City Slicker: Geneva
Before you hit the ski slopes, take time to explore this gateway city to the Alps. Ian McCurrach offers a guide for new and returning visitors
Sunday 29 November 2009
With more routes going into Geneva from the UK this winter – 20 in total now that Swiss has added a new twice-weekly flight from Manchester and FlyBaboo is departing twice daily from Oxford – this Alpine city has become the premier gateway to France and Switzerland's pistes, according to the Ski Club of Great Britain. But don't just fly in and whizz straight off to the slopes, because Geneva itself is worth a look.
Set at the western end of Lake Geneva, Switzerland's second city is spectacularly sandwiched between the mighty Alps and Jura mountains. And while its population falls just short of 200,000, it still has all the assets of a major world hub, catering for the high-spending tastes of the international workforce employed here by global giants such as Procter & Gamble and leading world organisations including the UN and Red Cross.
But it's not just about high-rollers. In sharp contrast to the general atmosphere of wealth, reserve and conservatism, you have the lively student areas of Plainpalais, Pâquis and Augustins, where impromptu concerts and art exhibitions – housed in old abandoned warehouses, such as those on Place des Volontaires – keep the counterculture vibe alive.
*Jet d'Eau, the famous fountain on Lake Geneva, one of the largest in the world, which thrusts more than 500 litres of water into the air per second, to a staggering height of 140m. Admire it at night, when it is dramatically floodlit;
*The Flower Clock, a highly decorative timepiece in the English Garden that dates back to 1955 and celebrates Geneva's watchmaking industry. Its clock face features 7,000 seasonal blooms;
*St Peter's Cathedral, a Romanesque-Gothic church, with a neo-classical façade, where the reformer John Calvin preached in the 16th century. Go below to discover Roman remains from the fourth century, or climb to the top of the north tower for superb views over Geneva and its lake;
*The United Nations Building. Take a tour of the UN's European headquarters in Ariana Park to see the vast Council Chamber with its colossal bronze doors and murals by Catalan artist Jose Maria Sert;
*Carouge. Once a village, this leafy district has a distinctly Mediterranean feel. Check out the cobbled streets with their designer stores, cafés and restaurants. For a retro moment, indulge in a cheese fondue in the cosy Swiss chalet surroundings of Au Vieux Carouge, at 27 rue Jacques-Dalphin.
On the edge of the old town, on the left bank, Plainpalais was once home to the watchmaking industry. Today, the former factories and warehouses have been put to use once more as trendy residences and retail outlets. The campus of the University of Geneva sits at the heart of the area and the streets surrounding Uni Mail, the university's most contemporary building, are stacked with lively cafés, bars and clubs. For good, sensibly priced sushi, try Misuji, at Boulevard du Pont-d'Arve 49. For tapas and beer check out Le Café du Lys, at 7 rue de l'Ecole de Médecine. And after dark, head for L'Usine, at 4 place des Volontaires, where you can catch everything from live bands and DJs to cutting-edge theatre. A flea market takes place on the Plaine de Plainpalais on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, with stalls bearing a variety of wares, from valuable antiques to bric-a-brac.
La Cour des Augustins
This four-star boutique hotel first opened its doors three years ago but is now complete with the recent addition of a hi-tech gym and health club. And in a city awash with five-star properties and sky-high room rates, it finally fills the gap for mid-priced stylish accommodation. The hotel is set across two buildings, behind an original 19th-century façade, and has 40 rooms and suites, all of which have hi-tech facilities, including free Wi-Fi. The design is funky minimalist with big furniture and bold splashes of colour. The property has a large collection of contemporary art, which can be purchased along with interior design objects at the hotel's sizeable boutique.
In a city renowned for its gourmet eateries, this small and cosy Italian restaurant broke the deluxe mould when it opened seven months ago. Simple and traditional Italian fare with a contemporary twist is served in a modern salon by the Sardinian chef Giovanni Barbieri. The small menu changes daily and usually consists of two starters, two mains and a range of desserts, with Barbieri's specialities including trout with grilled vegetables and mushroom risotto. There are only 25 covers, so book ahead.
Details: Asseyez-Vous, 25 rue Prévost-Martin (00 41 22 328 14 70)
Les Enfants Terribles
This unique concept store is a recent addition to Geneva's retail scene, housing a design emporium, a café-bar and concert space. It specialises in making one-off household design objects and items such as lighting, vases, tables and chairs from pieces of industrial salvage. Customers are encouraged to visit the on-site workshop to see how these pieces are made. The store also features the work of European design houses such as Hay from Denmark, Authentics from Germany, and Fat Boy from Holland. At the heart of the space is a small café bar, in which chef Christophe Berger serves up homemade gourmet soups, salads and tarts along with coffee, juices and wine. The café-bar frequently doubles as an evening concert space, with upcoming performances including Colorblind and Arthur Sat.
Insider’s secret: Vishnen Malsan, proprietor and sommelier of Biodynamite
"Geneva has everything a big city has to offer without the hassle of living in a big city. After work, I love going to Café Marius, a wine bar housed in a former butcher's shop. The owner has kept all the original Art Deco features such as the tiles and furniture. It's always packed with a young crowd and it's a great place to chill out with friends. If you are peckish there is a very tasty tapas menu chalked up on large blackboards."
Details: Café Marius, 9 place des Augustins (00 41 22 320 62 39)
How to get there
British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) offers return flights from Heathrow airport to Geneva from £111 per person.
Geneva Tourist Office (geneve-tourisme.ch).
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