to go. It turns out there was a one day public transportation strike. The bus and train workers were protesting the austerity measures at the end of their contract. Also, they seem to be upset about the construction about a new high speed rail line being built to Lyon, France. Good thing we did not go that day as the police ended up using tear gas. Not exactly sure what happened but it is always best to avoid those kind of things.
The next day, there was another protest planned. The newspaper outlined the areas that would be affected. It would start at 2pm and would follow a route that kind of cut off the main train station. We realized that if we went earlier and went to the Colloseum, we could work our way away from the affected areas and there would be no issues. That is exactly what we did. I drew a dark line on our map of Rome to show where not to go. I then circled all the most important tourist spots to see in Rome. I mapped us a walking path from the Colloseum to the Pantheon; then to Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, across the Tiber to Castel San Angelo and finally to St. Peter’s Basillica and the vatican. We saw the police in a couple of places staging themselves for the protest but we saw no sign of any problems. When we were done we took the metro from the Vatican to Termini Train Station and then switched to the B line which lead us to a station where we could catch out train to Ostia Antica. The whole trip only costs 1.50€.
I know that seems like a very fast way to do Rome but remember that we have already both been there. The only places that we went into were the Pantheon and St. Peter’s. Of course, Trevi and the Spanish Steps are outside. So, really we just did not go into the Colloseum or Castel San Angelo. It was actually a nice way to see Rome again. As it turned out, things got wound up again at the protest. Tear gas and riot gear however I am not sure about the extent of it.
On Sunday, we took the train again into Rome but this time with our backpacks. We keep talking about ditching some stuff because they are so heavy. Time for some tough decisions. We then took a train to Civitavecchia which is where the cruise ship departed from. We are not on the cruise but I will save the highlights of the cruise for another post.