PRODUCED IN ASSOCIATION WITH SWITZERLAND TOURISM

Life in a lake district

Geneva in spring sees the parks and gardens by Europe's largest lake come into their own


WHERE?

WHERE?

Geneva comprises the south-western tip of both Lake Geneva and Switzerland. The city occupies a narrow spit of land surrounded on three sides by France. Switzerland's third-largest city is split into distinctive right and left banks by the Rhône. The city is dominated by its lake, its history and the neighbouring Jura mountains. On the left (southern) bank of the Rhône, the Old Town rises above the lakeside; residential districts, parks and most of the international organisations that have made this city their European home lie along the right (northern) bank.

The main airline into Geneva is easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com), which flies from seven British airports, including Luton, Liverpool, Gatwick and Nottingham. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies from Gatwick, Heathrow, London City and Manchester, while the reinvented national carrier, Swiss (0845 601 0956; www.swiss.com), flies from Heathrow and London City.

The six-minute train journey from the airport's own station to the city-centre Gare de Cornavin costs Sfr2.20 (£1). The main tourist office is close by, at 18 rue du Mont-Blanc (00 41 22 909 70 70 00; www.geneve-tourisme.ch). It opens 10am-6pm on Mondays and 9am-6pm from Tuesday to Saturday; like the vast majority of Geneva's shops, it is closed on Sundays. Another useful source is the city information office on Pont de la Machine, one of the bridges leading over the Old Town (00 41 22 311 99 70).

Geneva offers beds ranging from five-star hedonism in elegant lakeside mansions to alcohol-free, single-sex hostels. On the right bank, Hotel Beau-Rivage (13 Quai du Mont-Blanc; 00 41 22 716 66 66; www.beau-rivage.ch) has been taking guests since 1865. It offers spectacular lake views, luxurious rooms, with doubles from Sfr550 (£244) including breakfast; lake views cost more. Its gourmet restaurant, the Chat Botté, has one of the best reputations in town.

In the centre of the Old Town, the Hotel Les Armures at 1 rue du Puits-St-Pierre (00 41 22 310 91 72; www.hotel-les-armures.ch) is equally attractive, but has a more traditional, cosy feel. Weekend doubles start at Sfr435 (£193), breakfast included. The in-house restaurant (00 41 22 310 34 42), specialising in hearty Swiss dishes, is excellent.

Down by the river at 1 quai Turrettini, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel du Rhône (00 41 22 9090 00 00; www.mandarinoriental.com) is modern and comfortable. Art and photography exhibitions are held in the public rooms. Special weekend rates start from Sfr380 (£168).

The Hotel Montana at 23 rue des Alpes (00 41 22 732 08 40; www.hotel-montana-ge.ch) is more modest, but is central, comfortable and friendly. Doubles from Sfr160 (£71) at weekends, including breakfast. The pleasant Excelsior at 34 rue Rousseau (00 41 22 732 09 45) also provides good value, at Sfr195 (£86) for a double and breakfast. Tourist information website www.geneve-tourisme.ch has a hotel booking service and information on special weekend deals.

Upmarket retail therapy is dispensed along rue du Rhône and rue du Rive, home to designer names and leading Swiss watch-makers; the streets around rue du Marché all yield rich pickings to fit most budgets, while the steep Grand Rue contains an incredible number of jewellers and antique shops.

Across the Rhône, the streets leading off rue du Mont-Blanc offer numerous opportunities to stock up on local chocolate, cuckoo clocks, Swiss Army knives and other souvenirs. There are also charming boutiques and crafts shops. Fortunately, the shopping complex in the Gare de Cornavin is open daily, and there's a flea market on Wednesdays and Saturdays on Plaine de Plainpalais.

WHY?

Geneva is at its best from spring when the winter chill lifts and the city's many parks and gardens come into their own. Attractions include the old town and dozens of museums and art galleries. The presence of international organisations ensures a cosmopolitan mix, while Geneva's history as a bastion of the Reformation, home of the International Red Cross and diplomatic centre adds extra depth to what remains an undeniably Swiss experience.

The tourist office organises two-hour walking tours around the city on Saturday mornings at 10 from the rue du Mont-Blanc office (Sfr15/£6.60). Audio guides are also available for those preferring to explore at their own pace (Sfr10/£4.50 plus a deposit).

The suburb of Carouge, 2km from the centre, has an artistic, almost Mediterranean feel - complete with well-preserved late 18th-century buildings, constructed when the area belonged to the Dukes of Sardinia. It is the location for the "Printemps Carougeois" spring festival ( www.carouge.ch), until 1 May.

WHAT?

Start by the lakeside: the Jardin Anglais, the extensive and leafy park stretching along the Eaux-Vives district, is a wonderful place to stroll, people-watch and admire the Jet d'Eau. It is also home to one of the city's symbols, a large floral clock planted with more than 6,000 blooms.

St-Pierre Cathedral was built between 1160 and 1232, and has been a place of Protestant worship since the Reformation. In keeping with its iconoclastic past, the interior is unadorned, but Calvin's chair and the tomb of the Duke of Rohan are both on show. Today, the most interesting areas are underground - archaeological digs have uncovered Roman ruins, a 4th-century baptistry and 5th-century mosaics - or the viewing platform. The cathedral is open daily, but the museum is closed on Mondays.

Still on the religious theme, the Reformation Wall in the Parc des Bastions provides a roll-call on the main personalities who defined this tumultuous period across Europe, including John Knox. The wall is also inscribed with quotations from their best-known speeches or sermons.

The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau's birthplace at 40 Grand-Rue (00 41 22 310 10 28) is a shrine to an alternative view of the world. Maison Tavel at 6 rue du Puits-St-Pierre (00 41 22 418 37 00) provides a broader view of Geneva's history. On 28 April an exhibition entitled "Images of a dream", exploring the mythology of Swiss patriotism through a century of posters, opens here (Sfr3/£1.30).

Away from the centre, the Red Cross Museum at 17 avenue de la Paix (00 41 22 748 95 11; www.micr.org) charts the society's efforts since 1863 to counteract man's inhumanity to man. Admission is Sfr10 (£4.40), but there's free admission to a temporary photo exhibition illustrating the consequences of 11 September 2001 in the USA, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Across the road, guided tours can be taken around the Palais des Nations, the UN's imposing European headquarters at 14 avenue de la Paix (00 41 22 907 48 96; www.unog.ch). Visitors can see the Assembly Hall and Council Chamber, and are briefed on the UN's activities and the building's original use as HQ for the ill-fated League of Nations; admission is Sfr10 (£4.40).

Should all this sightseeing sound too tiring, head for the quai du Mont-Blanc: two companies offer regular boat trips around Lake Geneva and down the Rhône.

FIVE FOR FOOD AND DRINK

A Tasca do Primo at 5 rue des Pierres-du-Niton (00 41 22 840 06 06; closed Saturday lunchtime, Sunday and Monday evening) serves imaginative Portuguese cuisine. The restaurant specialises in fish with five separate cod dishes. Other favourites include chicken in a cinnamon sauce, washed down with Portuguese wine.

Café du Centre at 5 place du Molard (00 41 22 311 85 86) is another gastronomic favourite and a Geneva institution. Also specialises in delicious fish dishes and seafood; even better when you eat out on its sunny terrace.

Soupçon at 8 place du Bourg-de-Four (00 41 22 318 37 37) is a trendy bar and restaurant. Its lunch and dinner menus offer a wide range of meat, fish and vegetarian dishes, and the Sunday brunch buffet is irresistible.

Chez Angelo at 33-35 Grand Rue (00 41 22 311 24 16; closed Saturday lunchtime and Sunday) specialises in traditional Swiss fare (i.e. lots of cheese and potatoes), but also offers lighter dishes, such as a huge king-prawn salad.

Chez Ma Cousine at 6 place du Bourg-de-Four (00 41 22 310 96 96) is unpretentious but reliable and its main dish of chicken - spit-roasted, curried or Thai - is always tasty. The deserts are mouth-watering.

ON THE SHORES OF LAKE GENEVA

LAUSANNE

In a country of spectacular natural beauty, Lausanne is the most beautiful of cities, tiered above Lake Geneva on a succession of compact terraces. Vistas of blue water, glittering sunlight and the purple and grey of the looming Savoy Alps peep through between gaps in buildings. Much of the city is still wooded, and the tree-lined lakefront promenades spill over with beds of flowers. Attractive, interesting, worldly and well aware of how to have a good time, Lausanne is simply Switzerland's sexiest city.

Café culture is thriving in the bars of the Flon, a former industrial district in the centre that has been redeveloped. The best shopping is on glitzy Rue de Bourg, which heads uphill from the central Place St-François into the old town, which is topped by the splendid Gothic Notre-Dame cathedral.

Lausanne's top gallery is the unique Collection de l'Art Brut, founded by Jean Dubuffet and devoted to Art Brut, or outsider art - the creative output of ordinary people with no artistic training at all, frequently loners, psychotics or the criminally insane. The art they produced is challenging stuff, entirely free from any conception of formal artistic rules or conventions.

While in town, drop by the Olympic Museum, a grand affair devoted to the games, and the nearby Musée de l'Elysée, dedicated to photography.

Collection de l'Art Brut, 11 Avenue des Bergières (00 41 21 315 25 70; www.artbrut.ch). Daily except Monday 11am-6pm; Sfr8 (£3.50).

Olympic Museum, 1 Quai d'Ouchy (00 41 21 621 65 11; www.olympic.org). Daily 9am-6pm; Sfr14 (£6.20).

Musée de l'Elysée, 18 Avenue de l'Elysée (00 41 21 316 99 11; www.elysee.ch). Daily 11am-6pm; Sfr8 (£3.50).

VEVEY & MONTREUX

Trains, buses and boats continue from Lausanne further round the lake to the genteel resort of Vevey, an old-fashioned spot immortalised by the novelist Anita Brookner in her Hotel Du Lac.

This little town, set around the Place du Marché on the lakefront, has a good deal of character: its old lanes are full of antiques shops, and the large Musée Jenisch gallery puts on several shows a year; it holds the largest collection of Rembrandt lithographs in Europe, as well as works by Dürer, Corot, Le Corbusier. Charlie Chaplin made Vevey his home in the 1950s, and lived here until his death in 1977; you can visit his grave in the Corsier cemetery.

From Vevey, a funicular heads up the slopes to a terrace on the shoulder of Mont-Pèlerin, at 800m above sea level: from here, the whole lake is spread out before you.

East of Vevey, still on the lakefront, the ritzy, upmarket Montreux enjoys a spectacular location, bathed in afternoon sun that streams across the lake. This is one of the grandest of the lake's resorts, with a parade of Belle-Epoque palace hotels and its famous casino. Its Mountain Studios has hosted some of the greatest rock bands - not least Queen (Freddie Mercury is commemorated by a bronze statue).

Just south of Montreux is the stunning 13th-century Château de Chillon, almost perfectly preserved on its rocky islet. The castle caught the imagination of Lord Byron, who came visiting in 1816 with Shelley, and subsequently dashed off his poem The Prisoner Of Chillon.

Musée Jenisch, 2 Avenue de la Gare, Vevey (00 41 21 921 29 50; www.museejenisch.ch). Daily except Monday, 11am-5.30pm; Sfr8 (£3.50).

Château de Chillon, 21 Avenue de Chillon, Veytaux (00 41 21 966 89 10; www.chillon.ch). Daily 9am-7pm; Sfr10 (£4.35).

Matthew Teller

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