Pile dwellings have been unearthed on the shore of Lake Geneva dating back to 3000 BC, but Geneva’s high ground wasn’t inhabited until 500 BC, when the Celtic Allobroges tribe settled. By 58 BC, Rome had taken over: the first recorded use of the name Genua was by Julius Caesar in his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars. Under Roman rule, the town grew rapidly, and was a bishopric by 400 AD.
Geneva was conquered by the Burgundians as the Western Roman Empire fell. It changed hands repeatedly during subsequent centuries. By the 15th Century, the city became increasingly affluent through its fairs and markets, raising the interest of the House of Savoy, who made several attempts for control of the city. In 1530, under pressure from the Swiss Confederation, the Duke of Savoy finally agreed to leave Geneva alone.
The Reformation arrived in Geneva in the 1530s, courtesy of John Calvin. His sermons were so successful that the city became known as the ‘Protestant Rome’. The rule of the Calvinists was so austere that fun itself seemed to have been banished to hell. Dancing and the wearing of jewels were seen as corrupting and therefore forbidden. Around the same time the taking of interest on a loan was legalized for the first time. Such repression might have been expected to deter visitors but Geneva’s reputation as an intellectual center attracted many free thinking philosophers, including Rousseau and Voltaire.
In the meantime, Geneva was forced to deal with another invasion from Savoy in 1602. In a famous and commemorated victory, the hopelessly outnumbered yet canny Genevese were able to repel the entire Savoyard force. In 1798 the French conquered the city and held it for the next 16 years before it was freed on 1 June 1814 and admitted to the Swiss Confederation.
Geneva’s fame as the home of many international humanitarian institutions dates back to 1859 and the work of businessman and humanitarian Henry Dunant, whose initiatives led to the establishment of the International Red Cross. Dunant went on to become co-winner of the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901. The Geneva Convention, governing conduct during war, was adopted in 1864.
After the world wars, while the rest of Europe underwent the painful process of rebuilding from the ravages of conflict, Switzerland – and Geneva in particular – was able to expand from an already powerful commercial, financial and industrial base. The World Health Organization, the World Council of Churches, and many other international organizations based their headquarters in Geneva. Refusing to compromise its neutrality, the Swiss declined membership of the United Nations, NATO or the European Union, but did join UNESCO (which is based in Geneva) and the European Free Trade Association.
In 1992, the Swiss voted in a referendum to approve membership of the European Economic Area, which would have given them some of the commercial advantages of membership of the European Union without the political obligations. The French-speaking cantons, including Geneva, approved the proposal, but opposition in the German-speaking cantons defeated it, leading to some acrimony between the two communities.
In the past decade, global economic turmoil has hit Geneva’s banking and tourism sectors, spurring the canton’s politicians to direct more energy into promoting hi-tech industries such as biotechnology and telecommunications.
Cathédrale de St Pierre
The center of town is dominated by the imposing, partially-Romanesque, partially-Gothic Cathédrale de St Pierre. John Calvin preached here from 1536 to 1564; his seat outlasted him and still sits in the north aisle. Beneath the cathedral can be seen the crumbling remains of a much older church. Construction began in 1160 and lasted 150 years, by which time this towering Romanesque cathedral had acquired Gothic accents. An immense neoclassical facade was added in 1750. The austerity of the nave reflects its 1536 change from a Catholic cathedral to a Protestant church. Calvin’s supporters destroyed statuary and frescoes, believing them to be vanities and inappropriate for a Christian church. Some artwork have been restored to the 15th-century, neo-Gothic Chapel of the Maccabees, to the right of the main entrance. The Cathedral also has a very important archeological site dating from the beginning of Christianity to the 12th century; 4th century baptistry, 5th century mosaics, pits, etc are exhibited. The panoramic view from the north tower (to the left at the far end of the nave) is worth the climb of 157 steps.
Patek Phillipe Museum
One of the things that Switzerland is famous for is the making of watches. This museum has an extensive collection that shows off the precision art and elaborate decoration involved in the making of quality time-pieces. The watches on show date as far back as the 16th century and were mostly assembled in Geneva or elsewhere in Switzerland. Many pieces are as much works of fine art as they are working time pieces.
This small gallery is expertly presented. The art sometimes encompasses the room decor in which the paintings and sculptures are displayed as if they were in someone’s living room, creating a powerful effect. The museum’s permanent collection focuses on four themes, namely Modern Art, Applied Arts, Fashion and Music. The Modern Art department covers the 19th and 20th centuries and range from Romantic, The Hague School, Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism and Symbolism to Expressionism, Cubism, De Stijl and Magical Realism, and finally to New Babylon, Zero and the many forms of the new painting in recent years. Among the collection are works by Picasso, Chagall, Renoir, Cézanne and Monet. The museum also focuses special attention on Piet Mondrian, whose work is distributed over four rooms. The display of Applied Arts includes Hague silver, porcelain, Delftware and European glass, as well as furniture. The showcases of the fashion gallery are devoted to the art of the Near, Middle and Far East. Some Islamic works of art are included as well. The Dijsselhof Room is one of the few surviving complete Dutch interiors from around 1900. The rooms of the music department were recently rearranged and now include rooms for musical practice, orchestral display and exhibitions. It is now possible to study musical instruments at various levels, including specialist studies (technical drawings, educational projects), displays of replicas and exhibitions of instruments on varying themes.
Musée International de la Croix-Rouge et du Croissant-Rouge
Using an impressive combination of audiovisuals, sculpture, computer displays and documentation, this extraordinary museum tells the story of the founding of the Red Cross by Henry Dunant, as well as its present humanitarian actions.
The English Garden, dating from 1854, is home to the Monument National, a statue of two young women – the ‘Republic of Geneva’ and ‘Helvetia’ – symbolizing Geneva’s joining the Swiss Confederation on 12 September 1814. There is an stylish bronze fountain and L’Horloge Fleurie (Flower Clock), decorated with over 6300 plants, that was installed in 1955 to honor Geneva’s watch-making industry. The clock is the largest in the world – 16.4ft in diameter and 58ft in circumference. Its second hand advances nearly 10.6 inches per second.
The famed Water Fountain is the Eiffel Tower of Geneva, an impressive 459ft fountain that dominates the Geneva harbor and the city. The Jet was originally the safety valve for the city’s water supply and is Europe’s tallest fountain. This water showpiece is illuminated at night, however, during the day, the fountain takes care of the special effects for itself. When the sun shines, a rainbow hovers behind the powerful jet of water, which spurts straight up into the sky at a speed of 125mph.