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Missing maritime link returns to Lake Geneva

On board La Liberté during its maiden voyage.

(Roy Probert)

An oar-inspiring medieval galley, La Liberté, built entirely by the unemployed has made its first cruise on Lake Geneva.

Despite last minute hitches - the 55 metre-long, 190-ton galley has yet to receive its official safety certificate - a handful of lucky journalists were able to enjoy the first two-hour trip aboard this majestic wooden vessel.

Tens of thousands of tourists are expected to follow, once regular cruises commence in July.

It is the first time a galley has plied the waters of the lake for 400 years. "We've built the missing link of this region's maritime heritage," says Jean-Pierre Hirt, who has overseen the project since its inception ten years ago.

"Today, the boat has come to life," he told swissinfo.

Sails unfurled

The galley will usually be powered by motors, but if weather conditions are right, its 700 square metres of sail will be unfurled. On special occasions - perhaps four or five times a year - a team of 123 rowers will take up the 41 oars.

With the French Alps, the vineyards of canton Vaud or Morges castle in the background, it makes an impressive sight. "People will be able to discover the lake in a different and enjoyable way," Hirt says.

Back in the glory days of galleys, when the Dukes of Savoy ruled the region, the ships were more likely to have inspired fear and intimidation. They were not used for mundane tasks like transporting goods. They were for waging war and inspiring respect.

In fact, La Liberté is twice as big as the galleys that sailed on the lake centuries ago. It is a replica of a Mediterranean galley, from which the lake galleys were descended.

Hope for jobless

The Liberté project has been a long time in the making. Hirt, a trade unionist with a love of sailing, had the initial idea in 1992, as a way of giving hope, skills and work experience to the growing ranks of unemployed in the region.

After two years of research and a year spent building the special wooden hangar, construction began in 1996. The hull was placed in the water last summer and over the past year, the 30-metre masts, lateen yards and interior fixtures have been fitted.

Over 600 jobless people have been involved in the project in various capacities, and that will continue. Hirt has signed a convention with the federal economics ministry agreeing to train unemployed youngsters on the boat.

"I'm certain that from among their ranks will come those who will keep this project going," Hirt told swissinfo.

La Liberté has caught the imagination of local people. Some 45,000 turned up to see the galley moved from its wooden hangar onto the water in June 2001, and 3,000 volunteers have signed up to become apprentice oarsmen and oarswomen.

Boost to tourism

Their enthusiasm is hardly surprising given what the project has done for unemployed people and promises to do for the local economy.

"It's an incredible product to promote not only the Morges area, but also canton Vaud," says Xavier Bianco, of the cantonal tourist board.

"It's a product for leisure tourism, but also for business tourism, because we host a lot of conferences, and companies are always looking for something really different," he told swissinfo.

The galley will be able to hold 150 passengers at a time, each paying an average of SFr44 for the two-hour cruise. With three trips a day - or around 600 a year - planned, La Liberté could turn out to be a lucrative enterprise.

However, a companion project - a medieval port village that would be both a living museum of traditional crafts and a home for the galley - has yet to receive official permission.

by Roy Probert

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