Switzerland: A stroll through splendour

By Simon Calder

For walkers, Geneva reveals itself as anything but conventional, says Simon Calder.

An aerial view of Geneva. Photo / Thinkstock
An aerial view of Geneva. Photo / Thinkstock

Switzerland's westernmost city has long been an enlightened haven for intellectuals. This slice of Geneva starts with a flourish at the easy-to-spot Russian Church, whose cluster of onion domes, towers above the south-east of the city. It was the creation of Queen Victoria's aunt, Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, who married into the Russian aristocracy but preferred life in Geneva to the Imperial court in St Petersburg. She paid for the construction of the church, which this year celebrates its 150th anniversary.

Close by is the Museum of Art and History, which occupies a bulky early 20th-century neo-classical pile. Its faade celebrates Swiss artists such as Jean-Etienne Liotard and Rodolphe Tpffer. Most visitors will be enticed by the works of Veronese and Hogarth as well as an edition of Rodin's The Thinker. Conveniently, given the mighty Swiss franc, the permanent collection is free.

The Old Town begins in earnest as you move north-west towards the river.

The Place du Bourg-de-Four, amid a tangle of lanes, feels like a proper village square. At the Hotel de Ville (Town Hall), a plaque in the Alabama Room announces that this was where the first Geneva Convention was signed in 1864 as the initial act of the International Red Cross.

Make a pit-stop at Chez Ma Cousine, offering the best-value cappuccino on the square with good chicken dishes and salads for an early lunch.

Wander across to the Promenade de la Treille, passing the statue of Charles Pictet de Rochemont - the architect of Swiss neutrality. Take in the fine views from the terrace and witness one of Europe's sillier superlatives: the world's longest wooden bench, all 126m of it.

The Cathedral of St-Pierre houses about the same length in austere wooden pews. This haven of Calvinism was where the reforming theologian preached in the mid-16th century. His chair remains. Beneath the nave there is an archaeological site, and you can also ascend to the top of the towers between 10am-5pm daily.

Call in at the concise (and free) Maison Tavel. It is claimed to be the oldest private dwelling in the city. The 14th-century house provides an intimate picture of life in Geneva through the centuries.

Then thread your way down to the Place du Molard. The elegant Tour du Molard at the far end, contains a relief with the inscription "Genve Cit de Refuge"; look among the cobbles beneath your feet for one-word messages such as "Gracias" and "Bienvenue". Head for Lake Geneva, checking the time at the impressive floral clock in the 1854 Jardin Anglais. Take in the view of the Jet d'Eau. If the plume soaring 140m into the air fails to impress you, consider that seven tonnes of water are airborne at any instant. Then bear left along the promenade, beneath the busy Pont de Mont-Blanc which crosses the Rhne as the replenished river continues its meandering journey to the Mediterranean.

Two bridges along is the Pont de la Machine. The machine in question formerly occupied the building in the middle and pumped water to the city's lesser fountains. Today, the structure houses the Cit du Temps an unusual combination of bar-restaurant and art space.

The right bank of the Rhne is less engrossing than the left. Rue Rousseau leads from the Pont de la Machine to the impressive Catholic Basilica of Notre-Dame. Just beyond, Gare de Cornavin has been largely modernised but the stirring murals of Swiss mountain scenes in the station's ticket hall have survived.

Staying there

The three-star Hotel Cristal at Rue Pradier 4 is stylish and central and offers excellent deals for weekend stays. All Geneva hotels offer a card giving free bus, tram, train and boat travel within the city.

More information: geneve-tourisme.ch

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