Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Final Leg Home, Geneva to Heathrow

A little under four weeks later then planned, I catch the Number 5 Bus from the Museum stop in Geneva and, half an hour later, am dropped off right in front of the international terminal. It is somewhat ironic that the route takes us right past Gare Cornavin, where the theft of my bag containing my passport and much else delayed my departure from supposedly tranquil Switzerland.

There's no queue at all at Business Class check in, which is great, but Swissport can't cope with authorising my round the world baggage allowances for the final sector of my itinerary. So I am made to stand like a prune for 10 minutes while they receive the necessary authorisation from the airline, despite a memo from Air New Zealand explaining the relevance of my original ticket.
What a palaver.
But my C-Class ticket means  I am fast tracked through security and cause interest at passport control who ask, of course, why I have an emergency passport. The two guys on duty told me that 'The railway station in Geneva has a very bad reputation'. I just hope that tour groups and guide books tell people about the current problem.

I enjoy breakfast at Swiss International's Business Lounge, including their absolutely excellent croissant, the best I have tasted since the last time I was in their lounge!

The Airbus to Heathrow is surprisingly quiet and I am the lone passenger in the first two rows. Odd, because I couldn't book my preferred 1A which has been showing as occupied for months.

Approaching London, we circle over the 02 arena for a short while before we are given permission to land at Heathrow. Why is it that the plane I am on always seems to end up at the furthest point of Terminal 1 from passport control?

There is great interest in my very expensive temporary passport at Border Control which is promptly retained, despite the fact I point out that it is in fact valid for further travel. But I am just glad to be back home.
I have taken advantage of Europcar's Terminal 1 service, which means my hire car is waiting just a few steps away from the arrivals hall. No shuttle bus, just pick it up and drive. Only £20 extra. Brilliant.
So, that ends 'Around the World in 60 Days – Backwards'. It's been a great trip, with surprisingly few hiccups.
Just as last year, I think a Round the World Business-Class fare is remarkable value. My grateful thanks to Christian at Air New Zealand who is just the best there is at helping plan itineraries - and so patient with a dithering client like me!
Of course, there have been many, many people who have either helped me, accommodated me and generally been a part of this trip. To them, my heartfelt and sincere thanks.
And, finally, my appreciation to the more than twenty thousand folk all round the world who have been following my blog. Your comments and support have meant so much.
Till the next time.

The very best photos from the trip can be seen at:

The very best of 'Around the World - Backwards'

Saturday, 26 May 2012

A week after I was robbed, Geneva, Saturday

It is exactly a week since my bag was stolen, literally from under my feet at Geneva Cornavin station. You might have expected that passing time would have made me more resigned to the situation, but no.

Every day that passes I discover something else that is essential to my life is missing, whether it be something cheap and easily replaceable like lip balm or a torch, to something more expensive and difficult to replace like prescription sunglasses or my camera. The latter I have already replaced, together with my iPad and iPod. But one of my stolen digital cameras had a viewfinder, something I find essential when, as has been the case this week, the sun has been shining which makes the image on an LCD screen almost impossible to view.
Until this morning, I was making progress with my passport renewal. But eagle-eyed friend Michael spotted that I could only use the form that his wife had brought from London if I was actually in the UK. So I will have to cut short my long-planned rail trip to Europe and get back to Bern to apply for an emergency one. More needless expense and a total pain.
No news at all from the Geneva lost property department, who had given me some hope that the passport was quite likely to be recovered.
Of course all sorts of other matters have come to light. Skype warned me that it was running out of credit because one of the lost cards was used to fund it; I couldn't make a purchase on Amazon for the same reason. The fact that my bag was taken probably just for cash makes me so mad; I would almost have happily just handed money over, had they asked, just to avoid the inconvenience of it all.
To say that the incident has marred my visit and my view of Geneva is an understatement. Everyone I have spoken to has been sympathetic, understanding and caring. But, almost immediately, they tell me of friends they know who have also been robbed in Geneva. Everywhere you look here, there are posters warning of the scam of the coin under the cups trick; almost as frequently you see people of Eastern European appearance ripping people off with it.
I have asked Geneva Police to tell me what is being done, but don't hold your breath for much information. Tourism is big business in this city and the last thing they want to do is make visitors think that the situation here is much worse than any other place. But it is. Geneva is not London or New York. It is a small town, which happens to have some pretty important institutions based here. Ask any staff member of the International Red Cross or the United Nations and they will tell you that they, or a friend, have been robbed.
But let's not dwell on crime. Let's look at what Geneva has to offer.
Firstly, like all of Switzerland, it is scarily expensive and you really have to budget carefully if you are not to have a serious hole in your pocket. A small basket in the supermarket can easily cost two or three hundred Swiss Francs, probably over half as much again as you will be used to spending at home. Eating out is eye-wateringly costly, with even a basic menu costing forty CHF. The canny Genevois, of course, head over the border to France when they can, buy their groceries, have their meals and buy their booze.
One thing that Geneva certainly has to offer is a really efficient public transport system. If you are staying in a hotel, they are likely to give you a ticket for the duration of your stay. That not only covers buses, local trains, trolleybuses and trams, but also the little red and yellow mouette ferries that criss cross Lac Leman.

The Geneva Card, available for 1, 2 or 3 days, gives you access to all sorts of things from trips by boat around the Lake to museums and even the cable car up Mont Saleve.

I combined both cards to take a trip on the number 8 bus to the end of the line, the Veyrier Douane, or customs post, followed by a short walk to take the steep ascent on the cable car.
You wouldn't even know you had crossed the border, a bit of a relief for those of us who are not in possession of a travel document!

At the top, stunning views over Geneva and Lac Leman and the chance to watch as people attach themselves to colourful bits of nylon cord and material and throw themselves off the 1000 metre high cliff.
But, somehow, I find myself drawn again and again to the Lake and all it has to offer. From 'Les Bains de Paquis' where the locals enjoy their croissants or fondues while watching or participating in a bathe in the rather chilly lake - to a trip on one of the beautifully restored 100-year-old paddle steamers like Savoie or Simplon.

I took one such trip to the French medieval village of Yvoire, where an absolutely splendid lunch was taken on the terrace at the Auberge du Bacouni, before taking the paddle steamer back to Geneva. In fact a very nice lady at the CGN ferry company suggested I also take in Nyon, but the lunch and the view was so special, that I rather lingered over my barracuda souffle and my plat de fromages. A real treat – and a LOT cheaper than eating in Geneva.
If you have a Swiss Flexi Pass, not only does it cover your rail journeys, but also gives you boat trips, funicular railways, cable cars and buses. On my trip on Savoie, the First Class saloon was almost empty, but booked to be completely full for dinner. In any case, I spent a lot of my time just marvelling at the engineering of the century old steam pistons driving the massive paddle wheels.

My friend Michael took me to visit Carouges, where folk will say they are from, rather than from Geneva itself, just across the river. I can only compare it to a London mews, twee little properties and even more twee little shops. As we supped coffee, a man loaded top of the range champagne into the back of his illegally parked 4 x 4. It's that sort of place.

But the lure of the Lake is always powerful, watching the iconic jet d'eau pump water hundreds of metres into the sky.

Nearby at 'Le Grange', taking lunch at the café run by 'The Swiss League for women abstainers' is just one way of realising that most folk in Geneva are great. It's just a few incomers who are spoiling it for the majority.
But somehow, watching the world on the lake go by, such issues seem so very far away.
On Monday I set off on my Rail Trip, slightly anxious about my lack of passport. But I have my pass and I have my booking to Paris, so another adventure beckons.

Best of my photos from the whole trip are at:  

The very best of 'Around the World - Backwards'

Monday, 21 May 2012

Passport palaver

It's been a day of complete frustration vis a vis trying to replace my passport. It's an urgent matter, as I am due to fly back to the UK from Geneva tomorrow. 

After ascertaining that nothing has been handed in to the Geneva Police lost and found, I set off by train for a two-hour journey to seek assistance from the consular section of the British Embassy in the Swiss capital, Berne.
Ironically, as I head to Gare Cornavin in Geneva to start the trip, the bus drops me almost at the exact spot where my bag was stolen on Saturday.

As I head north on my Swiss Railways double-decker train, my friend Michael has a frustrating conversation with the UK passport call centre in Birmingham. After a twenty minute delay, he makes progress, only to have the system crash. 'Call back later' is the customer unfriendly advice.
But he has ascertained that there is no way I can get a replacement passport in time for my next trip which is due to start next Tuesday.

At the British Embassy in Berne, I am not expected, but am allowed through the sophisticated security screening into the hallowed portal. Michael's best endeavours via the call centre have not resulted in me having an actual appointment. But I am the only person waiting and one of the consular staff agrees to see me. I discuss my options with her. An emergency passport can be issued, but I cannot then apply for another to get me out of the UK. Questions would, they say, have to be asked. So we resolve that my best bet is to stay in Europe while a full passport application can be processed.
So, Michael's wife Sally will pick up the application form in London on Thursday. I have the same photographs as appeared in my lost passport, so will send the completed application and the payment and countersigned photos back to my friends at home, who will attach my birth certificate and hand the package in to the post office for a seven day service. In theory, my new passport will then arrive in plenty of time to be with me in Switzerland for my journey home. Ironically, my stolen passport was one of the very first biometric passports to be issued in Madrid and I even have a photo of the then British Ambassador to Spain and the Consul General presenting me with it. Even more sadly, it is almost full, with a wonderful collection of irreplaceable visas and stamps.
Normally, I wouldn't even have had my passport with me, but my Swiss Flexi Pass required me to have it as identification. I am slightly concerned that I won't have it for my three-week InterRail journey. But I have the police report and a copy, so hopefully that will suffice.
But methinks there may be one or two more challenges ahead.
Russ, one of my chums, says I have been amazingly stoical over the matter. Outwardly, maybe so. But internally I am upset, frustrated and angry. The whole thing has been very distressing and had it not been for the understanding and support from both friends and complete strangers, I am not sure how I would have coped. Even Jamie, the South African girl at Swiss Airlines, told me to 'hang in there' when I called to explain why I wouldn't be flying out tomorrow. A Tunisian man who runs a bar in Geneva gave me half of his flaky pastry spinach and cheese pie after hearing my story. And Georges from the Geneva Police lost property department has been an absolute star. And of course my Facebook account has been filled with many messages of support.
So thanks to everyone who has helped me out. Your generosity and compassion has been overwhelming.

Berne, by the way, is lovely. I only spent an hour or so in the city, but it really does look worth a proper visit. The Swiss Parliament building dominates the skyline above the river, while there is an absolutely charming series of streets. And trams too!

Photos at:
The very best of 'Around the World - Backwards'

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Singapore to Switzerland. And being robbed.

Changi has to be one of the best organised Airports in the world. Check in is very well organised, there are always plenty of baggage trolleys available, the lounges are great, immigration is quick and efficient and there is plenty of space in which to shop and relax. 

Even the lounge for the A380 is great. I expect boarding this giant of the skies to be a pain, but the air bridges are so well organised that I find myself delivered to the upper deck business class area through a dedicated walkway almost without realising I have boarded the aircraft.
I've come on board early to have look around, but I'm disappointed that the wide stairs to the downstairs suites area is closed off and will remain so throughout the flight. I ask nicely to be allowed to look before other passengers board, but the senior male cabin crew member is adamant that the other parts of the aircraft are off limits.

I am surprised that there is no leaflet about how the seat operates. There are so many buttons and switches that, even as an experienced traveller, I have to seek assistance. Not once, but several times.
As always, Singapore Airlines service is first class, the food is excellent and the staff are friendly, efficient and willing. I am not hugely impressed with the sleeping arrangements. While it's a fully flat bed, you lie diagonally across your space, with a less than robust flap connecting the final section to the ottoman. On several occasions, I have to pull it back up, my feet having disappeared into the void below.

But I sleep and breakfast well and almost before I know it am in Zurich.

After a shower, I enjoy the best croissants ever in the business class lounge before catching my connecting flight to Geneva.

In the baggage hall, I collect my free train/bus ticket into the centre (what a brilliant idea!) and am met by my old Navy chum, Michael Goldthorpe who points out the thin red line that has replaced a barrier. The disciplined Swiss stand obediently behind the illuminated line waiting for arriving passengers. Another brilliant idea!
Michael and I take a train to the centre, connecting almost immediately to a bus which stops almost outside their front door. The Swiss really do have public transport sorted.

Michael's wife Sally is in Singapore, so we have a couple of days together looking around the local area, popping across the border into France, doing shopping, venturing up Mont Saleve for a superb view over Geneva and visiting the town of Annecy for lunch. It's a local bank holiday, the place is packed and it takes a while before we find a place to park.

But it's worth the wait, Annecy is charming and we enjoy a splendid lunch which includes the tasty local Savoyard dish, Tartiflette, made from cheese, potatoes, lardons and onions.
I use my Swiss Travel Flexipass to go to Lugano, some five and a half hours distant. The train announcements start off in French, move to German as we approach Zurich and change to Italian as we head south. Strange, this multilingual Switzerland. The section through the Gottard pass has to be one of the most wonderfully scenic rail journeys in the world.

Lake Lugano is a delight. My pass even allows me to travel on the private metre-gauge splendidly maintained FLP railway to the border town of Ponte Tresa. There, I walk into Italy, have dinner and buy a bottle of Sicilian wine. As you do. I am thrilled with the photographs I have taken, including some splendid panoramas of Lake Lugano with my new camera.
My flexi pass allows me to travel on the funicular railway from Lugano Railway station to the town centre, where I meet my Serbian friend Alexsandar, last met on a plane in Washington. He's busy with exams, so we only have time for a hugely expensive coffee and orange juice in the main square before I set off on an hour-long tour of the delightful lake. My flexipass is valid for this trip too!

I enjoy the five and a half hour trip back to Geneva, travelling in the private business class section of the extremely comfortable Pendolino tilting train, ideally suited to the endless curves of Swiss railways.
While waiting for the number 8 bus at Geneva Station, a man asks me to help him operate the ticket machine. In a flash my man-bag is gone. Ipad, iPod, two cameras, passport, Swiss FlexiPass, wallet and all the detritus of a traveller. Plus the keys to Michael and Sally's apartment. They are in the UK for the night at a dinner. Major crisis. I am in a daze as a kindly woman lets me try to call and text Sally. Back at the apartment, a kindly neighbour lends me some cash and takes me to the police station. There, I go through the palaver of making a statement, hardly reassured by the friendly and helpful female cops telling me that they see several people a day for this sort of thing. The whole thing conducted in French of course. They say that it's possible that my bag will be found, minus anything valuable, but probably still with passport and credit cards intact. But the lost property office doesn't open till Monday morning.
Back at the apartment block, another kindly neighbour not only sits up till 0130am with me while I cancel my lost cards, make contact with the UK passport authorities and so on. We continually try and contact my hosts, but when it becomes clear I am not going to get into the apartment tonight, kindly offers me a bed for the night. I have my overnight bag from my trip, but no clean clothes for the morning.
The following day, I finally make contact with my hosts in the early afternoon and their Bolivian housekeeper very kindly breaks off a lunch in France to come and let me in to the house.
But I discover at the station that my Swiss flexipass can't be replaced and while the Swiss authorities will be happy to accept other photo id in lieu of my missing passport allowing me to travel back to the UK on Tuesday, the British authorities won't. So my final day of 'Around the World in 60 days – Backwards' will be spent travelling to the British Embassy in Berne to get an emergency passport.
It's not the first time I have been robbed while travelling and I daresay it will not be the last. But I feel absolutely desolate and empty. I am devastated by the loss of my carefully crafted photographs taken on my week-old camera. The rest of the things can be replaced, but not them.
I have replayed the moment of the loss again and again. If only I hadn't been distracted to help. If only I had done my normal thing and had the bag around my neck. If only I had been aware that laid-back, classy Geneva has a dreadful reputation for this happening.
If only.

Photos at: 
The very best of 'Around the World - Backwards'