France/Switzerland Day 19: Belley to Geneva – Ups and Downs
I woke around seven. It was hot, already 25 degrees. Unknown to me then, Europe was sweltering in a continent-wide heat wave. I was tired. I’d slept badly and I was physically exhausted. I checked the forecast. The temperature was set to rise to 37 degrees by mid afternoon. I felt nervous about cycling in such heat, but also excited. Having set off from Roscoff two and a half weeks earlier and after covering over 1200km, I was looking forward to reaching Geneva. After getting dressed, I took my time packing, readying myself for the day’s ride.
When planning the trip I’d decided I wanted to cross France and visit Switzerland. Geneva was relatively easy to reach. I’d chosen Switzerland because while it is in Europe it is not a member of the EU. I thought spending some time there might provide a few insights into how the UK, after it left the EU, would change.
After breakfast, I cycled through the centre of Belley and joined the Rhône. Although the route was longer I continued to follow the Eurovelo 17 rather than the road. It was early summer, and the path was lined with wild flowers. The river in the morning light was turquoise, translucent, and in the distance I could see the foothills of the mountains.
After half an hour or so, once my muscles had woken up, my legs felt strong. The path was almost flat and I covered ground quickly, reaching Sessel by late morning. At the tourist office I stopped briefly to pick up a map. The woman there looked concerned, she obviously thought I was foolish cycling alone in such heat. Afterwards I ordered a drink at a restaurant on the riverbank and then set off again. I was keen to get the day’s main climb over with, before it got even hotter. Before leaving Sessel I bought two cans of drink and a sandwich at a bakery. The flashing sign above a pharmacy told me it was 35 degrees.
Under the scorching sun, I climbed sluggishly up towards Challonges until the road became so steep I had to get off the bike and push. The road was deserted, the climb relentless. I was drenched in sweat and careful to drink plenty of water. Numerous times, I expectantly reached what I thought was the summit only to find the route took me higher.
Eventually, after an hour or so the road levelled off. I was looking forward to the descent. But instead of freewheeling down, it was as if I was cycling through mud and had to pedal. At first, I couldn’t understand why. After a while I realised the road had recently been relaid and the tarmac had melted.
There was no respite. For a frustrating five or more kilometres my wheels stuck to the road, slowing me down. Loose stones flew up and fixed themselves to the tyres, it felt as though I was caught in a bad dream from which I couldn't awaken.
At around two, near Chêné-en-Semine, I stopped to rest. I refilled my water bottles at a roadside restaurant and ate half my sandwich under the shade of some pine trees. Tired and discouraged by the heat and the road, I called my husband to say I’d had enough. That I was abandoning my hopes of crossing the Alps and after Geneva I would be coming home. My decision made, the thought of seeing my family boosted my dwindling spirits.
Twenty minutes later I was off again following the cycle route along the D214. I crossed over a motorway. After a brief climb, the road passed through a village and then, following the contours of a steep rocky incline, descended abruptly. There was a cooling breeze. The river was far below me. There, as I freewheeled down the narrow road, I passed a man in his 50s on a recumbent bike. His face was red and contorted with the effort of cycling up that road and I felt grateful I wasn’t going the other way. At the bottom of the hill where the road met the river once more, it twisted sharply around the cliff face. There I passed a cyclist travelling in the opposite direction and smiled at him sympathetically.
At St Julien-En-Genevois I crossed into Switzerland. There were no border controls. The only perceptible differences between France and Switzerland were man-made, the changed number plates, road signage and the architecture of the houses. I stopped in a car park and bought an ice cream to celebrate my achievement. In the shop I handed over some Euros and was given Swiss Francs in exchange.
Although it was not far to Geneva, perhaps 15 kilometres by road, the cycle path meandered indulgently towards the city, across fields, up long hills and down again. Once I reached the suburbs it zigzagged through quiet residential streets. I became frustrated. I was so close to my journey’s end. But rather than racing ahead I found myself slowing down, the weight of the bike and my gear suddenly unbearably heavy. As I struggled to finish the final few kilometres, commuters whizzed past me on their way home from work.
Near the city centre I crossed over the Arve. I followed the map, heading towards the lake, and as I approached the Rhône once more, I stopped to take a picture. The water in the early evening sun seemed even brighter, more vivid than before.
The riverbank was crowded. People were everywhere, sunbathing, drinking, listening to music. One man was cooking sausages over a barbecue. I watched couples floating down stream, pushed by the rapid current. I dismounted. A man jumped from a nearby bridge. I had trouble pushing my bike through the throng of people walking up and down the alley in their swimsuits. Exhausted and hot, enticed by the refreshing water but unable to jump in, I resolved to return the following day for a swim.
I followed the last of the route towards the centre wondering when I should stop. On a side road I passed a scattered group of African men. They watched me with a careful look. On the North bank of the river, next to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, I decided I could go no further. I found a hotel conveniently nearby which, compared with others listed on the booking site, wasn’t prohibitively expensive. I phoned the receptionist in advance asking if she had anywhere to store the bike. She said they couldn’t accommodate it, but in the end agreed I could take it up to my room. Exhausted I checked in, took my gear up in the lift and then came back for the bike, and carried it up three flights of stairs.
**********************************************************************After showering I was hungry. From my hotel room I could see a restaurant on a concrete quay in the middle of the river. The terrace was full and the waiter showed me into the deserted, baking restaurant. I chose a table next to three businessmen. As I watched the water rushing passed the window I listened to the men talking in English, discussing the markets in China, business in Russia.
It was Solstice and the longest day of the year. In my notebook I jotted down my first impressions of the city. From my seat I could see the buildings along the waterfront, the offices of Credit Swiss, BNP Paribas, Swiss.com, Pilet & Renaud.
When the waiter came over to give me a menu I asked him what he thought it meant to be European.
‘I didn’t really know,’ came his apologetic answer.
He explained that he’d grown up in the Philippines. He told me one of his parents was Swiss and that he was in Geneva to complete his military service before he turned 26.
After a while another waiter came over to take my order. Before asking him what he thought of Europe I enquired where he was from.
‘Brazil,’ came his reply. I explained that I had cycled across France and that I was asking people what it meant to be European.
‘Well my mother is French, but my father is Brazilian. I grew up in Brazil, I don’t know much about Europe.’
He explained that originally he had travelled to France but had moved to Geneva to find work.
‘I only planned to stay 6 months but that was fifteen years ago.’
I asked him what he thought of Switzerland.
‘Here people have it pretty good,’ he said, ‘I stay because of the money, but in a few years I’d like to go back to Brazil.’
‘Not France?’ I asked.
‘No, not France.’
I ordered some food and waited. A waitress bought me water and a glass of wine.
‘Where are you from?’ I asked.
‘I’m Argentinian and French,’ came the reply.
‘Wow,’ I exclaimed ‘is everyone here from somewhere else?’
‘This is Geneva,’ she said.
She explained that she hadn’t grown up in Argentina but in Evian.
‘Where?’ I asked not hearing her properly.
‘Where they make the bottled water.’
‘Oh yes of course – where is it?’ I asked.
‘That way,’ she said, pointing towards the lake.
 Switzerland is a member of the European Free Trade Association and in 1992 it submitted an application of accession to the EU. However, in a referendum held towards the end of that year, the Swiss population voted 50.3% to 49.7% in favour of not joining and suspended its application. In 2016 the Swiss government formally withdrew its application.