ARTICLE: MELIH USLU PHOTO: BARIS HASAN BEDIR, GENEVA TOURISM
Aristocrat of the Alps
Designated the city with the highest quality of life on earth, this Swiss town with a French accent is chic, wealthy and cultured, a true medieval European aristocrat.
In his cult work Utopia, Thomas More conjures up an imaginary ideal city, rather reminiscent of Geneva, for five years running designated one of the top five world cities with the highest quality of life, and the world’s most livable city. In its survey of
215 cities, the England-based research group Mercer ranks Geneva as the city with the highest standard of living in the world by 39 different criteria including environment, security, health, shopping and public services. But unlike Thomas More’s Utopia, it is not tucked away on a deserted island but rather perched at the southwestern edge of Switzerland, Europe’s most mountainous country.
Situated on the shores of Lac Leman on the Swiss border with France, Geneva engages visitors at first glance with its postcard pretty panorama of snow-capped Alpine peaks. European through and through, with gothic houses, fashionable shops, pristine avenues, verdant parks, fountains with pools and squares brimming with statuary, Geneva impresses us as a clean-as-a-whistle model city. Nor is the epithet cosmopolitan in any sense hackneyed when it comes to Geneva. For foreigners make up half of those who work in this city, which is host to numerous international organizations like the United Nations, the International Labor Organization, the World Health Organization and the International Committee of the Red Cross as well as representative offices of exactly 199 countries. And the high percentage of foreigners living in Geneva, only a few minutes by car to the French border,
45 minutes to the nearest ski resort, and one hour to the Italian border, three to the German and four to the Austrian, makes itself felt immediately in the diversity of everything from the wide range of banks to the ethnic restaurants. What is truly astonishing is this very cosmopolitan city’s firm attachment to the francophone tradition. Almost all its inhabitants, shopkeepers in particular, will insist on speaking French, even if you address them in German or English.
Passenger ferries shuttling between Lac Leman’s two shores, one in northern Switzerland, the other in southern France, glide over this deep blue mountain lake like graceful white swans against the matchless backdrop of the Mont Blanc Bridge, named for Europe’s highest peak. Meanwhile, some 400 meters from the lake shore, the magnificent fountain known as the Jet d’Eau is the symbol of Geneva par excellence. Spewing the lake water to a height of 140 meters at 200 km/hour, it offers a visual feast day and night. With a modern marina that is a favorite with the world jet set, Lac Leman is famous for international yacht races in summer as well as being ideal for water sports from skiing to surfing. The Ile Rousseau, an island to the west of the bridge, is named in honor of the famous philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was born in Geneva and spent a period in seclusion here in this city that he loved so much. The Quai Wilson on the lake’s right shore, famous for its villas which exhibit the fine points of gothic architecture, is named for the American President Woodrow Wilson, who changed the fate of Geneva forever following the First World War.
TELLING THE TIME FROM THE FLOWER CLOCK
The best way to discover Geneva, which has none of the harrowing traffic or noisy crowds of most big cities, is to take long walks. (It is useful to note here that cab fares in Geneva are perhaps the highest in the world.) With its historic buildings, fountains, statues, bistros and flower-bedecked parks, Geneva is like a toy city just made for tourism. The Jardin Anglais or English Garden, one of the city’s largest green areas, is famous for its giant clock made entirely of flowers. This clock, which consists of plants and flowers that are replanted twice a year, symbolizes Geneva’s famous watch industry. In addition to the Botanical Park, accessible through the Mon Repos and Perle-du-Lac parks, La Grange Park, which is home to over two thousand varieties of them, literally turns Geneva into a rose garden in the spring and summer months. And another surprise awaits visitors to the rose garden: the mausoleum of the Duke of Brunswick on the right side of the park is one of the city’s most majestic monuments. The duke, who spent his last years in Geneva after being exiled, left a fabulous fortune to the city upon his death.
A SHOPPER’S PARADISE
The long and fashionable boulevards around the Place Neuve, the city’s largest shopping district, are so extensive you can wander for hours and still not cover everything. In this area, a mecca for well-heeled Americans and Europeans, you can find the world’s finest watches, jewelry, furs, antiques, cigars, chocolates, cheeses and spirits. The city’s most popular bistros are also located here. Those interested in sampling the regional cuisine can choose between fondue made from the local cheeses, sauerkraut with sausages, noodle soup, potatoes with Bündnerfleisch (Swiss
air-dried beef), and spicy ‘Swiss steak’ prepared with vegetables. A half-hour stroll around the Place Neuve will also give you an opportunity to see three of the most beautiful examples of Geneva architecture: the opera house or Grand Théâtre, modelled after the famous Garnier Opéra in Paris, the Palais de Justice on the Place du Bourg de Fours, and the Cathedrale Saint Pierre. And the flea market set up every Wednesday and Saturday on the Plaine de Plainpalais is a popular touristic haunt. You’ll have no trouble choosing a gift here among the myriad old items ranging from antiques and leatherbound books to art nouveau bottles, jewelry, and even clothing and albums. For those who crave night life however Geneva may disappoint. For it is a city more of people who shun revelry in favor of orderly living, who value quality and luxury over bustle. Although the number of nightclubs in the city is small, you may nevertheless come cross some of Europe’s most posh and swanky venues.
CITY OF MUSEUMS AND FESTIVALS
With roots going back to the 2nd century A.D., Geneva over the centuries has suffered countless attacks by Europe’s barbarian tribes. The city’s staunch resistance against the Dukes of Savoy in 1602 is commemorated every year on 11 December, the anniversary of the victory. This annual festival, the ‘Escalade’, to celebrate the defense of the city walls, is marked by torch-light parades and costume balls. Meanwhile over 190 banks and around 1800 restaurants today serve the city, which has been the center of the world banking and watch-making sector since the mid-19th century. Enormous investments in the development of tourism were also made in the city when it became the capital of international diplomacy upon being designated the European headquarters of the United Nations. The most famous of Geneva’s museums, based on concepts each more fascinating than the last from natural history to glass and ceramics, even automobiles, are the Musées d’Art et d’Histoire and the Musée International de l’Automobile with its full range of models that have left their mark on the history of auto design. Geneva also plays host to one of the world’s leading automobile fairs, welcoming close to a million car buffs every year in the first week of March. Another must-see is the Palais des Nations (symbolic heart of the UN), which can be toured with a guide.
From ski resorts and art and culture to honeymoon hotels and panoramic tour trains, Geneva represents the new face of European tourism, inviting one and all to partake in its high standard of living.
Thomas More’s utopia come true perhaps? We leave it to you.