The secrets of Geneva’s statues and historic buildings
Lunch at La Rotonde, Lausanne’s gourmet restaurant
By Lucy Komisar
A city’s public sculptures and buildings are not just art
works, they are keys to unlocking secrets of history. Geneva has a reputation
for tranquil charm, but its history is anything but quiet. As you walk through
town, you can “read” that history in the bronzes and carved stone, pillared
churches and old brick dwellings that are landmarks in the Old Town.
A couple of centuries ago, a woman saved Geneva. You can
see her likeness carved from imagination on a bronze relief on a fountain on the
rue de la Cité. Her name was Catherine Cheynel, and this is why she is there. In
1589, Geneva and the King of France waged war on Charles-Emmanuel I, Duke of
Savoy, and occupied some of his territories. In 1602, the Duke chose the longest
night of the year, between December 11 and 12, to lead 2000 troops in an attempt
to take the city by scaling its walls with ladders: “the Escalade.”
Catherine Cheynel was a French refugee. She and her
husband, Pierre Royaume, were from Lyon and had arrived in Geneva in 1572
fleeing the persecution of the Huguenots that had erupted weeks earlier in the
massacre of Saint-Barthélémy. On the fateful December 1602 night, she was doing
typical female drudgery, preparing vegetable soup at 2 am, and she heard the
ladders as they clattered against the city wall. Strategically located in a
dwelling just above the La Monnaie town gate, she threw her cauldron of boiling
soup on the invaders, killed one of the attackers and raised the alarm. (At
least, that is the legend.) A bloody battle ensued, the Savoyards were repelled,
and they didn’t try again. Part of that city wall is still standing at the very
east of the Parc de Bastion.
Cheynel became a Geneva legend and popular heroine. Now, on the weekend nearest
December 11-12, Geneva celebrates the "Fête de l’Escalade." People don costumes
and march in parades. They buy soup pots – the symbol of the Genevans’
resistance -- fashioned in chocolate with marzipan vegetables. And they visit
the bas relief on the Escalade Fountain which shows Catherine Cheynel at her
window as the battle rages below.
the Parc de Bastion, there is also a bas relief of four old churchmen, leaders
of the Protestant Reformation, on the famous Reformation Wall. Second from the
left is John Calvin; the man on the right is John Knox. Switzerland, of course,
is the birthplace of Calvinist Protestantism. Calvin, establishing in Geneva in
the 16th century what would be called the “Protestant Rome,” founded the College
and the Academy of Geneva, essential to the intellectual development and spread
of the new theology.
city has a statue of a man of horseback, someone who led troops into bloody
battle. In Geneva, just across from the classical Grand-Théatre opera house,
there’s an old general on horseback, Guillaume Henri Dufour, who I call the
peace general. Gen. Dufour didn’t charge into battle; he avoided a war. In the
mid-19th century, seven Roman Catholic cantons organized a defensive league to
oppose anti-Catholic measures and prevent the establishment of a more
centralized, Protestant-dominated Swiss government. The Radical (Protestant)
majority in the parliament declared this “Sonderbund” dissolved and sent an army
under Dufour against the separatists. The general refused to use unnecessary
violence and defeated the rebels almost without bloodshed. “The Swiss are
neutral,” explained my guide, Gianna Loredan Mestermann, “They don’t fight,
except as mercenaries.”
Promotion of humanitarianism in battle is attached to
another important Swiss. Henri Dunant, founder of the Red Cross, was shocked by
the 1859 battle of Solferino in the second war of Italian independence, where he
saw soldiers left to die on the battlefield. He wrote up a treaty governing the
rules of conduct for the treatment of prisoners of war, including protection of
the ill and wounded. His lobbying persuaded twelve nations to in 1864 meet in
Geneva’s Old Town to sign the First Geneva Convention. (The U.S. was the 32nd
signatory.) For his work, Dunant in 1901 was awarded the first Nobel Peace
Geneva is still playing an international role. The city has
about 180,000 people; add the surrounding canton and that makes 430,000, of
which 40 percent are foreigners -- some 40,000 internationals connected to the
UN, to over 200 diplomatic missions and to more than 300 non-governmental
organizations. Some 70 percent of visitors to Geneva come for business. Some of
them come to visit their money! The big banks that dominate the lakefront have
their coffers enhanced by Swiss bank secrecy, which allows account holders to
hide their assets from inquisitive tax and law enforcement authorities.
the city is in fact a lovely little tourist town, good for a day or two to
wander around the historic center, to promenade along Lake Geneva (locally
called Lac Léman) with its Jet d’eau, the world’s tallest fountain at 460 feet
high, and to visit the many galleries and antique shops. Museums are open till 5
p.m., and all of them are free. “We voted for that,” said Gianna, explaining
that in Switzerland people get a chance to vote on just about everything. It’s
the country with the most direct democracy of any modern society.
center of the Old Town is the Place Bourg-du-Four. The name comes from the Roman
word “forum”; the square was used by the Romans for meetings. Then, in medieval
times, it was Geneva’s main market place. An ochre-colored building has Gothic
windows from the end of the 15th century. Gianna pointed out that the upper
portion is from the 16th century. When 6,000 people came seeking religious
freedom, the town built up to accommodate them, adding floors atop existing
In summer, there are some 200 concerts in such squares and
in parks and churches. Geneva has a long musical tradition. Under Calvin,
theater was not allowed --Voltaire had to go to France to put on his plays --
but music was supported.
through the old town, we came on the 12th century St. Peter’s Cathedral. It is
another example of how architecture follows politics. The neo-classical columns
were added to the Romanesque design to reinforce the building, because it was
being used for political meetings.
There’s not much nightlife in Geneva. The main recreation
of the locals and the foreigners appears to be eating well. The city indeed has
a reputation for gastronomy. It is in a wine-growing canton, and the local
Chasselas is good with cheese fondue or fish.
But for an amazing lunch, it’s worth a drive of about 40
miles along the northern lakeside to Lausanne. Its historic fishing port of
Ouchy is a sweet part of town with cobblestone streets and outdoor cafes,
beaches and marina. And set back from the lake on ten acres of gardens is the
palatial 19th-century, Belle Époque Beau-Rivage Palace; the name means
The hotel has quite a history. It opened in 1861, drawing
upper class Europeans who spent summers in Switzerland. Later, it was popular
with Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Gary Cooper and Coco Chanel. Noel Coward
and Somerset Maugham put the hotel in their writing. Its reception rooms were
the sites of the signing of the Italian-Turkish treaty of 1912 and the
Turkish-Anglo-French-Italian Treaty of Lausanne of 1923. It was where King
Hussein of Jordan held his coronation. It says something, doesn’t it, that he
didn’t celebrate his taking power at home!
Rotonde is the hotel’s gourmet restaurant, run by 31-year old Florian Giraud,
and this year it got its first Michelin star. It’s a gorgeous Belle Époque room
with marble walls and floors in pale gold and reddish brown. Table cloths are
soft yellow; the French chairs are covered in red velvet. Through the large
windows, one can see the lake. Soft jazz plays in the background. The service is
so “soigné,” that if you forget your specs, a waiter will bring you magnifier
invited a friend and so had a chance to taste two of each course. Imagine this
lunch! To begin, roasted langoustine with fennel crisps in a star anise sauce.
Iranian Caviar with blinis. For main courses: Three cooking variations of red
tuna with aromatic sauce. Medallions of lamb with chickpea flour fritter tart
with eggplant and artichoke caviar. And for desserts, rum baba and hot fruit
soufflé. The combinations of tastes were stunning. Giraud deserves his star. The
courses came with different fine wines from La Rotonde’s huge cellar of 75,000
bottles. The menu is seasonal, depending on what is fresh in the market. Lunch
took several hours as we savored each course and listened to the maître d’
describe the origins and ingredients and styles of each dish and wine.
it was over, it was time to seek the comfort of the Kipling Hotel in Geneva.
This stylish boutique abode has been redone to evoke the British Raj – hence
“Kipling,” after the writer, whose adorn the lobby. Tables and chests are
cleverly designed to look like old-fashioned steamer trunks. Wood is dark
mahogany; some of it imitates bamboo. The bedrooms are sleek and modish. There
is even free wifi! This is a 3-star hotel with top-star styling. And it is just
a ten-minute walk from the Gare de Cornavin central train station!
To the train then, which is how I arrived in Geneva and how
I would depart. Even if you come by plane, train is the best way to get to the
city. The ride from the airport takes just 6 minutes.
Geneva was one of numerous train stops for me on this visit
to six countries from Italy to Sweden, and I managed efficiently with a railpass
from RailEurope. There are many railpass options, for one, two, three or more
countries. Go to RailEurope's web site (or call a reservation agent) to decide
whether your trip is best done with point-to-point tickets or a pass or
combination of the two. Passes are sold only to non-European residents.
Some trains require seat reservations; they are marked with
®. With RailEurope, you can get reservation online when you buy your pass or
even after you are in Europe from any internet café or hotel connection. That’s
a real timesaver – no extra trips to the station or waiting in lines. The site
also includes timetables for intercity trains.
http://www.RailEurope.com or 888-382-7245.
For timetables for travel within Switzerland,
Or inside the country, call 0900 300300, for 95 cents a minute.
Rue de la Navigation 27
Tel 41 (0)22 544-4040
Fax 41 (0)22 544-4099
Singles from CHF218 ($173)
Doubles from CHF244 ($194)
Free wifi internet connection
Place du Port 17-19
Tel 41 (0)21 613-3333
Fax 41 (0)21 613-3334
A Leading Hotels of the World member, 800-223-6800,
Restaurant open daily for lunch & dinner except for lunch on Sat.
Prices of appetizers from CHF28 ($22), fish from CHF52 ($41), meat and chicken
from CHF54 ($43), desserts from CHF18 ($14).
169 guest rooms, from CHF410 ($325) for a single, from CHF470 ($373) for a
Parc de Bastion: You can enter the park through a gate
across from the classical Grand-Théatre opera house, or from a high promenade
called the Rompe de la Treille.
Rue du Mont-Blanc 18
P.O. Box 1602
CH-1211 Geneva 1
Tel 41 (0)22 090-7000
Fax 41 (0)22 909-7011
Escalade fountain with a bronze relief depicting Mère Royaume, rue de la Cité.
Exhibition relating the episodes of the Escalade (in December only), Musée d’Art
et d’Histoire, rue Charles-Galland 2.
Gianna Loredan Mestermann
Guide, Travel & Business Services
Tel 41 (0)22 792-6580
Fax 41 (0)22 792-6526
by Lucy Komisar
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