The two young American men sitting opposite me on the train are discussing what there is to see in Geneva. “Apart from that fountain in the lake, there’s nothing to see there?” posits the blonde, blue eyed hunk. To which his equally blond, blue eyed friend replies with a note of hope, “We could check out the nightlife. Something should be happening, it’s the weekend.”
Trust the Yanks in their naiveté and their eagerness to bring tourism in Europe down to a nightclub level. Sitting comfortably in the first class compartment of the plush Thalys Express transporting me from Paris to Geneva, it is a question I too begin to ponder. What could possibly occupy my interest for the three whole days that I am planning to spend in Geneva? Is there anything else to admire apart from Geneva’s well-known icon the Jet D’eau Fountain – that gushes high up into the sky?
These thoughts are disturbed momentarily by two liveried men who have come to serve lunch on the train. Most European trains have food/snack/drink bars from which a variety of things can be bought to sustain long journeys. But the Thalys includes the service of a three course lunch accompanied by fine wine. Lunch over, it’s time to sit back with a quiet burp of satisfaction and look forward expectantly to three days of dining as well as exploring the attractions of this 2000-year-old city which many also recognise as the headquarters of the Red Cross. I also promise myself to visit Jet D’eau Fountain just once.
The Hotel De la Paix where I am staying is situated on 11, Quai du Mont Blanc, with a four lane road separating it from the promenade along Geneva Lake (or Lake Leman as it is called locally). The corner suite I am occupying on the third floor has not one but three bay windows (one from the luxuriously appointed ensuite toilet and bathroom) facing the lake. Every morning I wake up to brilliant sunshine bathing the slopes of the majestic Mont Blanc in the far off distance. And every evening I witness the dance display of the Jet D’eau, right in my line of vision.
My first culinary experience is on the ground floor of the hotel itself, in the acclaimed Vertig’O. Chef Jerome Manifacier is a short man with a tall talent. The Michelin Guide awarded him his first star in 2009 and Vertig’O is a magnet for not just Geneva’s wealthy and discerning set but also for European gourmet tourists. Bringing a Mediterranean flavour to traditional French cuisine, Jerome’s dishes border on simplicity rather than flashy and his lightness of touch enhances the fresh produce he uses.
Dinner on Saturday night is also a Michelin starred one. Eaten at Vineet Bhatia’s Rasoi in London? He’s got another one in the Grand Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Geneva’s lakefront. Honestly, his Ziya in Mumbai’s Oberoi is not a patch on the one in Geneva. Swiss produce and Indian spices combine to turn out devastatingly delicious dishes. Champagne Boulard Cuvee Les Muerges to accompany samosa and parmesan covered brocollli. Wiebelsberg Grand Cru 2009 Riesling with Lobster panna cotta. Lemon-pudina khichdi. Artichokewild mushroom seekh kabab. King crab chaat. Scallops laced with spinach gruyere makhni foam. Mango lassi-cardamom frozen yoghurt. Keralan dry fruit mille feuille. It is worth flying to Geneva just to taste them here.
For dinner on my third and final night, my friend Kristelle Gentina led me on board The Savoie. This is a majestic Belle Epoque ship that takes visitors on a cruise along the shores of Geneva’s lake while you enjoy a preplated four course meal accompanied by Swiss wines. It’s not a Michelin dinner but the sheer experience of dining on a cruise boat that glides on the lake’s placid waters for three hours and visits small picturesque villages qualified as a five star experience. Captain Jean Martial Mercanton even allowed me to steer the ship since I was from India, a country he loves.
For a small city, Geneva has a big list of places to see. I started with Carouge, a two km walk south of the city, centre. The first impression I got was that someone had planted a north Italian village in Switzerland’s French speaking region. Back in 1772, the King of the neighbouring Italian kingdom of Sardinia had set up a town here to rival Geneva. It was only in 1816 that it was taken back and since then has been a part of Switzerland. This little artisan town is full of book and antique restorers, glass blowers, watchmakers, clothes designers, hatters, bistros and restaurants.
I had three memorable encounters here thanks to my elegant guide Sandrina Palomera. The first — Monsieur Pascal Pascoet, whose fame as the finest chocolate maker goes well beyond Geneva and Lake Leman. In his Carouge chocolate boutique he told me how much he loved Indian food thanks to Vineet Bhatia and that he was now making spicy chocolates which have become all the rage. Across the street stands a boutique with a window display of unusual eclectic hats. Zaba whose name adorns the boutique front even posed in one of her favourite creations for me.
Finally, I met an octogenarian with eyes that shine a clear brilliant blue and whose talent burns brightly despite his age. Monsieur Jean Kazes is famed across Europe for his one-off pendulums and sculptural watches that he makes from scrap iron. These abstract compositions, some as tall as six feet, bear testimony to Kazes’ balance of traditional watchmakers’ crafts and modern day aesthetics. Each clock is a work of art and hundreds are displayed in corporate offices across Europe.
If your knowledge of Swiss timepieces begins and ends with cuckoo clocks, prepare for enlightenment. Must sees: In 1670 when the old fortress burnt down, the tower with its three dialed clock escaped unhurt. Before it became European Standard time, the clock’s three dials showed time in Paris, Berne and Geneva.
Today, the prestigious Vacheron Constantin Maison on Quai de L’ile (centrally located) offers thematic exhibitions of heritage timepieces on this site. On the parallel bridge is the Cite Du Temps, an iconic place for Swatch fans. I was transfixed by the most flamboyant models created from 1982 till today. Five minutes away, the Patek Philippe Museum exhibits 500 years of watchmaking history, including important collections of enamelling of Swiss and European origins. Time is even told by flowers — 6,500 of them in fact. That’s the number embedded on the famous Flower Clock at the entrance to the English Garden on the lake front. It boasts of the world’s longest seconds hand at 2.5 metres.
Whatever time was left I set out to explore the Old Town that crowns the top of the hill on the lake’s left shore. Ramparts that were built three centuries ago still remain in their former glory. We walk through its main gate and enter a world frozen in time. St Peter’s Cathedral started life around 1180 AD in the Romanesque style of architecture with some Gothic elements. When the Reformation wave swept Europe, all ornaments were removed and coloured decors whitewashed. Luckily the stained glass windows were spared. In the idle 18th Century the Cathedral acquired a neoclassical facade. Sandrina promised me a visual reward if I summoned up enough energy to climb the 157 step circular staircase.
Why visit The International Red Cross Museum? With audiovisuals, computers and documentation, this extraordinary museum tells the story of the founding of the Red Cross by Henry Dunant, as well as its present humanitarian actions. The photographic displays of the organisation’s work in war-torn zones are very moving, even more so for the non-judgmental way in which they’re presented. It is Geneva’s most impressive and original museum. Finally,a word about the Water Fountain. You can’t but help view it from all locations during your discovery of Geneva. But its at night with a spectrum of colours bathing the jet that it really comes to life. Every night before retiring to bed, I was privileged to say bonne nuit to it. You should too.