Life in Geneva revolves around the best of everything

Christopher Petkanas
January 05, 2010

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 onetable, an Englishwoman of a certain age, powdered and Jaegered, finallygets her husband's attention after taking away his Financial Times. At anothertable, the attentions of a South American playboy, sunglasses poised onforehead, make it all but impossible for his pouty charge to butter herscone, let alone pet her whippet.

Such droll scenes have earned Geneva its reputation as the most cosmopolitancity in Switzerland. Unfolding quietly, elegantly at the foot of the Alpsand the Jura, just where Lake Geneva narrows and becomes the RhôneRiver, it is the capital of a canton that shares almost its entire 68-mileperimeter with France. This goes a long way toward explaining the city'sdual 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, westand south toward Marseilles. This is the cradle of the Old Town, Geneva'senchanting artistic and cultural core, the site of its university, of historicmonuments and fortified walls, and of the 12th-century CathédraleSt.-Pierre. Here, more than anywhere else, the city comes closest to realizingits longing to be another Paris. Spend a morning reading the internationaldailies 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-centuryso-called palace hotels, which practically rub shoulders on and off theQuai des Bergues and Quai du Mont-Blanc. Fans of these establishments callthem "grand"; detractors call them mausoleums. No one disputesthat they are big. Head north through a string of the vest-pocket publicparks that make Geneva one of the greenest cities in Europe, and you hitthe sprawling International Complex, the European seat of the United Nations.
Geneva gets a bad rap as a city of gray-suited functionaries and loupe-eyedwatchmakers, a place you pass through on your way to somewhere elsepossiblya 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, inGeneva.

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, fax41-22/906-5556; doubles from $295. Bright and stylish, small but not toosmall (39 rooms and six suites), this 1872 Right Bank landmark was givena complete makeover in 1995. Shame about the bathrooms, though: Europe isstill far from understanding the simple engineering that allows water toflow from a showerhead without causing a flood. Albert Roux of London'sLe Gavroche is the consulting chef at Bertie's, the hotel's perfectly goodEnglish restaurant, housed in a Victorian-style conservatory with spectacularviews 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 visitingGeneva if they don't stay in the Old Town, which to them means a room atthe 17th-century Armures. On the upside: ravishing frescoes, painted-beamceilings, the raclette in the hotel restaurant, and only 24 rooms and foursuites. On the downside: ham-fisted decoration, stale air, and a certaintwee-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 cometo 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 (thereare 113 rooms in all, plus 11 suites). Nice, if stiffly deployed, Directoireand 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 atriumlobby, with its fountain and buttercream carved-wood decorations, is stillimpressive. In fact, it looks much the same as it did in 1898 when EmpressElizabeth of Austria was stabbed by an anarchist upon leaving the premises,expiring shortly afterward in one of the suites. (There are six today, plus97 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 onred velvet sofas. Sixty-one rooms and 31 suites.
For some, the location of these two hotels midway between the Old Town andthe lakecouldn't be better:
Hôtel de la Cigogne 17 Place Longemalle; 41-22/818-4040, fax41-22/818-4050; doubles from $290. Hold tight for the giddy decorative exuberanceof 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 toa 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 restaurantin Geneva, period?A lot of the city's been-around-the-world palates thinkso. 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 forlocation, a few steps from the Cathédrale St.-Pierre in the heartof 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 thebare-bones restaurant owned by self-appointed "fondue pope" JacquesPipoz; there isn't one. The only decision is between the all-Vacherin fondueand the (better) one made with Vacherin and Gruyère, plus garlicand white wine. Be warned: Pipoz allots a whopping 13 ounces of cheese perperson. Spring for a cab; it's 10 minutes from town (then again, you mayneed the walk home).
Pizzeria da Paolo 3 Rue du Lac; 41-22/736-3049; dinner for two $55. Evenif you're in Geneva for only three days you should consider eating heretwice: it's that good. Fragrant white Alba truffles are shaved onto yourricotta focaccia right in front of you.
Chez Bouby 1 Rue Grenus; 41-22/731-0927; dinner for two $75. A classicpaper-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 thisquayside institution will heighten or hinder your appetite. The chef, Jean-PaulGoddard, longs to be taken seriously, but he may not be quite up to hisambitions.

What To See
If you plan to be in Switzerland for an extended time, you may want to acquirea Swiss Museum Passport. Valid for a month, it allows admission to morethan 180 museums throughout the country. Adults $22; adults with children$26. Available from the Office du Tourisme de Genève, 3 Ruede 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 housespermanent, world-class collections of archaeology (Etruscan vases, bronzesfrom the Roman era in Geneva, Egyptian antiquities), applied arts (medievalivories, Byzantine silver), and fine arts (works by Courbet and Corot, Renoirand Monet, Cézanne and Picasso).
Baur Collection 8 Rue Munier-Romilly; 41-22/346-1729. One of thefinest assemblages of Chinese and Japanese porcelains, jade, and lacqueranywhere.
Musée de l'horlogerie et de l'émaillerie 15 Rte. deMalagnou; 41-22/418-6470. Even those with no interest in 17th-century watcheswill 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 domesticlife of old Geneva comes alive through displays of 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-centurytableware, furniture, ironwork, and woodwork. Then there is the Maison Tavelitself, the oldest private house in Geneva. It was rebuilt in 1334 followinga fire, and significant changes were made to the façade some 350years later, including the addition of windows and the enlargement of existingones.
Musée Ariana 10 Ave. de la Paix; 41-22/418-5450. Seven centuriesof European, Near Eastern, and Asian ceramics alongside more than 1,750pieces 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-madeSparviero aircraft made thousands of victorious sorties in World War II.So what does a vintage fighter plane have to do with Geneva's must-havewatch of the moment?The plane's incredibly modern-looking flight instrumentsinspired the boldly graphic, easy-to-read face of the timepiece, which iswhy, 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 enoughto have a go at your Rolex. This watch doctor to the stars is no snob: Swatchesare sold next to a rehabilitated Breguet Tourbillon, of which fewer than1,000 have been made in the 202 years since Abraham-Louis Breguet inventedthe mechanism that cancels errors caused by the effects of gravity on watchmovement. A new Breguet goes for $62,800; Desbiolles's is $48,050.
Les Ambassadeurs 39 Rue du Rhône; 41-22/310-5566. The city'slargest 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'tmake up its mind what it's selling: you'll find a morocco-bound first editionof Les Misérables fighting for space with a crystal carafe and asigned Marie Laurencin print.
Histoire de Plaire 1 Rue du Purgatorie; 41-22/310-1888. A women'sshoe boutique decorated like a hatbox. The hot item isn't shoes, but AnneFontaine's pristine white shirts.
Shaman 25 Rue de la Cité; 41-22/ 781-4118. Franco Privato combs easternEurope, South America, Morocco, India, and the Philippines for objets tofill his highly disciplined home shop: bubble-glass wine coolers, resinpicture 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-Grosssell their own collection of oak basics— coffee and dining tables, mirrors,and shelving systems handmade in Italyas well as Iranian glass, potteryfrom the south of France, horn serving pieces from Madagascar, and Greekchurch candles.
Structure 17 Grand'Rue; 41-22/311-9711. Exact, miniature replicas of theinnovative 19th- and 20th-century mass-produced furniture in the Vitra DesignMuseum in Weil am Rhein, Germany, including Gerrit Rietveld's 1935 natural-woodZig-Zag stool and Mies van der Rohe's 1927 tube chair.
Atrium 16 Rue des Granges; 41-22/781-1826. This overstuffed shopstocks everything for the garden roomand then some: trugs, cobalt glassvases for forcing narcissus and amaryllis bulbs, birdcages, wire topiaryforms, antique footed lead urns, pierced tole lanterns from Morocco, basketwork(from cheese platters to log holders). A new section upstairs is jammedwith 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 demaison: 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 ofthe courthouse (20 Place du Bourg-du-Four).
4. A game of outdoor chess with giant pieces on the beautiful grounds ofthe Parc des Bastions.
5. A boule de Berlin à la confiturea kind of doughnut with raspberryor red-currant fillingfrom the Aimé Pouly bakery (12 locations, including72 Rue des Eaux-Vives).
6. Île Rousseau, a little island in the Rhône, off the Pontdes 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 theJardin Anglais (April-October).
10. The heart-stopping, wraparound view from the north tower of the CathédraleSt.-Pierre.

LUNCH IN FRANCE?
A pleasant hour-long drive into the neighboring Savoy region of France putsthe 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 ofFrench haute cuisine, disdaining a toque for a floppy country hat. Lunchat the lakeside Auberge last fall was a long (and expensive) successionof baffling gaffes. Still, the chef's champions insist that he's a majorplayer. 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 dela Côte (La Côte, Évires; 33-4/50-62-01-90) or Poteried'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 thetwo places within minutes, but even when you're on foot you'll find thatless 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 villagestreets graced with pastel town houses, or reading in one of the two elegant,leafy squares. Market mornings are Wednesday and Saturday. Guided toursin English of Carouge's fountains, gardens, and architecture, are givenfrom 11 to noon on Saturdays from June to September. (For information, callMrs. Matthey-Doret at 41-22/342-0109.)
Join the regulars at the genially raucous Café-Restaurant de l'Aigled'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 MichelMagnin ply the old-world craft of bookbinding in his storefront atelier(5 Rue Ancienne; 41-22/342-5367).

Fountain?What fountain?
A friend recently back from Geneva knitted his brow when I asked him whathe thought of the city's most celebrated and recognizable symbol, the Jetd'Eau, which thrusts some 8,000 gallons of water per minute nearly 500 feetin 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 personwho wouldn't go to Rome without seeing the Colosseum, you'll probably feelthe same about Geneva and the Jet. To catch it in action this year, barringstrong 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-coveredalmonds 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.

You May Like