Two months ago, I was browsing flights online at 2 am, unable to sleep. Using a favorite “adventure generator” I spotted a roundtrip from Madrid to Geneva for only €66. Better yet, it was operated through Swiss Air, not a discount airline that will charge you for breathing too loudly or bringing non-regulation sized reading material. I booked it immediately, reveling in the spontaneity.
Late at night on Thursday, November 28th I arrived into Geneva. It was cold and my hostel seemed rather…hostile. I felt twinges of homesickness as I Skyped my family, comparing my sad little plane snack to their Thanksgiving feast. Nevertheless, on Friday morning I threw on layer after layer, ready to see Switzerland for myself. First up: a day trip to Lausanne. Lausanne is a lovely little city just outside Geneva and also the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee. I snagged some tourist information and set off to explore the Old Town.
A small Christmas market had already sprung up, lined with stalls of tantalizing hot chocolate, mulled wine, knit hats and scarves, and local cheeses and meats. My breakfast consisted of two expensive but necessary Ladureé Parisian macarons: one caramel fleur de sel and one rose petal. The day, while cold and gray, was luxurious on a budget. I popped into high-end markets and cheesemongers and helped myself to free samples of artisanal cheese and rich, dark chocolate. The Lausanne Cathedral was a favorite tourist stop: a quiet and ornate building dating back to the 13th century, encrusted with statues of saints. Near the cathedral was a richly furnished antique bookshop with old, musty tomes and ancient prints spilling from every corner and, farther along, a shop selling elegant pens, notebooks, and other writerly materials.
I wandered in search of a recommended crêperie in the neighborhood of Ouchy, the port of Lake Geneva, only to discover its crepes were about 20 Swiss Francs out of my price range. The gardens of the Olympic Museum were interesting – sporting (no pun intended) different, eclectic statues of athletes. Unfortunately, the museum was closed for renovation. Buffeted by a cold wind, I decided it was time to go.
I spent the rest of my weekend in Geneva. Luckily, a friend from Boston University who’s currently living and interning in the city was free to show me around. After a delicious start to the morning at a pâtisserie, we walked about the city all day. The wind coming off of Lake Geneva was so frigid we had to stop for frequent, rewarding hot chocolate and pastry breaks. We passed through Place du Bourg de Four, the heart of the Old Town, to visit St. Peter’s Cathedral and check out the art galleries and windy streets. Pushing on, we crossed through Place de Neuve and an area where old men and children played larger than life chess, moving on to the Jardin Anglais to see the famous Flower Clock, and ambling through the lush parks bordering Lake Geneva. Those brief moments where the sun escaped the clouds made the lake and the Alps all the more glorious.
That night, as promised, my friend took me to La Buvette des Bains des Paquis, a well-loved fondue joint on a pier jutting into the lake. Switzerland is where cheese fondue originated, and in keeping with my trip’s cheese and chocolate theme, I had to try some. It was an experience, to say the least. We took the tram to the Paquis neighborhood and, shivering, walked out onto the pier. Bains des Paquis is casual and very simple by design. There are just a few non-fondue options and sides available. We ordered outside, cursing freezing locale. Then, we found a spot at one of the long wooden tables and benches inside the restaurant and sipped our hot tea (cold drinks are not advisable, as they don’t mix well with the heavy fondue in one’s stomach). Soon, the waiter arrived lugging our heavy pot of bubbling hot, blended cheese fondue. We readied our forks and basket of bread. We’d also opted for a plate of thinly sliced, cured, wild boar (surprisingly tasty) with a few little pickles and pear onions – a traditional Swiss accompaniment. What followed was nothing short of a transcendental experience. That meal was one of the best of my life, taking melted cheese and bread to a new level of deliciousness.
The next day I flew solo, breezing through the Museum of Art and History before returning to the Old Town. Another restaurant on my list was Chez Ma Cousine. There the specialty, and only lunch option, is juicy, flavorful roasted chicken. For only 15 Swiss Francs, I devoured the hearty plat du jour: half a roasted chicken, potatoes Provençal-style, a green salad, and fresh bread. Washed down with a glass of red wine, the meal was perfection.
At the airport, I spent the rest of my coins on fancy chocolates and awaited my flight home, reflecting on the weekend. Geneva struck me as a stately, international, and exceedingly expensive city. I found the Swiss Alps and Lake Geneva beautiful, but the city itself didn’t strike me as particularly unique or vibrant. Luckily, the cuisine is a major attraction. And isn’t that always enough?