Getting to know Geneva, Switzerland

By Liz Gill, December 13, 2012
The Batiment d​es Forces-​Motrices, Geneva’s cultural centre

The Batiment d​es Forces-​Motrices, Geneva’s cultural centre

For a place with fewer than 200,000 inhabitants Geneva punches above its weight. It produced Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose philosophy inspired the French Revolution; it was the launch pad for the Reformation which changed the course of European history; the Geneva Convention was signed here and the World Jewish Congress was founded here in 1936. It is home to the United Nations, the World Health Organisation and the Red Cross.

It is a major financial hub and a centre for diplomacy and human rights. It regularly appears in lists of the top 10 of best places to live in the world. And it is, perhaps needless to say, very expensive.

There is now, however, a way to sample this elegant and interesting city if not exactly on the cheap, then certainly on a good value for money basis.

The reason is that an increasing number of hotels — full from Monday to Friday with business people but quiet on Saturdays and Sundays — are offering weekend deals.

What’s more, visitors get free public transport, including the train from the airport and water taxis on the lake. And the Geneva pass, which costs from £17 for one day to £30 for three, gives free admission to many museums and galleries, and discounts at other attractions.

The city is, in fact, ideal for a two- or three-day break. It’s less than an hour and a half from London, it is cosmopolitan but compact and there is plenty to see and do.

The train from the airport, for example, will whisk you in six minutes into the Gare de Cornavin, the art deco station, designed in 1932 by the Jewish architect Julien Flegenheimer who also designed the Palace of the League of Nations, today the UN’s headquarters in Europe.

Other forms of public transport, including trams and trolley buses, are efficient but one of the charms of Geneva is that a great deal can be seen on foot. Over a couple of days we wandered up into the old city on the hill, through the smart shopping areas and past the gracious 19th-century buildings and along the lakeside.
Attractions in the old city include St. Peter’s Cathedral (climbing the 157 steps of the tower is rewarded with wonderful panoramas); the award-winning Museum of the Reformation which tells how John Calvin, Martin Luther and others challenged the power of the Catholic Church with consequences that still reverberate today; and Maison Tavel with its exhibitions of urban and domestic life and a large model of Geneva in the mid-19th century showing the massive fortifications which surrounded it in those days.

The decision to demolish the fortifications in 1850 meant the city could expand not just physically — previously buildings had to add extra storeys if they wanted more space — but culturally. As a measure of new religious freedoms, a Russian Orthodox and a Catholic church were built — and a synagogue.

The first written record of a Jewish community dates from the 13th century when it grew up around the Place du Mezel in the heart of the old city.

Jews were expelled in 1490 and only allowed to return in the mid-19th century, although the nearby settlement of Carouge, part of the Kingdom of Savoy, had readmitted them 50 years earlier. Carouge, which still has its Jewish cemetery, is now part of Geneva but with a more Mediterranean atmosphere and worth a visit for its pavement cafes, intimate restaurants and independent shops.

Shops comprise familiar high street names and swanky designers along the Rue Du Rhone (the great river ends at Lake Geneva) — but there are a few gems. Cigar lovers can check out the original Davidoff store founded by Jewish entrepreneur Zino Davidoff, who in 1911 turned his father’s tobacconist business into an international name.

For those with a sweet tooth Geneva is chocolate heaven. We visited Favarger, founded in 1826 and one of the oldest chocolatiers, whose selection of 40 varieties includes traditional and new flavours. Among the latter I tried coriander — an interesting concoction but I didn’t want a second — and yuzu, a hybrid citrus fruit from the Far East I’d never heard of but which was scrumptious.

The best shop for me though was the Victorinox, home of the Swiss army knife and a place guaranteed to bring out the small boy in all of us, even women of a certain age. The company began 128 years ago and now produces 79,000 knives a year, ranging in size from the compact and neat through ones for golfers, fishermen and cheese eaters to a monster with 65 devices costing nearly £300.

So popular is the knife that when the company ran a Facebook competition for new designs last year, it got 45,000 entries. You can buy one of the ten winners or if you sit and assemble your own (on which you can then have your name engraved), you’ll be following in the footsteps of Vladimir Putin and both Presidents Bush.
Geneva’s biggest claim to manufacturing fame though is in horology, a legacy from the influx of Protestant refugees from France and elsewhere who brought their skills with them – they were bankers and jewellers and silk makers too — and transformed the city’s fortunes within a couple of generations.

Today you’re assailed by adverts for the city’s 68 clock- and watch-making companies, including Rolex, Omega, Tag Heuer and Raymond Weil (the only Jewish-owned one), from the moment you step off the plane. Patek Philippe claims to be the most exclusive — an entry level woman’s wristwatch is around £8,000 and some styles have a five-year waiting list. You can appreciate them more cheaply though with a visit to the company’s museum.

I had feared it might be stuffy or for experts and enthusiasts only; in fact it turned out to be a wonderful aesthetic experience. Because, before clocks and watches were precise time-keepers, they were objects of beauty and playthings of the wealthy, set with jewels and ornamented with exquisite enamel work and miniature portraits, and the museum has hundreds of these dazzling pieces on display.

Visitors who prefer their horology more up-to-date though can gaze on one of the four timepieces created to mark Patek Philippe’s 150th anniversary. Each took ten years to make, performs dozens of functions and is worth about £4million.

Geneva has a lovely setting, surrounded by the Jura mountains and the Alps — you can see Mont Blanc on the horizon — and situated on the south-west corner of the largest lake in western Europe.

Its famous fountain, the Jet d’Eau, which shoots water 460feet into the air, is a year-round draw but the lake really comes into its own in spring and summer when it’s sailed upon, cycled beside, fished from and swum in — though even in November we saw hardy souls plunging in from the Bains des Paquis.

Jutting into the water along the lake shore opposite the five-star hotels, the Bains is a bathing centre which offers a beach, a pool with diving board, sauna and Turkish baths and a cafe where swimmers can enjoy a warming fondu. You can’t go to Switzerland without having a fondu — as well as being delicious they are a companionable way to eat — but we chose to eat ours at Bill and Hilary Clinton’s favourite eaterie, the Restaurant.

FLY: Swiss Air flies London Heathrow from £111 return

Budget: Hotel Longemalle (3 star) from £159 pp per night
On Budget: N’v’Y (4 star) from £216 pp per night
Blow the budget: Hotel de la Paix(5 star) from £316 pp per night

Last updated: 4:54pm, December 13 2012