Geneva is famed for its international approach, playing host to over 200 global organisations, including the United Nations and the Red Cross. As Sara Hamdan discovers, this small European city boasts a big personality all of its own.
Nestled at the base of the Swiss Alps on the tip of Lac Leman, Geneva has long stood as a symbol of class and untouched natural beauty. Unlike the sprawling, neighbouring cities of Paris, Milan and London, Geneva is an altogether more intimate metropolis.
As the plane swoops gently into the airport, it doesn't take long to realise that this is a city that quietly accommodates both Swiss traditions and strong international influences.
Though French is the official language of Geneva, it's common to find two people arguing in four languages. Further tribute to the city's signature cultural tradition.
Neat arrays of advertisements are the first to greet passengers in the plane terminals; promoting a whirlwind of Swiss private banks, expensive watches, chocolates and cheeses. Yet it is the melting pot of cultures that floods the true veins of Geneva.
As travellers chat away in a medley of languages on their cell phones while crowding around the baggage claim area, it is impossible to discern a Genevois from a visitor.
Businessmen, students, wealthy summer vacationers, UN delegates, sports enthusiasts, scientists, refugees and artists are all here, in the hope of claiming a corner of the city their own.
It is no coincidence that so many international organisations have chosen this eclectic city to establish their office headquarters, most notably the United Nations building marked by a giant three-legged chair at the wide entrance surrounded by hundreds of waving flags.
Understated yet overwhelming, Geneva is a city of sharp contrasts between the old and the new, the modern and the traditional, where each street has a story to tell.
Stepping off the religiously punctual train at Gare de Cornavin, Geneva's central train station, the nearby music filled streets of the Paquis area beckon travellers into the heart of the city's red light district.
The infamous Rue de Berne and surrounding streets are home to the most cosmopolitan scene in town. Though French is the official language of Geneva, it is common to find two people arguing with each other in four different languages in the Paquis district.
A haphazard mix of Tanzanian bars, Irish pubs, kebab shops, cabarets and hookah lounges can all be found crammed on one street in this area where churches and 'parlours' find harmony in close quarters.
The risqué side of Geneva is tucked behind the Rolex stores and chic outdoor cafes that pave the way from the train station towards the centre of town, where the city throws its arms open to the lake.
Lac Leman, the Genevois term for Lake Geneva, is hugged by a number of restaurants, hotels and businesses along its rim.
The sidewalks are usually full of couples, tourists, bikers and rollerbladers feeding the poised swans and taking in the scenic view of the lake against a backdrop of mountain peaks.The Jet d'Eau water fountain spurts a steady stream towards the sky from the centre of the lake, where a large soccer ball is suspended in mid-air to show support for the Swiss team at the upcoming Euro Cup 2008 soccer championships.
Once a large fortress on a floating island in the middle of the lake, La Tour de L'Ile is now a castle tower lined with trendy cafes and art galleries that makes for a pleasant stopover for pedestrians crossing over the Mont-blanc bridge towards the upscale shopping district of Geneva.
The other side of the bridge opens onto the serene Jardin Anglais square, where the air is perfumed by the 7,000 flowers that comprise the flower clock, a monument to Geneva's 50-year watchmaking industry.
Cobbled walkways on hilly terrain lie just beyond the golden shopper's paradise, where stepping into Geneva's Old Town feels like plunging into a bygone era.
The Byzantine and baroque architecture of the structures lining the lake is a further tribute to the city's signature cultural tradition. The Piaget, Chatila, Credit Agricole and HSBC Private Bank buildings stand side by side like a proud front row audience facing the lake.
Money flows freely in the financial and shopping heart of the city, where private banks manage millions and gilded stores provoke the temptation to spend millions. The Rue de Rhone, Rue de Rive and Rue de Marche streets have glittering objects in every display - from Chopard necklaces to Bvlgari watches.
This is where the Genevois come to parade their effortless sense of style and Arab women are armed with credit cards, ready to clean out the stores. While it is easy to be blinded by the pricey, shiny objects in store windows, it would be a shame to overlook the rich architecture in the area.
In the Place de la Fusterie, the Calvinist Fusterie temple is a beautiful baroque style worship house amid the modern Cartier and Rolex stores. This calm square is brought to life during the International Christmas Tree Festival and the annual Christmas market where local crafts are displayed and yuletide treats are offered.
The adjacent plaza also offers shoppers an alternative activity on Rue de Rhone, where an outdoor skating rink is set up between November and February that attracts over 30,000 visitors each year.
Those who work up an appetite can join the weary shoppers taking a break in one of the wide array of restaurants and cafes sprinkled throughout the area, including popular Capocaccia's in the Confederation Shopping Centre and Molino's in Place du Mollard, the busiest Italian eatery in town.
Cobbled walkways on hilly terrain lie just beyond the golden shopper's paradise, where Geneva's Old Town gives the impression of wandering into a forgotten time period.
The sepia tones of the buildings and streets stand in stark contrast with the colourful cafes, museums, galleries and bookstores peppered throughout the area.
The aroma of raclette and cheese fondue lingers in the thin alleyways as patrons enjoy traditional Swiss meals with white wine in sun kissed outdoor cafes.
The alleys wind randomly up an incline towards the highest point of the city, where the Saint Pierre Cathedral commands attention like a royal figure. An assorted mix of architectural styles, the cathedral dates back to the 12th century and offers a moving panoramic view of the city from its north tower.For approximately 3 Swiss Francs, visitors are invited to climb the 157 steps to the top. The site has actually been a location of worship since 350 AD, as was revealed through excavations beneath the cathedral.
It was recently established as one of the most important archaeological locations in the city, where the remnants of a Romanesque church dating back to the 11th century are buried in the foundation.
The courtyard facing the cathedral, L'Escalade, is a historical gem in its own right. Every December, a torch lit parade runs through the area as a tribute to Geneva's successful battle against the Duke of Savoy in the 17th century.
With such a strong historical tradition, it is no surprise the best museums and historical art galleries are found in Old Town, including The Museum of Art and History, the largest museum in Geneva.
The Place Neuve area unfolds from behind the Old Town and is also known as a cultural and architectural delight in the city. It is home to the Geneva's Grand Opera House and The Grand Theater, which is an imitation of the Garnier Opera House in Paris.
Music and art lovers alike will revel at the Conservatory of Music, where saxophone drones and guitar riffs can be heard from a mile away from one of the most admired Byzantine style structures in the country.
The Victoria Hall, responsible for introducing a British flavour to the local music scene, is famous for a roof so ornate that it is said to take attention away from performances.
Raised high above the Parc de Bastion, The Place Neuve boasts an endless promenade lined with chestnut trees and the world's longest bench, offering breathtaking views of the greenery and life size chess boards of the park below.
As the day unwinds, park lovers join the after theatre crowd at a number of funky, alternative cafes dotting the area surrounding Parc de Bastion. From Cuban lounge Cohiba to delicate French bakery Le Pain Quotidien, there's no reason not to find a locale to suit even the most specific cravings. As with everything in Geneva, it's open and eclectic.
Even the city's connections with its neighbouring towns are generous and unbridled. The central Gare de Cornavin train station is Geneva's gateway to Lausanne's wild nightlife, Montreaux's Jazz Festival and Lyon's quaint, music-filled streets.
But the chances are that you won't need to leave the city anytime soon; even the most seasoned travellers will struggle to trace the multiple faces of Geneva in one trip.
The city's unassuming beauty, imbued with history, culture and in-your-face spirit, makes Geneva alluring to the point of return, and return.
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