Odessan odyssey

From the world’s largest labyrinth to the world’s the world’s first monument to Darth Vader, Odessa makes for an unusual yet captivating city break.

I know the phrase ‘Paris of the…’ gets bandied around all too often, but Odessa may well be worthy of that statement. It’s like the best bits of Paris, Milan and Istanbul have all been mixed in a Slavic hotpot. Plus, just like Barcelona, it boasts stunning beaches mere minutes from the city centre.

Odessa might not seem like the obvious city break destination, but there is plenty to see and do for a short trip, with countless eateries to suit all taste buds and green spaces that are simply captivating.

Ukraine hasn’t had its fair share of good press recently and Odessa, its third most populous city, is no exception, with violent clashes taking place there in the country’s 2014 pro-Russian conflict.

However, despite the delicate situation in nearby Crimea, it appears to be business as usual for Odessans and I felt nothing but calm as I wandered the city’s streets at all hours, being met by the locals with a warm smile and good humour every time.

Deribasivska Street
Deribasivska Street

Founded in the 18th century by Catherine the Great, Odessa blossomed from 1815 onwards when it became a duty-free port. The wealth of this period is evident in the stunning neoclassical and Renaissance revival buildings that border an easy to navigate grid street plan.

However, it is perhaps the immigrants that the Black Sea port attracted that has left the city with its greatest legacy, leaving behind a pan-European outlook evident in the wealth of artistic treasures on display and the multitude of world cuisines on offer in such a relatively small urban centre.  You only have to look at a map of Odessa to see this influence, with French and Italian Boulevards and Greek, Jewish and Albanian Streets listed, to name but a few. People from more than 130 nationalities live in Odessa today.

Tyler's in town
Tyler’s in town

Where to stay

Odessa boasts accommodation to suit all budgets, but it is advisable to book in advance if visiting during the high season in July and August. For those wishing to make their money spread even further, renting an apartment may be a good idea. There are plenty of touts offering rooms at all many arrival points, but if you arrive without a booking, your best bet is to visit the Central Vokzal Apartment Bureau, which is across from platform four near the train station’s rear exit.

Palais Royal Hotel

This boutique gem, situated next door to the ornate Theatre of Opera and Ballet, is housed in a 19th century building that was completely renovated in 2013. Plus, with only 19 rooms, you really feel looked after by the hotel’s friendly staff.

Breakfast is served in the hotel’s trendy restaurant, Sparja, which offers a choice of European and Asian-style breakfasts.

When making your booking, ask for one of the rooms with a private balcony. It’ll be perfect for sitting out on with a morning coffee while people watching below.

Room with a view at Palais Royal Hotel
Room with a view at Palais Royal Hotel

My room itself was rather clinical, but had everything I needed and was cleaned to spotless standards each day. This being Ukraine, however, there were a couple of quirks; noticeably the plasters holding up tiles in the bathroom and the mini-bar, which offered chilled condoms. Safety clearly comes at lower temperatures in these parts!

Other options

Mozart Hotel

For a touch more of the opulent, directly opposite Palais Royal Hotel is Mozart Hotel, which oozes European luxury, and its success in Odessa has seen it expand to six hotels in three countries. With an exterior designed in the Biedermeier style, Mozart Hotel is an exact replica of an aristocratic club that stood on this spot in the early 19th century.

Bristol Hotel

Across the road from the equally stunning Odessa Philharmonic Theatre, Bristol Hotel first opened in 1899 and continues to welcome VIPs, tourists and business travellers alike. Its historic legacy is clearly reflected in its décor and the Le Grand Café Bristol Restaurant is the perfect place for a romantic meal.

Places to eat

From the heart-warming stodge of traditional Ukrainian home cooking to cutting edge European fine dining, Odessa does not disappoint on the culinary front. Plus, with prices in Ukraine generally much lower than the UK, you can really splash out at every meal. Reassuringly, for those of us who don’t read Russian, most places I visited had English menus.

The café scene in Odessa is equally as diverse, with lots of independent coffee shops vying for your attention. However, if you’ve not got time for a sit down, most street corners and public squares boast at least one coffee van. These small, brightly-coloured vehicles contain an espresso machine and offer your favourite coffee variant at an equally tiny price.

Coffee vans on Katerynyns'ka Street
Coffee vans on Katerynyns’ka Street

Kompot

Walking in to Kompot is like stepping in to Grandma’s house (if she was Odessan) 30 years ago and enjoying simple cuisine that makes your stomach smile. The beetroot salad I ordered was perfectly presented, its cutlets were succulent and Kompot’s desserts felt like they were homemade just for me. Plus, don’t forget to try their eponymous ‘kompoty’, a traditional juice made from preserving fruit in jars.

There are four Kompot outlets within Odessa, but I cannot recommend the original restaurant on Deribasivska Street enough, and I enjoyed both an evening meal and a lunch here during my stay.

Kumanets

Leaving chic Odessa behind, Kumanets transports you to a traditional Ukrainian village from days gone by, complete with servers in folk dress, lavish floral displays and plastic cockerels. It may feel a bit gimmicky, but, thankfully the food hits the spot. I particularly enjoyed their ‘deruny’ (potato pancakes) and Odessan caviar, made from aubergines.

Farsh

Sometimes you just want a juicy burger and at this Odessa diner you won’t be disappointed with their meaty offerings. Haute burgers made from beef, chicken, duck, venison, ostrich, trout and falafel can all be washed down with a wide selection of artisan soft drinks and beer.

Lviv Coffee Manufacture

Freshly roasted ground coffee is the speciality in this outpost of the Lviv-based chain. Its rustic interior only adds to the charm; that and its delicious selection of desserts.

Kofeynya ZheTo

This tiny café is the perfect place to stop for a rest and beverage in the afternoon, and admire its fairy tale-like interior.

What to do

Get your bearings in Odessa by taking a stroll along pedestrianised Deribasivska Street and exploring the stunning City Garden. While here, make a point of visiting the lavish Passazh, a neo-Renaissance covered shopping arcade which echoes Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.

Next, head towards the Black Sea along Primorsky Boulevard. The highlight here is the majestic Potemkin Steps, made famous by Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film ‘The Battleship Potemkin’. Avoid climbing back up the almost 200 steps by taking the free funicular railway that runs parallel to the stairway.

At the eastern end of Primorsky Boulevard stands the pink-and-white colonnaded City Hall, which has also served as the city’s stock exchange and later the Regional Soviet Headquarters. In front, there is a cannon captured from the British during the Crimean War and a statue of the Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin.

Pushkin lived in Odessa for 13 months in 1823 after being exiled from Moscow. However, it seems he wasn’t exactly welcome in Odessa either and, following clashes with the government, the local governor was able to get the Tsar to send him packing from here too.

At the opposite end of Primorsky Boulevard stands Vorontsov Palace with its Greek-style colonnade that offers views over Odessa’s busy port. You can also walk over the padlock-covered Mother-In-Law Bridge, which is just around the corner.

Vorontsov Palace colonnade
Vorontsov Palace colonnade

There are two theories as to why the crossing is called Mother-In-Law Bridge; the first one is that, due to it swaying when jumped on or in heavy winds, it’s akin to mother-in-law’s tongue (not my words!). However, I prefer the other version that claims the bridge was commissioned by the local chairman because he loved his mother-in-law’s pancakes. She lived on the other side of Voennyy Descent to him, and so the bridge meant he could get to them more quickly!

Mother-In-Law Bridge
Mother-In-Law Bridge

A great way to see Odessa, particularly the resorts further out of town along the Black Sea coast, is to buy a ticket for the hop-on, hop-off City Tours, which sees you transported between all the major sights in a nippy e-shuttle, complete with a live guide.

My tour guide Larisa was a very staunch woman and I made a note not to get on her wrong side. I saw her go from placid guide to formidable force in 0.001 seconds when the e-shuttle driver decided to take a personal phone call. He was clearly shaken by her stern telling off as, when we stopped at the next location, he took himself off to a quiet corner, presumably to contemplate what he had done.

On tour with Larisa
On tour with Larisa

Despite her demeanour, I was impressed by Larisa’s knowledge and thought she would be a safe bet to take me on a tour of Odessa’s catacombs the following day. She told me that I was underdressed though and must wrap up warmer when we next met.

Catacombs

If placed in one line, Odessa’s limestone catacombs would stretch for over 2,000km. Originally quarried out for building in the 19th century, they have been used by smugglers since and people have even lived in them. Most famously, they sheltered partisans in the Second World War, who waged a war of attrition against the Nazis and occupying Romanians.

The catacombs themselves are situated about 15km north of central Odessa in the unassuming suburb of Nerubayske and can be difficult to reach under your own steam, so I would recommend hiring a guide and driver through your hotel to save time. The excursion will certainly be a memorable – if sobering – highlight of your trip to Odessa.

Although, taking Larisa’s advice, I had wrapped up extra warm, yet proceeded to be driven in the warmest car known to mankind. Clearly watching me drip with sweat from the front, Larisa said something to the driver in Russian, they both laughed hysterically and then one of the windows was opened a tiny crack.

Entering the Odessa Catacombs
Entering the Odessa Catacombs

As I visited during the low season, the catacombs were locked, so Larisa had to telephone the caretaker who promptly let us in and then locked the door as soon as we entered. His action made me feel a little uneasy and I certainly wasn’t reassured when Larisa escorted to me to a derelict passageway and asked me to turn off my torch.

I’d be lying if I said that at that point I was a bit concerned about my welfare. I was alone with an eccentric tour guide miles away from civilisation where no-one knew where I was. Oh, and I was now in the dark in a warren of – locked – catacombs.

I kept thinking about the tragic – admittedly disputed – tale of Masha, an innocent partygoer who ventured down into the depths with some friends on 1st January 2005. While down there, she took a wrong turn or two, and got lost. It took two years before the police were able to locate her body and retrieve it from the catacombs. I also read that the catacombs are a pretty good place to stage a murder, with its labyrinth structure hiding bodies from the law. Was I to be the catacombs’ next victim?

Well, thankfully, no.

A few seconds passed – although it felt like several minutes – and Larisa turned her torch back on, smiled and we continued back along the set route. I relaxed and began asking questions about the catacombs. “Yes my dear” or “no my dear” was how she would start a response, before giving me a light touch on my left arm every time. When she wanted to reiterate a point she was making she would recap a fact with “and I repeat.”

I soon warmed to Larisa; she was so much more than just a guide, as her off topic chat wandered towards describing times of yore. She had worked on the Soviet Union cruise ships and also regaled a story of taking oligarchs around Las Vegas. “Vegas! I don’t like it”, she concluded. She also allowed Protestants to sleep on her sofa, but I am not sure of that significance of that; it was just as hot in the car on the return journey and, being more concerned about not fainting in the heat, some of what she said was lost in my trance-like meditative state.

Also on the journey back to the city centre Larisa retrieved several crumpled five and 10 pound notes from her bag and asked if I could swap them for newer ones, which her bank would accept.

“I only have ‘hryvnias’,” I replied.

“Oh. That is most disappointing.”

Darth Vader

In April 2015 a law was passed in Ukraine that required all monument from the Communist era to be removed. However, rather than destroy a statue of Lenin on the outskirts of Odessa, local artist Alexander Milov decided to encase it within a titanium façade, creating the world’s first monument to Darth Vader. I made a point to seek it out while there.

It was quite difficult to find, but as soon as I saw the reception desk for the company who own the courtyard where it stands and said “Darth Vader” (I may have done this in a slight Russian accent), a blue camouflaged-clad security guard whisked me through the building to the glorious sight. It was remarkable how the artist managed to blend Lenin’s coat into the ‘Star Wars’ Sith Lord’s famous cape.

Alexander Milov - Darth Vader
Alexander Milov – Darth Vader

Apparently, the statue also offers free WiFi, but I could only connect to a HP printer on the second floor.

Travel Facts and Tips

  • Odessa is a great city to visit at any time of the year, with moderate winters and pleasant summers.
  • There are no direct flights to Odessa from the UK, but Ukraine International Airlines and LOT Polish Airlines offer one-stop connections via their hubs from London, or you can fly via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines from Birmingham Airport.
  • Ukraine’s ‘hryvnia’ (UAH) is a closed currency, so you can only exchange money once you arrive.
  • Bargain hunters should head to Seventh-Kilometer Market – thought to be Europe’s largest. Closer to the city centre, Starokonny and Privoz Markets are also a must for shopaholics.
  • Odessa was named after the ancient Greek city of Odessos, which was mistakenly believed to have been located here, although the city was the site of a large Greek settlement not later than the middle of the 6th century BC.
  • Stay healthy while in Odessa; the city’s six kilometre-long traffic free Health Track runs along the shore of the Black Sea and is popular with walkers, runners, cyclists and rollerbladers alike.
  • Odessa was a very Jewish city in the 1920s, but the Holocaust and anti-Semitism during the Soviet period reduced their presence. Many Jews moved to New York’s Brighton Beach, which is nicknamed ‘Little Odessa’.
  • If you’re looking to bring treats back home, you can’t go wrong with a box of chocolates from ABK or Rosheen, both Ukrainian manufacturers.
  • If you fancy a night out by the sea, head to Arkadia Beach, which offers a variety of cafés, bars and nightclubs.
  • Odessa is considered one of the capitals of Ukranian winemaking and tours can be arranged to nearby vineyards.

(Almost) 48 Hours In Geneva

How the search for an unusual birthday present paved the way for a surprisingly affordable city break at this Swiss gem.

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…

Smooth arrival

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.

Postcard view

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).

Jet d'Eau, Lake Geneva
Jet d’Eau, Lake Geneva

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…

Our room at Le Richemond
Our room at Le Richemond

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.

Old Town

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.

La Collection Swatch, Cité du Temps
La Collection Swatch, Cité du Temps

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.

Promenade de la Treille (world's longest bench), overlooking Parc des Bastions
Promenade de la Treille (world’s longest bench), overlooking Parc des Bastions

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.

Horloge Gleurie (Flower Clock)
Horloge Gleurie (Flower Clock)

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.

Steak tartare at Bistro 23
Steak tartare at Bistro 23

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.

The Synchrocyclotron, CERN's original accelerator
The Synchrocyclotron, CERN’s original accelerator

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.

Globe of Science and Innovation, with a mock-up of the LHC infront
Globe of Science and Innovation, with a mock-up of the LHC infront

Diplomatic mission

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.

Daniel Berse - ‘Broken Chair’, with the Palace of nations in the background
Daniel Berse – ‘Broken Chair’, with the Palace of nations in the background

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.

Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room, decorated by Majorcan artist Miquel Barcelò
Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room, decorated by Majorcan artist Miquel Barcelò

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.

Council Chamber, home to the Conference on Disarmament
Council Chamber, home to the Conference on Disarmament

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.

Trainspotting at Geneva Cornavin station
Trainspotting at Geneva Cornavin station

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.

Water fountain at Place de la Madeleine
Water fountain at Place de la Madeleine

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.

Geneva has a fantastic public transport system, which is free for anyone staying at a local hotel, youth hostel or at a campsite
Geneva has a fantastic public transport system, which is free for anyone staying at a local hotel, youth hostel or at a campsite

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.

Jet d'Eau, Lake Geneva, lit up at night
Jet d’Eau, Lake Geneva, lit up at night