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I am writing this post on WordPress for Android on board my connecting flight to Geneva from one of my favourite airports in the world — Schiphol in Amsterdam.

Upon arrival in Schiphol, airport signage already warned me of a 24-minute walk from the arrival gate of our flight from KL to the departure gate of my connecting flight so I literally made a run for it this morning. It was a mad sprint for me, considering that my flight from KL landed at 6.10am (15 minutes behind schedule) and that my connecting flight’s boarding time was scheduled at 6.30am and the fact that all transit passengers to other Schengen countries have to go through Passport Control first, a process that included a 3-minute body scan followed by a patdown (if you’re unlucky).

The KLM aircraft from KL was a Boeing 747-200 (actually a downgrade from the usual 747-400 due to some technical problems) but the connecting flight to Geneva is on a smaller aircraft nicknamed “Cityhopper” similar to this one:

image

While waiting for our flight to be given clearance for takeoff, I amused myself by watching the luggage handlers load the bags into the cargo hold. I even managed to catch a glimpse of one of these guys having a quick breather — i.e. lie down inside the cargo hold (!) — while waiting for his colleagues to arrive.

Bang! Slam! Push! Toss! After observing how luggage handlers manhandle all those bags, I now strongly advise you to invest in the sturdiest bag that your budget can afford…and to wrap your expensive bags with shrinkwrap at the airport prior to departure!

My love affair with Switzerland started when I first laid eyes on its mountains and lakes and meadows in 1999. I fell in love at first sight and I fell hard.

Image from MySwitzerland.com

At that time, DH and I needed to go to Geneva but Malaysia Airlines only flew to Zurich, so at his suggestion, we took the 3-hour long train ride from Zurich to Geneva. It was my first time in Europe and my first experience with the Swiss Rail system and I was totally impressed. The trains were on time, very clean and well-maintained, and the ride was very smooth and pleasant. It was almost like flying except that trains have much, much better legroom and you can walk around, if you wish to.

During the train ride, I was totally captivated by the unspoilt beauty of the Swiss countryside — skies of the bluest blue, meadows of verdant green dotted by hundreds of tiny yellow flowers which huge brown and white cows munched on contentedly (DH told me that those flowers must be the reason why Swiss milk and chocolates taste soooo good!), rivers so clear we could see the pebbles at the bottom, lakes stretched out as far as the eye could see. And the Alps — the imposing Alps capped by pristine white snow, made even more dazzling by the backdrop of the clear blue sky — made me vow to return to Switzerland again in the future.

And return I did, three more times — in April 2002, April 2005 and April 2008. You see, I get to attend this exhibition related to my line of work that takes place every three years in Geneva. How lucky can a woman get? 😉

In 1999, after the exhibition, on the way back to Zurich, DH and I made an unplanned detour to Jungfraujoch, Europe’s highest railway station. It was my first encounter with snow and ice, so when I felt giddy and light-headed at the top of the mountain, I wasn’t sure if it was from the sheer excitement of the whole experience or from the thin air and high altitudes…or from the simple fact that I was pregnant with OnlyGirl at that time!

To get to Jungfraujoch, DH and I had to stay the night in one of the towns in Interlaken, a gorgeous piece of heaven nestled between two beautiful lakes. That place was just so amazing, I wished we stayed much longer. More mountains and meadows and lakes…and even a nearby waterfall. To this day, Interlaken remains on my list of places to visit (properly) before I die. Click here to see a panoramic map of the area to fire your imagination…

In 2002, DH and I went to Zermatt, the charming little town at the base of Mount Matterhorn, where we stayed in a small hotel whose landlady only spoke German but knew just enough French for the two of us to somehow communicate with each other. I may have touched snow in Jungfraujoch for the first time in 1999 (and almost slipped on the ice floors inside the Ice Palace in my Italian leather flat shoes) but it was at Zermatt where I saw snow falling for the first time ever in my entire life. It was magic…pure blissful, I-cant-believe-this-is-happening magic!!! I remember squealing in delight as I held up my arms, perhaps even doing a twirl or two, as the tiny flakes fell on my face, to DH’s amusement (Note: He’s used to seeing snow, having lived in London in his university years and having traveled to all the continents of the world, except for South America.)

In 2005, our trip was cut short due to a fluke with my Schengen visa. You see, our Air France-KLM itinerary was KL-Geneva (via Paris)-Amsterdam-KL, as we were planning to stopover Amsterdam on the way back to KL. The Dutch Embassy gave me a single entry Schengen visa at that time. Unfortunately, when we reached Paris, I had absolutely no idea that we had to get out and change terminals at Charles de Gaulles airport. And when we did, we had to get past French Immigration, who stamped my passport, which meant that I’ve used up my single entry Schengen visa. So to make a long story short, upon arrival in Geneva, we quickly had to book us on another flight back to KL, also via Amsterdam (as our tickets were non-reroutable) but without stopping over, just on transit. The bad news was: the only flight available was 2 days after, which meant that we had to cut our trip short and could not even stay in Switzerland after the exhibition.

But as I commented in a previous blog post, perhaps I wasn’t fated to go to Amsterdam at that time because I was meant to go to Amsterdam this year with my mom. As Shakespeare put it, all’s well that end’s well. And all that remains is my yet to be written post(s) about our trip 😛 (I know, I know, I’m working on it!)

So, as I was saying, our Swiss trip was cut short in 2005. At least at that time, we were staying in the Swiss countryside, at Ferme Pittet (Pittet Farm), a charming farmhouse offering country-style accommodation in the town of Russin, close to the French border, so even though we didn’t really go anywhere, it felt like we went somewhere.

Vineyards on both sides of the road to the Russin train station. DH enjoys the fresh air and the view as he pulls his favourite Samsonite bag behind him.

The quiet town is just one train ride from Geneva’s central train station but it felt like a completely different world. There was nothing but sprawling vineyards all around — which must be quite a sight in autumn, when the branches are lush with green leaves and heavy with fruit — which looked quite bare in spring, as all that we could see were rows of gnarled thick stumps less than 3 feet high from the ground.

The whole place was so quiet that, once the trains have departed, the only sound that you can hear at the Russin train station is the occasional chirping of the birds. Oh, and the annoying sound of planes as they flew past the Swiss-Franco border.

The town was so small that it only had one restaurant, one general store, and one church, and everyone knew everyone else. When we first reached the town, a friendly local gave us a lift in his car from the train station to the farm (just a few minutes walk, but an uphill one) and he turned out to be the town’s mayor!

Oh, and one small thing: in Russin, no one spoke any English, just French. DH doesn’t know a word of French, so his life was entirely on my hands at that time. Or so I like to think 😉

By now you must have noticed how the Swiss only speak German or French in certain parts of the country. It’s because Switzerland has 4 national languages. Majority of the Swiss population speak German and a huge chunk of them speak French, but there’s also a small percentage who speak Italian, and about half a per cent of the Swiss population speak Rumantsch. This very unique feature is a direct result of Switzerland’s geographical location being at the crossroads of France, Germany, Austria and Italy. Of course, with the huge number of foreign residents in Switzerland, they have brought with them their own languages, which taken as a whole, is now said to outnumber both Rumantsch and Italian. According to the Swissworld.org, “the 2000 census showed that speakers of Serbian/Croatian were the largest foreign language group, with 1.4% of the population. English was the main language for 1%.”

I first noticed this uniqueness of Switzerland in 1999, when DH and I were on the train from Zurich to Geneva. When we were in Zurich, the automated announcements for the next stop were in German and English. At some point, the announcements were suddenly in French, German and English. Then as we moved closer to Geneva, just in French and English.

Since I speak a little French, Geneva and Russin were a breeze. But it was quite a struggle in Zermatt, Jungfrau and Zurich. Despite Switzerland’s status as an international country and its superb tourist infrastructure in the smallest of towns and the tallest of mountains (they even have excellent mobile phone network coverage at the top!), once you get to the small towns, very few locals speak English. Once, we stayed in a very small village near Andermatt — the hometown of the sales manager of a Swiss company whom we used to deal with — and it so happens that the only German words I know are ja (yes), nein (no) and schocolade (chocolate). Somehow I got by with a lot of sign language and those three little words 😉

Switzerland is arguably one of the world’s most expensive places to visit but its landscape is breathtakingly beautiful, absolutely magnificent and totally unforgettable, making it worth every single cent that you spend to get there.

Joy, oh, joy! Lola and I finally got our Schengen visas today, thereby making our trip to Geneva, Paris and Amsterdam officially on. Yay!

What’s a Schengen visa anyway?

The word Schengen is actually the name of a small village in Luxembourg (population: 400), where officials from France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands signed in 1985 an agreement on the gradual abolition of checks at common borders. This agreement became known as the Schengen Agreement.

In 1990, the Schengen Convention was signed in the same village by the initial signatory countries, with the addition of several other EU Member States (Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece). The Schengen Convention supplemented the original Schengen agreement and laid down the arrangements and safeguards for implementing freedom of movement.

Today, the full Schengen members are Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia,Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, plus Iceland and Norway (which are not EU members).

Mind you, Ireland and the United Kingdom are not part of the Schengen zone, hence, you need to apply for a separate visa if you want to kiss the Blarney Stone or see Buckingham Palace. These two countries, however, are said “to participate, in the future, in those aspects of Schengen that entail cooperation between police forces and the judiciary”. Certain countries can enter the UK without a visa (you can check here if you do need one) but I know for sure that I’ll be needing one. Blame it on the curse of the Philippine passport!

Since the Schengen Convention abolished the checks at internal borders of the signatory States and introduced a common visa policy, this means that Schengen visa holders can travel freely from one Schengen State to another without having to apply for a separate visa for each of these countries and without having to produce your passport as you go through the borders. Take note, however, that border officials in EU countries may still ask from you other supporting documents such as an invitation letter, proof of lodging, return or round-trip ticket, even if you already have a Schengen visa.

The implication is mind-boggling and is every traveller’s dream. As Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico said, one “can travel 4,000km (2,485 miles) from Tallinn in Estonia to Lisbon in Portugal without any border controls”.

With this in mind, it is perfectly understandable why the process of applying for a Schengen visa is very lengthy and very detailed. You need to give full disclosure of your itinerary, provide copies of flight bookings and hotel bookings, give actual dates of entry for each country, apply for travel insurance with a maximum coverage of 30,000 Euro, show invitation letters (for business visa applications), as well as the usual requirement of proof of financial means (bank statements for the past two months, letter from employer, etc), among other things.

Oh, and a day before they actually issue the Schengen visa, they will want to see the original plane and/or train tickets and the original insurance policy.

The application fee is the equivalent of 60 Euro in your local currency and is non-refundable, whether your application is approved or not.

The worst part for me was the waiting, as the processing time for a Schengen visa is 15 working days!

You may click here and here for further information on the Schengen visa.

The funny thing is, I have applied for and was granted all sorts of visas before — US, Swiss, Australian, Mexican, Korean, Chinese, even a Schengen visa two times in the past — but I’ve never felt so apprehensive about an application as this one. I’ve never had to give full and complete disclosure of each and every step of my trip (what date I’m arriving in Paris, where I’m staying, when do I leave Paris, when do I enter Amsterdam, where will I stay in Amsterdam, etc) and I never had to show all the originals of all my supporting documents before, including the original of my marriage certificate.

So yeah, I was scared. And I’m so relieved that the long wait is over. And I’m so elated that we got a 30-day multiple entry visa!

So the only problem now is…where do I get the funds to have a longer trip so that I can go see the other Schengen countries to make the most of my visa? 😉

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Update 9/9/9:

“As from the middle of December 2008 Switzerland will issue Schengen visas.” (Source: Swiss Embassy’s website)