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Geneva : introduction
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GENEVA is an anomaly, the nearest thing the world has to a truly international city, and yet with nothing of the pizzazz such a description might suggest. From its profile in world events, you’d imagine a megalopolis on the scale of London or New York, but Geneva is little more than town-sized. From its demographic diversity – 38 percent of the population are foreigners – you’d imagine its streets to be thronged with the nationalities of the world, but across most of the city centre you’d be hard pushed to spot a non-white face or eavesdrop on a conversation that wasn’t in either French or US-accented English. It’s in the most beautiful of locations, centred around the point where the River Rhône flows out of Lake Geneva (Lac Léman in French, Genfersee in German) flanked on one side by the Jura ridges and on the other by the first peaks of the Savoy Alps, but for all that, it’s a curiously unsatisfying place to spend more than a few days.
The spiritual father of the city is the Reformer Jean (or John) Calvin, the inspiration behind Puritanism and Presbyterianism, who turned Geneva into what was dubbed a “Protestant Rome” in the sixteenth century. His parsimonious spirit – paradoxically enough – remains the motive force behind this wealthiest of citystates today. What’s officially still known as “The Republic and Canton of Geneva” is only nominally within Switzerland’s borders, squeezed into a bulge of land that shares just 4km of internal border with its Swiss neighbour but 108km with France all around. Some thirty thousand French frontaliers commute daily to their workplaces in Geneva from dormitory towns just over the border, benefiting from both a high Swiss salary and relatively low French living expenses, and equally high numbers of Genevois save money by doing their shopping in France. The Gallic influence is what defines the city, and yet this is tempered by a streak of Calvinism so ingrained that the conservative Genevois – surrounded as they are by some of the world’s most expensive shops and most exquisite restaurants – can’t quite bring themselves to indulge, and leave most of the high living to the jetset glitterati who’ve taken up residence on the lakeside hills.
Instead, Geneva has become the businessperson’s city par excellence, unrufflable, efficient and packed with hotels. The cobbled Old Town, high on its central hill, is atmospheric but strangely austere, with abiding impressions of high, grey walls and the stern tap-tap of passing footsteps. At the heart of the city is the huge Cathédrale St-Pierre, and packed in all around are an array of top-class museums, including the giant Musée d’Art et d’Histoire and an impressive gallery of East Asian art, the Collections Baur. Livelier residential neighbourhoods on both banks of the Rhône, such as Les Pâquis and Plainpalais, offer more appealing wandering, and a short way south of the centre is Carouge, an attractive eighteenth-century suburb built in Sardinian style to be a place of decadence and freedom beyond Geneva’s control; its reputation lives on in its population of artists and designers. Last but not least, Geneva is home to dozens of international organizations. Two of them – the United Nations’European headquarters and the International Committee of the Red Cross, the latter with an award-winning museum – allow visitors a glimpse of the unseen lifeblood of the city, the diplomatic and administrative confidence that have made Geneva world capital of bureaucracy.
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