This city’s Jet d’Eau, a fountain in the middle of its namesake lake, is as much a symbol of Geneva as Big Ben is of London, the Eiffel Tower is of Paris and the Colosseum is of Rome.
The single column of water shoots up 460 feet in the air and erupts with the force of 132 gallons of water every second, frequently spraying those standing on the side of the lake with misty droplets. On sunny days, it is often colored by rainbows.
Unfortunately, my first sight of the Jet d’Eau comes with rain rather than a rainbow, and fog as thick as cotton. I have to squint to see anything at all. Not a very auspicious introduction to Geneva, frequently referred to as “the capital of peace.”
With some 200 international organizations — including the International Red Cross and the European United Nations — headquartered here, it is easy to see why. Cosmopolitan in the real sense of the word, one can often hear conversations in 25 languages on a stroll along the lake or in the city’s business district.
But as famous as it is for its humanitarianism, it is equally known for a luxurious lifestyle that includes the world’s best banks and watches, and even more to my liking, its best chocolates (I defy anyone with a sweet tooth to resist the dazzling displays in the shop windows).
Lake Geneva divides the city into New and Old. Most visitors start with the latter, situated on the south side of the lake. A good place to begin exploring is St. Peter’s Cathedral, which became the center of the city’s Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. John Calvin preached here, and his seat can be seen in the north aisle.
Climb the 157 steps leading to the cathedral for a panoramic view across Geneva and the mountains of the Jura and the foothills of the Alps (you can even see Mt. Blanc in neighboring France on a clear day). After your cathedral visit, check out the nearby Museum of the Reformation. The museum, located in the 18th century Maison Mallet, traces the history of the protestant reformation, not only in a religious sense, but socially and culturally as well.
Wander through Place du Bourg, one of the oldest squares in the city, and Grand Rue, Old Town’s main street with its smart shops, cafes and bakeries (it seems that every third window has one of those tantalizing displays of chocolates).
Should you be enjoying a coffee or a glass of wine in the Place du Bourg in early December and are interrupted by men in medieval garb firing muskets at each other and setting off cannons, don’t be alarmed. It’s merely the annual L’Escalade, a re-enactment of the 1602 defeat of the Duke of Savoy by the Genevans.
The duke, who once held sway over the city, sprung a surprise attack on the populace in an attempt to reclaim it, but was thwarted in his efforts by a determined citizenry — not the least of whom was the woman who used the best weapon at hand — a pot of hot soup which she poured over the head of a Savoyard soldier. I’m not sure if that part of the re-enactment is still carried out.
When it comes to food, don’t settle for soup poured over your head. Geneva — being in a French canton of Switzerland — has a reputation for culinary excellence that rivals Paris and Brussels. On my first night, I popped into the Café du Centre, a typical bistro on Place du Molard. One of the oldest brasseries in Geneva, it had a menu of comfort food just perfect for a rainy, damp evening.
Starting with a platter of French and Swiss cheeses, I moved on to cod with olive oil, mashed potatoes and spinach — tasty without being overly fussy. I struck up a conversation with the two women sitting next to me wearing Michigan State athletic jerseys. They turned out to be mother and daughter from St. Petersburg, Russia, who knew nothing about the Spartans.
“We just both liked the logo,” said the mother in heavily accented English.
My second day in Geneva proved to be a bit better weather-wise, so I set out on foot to explore more of the area surrounding the lake. Lake Geneva — or Lac Léman as it is known in French — is something of an oddity, being both glacially fed and having the Rhone River flowing out of it.
Take a water taxi or a boat cruise to get a glimpse of both shores, or head out the pier to Bains des Pâquis, an urban beach where city dwellers meet to — depending on the season — swim, take a sauna or eat fondue in the restaurant.
From September to April, the Baths of Paquis offer coed saunas, Turkish baths and a hammam, as well as one hammam reserved for women.
In the summer, you can swim in the pools or if adventurous, in the lake — although you will have to share it with the ducks and swans. In the winter, locals and visitors alike flock here for the city’s most famous fondue (booking highly recommended) served in the warmth of a rustic cabin.
Another must-see attraction is the city’s Flower Clock, which leads to the Rue du Rhône and the display windows of the world’s greatest watchmakers, including Rolex, Alfred Davis and Patek Philippe, which even has its own museum showcasing Swiss and European watches and enamelware from the 16th to the 20th centuries.
If it’s true that every great city deserves a great hotel, Geneva definitely has one in the lakeside Hotel d’Angleterre. Prominently situated on the Quai du Mont-Blanc, this member of the Red Carnation Collection — which also has properties in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Florida — is a boutique hotel (45 rooms and suites) catering to a global clientele.
From the glass walls of its elegant Windows Restaurant, guests get a bird’s eye view of the Jet d’Eau while feasting on such delicacies as duck foie gras with red apple compote, mulled wine jelly and brioche; lobster and scallop carpaccio with salmon caviar, and wild boar stew with traditional garnish.
Stop in for a drink at Hotel d’Angleterre’s legendary Leopard Room Bar with its cozy fireplace, dark paneled wood and impressive list of whiskeys and cognacs, as well as a sophisticated clientele, which includes diplomats and international titans of industry. Hopefully, the latter have hefty expense accounts if they want to avail themselves of the bar’s star attraction — an 1848 Armagnac which costs $520 a shot.
If my first day in Geneva was one of rain and fog, my last day began with bright sunshine. I took one final stroll down to the lake for a last look at the Jet d’Eau. As the plume of water rose skyward, I could swear I saw a rainbow.
Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel and food writer. Reach her at email@example.com.