July 12, 2013
Day 2 Sightseeing in Geneva.
In the morning I walked with Gemma to the World Health Organization (WHO). Along the way we passed the United Nations and other notable city sites. We had a lovely cafe breakfast at the WHO while discussing tobacco control work with Gemma and her intern from VCU. Afterward I took the bus back toward her apartment went to the train station to pick up my tickets to France for Saturday. Getting around Geneva is very simple and efficient compared to most cities in the US. Public transit is a dream. It’s clean, friendly, accessible, quick and very easy to navigate. After getting my train tickets I did a bit more sightseeing, but I was still exhausted from jet lag so I took another nap to insure I would be ready for the evening activities.
Gemma asked me to meet her at 6 pm back at her WHO office so that we could go for a hike. I figured, great! Sounds lovely. So at about 5 pm I took the bus WHO to meet her and we jumped in her car to drive about 45 minutes from Geneva into France. Gemma pulled over and parked the car in a small parking lot right next to a mountain near a tunnel which read “Fort l’Ecluse.” I looked up and saw that it was very steep and rocky. Later after I got home I looked up Fort l’Ecluse on wikipedia and I learned that this region is close to the village of Collonges, Ain in Eastern France. Here is the passage quoted from wikipedia:
It overlooks the Rhone valley and is a natural entrance into France from Switzerland between the Vuache hills and the Jura Mountains. The fort was founded by a Duke of Savoy, and completed by Vauban in the reign of Louis XIV. It was destroyed by the Austrians in 1815, but was rebuilt by the French, and at the same time considerably strengthened and heightened. The high-road intersects a portion of this fortification.
The lower fort, near the level of the Rhône, was rebuilt between 1816 and 1828. The route national 84 passed through the fort until 1939 when it was relocated to a tunnel through the rock behind the fort, defended by a casemate in the tunnel built as part of the Maginot Line fortification program. The casemate was intended to receive 47mm anti-tank guns, but was never equipped. It is linked to the lower fort by a tunnel. The Fort l’Écluse was the largest component of the otherwise weakly fortified Defensive Sector of the Rhône.
The upper fort (fort supérieure) is 200 metres (660 ft) above the lower fort. Its location allows the upper fort to control the valley, including the railroad viaduct, and to protect the lower fort. It was built between 1934 and 1848. Today, the lower fort and the subterranean steps and casemates cut into the rock above it, up to and including terraces just below the upper fort, are open during the summer months for visiting, however the upper fort is not currently safe for visitors. Furthermore, a moderately difficult (AD) via ferrata exists which takes climbers from the lower fort to the upper fort by traversing the rocky hillside. In addition, there are many hiking trails in the area which allow hikers access to the upper fort.
The first fortifications at the site were built by the Romans around 58 BC against incursions by the Helvetii. The fortifications were not sufficient, leading to direct war between the Romans and Helvetii. The defile became a significant trade route in following years. In 1184 a church and residence belonging to the Saint-Claude abbey was built on the site. During the Middle Ages tolls were collected for passage. In the 13th century a fortified house was built at the site by the Sire de Gex. In 1293 the house was ceded to Amadeus V, Count of Savoy. In 1601 the Treaty of Lyon placed Gex in the hands of the French crown.
The fort was greatly expanded in the 17th century. The fort played a part in preventing French Protestants from leaving France following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. The fort was burned in 1815 by Austrian forces and reconstructed in following years. The upper fort was built, linked to the lower fort by a tunneled stairway with 1165 steps. By 1860 Savoy became a permanent part of France and the fort was no longer of importance in controlling the frontier. During World War I the fort served as a military training center. In the 1930s the fort was incorporated into French frontier fortifications as a contingency against a German incursion through Switzerland. However, the Germans ultimately arrived from the west, rather than the east.
The fort held the passage of the Rhône against German forces in June 1940 during the Battle of France. A single company of the 179th Alpine Fortress Battalion, augmented with an artillery battery and personnel from a pioneers regiment under Lieutenant Mestrallet held the fort with 250 men against Panzergruppe von Kleist, composed of the 3rd and 4th Panzer Divisions and the 13th Motorized Infantry Division. For three days from 22 June the French force held the German advance. After the 25 June armistice, the fort’s garrison stood its ground until directly ordered by the French command to stand down and to surrender.
So here we were in this small parking lot looking up at Fort l’Ecluse and I was beginning to realize that this after work hike was going to be far more challenging than I anticipated. Gemma opened up her car trunk and started handing me a helmet and a harness. What had I gotten myself into? Gemma proceeded to set me up with a safety check and we set out to do the Via Ferrata. This is a bit like the Sandy Spring Adventure Park tree course challenge where you need to clip into safety wire for each section, but there is no staff here, no nets, and no one to come save you if you fall. I can see that we are going to scale the side of a steep rocky mountain. Ut-oh.
All up along the rock face are clamps, wires strung alongside the cliffs, and little metal steps and ladders hammered into the rock. This is real rock climbing Via Ferrata style with a preset course. I was truly terrified for the first 20 minutes. I thought I might not make it. It was quite steep and I was sweating bullets. It requires a lot of core and upper body strength and also some good foot and hand work to scale the ladders and steps all the while clipping in and out of each section of wire for safety. At first I tried not to look down because the heights turned my stomach. But the views were absolutely spectacular overlooking the Rhone River. Eventually I got up enough courage to take some photos with my camera along the way. Gemma took photos quite freely and she also took some video of me scaling down a rock face and crossing a wire bridge over the gorge. She was clearly at home in this environment. Adventure is her middle name! Me, on the other, hand, well let’s just say that I thought I might poop my pants. Via Ferrata is much more difficult than the wimpy Adventure Park trees course which I have done a few times in Maryland. Gemma does this type of rock climbing after work and on weekends all the time. It’s a great workout, but it’s not for the fearful. I would estimate that it took us a little over an hour to get to the top near the fort and then we hiked down a winding dirt trail back to the car. I was soaked with sweat. It was like bodypump swinging from a cliff. After the climb we had a wonderful Chinese buffet dinner at Wowo in Étrembières, Rhone-Alpes.
Here is a video that Gemma took of me climbing down a rock face and crossing a bridge