Swiss chalet-over

With a new and inexpensive air route from Tel Aviv to Geneva, you can spend a brief but intriguing time in the historic city.

geneva 521 (photo credit: Ronen Shnidman)
geneva 521
(photo credit: Ronen Shnidman)
Geneva is a city built for business travelers and the short-stay visitor. A Central European city that is a stone’s throw from southern France and a short train ride to Italy or Germany, Geneva is first mentioned in history as a local settlement captured by the Romans in 121 BCE. Since then, the Swiss locale has often served as a diplomatic meeting point between world powers.
Today, as Switzerland’s second most populous city with 1.3 million residents in its metro area, it well warrants a visit, having been consistently ranked as one of the cities with the highest standard of living, as well as its status as a center for world diplomacy.
In August, the low-budget airline EasyJet opened an inexpensive air route from Tel Aviv to Geneva’s relatively small but efficient international airport. Prices range from ¤130 for an off-season return flight booked a month or two in advance to nearly ¤360 for a return ticket purchased the week of departure (¤150 and ¤380, respectively, if you include at least one piece of check-in luggage).
With EasyJet running an expedient and mostly automated self check-in system at the Geneva airport, along with nearby bus stops and train station, the city could well serve as your own personal low-cost transportation hub to most Continental European destinations.
Just beware of the winter weather, as Switzerland is known to get a fair amount of snow and, unlike the larger airport in Zurich, airport authorities in Geneva are much quicker to close down runways and cancel flights in the event of a heavy snowfall.
Despite the airport’s utility as a relatively low-cost air hub, Switzerland certainly isn’t a bargain spot for tourists. As a recent off-season visit to Geneva made clear, while EasyJet’s new Tel Aviv-Geneva route is light on the wallet, the Swiss city surely isn’t. In fact, according to the Mercer consulting group’s 2010 cost-of-living report, Geneva ranks as the fourth most expensive city in the world. Nevertheless, there are still many benefits for a traveler willing to pay Swiss prices.
Business and pleasure travelers planning on a short stay will soon find that Geneva offers several interesting sites, all within a small, easily accessible area. One could probably get a fairly accurate feel for the city with its small and compact downtown area in just a few days.
The clock-like efficiency of Swiss public service begins the moment a traveler arrives, with a very helpful information desk staffed by multilingual speakers located right outside the baggage terminal. (It helps to know some French, as that is the official language of the canton, although English is also widely understood.) It is important to note that before you leave the baggage claim area, there are machines that dispense free one-time train passes for recent arrivals to use to get to their destination without any added expense or the additional hassle of having to change money to buy a train ticket. This ticket comes in handy, as directly attached to the airport is a train station that connects you via a short ride ,to downtown Geneva’s Cornavin station as well most major stops in Switzerland (and quite a few spots in nearby France as well).
If you forget to claim your free ride, don’t worry – the ride to downtown Geneva costs only three Swiss francs (SFR) Moreover, the train and trolley tickets in Switzerland appear to operate under an honor system, so if you lack some local currency at the moment, you could probably get away with sneaking a ride downtown. But it is probably best not to abuse the honor code because spot checks can occur at any time. If you get caught jumping the turnstile, so to speak, it you could be fined several hundred Swiss francs.
For travelers who want a little shelter from Switzerland’s high prices but don’t want to sacrifice much in the way of convenience or sleep, the St. James Hotel and Residence, located just outside the Old Town on the southern side of the city, present a good option. Located not too far from the famous Jet d’Eau water fountain, the St. James rents out relatively large (by Israeli standards) and homey studio apartments by the day, starting at 120 SFR a night. With that type of combination of location and price, you gain the feel and convenience of your own apartment in an area close to the downtown core but away from its noise, and a good starting off point for exploring the city.
The hotel rooms come with maid service in the mornings and a friendly reception open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m (check-in from 2 p.m.- 10 p.m.). The only downside is that the hotel’s management – like most European hotels – considers wireless Internet access an extra, and one that doesn’t come cheap at 9 SFR an hour.
Wherever you end up staying, remember to ask the front desk for a free city transit pass.
Most hotels and hostels in the city provide these passes for their guests, but the person behind the front desk may not remember to give you one unless you ask.
History buffs may be interested in Geneva’s heritage as one of the early sites of the Protestant Reformation and important center in the development of Calvinism. In fact, both John Calvin and John Knox – early founder of Scottish Presbyterianism – were among the city’s leading figures in the 16th century. The city’s famous Wall of the Reformers (Mur des Reformateurs) depicting in stone key moments in early Protestant history at the edge of the Old Town’s Parc les Bastions is an interesting site to visit.
The wall contains several slightly largerthan- life carvings of well-known Protestant figures in a chronological time line, as well as brief inscriptions explaining their historical importance to the Protestant cause.
FOR THOSE looking for a bit more eyecatching, Eastern-flavored religious history, Geneva’s Russian Orthodox church is quite the draw. Completed by Russian émigrés in 1866, the church was built with the permission of Geneva’s civil authorities on the site of a destroyed 16th-century Benedictine monastery. Established with the financial aid of Geneva resident and Russian Grand Duchess Anna Fyodorovna, sister- in-law of Czar Alexander I and aunt of Britain’s Queen Victoria, the church’s characteristic gold Byzantine domes ensure that it stands out from the other buildings in the surrounding neighborhood of Les Tranchées.
Another interesting detail is that the neighborhood’s streets leading to the church are mostly named after famous Genevois who served the czars as generals and administrators – perhaps not that surprising, given that the area had many Russian residents in the late 19th century.
If you want to go inside the church to view the interior and some of the Orthodox relics there, make sure to inquire about visiting hours ahead of time, as the church is generally closed when there aren’t prayers or cultural events.
As for Jewish sites, Geneva offers a gem of a synagogue completed in 1859 by the Congregation Beth Ya’akov on Geneva’s Place de la Synagogue. The neo-Moorish style building by architect Jean-Henri Bachofen also presents a marked contrast with the rest of the overwhelmingly fin-de-siècle and neo-Classical style architecture in downtown Geneva. Surprisingly, the Ashkenazi synagogue bears a very strong resemblance to a mosque, with two towers shaped like minarets, each with a window in the shape of the Star of David.
THE GRANDE SYNAGOGUE also features a Hebrew and French-language memorial plaque next to its outside gate dedicated to the six million Jews who perished during the Holocaust. Concerns over the anti-Semitic resurgence in Europe are also evident at the synagogue, which is surrounded by a locked cast-iron gate, a concrete barrier wall in front of an entrance facing a street accessible to cars, and quite a few security cameras placed to monitor pedestrian traffic at strategic points along the building’s perimeter.
Practitioners of international law or those working in the area of human rights might want to visit the Alabama Room in a centuries- old building complex in the Old Town not too far from Parc les Bastions and the Wall of the Reformers. This was where the famous Geneva Conventions were signed, codifying the internationally accepted rules of war. The site is located within the old town hall complex, which also houses many important cantonal offices.
For those who have time for a brief excursion into the Swiss countryside, Chateau Coppet provides an excellent opportunity to see a pre-revolution French-style chateau and lakeside village with a beautiful view of the Alps and the area’s Lake Leman, also known as Lake Geneva.
The chateau was built on property purchased by Jacques Necker, a finance minister to King Louis XVI. Necker, a Geneva native, was a Swiss banker who lived in Paris and tried to reform the ancien regime’s bankrupt finances and outdated tax system before being ousted from office by French nobles in 1789. The nobility’s anger with the prospect of a higher tax burden advocated most forcibly by Necker necessitated the king’s calling of the Estates General, ultimately leading to the collapse of the monarchy and the beginning of the revolutionary terror.
Necker avoided the mess of French politics after his forced retirement and returned to the chateau. The manor still belongs to his descendants. The family opens up much of the chateau’s grounds to the public on a regular basis. The chateau hosts a fair on December 1-5, where local artisans sell their goods and foodstuffs.
The goods vary from some delicious macaroons (a regional specialty), locally produced wines, hand-rolled cigars, special jams and spreads, gingerbread cookies, a small Middle Eastern style spice market and various holiday gifts and kitsch. One of the chateau’s caves (which appears to have been used as a wine cellar) also has a pleasant café.
The chateau is a 25-minute train ride from the Cornavin train station. A return ticket costs about SFR 13.
One thing that is lacking in Geneva is nightlife. Despite a municipal advertising campaign seeking to brand Geneva as a cultural center, there are only a small number of dance and music venues. However, what the city does have is a clearly visible and thriving legal prostitution industry, as well as a slightly more discreet narcotics trade. If you ever find yourself late at night in the largely working-class and multi-ethnic Paquis neighborhood just north of the main train station or near any of the main bridges that cross the Rhone River, don’t be surprised if you are propositioned by streetwalkers and drug dealers.
But for a traveler rushing around in a world increasingly full of people on the run, Geneva is well worth taking a little time to enjoy what life has to offer at a slightly slower pace.