Geneva is a city of ideas and ideals for mankind. It is a mirror of a many-faceted world. From the Place des Nations begin a discovery of the humanist city. It is a city of peace and human understanding. Here human rights, environment, health, migration… international organizations find their true outlet. Here is one city where differences are respected, and the accent is on integration.
My trip to Geneva two years back was a kind of an eye-opener for me. I had gone to attend an International Conference on Wildlife Tourism sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) as part of the Save Tiger Campaign. Never before did I have the experience of attending such a high-profile conference and there were tourism scholars and wildlife experts from 30 countries who attended the 3-day conference.
The venue of the conference was the majestic Centre International de Conferences Geneve (CICG). This magnificent Conference venue was established in the year 1973 primarily to conduct inter-governmental conferences on economics, politics and scientific domains. Gradually the venue was made accessible to private congresses as well.
The CCIG’s strategic location just off the Place des Nations (UN) and in close proximity to the principal international organizations and diplomatic representations in Geneva was one huge advantage for the international guests.
From avant-garde installations to state-of-the-art telecommunications and videoconferencing facilities, the CCIG was truly sophisticated. These days, with the constant threat of terrorism looming large in major world cities, I was most impressed by the security system in place.
Although it was a 3-day Conference, guests were given the option of extending their stay for a week at their own cost. I thought it is not very often that I would get an opportunity to visit a city as stupendous as Geneva and so decided to extend my stay by another 4 days, which was just about enough to see the sights and sounds of this incredible city. There were a few other like-minded guests who too decided to extend their stay.
One good thing that I have learnt over the years through my international travel is that once I land up in a city I have never visited, I straight away look for the Tourist Office and inquire about the availability of a guide. The Geneva Tourism office located just a stone’s throw away from my modest hotel at Rue du Mont-Blanc was very courteous and provided me with a well-informed guide who would be my companion for the next 4 days of my stay in Geneva.
After a long chat with Stefan my guide at a neighborhood cafeteria, we decided to embark on a walking tour of the city, particularly the “Old Town”. Wandering in Geneva can be great fun and the city’s infectious spirit is bound to hit you. Geneva is the city of Protestantism, the watch-making capital of the world, a city of impeccably landscaped parks and a city renowned for its gastronomic delights.
A characteristic feature of the Old Town is its meandering cobbled streets and lofty, shuttered, grey-stone quarters that give nothing away. Ambling through the Old Town makes you aware of Geneva’s roots that draw upon a rich heritage, its distinguished history has over the past several centuries imposed a profound effect on its character, tolerant and open to the world, to ideas and to humans relationships.
Our first stop was the magnificent Cathedral of Saint Pierre that was reportedly constructed between 1160 and 1232. It was originally built in the Romanesque style but later on was redesigned in the Gothic style of architecture. Since the era of the Reformation, this magnificent cathedral has been the principal center of the Protestant religious congregation. What impressed me the most were the “Calvin’s Chair”, the finely carved stalls of the chancel and memorabilia honoring the Duke of Rohan, who was at the forefront as a representative of the French protestants under Henri IV and Louis XIII and whose remnants have been laid to rest in the cathedral.
There were more historical treasures awaiting us… courtesy of the Chapel of the Maccabeans, the Auditoire, the Place Bourg-de-Four, the magnificent Hotel de Ville as well as the Old Arsenal.
While the Chapel of Maccabeans used to serve as a burial and collegial chapel during the time of Reformation the Auditoire was at first a chapel dating back to the 5th century. There is quite a bit of history attached to the Auditoire. My jovial guide Stefan was of the opinion that it used to be a place where one could hear the sermons of Calvin and de Beze. In the year 1555, this one-of-its-kind edifice also played host to John Knox who later on along with Bodley and Coverdale, worked as a team to bring out the first English version of the Bible, which was popularly referred to as the “Geneva Bible”.
Moving to the Place Bourg-de-Four, which happens to be Geneva’s oldest public square is replete with antique shops and elegant cafés under the ethereal backdrop of a cascading 18th century fountain.
Since it was summer, I was fortunate to be visiting the impressive Town Hall or the Hotel de Ville where Geneva’s Parliament is seated. Stefan led me through a spiral path all the way to the Alabama room where the First Geneva Convention was signed in the year 1864, thereby heralding the birth of the International Red Cross. An outdoor concert was on at the inner courtyard and it was my first brush with Geneva’s cultural life.
For archive enthusiasts, a visit to the Old Arsenal can be a very rewarding experience as we were to discover. It is conspicuous by its rich collection of Geneva’s state archives on the second floor, while in the roofed outdoor area some of the original cannons used by Geneva’s military unit dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries are the cynosure of all eyes.
We decided to do the remaining part of the Old Town the next day and hopped into a cab that would take us to the neighborhood of Place Pierre-Gautier 5, Cologny, where one of Geneva’s best fish restaurants can be found - courtesy of the Auberge du Lion d’Or.
There is a saying back home in my native Kolkata…“a Bengali and his fish are inseparable” and it was true in my case as I was dying to have fish curry. Stefan indeed was innovative with his choice and I found the Auberge du Lion d’Or to be an excellent eating joint. The restaurant owes a lot to French chef Gilles Dupont and the langoustine that he cooked with lemongrass and vinaigrette was absolute “melt-in-mouth” stuff.
Langoustine by the way is very much like a small lobster. The one that I devoured must have been a foot long and the tail part was particularly delectable. I was told that langoustine-based meals are very popular in this part of the world. but what amazes me is that in the days of yore, langoustines were considered junk and discarded by fishing trawlers and today there has been a complete turnaround as it happens to be the mainstay of the fish-based economy of Scotland from where the lion’s share of langoustine fishes are exported to continental Europe.
The next day we were back on the road once again, discovering the city’s rich heritage on the Old Town. Our first stop was at Maison Tavel – one of Geneva’s oldest private houses that dates back to the 12th century. Today this magnificent historical edifice houses Geneva’s Museum – Museum of Old Geneva. A visit to the museum revealed the fascinating realms of the city’s history from the 14th to the 19th centuries.
The central point of the Old Town is Maison Mallet, just next door to the Saint Pierre Cathedral. The Museum of the Reformation is the cynosure of all eyes where the Reformation is depicted from its origin to its culmination through innovative commentary. I was overwhelmed by the wide variety of themes ranging from the Bible, polemics, Calvin and Geneva as well as paintings from the 19th century. On the arched basement area, the museum is rather innovatively linked to the Saint Pierre Cathedral, which is well worth a visit.
When it comes to city squares, the Place Neuve is by far the most artistic in the whole of Geneva. Bang in the middle of this elegant square you will find the equestrian statue of the General – Guillaume-Henri Dufour, who had carved a niche for himself, not only as an engineer but also as a scholar at the University of Geneva. He was a rare talent endowed with multifaceted aptitudes and was one of the members of the famed “Committee of Five”, that went on to document the first concept of the Red Cross.
For the quintessential art aficionados, the impressive Rath Museum is a must-visit site. This one-of-its-kind museum dates back to 1825 and was built by sisters of Simon Rath, a Lieutenant General in the Army and an artist of repute whose works are on display at this impressive museum.
I have visited the world-famous Paris Opera House and there seemed to be a lot of similarities with the Grand Theatre here in Geneva. This classical opera house is conspicuous by its embossed figurative sculptures of renowned musicians and composers. Geneva’s very own opera – the Corps de Ballet is housed at this historical Grand Theatre.
Our last stop was at the famed Victoria Hall that dates back to 1893 and according to Stefan, it was fully financed by the then Counsel of England – Daniel Fitzerald Barton as a mark of respect to Queen Victoria. If ever there was a temple dedicated to classical music in Geneva, it has to be the magnificent Victoria Hall. Ravaged by fire in the year 1984, it was reconstructed and added a new dimension by dedicating an exclusive zone in honor of the great musician – Ernest Ansermet (1883-1969) who was instrumental in founding the famed “Orchestre de la Suisse Romande” way back in the year 1918.
We headed for Place du Mollard on the left bank, located strategically in between the famed Geneva Lake and the Old Town, which is replete with some of Geneva’s most popular outdoor cafes with the surreal backdrop of a fountain.
Stefan told me that my visit to Geneva would be incomplete without savoring the world-famous Swiss Chocolates and as we sat down at the confectionary shop in one of Geneva’s classic squares. Stefan gave a running commentary on how chocolates are manufactured in this part of the world and the sheer variety of chocolates on offer baffled me. From truffles to caramels and petit four biscuits with a variety of fillings, the choice is never easy.
We settled for handmade chocolates but even in this category, there were over 50 varieties to choose from. On Stefan’s advice we choose “Milk Chocolate Pralines”. They come in weights ranging from 250 grams to a kilogram. The prices too are competitive. For instance, a 250 g homemade milk chocolate is priced at Swiss Francs CHF 30, the 350 g at CHF 40, the 500 g at CHF 40, the 750 g at CHF 85, and the 1 kg. Is priced at CHF 110.
After a relaxing time at the open-air confectionary shop, biting into the very best of Swiss chocolates and a steaming cuppa cappuccino coffee, I purchased a few boxes of the signature white truffles, that are a specialty of the region as souvenirs for my folks back home.
If the visit to the Old Town with history written all over gave me a sense of the city’s rich virile past, a complete change of scene awaited me as I ventured to explore the famed “Lake Geneva” tourist trail, under the watchful eyes of Stefan, my amiable guide cum companion who had done a wonderful job escorting me through the Old Town on the previous days.
I wasn’t left with much time either and on the penultimate day of my Geneva sojourn, we went on a roller-coaster tour of the Lake Geneva region. I was stupefied by the sight of the famed “Jet d’eau”, shooting out the lake water to an incredible height (450 feet). This unbelievable sight took the word “welcome” to new heights. The breathtaking sight of impeccably landscaped flowerbeds replete with exotic flora, as well as a bewildering variety of avian life, particularly aquatic birds and sails of myriad colors on the regattas left me in the café 7th heaven.
I may not be an adventure freak, but like every other Swiss, I too wanted to be at home on the waves, not as a solo individual sailor but definitely by undertaking a leisurely cruise onboard a boat that plied on Lake Geneva. The ethereal charm of the bustling coastlines and the adjacent mountains towering above, almost touching the sky was an out-of-the-world experience.
The 1-hour trip was every bit exciting and with the cafeteria on board serving lip-smacking Swiss menus, we had our afternoon grab consisting of slices of Vaudois sausage, Cabbage-filled sausage, freshly caught trouts and the finest collection of local cheese, all of which made for a truly sumptuous luncheon onboard.
Two fascinating attractions awaited us after we disembarked from the boat on Lake Geneva – the impeccably maintained English Garden with its ubiquitous flower clock that somehow epitomizes Geneva’s unquestionable innovation in watchmaking and the other was the iconic National Monument that takes you back to the time of Geneva’s official union with Switzerland in the year 1815.
With dusk descending on the city of Geneva, the city’s bewitching side wakes up. If the Right Bank pulsates with cabarets, champagne bars and casinos that recreate a Carnival-like atmosphere, the Left Bank with its exclusive Jazz bands, elegant lounges and hip and happening spots are an absolute delight.
The entire day was hectic, and we decided to have a sip or two of our favorite Swiss tipple at a nondescript bar located on the corner of Rue Du Rhone. As a guide, Stefan had done an admirable job. Every day he would be there to receive me bang on time and I was impressed by his knowledge of the city. It seemed to me that Stefan knew Geneva by the tip of the finger. As we bid goodbye for the last time, I didn’t forget to write a note of appreciation on my letterhead, which would help him a secure promotion in Geneva Tourism.
Traveler’s fact file
Geneva International Airport is well served by routine international flights and is connected to a network of more than a hundred cities worldwide. Renowned international airlines like Swiss Air, Lufthansa, Air France, Emirates, British Airways, SAS, etc. offer regular flights to Geneva.
From the airport to the City
One great advantage is the airport’s close proximity to the city center, which is a mere 5 km. There is a direct rail connection that conveniently links the airport to the downtown railway station in 8 minutes flat.
Transport within the City
The day tickets provide unlimited access to the public transport system during the time indicated on the tickets. They can be bought at the ticket machines (DATT) and at counters of TPG, SMGN and CFF. There are also facilities for an exclusive 24-hour card as well as a day ticket from 9 a.m.
Geneva is regularly cited as one of the world’s leading cities due largely to the charm of its extremely beautiful natural environment and to the outstanding diversity of its tourist attractions.
In order to be able to cope with the grand influx of visitors, Geneva has considerably expanded its hotel facilities. There are more than 128 hotels of all categories, offering upwards of 15,025 beds (9,330 rooms).
It is advisable to choose those tourism establishments (hotels, apartments, restaurants, bars, etc.) that are distinguished by the “Quality Label for Swiss Tourism”. Such establishments make special efforts to safeguard and improve the quality of service for their guests.