Knowing what to get my partner for his birthday is always an arduous task. I love him dearly, but he never wants for anything and knowing that his Mum had bought him two pairs of shoes – that he so desperately needed (his previous trainers were practically held together with string, brown paper and sealing wax) – I was at a loss at what to get.
Then, all of a sudden it came to me… via, of all places, Genève Tourisme – the official tourist board of Geneva in Switzerland. As part of their generous #InvitedByGeneva campaign they were offering 1,000 free nights in the city over summer 2016, so as soon as I heard about it, I jumped at the chance and put my name in the hat.
It was only a few days later that I received, among spam and international bank transfer requests, that my application had been successful. Without missing a beat, I quickly booked the most swanky looking property on the list – primarily chosen because it had its own Wikipedia entry.
The time around my partner’s birthday was hectic at work and, with Switzerland also hardly famous for its affordability, I decided to see if we could get away with just one night there and maximise our time either side. Luckily, British Airways fly eight times a day from London Heathrow (and three from London City) at prices that won’t break the bank, and with early morning and evening flights, it was possible for us to have two full days in Geneva with just one night in a hotel.
Present sorted! I also managed to keep it a surprise, which was somewhat of a first for me…
After enduring the two-hour drive to Heathrow refusing to tell my partner where we were going, the big – and, thankfully, well-received – reveal led to a pleasant 8.20am flight over France and the Alps, before we touched down in Geneva mid-morning.
We made our way to central Geneva from the airport in less than half an hour. We didn’t even have to get out our CHFs either, as a machine in baggage claim prints out free train tickets to the city centre.
Our first glimpse of Geneva proper was the pleasant café culture along the appropriately named Rue du Mont-Blanc… which gives you an idea of what you’ll see at the end of the road. Indeed, the view awaiting us by the lakeside literally took our breath away.
The city’s most famous landmark, the Jet d’Eau, was spewing water 140m above the crystal Lake Geneva, while the top of Mont Blanc poked out in the distance like a giant piece of white chocolate Toblerone (although the famous bar is modelled after the Matterhorn on the Italian border in the south).
In addition to this, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the Old Town glistened back at us on the shoreline at the other end of the Mont Blanc Bridge. Pure bliss. This is how you do a proper summer, I thought to myself.
Lap of luxury
A few minutes’ walk away from the Old Town next to the Italianate Brunswick Monument we reached our hotel, Le Richemond. Normally, a hotel littered with Julien Marinetti sculptures in its foyer wouldn’t be an abode within our price bracket but, when Genève Tourisme were footing the bill, I thought it rude not to book.
Having said that, even if we did get out a second mortgage to stay there, it would’ve be worth every penny just for the service the staff offer. Warm, relaxed and unbelievably knowledgeable about the city, I couldn’t fault each and every one we came into contact with. We were even treated to a complimentary coffee on the veranda while we waited for our room to be made ready.
Our room, as you can image, was stunning and we could’ve spent our whole time relaxing there in the exquisite marble bath or freestanding rainforest shower, while lathering ourselves in L’Occitane en Provence bath amenities. Needless to say, we did a bit more than just that…
And the icing on the cake? On check-in we were given a free travel card for use on all public transport in Geneva valid throughout our stay. This is given to all hotel guests in Geneva, but it meant that we saved some money and didn’t have to worry whether we had the right ticket when hopping on and off the various modes of transport on offer.
After ogling at the fixtures and fittings of our room for longer than is deemed acceptable we headed out to explore Geneva proper. Our first stop was Cité du Temps, the former pumping station that straddles the River Rhône. Today, it houses a temporary exhibition space and we were treated to a free photography exposition of portraits and self-portraits from Magnum Photos.
Inside the main building we did a quick sweep of La Collection Swatch, the world’s largest collection of the aforementioned watch brand, boasting designs from 1983 to today. It’s a real treat for the eyes, as their bright timepieces evoke a sense of nostalgia and awe, while some watches, such as the Cardinal Puff, make you question whether there was something in the lakewater when those prototypes were drawn up.
Heading deeper in to the Old Town, we meandered through some of the most high-class buskers I’ve ever seen (string quintet, anyone?) and paused for a peak around the airy Cathédrale St-Pierre, where Protestant Jon Calvin preached in the 16th-century. Round the corner from here, we stopped once more for a breather overlooking Parc de Bastions. However, this wasn’t just any rest stop; we had purposefully placed our buttocks down on the world’s longest bench along Promenade de la Treille. Admittedly, this record is a contested one, but at 120m long, it was an impressive sight to sit on.
By now it was lunchtime, so we walked back along the cobbles of the Old Town to Chez Ma Cousine. This simple restaurant boasts ‘on y mange du poulet’ (we eat chicken) when you enter and that’s exactly what we did. We were swiftly served half a chicken each with a helping of roast potatoes and a gigantic salad to share. On the side we had a small pot of piping hot ‘sauce Cousine’ which tasted so good, I daren’t ask what it was made of.
With our stomachs feeling joyous at such a feast, we attempted to burn off some of the calories consumed by walking around the lake to enjoy a closer look at the Jet d’Eau, which turned out to be a fairly torrential experience, but refreshing nonetheless. Along the way, we stopped to admire the Horloge Fleurie (Flower Clock) in Jardin Anglais. After waiting for a break among the hordes of tourists clamouring for their own view and selfies, we managed to get a clear shot of the timepiece, which is said to be crafted from 6,500 plants and claims to boast the world’s longest second hand, at 2.5m long.
Drinking and eating
Some downtime and a freshen up paved the way for a night on the tiles. Al fresco drinking in Geneva reigns supreme – in the summer, at least – and after a beer on busy Quai de Mont Blanc overlooking the Lake, we headed for the more funky Terrasse La Paradis by the Rhône. Alas, this is an alcohol free joint, but it doesn’t matter when its homemade ‘citronnade’ (lemonade) hits the spot.
A short stroll from here, we parked ourselves outside Bistro 23. Although not much to look at from the outside – it felt like we were dining on the outskirts of an industrial estate – the trip to the toilet encouraged lots of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ as a shabby chic interior somehow blended perfectly with the contemporary furniture, simplistically peppered with the odd antique piece here and there.
Fresh produce is the order of the day at Bistro 23 and I let a steak tartae literally melt in my mouth, while my partner tackled a thick tuna steak served with black pasta. Even the little loaf of bread served prior to our main course was perfect and if it wasn’t for the army of gnats that decided to attack us over coffee, we would’ve gladly stayed longer beside the Rhône for a cocktail or two.
A sleep at the beginning of the Universe
Day two started rather early and we were the first down to breakfast at 7am. Needless to say, Le Richemond didn’t disappoint with its lavish buffet and handcrafted coffees. Plus, I don’t think I’ve ever tasted French toast better than I did there. Still, barely had my smoked salmon bagel gone down when we were rushing towards Geneva’s main station to catch tram 18 to CERN.
Situated on the Franco-Swiss border, CERN (from its original name, Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire) is the world’s largest particle physics laboratory helping us – well, scientists – uncover the secrets of matter and the forces holding them together. In recent times, CERN’s 27km Large Hadron Collider (LHC) helped boffins discover the Higgs boson particle, but British scientist Tim-Berners Lee also invented the World Wide Web in 1989 there and many of the organisation’s technological advancements have benefitted medicine.
Tours of CERN are free but, for individuals, you have to treat it like applying for Glastonbury tickets as there are a limited number available to mere mortals each day. Reservations for most tours open 15 days in advance – I put a reminder in my Outlook calendar – and you must bring valid ID with you.
Administration aside, we were soon escorted on site by a rather handsome Italian researcher who took us to our first stop, CERN’s original accelerator, the Synchrocyclotron. He then overloaded us with a wealth of scientific history and knowledge, which seemed to take us to the very beginning of the Universe. The rest of the group were hooked but, unfortunately, it was not yet 9am and my little brain couldn’t cope, so I did fall asleep a couple of times.
Propping open my eyelids, we next headed over the road to the ATLAS Experiment Control Room; the nerve centre of the LHC. As if in a zoo full of academics, we were separated from the operations by large glass panels and, despite anticipating it to all look like something from the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, the Control Room felt more like an office in Milton Keynes than the epicentre of a world-class science experiment.
The tour concluded back at CERN’s reception and we were directed to the recently revamped Microcosm exhibition. I think it would’ve helped if we visited this exhibition first, as many of CERN’s complex operations are broken down and explained in a rather simple, yet uncondescending way, with colourful displays and fun interactives.
On the other side of the tram line, visitors can also explore the aptly titled Globe of Science and Innovation. Inside, my grogginess was punched out of me as the pomp and circumstance of Universe of Particles awoke all my senses, with vivid visuals and a pumping soundtrack immersing me in to the world of contemporary physics. Interestingly, the Globe was originally built for Expo.02 in Neuchâtel, moving to CERN in 2004, and, fact fans, it is roughly the same size as the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Although the tour doesn’t include a visit underground to the LHC tunnel, a mock-up section of the accelerator can be seen outside the Globe. I should probably note that you don’t need to pre-book to visit Microcosm of Universe of Particles.
Taking tram 18 back to Geneva’s main train station, we changed to tram 15 and headed to Nations for a tour of the United Nations. Before entering the UN’s Palais de Nations (Palace of Nations), we met a lovely Geneva Tourist Angel beside Daniel Berse’s ‘Broken Chair’ sculpture. Despite clad in an unflattering – and somewhat unangelic – bright orange ensemble, she was extremely helpful with directions and even pointed out a potential pit stop at the Musée International de la Croix-Rouge et du Croissant-Rouge en route.
Unlike CERN, tours of the United Nations Office at Geneva do not require prior reservation for groups of less than 15. However, there is a charge (CHF 12 for adults) and entry is granted after airport-style security, so arrive half an hour early and bring valid ID.
The UN tour departs from the Palais de Nations’s New Building, with its cavernous rooms and wide corridors echoing some of the grandiose interiors I saw in North Korea three years ago, rather than its ethos as a monument to peace. Admittedly, some passageways were broken up by the odd rug or mosaic donated from member states, but there was a distinct lack of people milling around. I guess they were all busy working away in the countless closed doors we passed.
Regardless, I was genuinely blown away by the cavernous the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room, decorated by Majorcan artist Miquel Barcelò. His gigantic artwork on the ceiling resembles an inverted ocean floor, with tapering stalactites jutting out at all angles. Covered in every colour under the sun, the artwork seamlessly changes depending on where in the 754-seater room you look up at it. Barcelò’s sculpture is a sight to behold and I have no idea how the diplomats manage to concentrate with such a multi-coloured sight hovering above them. Speaking of which, whilst here, I took the opportunity to pose with the conference system in front of my seat, only to be told off by our tour guide for tampering with the microphone. My dreams of being a UN diplomat were shattered there and then.
We next entered the older part of the Palace, which was home to the ill-fated League of Nations from 1936. It has served as the home of the United Nations Office at Geneva since 1946, although – fact alert! – Switzerland did not become a member of the UN until 2002.
Along with the jaw-dropping 1939-seater Assembly Hall, another highlight here was the Council Chamber, which hosted the negotiations to end the 1991 Gulf War and is today where the Conference on Disarmament finds itself at home. With gold and sepia murals, painted between 1935 and 1936 by the Catalan artist José Maria Sert, depicting the progress of humankind through health, technology, freedom and peace, the Council Chamber clearly echoes the optimistic period it was originally built in. From here, I left with a great sense of all the historic meetings that have taken place across the site, whilst also appreciating the fantastic work the United Nations continues to do in Geneva and around the world today.
The Palace of Nations is located in Ariana Park, which was bequeathed to the City of Geneva in 1890 by Gustave de Revilliod de la Rive, on conditions including that the park always remain accessible to the public. However, on the day, we visited, we were not granted entry and I was a bit disappointed not to see the monument that was donated by the former USSR to commemorate the conquest of space close up.
From here, we returned to collect our bags and grabbed a bite to eat at the Cornavin branch of Holy Cow, a lip-smackingly good, Lausanne-based burger joint specialising in local produce. After a bit of time set aside for trainspotting at Geneva Cornavin station – it just had to be done – we were hurtling towards the airport for our 9.20pm flight and to the end of our mini Swiss adventure.
CHF CHF CHF
Many people I speak to about Switzerland are often put off by the perceived notion that it is an expensive place to visit. In all fairness, Switzerland is one of the priciest of places I’ve ever visited – £15 for a McDonald’s meal should put things in to perspective – but, for a short break, it’s perfectly doable on a modest budget. For example, over the two days, we spent just over £200. This may sound a lot, but that covered all our meals, drinks, snacks, entry fees and a few little souvenirs, and we weren’t particularly cautious about what we were spending as we were going about.
However, there are plenty of ways to cut costs when in Geneva. As well as the obvious stocking up on the breakfast buffet (we managed to sustain ourselves for the whole day with just a small pretzel sandwich to keep us going on the second day), I would highly recommend carrying a plastic bottle with you during the day. Evian water comes from sources close to Lake Geneva (incidentally, the lakewater was first bottled by Henri Nestlé in 1843) and there are countless fountains around the city labelled as safe for drinking and where you can fill up your bottle on the go.
Eating out doesn’t have to be expensive either. As well as a plethora of affordable cafés, consider ‘al fresco’ dining in one of the city’s gorgeous parks. Otherwise, lots of the high-end eateries offer fantastic set menus at lunchtime, often at a fraction of the price evening diners would pay.
Elsewhere, seemingly every public place from parks to stations and the airport to larger shops offers free WiFi, which allowed my current Pokémon Go obsession to continue internationally without racking up a huge phone bill. Plus, along with free public transport, Genèveroule offers free bike hire for four hours.
City break gold
Geneva is the perfect summer city break; beautiful, historic in parts yet modern in others – although the two blend almost unnoticeably – and, boasting more attractions than you can shake a stick at, it punches above its manageable size.
It is a pity that we didn’t have additional time to visit more of the exquisite countryside surrounding the Lake outside the city, but our touch-and-go visit has encouraged us to make that journey again at some point in the future. However, with so many places to discover in Switzerland, it could be another city or another spot of natural beauty that we explore there first. What’s more, it’s reassuring to know that – free hotel or not – we won’t have to increase our overdraft to do it.