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Geneva, Switzerland

Escalade, Winter Celebration

Of all the festivals that take place in Switzerland—and there are many—none rival Escalade for pomp and revelry. On the weekend closest to December 11 (in 1997 the fete will be observed from Friday the 12th until Sunday the 14th) tout Geneva celebrates. During these event-filled days the citizens mark their victory over the Duke of Savoy, who tried to capture the metropolis in 1602 on what was the longest night of the year. Although the date was December 21 for the Savoyards, it was the 11th for the Genevese because they had not yet adopted the modification of the Julian calendar.

Escalade in French means scaling the walls and refers to the ill-fated attempt to seize the city by using collapsible ladders to climb the ramparts. Replicas of the ladders are on display at Bastion Mirond, as well as at the Museum of Art and History, which also houses a collection of drawings depicting the skirmish.

Company of 1602 marching in Old Town
"Company of 1602" marching in Old Town
(credit: Vivian Fancher)

The historic weekend includes demonstrations of old armaments in Parc des Bastion, dressing up in period costumes, tours of historic buildings and passageways, feasting on commemorative foods, choral music and fife and drum corps, which take off when the alarm sounds at the Cathedral. The culmination is a three-hour torch light procession through Old Town where the darkened streets are hung with Swiss and Genevese flags.

For several centuries the battle of 1602 was remembered annually in church services. In 1926 the 2500-member "Company of 1602" was formed to produce a more public memorial of the Duke's defeat. Parade participants number 650, about 50 of whom ride on horseback. Throughout the year the "Company" works to keep the authentic dress in good order: ruffled shirts, long cloaks, bonnets, tunics, knee breeches and stockings, all in the somber colors of the 17th-century Calvinists—gray, burgundy, dark green, black and brown. Marchers include historic figures, such as the herald who reads the proclamation of victory; soldiers who carry replicas of the original guns, pikes and lances; masters of the city bedecked with ribbons, chains and medals; clergymen; country folk giving thanks for the protection of the Genevese; and Mère Royaume and Mistress Piaget, important figures in Escalade legend.

One of the famous incidents that is always retold is how the Savoyards gained a foothold in the narrow pathway near the home of the Piagets. Mistress Piaget barricaded the front door, then threw to reinforcements the key for the back of the passage, enabling them to ward off the attackers. In memory of Madame Piaget the cramped Passage de Monetier, located along the base of the ancient fortification walls just under the Cathedral, is accessible to the public. At night members of the "Company of 1602" provide cups of "vin chaud" to those who have squeezed through the alley. Other public buildings, such as the Town Hall, which might normally be closed, are open for tours during Escalade.

Additionally, Mère Royaume captures the imagination for it is said that she was cooking vegetable soup when she heard a commotion outside. She threw her cauldron from the window, knocking one soldier stone-dead and thus contributing to the salvation of the city. The traditional soup is dispensed near the Hôtel de Ville. Of the 100,000 people who come to see the parade, many warm up by sipping it as they walk about town.

The most charming of all Escalade traditions was also spawned by the marmite myth. For 10 days before the night of the 11th, the windows of patisseries and confiseries display chocolate and nougat marmites, decorated with Geneva's flag and colors and filled with marzipan-shaped vegetables. Every family has its own marmite.

Costumed children celebrating Escalade

The oldest and the youngest join hands to smash the pot while reciting the customary verse, "Thus perish the enemies of the republic."

Parties are held at home, as well as in offices and schools. Children dress in Halloween-like costumes and go from door to door to receive money. They are also given francs for entertaining in bistros.

The final procession begins at 5 p.m. sharp on Sunday evening. Maps of the route are available from the Geneva Tourist Office and include the times—there are five of them—when the herald stops to read the proclamation announcing the defeat. The parade concludes in the square near St. Peter's Cathedral where the singing of "Cé Qùe Lainô," a song composed for the occasion, takes place in front of a bonfire. The celebration, however, continues in nearby restaurants and cafes with townspeople and visitors dining on traditional dishes like fondue and raclette.

For more information contact the Geneva Tourist Office, World Trade Center, PO Box 596, CH-1215 Geneva 15, Switzerland. Tel. 4122 788 08 08.

Attractions In And Around Geneva

A variety of walking and bus tours in town, boat rides on the lakes and excursions to the outlying areas, such as Zermatt, Lausanne and Montreux, can be arranged through the tour companies Mincar and Key Tours. For a copy of "Excursions Guide" visit the sponsor, Mincar, or look for the latest issue at your hotel. Key Tours also offers some unusual outings and has a detailed brochure.

Although there are many museums to explore, including the renowned Watch and Clock-Making Museum and the Voltaire Institute, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum is one to which large numbers of international visitors are drawn because it is so intertwined with the city's image. The architect has designed the building with a grim sense of war, using dramatic and stark symbols such as concrete, glass and the play of light. Standing in the entrance courtyard is a group of sculpted figures, "The Petrified," denouncing the violation of human rights and making a quiet appeal for tolerance. Engraved in the wall above the reception area is a quotation from Dostoyevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov" that, "Each person has a shared responsibility to humanity." With the use of sculptures, photographs, videos and interactive exhibits in 12 different display areas, the museum recounts the remarkable story of a mission to humanity during armed conflicts and other disasters.

Le Cirque de Noël is an annual enter tainment that takes place from about December 1 until January 7 under a big top. In 1995-96 the theme was "The Christmas Circus Invites Siberia." Artists from the Moscow Circus and from Siberia, including a group that danced with great precision , joined the Swiss van Gool family troupe. Music, clowns, magicians, animal acts, jugglers, strongmen and the appearance of Père Nöel make this a fun-filled afternoon or evening.

For an airplane tour of the Alps, including Mont Blanc and the glaciers, contact Speedwings. This panorama from above of the entire region is surely one of the most spectacular junkets offered in Switzerland. A one-hour charter in a private plane accommodating up to eight passengers costs about $2000.

On the outskirts of Geneva in the direction of the French border lies a cluster of tiny towns, some of them no bigger than crossroads, with names like Dardagny, Peney and Peissy. Although it is only about eight kilometers an d a 15-minute car ride from the city center, this is one of the three major wine producing regions of Switzerland. You can also reach the countryside by train and connect to a bus. The 36 vintners in the area form the "Cave du Geneve" association. On Friday evenings in some of the hamlets the winemakers are open so that the public can wander from cellar to cellar to sample and perhaps buy the vintages like gamay and pinot noir.

The Vallée de Joux, about one hour outside of Geneva, is home to some of the most prestigious watch and clockmakers. Ninety percent of the Swiss high-end watch movements originate here. The area is accessible by train from Lausanne, but it is best to drive there.

A visit to Jaeger Le Coultre factory to view the complete watchmaking process provides a look into this precise, complicated and time-consuming art. It is particularly engaging to see how computers are now used in the design stages. Although tours are hosted regularly during the hours of 10 a.m. to 11:30 and 2 p.m. to 3:30, it is necessary to make an appointment. Interested individuals are paired with groups of collectors and dealers. To secure a time, call 011 41 21 845 02 02 between 6 a.m. and 4 p.m. or send a fax to 011 41 21 845 05 50.

The Audemars Piguet company maintains a small museum with a display of priceless collectibles chronicling the innovations in design that are the hallmarks of their craftsmanship. To tour the museum call 011 41 21 845 14 00 or fax 01141 21 845 14 02.

Mincar, 15, rue des Voisons. Tel. 318 54 54. Key Tours 7, rue des Alpes. Tel. 731 41 40. Red Cross Museum, 17 avenue de la Paix, CH 1202, is open every day except Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tel. 733-26-60. Le Cirque de Noël, call for information, reservations and exact location. Tel. 22-321 22 41 or 077-47 71 29. Tickets range from $21 to $45 for adults and $12 to $33 for children. Speedwings, Geneva Airport. Tel. 022 785 1542. The wine cellar of the 22-hectare estate Domaine des Balisiers is located in Penney-Dessous and is open on Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. or by appointment. Tel. 022 753 1958. A good place to eat when visiting the vineyards is Restaurant du Tilleul. In winter a special game menu is prepared in the open kitchen adjoining two simple dining rooms. Meals are served from 8 a.m. to midnight. Restaurant du Tilleul, Dardagny. Tel. 022 754 14 58.

Where To Stay In The Valée de Joux

Hotel-Restaurant Bellevue Le Rocheray CH 1347 Le Sentier, Lac de Joux. Tel. 021 845 57 20.

Hotel de la Lande, 1348 Le Brassus, Vallée de Joux. Tel. 021 845 44 41.

Where To Stay In Geneva

Hôtel Beau Rivage is just across from beautiful Lac Léman, the major waterway around which Geneva is built. From the windows, in addition to the view of the lake, you can see the Alps an d the Mont Blanc. The scenic location is within walking distance of the Old Town and close to the business district and railway station. The hotel is a mere five kilometers from the airport and the exhibition building.

Beau Rivage is an atypical phenomenon in the hospitality industry, a five-star deluxe family establishment that has remained unaffiliated with a larger chain. Founded in 1865, it is being managed by the fourth generation of the Mayer clan. The fifth generation is now in hotel school. Rooms are spacious, service is attentive and high-ceilinged public spaces are divided into separate areas. The smallish Bar de L'Atrium is perfect for listening to live piano music at 5:00 tea or at cocktail time. The hotel has an agreeable custom of distributing a daily sheet that gives the weather, menu suggestions for the casual Quai 13 and the more formal Le Chat Botte and ideas about what visitors might see or do in the city each day. The atmosphere is that of rarefied old world elegance. With only 92 rooms and six suites overlooking an atrium, the hotel seems to be just the right size.

Hôtel Beau-Rivage, 13, quai du Mont-Blanc, CH 1201, Geneva. Tel. 022-731 02 21. Rooms start at $375. Reserve through Steigenberger Reservat ion Service, 800-223-5652 or Utell International, 800-44Utell. www.beau-rivage.ch

Where To Dine

Les Armures has a typical old provincial Swiss atmosphere. The dining rooms on two levels are fashioned from dark wood and decorated with armor and swo rds. The smell of fondue, perfumed with kirsch, filled the air. The other house specialty, raclette, was made with melted cheese scraped from wheels of Valais cheese and served with cornichons, pickled pearl onions, boiled potatoes and dark bread. Because it is located in the Old Town near the Cathedral where the Escalade procession ends, it is especially popular on that Sunday evening. Entire families make this their headquarters. Reservations are, of course, necessary at that time.

For a restaurant serving Genevese specialties like five kinds of sauerkraut-based entrees, such as La Choucroute d'Alsace, and other regional dishes, try Cafe Brasserie International. Conveniently near the Grand Theater, Victoria Hall and the Christmas Circus, it is a good dining choice for before and after an evening performance. Brightly lit and busy, the room is much like a Parisian brasserie with its Alsatian connection, varieties of beers and white wines, late hours and large and lively surroundings.

A medley of hearty dishes appeared on the carte of Au Pied de Cochon (suckling pig's foot). The eponymous fare was prepared with six different sauces, including ones with mustard and with truffles and foie gras. A selection of sausages, sev eral cuts of beef, tripe, duck and lamb prepared the Alsatian and French ways were also featured. Although the menu says bistrot gourmand, the food was really home-style and satisfying as winter sustenance.

Cafe du Centre, close to the lake, has just about the largest seafood and fish menu in town. The house specialty is Normandy oysters, but the langoustes, snails, shrimp, clams, mussels and periwinkles were briny and also exceedingly fresh. They can be ordered in a assortment of com binations–the house's "plateaux de degustation"– or you can request a plate filled with your own choices. A best buy was the menu pecheur featuring rousing fish soup, along with croutons and rouille, grilled salmon, fruit tart and a glass of wine.

Restaurant de Cent Suisses is not far from the Red Cross Museumand on the same property as the Museum of the Swiss Abroad and.The small estate is used to exhibit documents, paintings, costumes, furniture, flags and so forth that played a role in Switzerland's international relations. On weekends a three-course reasonable meal is offered. It might include filet of salmon, medallions of veal, chocolate mousse cake and coffee. A la carte items are also available.

Les Armures, 1, Rue du Puits, St. Pierre, 1204 Geneva. Tel. 022-310 34 42. International Cafe and Brasserie, Boulevard Georges-Favon 21, 1204 Geneva. Tel. 022-328 01 57. Au Pied de Cochon, 4, place de Bourg-de-Four, 1204 Geneva. Tel. 022-310 47 97. www.pied-de-cochon.ch Cafe du Centre, 5, Place du Molard, 1204 Geneva. Tel. 022-311 85 86. Restaurant de Cent Suisses, Chateau de Penthes. Open daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Restaurant de Cent Suisses, Chateau de Penthes, 18, chemin de l'Impératrice, 1292 Pregny-Geneva. Tel. 022-734 90 21.


Switzerland is legendary as a marketplace for the world's most expensive and priceless wares. International companies that sell the finest jewelry, watches, clothing and household wares all have outposts there. In Geneva they revolve around the rue du Rhone where one finds signs saying Louis Vuitton, Dior, Van Cleef & Arpels, Gubelin and more. Many of the shops are small specialty boutiques. In our hotel we found a box filled with cards that had maps on the reverse side from dozens of the city's merchants. Because the center of the town is small, most shopping can be done on foot.

Bucherer is one of the larger emporiums whose merchandise is distinctly Swiss and ranges from the costliest watches, jewels and leather goods to such ordinary items as chocolate bars, army knives and Caran d'Ache colored pencils.
G. Lavanchy, the unique men's store, specializes in loose tobacco– there's an entire wall filled with jars of it– pipes that look like sculptures, imported cigars and men's accessories. You'll find lighters, key chains and cases and wallets in quality leather, including an oversized one in beautifully grained pigskin that costs $175.

Olivia sells stylish men's clothing that is reasonably priced considering the line's excellent tailoring and fabrics. Stuck in Geneva's chill without a sweater? Here's the place to purchase one. And you need not go all the way to Austria to buy a loden coat. We saw well-made, full-length models from "La Griffe Ansoni" (their own label) reduced to $390.

Another place to look for select men's clothing is Old River where fine casual corduroy slacks are marked $139. Many pleasant shops are on the same street.

We were stunned by the prices at Baby Dior. Matching blue velvet and satin girl and boy outfits for two-year olds were in the window. Hers was $2100 and the vendeuse did not know how much his was beca use it had already been sold. No doubt to a very doting grandparent. Shearlings for the toddler set are $950 to $1250.

Rohr, one of the country's finest chocolatiers, is definitely the confiserie in which to buy a marmite. It's made without preservatives and is absolutely mouth-watering. The marzipan vegetables inside the cauldrons are wonderful, too.

Two good outlets for women's clothing are Tamiko and Audace. Tamiko sells clothes with flair that are produced just for her collection by young designers. Audace offers gently worn couturier garments and is a great source when you arrive in town minus that evening gown, which you discover you need in a hurry.

The Regency House specializes in English antiques such as sideboards, cabinets and chandeliers. They also carry many small pieces like silver picture frames and other objects that you can easily stuff into your luggage. An old pen and ink box was priced at $2398.

Stroll down rue de l'Hôtel de Ville to find art galleries and pottery shops. Interesting boutiques are located on the Place du Bourg-de-Four. If you fancy street fairs, look for the ones that take place on the weekends at the Place de la Madeleine and the Place Plainpalais. They offer the same kitsch that is sold by vendors all over the world. To make the most of your shopping time, breeze through Geneva's vertical mall, Confédération Center, 6, 8 rue de la Confédération, home to 53 different stores.

Bucherer, 45, rue de Rhone and 26, quai Général-Guisan. Tel. 022-311 62 66.

G. Lavanchy, 29, rue du Rhone. Tel. 022-311-42-47. Olivia, 15, rue du Rhone. Tel. 022-310 05 60 88. Also at 80, rue du Rhone. Tel. 022 310 05 54. Old River, 12, rue Verdaine. Tel. 022-312 08 24. Baby Dior, 29, Rue du Rhone. Tel. 022-311 47 03. Rohr, 42, rue du Rhone. Tel. 022-311 68 76. Also at 3, Place du Molard. Tel. 022-311 63 03. Tamiko 12, rue du Perron. Tel. 22-310 71 19. Audace, 4 rue des Barrieres. Tel. 022-311 60 71. The Regency House, 3, rue de l'Hôtel de Ville. Tel. 022-781 05 15.

Flying To Switzerland

Swissair flies to and from 10 gateway cities in North America–Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Montreal and Toronto. Most flights to Geneva connect through Zurich. However, there are direct flights to Geneva from New York, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. The airplanes that are used are MD 11s and 747s. Service is exemplary and meals continue to be among the best served on any airline. 800-221-4750. www.swiss.com

Fall 1996