We arrived early at Geneva Castle, around 1320. The year, not the time of day. It is an imposing structure. At each corner a round tower, though only three are fully constructed, and at the front an imposing gate. People could walk along the ramparts between the towers. Those standing guard had fine views towards Lake Geneva, across to the mountains and over the plains. The castle was built on a marshland, so had waters all around it, but with secure paths for entry and two fine moats. We imagined it bustling with activity and life. And just then, we heard a bugle and the gates began to open. We were being beckoned in. Mtoto climbed out of the buggy and onto my shoulders. We two travellers strode into the castle.
Inside, we were greeted by Hugues Dauphin, sire de Faucigny, and his servants. They took our horses and while Hugues Dauphin gave us a guided tour of his domain. As well as the grand walls, there was a house-like structure in the centre, stables and chickens ran freely around our feet. We wandered over to the walls, climbed up and enjoyed the splendid view, squinting in the bright sunshine, but still able to enjoy the sight of the mountains and the unspoilt plains. This will forever be how I will remember Geneva Castle.
The trudging reality was rather different. I took a wrong turning on our walk down the hill and to avoid a busier road we had to take paths right round the outside of the castle before we could get quietly to the front. And even then, one of the paths we took, was being used by several cars as a shortcut in their journeys, meaning extra time stood on the muddy banks waiting for them to pass. A couple passed with a big dog, which stuck its nose into the bottom of the buggy and came out with a biscuit and then spat it out. Both Mtoto and I regretted first that we had not realised that the biscuit was there and second that it was now inedible.
We passed a small playground outside a restaurant at the Rouelbeau sports centre, but it looked too challenging for Mtoto. The only point of relief was a pleasant wood carving of lots of local animals such as wild boar, a hare and various birds. It was early, still not 9am, and the light was poor. Much greyer than I was expecting. We spotted the beavers’ dam, but didn’t spot any beavers. If they had any sense they were inside somewhere, trying to keep warm.
The castle is a desperate ruin, falling into deep decay over several centuries but is listed as a site of historical national importance. According to various Geneva authority webpages there have systematic archaeological digs and several years ago there were plans for an educational trail and walk, but there was nothing like that that we could see.
However, I came over all Tony Robinson and got into the swing of things telling the story of the castle to Mtoto and imagining that we were there when it was at its best. Sadly, Mtoto didn’t get the vision, not like the sandpit of yesterday. We went up the thick mud slope into the castle keep, or what was left of it. Not enough to satisfy Mtoto though. “I want to go in the castle” he kept crying, “over there”. Over there was beyond a long fence with big warning signs telling us that we weren’t allowed to enter. A lone workman was on site too, forlornly battling with the wind, trying to tie down plastic sheeting that covers the last remaining stone walls and that had come undone and been torn. “We are in the castle” I repeatedly said, but Mtoto wasn’t having it. I wouldn’t let him throw stones in the moat, which annoyed him further and his complaining largely drowned out the sound of the woodpeckers drilling in the trees above our heads. He did at least stop to listen to them for a few seconds.
We probably saw around a dozen Greater Spotted Woodpeckers at the castle. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many in one place. We also saw Mallard ducks and a Kestrel, as well as a Coot in the lagoon opposite. Our plan was to move onto the Sionnet marsh and spend some time looking for birds, splashing in puddles and throwing stones in the water but just then a bright light in the distance caught my eye. I looked up and saw the ominous dark clouds above our heads and realised that the wind had picked up. Then came the first rumble of thunder.
We headed for the village of Meinier via Essert, a pretty hamlet. We saw some decaying 1980s cars, plus a very old tractor with a smiley face. There were also a haggle of chickens and Mtoto took delight in telling me the colours of their heads (red) and legs (yellow), as well as their bodies (white), when I asked him what colour they were. Heading out of Essert, we also saw a buzzard and then that was it before the rain came. And when it came, it was hellish. Hail and rain. Hard and intense. Thankfully we weren’t far from Meinier and miraculously we saw a bus, though my face fell when I realised that it was sans voyageurs. But my spirit was quickly raised by ducking into the Pommier Garni cafe, where Mtoto and I enjoyed an apple muffin and a hot apple juices, before catching the next bus back into town. We even had time for an hour in the ludotheque before lunch.
Note: The castle is really called Rouelbeau Castle, but since it is in the Canton of Geneva I took the liberty of calling it Geneva Castle so that Mtoto might enjoy it more. As it was, on the bus ride home we passed a house that had been built to look a bit like a castle. “There’s a castle, Pappa”, said Mtoto. “A real castle. I want to go in it. In the real castle.”
Apart from the rain, around 2-3 miles walk, over an hour and a half.
As well as the Greater Spotted Woodpeckers, Buzzard, Kestrel, Coot and Mallards, we also saw a couple of Grey Herons, a Wren, Great Tits, Robins, Blue Tits, Wood Pigeons, House Sparrows, Blackbirds and one new bird for the year, a Collared Dove. We saw one bird that I couldn’t identify in flight, but in the low light my photo was completely inconclusive.