As the Emirates flight descends into Geneva, Switzerland (locally known as Genève) last Monday afternoon, the feathery clouds gave way to a city below that looked like it is fenced by snow-capped Alps.
The sun rays, were bright enough but as I would soon find out, not warm enough to what I am used to in Nairobi. I likened it to a torch, bright light but no heat.
Temperatures oscillate from 15 degrees to almost zero in a day and the wind is spine-chilling.
But, the friendliness of the Swiss people, some of who run businesses in the metro station which is below the airport thaws away this chill.
They stop what they are doing and help you read a map and show you, in English or French, which platform to take so that you do not miss the train.
While at the airport, you can get an 80-minutes free ticket that can be used to take a train from the airport. The station is full of bubbly passengers with luggage in tow. Exactly six minutes from here is Genève town that hosts several hotels such as the four-star Cornavin hotel.
The stone and glassy hotel is two minutes away from the Genève-Cornavin train station. On the 8th floor of the hotel is the dining room which offers a panoramic city view and if you squint enough it is possible to make out the Alps in the morning.
Once you check in, you get a free public transport pass to use for the train and bus for the duration of the stay in the city.
Across from the hotel is the grey 12th-century St Pierre Cathedral, whose doors remain closed but only open once in a while when tourists or parishioners go in for prayer.
From Cornavin hotel, it is about 20 minutes walk on the cobbled streets lined by antique watch shops, small bars, cafés (if you buy hot chocolate you get a free croissant) and book stores to Lake Genève.
Patek Phillipe Museum
This lake requires that you dress warmly—enough scarfs, heavy jacket and if you can, mittens—otherwise, the winds will make the walk across the Mont Blanc Bridge, hellish.
It is very cold. It numbs your fingers, chaps your nose and makes your legs solid. But the white sea gulls in the icy cold water seem to enjoy it as well as the people running or jogging around the lake in light clothes, others were even sweating.
The walk in the chilling cold leads you to a square with a huge monument, also called the La Combourgeoisie. It is a statue of two women—of Switzerland and Geneva—embracing with their arms around each other’s waists.
Underneath it are purple and yellow tulips and behind the monument is the Rolex building as well as the Patek Philippe Museum which holds the clock and watch-making history from the 1660s.
From the square, it is possible to see the famous fountain on the lake also called Jet d’Eau which means ‘water jet’. It is said to be one of the tallest fountain in the world.
About 2.4 kilometres from Cornavin Hotel is the Palais des Nations, also the United Nations office complex, on bus this is about 15 minutes.
What is most noticeable about the UN complex is the broken chair, which balances on three legs —the fourth violently blown off and thus shorter. It is a monumental sculpture about 12 metres high installed about two decades ago.
The installation was an appeal from the Handicap International, a humanitarian organisation, which urges that all nations to sign the Ottawa treaty that bans the use of land mines.
Where to eat
Genève is a very expensive city, evident in the countless high-end clothes boutiques, jewellery shops, restaurants and watchmakers. Window shopping is free, though.
But the locals, live by the motto “even if you are rich please don’t show it” as there is barely any glitz and glamour in what people are wearing or driving. Even when it is evident that it is probably an exclusive edition.
However, despite the high price tags, there are relatively good places to eat that are affordable. Such as the Café du Soliel at Place du Petit-Saconnex which is situated in a small neighbourhood in Geneva also close to the intercontinental hotel.
It has a beautiful ambience where you can eat in the courtyard, although the chill may make you seat indoors. The staff are warm, bilingual, and friendly. It is a very busy hotel and you will know why.
Their fondue is a must-try. In a plate, you get freshly baked bread slices, followed by a huge bowl of fondue (contains Gruyère cheese, garlic, dry white wine among others).
Using a long-handled fork you dip the bread pieces into the bowl of full melted cheese that is salty and sweet. It is also creamy and nutty and is filling and seems to get saltier as you eat.
After you finish this, the waiter scrapes the crusty cheese from the bottom of the fondue pot for the nun. Try the “Valaisanne” platter, a starter of cured beef and ham, salami, smoked bacon and cheese.
The meals at the Intercontinental Geneva, unlike most European countries, are also tantalising, spicy and colourful. Also while here, make sure to check out some of their previous notable visitors, whose photos are available in the hallways.
Such as Martin Luther King who visited in 1967, former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in 1989, King Hussein of Jordan and Nelson Mandela a year later, Princess Diana in 1994 and Mikhail Gorbatchev, the president of the USSR and his wife Raissa in the same year.
You can visit many other places such as the World Health Organisation Headquarters among others because of the longer days, as the sun goes down at around 8.30 p.m.