David Gordon explores Geneva - not just a gateway for skiing but a great city break.
As we sat outside a café in the old town of Geneva enjoying some wine, I found myself pondering the paradox the city creates. It is a city in Switzerland, but the language is French. The headquarters of the United Nations are located there making it an international city, yet with its patchwork of tiny streets, it feels very parochial.
Geographically, Geneva is an intriguing city. Whichever way you look, you see mountains and they are all in France. The city shares over 100km of land borders with its Gallic neighbours and only 4km with Switzerland. Indeed, visiting the famous cable car at Mont Saleve, known locally as Geneva’s Mountain, involves walking across the Swiss/French border which is a few minutes bus ride from the city centre.
Carouges, which borders the Geneva city limits has kept its village atmosphere and is now famous for its Saturday market which takes over the main square and surrounding streets. It was once part of the Sardinian state, so has a very colourful Mediterranean ambience and is well worth visiting. Carouges is still a place Genevans go to relax and is not particularly on the tourist trail.
Mont Saleve is a popular haunt for extreme sports enthusiasts with options available to go up in the cable car and paraglide back down, or indeed travel down again on a mountain bike. Back in the city, the waterfront is a hive of activity, the star attraction is the Jet d’Eau, the world’s tallest fountain. In the summer months, there is a beach and a number of swimming pools created on the lake and a host of water-based activities are offered.
On dry ground, the main shopping streets are nearby and are a designer label-hunters playground. Gastronomy plays a big part in city life and we enjoyed excellent meals at Restaurant de la Mere Royaume, Les 5 Portes, Restaurant des Armures and Café Papon. A local favourite is Perch, which are caught in Lake Geneva and served with a cheese and white wine sauce. Foie Gras is also popular, as is the local Swiss sausage. However, the dish which permeates every menu, and (without wishing to offend any Swiss readers) nasal passage, is Cheese Fondue. Primarily a sharing dish, it is served with bread and a charcuterie tray and is an olfactory challenge to say the least.
However a word to the wise, Geneva does not have the reputation as the most expensive city in Europe for nothing, eating out can be eyewateringly expensive so it is best to scout around to find the best deals. Indeed, a variety of “street food” trucks are now positioned around the city and offer great meals at low prices. If you are a wine connoisseur, be sure to try the local wines which are produced solely for local consumption. Genevans take great pride in the fact that their wine is not exported.
As Geneva is busy during weekdays, hotels usually have great weekend offers available and free upgrades are quite frequent. We stayed at the Hotel New Midi, which is right beside the river and an excellent base to check out the city. Just a few minutes’ walk from the train station, bus stops and the old town. We found ourselves in the art-deco styled penthouse suite, with terrific views over the city skyline and enough rooms to lose each other! Geneva also offers all tourists a free transport card when they check in at their hotel. Coupled with the free train ticket from the airport (a secret that isn’t highly promoted, but keep an eye out for the machines) it means that all rail, bus, tram and water taxi services are free for the duration of your stay. Given the city is quite hilly, the bus comes in handy.
Another bonus is the Geneva Visite card which offers free entry to many museums, tours and attractions. The proximity of the airport to the city is a major bonus. On departure, we were checked in, through security and waiting at the gate within 15 minutes of leaving the city centre. Geneva airport is used by many as a gateway to the ski areas in the Alps. With short transfer times, you can be on the slopes on Le Grand Bornand, La Clusaz or Chamonix within 90mins of leaving the airport. La Clusaz is one of the undiscovered gems of the Alps. It is a popular weekend destination for French and Swiss visitors and is famous for it’s beautiful villages, snowboarding and slopes. The closest ski resort to Genvea is Grand Bornand – a year round resort that has a wide variet of ski and off-ski activities. There are walking trails for non-skiers as well as extensive cross-country ski trails and the Grand-Bo snow park which caters for all skill levels. At the base of Mont Blanc, Chamonix is known for its steep, challenging runs and mountainous scenery. The town itself has a mix of busy nightlife and traditional charm.
easyJet flies to Geneva from Belfast International on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays during the winter season. For availability and fare information visit www.easyJet.com