My first sighting is a girl wearing black feathered wings and heavy eye liner. She is standing on the cobblestone road in La Vieille-Ville (Old Town Geneva) across from the Hotel d’Ville. She emerges out of a dimly lit corridor. I ponder whether this is an angel visitation since Geneva is the Protestant Reformation Capital of Europe. Then she giggles and I know it isn’t an apparition.
I study her closely, wondering about her avant-garde wardrobe choice. But I don’t linger as I want to see as much of Geneva’s historic edifices in the next three hours before sunset. So I leave the cannons standing ready for warfare.
Heading down rue de Hotel d’Ville, I encounter a series of flags waving in the air. Switzerland’s red flag is dominant. Turning left at the intersection, I can see a weathered grey edifice-Cathedrale Saint-Pierre (St Peter’s Cathedral). It is also home to the Site Archeologique (Archaeological Site). It houses the remains of older churches which predate the Cathedral. In fact, some of the antiquities date to the 4th century.
The cathedral was built at a high point in Geneva which dates back to Roman times. The cathedral’s rooftop and green spire dominates the Swiss skyline. (You can even climb 157 steps to the top of the tower to get a wide angle view of the city.) The tower is a focal point anywhere you wander in the Old Town. But I chose not to spend the 26 Swiss francs (CHF) for the one day Geneva Pass (sold by the Tourist Bureau) to tour the cathedral (and more than 30 free attractions), preferring to wander the steep winding back lanes and possibly meet a Geneva ghost.
You scoff? Well this is a possibility as Geneva reveres its famous ancestors. Wander down any street in Veuille Ville and you will run up against a famous writer, philospher or reformer who has a street or avenue named after him. I share my afternoon walk with many Swiss dignitaries. Placques immortalize their deeds throughout the area.
Geneva has the sleepy tidiness of a man who combs his hair while still in his pyjamas.Lewis Mumford
Truly Old Town is an outdoor museum as many historic townhomes have been turned into museums. Notables include Maison Tavel (Geneva’s oldest private residence featuring medieval civic architecture), Musee Fondation Zoubov (18th century furniture and art objects in a historic townhome) and Musee Barbier-Mueller (art from antiquity from Oceania, African and Asian artwork). Unfortunately La Maison de Rousseau is closed for renovation until 2020 but the museum typically features literary programs and events. What makes Old Town so attractive is the way you slip back in time looking at centuries-old buildings that are now home to book stores, bistros and art galleries, to name a few enterprises.
I particularly enjoy gazing into the windows of austere art galleries (featuring traditional paintings in gold frames) as well as cheeky modern art (such as red and white checkerboard mannequins at Artion Galleries).
Unlike some cities where the tourists literally take over a city, Old Town remains a magnet for Geneva residents. By 4 pm, old men are claiming their evening stein of beer and talking about football. Outdoor cafes fill up. Elegantly attired women eat pastries and sip espresso at boulangeries (while their dogs sit near their feet). Every stool at the wine bars appear to be full on this Friday evening at happy hour.
But I didn’t need to spend one franc to enjoy Geneva’s lakeside views. I just park myself on a bench in Parc des Bastions. Keeping watch over me are the Protestant soldiers of the Reformation—Johannes Calvin, Guillaume Farel, Theodore de Baze and John Knox—immortalized as statues and bas-reliefs on Le Mur des Reformateurs (The Wall of Reformation).
And of course nature envelopes you in Geneva which is perched on the western most side of Switzerland (and a close drive to France). The city’s heart is Lake Geneva.
Jet d’Eau shoots up 140 meters into the sky. Planters overflowing with white and rose petals and lush vines perch on the railings. Benches fill quickly and of course you must visit the Bain des Paquis, basically Geneva’s beach within the city. Sailboats, cruise ships and barges float in the water. Ice cream cafes offer lakeside views with glacé. Swans pester the tourists who often toss off bits of a baguette to feed them. Sometimes one even manages to fly out of the water. But don’t touch. They will bite.
In the distance, Mont Blanc’s soft grey peaks frame the water view. And of course with autumn’s appearance, the leaves will soon be turning canary yellow and peach orange. From my seat, I am watching a one act play unfold on the Geneva stage—a child begging to ride on the red train, a dog chasing a leaf, an elderly man reading his newspaper. The action is measured and predictable, just like Geneva’s dependable watches.
As evening begins to slip its dark shawl over the city, I head back to my hotel. Walking down a quiet back alley behind the cathedral, I am suddenly startled by six young people—all wearing angel wings. They run up behind me. Was Calvin and his followers haunting me?
No, it was simply a “rally” of young adults on a mystery tour. On the clock they had to solve an engima by hunting down clues hidden throughout the Old Town. Magnifique!
Postscript: If time had permitted, I would have taken an evening cruise on Lake Geneva. I’d like to sail back to 1902 when The Neptune plied the lake as Geneva’s last big sailing barge.
PSS Geneva gives a Geneva Transport Card to ride its trains, trams, buses and even the yellow taxi-boat for free to any visitor staying at a hotel, youth-hostel or campsite. This means the trip to the Geneva International Airport is free (instead of a 25 CHF fee for Uber). And it is only a six minute train ride to city center. The rail station is connected to the airport. Ahh Swiss efficiency (and fondue)!
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