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SWISS TRAVELS

Breathtaking lake, bhang-infused lotions and Sh2m watches: Welcome to Geneva

In Summary

• Maison Tavel, which is the oldest building in the city, was constructed in the 12th Century.

• Here, you will find stores selling rare products such as cannabis-infused lip balms and lotions. 

The Reformation Wall in Geneva on Friday, June 14, 2019. The wall pays tribute to key figures from the Reformation era in the 16th Century.
The Reformation Wall in Geneva on Friday, June 14, 2019. The wall pays tribute to key figures from the Reformation era in the 16th Century.
Image: CLAIRE MUNDE

From a lake that offers breathtaking views and overlooks the most extensive mountain range in Europe, the Alps, to buildings whose history dates as far back as the 12th Century. From shops which sell exquisite chocolate and fine wine to streets filled with an endless selection of some of the best watches in the world, Geneva is a tourist's paradise.

Here, you will find stores selling rare products such as cannabis-infused lip balms and lotions. 

Protests in Geneva are held with support from the police, who provide security to demonstrators. Oh, and it's perfectly okay to protest while half-naked in this city - you won't get arrested. 

 

You can misplace your valuables and report the matter to the lost and found section of the police station and within a few hours, receive a call that your items were found and ready for collection.

Cosmopolitan city

Geneva is a cosmopolitan canton with about 40 per cent of the population comprising foreigners. This is partly due to the canton being a diplomatic hub, having the most number of international organisations in the world.

It is one of UN's four major office sites,  the others being Nairobi, New York and Vienna. WHO, UNCTAD, ILO and the World Intellectual Property Organisation are among the organisations headquartered in Geneva,  as is the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The Republic and Canton of Geneva is the French-speaking state of Switzerland and Geneva is its capital city.

With all Geneva has to offer, a group of friends and I set out to discover the city on a sunny Friday afternoon. It's almost summertime. The mornings can be a bit chilly with slight showers, but the rain gives way to the sun from around midday with temperatures of about 20 degrees Celsius.

Geneva is an expensive city to live in, with a Starbucks latte setting you back by an equivalent of almost Sh800. However, employers in Geneva pay some of the highest salaries in the world.

 
 

If you plan to visit Geneva,  you might want to learn some basic French as that is the official language. But even for those whose French vocabulary does not extend beyond 'bonjour', there's hope, because most Genevans understand some English.

Bus, trams and trains are the most popular forms of public transport. Buses and cyclists having their dedicated lanes. Hotel guests are entitled to free public transport passes for the duration of their stay.

The passes also allow guests to use yellow shuttle boats, known as 'mouttes', to cross Geneva's lake - Lac Leman - to get an all-round view.

With the help of a guide - Sandrine - we hopped on to a bus and started our tour at the Palais des Nations, where the UN offices of Geneva are located. With flags from different member states ushering visitors to the location, the building is located at a park and is easily accessible to the public.

 

The Palais des Nations was built between 1929 and 1938 and later expanded in the 1960s. The UN office in Geneva occupies about 25 million square feet. UN specialised agencies such as WHO and ILO are not located at Palais des Nations,  but rather are adjacent. 

There are more than 9,000 UN employees based in Geneva, compared to about 4,600 in the Nairobi office,  which is also a headquarters. Sandrine said most buildings in Geneva have a traditional feel. "The city is not big on sky scrappers," she said.

Reformation Wall

Our next stop is the International Monument of the Reformation on the University of Geneva grounds. The statues honour the key figures from the protestant reformation, which was a Christianity movement of 16th Century Europe that challenged the Roman Catholic Church both in religion and politics. 

Eager to take selfies next to the beautiful sculptures, one of our group members puts his video camera down but ends up forgetting it there. We all move to the next stop, Maison Tavel, which is the oldest building in the city,  constructed in the 12th Century.

It was rebuilt in the 1300s after a fire and is now a museum. It is only upon reaching another stop, St Peter's Cathedral, that our group member realises he had forgotten his camera.

Call it a holy presence prompting or maybe plain coincidence, but a perfect tour suddenly turned into one filled with panic. After retracing our steps and being unable to find the camera, we headed to the police post in Old Town. We left our contacts and continued with our tour, albeit with less excitement.  Our tour of the cathedral turned into a moment to seek divine intervention.

We later headed to the luxury shopping district in Old Town - Rue de Rhone - for window shopping since we were neither willing nor able to fork out Sh53,000 for sandals. Rue de Rhone is where you will find designer brands including Louis Vuitton,  Dior, Gucci, Versace and Hermes.

On this street, a pair of boots can cost about Sh165,000. The price can be higher, depending on the style.

Our tour guide said the stores depend on wealthy clients,  including celebrities and aristocrats, who can order the shops be closed so they can get retail therapy without being disturbed. 

Such clients can buy enough during one shopping spree to keep the stores afloat for half the year, Sandrine said.

For those whose pockets are not deep enough,  there are high street stores such as H&M and C&A whose prices are affordable. There was a sale and some of our group members were able to buy jeans for about Sh2,200.

Rolex headquarters

We then proceeded to the watches district. Rolex  has two 10-storey production units in Geneva. Aside from luxury brands such as Rolex,  shoppers have a wide range of other time pieces to choose from depending on their budget.

From the high end Vacheron Constantin and Omega watches to the less expensive Tissot and Swatch brands, you can find a time piece for anything between Sh25,000 and Sh2 million or more.

For those with a sweet tooth, there's an abundance of Swiss chocolates to choose from. Foodies will enjoy a wide selection of cheeses, wine, dried meats and bread.

Cannabis

As we walked around,  we stumbled upon a shop that sells bhang related products, including cannabis-infused lip balms, lotions and cannabis tobacco substitutes. In Switzerland,  the sale of marijuana that doesn’t make you high, known as CBD cannabis, is permitted. However,  growing, selling or consuming cannabis with a THC content of more than one per cent is banned. THC is the component of cannabis which is considered to be narcotic.

The law, however,  does allows for the controlled and limited use of cannabis for medical purposes.

We wrapped up our tour by taking a ride on a moutte, taking in the cool breeze thanks to Lac Leman, also known as Lake Geneva. You cannot miss the Jet d'eau, the large fountain which is one of the city's most famous landmarks. Five hundred litres of water are released by two pumps per second.

We were in the city in time for Bol d'or Miribaud, an annual inland sailing event. Participants had lined up their boats for the regatta. The boats leave from Geneva, go to Bouveret and then back to Geneva. This year the event ran between June 14 and 16.

After the moutte ride, we concluded our tour and as we headed back to our hotel, we ran into women participating in a march calling for equal rights and pay. Holding purple banners, they were escorted by police to ensure their safety.

Some wore bras and jeans,  while others were bare chested as they chanted and whistled, demanding equality. 

On arrival at our hotel,  we were informed the police had called after a resident spotted the camera and deposited it in the lost and found section. Our group mate headed to town to collect it and he couldn't stop saying how "my faith in humanity has been restored".

The next morning we were off the airport and headed back to Nairobi, where being in possession of any bhang related product and  walking bare chested will get you arrested.

Places to visit in Geneva 

  1. L'Horloge fleurie: Perfect for photos, l'horloge fleurie is an outdoor flower clock located on the western side of Jardin Anglais park in Geneva.
  2. Jet d'eau: This a large fountain which is one of the city's most famous landmarks.
  3. Reformation wall: The International Monument of the Reformation on the University of Geneva grounds is a place with statues which honour the key figures from the protestant reformation.
  4. St Peter's Cathedral:  Also known as Saint Pierre Cathedral, it is more than 850 years old and is Geneva's main church.
  5. Musée d'Art et d'Histoire: This is the largest museum in Geneva.
  6. Maison Tavel: This is the oldest building in Geneva, built in the 12th Century.
  7. Carouge: Referred to as Geneva's 'little Italy ', it has a museum, many galeries and art studios.