Travels & Traditions: Geneva, Switzerland - #310

BURT WOLF: Geneva is the most westerly region in Switzerland. It is famous for its role in the Protestant Reformation, as a center for watch making, as a home for The United Nations, and for the many humanitarian organizations that are headquartered here. For thousands of years, it's been a major commercial center. But if there is one element that stands behind almost every aspect of Geneva's past as well as its present, it's the desire for its citizens to be free and independent, and to exercise their freedom on behalf of those less fortunate.

The first freedom seekers arrived in 500 B.C., they were a migrating tribe that came over from Eastern Europe and settled on the high ground, which is now Geneva's Old City. Good spot.

It was just above the junction of the Rhone and Arve Rivers. And right in front were two islands that they used as the base for a bridge, which made it the only spot for hundreds of miles where traders could cross the river on foot and stay dry. A century before the birth of Christ, Roman soldiers saw the strategic value of this site, and turned it into one of their most prosperous colonies. Even then Geneva understood bridge financing.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: By the middle of the 400s, Rome began to lose its power, and Geneva came under the control of the Dukes of Burgundy. The Dukes spent the next thousand years or so duking it out with assorted princes, until 1536, when Geneva declared itself an independent republic, under the protection of the Swiss states to the northeast.

The Swiss loved this. Geneva became independent but it also became a buffer between the Swiss and the Dukes. The Swiss not only offered the people of Geneva military protection, but they offered them the opportunity to become Protestant and join the Reformation.

BURT WOLF: The offer was made most dramatically by John Calvin, and it was an offer you couldn't refuse. In 313, the Emperor Constantine proclaimed the Edict of Toleration, which allowed Christianity to spread throughout the Roman Empire. And by 350 there was a place of worship and a baptistery on the Hill of Geneva. Today the Cathedral of Saint Peter stands on that hill. It's been around since the 1100s, and it's present pastor is William McComish.

WILLIAM McCOMISH ON CAMERA: Well, the bubonic plague was the greatest disaster that ever hit the continent of Europe. It starts in China, it is spread by fleas that live on black rats, and it kills between a third and a half of the population, but of course, nobody was counting. Society totally broke down, suddenly there weren't nearly enough people to do all the ... the work, and the balance of power shifts from a rural society with the lord in his castle and the serfs working in the fields, to an urban society which begins to use mechanical devices to replace all the hands that were not there, and you get a new middle class of literate lay people, who were the merchants, the bankers, the industrialists, the manufacturers, and the middlemen and the entrepreneur of their time.

I think it led to the Reformation in the sense that for the first time for over a thousand years you had an educated middle class. You had people that could read and write, and with the invention of printing, the first books that were printed were Bibles and Biblical commentaries, and in reading these they began to become uneasy about what they had been taught about religion up to that time.

People have an unease about the medieval church, which was coming to an end, they could read and write, they had their own ideas, but these kind of middle class, bourgeois people, in a city like Geneva, there were many cities up and down Europe where this was the case, but Geneva is very typical, they wanted control. They were no longer prepared to be run, by a prince-bishop, who was nominated by the House of Hapsburg, they wanted to take control of their own city, and because the ruler of the city was a prince-bishop, when they threw out the civil government, they also threw out the religious one.

BURT WOLF: The Cathedral of Saint Peter is at the center of Geneva's Old City. Its cobblestone streets wind down from the hill top and are lined with elegant shops.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The main street is called Grande Rue, and during the Sixties I lived here. This was my neighborhood. And it hasn't changed very much, which makes perfectly good sense, it's been here for 1500 years. What did I think was going to change in 30?

BURT WOLF: There's the old Arsenal. The building was put up in the 1400s, and there are five original cannons. My kids used them to play blow up the Duke of Savoy. Down the block is the Place du Bourge-de-Four, the oldest public square in Geneva. To the ancient Romans this place was a center for the affairs of commerce. It's still a center of activity, but these days the affairs are mostly of the heart. A little bar down the street from my house is still here. The sweet yeasty smells of the bakery still drift into the road, and it's still impossible to find a parking place.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The only thing that seems to have disappeared is my youth.

BURT WOLF: Geneva has a very efficient system of trams and buses that cross-cross the city, and make it easy to get around on public transportation. If you purchase a Swiss pass in North America before you come to Switzerland, you can use it on trams and buses and trains and lake steamers. And in Switzerland, lake steamers are particularly important. One of the things that has always attracted people to this area is the lake. Lake Geneva is the largest body of fresh water in Europe, 45 miles long, eight miles wide, and one of the cleanest. In 1986, Switzerland banned the use of phosphates in washing powder, which helped save many of the rare fish.

Since 1823, a local company has been sailing paddle wheel boats around Lake Geneva. They claim to have the largest fleet of classic old boats in western Europe, with the possible exception of Liechtenstein's Navy. Luc-Antoine Baehini is the Director of the company.

LUC-ANTOINE BAEHINI ON CAMERA: Well, you can charter a boat, for example for not only a wedding, an anniversary, a business party, a party, a love boat party, we do all kinds of wild stuff on our boats.

LUC-ANTOINE BAEHINI: What's interesting about this boat is the actually the largest fleet ... steam boat fleet in Switzerland. We have eight of them, and this one, the Italie, was built in 1908, it's one of the oldest still navigating in Switzerland.

BURT WOLF: So nice. The boats dock on a street that runs along the lake from one side of the city to the other. It's one of the most fashionable streets, both for residential apartments, and hotels. As an internationally famous city for over a thousand years, Geneva long ago mastered the hotel business. And there are outstanding examples throughout the town.

While I was in Geneva, I stayed at the Beau Rivage, it's where I lived when I first arrived here in 1968, and started looking for an apartment. I thought it would be nice to come back after all these years, and see what it was like now that I'm old enough to appreciate it. The Beau Rivage is the oldest building in Geneva still privately owned, and the only five star hotel that has remained in the family of its original owners. It was built as a hotel in 1865 by Jean-Jacques Mayer and his wife Albertine. And it passed to their son Charles, and then to their grandson, Fred. Today it's owned by their great-grandson, Jacques Mayer, whose primary interest is in maintaining the physical beauty of the hotel. The day to day activities are under the direction of general manager, Snuggi Lendi.


BURT WOLF: The chief concierge, Aldo Giacomello, has been with the hotel since 1964, and he's the President of the “Clefs d’Or”, the worldwide trade association for his profession. He assists guests with reservations to the theater, concerts, sporting events, and just about anything else that interests you. The Beau Rivage has an authenticity and sense of belonging that is rarely found in a hotel. There are only 91 rooms and 6 suites, all of which were built around an internal atrium that runs up five floors to a glass roof. During the day the entrance area at the base of the atrium is flooded with natural light. Just off the lobby is the Atrium Bar, which serves a light lunch at mid-day, English tea in the afternoon, and has live music during the evening. Most of the time our crew stays in a suite, one big room that we work in, and in a bunch of nearby rooms for all of us to sleep in. I had the feeling that a seventeenth century king checked out just before we checked in. And clearly in the old days, it was good to be king. Amazing stuff. And look at the view. And as the father of King Louis the 16th once said, some day, my son, none of this will be yours.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In 1886, Geneva set up a hydroelectric station to supply power to the craftsmen working in the city, but every evening when the workers would turn off their machines, there was a dangerous overcharge. Engineers would rush to the pumps to turn them off, but they never knew exactly when that surge was going to hit.

BURT WOLF: Eventually somebody had the bright idea to install a safety valve that released the excess water in the form of a jet, which eventually became the symbol of the city. It’s called the jet d’eau and it’s produced by an amazing piece of machinery. Charles Drapel is the Chief Engineer. This is the pump room. Every minute two pumps suck eight thousand gallons of water out of the lake, mix it with air, and place it under tremendous pressure. The key design element is the nozzle, sends up a column of water filled with millions of air bubbles, which gives the jet its white color. Without the air bubbles, it would be practically invisible from the shore. Charles is going to let me turn it on, but I must do it at exactly nine a.m., because that is the official starting time and tourists are hanging out of their hotel windows ready to take a photograph. Five, four, three, two, one. We have ignition. We have lift off.

The jet d’eau is an important symbol of Geneva but so is the Escalade.

Each year on December 11th, the city commemorates an event that took place in 1602. The Duke of Savoy, who controlled the land around Geneva, teamed up with Philip the Second, the Catholic King of Spain, and decided to crush the Protestant Reformation that had taken place here.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The troops were in the middle of a sneak attack when a woman heard their approach. Stationing herself at her kitchen window, she poured a pot of hot soup down on the Savoyards. With their chances for a surprise attack seriously dampened, they pulled back, giving the Guards of Geneva time to counter-attack and defeat the Duke's men, thereby saving Geneva's freedom to produce vegetable soup anywhere they wanted.

BURT WOLF: Not to be left out of the celebration, each year the chocolate makers of Geneva produce chocolate soup pots filled with vegetables made of marzipan. And they also shape chocolate in other forms, each designed to mark an event. At The Du Rhone Chocolate Shop, a two foot high beehive, with bees, signals the beginning of spring. An antique car announces the opening of the annual Auto Show, and the perfect pocketbook celebrates a particularly successful bit of shopping. And shopping is definitely a major part of what Geneva is all about. For over a thousand years, Geneva has been an important commercial center, but for the past 300 years its most famous commercial product has been the watch. Calvin, as part of his desire to simplify life, limited the use of gold and precious stones in jewelry. So many of the jewelry makers turned to make watches and clocks. Throughout the city there are public displays of the craft.

In 1955, a flower clock was constructed in a small park at the edge of the lake. It's about five years wide, has the largest second hand in the world, and over six thousand plants are used to produce its face.

About a block away in the center of a covered shopping street, is the clock of the Passage-de-Malbuisson. Built in the twentieth century, it marks each hour with 16 bells, a parade of 13 chariots, and 42 bronze figures.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The biggest impetus to watch making in Geneva came in 1685, when King Louis the XIV of France decided to kill off all the French Protestants. French Protestants were known as Huguenots and thousands of them fled to Geneva. They were master craftsmen and many were great watchmakers. They made an immediate and valuable financial contribution to the city, and what was France's loss became Geneva's gain.

BURT WOLF: Calvin demanded an almost monk-like asceticism in the city, which made watch making a perfect occupation. The monk’s cell was replaced by the watchmaker’s cabinet, and Geneva became one of the most productive and creative cities in the world. No other country were so many watches made and sold. Today the watchmakers’ craft is commemorated in Geneva’s Clock and Watch Museum. Fabienne Sturm is the Curator.

FABIENNE STURM ON CAMERA: You ask me to talk about pieces I prefer.


FABIENNE STURM: So it's a personal choice. This one, without hands, and with a ... some holes in the dial, is one of my favorite piece in the Museum, for me its very interesting piece, because it's very calm, and I like when the time is going with calm. What is really impressed with this piece and ... is that there are painted in enamel on gold, but we have today the same colors as we had in the seventeenth century. On this one you have a link between the theme of time and the theme of love. And inside you have a landscape, with a river, and a man walking along the river. And this means that time is flowing...flowing as a river. And man is just walking during life.

What is interesting also in this pieces, is that you have something to do to know the time, you have to press something, you have to ... to take it in your hand.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The watch making industry was a source of income, but it was also a source of conflict. It brought in lots of money, but it clearly violated the city's sumptuary laws, that said that no jewelry was to be worn, with the exception of a wedding ring and a watch, and the watch was to be worn in a way that was not ostentatious.

BURT WOLF: Clearly, to flaunt it while you got it was not in. This little number made by the Veigneur Brothers in 1775, was something you only wore on an out of town trip.

And it was an out of town trip for Jean-Henri Dunant, a Geneva business man, that led to one of the most important humanitarian organizations in the world.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In the summer of 1859, Dunant arrived in Italy during the Battle of Solferino, and saw 40 thousand men dying because, after the battle ended, there was no form of medical attention. When he got back to Geneva, he pleaded for the formation of a permanent relief society.

BURT WOLF: His idea led to the formation of The International Committee for the Relief of the Wounded, which eventually became The International Red Cross. Headquartered in Geneva, where it was founded ... it is the world's largest humanitarian organization with staff in 58 countries, and an annual budget of over 500 million dollars. A large portion of that budget comes from the Swiss government. The organization maintains a Museum in Geneva which will give you an amazing insight into what The International Red Cross has done in the past, and what it is still doing. Engraved above the entrance hall of the building is their guiding principle. “Everyone is responsible to everyone for everything”.

The Museum Director is Roger Mayou.

ROGER MAYOU ON CAMERA: well, you know in 1994, after the genocide in Rwanda, The Red Cross had a huge problem with thousands of children who couldn't speak, and so how find their families again if they couldn't speak? So they created this photo tracing program, which was consisting in taking pictures of all the children, then publishing these pictures in booklets. These booklets were disseminated throughout the country and, then like Sherlock Holmes work, if I may say, they could find who the children were and where the families were, and then could ... today, when I'm speaking, could reunite 90 percent of the children with their families.

The organizations activities on behalf of the prisoners goes back to World War I, when they collected the names of the wounded, forwarded 20 million messages a day, and sent prisoners relief parcels. Thanks to their efforts, 2 million prisoners in camps were reunited with their families.

ROGER MAYOU ON CAMERA: The Red Cross of course is independent, this is the only way to work on both sides of a conflict.

BURT WOLF: When the First World War ended, President Woodrow Wilson proposed an international organization to maintain world peace. It was called The League of Nations. The organization was made up of 32 countries and 13 neutral states. The site for The League headquarters became a park at the edge of Geneva. The complex is known as The Palais des Nations, and in 1946 it became the European hub of The United Nations.

Today it’s the busiest conference center in the world, over seven thousand meetings take place here each year. It is home to 14 inter-governmental groups, and 108 non-governmental organizations, including The YMCA and The Boy Scouts. There are year round guided tours of the buildings and the grounds. The largest and most famous room, The Assembly Hall, seats two thousand people. The Library occupies an entire wing of the building, and has a collection of original treaties and documents in its League of Nations Museum. Switzerland's history as an independent and neutral nation makes it an ideal location for this type of organization.

Geneva's long history as a convention and business city, coupled with its love of good food, has turned it into a town with more restaurants per person than any other city in Europe. Here are a few that turned out excellent examples of some of Geneva's most traditional dishes.

The Grande Theatre is Geneva's opera, and right across the street is Le Lyrique. On one side, it's a simple brasserie, and on the other a formal restaurant. It opened in 1981, but the decor is late nineteenth century.

The Café de Soleil, which means the Cafe of the Sun, was the first restaurant to be built outside the city walls. It went into business in 1680, and for a while it was a cabaret. At the time Geneva was a very conservative city, which may explain why it opened up outside the city walls. Today it's a down home neighborhood brasserie that's famous for its cheese fondue.

The Café de Soleil makes their fondue using only gruyere cheese. Swiss have been making gruyere since the 1100s, and for over 500 years, chefs have considered it one of the great cheeses for cooking. A wheel of gruyere weighs between 77 and 88 pounds, has a diameter of 20 inches, and has been aged for at least a year. It has a slightly nutty flavor that's perfect for fondue.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Swiss fondue eating etiquette requires that all diners prevent their bread from dropping into the cheese, and if you fail, there are severe penalties. You may be required to, A, buy wine for everybody at the table. B, kiss everybody at the table, and C, keep a slice of hard boiled egg in your wallet throughout the month of July.

BURT WOLF: One place I kept coming back to was The Bistro du Boeuf Rouge. The walls are covered with hats, beer mugs, old posters, cloudy glass, and undistinguished prints, and none of the plates match, which make me feel very much at home. Thought of as a steakhouse, they also make great fried fish, in this case, filet of lake perch, which is a specialty of the town.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: That's Geneva, Switzerland. A city that has spent the last 2500 years fighting for its freedom, so it could try to lead the good life, while, uh, trying to lead the good life. And that's TRAVELS & TRADITIONS, I'm Burt Wolf.