An October 2004 trip
to Geneva by jaybroek
Quote: Frequent visits to the Pays de Gex and Geneva bring welcome interludes of big scenery. Long lunches in snow-bound mountain refuges, dizzying views, and a studied examination of the quality of vin chaud fill our days.
With a couple of minor blips, one being the rather insistent incursion by Napoleon’s armies, Geneva’s wealth has grown and, along with the other Swiss cantons, has become a benchmark for neutrality and independence. Business and banking thrived and the city served as a base for two of the great free-thinkers of the Enlightenment - Rousseau and Voltaire.
In modern times, Geneva’s geographic and political positions have made it a key international location – the Genevois Henri Dunant founded the Red Cross here, and this position was cemented by the establishment of the League of Nations after the First World War.
So that’s Geneva: wealthy, rich in history, and with a key role in international affairs. We visit regularly, not for any of the above, however, but for the sheer opulence of its surroundings. A few short kilometers to the west of the city lies the southern tip of the Jura, with accessible snowy peaks, skiing, and marvellous refuges offering classic regional food. And that would be enough for most cities, but greedy Geneva is also the gateway to the Alps; look east from any point and there looms the Mont Blanc massif, a serious mountain by any standards. And to go with the towering backdrop, there’s the largest body of fresh water in Europe, Lac Leman.
Geneva is surrounded by France, and, for me, this makes its "Swissness" all the more pronounced. Switzerland is the kind of country you’d have no problem introducing to your mum. Immaculately presented, punctual, and not short of a bob or two, Switzerland would give your parents no cause for concern. If France showed up on your doorstep, however, slightly disheveled, knowing glint in its eye… well, I know who I’d rather step out with.
No visit to Geneva is complete without a trip to the mountains; the Jura and the Alps are in easy reach, with skiing, sledging, and many permutations of hot cheese available way beyond the standard winter months. Take the cable car up from Chamonix to Mont Blanc’s Aiguille du Midi – wobbly legs and gasps of awe a must.
Auto routes flow out of Geneva south and east into France; in fact, it’s quite difficult to get out of the city without leaving the country. This gives you an opportunity to admire the smartly presented Swiss border guards who may well stop you. Remember that Switzerland is not in the "Euro zone," and duty may well be due on goods crossing the border.
As you would expect in Switzerland, public transport is incredibly clean and efficient, and Geneva’s is supplemented with an extensive tram network.
The sad irony that most of the perch that is enjoyed in the lakeside restaurants comes from the Czech Republic was shared with me as we headed along the lakeside in search of an appropriate terrace on which to indulge our fishy pleasures. I must admit to feeling slightly deflated by this discovery. This gradually passed into a suspicion that we would be in the Czech Republic before we found a restaurant that met the important criteria as laid down by the Blonde and Savta. The first of these criteria, perfectly reasonably, was that it was open; many of the restaurants on the lakeside are seasonal and this was November. The rest were a hazy mix of experience, location and intuition – none of which I could possibly understand apparently.
The cleverly named Restaurant Le Leman lies on the western side of the lake in Nyon some 10 or so kilometers from Geneva. A hint of desperation had set in, I suspect, and we had to compromise on location, with a road separating us from the lakeside. The interior was split into two: a wood-paneled, brasserie-style room more suited to informal lunches and the posh bit with its table lothes and, as far as I could see, no diners. The menu was fairly extensive, although between trying to persuade the little Tomato that he really should continue his nap and a single-minded focus on the mystical filets, I didn’t take much of it in. The Filets de Perche were served in three variations - Facon Leman, Limon, and Meuniere. Between us, we opted for all three, accompanied by the eponymous frites, green salad, and crusty bread, all washed down with a bottle of Mont sur Rolle, a brusque little Genevois white wine.
So what of this much-lauded fish? The delicate finger-length filets had been flash-fried and arrive accompanied with a wedge of lemon and twig of rosemary. They simply melt on the tongue. The portions are generous and the frites provide a suitably filling accompaniment.
Our lunch by the lake was held under a heavy autumn sky. The lake didn’t sparkle in a charming fashion and the low clouds obscured the Alps, so the food had to charm us on its own, and it just about did.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on March 8, 2005
Restaurant Le Leman
Rue de Rive 28
022 361 22 41
The menu of the Café de Paris is somewhat one dimensional; in fact, it is renowned for it. To paraphrase Henry Ford, "You can have any dish you’d like just so long as its steak". Or, to be properly French about it, entrecote avec les pommes frites et la salade verte. That’s it; no argument. That’s your lot.
I exaggerate slightly; there are some choices to be had at the Café de Paris – you can choose just how bleu you want your entrecote for a start. Between the eight of us, our steaks covered the full range, from those that had had a mere nodding acquaintance with a grill (that may or may not have been lit) to the Blonde’s bien cuit (well done). Be warned, a well-done steak in the Café de Paris (and across much of France) would barely rate as medium elsewhere. The Blonde had to hold hers face down in the herb butter until it stopped kicking, with some regret. She was in the early stages of a very cautious, English-style pregnancy at the time, the sort that frowns on pretty much any foodstuff with any taste. Seeing us that evening, her doctor would have had conniptions, while pregnant French women wondered what the fuss is about, downing their medicinal red wine and tucking in to the brie.
The entrecote arrived in some style and sat to be admired while the herb-and-butter sauce bubbled around them. Plates were piled high with crisp frites and salad before the Savouring Of The Meat began in earnest. As you would hope from a restaurant that only does one dish, that dish is pretty special. The steak is as tender as tender can be while the sauce…
The butter, herb, and spiced sauce is a "secret recipe" handed down from the wonderfully named Madame Boubier to her daughter, the wife of the Café de Paris’ proprietor in the 1940s. It is artery-clogging, chin-glisteningly good.
The frites and salad keep coming just as long as you’re prepared to harass the slightly fraught waiting staff. For any diner with a shred of decency, which discounted most of the male members of our party, the initial portion is quite enough. A couple of disgraceful gluttons even ploughed on into the assorted mountainous sundaes that are available for dessert. My regret at that decision arrived with the indigestion a couple of hours later.
If you specialize in one dish and one dish alone, you’d better make damn sure it’s good. Madame Boubier’s successors continue to do her proud.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on March 8, 2005
Cafe de Paris
26 rue de Mont-Blanc
022/732 84 50
The interior of the restaurant is something of a talking point should you arrive without your conversational topics preplanned. The wooden beams, pillars, and walls are adorned with hand-painted berries and woodland motifs, with the occasional vintage wooden ski and snowshoe to remind you just where you are (should you have missed the big mountain just outside the window). The roaring wood burner fills the room with a haze of smoke. Mood is everything; I immediately feel as if I’ve trudged through the snow or done something appropriately wintry and energetic rather than carried a small baby across from the car park. "My cheeks are ruddy… bring me warming sustenance!"
We had come in search of gadget-based dining so popular in this region of Europe. The Florimont offers fondue (whose proliferation in the 70s is one of a limited number of things to be thankful for from that particular decade), raclette, and our choice of the day, pierrade. The Father of the Blonde chose a wine from the village of Arbois, just over the other side of the Jura. It was crisp and rustic and went down so well that we had to have another.
The assorted components of the pierrade dining experience began to arrive, and I ensured that the little Tomato was tucked well out of the way under the table. Bowls of potato gratin, green salad, and assorted sauces arrived closely followed by the sizzling hot stone slab along with the plates of raw meat. Some may argue that this is tantamount to laziness on the part of the kitchen, but it’s all part of the sociable dining experience. Think of it as an indoor barbeque without the singed eyebrows. We chose two different meat selections and ended up with a shared pool of steak, veal, duck, pork, and chicken – nearly a whole farmyard.
Pierrade dining can get quite frenzied, and it is important not to be too possessive about the pieces you throw on. I’ve seen friendships tested over the hot stone. Be patient and generous – your meat will come. Pierrade is a very social form of dining - there are natural pauses while your meat sizzles before you and time to discuss whether the decor falls just the right side of tacky.
The Florimont is a very affordable, atmospheric place to enjoy the regional specialties, with a stunning view thrown in for good measure.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on March 8, 2005
Le Refuge de Florimont
3097 rte de la Faucille
04 50 41 88 59
My first visit to the region coincided with my proposal to the Blonde, and she enthusiastically endorsed a trip to the city to buy a ring. There’s a funny thing. Central Geneva does not lack jewelers, and we set about the hunt with perky enthusiasm, flush with romance and a recent pay rise. My perkiness did not survive the day fully intact. A couple of the less pleasant lessons we learnt were:
1) There is a noticeable difference in what constitutes "good taste" between Geneva and, well, us. Bling is standard; big gold, huge gems. Showy good, subtle bad. This made finding something the Blonde could wear without developing a tilt to the left something of a challenge.
2) It appears that the job description for a Genevois jewelry shop assistant includes the requirement to be an unbearable snob. It was a pleasant sunny September day, and we were dressed in what I like to describe as summer holiday casual. Our polite inquiries at a number of shops were met with a caustic head-to-toe inspection followed by a frosty, "Non."
Eventually, a discerning shopkeeper decided they might like to sell something and deigned to trade with us. The ring was duly selected, held to be tres jolie et tres discret in Genevois jewelry parlance (literal translation, "Small and cheap – how will anyone know how rich you are?") and paid for. We were then able to concentrate on the much more straightforward business of purchasing cow-based souvenirs, chocolate, and efficient timepieces.
Subsequent visits to the centre of Geneva have been few and far between. The city is not rich in must-see monuments, buildings, or parks. The setting is pretty special; Lac Leman, Mont Blanc, and the Alps rising to the east and the Jura to the west, but these all cry out for you to leave the city behind and dive into the backdrop. The Jet d’Eau is a big spout of water. Sure, it possesses a simple elegance and you have to admire the gall it takes to turn a pressure-release valve into a tourist attraction, but the Eiffel Tower it is not.
Geneva has a rich history in terms of its place in sociological, philosophical, and scientific progress. Links with Rousseau, Calvin, and Voltaire are all played up, and Geneva’s position as a focal point for Reformation is undeniable. The legacy of this is well represented in the city’s museums but is lacking the levity or visual beauty that the average visitor is seeking. Geneva is arguably better known for what is there now than its past. Many worldwide bodies, symbols of successful international cooperation, have their headquarters here. The European headquarters of the United Nations and the Red Cross are two of the best known, and alongside, and under, them can be found such organizations as CERN, the international particle physics research institute; UNICEF; the WHO; and the ILO (International Labour Office), amongst many others.
This multinational nature coupled with natural Swiss reserve means that Geneva, to my mind, lacks personality. It has a French feel but lacks some of the joie de vivre one might expect to find. Surrounded as it is by breathtaking natural beauty, the city would have to work hard to compete as an attraction. Instead, it accepts its place as a calming venue for the world’s diplomats, scientists, and bureaucrats to go about their business, and as a super-efficient gateway to the Alps and the Juras. One of the side effects of years of diligent neutrality possibly? Orson Welles’ character hit the nail on the head in The Third man.
"You know what the fellow said: In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michaelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love--they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock."
Until the middle of the 18th century, Ferney had been a largely insignificant border village of 150. Isolated from much of France, it attracted little attention until, in 1758, its seigniory was bought by Francois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire. In his 60s by this time, Voltaire had made a life’s work of getting up the nose of the establishment and had spent the larger part of his adult life relocating. Expressing his philosophies on matters of social injustice and equality through anonymous pamphlets and theatre had made Voltaire persona non grata in his native Paris, leading him to spend extended periods in exile in England, at the court of Frederick the Great in Berlin, and most recently in nearby Geneva. Here he had broken laws that forbade the performance of plays, and Voltaire sought a place where he could enjoy the social freedom of France while not giving up the political freedom of Geneva. A rich man by this time, he did the obvious thing and bought himself a village.
The car parks around Ferney are filled with Swiss cars on market day. Strict limitations on agriculture in Switzerland mean that goods across the border are noticeably cheaper. They dominate the multinational mix that line up to taste the Jura’s cheeses, boar saucisson, and, of course, wine. The towns and villages of the Pays de Gex act as dormitories for the many employees of the large international organizations based in Geneva, and Ferney is one of the largest.
Voltaire took to his role of country gent with aplomb. He built a church and a school and established numerous industries, including watch-making and pottery. His reputation had spread far, and many of the great and the good journeyed to his grand chateau on the edge of town to share in intellectual banter. For those 20 years, this humble village in eastern France became the centre of the Enlightenment. Due to the security of his position and with the cussedness that old age brings, Voltaire no longer played the game of anonymous publishing and denial. During his time at Ferney, he became more involved in high-profile discourses on liberty and religious freedom and championed the oppressed. Ferney grew under his patronage, and by the time of his triumphal return to Paris in 1778 and subsequent rapid demise at the age of 84, it had grown tenfold and become a renowned centre for artisans. To insure against the magic wearing off, the name of the town was tinkered with and Ferney-Voltaire was born.
Today, the squire of Ferney watches over a sweet stall, his stooped figure rising above the striped awnings. He died over 10 years before revolution tore the country he knew apart and a republic was established based on values he treasured and espoused. What would he have thought of the results of all that Enlightenment?
Voltaire’s chateau became a national monument in 1999 and is now open to the public in the summer… sometimes. Check Ferney-Voltaire’s website for refurbishment news. His former home in Geneva, Les Delices, is also a museum dedicated to his life.
Clearly, I needed to work through this whole Big White Mountain fixation. Ascent was fixed for the following day, and we headed for the Chamonix valley, nestled at the base of the Mont Blanc range on its French side. A major ski resort, Chamonix is still pretty busy in the summer, with alpine walkers, mountaineers, and a few high-altitude skiers cluttering up the place in their trendy fleece and gortex wear. The pure, clean air virtually crackles with healthiness and infects all with a desire for exertion. We made straight for the cable car in a desperate attempt to avoid being overcome. Trying to understand the
fare structure was quite taxing enough for us.
We boarded the next cabin, giants of the genre designed to carry upwards of 70 people. With space to move around we had ample opportunity to enjoy the increasingly astounding view. The first section of the ascent up to the Plan de l’Aiguille lifted us over a kilometer vertically in around 10 minutes. The chalets of Chamonix shrank below, and we started to peek over the first of the Aiguilles Rouges that line the north and west sides of the valley.
As we approached the changeover station, a cluster of parasols was spotted below, and this being France, and the Blonde and her father being fully ‘Frenchified’, thoughts quickly turned to lunch. The Refuge du Plan is an easy few hundred yards back down the mountain: a small terrace and hut that churns out a wide but simple array of hot and cold food. The presence of a donkey tied up round the back suggests they don’t rely on the cable car for supplies. We dawdled over vin rouge, charcuterie et frites while the Father of the Blonde grilled me about my ‘prospects’. Apprehension about the onward journey began to creep over me; I’ve seen ‘Where Eagles Dare’ too many times.
The final ascent to the Aiguille du Midi took us above the summer snowline to an altitude of 3,777 metres in one single, sweeping span. For an alarming period just below the station, we appeared to be heading straight into the side of the mountain. This is where the wobbly legs began. A mixture of vague acrophobia had been joined by the impact of altitude, and we could barely walk a few steps without desiring a good long sit down. The complex at the Aiguille du Midi seems purpose built to exaggerate any fear you may have; iron grille stairways that give you a view 2,000 metres straight down, workmen hanging over the edge of the platform and fiddling with what appear to be crucial bolts. So what do you do next? Take the elevator up another 150 metres of course. The difference in view between 3,777m and 3,842m is negligible but, well you have to don’t you?
Before descending, we stopped for a fortifying hot chocolate in the personality-free, self-service restaurant. The walls were covered with images of tweed-clad, bewhiskered gentlemen scaling the mountain. These sepia murals celebrate Chamonix’s claim to be the birthplace of mountaineering, harking back to a golden time when all you needed to climb something of this scale were a pair of stout shoes, a hip flask, a ladder (?), and a healthy dose of derring-do.
We descended into what remained of a warm, late summer afternoon. I had bonded with my future father-in-law while gazing over sun-dazzled peaks, and the Blonde’s wobbly knees were getting a little sturdier. The temperature rose 15 degrees as the ants got bigger, donned fleeces and started walking on their back legs around Chamonix. Altitude sure plays with your head.
Compagnie du Mont Blanc website
Edinburgh, United Kingdom