After Italy, the next leg of our trip was to Geneva. My view out of the window of the plane was just incredible – flying right over the Swiss Alps !
I remember when we landed, we were walking through the airport and smells of freshly baked bread and other pastries wafted through the air, beautiful displays of chocolate and other luxury brands were at every terminal, and the familiar sound of French being spoken was comforting. We even got a free train ticket into the city from the airport, which prompted my friends to say, “Switzerland is the best country ! So glad to be here !”
That attitude would change in the span of a few hours. Hahah.
We checked in to our Airbnb which was conveniently located in the heart of the city, with a wide window looking out at the lake in the distance. Everything fine so far. We unpacked a little and then, starving, set out for a bite to eat. We had been up since 4:30 in the morning because we had an early flight to catch from Italy, and the feeling of hungry was soon turning to h-angry.
After coming from a region in a country that serves carbohydrates almost exclusively – however delicious they may be – we were looking forward to getting back to the variety of foods that Switzerland had to offer (hint : salads). We had spotted a little salad-bar type place a few streets over, and I also had recognized a restaurant chain with delicious salads that I had had in Marseille a few years back. You can imagine our surprise when we looked at both those places, and a salad was 17 CHF (Swiss francs) at the first place, and we were hard pressed to find anything less than 20 CHF at the second. The conversion rate is 1-1 for USD, so we couldn’t even rationalize it to ourselves. We were just so appalled that a simple salad could be so expensive, and then we got worried thinking about what a normal restaurant bill would look like !
I actually looked up “Why is Switzerland so expensive ?” and found out that Geneva is among the 10 most expensive cities in the world ! What was I doing there !?
My friend actually asked me that from across the table at lunch (we managed to find a decent place for around 12 CHF, but there was a funny smell in the interior, and the wooden tables and chairs were sticky .. maybe that’s why it was so cheap hahaha). “Why are we even in Geneva in the first place?” he asked. I almost exploded. It was said friend’s idea, I remember very clearly, to go to Switzerland. I remember when we were planning our fall break, I had said that I wanted to go to Italy, but that we could make a compromise. We would travel together if we went to Italy for me, and Switzerland for him. I think we settled on Geneva because 1) the name sounded prettier than Zurich 2) they speak French there and 3) flights were probably cheaper than another city. Stellar reasons, I know. Looking back, hindsight is 20/20, and everything could have been handled better. More research in the first place, less time in Geneva / more time in Italy, less time abroad all together / etc etc etc. But, we were there.
We decided to take a bus back to Paris in two days. We might as well see whatever sights Geneva had to offer, and then go home. To go home would be cheaper than having to spend all our budget on a few extra days in a wildly expensive city that we didn’t even want to be in.
So with the bus tickets booked and our tummies satisfied, we set out to enjoy our few hours in the city. We didn’t do much that afternoon, and had a quiet evening at the Airbnb. The next morning we set about our sightseeing.
Our first stop was to the Palais des Nations, the European headquarters of the United Nations, and the second largest UN center in the world, after New York. The original building was used as the home of the League of Nations, the predecessor to the United Nations, and the Palais is symbolically a testament to the neutrality of Switzerland. After WWII, the United Nations was created by the five victorious countries (USA, Great Britain, France, Russia, China – who are also the five permanent members of the UN Security Council) and in 1946, the Palace of Peace was renamed the Palais des Nations to accommodate the European headquarters of the UN.
To enter we had to show identification, and then they took a picture of us and printed it on a badge to wear for the duration of our visit.
We were led through a private tour and got to see the inside of three conference rooms. The first was The Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room which is one of the largest conference rooms in the complex. The star of the room is actually the ceiling, a piece of artwork made by Spanish artist Miquel Barceló; it represents multiculturalism, mutual tolerance, and understanding between cultures. The pigments used were gathered from countries all across the globe, and then paint was sprayed and flung against the ceiling to create these sort of stalactites.
We moved on through the annex connecting the newer part of the building where that conference room was located, to the older more historic part. We walked through the Salle des Pas Perdus / Hallway of Lost Footsteps – so named because during the 1930s, while the League of Nations was still in effect, the delegates would take breaks from the oppressing meetings to roam the hallway, pacing up and down and whispering between each other.
Contrasted with the darkness of the name, through the bright windows of the Salle des Pas Perdus, one sees a sweeping view of Lac Léman, the French Alps, and the Ariana Park.
We were led into the Council Chamber, also constructed during the time of the League of Nations. The artwork featured here is by Catalan artist José Maria Sert, and represents the collective journey of mankind through health, sickness, technology, war, peace, and finally freedom. The artwork is particularly moving when put in context of the room itself, where the meetings for the Conference on Disarmament are held, and in context of the current political climate as news about the turmoil in Catalonia continues to surface.
The final room we visited was the Assembly Room which has undergone a series of four renovations in order to accommodate various needs, specifically the necessity of good acoustics; as the largest meeting room, the Assembly Room can hold up to 2,000 people so you can imagine the headaches from the din of so much chatter. The UN boasts that the Assembly Room is the first to accommodate simultaneous interpretation.
Altogether our visit to the UN was probably one of my favorite parts of Geneva. I find it so inspiring to know that so many countries are still able and willing to come together and deliberate over issues that can have such an impact on all humanity. I know some of the fellow students on my program have aspirations to work for the UN, so maybe I’ll be fortunate enough to visit them there one day !
We were in need of a bit of fresh air, and had a nice midday stroll through the sunshine to see the Botanical Gardens of Geneva. We passed view after remarkable view .. although it’s expensive to live there, the views are free !
Our next stop was to Lac Léman / Lake Geneva (the names are used interchangeably). The water so stunningly clear and despite the chill, there were even people going for an afternoon swim ! We sat along the dock at the Bains des Pâquis and basked in the sunshine for a while.
We walked out past a little park area on the dock all the way to the little lighthouse. But we turned back to continue our day before we lost too much daylight. We passed the floral clock / l’horloge fleurie at the western entrance to the English Gardens / Jardin Anglais. This functioning clock was built in 1955 as a symbol of the famous watchmakers of Geneva, and the floral decorations change with the seasons.
On our list was the Cathedral Saint – Pierre, a large church that is now called the Temple of Saint – Pierre as it is a Protestant Church. Apparently it is the “adopted” home church of John Calvin, one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation. My friend and I meant to stay for only a minute, but all of a sudden we heard angelic voices coming from the back of the church, and we sat down for a minute. Processing from the back was a group of children, evidently a choir, practicing for a concert. It was another moment of nostalgia as I fondly recalled my times singing and playing music in various ensembles .. the familiar choreographed movements of the conductor, her soft but firm admonishments and critiques, the repetition of certain passages until they’re perfect. I think they were practicing for an upcoming Christmas concert and they must have been still in the early stages of rehearsal because the pieces were still a little rough around the edges 😉 We stayed for quite a while, just listening in this peaceful place of reflection.
The Cathedral is located at the top of a hill in Geneva, and right nearby is the Place du Bourg-du-Four, a commercial center with shops, fountains, restaurants, outdoor cafés, etc. We spotted a shop advertising handmade chocolate so we popped in and bought some truffles .. Switzerland is known for its chocolate and we were not disappointed ! To finish the evening, we went to a traditional fondue restaurant down the street .. I had my favorite dish – the salade au chèvre chaud / salad with warm toasted goat cheese on baguette, usually served with a drizzle of honey on a bed of crisp lettuce ! My friend serendipitously ordered a goat cheese fondue so I was able to try some of that too. YUM.
So, it suffices to say that overall, I was less than impressed with Geneva, but it has the potential to be a charming city in certain circumstances. I think maybe a second, better-planned trip in warmer weather with a larger allowance might be enough to make me change my mind.