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Geneva: Unconventional Geneva

by Patrick Adams

Jan 1, 2010
Destinations / Europe

GenevaIn Geneva, 2009 was the “Year of Calvin”— John Calvin — with conferences, art exhibits and film festivals commemorating the birth of the religious reformer 500 years ago. But Oct. 8–11 was (unofficially) the “weekend of me” — several self-indulgent days devoted exclusively to No. 1.

Indeed, in the name of research, I spoiled myself on Geneva’s sweets: its flavors and fragrances, its fine dining and 5-star hotels and the various comforts that come with life on the edge of Europe’s largest lake. Were Calvin alive today, he might have condemned me to eternal fire; this kind of pampering had no place in the “Protestant Rome.” At the very least, he and his Huguenots would have run me out of town and made sure I never came back.

When I arrived at Geneva Cointrin International Airport (GEN), though, the customs agent seemed genuinely glad to see me, waving me through with a stamp and a smile. Perhaps she assumed that I, like many visitors to Geneva, had come on behalf of one of the international organizations headquartered in the so-called “City of Peace” — the International Red Cross, maybe, or the World Health Organization or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

In fact, I did take the diplomatic tour, starting with the stately Palais des Nations, installed in the city after World War I to house the League of Nations. Twenty years and another world war later, the European headquarters of the United Nations took its place, planting in Geneva the foundations for tourism and business on a grand scale. The result today is the world’s most compact metropolis, a commercial and cultural center of outsized wealth and unmatched diversity, where nearly a third of residents are expatriate polyglots.

Yet the international organization I most wanted to see — as it happened, the only one on my list with an indoor pool and room service — was the Hotel Kempinski, my holiday headquarters on the glorious Quai des Bergues. At 423 guestrooms, the Kempinski is the biggest of the city’s 130 hotels, with the most meeting space, the hippest bar and the continent’s largest free-standing suite: 11,690 square feet on the top two floors, serviced by a private elevator and a personal chef. My junior suite was more modest, but it, too, came with sweeping views of the deep-blue Lake Geneva and the snowy French Alps that surround it.

“Of all the cities in the world,” wrote Jorge Louis Borges, “of all the intimate motherlands a man hopes to encounter in the course of his voyages, Geneva seems to me the most propitious for happiness.” A native of Buenos Aires, Borges moved to Geneva with his family at the age of 15 and stayed for seven years. He never wanted to leave. Decades later, after a lifetime of travel, the novelist returned, choosing to spend his last days in Geneva. He died in 1986 and was buried in the Plainpalais Cemetery, not far from Calvin.

I imagine that much of what made Borges happy then is still around today: the medieval ramparts and 15th-century frescoes found in the city’s Old Town and the splendid Barbier-Mueller Museum with its permanent collection of African art; the magnificent Jet d’Eau, Lake Geneva’s iconic, perpetually pumping fountain, visible from miles away; and the immaculate Jardin Anglais with its famous 15-foot clock tower.

For me, if not for Borges, happiness is a bubbling cauldron of creamy cheese served up with chunks of baguette and dried beef, and fortunately this too remains a Swiss staple. Locals who shared my fondness for fondue pointed me to the Hôtel les Armures, a 400-year-old establishment nestled among the chic boutiques and cobblestone lanes of the Old Town. There, under wood beams and muskets mounted on the walls, I filled up on a rich blend of vacherin and raclette cheeses, finished off the burnt cheese crust (la religieuse) scraped from the earthenware pot and washed it all down with a cool pint of pilsner.

That was lunch. For dinner, I had reserved a table amid the powder-blue walls, glittering chandeliers and handpainted scenery of Il Lago, a Geneva jewel housed in the Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues, Switzlerand’s oldest palace, which turned 175 last year. The food, Northern Italian fare by the Tuscan chef Marco Garfagnini, formerly of the George V in Paris, is world-class, original and bursting with flavor. Torn between the Brittany lobster risotto and the glazed goat kid with roasted potatoes, celery and green apple purée, I closed my eyes, stabbed a finger at the menu and hit the wild sea bass instead — an excellent choice.

The next morning, my last, I rolled out of bed, ate the Swiss chocolate on my nightstand and gazed out on majestic Mont Blanc, the glaciers glistening in the morning sun. Sadly, I could see the end of my weekend drawing near, but I could also see the spa across the street, where I’d planned to spend the better part of the day.

The Bains des Paquis, a kind of public beach complex run by a nonprofit cooperative, is situated on a set of wooden docks and cabins located on the right bank of Lake Geneva, just down from the Kempinski. Gutted by fire in 1932, the spa was rebuilt in Art Deco style with traditional Turkish hammam rooms, a sauna and a small canteen. In the summer, sunbathers stretch out on the pier and watch the swans glide by, while in the winter most visitors unwind in the glass-walled spa or go for a treatment with one of the professional therapists. Mine, an hour-long deep-tissue massage, was a blissful, almost religious, experience — not least for the picturesque scenery all around.

John Calvin may be best remembered for his prudish morality and his doctrines about an unforgiving God. But if it hadn’t been for Calvin’s promotion of education and his bans on the Catholic Church’s loans with interest, Geneva’s capitalist economy might never have taken root. Calvin, in short, made the Kempinski possible. And for that, I heartily thank him.


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