Swish set

Swish set
A view of the Old Town in Zürich, Photo Credit: Bishwadeep Moitra
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Skip the hiking trails and cowbells and opt for Switzerland's glam trio: Geneva, Zürich and Bern

Nandini Mehta
March 24 , 2014
15 Min Read

What do Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and the Hinduja Brothers have in common? Or Albert Einstein and the Shah of Iran, James Joyce and the Aga Khan? All of them, together with assorted do-gooders and inventors, poets and musicians, jet-setters and bon vivants from around the world, have found that Switzerland’s three major cities—Geneva, Bern and Zürich—provide the ideal environment in which to realise your dreams and ambitions, whether you want to plot a revolution, turn your billions into zillions, develop a path-breaking scientific theory, write a novel, help the world’s suffering millions, avoid celebrity-chasing paparazzi, or simply shop and eat till you drop.

For my colleague Bishwadeep Moitra and I, arriving in Geneva on a balmy spring day, from a sweltering Delhi plagued by power cuts, water shortage, torn-up roads and fiendish drivers, was an experience that left us stupefied. From the moment we landed, everything moved with swift, Federer-like precision—baggage retrieval, immigration control, disciplined queues, silent, orderly traffic and honest taxi driver (he returned change down to the last centime). As the day progressed, and we took note of the crystal-clear waters of Geneva’s lake and river (the Rhone), its spotless streets and immaculate sidewalks, edged with banks of tulips and daffodils, pink clouds of cherry blossom, magnolias bursting into bloom and willows cloaked in the tender green of new shoots, we were in deep culture shock.

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Geneva has an enchanting setting, stretched out along both banks of the lake, with snow-clad mountains rising behind it. It is Switzerland’s most cosmopolitan city: some 40 per cent of its population of 185,000 are foreigners. Many of them work for international organisations—WHO, WTO, ILO, UNHCR all have their headquarters here, as do the International Committee for the Red Cross (founded by a Geneva businessman, Henry Dunant), CERN laboratories (currently engaged in unravelling the mysteries of the Big Bang) and some 200 NGOs. But hidden beneath its international veneer is a city with a distinctive local Swiss-French culture that our guide, the erudite and witty 67-year-old Ariel Haemmerle, reveals to us with enormous pride.

Just back from a six-week backpacking holiday in India, where he revelled in the ‘functioning anarchy’, Ariel has signed up for Bollywood dancing classes, the new rage in Geneva  . On a walking tour of the city, he shows us many hidden treasures—the watchmakers’ little ateliers along the riverside, where water-driven paddlewheels used to power their machines (the Swiss watch-making industry was actually started by French Protestant refugees who settled in Geneva in the 16th century); the elegant stone mansions of the Genevese aristocracy (who, Ariel tells us, are as miserly as they are rich); the superb wood-carving in the choir stalls of St Pierre’s Cathedral and the amazing acoustics in its chapel. Off the beaten tourist track, he takes us to the enchanting boho-chic neighbourhood of Carouge, dotted with art galleries, antique shops, artisanal boutiques and open-air markets. Originally established by the king of Sardinia, Carouge has a very Mediterranean ambience, with its pastel-coloured houses enclosing serene interior courtyards and gardens. Next, we head to the hilltop neighbourhood of Cologny, the ‘Beverley Hills of Geneva’, where industrialists, film stars and international playboys live in large secluded villas. Here too is the Villa Deodati where Byron and the Shelleys spent a few very productive months, during which Byron wrote The Prisoner of Chillon and Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Back in the city centre, as we window-shop at the luxury-brand watch and jewellery stores along the glittering Rue du Rhone, Ariel informs us that, according to the Geneva snobometer, if you really want to make a ‘watch statement’, you have to wear a custom-made one, by brands like Piaget or Patek Philippe, which take at least three months to make.

Lunch is at the Indian restaurant Rasoi by Vineet at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, which not only boasts a coveted Michelin star but another Jharkhand hero. Its 35-year-old head chef, Anupam Banerjee, is a Ranchi boy, whose culinary inventions include wild mushroom khichdi served with ‘beetroot foam’, crab chutney, ‘marbled chocolate samosa’ and fresh figs marinated in zeera and saunf. Rasoi is a particular favourite with Geneva’s international diplomats who ponder the world’s problems over long lunches here.

Back at our hotel, the Grand Kempinski, we get a tour of its best suite. At 50,000 Swiss francs a night, with its panoramic view of the lake and Mont Blanc, its private elevators, personal chef, butler, security staff and physical trainer, and 11 sumptuously decorated rooms, it has everything a deposed dictator, Arab sheikh or Indian steel baron could wish for.

After all that sampling of Geneva’s cosmopolitan sophistication, solid wealth and luxury, it is a moving experience to stand before the statue of Mahatma Gandhi, given pride of place in one of Geneva’s most beautiful parks, close to the Palais des Nations, where the UN organisations are housed.

The following day, Ariel arrives with a car and, in just 20 minutes we are in the midst of Geneva’s vineyards, which cover the lower slopes of the Alps and Jura mountains. They produce superb wines, but only enough for local consumption. Taste the Gamay, Chasselas and Pinot Noir at one of the villages dotting the vineyards—the prettiest among them is Hermance on the left bank of Lake Geneva, with its perfectly preserved medieval farmhouses—or enjoy them at a restaurant in the city, because they are never exported. As a grand finale, we take a leisurely two-hour boat cruise on the lake, enjoying a gourmet lunch as we drift past Geneva’s signature landmark, the Jet d’Eau fountain which rises like a giant white plume 140 metres out of the lake. Swans glide by and waves ripple on the surface as we sail past lakeside mansions, fashionable suburbs and the turreted castle of Nyon. The lake itself is enormous: 73km long, 310m deep and as wide as 13km in the middle—big enough, Ariel tells us, to drown all humanity and rise by only 50cm. The Swiss, of course, have done these macabre calculations in their usual meticulous way.

The next morning we leave for Bern, and Ariel has a parting shot as we say goodbye to him. “Ah, the Bernese! They have a reputation for being slow-witted. Have you heard the story about the Bernese man who ran to catch up with a snail, and then he stamped on it, because it kept overtaking him?” As we are to discover, there’s an intense rivalry between Switzerland’s three cities. In Bern, they scoff at Geneva and Zürich and tell us they are proud of their leisurely pace of  life. It allows them time to reflect and come up with great ideas—like the Toblerone chocolate (invented in this city and inspired by the pyramidal shape of the Matterhorn peak), and the Theory of Relativity, which Einstein developed when he lived in Bern. In Zürich, we hear that the Genevese are pretentious and snobbish, leaving the Zürichers to do all the hard work. In Geneva, they claim their city has the most tolerant, liberal and humanistic ethos of the three (they voted strongly against the ban on minarets, which recently came into force in Switzerland), while the Zürichers are show-offs and narrow-minded to boot.

The 45-minute train ride from Geneva to Bern is postcard heaven: brown-and-white dappled cows grazing in green meadows; picturesque flower-studded hamlets; and a line of uniformed men running up a steep hill—the Swiss army in hard training, ready to be called up at a moment’s notice (even though the last war they fought was in the time of Napoleon). Bern itself is a city of fairytale beauty, nestled along a bend in the Aare river, its perfectly preserved old town a Unesco World Heritage Site. It’s the most compact and pedestrian-friendly capital city in Europe. If it weren’t for the icy wind, Bise, from eastern Europe, which whipped up the day we were there, we would have loved to linger in its historic quarter all day, watching its 16th-century Zytglogge clock strike the hour with an enchanting procession of roosters and bears; taking a closer look at its magnificent late-Gothic Münster cathedral, its guild houses with beautifully carved figures on their façades and its statue-topped fountains, including an intriguing one of an ogre eating a child. We finally found shelter from the wind along the six-kilometre-long covered arcades of the old town, admiring the elegant window displays. Meanwhile, down at the riverside Bear Garden, where the city’s mascots live (Bern is named after a bear that its founder hunted at this site), the brown bears and their cubs had retreated into winter hibernation. Bern also has some fine modern buildings, among them the Zentrum Paul Klee museum, dedicated to the works of Switzerland’s most famous modern painter. Its striking building, in the shape of three undulating hills of glass and steel, was designed by the celebrated Italian architect Renzo Piano (who also designed the Pompidou Centre in Paris).

On to Zürich the next day by train. Be warned that Swiss trains are punctual to the second. If your train is scheduled to leave at 9.02am and if your foot is on the footboard at even a second past the appointed hour, the doors will shut in your face. Though we made it with one second to spare, we were roundly scolded by the conductor for jeopardising Swiss Railways’ impeccable on-time record. We were properly contrite because by now, halfway through our weeklong trip, the Swiss obsession with punctuality had seeped into our laidback Delhi souls. Bishwadeep, who is habitually late for Outlook’s daily editorial meeting, had taken to turning up five minutes early for every appointment.

Zürich, Switzerland’s richest and most populous city, has two faces. As you emerge from its railway station, you hit the most expensive mile of real estate in the world, the Bahnhofstrasse. Here are the headquarters of the big Swiss banks, housed in solid stone palaces; the glittering windows of Louis Vuitton, Cartier and every other luxury brand you can think of. And, far more enticing to our eyes, the Sprüngli Confiserie—Mecca for chocoholics; its ground floor display of truffles, pralines, macaroons and chocolate cakes is more dazzling than the Harry Winston diamonds a few doors up the street. In the restaurant on the floor above, the bored wives of Zürich’s workaholic billionaires sit sipping hot chocolate and looking for diversion. Zürich gossip has it that if they place their spoons upside down, it’s a discreet signal that they’re ready for romantic adventure.

And then there’s Zürich West—the edgy, happening fringe of the city, where abandoned mills, breweries and factories have been turned into theatres, galleries, museums, bars and jazz clubs. The architectural conversions of these old industrial sites are brilliant, so too is the rule that 30 per cent of all redevelopment in Zürich West has to be residential, which ensures that the area remains vibrant through the day.

Zürich’s Old Town, with its hundreds of tinkling fountains, tall narrow houses with oriel windows, and grand Baroque riverfront town hall deserves at least half a day—and a Yash Chopra movie or two. Don’t miss the Fraumünster cathedral, which has six exquisite stained-glass windows designed by Marc Chagall, each with a different luminous colour predominating, and depicting scenes from Christ’s life. Science buffs might want to make a pilgrimage to Zürich’s Federal Institute of Technology across the river from the old town—as many as 21 Nobel Laureates have studied or taught there.

Geneva, Bern, Zürich: each city has its distinct character, but also many common traits. An awesome work ethic, as well as imagination and ingenuity, have created the incredible infrastructure that keeps them safe and clean, maintains their beautiful historic areas impeccably and ensures that their public services run like clockwork. We mull over the stark contrast with our own maximum cities during our swift and seamless train ride to Zürich airport to catch our flight to Delhi. At the Swiss International Airlines check-in counter, our Swiss idyll comes to an abrupt end as three men, our compatriots, brazenly barge in front of us. We’re back in Delhi already...

The information

Top tip
The Arrivals Hall at Geneva airport has a machine that dispenses free tickets to passengers for trains and buses from the airport to the city. Go for it, because the taxi fare is an exorbitant SFr 40 to the city centre, which is just 6km away. Most Geneva hotels also give their guests a Geneva Transport Card for the duration of their stay, which allows unlimited free travel on the city’s buses and trams. You have to ask for it.

Getting there: Swiss International Airlines (www.swiss.com) flies five times a week from Delhi (from Rs 40,000) and Mumbai (from Rs 39,000) to Zurich. Aeroflot  (www.aeroflot.ru) offers return fares from Delhi to Zurich from Rs 33,000 and Finnair (www.finnair.com) fares start from Rs 35,000. Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com) has return fares from Mumbai from Rs 33,000. The fares to Geneva are comparable, but flights to Bern can cost considerably more.

If you’re travelling to Bern or Geneva from Zurich airport, there are fast and frequent train (Geneva: from Swiss Franc 80, approx Rs 3,200; Bern SFr 46, approx Rs 1,850) and air connections (from Rs 23,000 one way to Geneva and from Rs 42,000 to Bern). See www.zurich-airport.com for details.

Getting around: All three cities are compact and easy to explore on foot, with many pedestrianised areas. They also have excellent public transport — buses and trams that run at frequent intervals from 5am until midnight. The driver announces each stop and local fellow passengers are unfailingly helpful to foreign visitors. Tickets on public transport are rarely checked — the Honour System prevails; but be warned that the penalty is heavy if you’re caught travelling ticketless.

Travel between the cities is best done by train. The Swiss Pass, available for varying durations, allows you unlimited travel at substantial discounts not only on intercity trains but also on trams, buses and public boats in the three cities, and free access to most museums as well. Information on the full range of options at www.swisstravelsystem.ch.

Where to stay: 

GENEVA
We stayed at the very grand Grand Hotel Kempinski (from $540; www.kempinski.com), centrally located on Quai Mont-Blanc. The rooms have grandstand views of Lake Geneva, the Jet d’Eau fountain (dramatically floodlit at night) and, on a clear day, the snows of Mont Blanc. From here, the Old Town, the Cornavin railway station and the shopping area of Rue du Rhone are a short walk. A relatively more affordable but still glamorous option is Hôtel de la Cigogne (from $340; www.cigogne.ch). There are more modestly priced options, of course, including the cosy Edelweiss (from $220; www.manotel.com). A budget option is Hôtel Central (from $81; www.hotelcentral.ch), which has been around for over eight decades. Register on the sixth floor.

BERN
We stayed at the modest, efficiently run and strictly non-smoking Hotel Kreuz in the Old Town, a short walk from the railway station (from $130; www.hotelkreuz-bern.ch). Hotel-Pension Marthahaus (from $60; www.marthahaus.ch) is a decent budget option. Spend a little more and you can stay at the well-maintained Hotel City am Bahnhof (from $95; www.fhotels.ch), or book into the Bellevue Palace (from $270; www.bellevue-palace.ch) if you’re willing to spend a pretty buck.

ZURICH
We stayed at the comfortable, friendly and very centrally located Hotel Central Plaza (from $225; www.central.ch), on the banks of the Limmat river, just a five-minute walk from the main railway station, the Hauptbahnhof. A popular budget option is the City Backpacker in the heart of the Old Town, with a communal kitchen that guests can use (from $30; www.city-backpacker.ch). At the higher end is the Widder Hotel (from $480; www.widderhotel.ch), which consists of nine historic buildings that have been beautifully refurbished.


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