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About Geneva

Geneva has long been Switzerland’s most cosmopolitan city. Situated at the southwestern end of Lac Léman – the country’s largest lake – and astride the Rhône, Geneva is the departure point for lake steamers. Only an arrival by water can convey just how well sited the city is, with foreground hills rising against a backdrop of mountains. The river bisects the city – some refer to the north side as the right bank (Rive Droit) and the south as the left bank (Rive Gauche). The city centre is sited on both shores, with the main railway station and the suburbs to the north of the river and the Old Town (Vieille Ville) to the south of the river.

Settled since Neolithic times, Geneva became an imperial city in 1032, under Emperor Conrad II, before achieving independence in 1530 and joining the Swiss Confederation in 1814. Geneva’s reputation for religious tolerance during the Reformation proved to be a major influence on its subsequent development. For centuries, exiles from religious or political persecution chose the city as their refuge, ranging from the English regicides in the 17th century to Lenin in the early 20th century. Even the manufacture of watches was fostered by one of the most intolerant of religious exiles, John Calvin, who lived here from 1541 to his death in 1564. This extraordinary mix of nationalities, coupled with the fact that most émigrés were of an intellectual disposition, led to the establishment of disparate centres of learning. These soon developed such a fine reputation that Geneva became a popular choice for the sons (and later daughters) of well-to-do families to finish their education.

Switzerland’s famed neutrality had a part to play in encouraging international organisations to locate their headquarters in Geneva, which today boasts over 200, raising an always numerous foreign community to one-third of the population. The catalyst for choosing Geneva was the decision in 1919 to set up the headquarters of the League of Nations, predecessor of the United Nations, in the city. Although the UN moved to New York in 1945, Geneva has kept its European office in what is the second largest building on the Continent (Palace of Versailles is the largest). Other important organisations based in the city are the International Committee of the Red Cross – founded by the Swiss Henri Dunant in 1864 – and the World Health Organisation.

The city is also a major banking centre – a “city of wealth by stealth” as the British actor Robert Morley put it – and plays a significant role in the manufacture of watches, scientific instruments, jewellery and foodstuffs. These roles have contributed to it being an expensive city in which to live or stay, although it has much to offer the visitor, principally the Old Town and some fine museums. Geneva is an efficient, clean city. Its excellent public transport system, coupled with the ease and pleasure of walking around the centre, make a car unnecessary, even a nuisance.

The city enjoys a mild central European climate with relatively low rainfall. The super-rich community of international civil servants and tax exiles demand good food, top hotels and entertainment and Geneva provides it all. Beneath the stereotypical veneer of diamonds and watches, however, one finds a tolerant and safe society with the Genevois strangely similar to the British – reserved but courteous.


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