TRAVELS IN THE TIME OF CORONA
Travel industry super publicist Geoffrey Weill guides us through his trip in Switzerland during the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly a year after his first trip.
I needed to get from Berlin to Lausanne on Lake Geneva. It should be a slam-dunk, right? But in this Time of Corona, there is only one painfully inconveniently timed direct flight from Berlin to Geneva. So I’m bound for Zurich, then down a few escalators and onto the train from Zurich Airport to Lausanne. It’s fine. I love trains. Especially Swiss ones.
So here I am at Berlin’s spanking new Brandenburg airport. The new airport terminal was meant to open exactly ten years ago, in October 2011. But because of a string of incredibly un-Germanic delays attributed to poor construction planning, faulty execution, muddled management, and the 2008 financial crisis, it finally opened only in October 2020, a mere nine years late.
Nevertheless, it was worth the wait. Steel, glass and magnificent, it’s a massive improvement on West Berlin’s cramped pre-reunification Tegel Airport terminal. And an even more massive contrast to Communist East Berlin’s gruesome Schönefeld terminal which, actually, sits a mile across the tarmac from the glitzy new building.
I first flew to Berlin in 1970 at the height of the Cold War. Only three airlines were permitted to fly to West Berlin back then: Air France, British European Airways (BEA), and Pan Am – shuttling passengers from West Germany proper to West Berlin. I flew Pan Am and arrived at the extraordinary Tempelhof Airport, almost in the city center, whose terminal was opened in 1927, enlarged by the Nazis and was, for a time, one of the twenty largest buildings on earth. This was the airport made immortal in 1948 during the Berlin Airlift. (Tempelhof closed in 2008 and is now exhibition space and a park – but the humongous and ominous terminal is still there, with landmark status.)
The second time I flew to Berlin was in 1979, aboard Aeroflot from Moscow, when I was the only passenger in First Class aboard a giant Illyushin-76 jumbo jet. We landed at East Berlin’s Schönefeld Airport. After the customary totalitarian-state I’m-going-to-intimidate-the-bejesus-out-of-you passport inspection, I boarded a bus on which I was again the only passenger, and a surly driver weaved for forty minutes through tunnels of barbed wire to bring me to West Berlin.
To get into Switzerland in the Time of Corona, you have to complete an online registry, attesting to your COVID-free status, your vaccination details and where you can be found in Switzerland in the event there was a surge of COVID cases on my flight. The check-in clerk at Swiss in Berlin doesn’t want to see registry my print-out – she just wants my assurance that it was submitted. Security in Germany is taken super seriously, but the security team is polite and helpful – so unlike the bored hostility we know in America. I’m asked to remove my orthopedic boot (there seem to be major suspicions that people hobble in these boots to bring explosives onto planes). Then I am given one of those un-PC German pat-downs that doesn’t miss a single inch of my anatomy.
It’s a long walk to Gate B20 and this brand-new airport could certainly have benefitted from the installation of moving floors – but there are none, and so I march. In the Lufthansa lounge, people are socially distanced as they eat rolls and butter and marmalade, yoghurt parfaits and – yes, at 9AM, Scotches and Soda. Aboard Swiss, there are serious lectures in four languages (count them, four: German, French, Italian and the ubiquitous English), so the captain’s welcome, the purser’s welcome, the safety demonstration and then the mask-wearing instructions are so endless they seem to take up half the flight. And then the four languages roll out again as we begin the descent.
I like Zurich Airport. It’s super-efficient, and they have thousands of baggage carts that are designed to be pushed onto escalators and miraculously lock. Which is useful for a traveler like me who has a Rimowa case, a Vuitton duffel and a backpack that would be sufficient for most people’s weekend at the beach. Friends and acquaintances assume that as I’m a very frequent traveler, I’m able to pack light and carry it on. Big mistake. I’m a serial over-packer.
As we taxi after landing I open my iPhone’s Swiss Rail app, buy my train ticket, reserve my seat. This is Europe, there is no passport check, no search for PCR test results – there’s just an assumption that you are responsible, have submitted the COVID registry, and can be trusted. And so down the escalator I go, my luggage cart magically locking and unlocking. I walk a kilometer-or-so through the underground shopping mall, then down yet another escalator to platform 3. Trains come and go, and finally the double-decker train to Geneva Airport via Bern, Lausanne and Geneva is before me. I board, haul my luggage up a flight of curvy stairs and, once again, listen to the mask-wearing requirements in four languages.
The ride is effortless but, curiously, I find myself reserved in a First-Class car that doesn’t connect to the next First-Class car where the restaurant car is located. I bring this up with the ticket inspector. He’s very laissez-faire about the fact that here I am starving to death. He suggests that at the next stop, I leave this car, and walk the platform to the Restaurant car.
“Can I leave my luggage here?” I ask, pointing to my Matterhorn of valises.
“I wouldn’t recommend it,” he says. “People steal things, even in Switzerland.
So, I have options. One is, at the next stop, quickly to navigate the stairs in my orthopedic boot, race to the restaurant car, eat lunch, and race back when the train stops again perhaps to find my luggage purloined by louts. Two is option one plus schlepping my luggage. Three is to make do with the tin of Altoids in my back-pack. I go for option three. Yes, I’ll arrive in Lausanne hungry, but I’ll have curiously strong minty-fresh breath.
I love riding through Switzerland. It’s extraordinary how one passes through the Germanic suburbs of Zurich into pastureland - all cows, emerald green meadows and cuckoo-clock chalets. Then there is the quaintness of Bern, followed by more cows, meadows and chalets. And all of a sudden Lake Geneva is right there, sparkling in the sunshine. As we slide through Montreux and Vevey, the architecture is no longer Germany, but the 16th arrondissement of Paris.
Lausanne station is enormous – Lausanne is, after all, Switzerland’s fourth largest city, and it was through Lausanne that Agatha Christie’s Orient Express used to pass daily. I heft my bags to the elevator and descend to find a taxi. The Swiss – like the Germans – have a taxi attitude very different from New Yorkers. We leap into the street and expect a yellow cab to screech to a halt. Not here. You have to trudge to the taxi rank, where lines of taxi drivers have been waiting for hours. I am beckoned to my taxi driver (number 17) who seems faintly affable as he loads my bags into the trunk, and then explodes in fury when I tell him my destination is the Hotel Beau-Rivage Palace, just ten minutes’ drive from the station. He slams the trunk closed, slams his door and starts to drive off with my foot and orthopedic boot still trying to make it to the inside of the car. He stops. I manage to gyrate my leg into the small space behind his seat (he is tall as well as nasty). We drive to the hotel. I pay him. The hotel porter greets me, unloads my bags and me, and the wrathful chauffeur du taxi numéro 17, slams the trunk closed, slams his door, and whizzes off in a rage.
I am more amused than outraged as the fabulous Sylvie Conin, the Beau-Rivage Palace’s head concierge embraces me and says “I will tell the taxi company that number 17 is banned from the Beau-Rivage Palace.” We laugh, and she leads me in. I am somehow pre-checked-in and escorted to my gorgeous room with its gorgeous furnishings and its gorgeous view of Lake Geneva. Did I mention it’s gorgeous? Lake steamers with immense Swiss flags are tooting and steaming, and there, across the water is Evian in France, sparkling in the afternoon sunshine.
I always feel at home in this beautiful place, marking its 160th anniversary this year. The Beau-Rivage Palace has not only seen history but made it. Post World-War-One peace treaties were negotiated here. As was the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement that a deranged American president later chose to tear up. During those nuclear talks, most of the rooms were occupied by the delegates of various countries and, I was once told, the hotel’s Wi-Fi crashed as, no doubt, the intelligence services of a variety of countries struggled to eavesdrop. Coco Chanel, accused by the French resistance of collaborating with the Nazis, holed up here from 1944 until the early 1950’s – when she was able to return to Paris and restart her business. Her dog is said to be buried in the grounds, although in the hotel’s poignant pet cemetery, there is no mention of le chien de Coco.
The Beau-Rivage Palace is owned by the Sandoz Foundation – which also owns the adjacent Hotel Angleterre and Residence (where Lord Byron stayed), and, just opposite, the castle-like Hotel Château d’Ouchy. Which means guests at the Beau-Rivage Palace can eat not only at its own restaurants, but at the d’Angleterre’s super Accademia Italian restaurant, and at the Château d’Ouchy’s 57 Grill. But I am weary after my early wake-up in Berlin and the journey south, so I opt for the Café Beau-Rivage. This is the perfect restaurant. Elegant but casual, with superb service and even more superb cuisine. I eat outdoors on the terrace. Everyone around me is speaking French. It is said, that the French spoken in this of part of Switzerland is actually the most perfect French of all Frenches – with none of the patois and slang of Paris, the dialects of the provinces, or the nasal twangs of Quebec.
The Beau-Rivage Palace began as two hotels: the Beau-Rivage opened in 1861 and the Palace in 1901 – and soon they were joined together by a glass pavilion that today encloses two ballrooms and the magnificent breakfast room. Currently the Beau-Rivage wing is closed for a renovation – but the work is so discreetly hidden behind false walls, that most guests don’t even know it’s happening. To reach the pool one takes an elevator down to the chic Cinq Mondes spa, and emerges onto a pool deck of chaise longues and cabanas. The poolside restaurant serves delicious light lunches – and light is all you want if you are dining tonight at Anne-Sophie Pic, the Lausanne branch of the restaurant in Valance, France, where Ms Pic became the first woman in France since World War 2 to earn three Michelin stars. Anne-Sophie Pic’s food is exquisite, both visually and in terms of taste. She specializes in combinations of ingredients and flavors one would normally consider preposterous, yet she never fails to produce course after course that is delicate and divine. The Beau-Rivage Palace is also adjacent to the Lausanne Hotel School, considered the world’s finest. Many of its students intern at the hotel.
Back in my room after a swim on Sunday morning, I see from my terrace frenetic activity on the lawn that fronts the hotel and leads almost to the lakeshore. Chairs are being arranged in elegant semi-circles and a group of wedding planners is frenetically erecting a wedding canopy that they are decorating with several trillion massive white hydrangeas. Suddenly, one leg of the canopy collapses, hydrangeas tumble, and the whole thing is almost ruined. But a team with sturdy arms seems able to prop it back upright and repair the damage. It is fascinating to watch from this viewpoint. When I return to the room after lunch, everything seems ready to go and I sit on my terrace for the afternoon’s entertainment. Guests in finery (but not masked – I learn later nobody unvaccinated was permitted to attend) glide in, chat in groups, drink Champagne and munch canapés. A waiter is offering the men white yarmulkes. Now I realize that the hydrangea-bedecked canopy is a traditional Jewish Chuppah. The gardens are some steps down from the terrace and a lady in a wheelchair is rolled into the chair elevator for the descent. Except it jams somehow. Squadrons of technicians appear with weighty tools. They remove panels. They scratch their heads. It’s not merely that the lift won’t descend, it appears that it’s Madame’s wheelchair that is also somehow stuck inside its cage. From my third floor aerie it is like watching a Keystone Cops silent movie as employees rush about wrestling with screwdrivers and winches as they attempt to free the lady. As they tinker with the mechanics, a young man begins to sing melodies in Hebrew that are amplified for half of Lausanne to enjoy. The guests take their seats and I decide to film the wedding – I have no idea why. The groom emerges from the hotel tethered to a golden retriever and is led up the aisle by his parents. I assume he is blind and I become moist-eyed. The bride emerges from beneath my balcony and is led by her parents to their spaces beneath the canopy. There is beautiful singing, and prayers in Hebrew and sermons in French. As I watch the pantomime, I realize the groom isn’t blind. He is just a dog lover. The ceremony continues. Madame’s wheelchair has finally been uncorked and she is watching the ceremony from the terrace. There are blessings and rings and then the groom stamps on a glass and there are shouts of Mazeltov with a French accent.
Even though there are two photographers leaping around during the ceremony (one still, one video), I have a hunch that my birds’ eye view of the proceedings would be enjoyed by the happy couple, so I call Sylvie to ask if she would check if they’d like to have it on a USB drive. They certainly would. Indeed, I meet the couple, their friends, and the golden retriever, at lunch near the pool the next day, and they thank me lavishly. They were both born and raised in Lausanne, but they live in New York. Because of COVID, their families couldn’t come to the U.S. for the wedding planned at the Plaza, so here we all are celebrating on the shores of Lake Geneva.
After four days in Lausanne, it is time to come home. Sylvie arranges for me to have a PCR test and its negative result delivered to my room. I am Mercedes-ed to Geneva Airport which, actually sits on the French-Swiss frontier. And as I am flying Air France to JFK via Paris, I check in on the French side of the airport. I pass through emigration, I remove my boot again for security checks for bombs and now I enter the duty-free shop. And once again, I am struck by one of the strangest anomalies in the world of travel: the sale of an array of Swiss Army knives that is blatant at Geneva, Zurich and Basel airports – AFTER you’ve passed through security. They come in a variety of sizes – so, if you’re so inclined, you can choose to take the cabin crew hostage with small, medium or large blades. Or the deluxe model with a twirly wine opener. Or the one with a screwdriver and scissors. I’ve been marveling at this insanity for years and yet somehow not only are the knives for sale, a group of evil people still haven’t chanced upon this appalling loophole. Can it be that Switzerland’s centuries-long neutrality is keeping us all safe?
I fly to Paris, have a lengthy tour of the corridors, escalators, shuttle trains, elevators of Charles de Gaulle Airport. At Geneva Airport, my negative PCR test had been scanned. It is studied once again in Paris. And I am finally in my double N95 masks seated in an Air France Boeing 777 bound for America.
My face is instantly recognized by the Global Entry screen at Terminal One at JFK. But the luggage hall is its usual chaos – with several flights arriving simultaneously -- from Istanbul, Frankfurt and Paris. The arrivals board says my bags will arrive on Carousel 4. I wait. We all wait. Suddenly, a minion announces “Air France: Carousel 2.” My bags are the fifth and sixth off: a record.
An hour later I am home.
I can finally remove my mask.