DESTINATION – GENEVA
There’s more to Geneva than watches – like eating fondue aboard a taxibike and getting the sand between your feet at the beaches round the lake, says Helen Dalley
ON SWISS TIME
The birthplace of haute horlogerie with a nice sideline in hearty cheese fondue and sublime chocolate, Geneva is a town of great grace and style, its luxury watch boutiques prettily housed in old buildings and the skyline punctuated by the names of the world’s biggest watch brands by night – Patek Phillippe, Rolex, Vacheron Constantin and Breguet. If you’re here to do some watch shopping (and why not, we say), you’ll find 80 watch and jewellery boutiques concentrated on a single street, the Rue du Rhône. Watch shopping aside, the city has a charming old town, whose steep streets are lined with places to stop off for fondue and moules, and watchmaking studios, where you can try your hand at creating your own timepiece. I’m staying at the Beau Rivage, which has stood on the city’s swishest thoroughfare, the Quai du Montblanc, since 1865 and remains one the city’s most esteemed properties thanks to its lakeside location.
In the deluxe lakeview room, I’m looking directly out onto the bay of Geneva and catch my first glimpse of the Jet d’Eau, a giant fountain that sits in the middle of the lake and is easily the city’s most recognisable landmark. When the cloud lifts, I spy the jagged peaks of the Alps, its snowy tips a grand backdrop to Geneva Bay. When I wake the next morning, it doesn’t feel like Geneva somehow until the Jet d’Eau roars into life again at 10am, the giant fountain spouting its iconic jet 140m high. As the spray blows this way and that over the lake, it’s captured by a bevy of enthusiastic snappers waving their mobile phones and jostling for the best vantage points over the lake’s bridges.
It doesn’t feel like Geneva somehow until the Jet d’Eau roars into life again at 10am, the giant fountain spouting its iconic jet 140m high.
Being in Geneva, there’s one thing that’s uppermost in my mind: watches. I’m here to meet Joaquim Jacob at Les Ambassadeurs, a retailer that specialises in new and second-hand timepieces that’s been an official distributor of Geneva’s best-known brands since 1964. On the second floor, there’s an inviting L-shaped leather sofa, where guests can gaze in glass-fronted cabinets at row upon row of watches (and try them on if they’re so inclined) and admire some cool curios like the Klepsydra clock by Marcel Wanders, which features 12 glass cups rotating on a glass wheel, and a storage unit from Imperial that can house your watch and cigar collection together. “More and more younger people are collecting watches – you never know who you might meet here,” says Jacob, who’s worked at Les Ambassadeurs for the past 15 years, serving clients from China, Russia and the Middle East in addition to Europeans. While Patek, Breguet, Audemars Piguet and the like remain massively in demand – particularly any rare or limited editions – collectors are increasingly turning their attention towards more under the radar watchmakers like the UK’s Gruebel Forsey, says Jacob. “The waiting list for the big brands might be up to four years, particularly for the most coveted collections, or limited production, and collectors are keen to get their hands on pieces sooner rather than later,” he says. Watches are an increasingly attractive investment. “The Patek Philippe green Nautilus is now selling for ten times the original retail price,” adds Jacob.
TUK TUK GENEVA STYLE
It’s a grey, drizzly morning and I’m booked in to see Geneva’s old town by taxi bike with Aubin Delavigne as my driver and guide, a Frenchman who set up his business, Taxibike, 10 years ago, which operates a fleet of electric taxi bikes through the city. Compared to the bone-shaking experience of flying around Bangkok’s frantic thoroughfares in a tuk tuk, Geneva’s taxi bike is reassuringly smooth. It’s an exhilarating yet safe and surprisingly chilled drive as Aubin thoughtfully navigates Geneva’s smart, straight streets, speeding up slightly along the straights and effortlessly navigating the steep lanes of the old town. I ask if Aubin has made it to Thailand for a tuk tuk ride and he laughs and says no, not yet. His take on the tuk tuk is reassuringly stable: you can even arrange for a restotuk or aperotuk experience, and enjoy aperitifs, meals and drinks onboard by the lake, old town or further afield in the countryside.
After a photo break at St Peter’s Cathedral, a Roman Catholic place of worship that became a Reformed Protestant church during the Reformation, we riff on the reformation theme a while longer by stopping off at the Reformation Wall, a 100m-long structure that honours the movement’s major players, including John Calvin and John Knox. Delavigne directs me to a memorial hidden under a tree with the name of Marie Dentiere, who was also instrumental in the Reformation. The taxibike then makes a quick detour to the city’s bohemian quarter, Carouge, where buildings with brightly coloured shutters house artist’s studios,
Compared to the bone-shaking experience of flying around Bangkok’s frantic thoroughfares in a tuk tuk, Geneva’s taxi bike feels surprisingly safe and smooth.
independent boutiques and bars. “During the time of the Reformation, people would come to Carouge to have fun, and to drink,” says Delavigne. I wish I could do the same, but I’m booked in for lunch at Hotel de-Ville on the Grand Rue back in the heart of Geneva’s old town and, somewhat predictably, order fondue. I dip boiled new potatoes and bread into the rich cheesy sauce, which pairs perfectly with a local white wine. At the table next to me, a couple opt for fondue with porcini mushrooms; Geneva sausage and air-dried beef are other menu options. Gesturing to the windy, rainy weather outside, the waiter says there can only be two choices of food today, a pot of moules with some frites on the side, or a warming fondue. Gazing out onto the rain-covered windows and shivering slightly in my seat, I’m inclined to agree.
Later on, I catch a mouette, one of Geneva’s little yellow shuttle boats, over to the other side of the lake. Stepping out onto Port Noir and sauntering along the beach, I watch the reflections of the sailboats’ masts pierce the lake then see the locals swim before showering under giant taps on the pebbled beach. Up close, the water looks so clear and clean that I’m tempted to join them. Instead, I walk back round the lake to the Jardin Anglais and step aboard the city’s Grand Roue, or Ferris wheel, for lofty views over the watchmaker skyline as evening envelops the city. The little gondola swings gently in the September breeze and as we climb 50 metres to the top, the lake inky black aside from the yellow mouettes and white tourist boats criss-crossing the water.
BUILD YOUR OWN WATCH
The opportunity to play horologer for a moment in a city that’s celebrated for its fine watches is too good to miss, and at the Initium Workshop you can do just that. I’m invited to disassemble then reassemble an ETA movement, which is a highly satisfying task. Horologer Fabiano Pericles explains that customers can even make their own watch, choosing and assembling the movement then selecting a dial, strap and other details. Initium can host groups of up to 10 and has even conducted workshops in hotels and conference rooms, he says, and those who can’t make it to Geneva can order an Initium watchmaking kit online. After a brief introduction to the history of Swiss watchmaking – fine timepieces evolved here after John Calvin forbid residents from wearing jewellery – Pericles hands me some tweezers and a small screwdriver and sets me to work disassembling the movement. It’s a painstaking process, unscrewing the tiny screws and setting the wheels to one side, but when it comes to putting the movement back together, I feel rush of delight when the balance spring and escape wheel start moving again.
From the watchmaking workshop, it’s a mad dash back to check out of the Beau Rivage and appreciate that classic Geneva view one last time. The Jet d’Eau is back on and the city is ready for its close-up again.