There was an irritating symmetry to our weekend in Geneva. Like the naive idiots that we are, my wife and I decided to save money on our flights and go with easyJet in order to splash out on a swanky hotel. More fool us: our parsimony was rewarded with a two-and-a-half-hour delay both on the way out and on the way back.
Apologies were grudging and explanations confused. It may just have announced a 56 per cent rise in annual profits, but easyJet continues to hold its passengers in utter contempt. But enough of all that. Geneva itself was fabulous and we hit pure gold with our hotel — the Hôtel d’Angleterre being one of the nicest, most comfortable, nothing-is-too-much-trouble hotels that either of us has ever stayed in anywhere. It was five-star-swanky (we chose it on the strength of it having won ‘Best Small Hotel in the World’ last year) and central too, only yards from Lake Geneva’s shore, and bang opposite the city’s celebrated fountain that shoots 500 litres of water 140 metres into the air every second (I had to look that up).
Marina had devised a complicated rota by which we left our two small boys in the care of my sainted mother, sister-in-law and neighbours, allowing us an all-too-rare weekend alone. During the taxi ride into town (the airport is barely 20 minutes from the centre) Marina outlined her plans. ‘Why don’t you tell me what you’d like to do this weekend, and I’ll tell you what we’re going to do?’ she asked graciously. It soon became clear that we were there to shop and to eat chocolate and I was to enjoy myself and not moan. And, blow me, I did and I didn’t (enjoy myself, that is, and moan).
Jorge Luis Borges, who lived in Geneva as a child and later as an old man, reckoned that ‘Of all the cities in the world … Geneva seems to me to be one of the most likely to bring happiness,’ and on my brief acquaintance with the place I can see exactly what he means. It is a grand city but on a small scale (with only 180,000 inhabitants) and spending time there was a complete pleasure.
Fortified by some awesome hot chocolate (I began to see what Marina was on about) we pottered round the charming cobbled streets of the Old Town, dipping in and out of antique shops and the occasional wine bar. We poked our noses round the door of St Peter’s austere 12th-century cathedral, where Calvin preached, and into the 15th-century Hôtel de Ville, with its winding, paved ramp built to allow horsemen to reach the fourth floor without dismounting. We also spent an hour or so in the delightful Museum of Art and History (more Wallace Collection than National Gallery) and popped into the exquisite Russian church. If this was all to soften me up before the onslaught of dedicated shoe-shopping, it worked a treat, and the fact that we visited over a dozen boutiques (Geneva, being cold in winter, does boots in great quantity and style, explained Marina) was but water off a duck’s back.
It wasn’t until the second afternoon, in the bohemian and arty suburb of Carougue (bizarrely once part of the Kingdom of Sardinia), that we found the boots that Marina had waited all her life to buy. We celebrated with a hearty lunch at the heavingly busy Brasserie La Bourse.
The dishes sounded a darn sight better in French than they did in English. We could, for example, have had ‘Shrimps jumped to the Madras curry with pineapple’ or ‘Droppings of Chavignol in hazelnut crust and its small,’ but opted instead for a lip-smacking venison stew.
We caught a tram back to town and walked the lunch off with a stroll along the lake to the Botanical Gardens and back. We passed the spot where poor Elisabeth, Empress of Austria–Hungary — ‘Sisi’ — was fatally stabbed in 1898, and saw the small leafy pond at Mon Repos where Casanova famously flung al-fresco woo at his Genevan conquests Hélène and Edwige.
Geneva may not be as obvious a choice for a romantic mini-break as, say, Rome or Paris, but I can’t recommend it too highly. As we discovered, there is far more to Switzerland than bloody skiing, and this small but perfectly formed city is an absolute jewel: crammed with great shops and galleries, first-rate restaurants, immaculate streets and elegant buildings. And, unless you’re daft enough to fly with easyJet, it’s only an hour and 15 minutes from London.