Geneva is a wonderful city throughout the year, but it really comes alive during the winter months. Its annual Christmas market is located in the Jardin Anglais, next to Lake Geneva, famous for its Flower Clock. The market consists of stalls and chalets selling everything from bespoke goods to delicious street food and traditional favourites, such as cheese fondue and mulled wine.
Strolling around, munching a freshly baked cookie, I took in the smells of roasting chestnuts and warmed my hands by the glowing fire pits dotted around. I looked at the lights and decorations illuminating the trees and the people milling about. Families with children enjoyed the large ferris wheel in the centre of the market, which lit up the night sky.
Christmas isn’t the only thing Genevans celebrate during the winter months. While I was there people were already beginning preparations for the December Fête de l’Escalade. Celebrating the defeat of an attempted invasion by the Duke of Savoy in 1602, it begins with an annual footrace and culminates in a carnival where people dress up in a combination of historical costumes and fancy dress parading through the streets, singing songs and distributing soup.
Chocolate cauldrons are a key feature of the festival, which are handed out as gifts. These cauldrons commemorate a cook who altered the course of the battle by throwing her pot, and its contents, on the Savoyard troops. Whether or not the story is strictly true, Geneva is renowned for the quality of its chocolate and its large number of artisanal chocolate makers.
One of these, La Bonbonnière, has been running for just over a century. Recently, they have begun offering workshops giving a glimpse into the chocolate-making process. After giving me a rundown of the secrets behind turning raw cocoa into award-winning chocolate, parts of which were discovered by accident, they got me to have a go at making a bar, though from the results I might need a little more practice to get up to their standards.
For the dedicated chocoholic, or for just those who are curious, it’s well worth investing in Geneva’s recently launched Choco Pass, which entitles holders to free samples and discounts. Not only is it a way to exercise your tastebuds, but going around the seven participating shops is a great way to explore the town centre.
Those who are immune to the cold (or just plain masochistic) may want to try a sauna, followed by a dip in Lake Geneva and a bite to eat at the Bains des Pâquis public bath house. Then visit Restaurant Les Armures for top quality traditional dishes. I particularly enjoyed their selection of cheese and ham, followed by a spicy Swiss sausage. It has hosted many world leaders and celebrities, most notably Bill Clinton (it proudly displays a photo from his visit there).
As well as fine food, the Old Town is filled with history. While Geneva may have ambiguous feelings about the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (he renounced his citizenship of the republic), there’s no denying he played a major role in the Enlightenment. So, it’s not surprising that his house has been turned into the small museum Maison Rousseau et Littérature. The nearby Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, also contains more than 23,000 pieces, including Konrad Witz’s The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (1444), regarded by some as the first landscape painting.
But by far the most influential figure in Geneva’s history is John Calvin, who came from France. His role in turning Geneva into the “Protestant Rome”, commemorated in a sculpture in the park, resulted in virtually all non-Calvinist churches being banned for three centuries.
Ironically, Calvin’s puritanism would provide a major boost to the watchmaking industry, since watches were the only form of decoration allowed under the strict dress codes. Today, Genevan watchmakers Patek Philippe has its museum nearby. It’s free to visit with he Geneva City Pass, along with other attractions.
The envy of stays
Hotel N’vy, where I stayed, is a few minutes from the lake. It is designed to appeal to younger business travellers, as reflected in the lobby filled with modern art, bronze sculptures by Bruno Catalano, and even a vintage motorcycle. The staff are friendly, and guests receive free public transport in Geneva for the duration of their stay.
The hotel offers several dining options. But for something a little more Swiss, visit the nearby Restaurant Edelweiss. Having never eaten cheese fondue before, I was given a special masterclass on how to make it. I then ate my dish to the accompaniment of traditional Swiss music.