The Best Days of Their Lives

The everyday stories of family life, told with love and joy

Category: Travel

the right time, the right place

Not quite believing that yesterday’s Black Stork was a Black Stork, I had dropped an email to B, who knows about these things. In part of his reply he said that the Black Stork is “a rare migrant that is flying through Switzerland every year, but hard to see. That’s some being in the right time at the right place.”

Seeing the Black Stork was a highlight of the walk yesterday, a bit of wow in an otherwise pleasant day. But it was just a few seconds, as B says, of being at the right time in the right place.

And so to today, when Mtoto and I went for what turned out to be a 12-mile hike in the Geneva countryside. It was a good walk, taking up a great chunk of the day. And we had another few seconds of wow, of being in the right time at the right place.

We saw a Black Woodpecker. I’ve seen Green Woodpeckers and Greater Spotted Woodpeckers before. I might even have seen a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker now and then, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it. I had never seen a Black Woodpecker. Until today. I was walking along a track, pushing the buggy. A bird, which at first I thought was a crow, in a hedgerow to our right was disturbed by our presence and made a fuss. It flew out almost in front of us and I immediately realised it was a Black Woodpecker. I only just had presence of mind to take a couple of photos in its general direction as it flew away from us. Undeniably, though, this was my first Black Woodpecker spot.

Keeping up the Black- theme, we also saw a Black Necked Grebe today, as well as a Little Grebe, young Great Crested Grebes, an Oystercatcher and several birds that I haven’t identified yet. We talked a lot Mtoto and I. We sang a lot too. We played word games and we worked on our counting. Today it was the right time and the right place.

Oystercatcher on the Rhone.

Oystercatcher on the Rhone.



Black Stork down

Today, we were answering a challenge. A friend had invited me on a walk, at some date hence, but she said that it wasn’t buggy-friendly. We have a great carrier, an Osprey. And we also have a great buggy, a Mountain Buggy. Mtoto loves the carrier with its high vantage but it is a pain on my back after a while. Mtoto loves the buggy with his front-first vantage but it is a pain on my hand after a while. But the great advantage of the buggy is that walking companions will offer to push a buggy whereas they rarely offer to take the carrier. So Mtoto, Edward and I took the buggy out to Gland to test out the Toblerone Walk.

Sadly, the Toblerone Walk has nothing to do with chocolate. It’s a visual thing. Fearing invasion, the Swiss built this anti-tank defence in the 1930s. It probably should have been demolished long ago, but the story goes that some folk wanted the next generations to know what life was like way back then, so they left the barriers in place, as well as a soldiers’ canteen from 1944 and raised funds to keep them and make a walk alongside them. It’s not as bad as it could be, thanks to the walk also being next to a river and often not next to the Toblerone at all. But could it be done with a buggy?

The answer is that yes it can be done with a buggy, but my friend was also right. It is hard going at times and there are probably about 10 times in the walk when it becomes necessary to carry the buggy, though not for long. There’s the odd flight of steps up or down, a couple of places where the path goes between the pyramids where the gap is rather narrow and the odd bit where tree routes or rocks in the ground make for slopes that even the Mountain Buggy struggles.

The walk starts close to the lake, but as we were coming at it by public transport from Geneva we took the train from Gland and walked to the path from the station. We crossed the road opposite the Mr Bull English pub and turned left past a smart bakery and into an industrial zone. There were diggers, there were cranes, there was dodgy car lots, there were skips. But best of all for Mtoto there was a Post Bus depot. Woo! He’s only been on a Post Bus once, but it has become legendary in our family, so seeing a whole fleet of these buses was something special. We didn’t dwell though and were soon in sight of the Toblerones and turned right to follow the path and the river.

One of the awesome things about going for walks in Switzerland is that as long as you know where you want to go, you can rely on the footpath signs to take you there. As long as you look out for the occasional yellow diamonds and signposts, you don’t really need a map. We had one anyway, the Swiss National Map 1:25,000 Nyon (number 1261). And I had a print out from the Toblerone Line website, so we were well-covered.

The past few months have been tough on us for bird sightings – the dense foliage has made spotting birds difficult and the intense heat has stopped us from going out beyond the Bains des Paquis, the library and the parks in Geneva. But today we had some special moments, though notably they all came when we had gone above the village of Begnins and had left the Toblerones behind.

The first great sighting was when we heard the call of a Common Buzzard but couldn’t see it. Then it came again and again and eventually we saw a buzzard fly off from a tree on the other side of the valley. I could make out a small amount of movement under the tree and with my camera I identified an animal. At first I thought it was a dog, then perhaps a fox. Examining photos later on, we discovered that it was a deer.

Then, a couple of minutes later, Edward saw a bird in the sky. Usually, it’s a black kite or a common buzzard. I’ve got hundreds of photos of them from the last year and there’s rarely anything special about them. But I looked up anyway, focussed my camera and shot away. And then realised that I was watching something different. Edward shot it too and called it there and then as a stork. Consultation with a bird book when we got home suggested a Black Stork because of its size and shape and the colours underneath. But its sightings suggested that it this wasn’t a common location for a Black Stork and especially not until autumn at least. So I sent a photo to B, who introduced me to the Ornitho website and he confirmed it as a Black Stork. So we got a Black Stork down on the list for 2015 and I got a play on words for the post title today, hurrah!

The third great sighting was of butterflies. Lots of them. Several different species. Dragonflies and bees too. I’m not at all good at identification of these creatures so I can’t tell you what we saw. But it was fantastic nonetheless.


At last, after lunch, we got up to Bassins station on the Nyon to St Cergue line. To Mtoto’s great excitement he got to press a button at the station to let the train driver know that we were there and wanted to get on. He also got his ticket validated. We got a train back down to Nyon and another to Geneva.

All in all a good day out. We walked 10.2km in 3 hours 15 minutes, with an elevation of 385 metres. We had a picnic lunch sat upon some logs and looking at two parked tractors. According to Mtoto, a Gruffalo and some bears walked with us for most of the way. But neither Edward nor I were lucky enough to see them.

Walks with a toddler: La Plaine to Russin

A Blue Tit in flight at the lake

A Blue Tit in flight at the lake

“I’m doing a poo!”

It was a cold and largely solitary walk for Mtoto and me today, from La Plaine to Russin. It took just under 3 hours, as we idled along the way. The only point in the whole walk that we encountered another person was in our second hide of the day. A woman had just come in, when Mtoto announced loudly and proudly that he was doing a poo. If he hadn’t said anything, we would have known anyway because it was one of the more smelly ones. The woman left immediately.

There are advantages to having a toddler with you when you go on a walk. You have to think about their needs and communicate what’s going to happen so that they can understand and can enjoy it. Being with a toddler can force you to stay in one place for longer than you might otherwise have done. And when they’re talking, like Mtoto is, you can have great conversations. Today we talked a lot about bitterns and about trains. We didn’t see any bitterns, but Mtoto was hopeful. The idea to do this walk had come to us from B, who we met at La Bise, the day before. He said that when the lakes ice over, it is easier to see bitterns, especially at the hides near La Plaine. Great, I thought, we’ll go there. Mtoto and me had been once before, last month, with Edward. It had been a nice walk and longer too. But we had seen hardly anything from the hides. And certainly nothing new.

Mtoto had been most excited about going on a train. He loves Thomas the Tank Engine at the moment. Edward has an old wind-up train set and Thomas, as far as Mtoto is concerned, is the star attraction. On last week’s walk with Edward, Mtoto kept asking if we could go to Edward’s apartment afterwards. Sadly for him, the answer was no, because Edward was doing a longer walk than us. Mtoto was very disappointed. Mtoto knows all about Thomas. He knows that Thomas is blue and has a smiley face on the front. And he knows that there’s a yellow number one on the side. This part is particularly exciting for everyone, as Mtoto is just starting to know some numbers and letters.

La Plaine station

La Plaine station

La Plaine is the destination for a cantonal train from Gare Cornavin, running every half an hour during the week. The journey takes about 20 minutes and is presumably popular with commuters as it accesses villages/towns such as La Plaine, Russin, Satigny, Meyrin and the Vernier stop behind IKEA. It also serves the Zimeysa industrial estate, where a lot of luxury British cars are parked during the day. The village of La Plaine has little going for it as far as I can see. There’s a single bakery/cafe, a post office, a school, a dog care shop and that’s all we’ve seen in two visits, except for some industry and lots of homes. The playground was not much of a hit with Mtoto today, though he did enjoy the swing and the football court and thankfully someone had left a ball for us to use. Though Mtoto was really more interested in swinging the gate open and closed than anything else.

A Kingfisher among the trees by the lake

A Kingfisher among the trees by the lake

Then we were off to the hides. At the first, Mtoto was fairly patient, and enjoyed climbing from the ground to the bench to the table and back again. We saw a Kingfisher there for a few minutes, then a Blue Tit and Little Brown Job, but that was all, except some coots in the distance. At the second hide, where Mtoto did a poo and had a nappy change, we saw Great Crested Grebes, Coots, Goosander, Pochards, Crows and a Jay. At the third we saw nothing new and by the fourth, Mtoto was impatient to leave. Looking at the time, I realised that there were about 12 minutes to the next train from Russin to Cornavin or we would have to wait an extra half an hour. Not only that, but we needed to get to the station before the level crossing closed too. We covered the distance in good time, let’s say, including a 400 metres or so sprint at the end, making it over the crossing with seconds to spare. Result! And a nice little bit of exercise to count as my Janathon effort for the day.

View from one of the hides

View from one of the hides

On the way home we stopped off in the Cornavin shopping centre for Mtoto to ride the 1 CHF Thomas Tank Engine ride. He loved it, but it was over almost as soon as it had begun. Then we were off to Manor to find a Brio Thomas the Tank Engine and that was 11.90 CHF well spent!

A view from the fourth hide on the walk

A view from the fourth hide on the walk

To do the La Plaine to Russin walk: At La Plaine station, follow the road eastward towards the village. You’ll go past the bakery/cafe. Take the left turning at the junction. The playground is on the left, opposite the school and contains two swings, a springy aparatus (a ladybird) and a pirate’s ship in three parts with prow, mast and the deck. The football court is just next to it. To get back on the walk turn left back onto the road (or if not going to the playground just continue straight ahead). Walk on the pavement on the right.

After the houses is an industrial site on both sides of the road. Then the pavement ends just after the road bends to the left and you’ll need to be on the road for two or three metres so check that no traffic is coming first. Immediately before the bridge is a path to the right, which you go down. As you come towards the river take the path that branches off and up towards the left. This takes you across the Allondon river and under the railway. At the far end take the steps up (about 10, slightly uneven and with a bicycle wheel chute) and turn right. Follow the path round (don’t take the single step to the right) and eventually the lakes will open up on the left behind a hedge. Keep going along here to come to the first hide, on your left.

Leaving the hide, turn left out of it, then the path soon bends round to the left. Straight along here, the next 2 hides are on your left. Keep along the path to eventually come to the left turn, then follow this up (ignoring a turn to the right, although if you want to go straight to Russin and miss the fourth hide, turn right here), until you reach the end and the fourth hide is on your left. To get to Russin station from here retrace your steps until you reach the path (now on the left) that you ignored on the way up. Take it for a few hundred metres until you reach a road where you turn sharp left. Russin station is now in view and you can keep going on this road until you reach it. If going for a particular train, get there at least 5 minutes before departure time, to get safely across before the barriers come down.

Russin station

Russin station

If you came to La Plaine by car you can either retrace your steps at any point, or take a train back to La Plaine from Russin.


In the pub with the Geneva Dads drinking beer last week, a cry went round the tables that 2015 is the year. The year of what? Someone replied. The year! It came back. Today was the Monday of the year. The start of how I mean to go on. Monday has usually been jobs day. I do the weekly clothes washing in the evening and have been filling the day with food shopping and crashing. We lie in bed and watch videos. Or I fall asleep playing with Duplo in Mtoto’s room. I’ve had a lot of Mondays like that in the past five months.

Learning about the Groupe Ornithologique du Bassin Genevois on Saturday helped me find a focus for this week. On the GOBG website is a list of 21 places in Geneva canton which are recommended as spots to watch birds from. Planning our week, I simply set the first place on the list for Monday, the second for Tuesday and so on. Of course, it won’t be as simple as this. We’ve been to some of the places already and a playdate (whose parent is a mother!) for Mtoto on Tuesday means the second place is postponed and so on. But still, it’s a start.

I even prepared the buggy beforehand. I was on it yesterday. I looked up the times and knew we needed to get the 9:22 from Bel Air to get to Croisee de Confignon to get the L to Laconnex. Yeah, I know, Laconnex. Where? I can’t tell you much about Laconnex the village. There’s a playground, a cafe, a shop, a farm and a garage selling old American cars. There’s all the usual stuff that a village in Geneva canton has. To be fair to the people of Laconnex, we didn’t poke about today in their village. We were on a mission. We were on our way to the Pro Natura Reserve Naturelle de Laconnex.


Winter's morning at Laconnex. Photo: Jez Smith

Winter’s morning at Laconnex. Photo: Jez Smith

We got off at the L stop after Stand Laconnex, turned first right into Rue des Rupettes, then left at the roundabout onto La Vy Neuve. Then we turned right at the next junction, just after the American car dealership onto Chemin-de-la-Loi. The reserve is about 200 yards up on the left. It’s on the site of an old gravel pit and has ponds, reed beds and lots of trees around the edges. It has a noticeboard and a path for visitors around the edge. What it doesn’t have is an entrance that is suitable for buggies, not even Mountain Buggies. I first tried pushing the buggy up the steep path over the bordering mound of soil that serves as entrance but we got stuck part way up. So we went back down and then I went up, pulling the buggy behind me. Which was fine but for the slope down the other side being steeper, longer and narrower. We made it, but only just. Afterwards I went back up the slope to pick up the things that had come out of the buggy on the way over.

Winter's greys at Laconnex. Photo: Jez Smith

Winter’s greys at Laconnex. Photo: Jez Smith

Unfortunately, Mtoto took an immediate dislike to Reserve Naturelle de Laconnex. Which was a real pain, because it was one of the most peaceful, tranquil and simply beautiful places I have been in a while. And there were lots of birds flitting around in the trees. “Pappi, I don’t want  this path, I want the big path” he shrieked. “I don’t like it, I want to go home” he cried. I tried him in the buggy, I tried him walking, I tried him on my shoulders. Nothing worked. We only reached harmony when we were on the way out and he knew it. Still, we saw Goldfinches (the first of the year), Reed Buntings, Blackbirds, Kestrels, Crows, Robins, Blue Tits and Long-tailed Tits. Not bad considering we were a bright red and blue seven feet high two-headed giant, wielding two cameras and in constant dialogue about leaving. As we were about to take on the entrance/exit again I asked Mtoto how he wanted to tackle it. He suggested that he went in the buggy, which was when we discovered that somewhere along the way we had lost Hippo. She’s a nondescript blankety thing, of little sentimental value except that she’s been with the buggies since day dot. So we trekked back along the path until we found Hippo and brought her back.

Droplets at Laconnex. Photo: Jez Smith

From the reserve, we continued on Chemin-de-la-Loi, stopping to see various birds including some buzzards, then turned left down Route des Allues, where we saw our first hare of the year. Cutting a quick left took us on a path that eventually led back onto Chemin-de-la-Loi and back to the village, where caught a bus back, an hour-and-a-half after we had arrived. It was a beautiful morning, cold and crisp. The mountains were clear and had fresh snow on top. We made dragon breaths all the way round, picked up sticks and went fishing from the buggy. We rode mud, ice and roads. We saw one other person in the whole trip, a guy with a large lens on his camera, keeping still and watching the woods. This was the day and this is the year.

Janathon stats

I ran tonight with the Geneva Runners, 9.9km in 52:53 at 5.21 per km. Then I joined the runners for their weekly social – burgers at the Clubhouse and ran home afterwards.

2015 birds

46. Goldfinch

47. Great Crested Grebe

There were more, but I don’t know yet what they are. Edit: (21/01/2015) A Yellow Bunting and a Common Reed Bunting, with thanks to the Swiss birdwatcher, B, who got in touch with his suggestions.

Raptor (I presume it's a buzzard) in flight at Laconnex. Photo: Jez Smith

Raptor (I presume it’s a buzzard) in flight at Laconnex. Photo: Jez Smith


yellow bird. Any idea what it is?

Yellow Bunting

More yellow bird. Any i/d?

Yellow Bunting

Little Brown Job. But what is it?

Common Reed Bunting

Little Brown Job on its way.

Common Reed Bunting

Perly to Grand Lancy

Today we went for a walk with our friend Edward, like we do most Thursdays. Thursdays with Edward have pretty much become the mainstay of our daytime in Geneva for Mtoto and me. Edward moved to Geneva when he was about nine years old, because his mother got a job in Geneva. So he’s an earlier version of Mtoto in that regard. Edward is a librarian by trade and is also in some demand on the theatre circuit as a lighting guy. But on Thursdays he’s our getting to know Geneva buddy. And I mean Geneva in the canton sense, rather than the city, as we’re often to be found out in the countryside.

Edward and I share some interests, in particular photography and birds. He’s also very good with Mtoto, which helps, and on days like today he’ll happily push the Mountain Buggy along the whole of our route, which today was just under 10km. On these walks of ours the three of us are often to be seen with our cameras. Mtoto points his at anything that takes his interest. Edward and I generally point ours at birds and very occasionally, other stuff.

Today we had arranged to meet in the village of Perly in south-west Geneva, with a view to walking round to Grand Lancy. We met in Grand Lancy to get on the 42 to Lully. There was little of note on the short journey except perhaps for going through the ZIPLO industrial estate and seeing some expensive car showrooms such as for Ferrari and Maserati. We got off at Perly-Marie to be as far through the village as possible. From there, we followed the route of the bus and where it went round the bend to the right, we went straight on. Just outside the village is P+R Perly (the park and ride stop), which is one end of the 4 route, and is basically just a giant car park. But ignoring the car park and the ugly housing estate just over the border in France, the view to Saleve on the left and the Jura on the right is quite wonderful and well worth being in the presence of. Walking past some Gamay and Pinot Noir vineyards we were soon under the cover of trees and pretty much from here on we were in a birdwatching paradise. As well as the plentiful Blue and Great Tits, Robins and Blackbirds, we were treated fairly quickly to a close up of a long-tailed tit, followed by a Treecreeper. The path goes downhill, then becomes a u-bend to the right (past a small playground on the left) and then joins up with the River L’Aire.

For the next mile or so the path goes straight alongside the river, crossing over one road until getting to a remarkable wooden bridge. We saw lots of birds, mostly Mallards in the river as well as a couple of pairs of Goosanders. In the trees and all around we saw the usual melange of birds as well as some nuthatches and a hawfinch. Along the River L’Aire, some major renovation works are taking place and later on we had to abandon walking near the river because the paths are closed. But up this end the works have finished and the wooden bridge marks the start of those works. Just before we got to the bridge, we took Mtoto down to the river’s edge so that he could throw some stones. He loves throwing stones into water and since I love skimming stones on the river I have figured that I can’t ban him from doing the same. Some of the water was frozen so Mtoto shrieked with delight as his stones varied so wildly, some plopping straight into the water, some smashing through the ice and some coming to rest on top of the ice. My favourite was the stone that hit the ice, slid along the ice and eventually dropped through a hole into the water, which we hadn’t been expecting.

While down there I saw the sudden flash of blue that I have come to know is a kingfisher. It was my first of the year but was gone in a flash. Now hopeful we went up onto the big wooden bridge that also seems to be able to act as a two-way hide. Looking down the river we saw what I at first thought was a moorhen but soon realised was quite different and we now reckon was a water rail. There was a pair and they were having a good splash about in the streams. I saw the kingfisher again, flying along and then under us. I photographed one bird in midflight over the river. Excited by a flash of orange I quickly looked at my photos only to find a robin in my shots!

Now on the other side of the river we saw many more Mallards, a couple of Moorhens, Tree Sparrows, Reed Buntings and a Yellow Wagtail. We followed the river until we had to turn off, then wound back to Grand Lancy via Confignon, mostly walking on country roads with a bit of traffic. The final highlight of the walk was going through a petting farm where we saw pigs, goats, horses and rabbits, prompting Mtoto to claim that Rebecca Rabbit was in his hand and there she remained for the rest of the journey. At one point he said that Rebecca Rabbit wanted a leaf, so I plucked one from a tree and gave it to him/her and it was much appreciated by both, apparently.

For the Janathon followers, we walked 9.67km in 2 hours 51 minutes. Average speed 3.4km/h and top speed 8.2km/h.

the birds list will be updated here.

First visit to Annemasse

I wanted to call this post “France is shit” or, when I qualified it, “Annemasse is shit” and these thoughts kept me going today in the icy cold morning as I walked the 4.5km or so each way between the Swiss border at Thonex and the Decathlon store in Annemasse. I could have taken the bus, of course, but walking is what I do, so walking is what I did.

The weather got me down a bit. The forecast had predicted sunshine and highs of around 4 degrees. There wasn’t any such high while we were out. And the sunshine stayed firmly above the thick inpenetrable cloud that hung over Geneva and Annemasse today. Mtoto was excited at the start of the day. He knew we were going to France and he knows from his maps book that France is another country. We had a bit of fun between the two border controls as Mtoto asked where Switzerland was. I swivelled the buggy round and pointed, “there’s Switzerland”. Mtoto asked where France was. I swung the buggy back and pointed and said “there’s France”. Mtoto could have gone on a lot longer with this game, whereas I tired after pointing each out about three times.

The first thing I noticed that was crap about Annemasse was the pavements. Really, in just a few metres we were on pavements that were in poor condition. They merged with other bad pavements. There were holes, there were ruptures. There were rarely dropped kerbs at the end and if there were, they were often blocked by parked cars. Cars were parked all over the place too, especially on pavements, especially blocking the whole pavement so that we had to go in the road. In one road they hadn’t bothered with a pavement and still the cars were parked haphazardly. There were lots of signs and information boards and posts placed as if in the most obstructing place possible.

So those were the main reasons that I wanted to say that France is shit or Annemasse is shit. But it wouldn’t have been fair. Especially not on France, which is otherwise lovely in my experience and especially just a few weeks ago when we visited friends in Divonne. And Annemasse isn’t so bad really.

The first redeeming feature about Annemasse was that there was less dog poo on the streets than in Geneva. Still quite a bit and still spread across the pavement, but over all it felt like less. At the edge of the park was possibly a reason why. There was a space, perhaps only a few square metres, for dogs to poo in. And it was outside the park fence, whereas in Geneva these spaces are inside the park and consequently there is dog poo all over the whole of our parks.

Annemasse’s second redeeming feature was the playground in Park de Montessuit. Recently refurbished (Google Street View shows construction works in the park), it offers two playgrounds for different age groups. Mtoto’s playground had several climbing frames and slides, three rockables and a big see-saw. Apart from the hard cold ice and frost we had a good time. The tea towel we keep for wiping playing equipment dry was kept very busy! My favourite moment was when Mtoto climbed onto the motorbike rockable and asked me to join him in the sidecar. I didn’t fit going forwards, so I had to sit in it backwards and gently rock us back and forth. When he wanted to go faster, I had to get off!

Decathlon was just like Decathlon in the UK, except that the staff were French rather than eastern European. We bought a Hamax bike seat for my Mtoto to ride on my bike, a helmet for him (big shout out to Etienne for his help!) and lots of extra running kit for me.

Me: Do you like this t-shirt?

Mtoto: No Pappa, I do not like it.

Me: Do you like this jumper?

Mtoto: Is there a smaller size for me Pappa? Why are you taking your trousers off Pappa?

Me: Because I need to know if the running trousers fit.

Mtoto: I don’t want you to take your trousers off Pappa.

It was that sort of day. Mtoto didn’t like anything I tried on, but he did like Kevin’s biscuits. Our friend Kevin recently stayed over and he and his wife brought us a pack of goodies from the UK, including McVities Digestives. Mtoto like Kevin’s Biscuits a lot! Decathlon and its prices were the third big redeeming feature for Annemasse. So much so that we’ll be back to visit the shops again. We will probably do more park exploring too, as long as it is a bit warmer!

Janathon times for today:

2.24km in 20:38 (to the park).

2.62km in 29:34 (from the park, to Decathlon including time to stop and consult the internet after a wrong-turning).

4.60km in 42:19 (distance is an educated guess based on Google Maps after Endomondo lost GPS signal after 0.7km and didn’t find it again for the next 3.8km or so, grrrr).

The birds list continues:

25. Chaffinch (seen in the park)

26. Common gull (seen yesterday, forgot to add)

27. Feral pigeon (seen every day, remembered to name it today)