Twenty-Four Hours in Geneva
Arnaud caught some sort of sore throat or cold or bronchitis or combination of the three that took him out for all of March (and into April), which meant we’d spent every weekend for several weekends in a row in sick mode.
(“Sick mode” means in our apartment, him in bed or on the couch, and me tucked away trying to stay as quiet as possible to let him sleep. Not ideal for either of us.)
As soon as he felt slightly better, he suggested we get away for a night and visit Geneva more properly than we had seen it in passing through on our way to the airport from Lausanne.
Though twenty-four hours doesn’t do the city justice, a day in Geneva at least gave us a starting point. As Geneva takes only forty-five minutes to reach by train from Lausanne, we’ll return.
Geneva International Motor Show
Arnaud had expressed interest in the Geneva International Motor Show “in passing” a few weeks prior to planning the trip, which made it one of the primary reasons we headed to Geneva for our one-night getaway.
As the show made for a major driver (pun intended) in our choice of destination, we checked into our hotel, dropped our bags, and made our way on foot toward the convention center near the airport. Let’s get the top agenda item done first, I say.
I don’t care much about cars, though concept cars could have made for good sightseeing. However, the only “car of the future” I saw felt like a “car of the future” from the 1960s: A flying car, and one that didn’t look like it could fly very far or drive very far. Not inspiring.
The only other concept vehicle came in the form of a four-wheeled motorcycle. With such a contraption, you gain none of the advantages of a motorcycle and none of the advantages of a car. If you can’t nimbly pilot yourself over roads and park in small spaces, like on a motorcycle, and you can’t enjoy climate control and weather protection, like in a car, I don’t get the point.
Otherwise, the show featured a few people-mover vehicles that aim to circumvent the need for personal cars or public transportation—yay for not needing to own cars and boo for circumventing public transportation—and a few minor evolutions in existing automobiles.
Hotel les Armures
As this trip had only one overnight, we decided to splurge for a nice hotel in the Old Town section of Geneva. We selected the Hôtel les Armures, just around the corner from the Saint-Pierre Cathedral.
The hotelier has done a fantastic job of renovating a historic building into a comfortable, modern hotel that retains aspects of the building’s history. Our fifth-floor, spacious room had wood floors, wooden panels and details, and even a small table and seating area (so that we didn’t have to sit on the bed in street clothes). The well-appointed bathroom had a sizeable, comfortable shower-bath combo and a sink with counter space around it for toiletries. (Americans take for granted that hotel rooms will have all the above, yet you can’t count on any of it in Europe.)
The bar just off the lobby offers self-service coffee and tea all day, including a cozy living-room set-up to give you a place outside your room to relax. Further, the front desk and bellhop staff made for pleasant and helpful guides to the city.
Our only quibble with the hotel? The cleaning staff could use a little coaching. We found a few stray hairs here and there on the floor and in the shower and a used makeup applicator under the sink. Nothing major and nothing seriously off-putting. Yet not up to the hotel’s standards, I don’t think.
That aside, I’d stay at the Hôtel les Armures again.
International Museum of the Reformation
People who don’t know me well will wonder why I wanted to visit a museum of the reformation. (People who know me well will remember that my original career path—academia—had a focus on intellectual history in Europe between 1350 and 1550, a period during which the early stages of the reformation took place.)
If you don’t know what reformation the museum references, fair enough. Here’s the short explanation: The reformation in western Christianity refers to a time when certain religious thinkers—most historians credit Martin Luther as the prime mover—began to question the Catholic church’s teachings and practices. Ultimately, these theological debates splintered western Christianity into two main groups: Catholics and Protestants (because they protested, you see).
Germany, home turf of Martin Luther, led the Protestant charge. Other parts of the western world took the Protestant side early on as well, including Switzerland. Huldrych Zwingli got things started in Zurich and John Calvin built an unofficial capital of Protestantism in Geneva. Hence this museum’s location, not far from Calvin’s cathedral (which still has his unassuming wooden chair on display).
I had some curiosity about what a museum covering the reformation could possibly showcase, as I didn’t count on many physical artifacts from the theological debate and religious schism. Also, I wanted to see how they would manage to cover such a complex and touchy topic.
Alas, the museum flubs its opportunity.
Unless I missed something (few displays provided an English translation), the museum doesn’t much explain the historical time of the reformation, the state of the Catholic Church at the advent of the great reformers, the nature of the debates, and the stakes (no pun initially intended, yet I’ll keep it now that I see it) involved.
Instead, the museum featured several bibles and letters from Protestant leaders, a current-day religious art exhibit that I didn’t understand, and a mesmerizing section in the basement where they dump in a bunch of stuff about Protestantism around the world to give credence to the “international” bit of the museum’s title.
After walking around Early Renaissance bibles and letters, seeing pictures and videos of Tammy Faye Bakker and Billy Graham felt surreal, sans much explanation, and they didn’t help the museum feel particularly cohesive or comprehendible.
Altogether: Great subject, poor execution.
Saint-Pierre Cathedral looks much like a cathedral of its time. People with vast cathedral knowledge will likely have a lot to say about its unique features. I don’t number in that group.
It does have a plain wooden chair that John Calvin used, though.
More of interest to most people: You can pay a few Swiss Francs to walk up a dizzying set of ever narrowing stairs to the top of the tower, which gives you a panoramic view of Geneva.
Archaeological Site of Saint-Pierre Cathedral
The few-Francs admission to the Saint-Pierre Cathedral tower (you can get a combination ticket that includes admission to the Museum of the Reformation as well), provides access to the Archaeological Site of Saint-Pierre Cathedral.
Clearly, I need to make doing the free-and-included things a habit. As in Dijon and later the same day in Geneva, in the art and history museum, wandering into something because it had no additional cost and we had a few minutes paid off here as well.
The cathedral’s archaeological site—which I figured would comprise a small room or two in the damp basement of the cathedral and wouldn’t show much of actual interest—spanned multiple cavernous floors that illustrated in detail the evolution of the site as a place of worship for centuries and the history of the people who had used it.
We saw an old baptistery, monks’ cells, a site for pouring iron to shape cathedral bells, and an area used as a university for training clerics. We even saw the detailed mosaic floor of a reception area for a bishop in one of the cathedral’s previous iterations, during the early Middle Ages.
The site includes interactive exhibits with video interviews of historians and archaeologists explaining the different uses of religious spaces during the time periods in play and discussing the life of people in the area during the early, middle, and late Middle Ages—a period rarely presented in museums and historical programs.
Fascinating and insightful and worth the time.
Musées d’Art et d’Histoire de Geneve
Sunday afternoon, we visited the Geneva art and history museum to see a special exhibit on Roman artifacts unearthed (unrivered?) from the Rhone over the years.
I hadn’t before contemplated the breadth of the Roman tradeways across Europe and Africa until I saw an interactive map in the exhibit. The Romans never cease to impress me.
After touring the special exhibit, we traipsed upstairs for a look at the art collections in the free part of the museum. We saw only a fraction of what the museum displayed—the collection felt immense, and I can only absorb so much art at a time with any depth of reflection.
Memorable rooms included a circular atrium lined with pastel portraits—a rare collection, given the volatility of the medium—and a small room hidden back behind the main corridor with unknown-to-me people who felt incredibly, intimately known once I spent a little time with their evocative and realistic oil portraits.
I’ll go back to see more of Geneva’s art and history museum on a future trip.
Other Observations on Geneva
We ate out for dinner on Saturday night at nowhere much worth mentioning, yet we really enjoyed our picnic lunch along the lake front on the walk through town to the auto show. We’d bought simple sandwiches at the Manor food hall in the center of the city, and they did the trick.
From our lunch spot on a floating platform along Lake Geneva, we could see the city’s iconic jet d’eau. Arnaud reviewed it as “nice,” yet it reminded me of the sad fountains they put in retaining ponds in suburbs for wastewater management.
Ah, and on the subject of underwhelming landmarks, we saw the famous flower clock as well when we walked along the lake front after dinner to see the city at night. Call it pretty, but don’t call it, as the linked write-up does, “the main attraction of the city.”
Our Saturday afternoon walk from the old town through to the convention center for the auto show took a while, yet it gave us a good feel for a large swath of the city. We discovered that the old town and the city center have appeal—and that the rest of the city does not.
Also, on our meanderings, we noted the sheer wealth of the city—we saw more flash in Geneva than I can remember seeing ever or, at least, not in a long, long time. We’ve heard that the Swiss tend to be understated. If so, the rule doesn’t count the Swiss living in Geneva.
What should we do on our next trip?