DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF GENEVA’S OLD TOWN
(AND TIPS FOR RESTAURANTS, BARS, SHOPS NOT TO BE MISSED!)
by Brigitte Taylor (Find out more about Brigitte here)
A popular tourist attraction in Geneva, the Vieille Ville (or Old Town) is home to well-known landmarks, most notably St Pierre Cathedral and the Maison Tavel museum. But keep your eyes open, and you’ll find discreet clues woven within the Old Town’s stone walls and winding streets, giving away some of the stories that unraveled throughout its many centuries.
What lies beneath the surface of this charming area? Join us on a stroll through the Old Town and discover some of its unknown secrets. We also share some top tips for cafés, shops and addresses not to be missed.
START YOUR TOUR AT THE BOTTOM
You can begin your ascent to the Old Town from Place de la Madeleine, home to the Temple de la Madeleine, one of Geneva’s oldest churches, as well as the Caroussel de la Madeleine, a children’s attraction that has been run by the same family for four generations. Stop there for a moment and you’ll see an unusual adornment above a closed off door along the wall behind the carousel: it looks like a bomb. And it is!
This is the site of one of Geneva’s bomb shelters, built in 1939 and able to accommodate 1,200 people. Even though Switzerland was neutral during WW2, it wasn’t immune to pilots’ mistakes: in June 1940, one of the allied forces mistook Geneva for Genoa, and dropped eight bombs over Champel, Plainpalais and Carouge, killing four people and injuring several dozen.
Walk along the path behind the Temple de la Madeleine and to the left from the bomb shelter, and you will soon see the beginnings of the pretty Rue Perron, formerly the main artery between the lower roads and the Hôtel de Ville and the St Pierre Cathedral in the Old Town. Today, it is home to the very last public lighting structure, perched on the corner of a stone building, dating back to the 16th century, when public lighting was first initiated in the city, in an attempt to make streets safer after dark.
The Rue Perron is also where one can find the Passage de Monetier: only open two days a year, during the Escalade celebrations in December, this secret passage was one of many used by the local military between the 5th and 10th centuries, as a strategic route to go across neighbourhoods quickly during a potential attack.
At the top of the road, visitors will find the iconic Maison Tavel: operating as a museum since 1986, this is the oldest private house in Geneva, built in the 12th century. In addition to a wide variety of items outlining the history of the city between the Middle Ages and the 19th century, Maison Tavel is also home to the Relief Magnin, the largest historic relief in Switzerland, which shows an overview of the city of Geneva before its fortifications were torn down in the 1850s. Located on Rue du Puits-Saint-Pierre 6, the museum is open every day from 11h to 18h; and is closed on Mondays.
NOT TO BE MISSED IN THIS AREA:
The Antic Broc’Art antiques store; it carries everything from jewellery to carpets, including toys, mirrors, crystal, prints, and more.
A (VERY) PUBLIC FORUM
The Place du Bourg-de-Four is the oldest square in Switzerland, established in the 9th century under the Celts, and later became a common trading ground (or market) for the Romans (“four” is a variation of the French pronunciation of the Latin word “forum”).
The square’s important role as a local market is not surprising, as all roads into Geneva converged here at the time. Even today, most Old Town roads will lead you straight there. All roads lead to… well, the Romans, I suppose.
With its restaurants and cafes, the Place du Bourg-de-Four is a popular hangout for locals and tourists alike. But here are a couple of landmarks that you might have missed…
FORMER RED LIGHT DISTRICT
The streets on the southern edge of the square used to be home to the local red light district, with brothels dotted along three appropriately named side-streets: rue Belles-Filles (or “Pretty Girls Street”, today Rue Etienne Dumont), the Rue Chausse-Con (more politely renamed Rue Chausse-Coq), and finally, the cul-de-sac du Vieux-Bordel (“Old Brothel cul-de-sac”, today called the Rue Maurice, after one of Geneva’s mayors).
Just a few meters away from these infamous locations, close to the heart of the square, a popular figure seems to watch over passers-by: it is La Clementine, a bronze statue created in 1974 by Swiss sculptor Heinz Schwarz. In 1981, a woman returning from the funeral of a sex worker who had killed herself, placed flowers at the feet of the statue – this gesture made it a symbol of solidarity among women, and it is often adorned with flowers, pamphlets and newspaper clippings, with prayer candles burning at its feet.
THE 67 STEPS
All things considered, it is perhaps not surprising that, across the way from La Clementine, as the Place du Bourg-de-Four begins its descent onto the lower streets, there is a semi-secret passage, the Passage degres-des-poules. The covered staircase leading from the Place Bourg-du-Four to St Pierre Cathedral translates loosely as “Chick Ladder”; it is said it was named this way because the 67 steps are so steep that it reminds one of a chicken coop, but given its proximity to the ancient red light district, it is possible that the name might refer to chicks of a different kind…
HERE’S LOOKING AT YOU, APOLLO!
At the top of the stairs, you will land at the back of St Pierre Cathedral, built under the orders of Geneva’s Prince-Bishop, Arducius de Faucigny. While construction began in 1160, the cathedral took more than a century to be completed. Extensive archeological excavations conducted between 1976 and 2006 unveiled remains of ancient churches and pre-Christian occupation from before construction began.
However, one curious characteristic of the cathedral remains unexplained: the chubby face etched in stone above one of the tall stained glass windows, which is commonly known as la tete d’Apollon – “Apollo’s face”. The local legend is that a temple dedicated to Apollo lies beneath the church – although there is absolutely no historical evidence indicating this is true. Ironically, the cheerful mug looks nothing like other, more illustrious depictions of the Greek god…
NOT TO BE MISSED IN THIS AREA:
Café du Bourg du Four, opened in 1874 – This traditional, lively brasserie-style restaurant offers a taste of days of old (try the roesti – you won’t be disappointed!)
La Clemence, a popular watering hole and delightful place to enjoy the summer weather while having a drink with friends.
The St Pierre Cathedral archeological site: Located at Cour Saint-Pierre 6 (Tel: +41 (0) 22 311 75 74), the archeological site is open to visitors every day, from 10h to 17h.
A GRUESOME ADDRESS
The address marks the home of Geneva’s last executioner, François Tabazan. Descendent of a long family line of executioners (executioners’ sons were barred from all other professions), he rose to fame the day after the infamous Escalade incident in December 1602, in which soldiers commanded by the Duke of Savoy attempted to gain control of Geneva overnight – a catastrophically unsuccessful undertaking. The day after the attack, Tabazan hung more than a dozen soldiers, and decapitated the most senior among them. Tabazan himself died 22 years later, aged 90.