GENEVA, SMALL TOWN WITH HUGE APPEAL
by Mazel Pernell
Geneva is one of Switzerland's most cosmopolitan cities and its second most populous jurisdiction. But by most standards it is still a small city. With a population of about 185,000, it is about the size of Little Rock, Arkansas, 116th on the list of the U.S. largest cities. Despite its size, the city is a heavy weight in humanitarian, peacekeeping and financial issues throughout the world. That influence is due to its reputation for neutrality, discretion and efficiency.
Such influence has led to labels such as the "birthplace of humanitarian law", "the capital of peace", "the meeting place of nations" and "the watch and clock capital of the world." Given its enormous influence and power, Geneva is not a pompous city. Its residents are refreshingly warm and welcoming. No doubt they get lots of experience mingling with foreigners since approximately 40 percent of the residents are from outside of Switzerland. A huge percentage of these foreign nationals, representing more than 180 different nationalities, moved to the city to work in the offices of the nearly 200 international organizations headquartered there.
Situated in the extreme southwestern corner of Switzerland, Geneva is one of the 26 cantons or territorial districts in the country. The city, occupied and annexed to France from 1798 to 1813, is surrounded by French territory and shares more than 95 percent of its border with France. Geneva's center city is oriented around Le Rhône, the river that flows through the city, forms Lake Geneva (Lac Léman in French), one of Europe‚s largest freshwater lakes, then continues west into France.
Protestant Reformation Monument, Geneva
credit Mazel Pernell
Geneva is a compact city that is easily explored on foot. The city has lots of open green spaces and walkways where visitors can wander through beautiful gardens, stroll along the banks of the river or just sit and enjoy the scenery. That scenery includes not only the clean, clear blue waters of Rade de Geneva or boat harbor, but also views of the Alps and the Jura mountains in nearby France.
The first stop for most first time visitors is the boat harbor to see the Jet d'Eau, a main tourist attraction and the trademark of the city. The hydroelectric safety valve of the famous water jet forces a plume of water 453 feet (138 meters) into the air, nearly as high as the Washington Monument. The plume of water is made white by a special aeration valve. Exactly how the fountain works remains a closely guarded state secret despite much interest by engineers from other cities.
A breakwater, the Jetee des Eaux-Vive, leads from the Left Bank out to the boat basin which is the nearest point for tourists interested in a closer inspection of Europe's tallest fountain and willing to run the risk of being soaked by the fountain's spray.
After seeing the Jet d'Eau, visitors usually head up the hill to La Vieille Ville, Geneva's Old Town on the Left Bank of the lake. To get there from the Right Bank, head south on the Quai de Mont Blanc. Make a quick stop at the Square des Alpes, home of the Brunswick Monument. The monument was built as a memorial to the Duke of Brunswick, a wealthy investor who spent his final three years in Geneva and left huge sums of money to the city, but with one condition. That condition obligated the city to build "a mausoleum in an eminent and worthy location, executed according to the established concepts by the finest artists of the time, without consideration of cost." I'm sure the Duke is pleased with the site which looks out onto Lake Geneva and has a view of the surrounding mountains.
World Intellectual Property Organization, Geneva
credit Mazel Pernell
After paying respects to the Duke, continue southwest past Pont du Mont-Blanc, a major traffic artery that connects the city's Right and Left banks, to Pont des Bergues, a pedestrian bridge that also leads to the Left Bank. About midway across the bridge and connected by a footpath is Rousseau Island, a serene respite surrounded by the oftentimes choppy waters of the Rhône. Outdoor seating on the island provides splendid views of both banks of the city and the surrounding mountains.
Planted along both sides of the lake are plane trees, known as sycamore trees in the United States. These bare, knobby kin look nothing like their multi-branched leafy American namesake. Heavily pruned of all new branches in the fall, these trees appear in the winter and early spring as a stark, almost painful contrast to the flowing waters of the Rhône.
At the end of Pont des Bergues, turn left on Quai du Général-Guisan and walk a short distance east to the attraction that many tourists look for after seeing the Jet d‚Eau - the Flower Clock in Jardin Anglais (English Garden). The clock is situated on a gently sloping green hill at the busy intersection of Quai du Général Guissan and Pont du Mont-Blanc. It is a symbol of the world-renown Geneva watch industry and a masterpiece of technology and floral art. The 6,500 flowers that make up the clock face and other concentric circles change with the season and the working clock keeps perfect time.
If you love the old town section of European cities with their narrow, winding, cobblestone streets, rich architectural features, historic homes and churches, art galleries and centuries old buildings retrofitted to accommodate modern conveniences, then you will love Geneva's Old Town. Historic St. Peter's Cathedral, one of the world's most famous cathedrals, was built over 70 years, from 1160 to 1230. The cathedral has a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles with a neoclassical façade. Today‚s relatively austere interior resulted when its statutes, alters, icons and original organ were destroyed during the 1536 conversion from a Catholic cathedral to a Protestant church. Frescoes on the interior walls of the Nave were whitewashed over. Among the few Catholic decorations to survive the purge is the beautiful stained glass in the chancel.
St. Peter's Cathedral spire
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The Cathedral has two towers but only the north tower is open to the public. At the top of the 157 step climb of the narrow winding staircase of the tower is a breathtaking panoramic view of the city, Lake Geneva and the surrounding mountains in France - the Jura Mountains to the north and Mont Blanc to the south. Before descending the staircase, take a closer look at la Clémence, the cathedral's largest bell. At over six tons, it is six times the weight of the Liberty Bell. La Clémence was hoisted to the tower over 600 years ago.
Near St. Peter's Cathedral is the Place du Bourg-de-Four, the heart of the Old Town. This broad open square with a lovely 18th century fountain and buildings fronting 16th, 17th and 18th century architecture is a commercial and social meeting place for both Genevans and tourists just as it has been since Roman times.
A short stroll from Place du Bourg-de-Four is Promenade de la Treille where you will find the world's longest bench. Originally built in 1767, the 394 foot (120 meters) bench is set along a wall on a high hill that was once an observation and artillery post for defense of the city. The bench faces two long rows of chestnut trees which stretch the length of the promenade.
The world's longest bench, Geneva
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Promenade de la Treille now overlooks the grassy lawn of the University of Geneva which was founded by John (Jean) Calvin. Facing the lawn is the International Monument to the Reformation or simply Reformation Wall. The 330 foot long (100 meters), 33 foot high (10 meters) wall is built into the old city wall of Geneva and honors the main individuals, events and documents of the Protestant Reformation. It was built in 1909 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Calvin‚s birth and the 350th anniversary of the university‚s establishment. At the center of the wall are the more than 16 foot (5 meters) tall statutes of the leaders of the reformation (John Calvin, his successor, Theodore de Beze, Guillaume Farel and John Knox) as well as the nearly 10 foot (3 meters) tall bas-reliefs of other religious leaders.
Visitors can spend an entire day exploring Geneva‚s Old Town with or without a guide. If you choose to go without a guide, I recommend taking the audioguided visits. For about $10 US, you can rent a walkman and map which will take you on a 2 ∏ hour walking tour with historic comments on 26 points of interest. These sites include Maison Tavel, the oldest house in Geneva; Palais de Justice, location of the city‚s law courts since 1860; Hotel de Ville, site of the1864 first Assembly of the Geneva Convention; and the Old Arsenal with its five cannons and an archway with three mosaic frescoes depicting key periods in Geneva‚s history. Along the tour you will pass scores of boutiques and antique shops on the narrow, windy and sometimes steep streets of Old Town.
Even though Old Town with it labyrinth of narrow, angular streets, antique shops and cafes is a prime tourist destination, the Cité Internationale (the base of international organizations) and the rest of the Right Bank hold a number of attractions that shouldn‚t be missed.
Soul Jazz Cafe, Geneva
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The United Nations Office (Palais des Nations) is the most important UN Center after the New York headquarters and the most active international conference center in the world. Behind the security gates of the main entrance to the UN are two rows of flagpoles flying flags of all member nations. This entrance is used only by UN staff. To get to the public entrance, proceed left up the hill to Avenue de la Paix. If you plan to take the tour, be sure to bring your passport since you will be effectively leaving Switzerland and entering international territory after going through the visitor's security gate.
On the hour long guided tour of the huge complex, you will hear about the history and tradition of the organization, see the magnificent pieces of art donated by member nations and see the Council Chamber decorated with magnificent gold and sepia murals painted in 1934 depicting the progress of humankind. You also get to sit the Great Assembly Hall with seating capacity for more than 1,200 members and observers and simultaneous translation into the language of all member nations.
On the Place des Nations, the broad plaza in front of the UN main entrance, is the 39 foot tall (12 meters) Three Legged Chair. The lost leg symbolizes what so many anti-personnel land mine and cluster bomb victims suffer. The chair was the brainchild of Paul Vermeulen, Director of Handicap International. The broken leg is intended as a daily reminder to UN staff who use the main entrance to urge their governments to take action to help victims and avoid similar injuries in the future.
Across the street from the UN visitor entrance is the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum. Through displays, sculptures, objects and original photographs and film clips, the museum pays tribute to the extraordinary deeds of the men and women of the Red Cross. By following the recommended display route, visitors can trace Red Cross and Red Crescent contributions during wars, floods, earthquakes and other grave events on every continent except Australia during the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. You will leave with a renewed appreciation for the works of these extraordinary organizations.
Three Legged Chair at the UN, Geneva
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A short walk down the hill from the Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum is the Adriana Museum, the Swiss Museum of Ceramics and Glass. Lovers of kilncraft, including pottery, stone-ware, porcelain, and faience will be thrilled with the more than 20,000 objects in the museum‚s collections.
Modern art aficionados will enjoy the artwork on display at the MAMCO Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. The museum exhibits a broad range of works from the early 1960‚s to the present day including videos, paintings, photographs, and sculptures.
The Natural History Museum of Geneva, Switzerland's largest museum of natural history, is popular with tourists as well as Genevans and includes attention grabbing displays for both adults and children. With over 86,000 square feet (8,000 square meters), the museum is dedicated to the preservation of natural heritage. Ongoing research includes the restoration of Lucy, the skeletal remains of an adult female estimated to have lived over 3.2 million years ago.
Naturalist will enjoy strolling through the Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Bastions Park. This living museum has a greenhouse, a rock garden, an arboretum, banks of protected and medicinal plants, one of the largest public scientific libraries in the world and many other opportunities to look and learn. Of particular interest to the visually impaired is the garden of scent and touch.
Visitors who fly into the Geneva Cointrin International Airport can pick up a free bus or train ticket from the machine in the baggage claims area on the arrival level. The ticket, offered by Geneva International Airport, allows free travel on the public transportation system in Geneva for a period of 80 minutes. That is more than enough time to reach your destination since the train ride from the airport to Carnavin, the main train station in the heart of Geneva, takes about six minutes. Without the free ticket, the ride costs only 5 Swiss Francs.
Flower Clock, Geneva
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Geneva has numerous moderately priced hotels. I highly recommend the Hotel Kipling on Rue de la Navigation located about a 10 minute walk from the train station on a narrow, one-way street lined by cafes, bars and ethnic fashion boutiques. I found the neighborhood to be interesting and culturally diverse. Many of the city's main tourist attractions are within an easy walk from the hotel. One block from the hotel is the trolley line that goes to Place des Nations. The ride is free with the Geneva Transport Card provided by the hotel.
Like many European hotels, the room rate at the Hotel Kipling includes a wide selection of breakfast items and you‚ll find many moderately priced restaurants where you can eat dinner for less than $30. My favorite find is the Migros Gourmesa, the self-service restaurant associated with one of Switzerland‚s largest supermarkets. Like at a salad bar, most items are weighed but for less than $15, I had a fine three course dinner with a beverage. The supermarket also has a large selection of reasonably priced souvenirs.
German is most widely spoken in Switzerland which has four official languages. However, due to its proximity to France, French is the official language of Geneva. Most tourist and service personnel slip effortlessly from French into English, German, Italian or Spanish.
For many travelers on a European vacation, Geneva is the city they pass through on the way from Paris to Vienna or Milan. With so much to offer, I encourage travelers to linger for a few days. Geneva is a cosmopolitan city with an extremely high standard of living. There is a wide choice of cultural activities including galleries, concerts, opera, and more than 40 public and private museums. Popular historic sites, a variety of shopping, outstanding dining, and beautiful scenery are all waiting to be experienced.
Numerous excursions by coach, cable car or boat are available to the Swiss countryside or locations in nearby France. From center city it takes about 20 minutes to reach Mont Salève where you can take a five minute cable car ride to the top of the 4527 foot (1,380 meters) high peak overlooking the streets of Geneva. From the peak you can also see Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps and Western Europe.
Monument of a child leading an adult suffering from Riverblindness
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In 90 minutes, you can travel to Chamonix, a famous mountain village at the foot of majestic Mont-Blanc. Before exploring Chamonix, you can take a two-stage cable car to Aiguille du Midi where you can experience the panoramic views of the Chamonix Valley and major peaks of the French, Swiss and Italian Alps. On boat cruises lasting less than an hour to a full day you can see Geneva‚s exquisite parks, gardens and residences and castles of famous celebrities or visit some of the other cities on the shores of Lake Geneva such as Lausanne, Coppet, Nyon, and Montreux.
While Geneva may not have the night life of Paris or Milan, it has one huge advantage for American travelers - the Swiss franc trades at nearly one to one with the dollar. So your dollar goes a lot further in Geneva than in European countries that have converted to the Euro.
If you want to experience European history and culture without the language barrier or the economic drain of paying with the euro, Geneva should be high of your list of places to visit. Depending on your interests, plan to spend at least two to three days in the city, more if you use Geneva as a base for excursions into the Geneva countryside or to nearby sites in France.
Geneva Tourism & Convention Bureau
International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum