To Helvetia and Back

One of the most significant gaps in Detail has been a series of trips I made at the beginning of the decade to Switzerland, mainly to Geneva but also to Zurich, St Gallen, and other towns around Lake Geneva. I had so many photos of the place building up so quickly, and so many thoughts about them, that I could never quite get them together.

I’ve finally dealt with the photos, at least, if not all of the thoughts. The result is a series of new galleries, only six to nine years late.


Geneva was the heart of my travels. I’d been there years ago, while travelling around Europe with my family when I was eighteen. We drove up from Italy through an alpine tunnel, with me listening to Mike Oldfield’s Swiss-inspired instrumental “The Lake” on headphones, and visited my uncle and his family there, at a time when he was working for IATA. I remember a clock museum, and the general presence of the lake, but not much else.

I got my second chance in 2010, when a global NGO working in ethics education approached our school for guidance on using e-learning to support their training of teachers in the field. I ended up heading over there half a dozen times between October 2010 and April 2013 to serve as a consultant pro bono. I really enjoyed getting to know the team working in their Geneva office, and am proud to have helped them in my own small way. Maybe the children who have benefited from their work can eventually help lead the world out of the mess of the late 2010s.

Going back to Geneva in successive years, often at the same time of year, gave me a strong feel for it, and sorting through all of my photos was like walking around it again in my mind. I loved its old town, so quintessentially European (which, in a non-EU country, at the time felt surprising, though it shouldn’t have). The lake dominated the place, as did the river flowing out of it; I’m used to rivers flowing into large bodies of water, so even that seemed exotic to me. I took in the tourist sights of mysterious banks and watch shops, and ate as much fondue and chocolate as possible. A scheme offering free public transport to hotel guests made it an easy city to explore; about the only sight I didn’t see, but wished I had, was CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider and the World Wide Web.


Visiting Geneva late in the year, I was entranced by L’Escalade, a December festival specific to the city which commemorates a failed attempt by the Duke of Savoy to seize it in 1602. The symbol of the festival is the marmite, or cauldron, sold in hundreds of chocolate versions that mark the story of a woman who poured hot soup on the Savoyards attempting to scale the city walls. These chocolate marmites are filled with marzipan vegetables, and smashed open with a cry of “Thus perished the enemies of the Republic!”

L’Escalade peaks with a few days of locals in seventeenth century dress walking around the old town, culminating in a parade on the night of December 11th. On my second work trip to Geneva, I stayed on afterwards while my family joined me, so that we could see the parade and meet up with my sister-in-law, who was studying in Zurich at the time. We bought my son (then aged three) a small marmite about the size of a large orange. Back in the hotel, after dozing off for a moment, I woke up to find him feeding me marzipan vegetables, the marmite itself lying nearby, half-devoured.

Lac Léman

We travelled further afield that December to Nyon, the site of a brilliant white castle, and the following November a colleague took me to Vevey, home of Nestlé and Charlie Chaplin. My few photos of an evening in Lausanne are dark and blurry, unfortunately, with nothing worth including in this gallery of Lac Léman (or Lake Geneva, as English-speakers know it), and I don’t have many photos of Montreux, apart from a Christmas market I visited there one day. But I do have a lot of photos looking down on Montreux...


My early work trips centred around a week-long residential workshop held at the Caux-Palace, a Belle Époque hotel now used to host international conferences for NGOs and the like. I arrived there in the middle of a snowy spell, and climbed up into the mountains via cog train into one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. In the breaks between workshop sessions I took photo after photo, as the snow peaked and then gradually melted over the week. Some of them are among my favourite photographs I’ve ever taken.

Getting to Caux was a tale in itself—a further instalment of my travel disasters that year, which started with an unanticipated drive home from Spain. The big freeze that winter meant that my flight to Geneva was cancelled, and I had to make my way south by train, through a frozen Northumberland, to a hotel in London, the Eurostar to Paris the next day, another train to Geneva, another night in a hotel there, and finally, two days after I was meant to arrive, to Montreux and Caux. It’s worth a minor gallery on the side...

Snow Train to Caux

For the past month I’ve been enjoying a BBC podcast about the history of (mostly) Europe, How to Invent a Country, which I highly recommend if you have any interest in that sort of thing; I inhaled every episode. Three episodes were on the Alps, with one in particular about Switzerland, and it has more to say about the history of the place than I could manage.

Over my few years of visiting Switzerland, though, I did absorb a lot of Swiss and Genevan history and culture: walking past Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s house, visiting John Calvin’s church, catching a tram out to Carouge (once part of Savoy, then Piedmont, then France, then Sardinia, and finally Geneva). I was also watching history in the making, as the country grappled with the role of its banks, and considered xenophobic measures in popular votes. I enjoyed this cartoon from a poster opposing the latter, which was voted down in Geneva but got through on the votes of the rest of the country.

Zurich & St Gallen

In October 2012 I got to see a bit more of Switzerland than Geneva and its lake, when our family visited Zurich to visit my sister-in-law. I marvelled at how reminiscent of Geneva the city was, down to its lakeside parks, the main difference being the style of some of the older buildings and the use of German rather than French. We caught a funicular uphill for some views of the city; visited the zoo; and one afternoon I took my daughter to the Museum of Art to admire the Modiglianis (or rather I did—she was asleep in her buggy).

During our stay we also made a trip to St Gallen to see OLMA, an annual agricultural show. Growing up in Tasmania I went to agricultural shows every year, but never saw one quite like this, where the main attractions in the ring weren’t animal parades but animal races, and not of horses but of cows. And pigs. The cows had riders, the pigs didn’t. OLMA also featured Bruno Isliker’s Family Show, a local institution where Bruno and his family jump over horses and cows, jump cows over horses, balance goats on cows, and take kids (the human kind) for a ride in a cart around the arena. There isn’t much online in English about Isliker’s show, apart from a YouTube clip, but apparently he once featured on Ripley’s Believe It or Not. A postcard of Bruno riding his prize cow Sybille made an excellent souvenir, summing up all of the slightly baffling traditions of this complicated country.


I was back in Geneva for work a couple more times after our trip to Zurich, but then my time in Switzerland came to an end for a while, as work moved on and in different directions. I loved the opportunity to get to know it, though, and hoped it wouldn’t be my last visit.

It won’t be. Later this year we’ll be spending a few days in Basel, another part of the country to compare and contrast with the rest. I fully expect the chocolate there is just as good as in Geneva, even if it doesn’t come in cauldron form.

17 June 2019 · Travel