ah Geneva…where do I even start? The three days and two nights (and one extra thanks to Heathrow cancelling our flight because of snow in London) that we spent in the city were so very enjoyable that to pick out a highlight seems like an insult when everything that we did was so interesting. (I wrote a little about the trip when I got back to London back in December here.)
When I was asked if I would like to visit the city by Geneva Tourism I wasn’t immediately sure if I was in – this Swiss lakeside city in the foothills of the Alps, which I’ve only really passed through on the way to visit Meriel in Lausanne, or to attend multiple watch events, has never struck me as being particularly blessed with a multitude of things to do. It always seemed to me to be a place I was in en route to somewhere else. (I transited through Geneva airport some ten times in 2016 and 2017.)
But, even excluding the many arcane joys of the annual Fête de l’Escalade which took place throughout the Old Town of Geneva over our weekend in early December, or the obvious lack of the city’s summertime lake-centric activities on Lake Geneva (also known as Lac Leman), we were kept happily occupied pottering around the city.
From wandering around the extensive Christmas markets, to the really quite brilliant watchmaking lesson we undertook one afternoon, there was more than enough to do and, fuelled by a quite astonishing amount of cheese and chocolate, I felt like we really had a handle on the city by the time we left.
Of course there was some snow, but it turns out that Geneva doesn’t generally get the massive snow dumps one associates with the rest of alpine Switzerland, so we had all the benefits of the picture postcard scenery without the downside of having to wade through drifts of the stuff.
It was, however, really quite cold, but we had come prepared with large quantities of HeatTech, sensible walking boots. (I packed two pairs, my Penelope Chilvers Inclement Boots, and some Hunters with grippy soles in case it did snow as I am not know for my ability to stay upright.) With warm gloves and hats, we managed to stay toasty warm even though we spent large chunks of our time outdoors. (We even eschewed cabs to walk to and from dinner in the evenings, so that we could see as much of the city as possible.)
We caught a flight at 0830hrs from London City and were at our hotel, the four star Tiffany, in Geneva City Centre by midday. (Geneva Airport is just 7 minutes by train from the city centre, and there is a machine dispensing free transit tickets in the baggage reclaim hall.)
After a quick lunch we met our guide for the afternoon, the really excellent Viktoria who kicked off proceedings by escorting us to The Reformation Wall (Monument international de la Réformation), in the Parc des Bastions, which was built into the old city walls of Geneva in 1909, and which honours many of the main individuals, events, and documents of the Protestant Reformation by depicting them in statues and bas-reliefs. During the Reformation, Geneva was the centre of Calvinism, and its history and heritage since the sixteenth century has been closely linked to that of Protestantism.
From there we headed briskly into the Old Town. Geneva is a city that rewards the walker, and exercises the hamstrings – it’s quite the pull up to the Cathedral perched at the top, but it’s worth it to wander the charming, narrow and Medieval cobbled streets, and explore its numerous taverns, art galleries and antique dealers.
Do keep an eye out for the Librarie Jullien, the oldest bookshop in Geneva.
And then there is the Cathédrale de St Pierre which sits on the peak of the hill on which the Old Town is located. Its first phase of construction dates back to 1160 and lasted nearly a century. Under the Reformation, it became a Protestant place of worship from 1535,
Do look out for the misericords in the choir stalls, and the wonderful carvings.
The most important thing to note is that you must not leave the cathedral (as so many do because it is easy to miss) without visiting the Gothic-influenced Chapel of the Maccabees in its south-west corner. It was built in the 15th century as a tomb for Jean de Brogny and his family, a cardinal who served under Pope Clement VII, although the beautiful celestial and heraldic frescoes were renovated in the 19th century to reflect the original frescoes before austerity was introduced by John Calvin.
Which brings me to the Fête de l’Escalade, which had prompted our trip. The annual festival celebrates the defeat of the surprise attack by troops sent by Charles Emmanuel I, Duke of Savoy to reclaim his former possession of Geneva during the night of 11–12 December 1602. The Savoyard soldiers attempted to scale the city ramparts, but the people of Geneva managed to valiantly defend their town.
Examples of bravery were many; in particular that of Mère Royaume, who climbed onto the ramparts and poured her pot – a marmite – of hot soup over the head of a Savoyard soldier. Her actions are celebrated to this day by the symbol of L’Escalade, a chocolate marmite which is sold all over the city in sizes ranging from minute to Brobdingnagian.
The festival provides an excellent opportunity for the people of Geneva to shake off their quiet, Calvinist reputation. And goodness do they throw their hearts into it. Countless people dress up in full 17th century costume and it’s not uncommon to turn a corner to see a group of soldiers on horseback complete with chestplates and helmets.
During the weekend a large, torch-bearing procession dressed in period costumes walks through the streets of the old city along both banks of the Rhone. Historic and legendary figures like Mère Royaume, armed with her pot, are always present, and at several points along the traditional route, the procession stops and a herald on horseback reads the proclamation of victory over the invaders. Arriving at the Cathédrale de St Pierre, the participants sing patriotic songs.
There are also plenty of stalls selling soup and vin chaud from vast vats along the route to keep you warm.
I think the highlight of the afternoon was our private tour of the Passage de Monetier. Open only once a year during the weekend of L’Escalade, it’s a very narrow passage of about a hundred meters, at the foot of the ancient city ramparts, whose final segment is a narrow gully just 50 centimetres wide.
City volunteers in full L’Escalade costumes take the tours. And goodness they are thoroughly enjoying themselves.
The Passage has had several uses over the centuries. It wasn’t a built pathway, as such, more a gap between the fortifications of the city and newer buildings further down the hill, which became an alley, allowing access from one neighbourhood to another without detours, and, during times of siege and defence, acted as a secret pathway.
This was our charming guide – it’s a good thing it was him and not, say the gaoler as the passage is extremely narrow!
And, just to make my cup spillith over, we even came across a pair of Dachshunds. Truly, Geneva delivers on all counts.
Librairie Jullien – livres neufs et anciens, antiquariat
Bourg-de-Four 32, 1204 Genève –+41 (0) 22 310 36 70 – www.jullien.ch
Rue de l’Arquebuse 20, 1204 Genève, Switzerland
Phone: +41 (0) 22 708 16 16 www.tiffanyhotel.ch
Cathédrale St Pierre
With enormous thanks to Geneva Tourism for hosting myself and Philippa for two nights
(and one extra, thanks to the snow in London) in Geneva in December 2017
For more information, please visit: www.geneve.com