Geneva Stories and Tips

A Walk through the Old Town

At the Arsenal Photo, Geneva, Switzerland

Heaven is never quite on our side when we’re going sightseeing. The cathedrals with the most imposing spires (like Bern’s Münster, or Strasbourg’s Eglise St Thomas) are shrouded in unsightly scaffolding. In Bern, we discovered that the famous bear pits no longer housed any bears. And this in a city named after the bear.

In Geneva, therefore, we were no terribly surprised to find that its most famous attraction—the Jet d’Eau (which throws 500 litres of water every second into the air, to a height of 140 metres at the rate of 200kmph)—wasn’t working. The weather wasn’t right for it, we were told. Huh? There wasn’t a cloud in sight. We were later told, by my cousin, that it’s wind that’s the culprit: in a stiff breeze (which was blowing like a gale off Lac Leman the day we were in Geneva), the Jet d’Eau’s water will go all over the place, so they turn it off. Ho hum.

But never say die, says I, so we grinned weakly at each other, and decided to see the other sights of Geneva—which, unless you’re terribly keen on seeing buildings associated with the United Nations, CERN, the Red Cross/Red Crescent and similar organisations—are few and far between. But Lac Leman, also known as Lac de Genève (Lake Geneva) is pretty enough to merit a leisurely stroll along its shore. From the railway station, we’d walked over to the nearby tourist information centre (on Rue de Mont Blanc) and picked up a map of Geneva, from which we figured out that the best way to proceed was straight on: down Rue du Mont Blanc and over Pont du Mont Blanc, the bridge which would take us over to the Old Town. This is at the southern tip of Lac Leman—a few bridges to the south, and the body of water you’re crossing is no longer the lake, but the River Rhône.

We, however, were quite definitely crossing Lac Leman, its banks dotted with lovely old white paddle steamers that chug their way along the shores of the lake. There were lots of private boats too, nearly all covered with tarps: this was a weekday, so everybody was probably hard at work. Also hard at work—preening, poking about for worms and posing for tourists—were pristine swans and ducks. Lac Leman has a lot of these pretty birds swimming along the shores, from Geneva to Chillon and beyond, and they’re perfect models!

Past the flapping flags that line the Pont du Mont Blanc, we arrived at the Jardin Anglais (literally, the English Garden), a long and picturesque stretch of lawns, trees, flowerbeds, fountains and statues. The Jardin Anglais has its own two landmarks: the first we arrived at was the Monument Nationale. With a name like that—I associate monuments with being nothing smaller than the Taj Mahal—I’d expected something grander, but this is really just two statues of armed women, both slightly larger than life, draped in flowing robes and wearing crowns. These were erected in 1914 to mark the centenary of Geneva’s joining the Swiss Confederation (as a result of the Congress of Vienna in 1814). Interesting enough, but not as much of a draw as the garden’s other big attraction, the Horloge Fleurie (the Flower Clock)a symbol of the Swiss watchmaking industry.

We’d seen flower clocks elsewhere—one in Lausanne (Ouchy), but Geneva’s Flower Clock is in a different league. This one was set up in 1955 and consists of 6,500 flowering plants, of which the species (I assume) are changed every now and then. When we visited, the flowers were mainly cream and white, with a smattering of deep mauve; photos in our guidebook and on the Net reveal a dazzling range of colours, with vivid yellows, reds, deep purples and blues. Rather stylishly, the numbers on the clock face are scattered across the area—the 12, 1 and 5 were on the dial, but the other numbers were picked out in silvery-green foliage on circles of flowering plants a couple of feet away from the dial. Cool!

We’d wasted a little time at the Horloge Fleurie; it’s very popular, so there was almost a queue of people who wanted friends and family to photograph them against the backdrop of the clock. Having finally gotten to it and taken our photograph, we wandered on a bit more through the Jardin Anglais, admiring the view of Lac Leman, before we turned right and headed off towards the Old Town.

Geneva’s Old Town sits on a hill. The fringes, with broad roads, Starbucks, offices and boutiques, resembles other modern Western European cities; the small and compact core, with its narrow cobbled streets, old buildings and pretty cafés, is a more medieval area. The streets get gradually narrower and steeper, so that by the time we began the climb up to the Cathédrale St Pierre, we were happy to stop at the first fountain labelled `eau potable’ and have a drink to cool off.

Having seen the cathedral (admittedly impressive, though it doesn’t look like a church), we stopped off for lunch at Geneva’s oldest restaurant, Taverne de la Madeleine. Just round the corner from the cathedral—we didn’t see this till after lunch—is another restaurant, Les Armures, probably best known because Bill Clinton dined there.

In the same area, within a few metres of the cathedral, stand two other historical monuments. One is what used to originally be the granary and later became the Arsenal. This is today a sort of open hall which appeared to be in use as a parking lot for a couple of bicycles. Don’t be deterred, though: one of the walls is decorated with striking mosaics depicting warriors, dragons, women with plunging necklines and other interesting details—I wish there’d been some explanation of the art. The arsenal is also, appropriately, home to two cannons. These, luckily for us, had an explanatory plaque on the wall: these were part of the artillery requisitioned by the Austrians and carted off to Vienna in 1814. The Lieutenant of Geneva, Joseph Pinon, began a crusade to retrieve the cannons and they were returned to Geneva the following year, in 1815.

Just a few steps down the lane, in fact almost diagonally opposite the arsenal, is the Hotel de Ville. Just about every Swiss city we visited had a Hotel de Ville, but Geneva’s is especially important. Here, in the Alabama Room, was where the first Geneva Convention was signed. The Hotel de Ville now consists of government offices and you can’t wander about at will within the precincts, but you can look in through the gate. Step into the courtyard, and the wooden door in the opposite wall leads to the Alabama Room.

Also near the Hotel de Ville, the Arsenal, et al, is the Maison Tavel, Geneva’s oldest house. The earliest records pertaining to the Maison Tavel go back to 1303, but following a fire in 1334, much of the house was rebuilt. Much restoration and renovation appears to have been done ever since, and on the outside at least there’s little to reveal its antiquity. The Maison Tavel has now been converted into a museum, the Musée des Vieux Genève, which showcases life in Geneva between the 14th and 19th centuries.

But, since we had just a couple of hours more to spend in Geneva before we caught our train back to Lausanne, we decided to skip the Musée des Vieux Genève and make our way instead to Musée d’art et d’histoire. This museum, with its excellent collection of fine art, is outside of the Old Town, in a quiet stretch of leafy parks and sedate old houses. Also in close proximity is the unusual Eglise Russe, the Russian Orthodox Church with its gleaming gilded onion domes.

A quick tour of the church, a longer (but not long enough to be satisfying!) tour of the museum, and it was time to head back to the railway station. We hadn’t managed to see the Jet d’Eau, but we didn’t mind: even a few hours in Geneva had been interesting enough. This isn’t one of Switzerland’s must-see cities (unless you’re devoted to clocks or the UN), but if you have the time to spare, it can be rewarding enough.

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