A December 2003 trip
to Geneva by Invicta73
Quote: Despite having spent a couple of years regularly visiting Zürich, I had never got around to seeing Geneva. So, with my connection to Switzerland about to end, spending the New Year's break in the city felt like a very good idea to me.
Meanwhile, due to the presence of the offices of various global organisations, it has unusually prominent position on the world stage and a cosmopolitan atmosphere. One of the best ways to experience the distinctive side of the city is to visit the neighbouring International Red Cross & Red Crescent Museum and the Palace of Nations, which was one of the real highlights of my stay.
In addition, taking a break from the many urban pleasures on offer and venturing out into the beautiful mountainous local countryside is very worthwhile. For such a trip, there are just as many options as there are peaks visible on the city's skyline. All have the potential to be memorable places, but probably the single most alluring was Mont Blanc, the tallest peak in Europe and a truly wonderful destination.
However, despite being one of the biggest cities in the country, it is actually compact and therefore for the most part easy to explore on foot. In fact, walking in the centre is actually not just convenient, but is also very nice. Additionally, strolling along the green lakeside promenades and through the cobbled streets of the oldest district was an extremely pleasant activity.
The establishment is located close to the waterfront on a quiet street corner in the fairly central and relatively colourful Pâquis district. Although not competing in terms of lavish amenities with the immense Noga Hilton that is just across the road and other similarly high cost accommodations in the vicinity, it is a fraction of the price and has much more character.
The hotel is based on the first floor of a 19th century apartment block in what would have once been a quite grand private residence, and that is exactly what it still looks like. In fact, the homely aesthetic combined with the warmth of the greeting upon arrival made gave the impression that I had actually entered a friend’s residence. However, such a past also means that space is limited, so making an advance reservation is advisable.
Nevertheless, the bedrooms do feel spacious, and the vintage furnishings, cleanliness and attention to simple comforts together serve to create a cosy atmosphere that more than makes up for a lack of top end facilities. In addition, for a slight extra cost, it is possible to enjoy the moderate luxury of an en-suite shower and toilet, rather than using the shared bathrooms in the corridor.
Finally, one typically charming touch is that, despite a lack of a designated dining space, breakfast is not only still served, but is also included in the rate. The ever helpful staff simply prepare an offering of tea or coffee with wonderfully fresh bread, butter and jam, and bring it to the room at a pre-agreed time along with a friendly smile and a happy "Bonjour", which was always a lovely way to start the day.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on May 19, 2004
Hôtel de la Cloche
Rue de la Cloche
(41) 22 732 9481
As is perhaps implied by the name, the restaurant’s fairly reasonably priced menu is quintessentially Swiss-French in composition. It features a wide range of dishes, but the undoubted speciality of the house is fondue. Numerous interesting variations of the extremely sociable shared meal are available, but my slightly conservative choice was a caquelon containing the classic bubbling mix of Emmental, Gruyère and white wine, which was extremely tasty, especially when washed down with something produced in the relatively nearby vineyards of Vaud.
The dimly lit interior is similarly traditional in style, featuring solid old-fashioned furnishings, heavy wooden beams and plenty of almost kitsch Alpine touches. The only thing that marred the otherwise appealingly rural aesthetic was the rather out of place presence of a television showing sports clips.
However, the establishment has a more cosmopolitan feel than the surroundings might initially suggest because it is additionally popular with tourists and the sizable expatriate community as well as the locals. In fact, the combination of the rustic décor, the hearty smells that emanate from the kitchen and the hubbub of the numerous different languages spoken by the diners produces an intriguing atmosphere that actually seems to sum up the city very well indeed.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on May 19, 2004
Cave Valaisanne et Chalet Suisse
23, boulevard Georges-Favon
Geneva, Switzerland 1204
+41 22 328 12 36
Attraction | "Cathedral of St Peter"
Although impressive from below, my first reaction to seeing the huge structure at closer range was admittedly that of slight disappointment. It is externally a somewhat untidy mixture of architectural styles that is immediately obvious thanks to the neo-classical façade, which does not fit in with the pretty surrounding medieval square.
However, the interior is a much more harmonious affair, primarily because of the removal of almost all decoration during the years that Jean Calvin preached from the pulpit, which was a time when the city was known as the Protestant Rome. Although the process might have resulted in an aesthetic as stern as one of the great reformer’s sermons or his austere seat that is still located there, I actually found the effect to be surprisingly nice in a rather understated way. In fact, despite such sparseness, the combined effect of the soaring height of the ceiling and the elegance of the bare but appealing pale grey stonework is pleasant rather than severe, and accentuates the few remaining elaborations, especially the colourful and unusually patterned stained glass windows, which look fabulous against the stark backdrop.
Meanwhile, the small Maccabean Chapel escaped the aforementioned ravages, and following a period of use as a storeroom, renovation work has restored former glories. The ornate Gothic scene, especially the angelic frescoes, is a real contrast to the rest of the building, and gives many intriguing clues to how things must have once looked throughout.
In addition, it is also possible to ascend to the top of one of the towers. Although climbing the 150 steps of the fairly claustrophobic staircase may be a daunting prospect, doing so is certainly worthwhile because the views over the rooftops to the lake and the mountains are wonderful.
Finally, found under the cathedral are the results of a long and ongoing archaeological project, which include the walls and old mosaic floors of the various religious structures that previously occupied the site, the oldest of which dates back to the start of the 5th century. However, whilst academically very significant, somewhat confusing presentation makes it a little difficult for a layperson like myself to properly appreciate.
La Cathédrale St Pierre
Cour St Pierre
Geneva, Switzerland 1204
+41 22 738 56 50
A particularly pleasant thing to do whilst in the vicinity is simply strolling along the peaceful pedestrianised streets, the most important and largest of which is the gently ascending Grand Rue. Flanking the picturesque main road are some wonderfully well-preserved buildings that date back several centuries and now mostly host suitably sedate stores selling antiques, books and suchlike. Particularly notable is the stately Hôtel-de-Ville, which has been the location of the cantonal parliament for many centuries and has hosted various momentous events, such as the foundation of the Red Cross. The central courtyard is worth seeing, but more intriguing is the internal paved ramp that takes the place of the more usual main staircase, apparently so that eminent citizens could ascend on horseback. Meanwhile, directly opposite is the open-air but covered arcade of the Arsenal, which appropriately features several venerable canons and some beautiful mosaics depicting historic scenes.
The fine thoroughfare eventually opens out onto what is effectively the heart of the district, the pretty Place du Bourg-de-Four, which has a fine fountain in the middle and is surrounded by several appealing structures, including the Palace of Justice and the house where Rousseau was born. The unusually undulating cobbled square physically still evokes its past role as the site of medieval market, but also seems somewhat less refined than some nearby spots, primarily because of the number of establishments found there that cater for the invariable influx of tourists. Nevertheless, spending some time amidst such lovely surroundings on a café terrace still might be a very good idea if the sun is shining.
The area’s alternative hub is Place de la Taconnerie, which is a smaller, more enclosed and quieter plaza that is full of yet more impressive architecture. However, overshadowing everything else is the massive Cathedral of St Peter, which is as dominant now as it was during the tenure of the fiery Reformation preacher Jean Calvin.
The other particularly noteworthy attraction is the oldest house in the settlement, the so-called Maison Tavel. Although built during the 1300s, the edifice’s most eye-catching feature is actually the 17th century façade. In addition to being aesthetically pleasing, it is home to displays of various items pertaining to everyday local life in the past. Despite being generally interesting, most of the exhibits simply do not compete with the relief map of the city that is located on the top floor. Crafted from copper and zinc around 150 years ago, it is a remarkable piece of work in terms of both detail and size, and single-handedly makes visiting the museum a very worthwhile activity.
Attraction | "Left Bank"
Among the nicest things that it has to offer are the lovely lakeside stretches of greenery, such as the quite centrally located English Garden, which is a popular gathering spot for young locals, and also attracts many tourists, who are drawn by the famous but perhaps overrated Flower Clock. As the name suggests, a colourful and pleasantly arranged flowerbed makes up the face of the timepiece, which is as precise and accurate as most other things in Switzerland.
Nearby is another enduring and well-known symbol of the city, the Jet d'Eau, which fires many gallons of water upwards into the air to a height of almost 500 feet, and is therefore considered to be the world’s largest fountain. Given that it generally does not function during the winter months, seeing the huge man-made geyser in operation was a wonderful surprise on New Year's Day, which raised spirits that were then suffering due to the celebrations of the night before. One thing that is worth noting is that depending on the direction of the wind, going for a closer look can result in a soggy reminder of Newton's supposed saying, "What goes up must come down"!
Another fine place to spend some time when the weather is good is Bastions Park, which lies at the foot of the old fortifications. Dominating the gardens is an absolutely massive and rather epic early 20th century monument that commemorates the Reformation. However, the giant statues of Calvin and his counterparts are not the only oversized things found in the gardens. Several chessboards complete with large pieces are marked on the ground in one place, and watching the games that are invariably taking place there is a surprisingly entertaining activity.
There are also many interesting cultural sights in the vicinity, including several on the beautiful Place Neuve, such as the stately neo-baroque Grand Theatre and the Rath Museum, which hosts well-regarded temporary exhibitions. Meanwhile, seeing the so-called Little Palace’s private collection of 20th century artwork was a tempting option, but sadly it was not open at the time of my visit.
However, the half million items on show in the Museum of Art and History should provide more than adequate compensation for any such disappointments. Among the classical antiquities, medieval artefacts, and works by Cézanne, Picasso, Rodin, and many others was one particularly unusual and fascinating piece by Konrad Witz. Although his biblical scene of Christ astounding the fishermen by walking on water is familiar, the setting is recognisably but oddly the local lake.
Left Bank - Rive Gauche
Probably the most noteworthy of the pair is the International Red Cross & Red Crescent Museum. It is located on a hill overlooking the centre, right next to the headquarters of the famous humanitarian institution that the erstwhile pre-eminent local citizen and Nobel Peace Prize winner Henry Dunant established during the 19th century. As the name suggests, the award winning attraction is dedicated to detailing the past and present work undertaken by his incredible legacy, and does so in style with well-presented and thought provoking exhibits. Although the nature of the subject matter means that viewing the displays of the terrible effects of wars and natural disasters inside the modern building is certainly a disturbing although compelling experience, it is also somewhat uplifting to learn about the good acts that some people do to alleviate the suffering of others.
Nearby are the various European offices of the United Nations, many of which are simply quite nondescript workplaces for the thousands of bureaucrats that are resident in the area, and will be of little interest to tourists. However, the Palace of Nations is a more striking and intriguing affair that was originally built to house the long defunct League of Nations in the period between the two world wars. The view of the building down an avenue that is lined with the flags of all member countries is definitely eye-catching, and those who are sufficiently motivated can additionally explore the interior and learn more about what happens there on an hour long tour, which surprisingly involves going through passport control to enter what is actually international territory rather than Switzerland. The information provided by the multilingual guides may be rather dull to some visitors, but for me the chance to spend time in a place where so many important historical events have occurred was intriguing. Meanwhile, it should be easy for anybody to appreciate the lavish décor of some of the rooms, especially the Council Chamber, which features some truly epic murals.
There are also a couple of other notable things to see in the area, including a massive sculpture of a chair that is missing a leg, which is a strangely poignant memorial to the victims of landmines that was erected to mark the banning of those horribly indiscriminate weapons. In addition, the Ariana Museum contains a wide range of valuable porcelain and glass, and even those who are not particularly inspired by such items might still enjoy visiting it, because the grand building that is home to the collection is fabulous both inside and out.
Getting to Europe’s highest point from the city is a relatively simple matter. It starts with a bus ride to Chamonix, which almost immediately involves a frontier passport check, an unusual prospect in modern day Western Europe. Having crossed the border, the motorway is soon abandoned, and the pretty Savoy countryside that the smaller roads wind through proved to be a fine appetiser for what is to come later.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the tall steep slopes that are all around, the French village is very obviously a major ski resort rather than an idyllic rural settlement. Therefore, heading straight for the cable car seemed like a very good idea. The first stage of the two-part trip is up to a midway transfer point from where the buildings below already looked tiny and the views across to the opposite Aiguille Rouge massif were really quite lovely. Meanwhile, the next leg was fairly nerve wracking, ascending incredibly steeply and at times quite close to the sheer rock face before finally terminating at around 12,500 feet, which really is about as high as it is possible to go without doing some serious mountaineering.
Unfortunately, the January day was typically bad in terms of weather, and thick cloud shrouded the viewing platform at the top, which meant that there was absolutely no chance of seeing the spectacular panoramas that should be available from such an elevated position. In fact, the combination of the lack of visibility and a temperature approaching zero degrees Fahrenheit sent me rapidly retreating to the café, whilst at the same time pondering that the excursion might have been better undertaken during the summer months!
Having decided not to traverse the summit and descend into Italy, but instead to proceed back to the valley floor, it became apparent that the small settlement made up for a relative lack of charm by showing itself to be a good place to refuel, thanks to the numerous eateries that provide sustenance to the huge number of holidaymakers that stay in the vicinity. All kinds of food are available, but my choice on the day was to sample some regional cuisine at Le Sanjon, which has a cosy interior that is a nicely rustic contrast to the busy streets immediately outside. The selection of dishes on the menu was equally traditional, and included an excellent raclette, which arrived on an unusual and old-fashioned coal filled implement that is used for melting the cheese.
Following the hearty lunch, the afternoon involved catching a cog wheeled train that travels through a pine forest to a station overlooking the largest glacier in France, where the main attraction is a cave carved annually and also fully furnished from the solid ice. Whilst perhaps not overly impressive, the unusually lit interior can be quite interesting to see, but more intriguing personally was observing the distance between each of the yearly openings from above, which illustrates the consistent creeping movement of the appropriately named Sea of Ice.
London, United Kingdom