It’s that time of month again – another trip back in time to my year as a student in Switzerland in 2005/2006.
Today we’re going down to the shores of Lake Geneva. I’d found some caves in my guidebook, semi-secret ones and I wanted to depart at the crack of dawn to find them. Unfortunately, Angela, the day’s travelling companion, couldn’t get to Neuchâtel for six as the tram that brought her into the city didn’t start until 7am.
This was pretty early in my year abroad, only November 2005 and I noted in my diary of the time that it was a novelty to travel on the huge white tilting train to Lausanne. It was also a novelty to only have a couple of minutes to change trains. Apparently this concerned me a little at the time, whereas now I know that everything is timed beautifully so you just step from one train to the next with very little time standing around on station platforms.
We changed again at Montreux onto the cog railway up to Rochers de Naye, zigzagging up the mountain in the way that trains tend to. I noted that Lake Geneva was on our right most of the way up and then we went through a tunnel and suddenly it was on the left. I couldn’t figure it out – maybe if I did that journey again now, I could.
However, when we reached Glion we discovered that to get to the caves, we had to take another train even higher up and that train wasn’t running. All that early morning, all that way, and we couldn’t get to the caves! Still, it was nice and early in the morning, we had a spectacular view over Lake Geneva and Angela’s brand new shiny digital camera (yes, at the time it was worth noting that it was digital!) had arrived only the previous day so this was its first ever workout. It was a great camera. When my elderly camera became too elderly, I replaced it with the one Angela had.
But we couldn’t spend a whole day looking at the view. We looked at Angela’s guidebook instead and she spotted Chateau de Chillon, just down the lake. I hadn’t heard of it but she’d read about it, so we got back on the train and off we went, by bus from Montreux. Now, I didn’t really know Smoke on the Water back then, except that David White taught me how to play the guitar riff in frees at school. I didn’t know it was about Montreux, I’d never really listened to it except in the form of a seventeen-year-old who wasn’t brilliant at guitar playing the guitar part. So I didn’t appreciate Montreux for that and in November, I didn’t really appreciate it as a ritzy and touristy part of Switzerland either.
Chateau de Chillon, on the other hand, is a good-looking castle all year round. It was a castle and a prison and it’s famous mostly because Lord Byron wrote a poem called The Prisoner of Chillon and carved his name into the stone in the dungeon. We duly visited.
We had a look round the rest of the castle – very satisfying castle. A lot of castles feel abandoned, they’re turned into museums or exhibits but I felt like this one was still being lived in, like this one could potentially turn back into a defensive fortress in a few minutes if need be.
We didn’t stay long. We got the train back to Lausanne, I left my caving stuff (what sort of caving did I think I was going to do in a show cave? Why did I take my SRT kit? Why did I even have my SRT kit in Switzerland??) in a locker at the station and we went off to our greatest ever discovery – Media Markt. It took three buses to get there because Media Markts tend to be out-of-town things and bought some electronics. For some reason I don’t remember, I bought a microphone – for Skype calls home? – and a nice big card for my camera, presumably having realised I was going to be taking quite a lot of photos in Switzerland (“it takes about 280 photos so I’ll never run out of space again!” quoth my blog). Angela bought a DVD player for her empty apartment, a card and bag for her shiny new camera and a few other bits and pieces only to discover that Media Markt does (didn’t?) take cards except Swiss post office account cards. Neither of us had such a thing at the time. I later acquired one to pay in my Swiss grant, since I couldn’t pay it into my UK account. So we went on an epic expedition to a supermarket, which was the nearest place with a cashpoint.
On the way back we stopped at a department store in Lausanne for a bit more shopping. I bought my first ever Swiss Army Knife, a Classic SD, which is a teeny-tiny keyring sized knife with a blade about an inch long. That knife went missing over Christmas and has never reappeared since so I had to replace it when we went to Gruyères later in the year (I had a total blank on the name: I literally just googled “cheese castle switzerland”). Angela bought a pile of housewares and we stopped for food at an all-you-can-eat student kitchen type restaurant we’d visited on our last trip to Lausanne before we got the train home.
One last thing of note – we accidentally sat in a smoking carriage. I remember the smoking ban coming in while I was in Switzerland, and that it arrived in the UK about the same time I did. But I cannot comprehend that you were allowed to smoke on a train in civilised Switzerland as recently as 2005.