As we sat outside a café in the old town of Geneva enjoying some mulled wine, I found myself pondering the paradox the city creates.
It is a city in Switzerland, but the language is French.The headquarters of the United Nations are located there making it an international city, yet it feels very parochial.
Of course, I didn’t ponder for too long as the mulled wine took over and there were sights to be seen.
I’d like to think it was our arrival in Geneva that was being celebrated by the firing of cannon from the city walls, parades and hundreds of people wearing period costumes. As it transpired, we were in the city during the annual Escalade commemorations which take place around the 12th December.
They are held to mark the defeat of the forces sent by the Duke of Savoy in 1602 in an attempt to take over the city. It seems the entire population takes part with all age groups getting involved. One popular tradition is to walk down the Passage de Monetier.
The passage zigzags between medieval buildings and narrows to 20 inches in places. It is only open during the Escalade weekend, so lengthy queues can develop. A word of warning to those who, like me, are big-boned – it is a bit of a tight squeeze!
After checking my ribs and vital organs were still in place, we made our way to the Reformation Wall, which has very serious looking statues commemorating the likes of John Calvin, John Knox and other Protestant Reformers not called John.
If the statues are anything to go by, they looked like a great bunch of lads altogether (as I write this, my inner voice is reading it Father Ted style and as a son of The Manse, I can get away with it!). Geneva was integral to the Reformation and there are many Calvinist and Lutheran churches throughout the city.
The village of Carouges, which borders the Geneva city limits became the place Genevans went to escape the rather strait-laced reformers. By all accounts it was a place to see and be seen back in the day.
It has kept is village atmosphere and is now famous for its Saturday market which takes over the main square and surrounding streets. It was once part of the Sardinian state, so has a very colourful Mediterranean ambience and is well worth visiting. Carouges is still a place Genevans go to relax and is not particularly on the tourist trail so it was good to feel like a local, even for a short time. We found everyone we had dealings with very friendly and welcoming too.
Geographically, Geneva is an intriguing city. Whichever way you look, you see mountains and they are all in France. The city shares over 100km of land borders with its Gallic neighbours and only 4km with Switzerland. Indeed, visiting the famous cable car at Mont Saleve, known locally as Geneva’s Mountain, involves walking across the Swiss/French border which is a few minutes bus ride from the city centre.
Mont Saleve is a popular haunt for extreme sports enthusiasts with options available to go up in the cable car and paraglide back down, or indeed travel down again on a mountain bike. In the interests of journalistic fact checking I did my best to encourage my fiancée to try out the attraction while I waited on terra firma with a hot chocolate, but she was having none of it.
Back in the city, the waterfront is a hive of activity, the star attraction is the Jet d’Eau, the world’s tallest fountain. In the summer months, there is a beach and a number of swimming pools created on the lake and a host of water-based activities are offered. On dry ground, the main shopping streets are nearby and are a designer label-hunters playground.
Gastronomy plays a big part in city life. A local favourite is Perch, which are caught in Lake Geneva and served with a cheese and white wine sauce. Foie Gras is also popular, as is the local Swiss sausage. However, the dish which permeates every menu, and (without wishing to offend any Swiss readers) nasal passage, is Cheese Fondue.
Primarily a sharing dish, it is served with bread and a charcuterie tray and is an olfactory challenge to say the least. We enjoyed excellent meals at Restaurant de la Mere Royaume, Les 5 Portes, Restaurant des Armures and Café Papon.
However a word to the wise, Geneva does not have the reputation as the most expensive city in Europe for nothing, eating out can be eyewateringly expensive so it is best to scout around to find the best deals. Indeed, a variety of “street food” trucks are now positioned around the city and offer great meals at low prices. If you are a wine connoisseur, be sure to try the local wines which are produced solely for local consumption. Genevans take great pride in the fact that their wine is not exported.
As Geneva is busy during weekdays, hotels usually have great weekend offers available and free upgrades are quite frequent. We stayed at the Hotel New Midi, which is right beside the river and an excellent base to check out the city. Just a few minutes walk from the train station, bus stops and the old town. We found ourselves in the art-deco styled penthouse suite, with terrific views over the city skyline and enough rooms to lose each other!
Geneva also offers all tourists a free transport card when they check in at their hotel. Coupled with the free train ticket from the airport (a secret that isn’t highly promoted, but keep an eye out for the machines) it means that all rail, bus, tram and water taxi services are free for the duration of your stay.
Given the city is quite hilly, the bus comes in handy. Another bonus is the Geneva Visite card which offers free entry to many museums, tours and attractions. The proximity of the airport to the city is a major bonus. On departure, we were checked in, through security and waiting at the gate within 15 minutes of leaving the city centre. The airport is used by many as a gateway to the ski areas in the Alps.
Those who don’t take the chance of enjoying what Geneva has to offer are missing out.