Geneva: A swift stroll through Swiss splendour
For walkers, this international city reveals itself as anything but conventional, says Simon Calder
Simon Calder is Travel Editor at Large for The Independent, writing a weekly column, various articles and features as well as filming a weekly video diary. Every Sunday afternoon, Simon presents the UK's only radio travel phone-in programme called The LBC Travel Show with Simon Calder (97.3 FM). He is a regular guest on national TV, often seen on BBC Breakfast, Daybreak, ITV News and Sky News. He is often interviewed on BBC Radio, particularly for BBC Radio 4’s You & Yours programme and BBC Five Live.
Saturday 14 September 2013
Switzerland's westernmost city has long been an enlightened haven for intellectuals, so it is appropriate that this month Geneva has become a new destination for non-stop flights from Cambridge.This slice of Geneva starts with a flourish at the easy-to-spot Russian Church at Rue de Beaumont 18 (00 41 22 346 47 09), whose cluster of onion domes, towers above the south-east of the city. It was the creation of Queen Victoria's aunt, Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, who married into the Russian aristocracy but preferred life in Geneva to the Imperial court in St Petersburg. She paid for the construction of the church, which this year celebrates its 150th anniversary.
Close by is the Museum of Art and History, which occupies a bulky early 20th-century neo-classical pile. Its façade celebrates Swiss artists such as Jean-Etienne Liotard and Rodolphe Töpffer. Most visitors will be enticed by the works of Veronese and Hogarth as well as an edition of Rodin's The Thinker (00 41 22 418 26 00; ville-ge.ch/mah; 11am-6pm daily except Monday). Conveniently, given the mighty Swiss franc, the permanent collection is free.
The Old Town begins in earnest as you move north-west towards the river. The Place du Bourg-de-Four, amid a tangle of lanes, feels like a proper village square. At the Hotel de Ville (Town Hall), a plaque in the Alabama Room announces that this was where the first Geneva Convention was signed in 1864 as the initial act of the International Red Cross.
Make a pit-stop at Chez Ma Cousine at number 6 (11am-11.30pm; chezmacousine.ch), offering the best-value cappuccino on the square at Sfr3.90 (£2.80) – with good chicken dishes and salads for an early lunch.
Wander across to the Promenade de la Treille, passing the statue of Charles Pictet de Rochemont – the architect of Swiss neutrality. Take in the fine views from the terrace and witness one of Europe's sillier superlatives: the world's longest wooden bench, all 126m of it.
The Cathedral of St-Pierre houses about the same length in austere wooden pews. This haven of Calvinism was where the reforming theologian preached in the mid-16th century. His chair remains. Beneath the nave there is an archaeological site, and you can also ascend to the top of the towers between 10am-5pm daily. A ticket covering both costs Sfr16 (£11.50); admission to the cathedral itself is free.
Call in at the concise (and free) Maison Tavel at Rue du Puits-St-Pierre 6 (00 41 22 418 37 00; 11am-6pm daily except Monday). It is claimed to be the oldest private dwelling in the city. The 14th-century house provides an intimate picture of life in Geneva through the centuries.
Then thread your way down to the Place du Molard. The elegant Tour du Molard at the far end, contains a relief with the inscription "Genève Cité de Refuge"; look among the cobbles beneath your feet for one-word messages such as "Gracias" and "Bienvenue". Head for Lake Geneva, checking the time at the impressive floral clock in the 1854 Jardin Anglais. Take in the view of the Jet d'Eau. If the plume soaring 140m into the air fails to impress you, consider that seven tonnes of water are airborne at any instant. Then bear left along the promenade, beneath the busy Pont de Mont-Blanc – which crosses the Rhône as the replenished river continues its meandering journey to the Mediterranean.
Two bridges along is the Pont de la Machine. The machine in question formerly occupied the building in the middle and pumped water to the city's lesser fountains. Today, the structure houses the Cité du Temps – an unusual combination of bar-restaurant, art space (the current exhibition, to 7 October, features the photographer, Régis Colombo; 00 41 22 818 39 00; citedutemps.com; 9am-6pm daily).
The right bank of the Rhône is less engrossing than the left. Rue Rousseau leads from the Pont de la Machine to the impressive Catholic Basilica of Notre-Dame. Just beyond, Gare de Cornavin has been largely modernised but the stirring murals of Swiss mountain scenes in the station's ticket hall have survived.
To satisfy the appetite you have worked up, part with 42 of your remaining Swiss francs (£30) at the Café de Paris at Rue du Mont-Blanc 26 (00 41 22 732 84 50; chezboubier.com; 11am-11pm daily). The only dish is entrecôte beef, cooked to your choice and served with frites and a green salad. Simple, but heavenly.
Opening on Friday and running to 12 January next year, the Tutankhamun exhibition at Palexpo is a remarkable compilation of replica funerary items – including Tutankhamun's celebrated golden mask – reconstructed to show the young pharaoh's tomb as it was found by archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922 (00 41 22 365 11 60; toutankhamon.ch; open 10am-7pm daily, Sfr22/£16, Mondays Sfr16/£11.50).
You can fly non-stop from many UK airports to Geneva – including, from this month, from Cambridge on Darwin Airline. The main carrier is easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com), with other options available on Swiss (0845 601 0956; swiss.com), British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com). Trains run from Geneva airport to the main station, Gare de Cornavin, in six minutes.
The train journey from London St Pancras and Ebbsfleet is straightforward. After the Eurostar to Paris Gare du Nord, take RER line D to the Gare de Lyon, from where high-speed TGVs depart for Geneva. The total journey takes around six-and-a-half hours.
The three-star Hôtel Cristal at Rue Pradier 4 (00 41 22 716 12 21; fassbindhotels.com) is stylish and central and offers excellent deals for weekend stays: Sfr130 (£93) nightly for a good double, including breakfast and Wi-Fi. All Geneva hotels offer a card giving free bus, tram, train and boat travel within the city.
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