A family holiday in Geneva

A summer fling with Juilliard saw John Thatcher embark on a family holiday in Geneva, but would their fortnight engagement in the city of high watchmaking prove too much time?

Time and Geneva are inexorably linked. The city is home to the world’s finest watchmakers, their horological feats only deemed worthy to bear the coveted Seal of Geneva if they have met strict parameters. Naturally, then, the city shouts of this proud heritage from its rooftops, on which advertising hoardings bearing manufacturers’ prized names (Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and all) are loftily positioned so that they are visible from the beautiful Lac Léman. 

Time would also define our stay in Geneva. At two weeks we had too much of it, said some of our friends; former residents of the mountain-backed city. Yet with only a window of six hours per day to explore, we also had too little. Their belief of the former was built on the fact that as a relatively small city (just over six square miles), Geneva is easy to explore over the course of a weekend – particularly as every hotel guest is given a complimentary Geneva Transport Card when they check in, which permits a free ride on the city’s public transport network (bus, train, tram and boat) for the duration of their stay. The latter thought was expressed because of Geneva’s enviable location, which puts France and Italy within easy reach, not to mention Mont Blanc and the wider, ample attractions of Switzerland. As such, day trips from the city are ripe with adventure. 

So why did we only have six hours? That was on account of the reason we headed to Geneva in the first place: our eldest daughter had won a place at Juilliard’s Summer Performing Arts programme, which meant we had to be in the small town of Pont-Céard (a train-ride from Geneva) at 9am each morning to drop her off, and at 5pm each afternoon to collect her. 

When time is of the essence, it certainly helps that Switzerland’s trains run on time. Growing up in the UK you come to believe that scheduled train times are a simple matter of guess work, a wild stab in the dark at when the train will likely roll in, if it actually rolls in it all. Here, they leave on the second. 

Carouge's colourful street
Carouge’s colourful street. Photo: Getty Images

It also helped that our first hotel, Swiss Luxury Apartments, stands a mere 600 metres from the city’s train station, Cornavin, and that staying there made everything a breeze. Take breakfast, for example, which at our designated hour was delivered each morning (right on time, obviously) to our door on a silver platter – a veritable buffet comprised of cold cuts, cheeses, yogurt, cereal, juices and pastries. They also ensured that any clothes we’d consigned to the washing basket – a lot when you have two stain-prone kids in tow– were returned clean and neatly folded the following day. And along with leaving our room squeakily spotless they’d also deposit a gourmet treat: not the standard chocolate on your pillow, but genuinely thoughtful things like organic, locally produced honey; a beautifully wrapped box of handmade fudge; and, upon departure, a wheel of raclette cheese to enjoy warm and melted when back home. Little wonder that the apartments were awash with fellow guests from the Middle East.

Within two minutes of stepping out from the apartments we were aside the great lake, its famous Jet d’Eau spurting into a baby blue sky, on our way to Place du Rhône to catch another train, this one more toy-like in size. It took us on a whistle-stop tour of some of the city’s most historic spots: the imposing opera house, with stone figures carved into its façade; the Reformation Wall in pretty Parc des Bastions, a grand monument with the towering figure of John Calvin at its core, a key figure of the Protestant Reformation in Europe and the 400th anniversary of whose birth the long stretch of wall was built to commemorate; and lastly the charismatic old town, at the heart of which is Bourg-de-Four Square, Geneva’s oldest spot where locals traded their wares in Roman times. It now does a roaring trade in coffee shops.

The Gothic-influenced St. Peter’s Cathedral towers above the old town, and a climb up its near 200 stone stairs is a must. The trade-off for burning calf muscles is a spectacular view of Geneva’s blessing from Mother Nature – that stunning, sun-kissed lake and the cloud-shrouded spikes of mountains which frame a vista that’s simply pretty as a picture.   

Multiple lanes branch off Bourg-de-Four Square, one of which, Rue des Chaudronniers, plays host to a gem of a fashion find: Vintage Garde-Robe. While the new season’s luxuries can be purchased from the concentration of designer boutiques along Rue du Rhône, Vintage Garde-Robe has curated an outstanding selection of styles from seasons’ past, including couture (lots of it) from the likes of Chanel and Valentino. They also deliver to the Middle East. 

Vintage of a rarer, stranger kind was also ours to (weirdly) enjoy when we returned to the old town for dinner. Having chosen an alfresco table, we had ringside seats for an impromptu street performance. I’ve been brought up to believe it’s impolite to ask a lady her age, which has resulted in me being utterly abject at guessing, but I’d put the age of this street performer at somewhere between 90 and 110. Which made her choice of attire, a pink leotard and tutu, somewhat distressing. Having placed a stereo on the cobbled floor, she then proceeded to perform a ballet routine to Delibes’ Flower Duet. Like a car crash, it was something I desperately wanted to look away from yet watched transfixed. Until, that is, she finished with a croisé that almost snapped her twig-like legs and came to our table in search of a performance fee. Knowing I had only a 50-franc note in my wallet, I tried to make for the toilet and hide until she had petit jetéd off, but thwarted by own children whom she insisted on being photographed with, I now have a permanent reminder of why our dinner cost 50 francs more than it should have. 

That experience alone was why the very next day we took a one-hour bus ride (free with the Geneva Transport Card) into south eastern France to visit Annecy, the charming town lovingly dubbed ‘Venice of the Alps’ due to its old stone bridges and winding canals. Besting Venice for sheer beauty however – a result of it having The Alps as a backdrop – Annecy also boasts its own storied old town, one mercifully free of aged ballerinas but rife with farmers selling their prized produce on the morning we were there – cheeses the size of car wheels, tomatoes rose red and ripened to burst, and olives the size of eggs. 

There’s a similarly tempting array of farmers’ fare to buy on Saturday mornings in Carouge, billed as Geneva’s equivalent to New York’s Greenwich Village. You may also hear it referred to as ‘Little Italy’, not on account of it having a battery of pizza parlours, but due to its Sardinian heritage, which makes it architecturally different to other parts of the city. This is the bohemian side of town, where branded storefronts give way to quaint boutiques selling the likes of speciality teas and hand-blown glass bottles, into which they’ll deposit your tipple of choice, and where craftsman openly work on bespoke timepieces and jewellery, employing their time-honoured methods while you watch. 

Proud locals contribute much to Carouge’s overt charm, with their artistic endeavours to the fore. Wander around and you’ll see one of the side streets shaded by dozens of colourful umbrellas strung between the rooftops, while residents fought hard (and won) to secure the future of a near century-old cinema that shows independent films. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric place to visit on a sun-soaked Saturday morning.

Mandarin Oriental, Geneva
Cycling past the Mandarin Oriental, Geneva

The little town of Nyon, home to an imposing 13th century castle which once guarded it but is now a porcelain museum, is a beautiful, leisurely cruise from Geneva, during which we floated past hamlets of chocolate-box houses, sloping vineyards, and mountains so striking in hues of emerald and mint the scene looks almost handpainted. We sailed on the Savoie, the paddle steamer jewell in Lake Geneva’s Belle Epoque fleet, which also offers a high-quality silver service lunch – the best way to sample the soft-as-butter perch fillet, a Lake fish common to the menus of nearly every Geneva restaurant. 

It doesn’t, however, feature on the menu at Yakumanka, Mandarin Oriental’s Peruvian hotspot which is an outstanding example of what Geneva’s generally staid food scene currently lacks but is in the process of acquiring. It’s bright, buzzy and its dishes a riot of freshness, creativity and flavour. Not that I expected anything less from the Mandarin Oriental, the second hotel we stayed at. Wherever in the world we have stayed at one of their hotels – in London and Boston, Singapore and Bangkok, Miami and Hong Kong – the experience is near faultless, with their staff a cut above when it comes to applying a personal touch. Here, the staff at breakfast were somehow aware that our daughter was at the Juilliard camp and decorated her order of waffles with chocolate sauce and berries shaped into musical notes. 

While our eldest daughter brought the hills alive with the sound of music, our youngest was determined to make the most of having our undivided attention, which saw her pitch for (and usually win) ice cream or some sort of chocolate treat (when in Switzerland…) on what felt like an hourly basis, but was probably more like 30 minutes. So her smile was as wide as Lac Léman when we told her we’d enrolled to take a chocolate-making workshop at one of Geneva’s oldest chocolate factories, La Bonbonnière.

Like a scene from Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, La Bonbonnière’s kitchen is all vats full of melted chocolate and shelves piled high with cocoa from South America, the air thick with an intoxicating scent. Over the course of a thoroughly enjoyable hour the three of us were individually tasked with making a chocolate box and almond-flecked chocolates to place inside. We did so with varying degrees of success. While my wife’s was clearly best, mine looked like I’d created it with my eyes closed while trying to fend off an attack dog. My eight-year-old daughter’s was much better, even though she spent much of the hour scoffing the chocolates meant for her box. 

That night we rolled ourselves into the InterContinental Geneva, perched high on a steep hill next to the United Nations and home to a line-up of stellar suites headed by The Residence, a magnificently opulent dwelling comprising the Presidential and Royal Residences, the Grand Salon and Grand Dining Room, replete with two full kitchens. No prizes for guessing it’s the city’s largest. 

This is the hotel of choice for politicians visiting the UN, and at breakfast we sat next to a delegation from Washington, who five minutes previously we had seen on Sky News. The hotel’s restaurant Poolside (no prizes either for guessing how it got that name) is where the bigwigs relax after a hard day’s debating, enjoying the likes of seabass lightly grilled on a barbecue that’s fired-up nightly. It’s a lovely little spot for dinner.

As is little known, hard-to-find La Vie des Champs. Owner Agathe, who previously worked at a hotel in Dubai, opened the restaurant in what is her grandparents’ old house, and the love that she has for the place radiates from her. She has never advertised, never wants to, and is happy to serve whomever seeks her out, which on occasion happened to be high-ranking politicians, flanked by their bodyguards. When we found our way there it was in-the-know locals who filled the tables, taking their pick of three dishes from a dinner menu that changes weekly based on what seasonal ingredients the chef has procured from his daily trips to the market. I had a grilled octopus that bettered any I have ever had elsewhere. 

In the end, we didn’t have too much or too little time to enjoy Geneva. As a city it doesn’t buzz. Instead, like the sweeping hands of one of its finely tuned watches. It moves stealthily, and to fully appreciate it you have to see its inner workings. Which is why two weeks turned out to be just about perfect. Coming from the taller, faster, everything-you-want-when-you-want-it city of Dubai, it took us a while to adjust, but once we had we discovered a city that is charming, historic, and, in many parts, simply beautiful. A timeless classic.

Photos: Getty Images

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