Charming Geneva
home to some 200 international organizations,
the Swiss city is as cosmopolitan as can be,
and yet,
it remains unfazed and quietly dignified,
exuding rich heritage and cultural vibrancy ...

Geneva has all the trappings of a typical Swiss city - pristine, safe, clockwork and orderly, with its fair share of shops teeming with excellent timepieces and those oh-so-tempting chocolates, plus of course, the obligatory snow-clad mountain backdrop. But one thing stands it apart, and that is its unique status as a meeting place for many international organizations (to trash out almost every global issue there is), resulting in the city's name being used as a prefix to many a convention concluded at its famous neutral negotiating tables. It is therefore not surprising that the city has become a "united nations" capital, with one in three residents being non-Swiss.

Yet, despite its multi-national community of diplomats, delegates, government administrators and bankers, Geneva retains a serene elegance with graceful buildings, cathedrals and parks, a wonderful collection of museums and a fascinating history, which I was to discover, all on my brief stay in this city tucked comfortably by the lovely Lake Geneva.

Peaceful Lake Geneva

Brought here for official matters as with most other visitors, I began my exploration of the place strolling on the shores of Lake Geneva, a pleasant experience indeed. Neat rolls of dancing tulips decorate the walkway while swans and ducks frolicked in the waters. A splendid plethora of colourful sailing boats docked, against a calm of shimmering bluish-grey punctuated by the dramatic Jet d'Eau, the signature centrepiece of Geneva. Many cameras clicked away as the spectacular jetspray swings joyously with the winds, skimmed by a faint rainbow. Boat cruises are also available which go up the Rhone River on a round trip.

Colourful Old Town
& Saint-Pierre Cathedral

Located on the south bank of the river, the Old Town is dominated by the impressive Saint-Pierre Cathedral. Built in 1160-1232 AD, the architecture is part Romanesque, part Gothic with a 157-step high North Tower offering panoramic views of the city. Geneva adopted Protectionism in 1536. Standing in the imposing cathedral building, I wondered how it must have been in the days of austere preachings by John Calvin, a leader of the Protestant Reformation. Visiting the archaeological museum under the Cathedral gives further fascinating insights into the earlier church buildings on the same site built during the Roman Empire.

A stone's throw away lies an intriguing Old Arsenal with magnificent grand old cannons laid out against lively paintings by Gustave de Beaumont, summarizing the history of Geneva. Above, the building is decorated with mosaic frescoes depicting Julius Caesar's arrival in 58 BC, the fairs of the Middle Ages, and the welcoming of Huguenot refugees during the Reformation.

The Old Town is a sheer joy to explore, with cobbled streets winding up and down flanked by beautiful stately buildings, and delightful surprises unearthing at every

corner - from pretty flowered water fountains to splendid squares and vistas. Place du Bourg du Four, the oldest square, has been a gathering place since ancient times. It was a Roman marketplace, a venue for fairs in the Middle Ages, then a forum to hear Calvin during the Reform. Today, it is the perfect rendezvous spot to relax and have a cuppa, while soaking in the bustling atmosphere.

Strolling from Place du Bourg du Four down to nearby Place de la Madeleine proved to be "treacherous", with touristy shops beckoning enticingly from both sides. And then the mood became really carnival upon reaching the picturesque square. I was arrested by the gay sight and music of a delightful old merry-go-round - with white horses resplendent in

gold livery, bright red circus top and all - it seemed to have leapt straight out from a storybook! Kids were prancing with excitement while parents had a field day, lining up and peering at their little ones going round and round. Sigh, if only I were still a child...

If the Old Town is charming and full of quaint shops selling bric-a-bracs, the Place du Molard at the foot of the hill marks the start of modern temptations, with department stores, luxury boutiques, flower market stores... in other words, a grand shopping street waiting to relieve your Swiss francs!

Museums Galore

If you are a museum lover, Geneva not only offers the "usual great European city historic and artistic fare", but also storehouses of a more quirky nature.

A number of museums are located in the Old Town itself. The excellent Art and History Museum contains a diverse collection, ranging from Egyptian, Greek and Roman archaeological artefacts, Middle Ages applied arts like textiles, silverware, stained glass, furniture and woodwork, to my favourite - a fine arts collection spanning from the 15th to 20th century which include prominent Swiss works and impressionist pieces by Renoir, Monet and Cezanne.

The Petit Palais is a compact and intimate gallery located at the gates of the Old Town and houses modern art paintings, sculptures and drawings from 1870 to 1930. The approach is educational and interactive, giving a better appreciation to
the neo-Impressionists movement and its study of light, colours and perception, with illustrative works from French greats like Seurat and Pissarro.

A visit to Geneva is incomplete without taking a trip to the International Red Cross & Red Crescent Museum, located just opposite the Palais de Nations, home of the United Nations Office. 1863 marks the beginning of Geneva's universal heritage, when Swiss Jean Henri Dumant founded the International Red Cross, after being appalled by the terrible plight of the wounded he witnessed at the Battle of Solferino. The compassionate man received the first Noble Peace Price in 1901, nine years before he died. While the museum was set up in 1988 to pay tribute to the great humanitarians who had served under the Red Cross, its vivid footage and sobering records of man-perpetuated atrocities are enough to put anyone off the idea of going into war!

Just across the Red Cross Museum is the free-entry Ariana Museum, a grand neo-classical and neo-baroque mansion which congregates a bountiful collection of beautiful ceramics and glass from Geneva, Switzerland, Europe and the East, with all the main techniques of pottery, stoneware, earthenware, porcelain and china represented. Other peculiar museums worth a visit are the Philatelic Museum in the Palais des Nations, the Horology Museum and the Jean Tua (Automobile) Museum.

Pretty Carouge

Tired of "museum-crawling"? Hop on to tram 12 or 13 which takes one from the city centre, across River Arve, to the picturesque Sardinian town of Carouge. Rows of pastel-coloured houses, bedecked with pretty interior courtyards, flowered gardens, and decorated with carvings and frescoes, spread out neatly along spacious walks and wide park spaces. King Victor Amideus built the town in the 17th century to compete with Geneva. While it never overtook Geneva economically, Carouge is today a pleasant abode for artists and craftsmen, with lots of curiosity shops selling antiques, bric-and-bracs and pretty art and craft.

Unique Geneva

Forewarned was I before I embarked on my trip, that Geneva is a none-too-exciting place. Maybe not of the superlative adrenaline-pumping type, but boring Geneva certainly is not. A lovely charming city it has proved to be, with this writer having learned to enjoy and savour the unique and harmonious blend of its distinctly Swiss roots with the internationalism it has so comfortably adorned.

Ong Hwee Yen 2000

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do visit yen's art blog for paintings & prints:

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Other europe stories:
Gaudi - Barcelona's Famous Son & 6-Part Travelblog: France & Scandinavia.