Liat Clark discovers fine wine, giant chess and quirky antiques in the Swiss city.
Mont Blanc Square
Flanked on one side by the Jura mountains and on the other by the Rhône-Alps, natural beauty is arguably Geneva’s most appealing quality. The city encircles the western tip of the 73km-long Lake Léman, which narrows into the Rhône, a rushing mass of emerald green. Take it in by walking along the hidden water path below street level opposite the Four Seasons hotel, the river lapping close to the edge around you. The path passes under the Mont Blanc bridge and resurfaces opposite Mont Blanc Square, where you’ll find tributes to two lost souls.
The imposing Brunswick Monument (pictured above) is a replica of the Scaligeri family tomb in Verona. It was built under the instruction of Charles II, Duke of Brunswick, a usurped ruler from the German Duchy who spent his last days here. Empress Elisabeth, wife of Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, is remembered with an elegant statue of her fanning herself. When staying in Geneva in 1898 she was stabbed outside the grand Beau Rivage hotel. It’s not all doom and gloom, though – the hotel’s outdoor terrace is a great place for sampling vintage wines, with bottles of Château Mouton Rothschild going back to 1947. Visit beau-rivage.ch
Place du Molard
Catch the boat across the lake from Quai du Mont Blanc to Promenade du Lac (departs every ten minutes, Apr-Oct), taking in the 140-metre-tall Jet d’Eau. Turn right at shopping street Rue du Rhône, where Switzerland’s reputation for luxury is on full display – Chopard, Graff, Van Cleef and Arpels, and Louis Vuitton are all here. Cross over to Place du Molard, a café-lined cobbled square with about 2,000 opaque resin paving stones, each filled with an LED light that illuminates the multilingual greetings inscribed on them at night. The stones increase in number nearer the lake, signifying the old port that once resided by the clock tower. The tower once formed part of the city’s ancient fortification and is now home to the Tour du Molard wine bar, where 120 vintages, many locally produced, are available by the glass (from SFr 5/£4). Open Mon-Sat 12pm-12am; tel +41 223 100 202.
Continuing uphill, the architecture transforms as you enter the medieval Old Town, home to many antique stores. Note the Romanesque arches of the window frames on the buildings lining the cobbled streets – the upper floors lack this feature since the city extended upwards. Follow the steps up Rue du Perron to Antiqués Scientifiques (perret-antiques.ch), which has all manner of oddities for sale – from an 18th-century theodolite (for measuring angles) from London (SFr 4,000/£3,117) to a 19th-century Parisian telescope (SFr 1,700/£1,324). More macabre is the 19th-century eye surgery kit with ivory handles (SFr 900/£702) and the lacquered dental drill (SFr 1,100/£857). Round the corner, St Peter’s Cathedral is a key feature on the city skyline, with its protruding green spire. Climb the north tower (SFr 4/£3) for panoramic views.
Parc des Bastions
Leave one symbol of Geneva’s conflicted religious past behind and make your way to another. Following the cobbled streets up from Rue du Perron, a promenade opens up and the Parc des Bastions is in sight below. Cross Place Neuve and enter the park, where over-sized games of chess and draughts greet you. Teenagers, the city’s suits – sleeves rolled up, jackets slung over shoulders – and retirees all gather here, hunched over in silence as they ponder the next move of the players.
Tear yourself away and follow the tree-lined promenade until the Reformation Wall is in sight to the left. Four Calvinist figures are centred in the 100-metre-long stretch, each five metres high – French theologian and pastor John Calvin is, of course, in attendance, accompanied by his Scottish counterpart John Knox (Geneva’s first Reformation preacher), religious reformer Guillaume Farel, and Calvin’s successor Theodore Beza.
Head back to Place Neuve and catch the number 12 tram to Palettes, hopping off ten minutes later at Carouge, an unexpected Italianate village on the city outskirts. The district was once part of the Piedmont-Sardinian kingdom, and in the 18th century King Victor Amadeus III attempted to turn the quiet retreat into a metropolis that would challenge Geneva’s trade status. He may have failed here, but Carouge did grow into a thriving town that attracted artists and tradesmen. Pastel-painted Piedmontese-style houses with green shutters line the narrow streets and many have small wooden balconies overlooking beautiful hidden gardens that are often open to the public (just ask).
In 1816, the district became part of Geneva, though its character and artisanal feel remain intact. Upmarket boutiques and restaurants join artists’ workshops and patisseries to create a bohemian feel. Walk down Place d’Armes for a taste of the traditional architecture until the road reaches Place du Temple, the main square. Here you will find Wolfisberg (wolfisberg.org), a patisserie open since 1961 that serves delicious lunches, including the moreish McWolfi burger with Gruyère cheese (SFr 22/£17) – a lower-carbon footprint meal since Gruyères is only an hour and a half away. The shop runs workshops (from SFr 60/£48) for those keen to learn the art of macaroon and chocolate-making. Open daily (except Wednesday) 6.30am-7pm.