Geneva : The United Nations
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United Nations Headquaters, Geneva (©_OTG / Maydell)

Geneva is home to UNOG, the unattractively titled European headquarters of the United Nations, housed in a complex of buildings off Place des Nations. Some areas are open to the public for official guided tours (July–Aug daily 9am–6pm; April–June & Sept–Oct daily 10am–noon & 2–4pm; Jan–March & Nov–mid-Dec Mon–Fri 10am–noon & 2–4pm; Fr.8.50; www.un.org). The tours – in any of the UN’s fifteen official languages – are only moderately interesting in themselves, but are packed with star quality for those who want to hobnob with history. This is the world’s single largest conference centre for multilateral diplomacy and top-level international politicking – when the news has reports of “negotiating taking place in Geneva”, they mean here. If this impresses, then you’ll enjoy the visit; if it signals only the dreary prospect of traipsing along corridors and standing in empty conference halls, you should probably take your francs elsewhere.

The Palais des Nations was built from 1929 to 1936 to serve as the headquarters of the League of Nations, set up to prevent a recurrence of war on the scale of World War I but stymied soon after its birth by the outbreak of World War II. When the organization was re-founded as the United Nations in 1945, headquartered at New York, the Geneva office became European HQ. Since then it has burgeoned, and now encompasses offices administering a vast array of economic and social UN development work, as well as bodies dealing with the negotiation and signing of treaties and conventions of all kinds. It’s also the hub of UN operations to deliver humanitarian aid and uphold human rights around the world.

The UN tour
The main entrance of the Palais des Nations, facing onto Place des Nations, is for UN staff only; the public entrance is up Avenue de la Paix opposite the Red Cross Museum. To enter, you’ll have to hand in your passport and go through airport-style security procedures (you’re effectively leaving Switzerland and entering international territory). You should then walk down the hill to the left, towards Porte 39 in the new wing, from where tours depart. Note that you may have to wait fifteen or twenty minutes for the next tour in English (there’s a bookshop for browsing), and also not only are there no lockers to leave your stuff, but the tour, which takes an hour, ends at a different exit closer to the passport-control gate.

Once you get going, you’re regaled with a potted history of the UN and its philosophy, and odd factoids such as the UN is currently owed more than $2 billion by the US in unpaid subscriptions, or that when the US denied Yasser Arafat a visa to address the UN in New York in 1988, the entire General Assembly had to fly to Geneva to hear him speak in the great Assembly Hall, visitable today more or less in the same condition as when it was inaugurated in 1937. The Council Chamber, which hosted the negotiations to end the 1991 Gulf War, is decorated with gold-and-sepia murals painted in 1934 by the Catalan artist José Maria Sert, depicting the progress of humankind through health, technology, freedom and peace, all very heroic. Indeed, the whole architectural style of the main wing – granted to an international consortium after Le Corbusier’s visionary modernist visions had been rejected – is, rather ironically, a prime example of 1930s fascist, complete with cold marble floors, gigantic bronze doors and the hard lines of Neoclassicist Art Deco. That the building’s rear extension, built in the late Sixties, today resembles the worst of London or Paris’s inner-city office blocks, merely adds insult to injury.

Musée Ariana
Just down the hill from the UN, in a distinctive Neo-Baroque mansion set in the same park, is the Musée Ariana (Mon & Wed–Sat 11am–5pm, Sun 10am–5pm; free), devoted solely to seven centuries of glass and ceramics from Europe and the East. Unless you’re a fan, though, the building – semicircular galleries overlooking an internal atrium – is likely to be as inspiring as its contents. Highlights of the lavish collection include beautiful and intricately decorated European faience and porcelain from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, the earth tones of Spanish ware contrasting with deep creamy French colours and light Italian pastels. There are plenty of English notes to mug up on as you go around.

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