Geneva : The Old Town
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Old Town (©_OTG)

A gate at the back of the Parc des Bastions brings you up to a small junction and Rue St-Léger, which winds further up into the atmospheric Old Town, characterized by quiet, cobbled streets and tall, shuttered, grey-stone houses that give nothing away. Rue St-Léger curls up into the oddly split-level Place du Bourg-de-Four, a marketplace since medieval times that was probably built over the Roman forum, these days adorned with a fountain and lined with relaxed terrace cafés. From here, Rue Fontaine descends to the north to Temple de la Madeleine, a Gothic church that has clung on to its Romanesque tower, but if you head up the other way on Rue de l’Hôtel-de-Ville, you’ll come to Place de la Taconnerie, dominated by the cathedral. Tucked on your right is the Auditoire de Calvin, a small thirteenth-century chapel built over a fifth-century predecessor. Following Geneva’s acceptance of the Reformation, refugees flooded into the city from all over Europe and, in the knowledge that most of them spoke no French, Calvin gave this chapel over for the refugees to worship in their own languages – Geneva’s first international building. John Knox preached here in the 1550s (there’s still a Church of Scotland service every Sunday at 11am, slotted between Dutch and Italian), and the austere building also doubled as Calvin’s lecture hall.

Cathédrale St-Pierre
Geneva’s Cathédrale St-Pierre (June–Sept Mon–Sat 9am–7pm, Sun 11am–7pm; Oct–May Mon–Sat 10am–noon & 2–5pm, Sun 11am–12.30pm & 1.30–5pm) is a rather odd building, a mishmash of architectural elements that doesn’t really inspire. Begun in 1160, the original building took some 72 years to complete and has had a multitude of bits and pieces stuck on over the centuries. A small side-chapel, the Chapelle des Macchabées, was added in 1397; an incongruous Neoclassical portico – more reminiscent of a museum than a church – was tacked onto the main west front of the building in 1752, facing onto Cour St-Pierre; the two square towers above the east end are totally dissimilar, and between them rises a curious greenish steeple added in the late nineteenth century.

As you enter, though, all confusion is stripped away and you’re left with the clean lines of dour, severely austere stonework. In 1535, spurred on by Bern, the people of Geneva accepted the Reformation and embarked on an iconoclastic rampage – all the altars in the cathedral, as well as every statue and icon, were destroyed, the organs were smashed and the painted decoration on the interior walls was whitewashed. Only the great pulpit and, by chance, the stained glass of the chancel, survived. As you wander through the soaring interior, the architecture, and the austerity, draw your gaze upwards; almost the only decoration to survive is on the capitals of the nave’s clustered pillars, grotesque monsters and a bare-breasted double-tailed mermaid. What is purportedly Calvin’s chair sits at the back of the church on the left, near the door to the North Tower, climbable for spectacular views over the city (Fr.3). You shouldn’t leave without spending time in the delightful Maccabean Chapel, last on the left before you leave. Used as a warehouse and later as a lecture hall, it was rededicated as a place of worship in 1878 and is filled with lavish and beautiful decoration dating from then. Copies of the only fifteenth-century frescoes to survive the Reformation – angels playing musical instruments – are on the ornamented vaults of the chancel within the chapel.

The cathedral is built on the remains of occupation going back to the Romans: the first church, just north of the present cathedral, has been dated to around 350 AD. From then on, the hill on which the cathedral stands was the site of almost continuous building and rebuilding. Since 1976, archeologists have been working to expose walls, rooms and mosaic floors beneath the cathedral, and the huge archeological site is open to the public (June–Sept Tues–Sat 11am–5pm, Sun 10am–5pm; Oct–May Tues–Sat 2–5pm, Sun 10am–noon & 2–5pm; Fr.5), pretty rarefied stuff but exceptionally well presented and labelled, subterranean catwalks weaving around and over the crumbling remains. With more than 200 levels of building work so far discovered in eleven zones, it’s necessarily difficult to tweeze out exactly what’s going on, but the free audioguide helps.

Maison Tavel
From the cathedral portico, an alley leads you on to the Rue du Puits-St-Pierre. A few metres left, at no. 6, is the distinctive grey-blue sandstone facade – etched with trompe l’oeil mortar-lines – of Geneva’s oldest house, now the Maison Tavel museum (Tues–Sat noon–5pm, Sun 10am–5pm; permanent collection free). Built by the Tavel family in the twelfth century, the house was renovated after a fire in 1334, but in the sixteenth century the Tavel line died out. The house was maintained by various noble families until it was bought by the city in 1963 to display items from the history and urban life of Geneva. The vast cellars, which survived the fire intact, are the oldest part of the house, and they and the three upper floors are filled with moderately diverting items – massive carved doors, painted inn-signs and a complete twelve-room apartment showing everyday life in the seventeenth century – but the highlight of the museum is in the attic, a giant relief map of Geneva dating from 1850, showing the city complete with its fortifications, before the Pont du Mont-Blanc or the railway had been built. There’s a sound-and-light show talking you through points of interest on the map; ask the staff to play the English version for you.

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