The Capital of Peace
Geneva is one of Switzerland’s most cosmopolitan cities and its second most populous jurisdiction. But by most standards it is still a small city. With a population of about 185,000, it is about the size of Little Rock, AR., 116th on the list of the US largest cities. Despite its size, the city is a heavy weight in humanitarian, peacekeeping and financial issues throughout the world. That influence is due to its reputation for neutrality, discretion and efficiency.
Such influence has led to labels such as the “birthplace of humanitarian law”, “the capital of peace”, “the meeting place of nations” and “the watch and clock capital of the world”. Given its enormous influence and power, Geneva is not a pompous city. Its residents are refreshingly warm and welcoming. No doubt they get lots of experience mingling with foreigners since approximately 40 percent of the residents are from outside of Switzerland. A huge percentage of these foreign nationals, representing more than 180 different nationalities, moved to the city to work in the offices of the nearly 200 international organizations headquartered there.
Situated in the extreme southwestern corner of Switzerland, Geneva is one of the 26 cantons or territorial districts in the country. The city, occupied and annexed to France from 1798 to 1813, is surrounded by French territory and shares more than 95 percent of its border with France. Geneva’s center city is oriented around Le Rhône, the river that flows through the city, forms Lake Geneva (Lac Léman in French), one of Europe’s largest freshwater lakes, then continues west into France.
Most major hotels, the main commercial district and popular tourist attractions are located near the river either on the Rive Gauche (South or Left Bank) or the Rive Droite (North or Right Bank). Although there are six bridges that link the two banks, Pont du Mont-Blanc and Pont des Berges are the two bridges used by most tourists.
Geneva is a compact city that is easily explored on foot. The city has lots of open green spaces and walkways where visitors can wander through beautiful gardens, stroll along the banks of the river or just sit and enjoy the scenery. That scenery includes not only the clean, clear blue waters of Rade de Geneva or boat harbor, but also views of the Alps and the Jura mountains in nearby France.
The first stop for most first time visitors is the boat harbor to see the Jet d’Eau, a main tourist attraction and the trademark of the city. The hydroelectric safety valve of the famous water jet forces a plume of water 453 feet (138 meters) into the air, nearly as high as the Washington Monument. The plume of water is made white by a special aeration valve. Exactly how the fountain works remains a closely guarded state secret despite much interest by engineers from other cities.
A breakwater, the Jetee des Eaux-Vive, leads from the Left Bank out to the boat basin which is the nearest point for tourists interested in a closer inspection of Europe’s tallest fountain and willing to run the risk of being soaked by the fountain’s spray.
After seeing the Jet d’Eau, visitors usually head up the hill to La Vieille Ville, Geneva’s Old Town on the Left Bank of the lake. To get there from the Right Bank, head south on the Quai de Mont Blanc. Make a quick stop at the Square des Alpes, home of the Brunswick Monument. The monument was built as a memorial to the Duke of Brunswick, a wealthy investor who spent his final three years in Geneva and left huge sums of money to the city, but with one condition. That condition obligated the city to build “a mausoleum in an eminent and worthy location, executed according to the established concepts by the finest artists of the time, without consideration of cost”. I’m sure the Duke is pleased with the site which looks out onto Lake Geneva and has a view of the surrounding mountains.
After paying respects to the Duke, continue southwest past Pont du Mont-Blanc, a major traffic artery that connects the city’s Right and Left banks, to Pont des Bergues, a pedestrian bridge that also leads to the Left Bank. About midway across the bridge and connected by a footpath is Rousseau Island, a serene respite surrounded by the oftentimes choppy waters of the Rhône. Outdoor seating on the island provides splendid views of both banks of the city and the surrounding mountains.
Planted along both sides of the lake are plane trees, known as sycamore trees in the United States. These bare, knobby kin look nothing like their multi-branched leafy American namesake. Heavily pruned of all new branches in the fall, these trees appear in the winter and early spring as a stark, almost painful contrast to the flowing waters of the Rhône.
At the end of Pont des Bergues, turn left on Quai du Général-Guisan and walk a short distance east to the attraction that many tourists look for after seeing the Jet d’Eau - the Flower Clock in Jardin Anglais (English Garden). The clock is situated on a gently sloping green hill at the busy intersection of Quai du Général Guissan and Pont du Mont-Blanc. It is a symbol of the world-renown Geneva watch industry and a masterpiece of technology and floral art. The 6,500 seasonal flowers that make up the clock face and other concentric circles change with the season and the working clock keeps perfect time.
If you love the old town section of European cities with their narrow, winding, cobblestone streets, rich architectural features, historic homes and churches, art galleries and centuries old buildings retrofitted to accommodate modern conveniences, then you will love Geneva’s Old Town.
Historic St. Peter’s Cathedral, one of the world’s most famous cathedrals, was built over a period of 70 years from 1160 to 1230. The cathedral has a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles with a neo-classical façade. Today’s relatively austere interior resulted when its statutes, alters, icons and original organ were destroyed during the 1536 conversion from a Catholic cathedral to a Protestant church. Frescoes on the interior walls of the Nave were whitewashed over. Among the few Catholic decorations to survive the purge is the beautiful stained glass in the chancel.
The Cathedral has two towers but only the north tower is open to the public. At the top of the 157 step climb of the narrow winding staircase of the tower is a breathtaking panoramic view of the city, Lake Geneva and the surrounding mountains in France - the Jura Mountains to the north and Mont Blanc to the south.
Before descending the staircase, take a closer look at la Clémence, the cathedral’s largest bell. At over six tons, it is six times the weight of the Liberty Bell. La Clémence was hoisted to the tower over 600 years ago.
Near St. Peter’s Cathedral is the Place du Bourg-de-Four, the heart of the Old Town. This broad open square with a lovely 18th century fountain and buildings fronting 16th, 17th and 18th century architecture is a commercial and social meeting place for both Genevans and tourists just as it has been since Roman times.
A short stroll from Place du Bourg-de-Four is Promenade de la Treille where you will find the world’s longest bench. Originally built in 1767, the 394 foot (120 meters) bench is set along a wall on a high hill that was once an observation and artillery post for defense of the city. The bench faces two long rows of chestnut trees which stretch the length of the promenade.
The last tree on the left, bent and leaning with age, has been designated the city’s Official Chestnut Tree. On a daily basis in early spring, a specially appointed sautier (guardian of the land) inspects the nearly 80 year old tree for the first sign of spring. When the first leaf buds forth, the sautier proclaims to anyone within earshot that spring has arrived. This occasion is known as l’eclosion or “the budding”. The sautier then records the date on a special notice board in the Town Hall.
Promenade de la Treille now overlooks the grassy lawn of the University of Geneva which was founded by John (Jean) Calvin. Facing the lawn is the International Monument to the Reformation or simply Reformation Wall. The 330 foot long (100 meters), 33 foot high (10 meters) wall is built into the old city wall of Geneva and honors the main individuals, events and documents of the Protestant Reformation. It was built in 1909 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Calvin’s birth and the 350th anniversary of the university’s establishment. At the center of the wall are the more than 16 foot (5 meters) tall statutes of the leaders of the reformation (John Calvin, his successor, Theodore de Beze, Guillaume Farel and John Knox) as well as the nearly 10 foot (3 meters) tall bas-reliefs of other religious leaders.