Geneva – the big city versus the bumpkins

Never trust a travel writer
How Swiss is Geneva? This sophisticated, French-speaking city seems at odds with much of Swiss-German Switzerland. Geneva has French brasseries aplenty and shuns country bumpkins. Is the city too earnest for its own good or is there a subversive streak in there somewhere?
– summary

From Interlaken to Berne, the train hugs the Lake of Thun, as if reluctant to leave. The Berne connection to Geneva is a bit tight but the Swiss deliver again. I’m reminded of GK Chesterton’s advice on non-Swiss trains: “The only way to be sure of catching a train is to miss the one before it.”

After a surfeit of mountains, I feel like a Swiss yokel in Geneva. There aren’t even any Swiss mountains in sight. According to my French-speaking guide, Cylla Barth, “Seventy-five percent of Switzerland is mountainous but the only peaks we can see from Geneva are French.” This sleek, cosmopolitan city is firmly embraced by the French, both geographically and culturally, even if Geneva often feels keen to escape the pincer-like Gallic hug.

Both the bars and brasseries look coolly French and feel a world away from the yodelling Alpine pastures beyond. Cylla confirms my first impressions: they don’t even eat country bumpkin food this side of the “rosti divide.” Cylla is definitely not a bumpkin: “You’ve come from German-speaking Switzerland, where they eat rosti, but in French Geneva we don’t.” In other words, civilised bankers and bureaucrats don’t do bumpkin food so no cholesterol-busting cheese here.

A setting in search of a city © Geneva Tourism
A setting in search of a city © Geneva Tourism

For proof, we head to the hipster hangout on the lakefront. Les Bains des Paquis is both Geneva’s beachfront and a bohemian spot for sunbathing over a beer. Students and bankers mingle over plates of fusion food before bonding in the steam room. On a fine day, even the swans are sunbathing.

Set on the biggest lake in Western Europe, Geneva struggles to compete with its expansive setting. Rather like Vancouver, Geneva is a setting in search of a city. We hop on a Geneva Gull ferry to the far bank and the quaint Old Town. The view is classic Geneva, with steamers passing the Jet d’Eau, the giant waterfall and city symbol, a view that warms up in summer, much like the Swiss themselves. By the lake, the kitsch Flower Clock keeps time in charming fashion, the floral display changing with the seasons. As Cylla says, “If you’re going to be kitsch, really go for it or don’t bother.”

Perfect Swiss timekeeping © Lisa Gerard-Sharp
Perfect Swiss timekeeping © Lisa Gerard-Sharp

We wander down Rue du Rhone, the bastion of Swiss watchmaking. Echoing the Calvinistic city, the billionaire watches are far from blingtastic. In 1541 the radical reformer Jean Calvin banned outward ostentation. The crafty jewellers promptly converted to watchmaking and have never looked back.

Geneva still runs like clockwork. The city’s innate conservatism brings out my naughty side. I resist worthy Geneva on the far bank, “the capital of peace” and home to the UN. In the heart of the Old Town I join the locals in a Calvinus craft beer. Named after the great reformer, the Calvinus Blanche is a monastic beer as pure as the brothers themselves. It’s no secret that Luther and Calvin drank beer. This cloudy wheat beer is spiced with coriander and orange zest, as in the time of the Reformation.

Calvin formulated a plan for the sanctification of Swiss taverns: they were to be gathering places where Bible-reading was de rigueur while swearing, slandering and dancing were forbidden. Funnily enough, the plan didn’t catch on, even in puritanical Geneva, proof that a streak of subversiveness must lurk in the city’s DNA.

Giving in to my inner bumpkin, I sneak into Les Armures, a cosy fondue haunt that tempted Bill and Hilary Clinton to tuck into the gut-busting three-cheese fondue. While dining like a president preparing for a heart attack, I sample Geneva wine, which feels less bumpkin-like than beer. I presume the Clintons also followed Luther’s advice: “If you are downhearted, drink - but this does not mean being a pig and doing nothing but gorging and swilling.”

Chloresterol-busting fondue © Geneva Tourism
Chloresterol-busting fondue © Geneva Tourism

“If you are downhearted, drink - but this does not mean being a pig and doing nothing but gorging and swilling.”

The Calvinistic past shapes the sombre Geneva spirit but so does the backlash against a surfeit of Calvinism. In 1726, Casanova, the least Calvinistic character in history, had a ball in Geneva, admittedly in the company of two goodtime girls in the Old Town. Today, with its cafes and craft shops, the bohemian quarter of Carouge feels cheerfully Italian, apart from the coffee. A Swiss "café macchiato" comes in a giant mug and is horribly sickly but my jovial Swiss bar companion laughs at the idea that Italian coffee is the benchmark: "Italians are crazy and their coffee too."

It is also the earnest Geneva spirit that has made the city the ideal home for countless international organisations, from the UN to the Red Cross. Often dismissed as a bland city of diplomats and big business, Geneva is undervalued for its spirit of peace and tolerance. Built into the city bastions, the Reformation Wall marks the role Geneva played in the tumultuous 16th-century and is a tribute to Calvin and other religious reformers. Regularly misconstrued as the Swiss capital, Geneva gives off the quiet authority of a world leader, without the edginess that comes with a true capital.

Geneva's spectacular setting © Geneva Tourism

For all its conservatism, Geneva exudes a sense of comfort and ease, a winning combination for its fans and would-be citizens. Novelist Jorge Luis Borges loved living on these Swiss shores: “Of all the cities in the world, Geneva seems to me to be one of the most likely to bring happiness.” The Old Town, with its cafes, cobbled streets and hidden courtyards, is quietly civilised. By the city walls, I watch excitable old men play chess with giant pieces, checkmating the chilly weather. The Genevois adore their dual-season city and praise its cosmopolitanism and calmness. Afternoon tea at Hotel d’Angleterre, with scones and sandwiches overlooking the lake, is soothing in all seasons.

In Geneva, almost half the population are non-Swiss but secretly seem keen to join the Swiss ranks. Locals tell me how hard it is for non-Plutocrats to become natives, linked to the Cantons’ "I want to be Swiss" exams, which may include having to describe the Cantonal administrative workings in Swiss German. It’s a taxing test for the average foreigner, at least in theory, as is opening a Swiss bank account. Swiss bankers I meet are amazed that the UK has no such exam for would-be British citizens. I attempt to explain that the project foundered on such issues as “the cricket test,” and the acknowledgement of what a sticky wicket it would be in political terms. This cuts no ice with the clear-cut Swiss. The forthright reaction is: “What’s wrong with a cricket test and then all the other tests too?”   

The message is clear: becoming Swiss should never be a God-given right. “Swiss-ness” is costly and has to be earned. Even for visitors, Calvinist Geneva subscribes to the same rigorous creed: come back and stay the course. Recognise our sombre spirit. Respect our internationalism. Pretend we’re a cool city. Buy our pricey watches. Humour us with our fancy French cuisine. Drink our Calvinist craft beers. Learn to love our sickly-sweet coffee. Then we’ll talk about citizenship. There might be a subtle message for Europe in there: learn to like us before you love us, all in good time.

Drink our Calvinist craft beers. Learn to love our sickly-sweet coffee. Then we’ll talk about citizenship.

My bespoke Swiss rail trip has been an enlightening ride from bumpkinsville to the big city. En route, there has been a bit of nibbling on Calvinism and conformity, cheese and chocolate – but barely any beer-swilling or boorishness. I head back to the station, ready to be suspended between places once more. As writer Paul Theroux says, “Anything is possible on a train: a great meal, a binge, a visit from card-players, an intrigue, a good night’s sleep, and strangers’ monologues framed like Russian short stories.” Away is the place to be.

Copyright © Lisa Gerard-Sharp. All rights reserved.
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