In Geneva where time counts

WT Writer
Feb 7, 2018
Wander cobblestone streets, sail on Lake Geneva or marvel at horology intricacies: whatever you do to get under the skin of Geneva, make it count in this laid-back Swiss melting pot, says Hayley Skirka

Parched on the edge of a weathered wooden stool, my foot gingerly pushed on the pedal below it. Squinting hard, I focused on the magnifying lens pressed against my right eye, observing the dizzying array of lines, dots and markings before me. Taking a deep breath, I began to push gently on the cutter in my left hand. Ragged gold slivers began to appear in the viewfinder as the metal point started snaking its way towards the top of the gold dial held securely in the arms of the straight-line engine in front of me. I pushed harder, settling into the groove of guilloching a piece of solid gold. This wasn’t so hard after all, I mused.

Without caution, I switched to the next row, slivering off some more slices of gold and watching the pieces fall onto the bench below like some kind of gold-flecked fairy dust. 

Suddenly, a voice behind me called, “Stop,” and I froze, mid-cut, puzzled at the interruption. “Look closely,” said Frederic Misane, master guillocheur of 20 years. You’ve damaged it.” Shocked, I gazed back into the viewfinder. And there, among hundreds of neat little marks, was indeed a scratch that encroached ever so slightly above the inside rim of the gold plate. Invisible to the naked eye, it nonetheless rendered my entire work useless. After all, this was Breguet: one of the world’s oldest watchmaking companies, makers of timepieces that have dominated European high society since the late 18th century and the absolute favourite watch brand of Marie Antoinette. There were standards to be met – high standards at that – and my momentary error of misjudgment simply wasn’t going to cut the mustard. “Imagine doing that for seven weeks, day in and day out, and then having to throw it all away because of a tiny jolt of your hand,” said Misane. “That’s the mastery of Breguet watchmaking.”

And masters they are indeed, yet on Geneva’s iconic Rue du Rhône, they are far from the only masters at play. Here, Patek Philippe, Gucci, Dior and Piaget vie stylishly with one another in a concentration of elegance, style and craftsmanship. A wander down this cobbled road leaves no doubt that you are indeed in the world capital of watches – even Geneva’s most famous landmark, the impressive Jet d’Eau fountain, was born of the city’s watchmaking roots.

The most expensive street in what is continuously one of Europe’s most expensive cities, this thoroughfare reads like a Who’s Who of luxury

In 1886, when Geneva began to emerge as a hive of watchmaking activity, the banks of the Rhône housed hundreds of cabinotiers who would dutifully turn up for work at 7am every day, climbing the stairs to their tiny attic workshops. Water used to keep the artisan’s machines lubricated ran smoothly through the workshops throughout the day until precisely 4pm when, in typical watchmaking fashion, each of the houses would down tools at precisely the same moment, causing a huge surge of water to shoot out of the access pipe some 30m in the air. This daily show soon attracted the public’s attention and, once the city realised this, they christened it the Jet d’Eau and relocated it to a more central location – in the heart of Lake Geneva. Today’s imitation of the original pencil fountain now powers water a staggering 140m into the air and is a sight worth seeing, especially when – at the right time of day, from the right angle – you can see a rainbow cut through its centre.

A stormy sunset on the lake

A stormy sunset on the lake

Having failed at watchmaking, it was time for me to try out my sea legs. Smiling captain Paul Gaudin came to meet us as we boarded the Montreux, the oldest of the historic Belle Epoque fleet and a lovingly restored paddleboat steamer. Setting sail, we tucked into a hearty Swiss lunch that included pigeon and lake-caught trout, then headed to the captain’s bridge to marvel at Geneva’s rolling hills, lakeside townships and clear blue waters, all surrounded by lofty mountains.

With watchmaking and boating successfully sampled, it was time to try one of the city’s other great fames, the art of chocolate. Heading across the river, to the little town of Carouge, it was hard not to think we had left Switzerland behind and entered a Mediterranean hamlet. Packed with sought-after real estate, bohemian eateries, colourful markets and unique architecture, this is the Greenwich Village of Geneva. At 12 Rue Saint-Joseph, master chocolatier Philippe Pascoët makes his delicious, sweet-smelling magic. Welcoming us into his kitchen, we were given a detailed history of chocolate, and the theory that cacao beans are essentially fruit – a theory I can definitely get on board with. Next, we got to try our hand at sculpting some of our own chocolate masterpieces. From pistachio to basil, earl grey to menthol, each of the gourmet chocolates created in this workshop is something special. My favourite had to be the lavender, delicately infused with dried flowers and topped with a pop of purple ganache. If a trip to Philppe Pascoët’s has whetted your cocoa appetite, there’s also the Favarger guided factory tour, and Stettler – another local chocolatier that should be on every chocolate lover’s to-visit list.

Truly a waterside city, Geneva lives and breathes around its lake

This love of chocolate spills over into Geneva’s history books and a wander round the Old Town – home to ancient cathedrals, charming squares, museums and tree-lined promenades – will eventually bring you to the historic city walls and the site of L’Escalade. It was in 1602 that the Duke of Savoy’s troops attempted to scale the city’s walls and – legend has it – a woman called Catherine Cheynel happened to be cooking soup when she noticed the approaching soldiers and proceeded to pour the entire cauldron of steaming liquid over them, slowing them down enough to allow the militia time to gather and successfully defend Geneva. Today, this historic event is marked annually with the three-day Fête de l’Escalade – a long weekend of exciting celebrations centred around a ceremonious giant chocolate pot stuffed with marzipan candy.

Geneva's Old Town

Geneva’s Old Town

It would seem that it’s not only Genevans who’ve got a lot to thank Ms Cheynel and her soup for. As the global capital of peace, the world relies a lot on little old Geneva. Home to the United Nations (Ban Ki-moon was in town while we were there), it’s also the site of the headquarters of the Aga Khan Foundation, the International AIDS Society, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum, the World Health Organization and too many others to list. And, dubbed the annex of the United Nations, the InterContinental Geneve makes a fascinating abode for your time in Geneva, having played host to some of the world’s most iconic political figures including Martin Luther King, President Jimmy Carter and Nelson Mandela. Beautifully renovated in 2013, this listed building is not only a stunning hotel commanding beautiful lake and fountain vistas; it’s also a place where history is made.

A cultured city, rich in history, museums, charming villages and a flourishing food scene, all set against the backdrop of beautiful Lake Geneva, this gateway to the Alps really is Switzerland’s melting pot.

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