Geneva, Switzerland. My first thoughts leaped to watches, chocolates and human rights – and my first half hour in the city certainly backed up that list. Before I’d even stepped out of Gare Cornavin, the central station, I’d seen no less than seven adverts for watchmakers, one for champagne truffles and a third for the Museum of the International Red Cross.
And that was just the map.
I had less than 24 hours in this cold and curious non-capital and I wondered how far I could get under its skin.
Amid the wet and icy wind, a smooth and strangely neutral tram carried me along to Avenue de la Paix, the site of the Red Cross Museum. My inner medic wanted to know more about the world’s first humanitarian aid agency – and the museum responded with unflinching footage of corpses, hunger and messages of hope. It was a sobering experience, which I’ve described more here, but one I wouldn’t want to erase.
I felt disconnected afterwards, gliding past displays of Swiss Army Knives, PR-perfect banks and Chinese supermarkets. The pavements thronged without being crowded, conveyor belts of duffel coats with cosmopolitan faces bracing themselves against the sleet.
At the shore of Lake Geneva, called Lac Leman by locals, the fading sight of sunset lifted my thoughts. Lake Geneva is Western Europe’s largest lake. As if that weren’t enough, a giant fountain, the Jet d’Eau, now struts its stuff on the surface, shooting up to a height of 130 metres.
It fizzled out as we arrived and Geneva’s second “must-see” sight – the Horlogie Fleurie or Flower Clock – also seemed a shadow of its guidebook self. It’s simply trimmed grass around a clock, reminiscent of pensioners’ bowling greens across England.
Still, I suppose that’s the nature of travel. If it’s the first time you’ve seen it, you’re amazed. If it’s commonplace, you’re not. Perhaps that explains the queues of Japanese tourists waiting to take a photo.
My time was certainly running out, so we left the clock and headed into Geneva’s Old Town. Again, everything was neat, clean and angulated. Polished canons, shiny mosaics, flawless lamplit streets. Even the street cafes had metallic chairs.
I had one place left before I had to call it a night. Place du Molard, a square whose floor is studded with international greetings. While staring at these ice-cubes of salutations, a place caught my eye. The Brasserie du Molard.
Not only did the inside deliver a toasty-warmness, but the menu did as well. Flammekueche – a dough base with lashings of cream, onions and smoky bacon – started to restore a sense of wellbeing. That and the blonde, blanche and amber beer.
Sitting there, surrounded by bare brick walls, throaty laughter and chatter in a dozen different languages, I’d hardly got to the heart of the city. But at least I’d found that there was one.
Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on www.insidethetravellab.com