Five o'clock tea at the Beau-Rivage hotel. Finger sandwiches and shortbread, fruitcake and tarts, warm raisin scones and pots of strawberry jam. At one table, an Englishwoman of a certain age, powdered and Jaegered, finally gets her husband's attention after taking away his Financial Times. At another table, the attentions of a South American playboy, sunglasses poised on forehead, make it all but impossible for his pouty charge to butter her scone, let alone pet her whippet.
Such droll scenes have earned Geneva its reputation as the most cosmopolitan city in Switzerland. Unfolding quietly, elegantly at the foot of the Alps and the Jura, just where Lake Geneva narrows and becomes the Rhône River, it is the capital of a canton that shares almost its entire 68-mile perimeter with France. This goes a long way toward explaining the city's dual identity and suave appeal.
Getting your bearings: Geneva is tidily cleaved in two by the Rhône. The Rive Gauche, or Left Bank, is on your left as you look downriver, west and south toward Marseilles. This is the cradle of the Old Town, Geneva's enchanting artistic and cultural core, the site of its university, of historic monuments and fortified walls, and of the 12th-century Cathédrale St.-Pierre. Here, more than anywhere else, the city comes closest to realizing its longing to be another Paris. Spend a morning reading the international dailies threaded onto poles at the sunny Palais de Justice café, and you'll understand why.
Of chief interest on the newer and less graceful Right Bank are the 19th-century
so-called palace hotels, which practically rub shoulders on and off the
Quai des Bergues and Quai du Mont-Blanc. Fans of these establishments call
them "grand"; detractors call them mausoleums. No one disputes
that they are big. Head north through a string of the vest-pocket public
parks that make Geneva one of the greenest cities in Europe, and you hit
the sprawling International Complex, the European seat of the United Nations.
Geneva gets a bad rap as a city of gray-suited functionaries and loupe-eyed watchmakers, a place you pass through on your way to somewhere elsepossibly a French ski resort. But it's no mere terminal. The French art of living, wedded to the Swiss art of efficiency, is a marriage made in heaven, in Geneva.
Where to Stay
Right Bank or Left?It's up to you the city has two wonderful small hotels, one on each side:
Hôtel d'Angleterre 17 Quai du Mont-Blanc; 41-22/906-5555, fax
41-22/906-5556; doubles from $295. Bright and stylish, small but not too
small (39 rooms and six suites), this 1872 Right Bank landmark was given
a complete makeover in 1995. Shame about the bathrooms, though: Europe is
still far from understanding the simple engineering that allows water to
flow from a showerhead without causing a flood. Albert Roux of London's
Le Gavroche is the consulting chef at Bertie's, the hotel's perfectly good
English restaurant, housed in a Victorian-style conservatory with spectacular
views of the lake.
Hôtel Les Armures 1 Rue du Puits-St.-Pierre; 41-22/310-9172, fax 41-22/310-9846; doubles from $295. For many, there's no point in visiting Geneva if they don't stay in the Old Town, which to them means a room at the 17th-century Armures. On the upside: ravishing frescoes, painted-beam ceilings, the raclette in the hotel restaurant, and only 24 rooms and four suites. On the downside: ham-fisted decoration, stale air, and a certain twee-ness.
At the Right Bank palace hotels, a room overlooking the lake, the Jet d'Eau, Mont Blanc, and the Alps costs up to 20 percent more. But you didn't come to Geneva to gaze at a fire escape:
Hôtel des Bergues 33 Quai des Bergues; 41-22/ 731-5050, fax 41-22/732-1989; doubles from $350. Ask for one of the 50 recently renovated rooms (there are 113 rooms in all, plus 11 suites). Nice, if stiffly deployed, Directoire and Louis Philippe furnishings.
Beau-Rivage 13 Quai du Mont-Blanc; 41-22/731-0221, fax 41-22/738-9847; doubles from $379. While the hotel lacks freshness, the six-story atrium lobby, with its fountain and buttercream carved-wood decorations, is still impressive. In fact, it looks much the same as it did in 1898 when Empress Elizabeth of Austria was stabbed by an anarchist upon leaving the premises, expiring shortly afterward in one of the suites. (There are six today, plus 97 rooms.)
Le Richemond Jardin Brunswick; 41-22/731-1400, fax 41-22/ 731-6709; doubles from $460. The most lugubrious of them all: red satin cushions on red velvet sofas. Sixty-one rooms and 31 suites.
For some, the location of these two hotels midway between the Old Town and the lakecouldn't be better:
Hôtel de la Cigogne 17 Place Longemalle; 41-22/818-4040, fax 41-22/818-4050; doubles from $290. Hold tight for the giddy decorative exuberance of the 36 rooms and 14 suites in this Relais & Châteaux property.
Hôtel Touring-Balance 13 Place Longemalle; 41-22/310-4045, fax 41-22/310-4039; doubles from $180. This is as close as you'll get to a good deal in Geneva. The 55 rooms and five suites are plain but not unpleasant.
Where to Eat
La Favola 15 Rue Jean-Calvin; 41-22/311-7437; dinner for two $105. La Favola is the best Italian restaurant in Geneva, but is it the best restaurant in Geneva, period?A lot of the city's been-around-the-world palates think so. Tortellini aren't tortellini; they're tender pillows filled with the creamiest, sweetest ricotta, in a luscious reduction of red wine, meat juices, and butter. The intimate dining rooms inspire romantic confidences. As for location, a few steps from the Cathédrale St.-Pierre in the heart of the Old Town isn't too shabby.
Café-Restaurant du Château d'If 51 Rte. de Thonon, Vésenaz; 41-22/752-1211; dinner for two $45. You won't agonize over the menu at the bare-bones restaurant owned by self-appointed "fondue pope" Jacques Pipoz; there isn't one. The only decision is between the all-Vacherin fondue and the (better) one made with Vacherin and Gruyère, plus garlic and white wine. Be warned: Pipoz allots a whopping 13 ounces of cheese per person. Spring for a cab; it's 10 minutes from town (then again, you may need the walk home).
Pizzeria da Paolo 3 Rue du Lac; 41-22/736-3049; dinner for two $55. Even if you're in Geneva for only three days you should consider eating here twice: it's that good. Fragrant white Alba truffles are shaved onto your ricotta focaccia right in front of you.
Chez Bouby 1 Rue Grenus; 41-22/731-0927; dinner for two $75. A classic paper-napkin bistro where tweedy, bifocaled retirees meet young Geneva professionals. Bouby offers the rare possibility of eating late; it takes orders for full, hot meals until 1 a.m.
L'échalotte 17 Rue des Rois; 41-22/320-5999; dinner for two $50. A hail-fellow bistro with truck-driver portions (forgo a first course) of beef bourguignon and choucroute with all the trimmings.
Le Béarn 4 Quai de la Poste; 41-22/321-0028; dinner for two $195. Depending on your mood, the rather prissy atmosphere (pink linens, faux-marble paint effects, smoked mirrors, gold paper doilies!) at this quayside institution will heighten or hinder your appetite. The chef, Jean-Paul Goddard, longs to be taken seriously, but he may not be quite up to his ambitions.
What To See
If you plan to be in Switzerland for an extended time, you may want to acquire a Swiss Museum Passport. Valid for a month, it allows admission to more than 180 museums throughout the country. Adults $22; adults with children $26. Available from the Office du Tourisme de Genève, 3 Rue de Mont-Blanc; 41-22/909-7000, fax 41-22/ 909-7011.
Le Musée d'Art et d'Histoire 2 Rue Charles-Galland; 41-22/418-2600. Architect Marc Camoletti's early-20th-century Neoclassical masterpiece houses permanent, world-class collections of archaeology (Etruscan vases, bronzes from the Roman era in Geneva, Egyptian antiquities), applied arts (medieval ivories, Byzantine silver), and fine arts (works by Courbet and Corot, Renoir and Monet, Cézanne and Picasso).
Baur Collection 8 Rue Munier-Romilly; 41-22/346-1729. One of the finest assemblages of Chinese and Japanese porcelains, jade, and lacquer anywhere.
Musée de l'horlogerie et de l'émaillerie 15 Rte. de Malagnou; 41-22/418-6470. Even those with no interest in 17th-century watches will find Bryn Bella, the setting of Geneva's timepiece and enamel museum, hard to resistit's a Palladian-style villa in a wooded park.
Maison Tavel 6 Rue du Puits-St.-Pierre; 41-22/310-2900. The domestic life of old Geneva comes alive through displays of 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century tableware, furniture, ironwork, and woodwork. Then there is the Maison Tavel itself, the oldest private house in Geneva. It was rebuilt in 1334 following a fire, and significant changes were made to the façade some 350 years later, including the addition of windows and the enlargement of existing ones.
Musée Ariana 10 Ave. de la Paix; 41-22/418-5450. Seven centuries of European, Near Eastern, and Asian ceramics alongside more than 1,750 pieces of glass. Of special interest are some 200 examples of Fluhli 18th- and 19th-century tumblers painted with naive polychrome enamel birds, animals, and other motifs from the central Swiss village of Entlebuch.
Where To Shop
Mahara MHR Montres 3 Place du Grand-Mézel; 41-22/311-2010. The Italian-made Sparviero aircraft made thousands of victorious sorties in World War II. So what does a vintage fighter plane have to do with Geneva's must-have watch of the moment?The plane's incredibly modern-looking flight instruments inspired the boldly graphic, easy-to-read face of the timepiece, which is why, of course, they call it the S.79 Sparviero.
Yvon Desbiolles 7 Blvd. du Théâtre; 41-22/311-7205. If he's good enough to repair the chimes of Westminster, he's good enough to have a go at your Rolex. This watch doctor to the stars is no snob: Swatches are sold next to a rehabilitated Breguet Tourbillon, of which fewer than 1,000 have been made in the 202 years since Abraham-Louis Breguet invented the mechanism that cancels errors caused by the effects of gravity on watch movement. A new Breguet goes for $62,800; Desbiolles's is $48,050.
Les Ambassadeurs 39 Rue du Rhône; 41-22/310-5566. The city's largest selection of watches in all price categories. Current best-sellers: for men, Breitling's chunky Chronomat; for women, Jaeger-LeCoultre's Reverso; for both, among more popularly priced watches, anything by Tissot.
Librairie Ancienne 20 Grand'Rue; 41-22/310-2050. This shop can't make up its mind what it's selling: you'll find a morocco-bound first edition of Les Misérables fighting for space with a crystal carafe and a signed Marie Laurencin print.
Histoire de Plaire 1 Rue du Purgatorie; 41-22/310-1888. A women's shoe boutique decorated like a hatbox. The hot item isn't shoes, but Anne Fontaine's pristine white shirts.
Shaman 25 Rue de la Cité; 41-22/ 781-4118. Franco Privato combs eastern Europe, South America, Morocco, India, and the Philippines for objets to fill his highly disciplined home shop: bubble-glass wine coolers, resin picture frames with coconut-shell marquetry, terra-cotta cooking vessels, camphorwood trunks with brass hardware, hand-blocked bedspreads.
Atmosphere 10 Grand'Rue; 41-22/ 310-7575. Sophie and Paul Yanacopoulos-Gross sell their own collection of oak basics— coffee and dining tables, mirrors, and shelving systems handmade in Italyas well as Iranian glass, pottery from the south of France, horn serving pieces from Madagascar, and Greek church candles.
Structure 17 Grand'Rue; 41-22/311-9711. Exact, miniature replicas of the innovative 19th- and 20th-century mass-produced furniture in the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany, including Gerrit Rietveld's 1935 natural-wood Zig-Zag stool and Mies van der Rohe's 1927 tube chair.
Atrium 16 Rue des Granges; 41-22/781-1826. This overstuffed shop stocks everything for the garden roomand then some: trugs, cobalt glass vases for forcing narcissus and amaryllis bulbs, birdcages, wire topiary forms, antique footed lead urns, pierced tole lanterns from Morocco, basketwork (from cheese platters to log holders). A new section upstairs is jammed with all the crucial bits and pieces needed for doing up an Alpine chalet: cuckoo clocks, mercury glass goblets and candlesticks, wooden cowbells, kilim carpets, and cushions with red cross-stitch embroidery.
La Vérandah 10 Rue du Vieux Collège; 41-22/304-6404. Home-furnishings heaven for all of Geneva's top-rung maîtresses de maison: bushy passementerie tiebacks, marbleized desktop letter-holders, tissue boxes festooned with ribbon and eyelet lace.
10 THINGS NOT TO MISS IN GENEVA
1. The Saturday flea market, held on Plaine de Plainpalais.
2. A backstage tour of the Grand Théâtre, built in 1879 (11 Blvd. du Théâtre; 41-22/311-2311).
3. People-watching at La Clémence, a café in the shadow of the courthouse (20 Place du Bourg-du-Four).
4. A game of outdoor chess with giant pieces on the beautiful grounds of the Parc des Bastions.
5. A boule de Berlin à la confiturea kind of doughnut with raspberry or red-currant fillingfrom the Aimé Pouly bakery (12 locations, including 72 Rue des Eaux-Vives).
6. Île Rousseau, a little island in the Rhône, off the Pont des Bergues, with a statue of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
7. The mausoleum of Charles II, Duke of Brunswick, at the Square du Mont-Blanc.
8. The hip new baRocco café in the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire.
9. The Horloge Fleuriea clock with a face made of flowering plants at the Jardin Anglais (April-October).
10. The heart-stopping, wraparound view from the north tower of the Cathédrale St.-Pierre.
LUNCH IN FRANCE?
A pleasant hour-long drive into the neighboring Savoy region of France puts the hotly debated Auberge de l'Éridan within easy reach of Geneva (13 Vieille Rte. des Pensières, Veyrier-du-Lac; 33-4/50-60-24-00; dinner for two $260). Chef Marc Veyrat relishes his role as a bad boy of French haute cuisine, disdaining a toque for a floppy country hat. Lunch at the lakeside Auberge last fall was a long (and expensive) succession of baffling gaffes. Still, the chef's champions insist that he's a major player. Does he deserve the benefit of the doubt?Your call.
However your meal goes, pick up a piece of Savoyard pottery glazed in yellow, green, or dark brown and decorated with birds or polka dots at Poterie de la Côte (La Côte, Évires; 33-4/50-62-01-90) or Poterie d'Annecy (Rte. d'Albertville, St. Jorioz; 33-4/50-68-61-14).
A DAY IN A SWISS VILLAGE
Across the Arve River, Geneva melts into the handsome suburb of Carouge before you've even had time to notice. Tram lines 12 and 13 connect the two places within minutes, but even when you're on foot you'll find that less than a half-hour separates them. Wear walking shoes, and bring a book: you'll want to spend every moment of downtime here exploring the village streets graced with pastel town houses, or reading in one of the two elegant, leafy squares. Market mornings are Wednesday and Saturday. Guided tours in English of Carouge's fountains, gardens, and architecture, are given from 11 to noon on Saturdays from June to September. (For information, call Mrs. Matthey-Doret at 41-22/342-0109.)
Join the regulars at the genially raucous Café-Restaurant de l'Aigle d'Or for a simple bistro lunch of roast leg of lamb and chocolate mousse (13 Rue de la Filature; 342-0547; lunch for two $60). Afterward, watch Michel Magnin ply the old-world craft of bookbinding in his storefront atelier (5 Rue Ancienne; 41-22/342-5367).
A friend recently back from Geneva knitted his brow when I asked him what he thought of the city's most celebrated and recognizable symbol, the Jet d'Eau, which thrusts some 8,000 gallons of water per minute nearly 500 feet in the air off the Left Bank.
"Fountain?" he asked dejectedly. "What fountain?"
My friend was the victim of bad timing: in winter, the "jeddo," as Genevans call it, is out of commission. If you're the kind of person who wouldn't go to Rome without seeing the Colosseum, you'll probably feel the same about Geneva and the Jet. To catch it in action this year, barring strong winds, plan your trip for between March 3 and October 12.
BEST OF THE BEST
The Genevese are obsessed with quality. Because only the best will do (good is what they give the dog), this is where they go for . . .
everything you need for the perfect pot of tea: Tschin-Ta-Ni (5 Rue Verdaine; 41-22/311-6500).
sweets (macaroons, hand-dipped and fork-rolled chocolate truffles, and chocolate-covered almonds and Piedmontese hazelnuts): Auer Chocolatier (4 Rue de Rive; 41-22/311-4286).
quince-filled pastries: B. Rusterholz (13 Rue de la Cité; 41-22/311-4604).
pretzels (plain, apricot, garlic, Parmesan, you name it) and roasted chestnuts: the stands on the corner of Rue du Marché and Rue de la Madeleine.