Saturday, September 21, 2013

Swiss wine does not suck... And other neat things about Geneva

When I say "old world wine", what comes to mind? France? Italy? Spain? Perhaps even Germany, if you're into Riesling?

I am most certain that Switzerland does not come to mind. I mean, have you ever seen a bottle of Swiss wine at the LCBO (or "dep", if you're on the Quebec side)? Certainly, I haven't. And I spend a LOT of time in the LCBO. Hiccup!

No, the Swiss are not known for their wine. Neutrality, yes. Watchmaking, certainly. International financing, absolutely. Chocolate, without a doubt. And of course, yodelling. 

So when I learned that I was being sent to Geneva for a business trip, my first wine-related thought was "Woohoo!! I will have access to French wine at reasonable prices!" 

But then, during the long plane ride over, seated next to a man who could not stop snoring and who could not stop creeping over into my seat space (eeewwwww), I could not sleep at all. To fill the time, I read up on Geneva. And I discovered that the city is surrounded by picturesque countryside, some of which is occupied by vineyards. 

Admittedly, I was skeptical. Because, as noted above, I have never in my whole life seen one bottle of Swiss wine. It can't be that good if they don't even bother exporting it, can it? But then one of my travel guides assured me that the reason you could not get Swiss wine outside of Swiss borders is because it is so good that the Swiss keep it for themselves. Sarcasm, I wondered? I guess I would just have to find out. 

And so, I found myself drinking a glass (or four - hiccup) of Swiss wine each night during my stay. And it was delicious!

A glass of Swiss wine in my hotel bar. This was taken at 6:30 pm. I guess the concept of the "5 à 7" has not caught on in Geneva...

One of the few bars open on a Sunday, near City Hall in Old Town, where I took a moment to study my map and plan my touristy activities.

Now I do not have my husband's sophisticated sommelier palette. But I found every glass that I had to be wonderfully balanced, with a lot of fruit. My kind of wine! I liked it so much that I searched high and low for a wine store so that I could bring back two fantastic bottles to Hubby. (All I could find in the grocery store was a Swiss Gamay, and wine-snobby Hubby is not fond of Gamay. I assure you, though, that the Gamay was perfectly lovely, and paired quite nicely with the Pringles I took from the mini-bar... hiccup...). So now, we have two bottles of Stéphane Dupraz, a Gamaret (red grape exclusive to Switzerland) and a Scheurebe (white grape found in parts of Germany but that I've never seen before), purchased from a lovely shop in downtown Geneva called le Boulevard du vin. Which also doubles as a wine bar. Where I sat down and had a glass of Swiss Sauvignon Blanc. Hiccup.

Some other interesting facts about Geneva for the non-winos among you:

- Geneva is French-speaking, probably because it is a stone's-throw away from France. Literally. Depending on which side of the Geneva airport your plane comes in on, you are either going through French customs or Swiss customs. The Swiss side of this border is called "la Suisse romande." I learned this from the bartender at the Boulevard du vin (hiccup). When I asked why this and not "la Suisse française," he didn't know. But he did tell me that the nicest people in Switzerland come from the French-speaking region. "Sans doute!" I answered! 

- Also taught to me by this kind bartender, there are four national languages in Switzerland: French, German, Italian and Romansh. Never heard of that last one? Neither had I. It appears to be an old language, dating back to Roman times. It is spoken by very few Swiss today (less than 1% according to Wikipedia), but still considered a national language.  

Courtesy of

- Geneva is an expensive city. Outrageously expensive. Someone told me today that it is four times more expensive to shop here than in neighbouring France. I can only assume that it is because Geneva is an international hub of bureaucracy. Although United Nations headquarters are now in New York, most UN agencies have retained a large presence here: the International Labour Office, the High Commission on Human Rights, UNAIDS, the World Health Organization. Geneva is therefore seething with foreign dignitaries. Who bring with them foreign money. And they have to stay somewhere. And eat too. So why not jack up the prices for everything?

- Despite the relocation of UN headquarters to New York City, UN history is deeply entrenched in this city. The above-mentioned agencies remain in Geneva. There is a hotel on the lakefront named after President Wilson, the tireless post-WWI defender of the UN's forerunner, the League of Nations (and yes, I am showing off my history degree). He could not muster support for the league back home in the US, but its legacy is alive and well in Geneva. There are monuments to peace-keeping and other human atrocities, such as land mines, throughout the city. The United Nations inspires pride in this city, and its role is highlighted on every tour of the city. If you are not a believer in the validity of this international organization, do yourself a favour and stay away.

A UN building waving the UN flag

A monument to the Bosnian conflict, and to the massacre of more that 8,000 Bosnian Muslim boys and men at Srebrenica

The Broken Chair, a memorial to the victims of land mines. Note that the chair is missing a leg

The President Wilson Hotel, named after the architect of the United Nations

A view from the University of Geneva campus of three flags: Geneva on the left, Switzerland on the right, and the United Nations in the middle. Just because.

- Being infamous for their neutrality, I would not have considered any Swiss city a hotbed of political or social activism. Yet some of the most controversial (for their time) thinkers are from Geneva, or have spent a considerable amount of time in Geneva. John Calvin, key player in the Protestant Reformation and architect of predestination - the doctrine that all events have been willed by God (yes, I am showing off again) - is from here. The greatest Enlightenment thinkers - Rousseau and Voltaire - called Geneva home. Even the trouble-making wife of Napoleon Bonaparte himself, the one and only Josephine, lived in Geneva for a time. I had no idea. But for a history buff like me, and one who has long admired Rousseau's Social Contract, discovering the intellectual prowess of this city has been fascinating indeed.

Monsieur Rousseau - the most famous Genevan thinker

The International Monument to the Reformation, or Reformation Wall, featuring the leaders of the Protestant Reformation. Figures adorn the entire wall. These four are: Theodore Beza, John Calvin, William Farel, and John Knox

The University of Geneva, founded by John Calvin

- I arrived in Geneva on a Sunday, and although I had been warned, I was still struck by how few businesses were open. No grocery stores, no shopping, and very few restaurants. The concierge at the hotel told me that it is because the city is "très catholique". Which means, I suppose, that Mr. Calvin's reforms, while historical, were not as widespread throughout the city as he would have hoped. Nonetheless, he did succeed in converting Saint-Pierre Cathedral to the Protestant cause. I know this because a plaque says so.  But I also know this because the pews have no kneelers, and no Catholic church would be without kneelers. Saint-Pierre is no Saint Stephen's of Vienna, that is for sure. It is a rather unadorned cathedral, making it (and I apologize to Genevans and to all the Protestants I know, including my husband), my least favourite European cathedral thus far. What can I say. The Catholic in me cries out for some adornment. 

Saint-Pierre Cathedral

The plaque commemorating the adoption of the Reformist doctrine by the people of Geneva

The front of Saint-Pierre Cathedral

A sure sign of Protestantism - no kneelers!

The pulpit at Saint-Pierre

The altar at Saint-Pierre

The stunning pipe organ at Saint-Pierre

- If you are interested in the history of the Protestant Reformation, there is a rather interesting museum, the International Museum of the Reformation, that is well worth the visit. 

- All the above said about the lack of wow factor in Saint-Pierre cathedral, Notre Dame Basilica, the heart of Catholic Geneva, is not all that much more stunning either. Maybe the Swiss just don't like grandeur? Still, the presence of kneelers, holy water, and a crucifix above the altar did make me feel more at home inside this cathedral than inside of Saint-Pierre. 

Notre Dame Basilica, right next door to the central train station. Hence all the cables.

Inside Notre Dame, with the pulpit on the right

Stained glass inside of Notre Dame

Kneelers. Even more Catholic is the fact that they are very uncomfortable

A close up of the pulpit in Notre Dame

The altar at Notre Dame

The pipe organ at Notre Dame. Not as imposing as that at Saint Pierre.

- Being from Manitoba, a province known for its abundance of lakes, I have a soft spot for a large body of fresh water. And Geneva is built along the tip of a rather large lake, Lac Lėmac. I thoroughly enjoyed running along the boardwalk to start out my every day - despite the quantity of rain that fell on me during said runs. These runs also offered a perfect view of "la Rade," a 140 meter jet stream of water that has become the unofficial symbol of Geneva, and to which tourists flock. If you enjoyed running through the sprinkler when you were a kid, you may consider taking a boat cruise of the lake and sitting on the top deck, where you are sure to be sprayed. A little advance warning would have been nice, boat captain. I'm just sayin'...

La Rade - taken from the boardwalk, with Old Town in the background 

La Rade from the upper deck of the boat, right before I get sprayed

My chariot for a cruise around Lac Lémac

A view of the shore form the upper deck of the boat

Homes on the shore of Lac Lémac. Not a shabby view from the living room...

Lac Lémac at sunrise. Gorgeous. 

Just a couple of other fun facts, I promise.

- There are doggie-poop bag dispensers every 3rd block or so. Despite this, there is dog poop on every sidewalk.  It is disgusting. And it made my runs more obstacle-course-like...

- Switzerland may be in the very centre of Europe, but it is not a part of the European Union. Why does this matter, you ask? Because they have maintained their own currency. The Swiss franc. You will thank me for this piece of news. You will not find yourself in the embarrassing situation in which I found myself, trying to pay my cab driver in Euros. Luckily for me, this particular cab driver lived in France, where cost-of-living is much cheaper, and therefore was only too happy to accept Euros. I, nonetheless, felt like an ignorant North American...

- There is some pretty good local beer brewed in Geneva. I highly recommend the pub called "Les Brasseurs", down near the train station. The burgers aren't bad either. 

Nice patio to grab a burger...

...ainsi qu'une bière blonde

- There is such a thing as a cycling race called the Tour of Britain. This has nothing to do with Geneva, I know. But I now know that such a cycling race exists because it was playing on the television when I went to the best pizza place in Geneva, Club Espresso. Where I had a pizza. And more wine... (Hiccup).

Now I know what you are thinking. "Jay, weren't you in Geneva for work? Seems to us like you had an awful lot of fun for someone travelling on business..." And yes, I promise that I was there for work. I spent two and a half very. long. days. in this building:

The World Health Organization (WHO)

With jet lag. I know. I'm a martyr.

But the nice thing about Geneva is that it is small enough, that two afternoons and a couple of evenings was more than enough time to discover the treasures that the town has to offer. So my advice to worldwide travellers everywhere - Geneva is more of a bureaucrat town than a tourist destination, but it is still worth dropping in. Probably a good one-day-one-night kind of a stop. The lake is splendid, and whether one is Catholic or Protestant, the rich religious history of the city makes it worthy of a visit. 

And then, of course, there is the wine...

Santé! (hiccup)