Swiss at heart

Getaway to Geneva

Swiss at heart
She sat on a park bench enveloped by an off-handedly beautiful landscape that Switzerland so routinely dishes out to visitors. Lake Geneva, the serene highlight of the city of Geneva, rippled in front of her like shards of broken glass even as boats cruised past, sails billowing in the wind. Beyond, the snow-crusted Alps rose like a protective wall of granite.

The title of the book that she was reading was — One Thousand Reasons to be Optimistic! We almost laughed out aloud. Did she really need reasons to stay positive when she was living in a place as close to paradise on earth as you can get? Surrounded by lakeside villages, iridescent green vineyards and high medieval walls that have sheltered liberals and refugees fleeing from political turmoil in their own countries, Geneva has a tinge of escape about it.

Positive energy

We continued our walk through flower-spangled parkland that edged the lake that separates Switzerland and France and where the villas of former Geneva worthies rose all around us in man-made glory. Yes, in Geneva and elsewhere in Switzerland, God’s handiwork and man’s come together in a divine Swiss mix. This city of lake and river, encircled by rural Switzerland of meadows, happy cows, and yodelling farmers is an international city with a Swiss heart.

And Geneva has lots of heart. For here, the International Red Cross was born in 1864 as was the League of Nations, while the European headquarters of the United Nations is located here too in the International District. Indeed over 150 countries maintain permanent missions to the UN office in Geneva. The World Health Organization is rooted in this most liveable Swiss city as are multiple governmental and non-governmental organisations and over 100 international banks. Their presence gives this rather small Swiss enclave a world view that seems disproportionate to its size and an undeniable cosmopolitan aura.

This Swiss city is also a Noah’s Ark of nationalities, and foreigners melt into this Swiss realm as would a knife into butter! Indeed an outsider is more likely to feel at home in Geneva than a farmer from canton Schwyz, confided a resident whom we spoke to as we relaxed at a lakeshore café.

And the lakeshore cafés are Geneva’s ultimate gift to the thirsty traveller, looking to kick up his or her heels after a day of sightseeing — perhaps after an amble in the poignant Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum or some of the nearly 40 museums in the city. Come evening, and we would sit at our favourite café, inhale the soft, sweet breezes that peeled off the lake and gaze at the Jet d’Eau, a kind of artificial, picturesque geyser or harbour fountain in the lake which dazzles as it spurts upwards — 500 litres of water per second is pumped up to a height of 140 metres!

We watched the pageant of lake steamers, canoes and wind surfers as well as waddling ducks and swans on the blue-green Lake Geneva which is more like a mini sea. In summer, locals swim in the lake, picnic on its banks, hike and bike and tourists can embark on some fun cruises across the lake.

Apart from the lake, Geneva has the rivers Rhone and Arve running through it, charming riverside walks spanned by curved bridges, many lush parks and a quiet Old Town, dominated by a grand cathedral and narrow cobbled streets. Shuttered townhouses looked down at us disdainfully, while nearby is the Hotel de Ville where the first Geneva Convention and the rules of war were signed in 1864. Behind it stands the longest bench in the world that commands some stunning views of the city.

The Romantic poets arrived here in 1816 — Lord Byron and his entourage arrived in a Napoleon style carriage in which a peacock, a monkey and a dog jostled and bumped along with John Polidori, the poet’s doctor. Byron had fled England in the wake of his scandalous separation from his wife and where his philandering ways had earned him bad press. In Geneva, they met up with Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Source of inspiration

This cauldron of talent was stoked and fired by the beauty that encircled them all and that riotous summer spawned some classics like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus; a bunch of poems from Lord Byron including the famed Prisoner of Chillon; and a short story called The Vampyre by Polidori, which later inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Geneva’s idyllic environs continue to inspire legions of men and women. The World Wide Web was invented at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research which operates the largest particle physics laboratory in the world on the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva. We embarked on a conducted tour of the facility and saw banks of computers and physicists cogitating on the eternal questions of how the world began and the fundamental laws of nature.

From the larger questions that exercise the human mind to the smaller more artistic issues where man’s creativity comes into play, Geneva has it all. Indeed Geneva has nearly 40 public and private museums spanning the spectrum from history, culture, science and everything in between. We stopped by the dazzling Patek Philippe Museum where over four floors the fanciful creations of the master watchmakers are showcased to a wide-eyed public. An array of Genevese, Swiss and European watches and enamels including masterpieces that have impacted the history of horology dazzle in the Antiques collection while the Patek Philippe collection (1839 to the present) of pocket watches and wrist watches is equally stunning.

Ultimately, Geneva is all about the good life well lived and its culinary offerings, created with the freshest ingredients and by gifted chefs, are a part of the story. Tapas and mezze at a lakefront garden restaurant, Le Cottage Cafe; sizzling fresh filet de perche at Restaurant Le Lacustre, a riverside eatery; authentic Indian cuisine at Kiran restaurant.

We returned to our hotel, satiated, but decided to have one last look at the lake before turning in for the night... the feathery spumes of the Jet d’Eau; the line-up of grand floodlit buildings trapped in the lake’s liquid depths. Different accents swirled around us as locals and young students leaned on railings, licking ice creams, and looked out beyond the lake’s inky depths. The Alps were a smudged, barely discernible outline in the darkening sky.

Yes, Geneva may have a global world view, but its heart is very Swiss!

Fact file

Swiss Air operates direct flights from Mumbai and Delhi to Zurich from where one can get convenient connecting flights or trains to Geneva.

A Swiss Rail Pass (bought from Rail Europe before you leave India) gives you access to trains across Switzerland as well as local transport — buses, trams and boats — in most Swiss cities.

Geneva has a spectrum of accommodation; from 13 luxury hotels, grand waterfront hostelries to affordable B&B options.

On the outskirts of the city, accessible by tram, is charming Carouge, also known as the Greenwich Village of Geneva. This 18th century town has a Mediterranean ambience.



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