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Heavenly Geneva

Geneva, Switzerland

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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!

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