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First Stop: Geneva

Posted by on 28 April 2008

Geneva was the first stop in our recent whirlwind trip to Europe.

GenevaI’ve always regarded Geneva as a small, sleepy town. It is, indeed, small — measuring only 15.86 square kilometres (6.1 square miles) — but it is hardly sleepy, as it is the place where major world organizations have their headquarters, such as WHO (World Health Organisation), ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) and CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire or European Organization for Nuclear Research, which was mentioned in the novel The Da Vinci Code).

Most major airlines enter Switzerland via Geneva or via Zurich. If your ultimate destination is Geneva but your airline of choice only flies to Zurich, fret not. If you have about 3 hours to spare, I strongly suggest that you take the train from Zurich to Geneva and have your fill of the unforgettable, breathtaking views of Switzerland’s crystal clear lakes, vibrant green meadows and the snow-capped Alps. A full-fare, one-way, 2nd class ticket costs CHF80 as of this writing.

This time around, since we flew with KLM, our plane took us from Amsterdam direct to Geneva, where DH and I had an exhibition to attend.

Geneva always has two or three exhibitions and/or conferences going on at the same time, so it is an absolute must for you to have a confirmed hotel booking prior to your arrival. I learned this the hard way in 1999 on our first ever trip to Geneva. DH almost always books his hotels upon arrival at the airport of his destination and he assured me that we could do the same thing in Geneva. To my consternation, we found out upon our arrival that all the hotels in Geneva were full, so we practically had beg the Geneva Tourism Office to help us find a room. After checking his computer and making a couple of phone calls, the officer informed us that he managed to get us the last available room in Geneva — a tiny room at Hotel Central with bunk beds (!), an ensuite shower (which, we found out later, measured a mere 3 feet by 3 feet!) and the shared toilet outside in the hallway. We managed to change to a better room on our 2nd and 3rd nights, but from that moment on, every time we go to Geneva, I always make sure that our hotel room is booked at least 2 months in advance.

Hotel rooms in Geneva are also notoriously expensive, so a lot of people opt to stay in France (the border is just 15 minutes away) but you need to rent a car to take you around or, if you are adventurous enough and know enough French to get by, you can take the bus, train or boat to go across the border.

If you feel like a change in scenery, you can also opt to stay in a farm, which DH and I did three years ago, as most of them are easily accessible by train. Most of these places that offer country-style accommodation can be contacted by email but for the ones who don’t have email, the Geneva Tourism Office will gladly make all the arrangements for you. I can assure you that they will reply to your email promptly and very efficiently. I said it before and I’m saying it again — the Swiss are as efficient as their clockwork!

If you are up to it, you can even sleep on straw in a barn — just bring your own sleeping bag — and it will only cost you about CHF18 per person per night.

Lac Léman Flower Clock UN Office

Lac Léman

Flower Clock

UN office in Geneva
The little yellow boat in Lac Léman, surrounded by swans The flower clock at Jardin Anglais, showing precise time
Cars whizz past the UN office in Geneva

For a small city, Geneva has, surprisingly, quite a number of museums and places that you can visit, such as the Patek Philippe Watch Museum, International Automobile Museum, and International Museum of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. I never had the time to see any of those museums though…

Guided tours inside the UN office in Geneva are also available. When we were there, there were guided tours in English available at 10.30 am, 12 noon, 2.30 pm and 4 pm. The Geneva Tourism Office informed me that the entrance fee is CHF10 per person and must be paid directly at the gate. They also informed me that no reservation is needed, but visitors must report at the Pregny gate 20 minutes before the start of the visit for access formalities, as no access can be granted without a proper ID. If I had time to spare, I would have gone to this tour…

Jet d'EauOf course, when in Geneva, you will never miss seeing the Jet d’Eau (literally: jet of water), as it is visible from kilometres away when it’s on. I was told that they turn it off when the wind is too strong. It is also closed for a few days in November every year for some maintenance work, I suppose. Photo from Wikimedia, as the one I got was taken from quite an awkward angle and is not ‘print-worthy’, to my opinion.

There is also the flower clock, located at the edge of the Jardin Anglais (English Garden) since 1955, whose flowers and colours vary with the changing seasons.

KeyTours S.A. offers several city tour packages. If you want to see most of Geneva in 2 hours and have CHF45 to spare, go right ahead and book a tour with them. But if I were you and have at least half a day to spare and enough energy to walk around for half a day, I’d much rather just arm myself with a map and find my way through the city. Once you get tired of walking, you can always take the bus or the tram. All hotels in Geneva issue visitors a free Geneva Transport Card, which allows you to have unlimited use of the buses, trams and trains (and also the small yellow boat in Lac Léman a.k.a. Geneva Lake) for the duration of your stay in Geneva. Geneva Transport CardUpon arrival in the airport, just before the exit, there is a machine that dispenses a free public transport pass that’s valid for 80 minutes, more than enough time for you to reach your hotel and get your Geneva Transport Card. You just keep the card with you at all times, as special inspectors might check from time to time, and you’ll be slapped with a hefty fine if you are caught without a ticket. The whole time we were in Geneva, no one checked.

If you long to see the mountains and see some snow, Mont Blanc, the highest peak of Europe, is just 50 minutes away by bus, accessible via the town of Chamonix. Key Tours S.A. offers a tour package via coach, departing from the airport at 8 am, from Intercontinental Hotel at 8.10 am or from the Bus Terminal at Place Dorcière at 8.30 am. This is Switzerland, people, and everything runs as smoothly as their clockwork so when they say 8.30 am, they mean 8.30 am. And once you are in Chamonix and they tell you that you must be back in the bus by 4 pm, you better be there or else risk spending €350 for a taxi back to Geneva.

Mont BlancThis photo of Mont Blanc was taken by Lola with an old Olympus point-and-shoot camera of mine (she joined the tour on our 2nd day in Geneva and frolicked in the snow there, while DH and I were attending meeting after meeting after meeting…). The overall quality of the photo is very good for a point-and-shoot, although I had to edit it a bit with Photoshop Elements for better lighting and more dramatic colour.

You’ll be crossing the Swiss-Franco border for this tour, so make sure to bring your passport along with you.

The tour takes 9 1/2 hours and will set you off by CHF108, plus an additional (optional) CHF63 — fully refundable if the weather is not good — for the cable car to the Aiguille du Midi (4,807 m/15,771 ft) , a visit to the Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice) for another (optional) CHF36, and a set lunch for CHF38 (also optional).

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