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Travel
September 01, 2015

Geneva: Land of Monsters and Philosophers

Text by Preeti Verma Lal

Famous men and women at every crossroads, fascinating stories of discoveries and inventions at every bend – Geneva is a city that invites with its history, achievements and, of course, the ticking of the fabulous timepieces created here

Never before in life have I been torn between a monster and a philosopher. A monster with gnarled fingers, fire raging in his eyes, his intentions vile, his face ugly. The philosopher bearded, his wisdom sublime, his pithy thoughts enough to ignite a revolution. The monster, savage. The philosopher, sagacious. Perhaps it is supremely insane to be torn between such disparate men. Anyone would choose the learned man over the grotesque ogre. But the moment I stepped into Geneva and inhaled its crisp air, I could feel a tug in my heart.

And I remembered the lines: ‘And the grotesque monster hung among the rocks of the nearly perpendicular ascent of Mont Salève. Geneva Lake appeared like a vast sheet of fire and the wretch scaled the overhanging sides….’ That’s from Frankenstein. The bearded philosopher had to wait; I was already on a cable car that would whoosh me 1,100 metres up to the said mountain in four minutes. On my way, however, there was no smoky apparition. No ogre. All I could see was the magnificent silhouette of Geneva that sits silently in Switzerland’s western corner. I mind-travelled 199 years back into the Genevese village of Cologny, where the Shelleys summered in 1816. It was here during a ghost storytelling contest between Lord George Byron, PB Shelley and herself that Mary Shelley spun Frankenstein out of a frightening dream. The monster was born in Geneva.

Then, I saw him. In Plainpalais. His hair matted, the bones bursting out of his metal rib cage, his eyes twitching with rage. The monster seemed to be lunging towards young boys on BMX bikes nearby. The monster frightened me. I shunned him and settled for the philosopher. The man called Jean Jacques Rousseau who was born here and would often sign as Citizen of Geneva. The man whose profound insight turned the course of modern political philosophy. The man who delved into the relationship between man and society in The Social Contract. I wanted to run to Rousseau and seek wisdom at his feet in Rousseau Island, but other famous men and women fell in between.

Coco Chanel lived in Geneva. So did Charlie Chaplin. Friedrich Nietzsche often sashayed by. It was in Geneva that Patek Phillipe invented the wristwatch in 1868. Zino Davidoff opened his first cigar store in 1912 and invented the desktop humidor for cigars. Schweppes was first fizzed here. Henry Dunant, a local, founded the Red Cross. Tim Berners Lee created the World Wide Web in a city laboratory. Famed footprints on every sidewalk. On one cobbled pathway, I found words beneath my feet at a corner where random asphalt squares glow with monosyllables in official United Nations languages. As the Rhone gurgled, the church bells clanged and the architecture swung from Romanesque to Gothic, I tiptoed and looked for names. Too many fascinating names in Geneva. Too much history in Switzerland’s second most populous city. Too many stories to tell.

I sure needed to catch a breath. And what better place than Promenade de la Treille — which contains the world’s longest wooden bench (394 feet). The bench built in 1767 is actually 180 wooden boards nailed together in what is perhaps the most ancient walk in the city. The 16th century sunny square is lined with chestnut trees. An old tree at the far-east corner is special. It is the official Spring Tree — when the first leaf appears, spring is officially declared in Geneva. The old chestnut tree is dying and the city is picking its seeds and creating saplings to keep its genes alive. I wanted to pick a seed. But they lay shrivelled and withered in harsh winter. Spring, in Geneva, was still months away.

I was being brave. I could try sneaking in spring through Geneva’s most open secret. A secret passage called Passage de Monetier which was part of an intricate system of hidden passages for unnoticed soldiers and civilians to escape through. But my dream of sneaking in spring was thwarted by rules. The Monetier remains closed — the gates open for only two days in a year during the l’Escalade weekend in December.

In the city known for its cosmopolitan hues and peace efforts, time ticks everywhere. Not surprising because Geneva has been the hub of watchmaking for more than four centuries and is now synonymous with luxury watchmaking.

Streets are flanked by numerous shops selling handcrafted precision for a fortune. Watches so expensive you could barter them for an island. Time, however, does stand still in a clock made of 6,500 flowers and plants. Situated at a corner of the Jardin Anglais, the flower clock tells time with Swiss meticulousness — the time is transmitted via satellite. And keep an eye on the second hand. At two-and-a-half metres, it is the world’s longest!

Too much walking around the Old Town had sweat gathering around my brow. I needed to wash it off. So, I headed to Jet d’Eau, one of the world’s largest fountains which spews 500 litres of water every second. Air-bathing was a better option because the water jets 140 metres and, at any given moment, there’s 7,000 litres of water in the Geneva air.

Cleansed to the core, it is time for a hearty meal at Rasoi by Vineet, the city’s first and only Indian Michelin-starred fine-dining restaurant where tomato soup is hemmed in by pumpkin panna cotta, broccoli gets a scrumptious khichdi makeover, sour cocoa is drizzled over lobster, and rasgulla drenched in chocolate comes hand in hand with saffron Lego kulfi. I try digesting this by walking on the bridge. In the inky night, a shadow falls on me. Is it Rousseau with a generous bagful of wisdom? Or is the monster stalking me?

Far and Away
Get there: Several airlines fly to Geneva. The best option is to fly Swiss Air into Zurich and take the train to Geneva. Buy the Swiss Pass which gives access to all public transport.

Do/See: Reformation Wall, Jet d’Eau, Grand Theatre, Old Town, St. Pierre Cathedral. Take the cable car to Mont Saléve. Do a half-day trip to Carouge, a bohemian neighbourhood.

Eat: Rasoi by Vineet Bhatia (in Mandarin Oriental Hotel), Café Papon, Hamburger Foundation, Cafe des Bains, Brasserie Lipp, Rooftop 42.

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