With an enchanting lakeside setting it's amazing that Geneva's
not on more tourist itineraries. Perhaps it's the thought of the dull
atmosphere that people imagine must result from having so many international
bureaucrats. In actual fact Geneva is a serene city with an outward looking,
cosmopolitan character. With a population of just 180,000 its modest size does
not reflect its wealth and importance on the global stage. The city has always
been a prosperous trade centre and, thanks to Jean Calvin, became a stronghold
for the anti-Catholic Reformation in the 1500s. Protestant refugees from all
over Europe sought sanctuary here, just as Switzerland more generally was a
haven for refugees fleeing Nazi persecution in the Second World War.
Today Geneva the capital of international diplomacy, home to
over 200 international organizations, European headquarters of the UN, the
birthplace and headquarters of the International Red Cross and home to one of
Europe's great collaborative science projects - CERN.
Perhaps the best time to visit is in August when the Geneva
Festival is on. For ten days the city really lets its hair down. All musical
tastes are catered for with classical concerts, rock music and techno
extravaganzas. Theatres put on special shows, and street performers add spice
to city life whilst in the evenings there are spectacular firework displays at
the lakeside. From June through August there are open air film shows by the
lake every night.
The emblem of the city is the Jet d'Eau, Europe's tallest
fountain. It shoots out 500 litres of water every second, at a speed of over
150 miles per hour to create a plume over four hundred feet high. This
spectacular attraction only exists through accident. It started life as a
temporary, purely functional way of relieving water pressure to enable the
installation of a reservoir system but proved so popular that it was decided to
make it a permanent feature.
Start your explorations by wandering through the narrow cobbled
streets and limestone houses of the Old Town. At its heart is the Place du
Bourg de Four, a marketplace where old inns sit side by side with modern cafes.
On the southwestern side stands the Hotel de Ville where the original Geneva
Convention was signed. Geneva is a shopper's paradise. A wealthy clientele
patronize the very smartest jewelers where the displays of watches and diamonds
often bear jaw-dropping price tags. Away from the city center things are more
affordable and you could easily spend a pleasant morning browsing. The twice
weekly flea markets in the Place de Palais are also a good hunting ground.
What you see and do in Geneva is very much a matter of personal
taste. The Musee de la Croix Rouge will take you on a disturbing trawl through
the atrocities man has committed against man as well as setting out the aims
and history of the Red Cross. The Musee de l'Horlogerie and Emaillerie might
help you understand Switzerland's preoccupation with timepieces. If churches
are your thing the Cathedrale de St Pierre with its curious mix of styles will
delight. You may be tempted to take the organized tour of the UN building -
don't - it's generally agreed to be rather dull unless you happen to catch
sight of a famous face.
A much better bet is to take a bus out to CERN - an
international centre for particle physics research. Buried deep below ground is
a 27km tunnel - currently the longest in the world - used to accelerate
particles to crazy speeds. The visitor's center is exceptionally well-organized
and they do free tours twice a day - do book ahead though. If you visit when
the accelerator's switched off you'll actually be able to stand in the tunnel.
Geneva's nightlife doesn't have a great reputation. Beware
so-called nightclubs with a dress code offering a deeply depressing floorshow
or a tired disco. Much better to get hold of a listings guide, both the
Geneve Agenda and Geneve le Guide are published in English as well as French,
and check out the music scene. The world class Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
has a base in Geneva so there are often great classical concerts.
Swiss chocolate is arguably the best in the world. Even the
cheapest bar of milk chocolate is rich, smooth and velvety. But although you
might want to try, it probably isn't sensible to live exclusively on chocolate.
Fondue might seem a bit, well, cheesy, but sharing with friends at an outside
table close to the lake or in the picturesque Old Town, you'll rethink your
snobbery. Fondue is retro-chic and you heard it here first. But make sure you
do it properly: chunks of bread, not vegetables and drink only white wine or
tea without milk.
Don't leave Geneva to the businessmen and diplomats; this lovely
city's much too good for them!