A Break By The Lake

22nd July 2011

Chris Ambrose spends a few days in Geneva…

It was, just as you might expect, a seamless arrival in Geneva. Although five hours had passed since I had dragged myself out of bed at some unearthly hour back in England, I didn’t feel that my arrival at this alluring lakeside setting had been a strain at any point. A swift “Bonjour” and a smile at customs and I was in the country. It was then a breeze through the barrier-less railway station with a self-service ticket, and a slick, eight-minute journey on a modern, double-decker train – and I found myself in the bustling heart of Switzerland’s third largest city.

Nestled in the Alps and surrounded by France on three sides, Geneva is a transport crossover hub, where snow-bound tourists arrive by air before making the switch to minibuses and taxis to take them to one of the numerous nearby ski resorts. The city is also home to the headquarters of many international organisations, so delegates from across the world can also be found frequenting the calming shores of Europe’s largest Alpine lake. As a weekend visitor destination, though, Geneva does not often gain a lot of recognition.

Emerging from Gare de Cornavin (the central station) you find yourself surrounded by the mass of overhead wires that guide the many trams and electric buses around Geneva. This comprehensive, easy to use public transport network encourages you to hop on and explore Geneva by road, but in actual fact there is little need for it when most attractions are readily accessible on foot.

The south west tip of Lake Geneva – which the city wraps around – becomes visible after a short walk down a largely pedestrianised street that lays home to a number of cafes and coffee shops. Soon, though, these give way to the waterside promenade, and this is where you get your first sight of Geneva’s most iconic feature – Jet d’eau.

The ‘Water Jet’, (a descriptive if somewhat less evocative translation) dominates the landscape from most vantage points across the city. This is largely down to it being (as its name suggests in no uncertain terms) a 140-metre high jet of water, launched skywards from a narrow stone jetty that branches off the shoreline. You can walk out onto the jetty, and in the warm sunshine the spray can provide a welcome refreshment, as long as you keep an eye out not to slip on the wet stones, or bump into any fellow tourists as they eagerly snap away on their cameras at this giant water feature.

Beside this impressive visual attraction you find a busy harbour area, and a beautifully maintained, tree-lined avenue running alongside the lake. Cyclists and rollerbladers whizz by, while those on foot amble along the walkway, or drape themselves across the harbour walls and green spaces as they soak up the mid-day sunshine.

If you can drag yourself away from the relaxing lakeside setting, a short amble up the hill into the cobbled streets of the Old Town will reward your efforts. Cafes spill out onto the streets to offer refreshments (albeit at premium rates) while flag-adorned buildings cast jagged shadows along the pathways that lead up to the city’s high point: Cathédrale St Pierre.

If you need a break from the sunshine after the trek up the hill, you can take a breather in this tranquil Gothic cathedral, and those with a head for heights (or at least a high tolerance of tight, enclosed spaces) can climb the narrow spiral staircase of the north tower for four Swiss Francs. Once at the top you will be greeted by fantastic panoramas of Geneva, with the lake stretching out beyond in one direction, and mountains rising up around the other three. A striking part of the tower-top experience is the lack of noise from the streets below. Instead all you can hear (aside from the clicking of camera shutters) is the sound of the birds in the trees that shield you from the tourist din. This tranquillity that accompanies the spectacular views leaves you unwilling to make the descent back down to street level, not helped by the tight stairways that leave little room for passing other visitors heading in the opposite direction: your escape is a tricky and potentially time-consuming operation.

North of the river, and beyond the main lakeside promenade with its countless watch and Swiss-army knife shops that only serve to support any preconceptions of Switzerland that you may have, you find the Botanical Gardens. Winding pathways lead you around an intriguing collection of flowers and plants, as well as children’s play areas and ‘greenhouses’ full of more tropical specimens. Between the trees however, you can still spot some of the buildings that make this city so significant. The numerous world organisations whose headquarters are in Geneva are focused around this area north of the city centre, and the most notable of these is the home of the League of Nations: the organisation that later became the United Nations.

The Palais de Nations now focuses on the human rights element of the UN, and for twelve francs you can take an hour-long tour of the complex, taking in the conference rooms where many significant international issues have been negotiated. If you pick a day where there are no conferences or meetings in session, you can see into all of the main halls, including one of the larger arenas that features a compelling representation of the ocean, with brightly coloured, aluminium moulded rock forms jutting out from the ceiling. It is a spectacular sight in such formal surroundings. Tours run in both English and French, and give a fascinating insight into the workings and structure of the UN.

Outside the main gates you can find peaceful demonstrators – tirelessly seeking recognition and assistance for the various injustices currently affecting parts of the world – all gathered around an enormous giant wooden chair that symbolises opposition to landmines. Next to this is a large open square, filled with fountains… set aside a few minutes here to watch people running or cycling across grilles as they try to outpace fountains that shoot up sporadically in rows from the ground.
If you don’t fancy the trek back down the hill and along the lake to the centre, you can easily jump onto one of the frequent tram services that terminate at the UN headquarters. These give you a chance to pass through parts of the city that you could easily miss thanks to the allure of the lake and its promenades and green spaces – although besides relatively expensive eateries there’s little to hang about too long for, and you’ll inevitably find yourself drawn back to the Old Town and the lake.

Geneva is a low key destination, certainly, but its pleasing scenery and international significance, and the fact that it’s less than 90 minutes from London by air makes it worth exploring for a relaxing and untaxing weekend.

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