Guide to Old Town Geneva

Cultural Perspectives • 04 Apr 2019

Guide to Old Town Geneva

by Meghan Dansie

Hitting the Cobblestone Streets

The Romantic poets searched for poetic truth in sublime natural landscapes. The idea of the sublime put words to the sensation of being in awe of a landscape’s beauty, as well as being afraid of it. They found this feeling carved out for them by the dramatic ravines, ancient glaciers and soaring mountains of the Swiss Alps, and it is this feeling that keeps travellers coming back year after year. That and the cheese fondue!

Caspar Wolf painting of Lauteraar, Switzerland. Swiss painter Caspar Wolf (1735-1783) is considered a pioneer in Alpine landscape painting. All his paintings capture the raw emotion of the rugged terrain.

In comparison to the dramatic natural poetry of the Swiss Alps, one would expect that visiting Geneva, the city cradled by the Alps, would be rather dim.

The frescoes in the Old Arsenal by Alexandre Cingria are anything but dim!

However, like the Romantic poet William Blake’s corresponding Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, these two unique places in our world feed into each other. Where the Alps are virginally stark and wild, Geneva is a bustling, cobblestoned hub of human endeavour, which manages a balance between a strong Swiss identity and a decidedly international outlook.

AkriviA workshop in Old Town

Vieille Ville

Surprisingly, the cosmopolitan, experienced sense of community that defines Geneva can be found not just in the halls of the United Nations Headquarters there, or in its numerous architectural standouts, but rather where it all began: its Old Town.

For the discerning traveller and horologist, Geneva’s Old Town, or Vieille Ville, presents a unique opportunity to delve into the city’s history. The many galleries, museums, cafes and restaurants nestled within the Old Town’s warren of cobblestoned streets and squares all have many stories to tell, and it is a pleasure to discover them whilst also creating your own.

Bourg-de-Four Square

Listening to these stories soon uncovers a simple truth about Geneva. Here is a place that, across the ages, has seen a truly multicultural spread of different ideas, religions and rulers. In the very centre of Geneva’s Old Town is Bourg-de-Four Square. Rumoured to be the oldest part of Geneva, Bourg-de-Four originated as a Roman marketplace.

Bourg-de-Four Square (Credit)

St. Pierre Cathedral – Home of Calvinism

Roman occupation, beginning in the second century B.C., was a strong guiding force in the development of Geneva as a city. It is less well known that the famous St. Pierre Cathedral, which stands sentry over the Old Town, was built on the site of a Roman Temple from the 4thcentury.

St. Pierre Cathedral

It was here that, over the ruins of religions past, Europe witnessed the birth of Calvinism, with John Calvin preaching in St. Pierre’s in the 16thcentury. This symbolic heart of the Protestant Reformation lends itself to quiet historical reflection, as well as a gorgeous panoramic view if you choose to climb its 157 steps. St. Pierre is surrounded by equally as historic alleys and passageways and offers a greater perspective into everyday life in the Geneva of both past and present.

The spire of St. Pierre Cathedral (Credit)

Maison Tavel

An ideal spot for garnering an idea of general public life in Geneva is the historical Maison Tavel. Built in the 14thcentury, the Maison is the oldest private dwelling existing in Geneva, and suitably houses a range of cultural artefacts all about the people of its city.

Tavel House (Credit)

Old Arsenal

If military history is of particular interest, the Old Arsenal not only contains cannons dating back to the 17th century but also houses the Geneva State Archives. For a stunning artistic summary of Geneva’s history, be sure to check out the three frescoes by Alexandre Cingria, which line the walls of the Old Arsenal.

Old Archives (Credit)

Whatever you do, and for whatever purpose you are in Geneva, there is a wealth of cultural history and meaning in the city’s Old Town. Indeed, uncovering its rich array of stories may even lead you to discover a poetic truth about the human condition (but only after you’ve had a few espressos!).

Tags: akrivia bourg-de-four square frescoes geneva geneva old arsenal geneva old town maison tavel rexhep rexhepi st. pierre cathedral swiss alps vieille ville

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