Excuse me, what’s that white powder you put into a fondue to make it lighter?” The surly waitress at whom the question is directed gives my friend Caroline Aubert-Papinot a Look.
She doesn’t have to answer, though, because Caroline suddenly remembers, “It’s soda bicarbonate, I knew it—and not because your face reminded me of soda bicarbonate!”
The waitress—she does look kind of powdery, actually—gives us a quarter-smile, but she’s unruffled by the round of laughter Caroline’s remark generates. She is used to this: Groups of friends clustered around a pot of bubbling cheese, half-drunk after several bottles of white wine. This is what a fondue meal is all about at Au Vieux Carouge.
Decadent afternoons: St Peter’s Cathedral.
The restaurant is rated as one of the best places for fondue in Geneva, and there’s no denying that its rather dingy décor— scuffed wooden tables, a few yellowing posters on the walls and stained menu cards—offers the perfect setting to savour a dish that’s quintessentially Swiss.
Au Vieux Carouge is tiny, and we’re at a table that gets the draft each time the door opens and shuts. The puff of cold air is at once annoying and enjoyable, freezing us but freeing us—if only for a second—from the thick odour of cheese, wine and cigarettes.
This is a local hangout. At the table behind us, the grizzled men complaining loudly about everything from the lousy weather to the growing number of foreigners in Geneva have probably been drinking for hours. At the back of the room, two old women are smoking cigarillos and relishing meringues with whipped cream. “Tell me when it stops raining,” one of them shouts to the waitress.
Although fondue belongs to all of Switzerland, it is probably most representative of Geneva. Like the caquelon—the earthenware pot used to cook wine, cheese and spirits into a unique flavour— Geneva is a true cultural mélange of different ethnic communities, each with a distinct character that subtly enriches the city’s multicultural personality.
On the Rive Gauche—the left bank—of the lake that divides the city in two, wealthy Iranian expats and chic French women in fur coats and Chanel sunglasses sip cappuccinos at stylish cafés while hardy Germans load their skis on to the racks atop their BMWs. On the right bank, Portuguese workmen catch a soccer match at a local bar after a gruelling day’s work while Lebanese students grab shawarmas at a street-side eatery before heading to their digs behind the railway station. Wide, tree-lined boulevards and stately old buildings grace the Rive Gauche; the streets of the Rive Droite are seamier, the buildings worn and dingy.
Further behind the railway station sits the United Nations building, perhaps the most clichéd of symbols yet, and still a hallmark of this international city. But Geneva’s real roots go down the Vieille Ville, or the Old Town, an intricate maze of cobblestone streets housing designer boutiques, centuries-old restaurants, buildings whose rather dingy façades mask some of the most gorgeous apartments and, of course, the imposing St Peter’s Cathedral, where Protestant reformer John Calvin delivered his inspiring sermons in the 16th century. The cathedral still dominates Geneva, and the panoramic view of the city from its north tower continues to be gasp-worthy, provided the skies are clear and one has the energy to climb up 157 steps through a narrow staircase.
Some distance away from the cathedral, at Au Vieux Carouge, Caroline and I order the classic moitie/moitie fondue (a mix of two Swiss cheeses—Gruyere and Vacherin) and a fondue aux bolets, with large, succulent mushrooms. Caroline orders a Chasselas from the Aigle region in the Canton of Vaud, “the best wine to have with a fondue”.
The waitress plunks the fondue burners down on our table and sets the boiling hot earthenware pots on top. The fondue is deeply cheesy and extremely satisfying, producing an “all’s well” glow in the mouth and throat as it is chased down by wine or mint tea. Water is not an option with fondue, since melted cheese is hot only when it’s melted—it rapidly turns into a cold, hard lump somewhere inside.
We eat, chat, eat, chat. Drink. Eat some more. Drink some more. We’re on to our second basket of bread. We ask for a third.
Carouge, where the restaurant is located, is one of the hipper parts of Geneva, a former working-class neighbourhood that, in recent years, has become something of a SoHo to the city. It’s a decent walk to the Old Town from here—or would have been if Caroline and I hadn’t stuffed our faces with fondue and washed it down with cherries soaked in kirsch, the classic après-fondue dessert.
We manage to heave ourselves off our chairs and step out, smelling of cheese and cigarettes. It’s good to get out into the fresh air and stroll around Carouge, window-shopping at boutiques and high-end shoe stores. The artisanal chocolates—so temptingly laid out in rows on silver trays—tantalize us, and we consider a home-made ice cream. But we’re really too stuffed.
Geneva’s main tram, the No. 12, follows the same route as us. As the road winds away from Carouge towards Plaine de Plainpalais, a large open space which hosts an amusement park in summer and a circus in other seasons, the surroundings turn from yuppie/artsy to slightly murky. Then, things become chic again as we hit the centre of town: The Rue du Marche with its department stores and, to its left, the Rue du Rhone, Geneva’s high-end shopping street.
From here, it’s a brisk uphill walk to the Old Town and, because I’m only in Geneva for a few days, I cannot resist stopping for a slice of Café Mortimer’s (an Old Town institution) legendary chocolate cake, said to be the best in Geneva. It’s densely chocolatey, not too sweet, and the inside is molten and warm. I could come back to Geneva just for this.
Or for St Peter’s Cathedral, with a faint ray of late afternoon sun slanting on to its spire. This is the seat of many layers of history—that of ancient Christianity, of the Roman Empire, of the heyday of the Catholic Church. Remnants of all of these civilizations are somewhere underneath the cathedral, a monument that is perhaps the greatest symbol for multicultural Geneva.
How to go:
A Schengen Visa doesn’t work for Switzerland. Apply for a visa in either New Delhi (Switzerland visa application centre, 4, second floor, Block E, International Trade Tower, Nehru Place, New Delhi-110019; Tel: 011-46523036) or Mumbai (Swiss consulate, 102, Maker Chambers IV, 10th floor, 222, Jamnalal Bajaj Marg, Nariman Point, Mumbai-400021; Tel: 022-22884563-5). A visa valid for one year costs Rs2,000.
Swiss Air connects New Delhi and Mumbai to Geneva via Zurich. Current return economy fares from Rs40,000 and Rs32,000 (inclusive of taxes). From Bangalore, fly British Airways to Geneva via Heathrow for Rs26,000 (plus taxes).
Where to stay:
Hotel Beau Rivage (www.beau-rivage.ch) has been a Geneva landmark since 1835, and continues to offer the ultimate in old world elegance and luxury. Double room rates start at CHF620 (around Rs23,300) on weekdays, but weekend rates (Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights) are slightly lower, around CHF430. The best boutique hotel, situated right in the heart of town and a stone’s throw from the lake, is Hôtel de la Cigogne (www.relaischateaux.com/cigogne), where double rooms go for around CHF500, inclusive of continental breakfast.
Hotel Warwick (www.warwickgeneva.com) offers an excellent mid-week rate of CHF249 (CHF219 a night on weekends), inclusive of a welcome drink, free access to two fitness centres and a free public transport pass.
What to eat:
In addition to Au Vieux Carouge (Tel: 0041-22-3426498), some of the best places to grab a fondue and other Swiss specialities such as Raclette and dried meats from the canton of Grison are Les Armures (www.hotel-les-armures.ch/en/geneva-restaurant.php), a historic restaurant in the Old Town, and Le Chateau D’if (Tel: 0041-22-7521211), which offers the non-alcoholic Fondue Fribougeoise.
Old Town institutions such as Au Carnivore, which has been around for centuries (Tel: 0041-22-3118758), offer an array of succulent meat dishes. The Brasserie Lipp (Tel: 0041-22-3188030) is very French, and there are plenty of pizzerias such as Da Paolo, a Geneva institution (Tel: 0041-22-7363049), where you can get a range of hearty Italian specialities for a decent price.
What to do:
Bring along a good pair of shoes and walk! If you get tired, hop on to a bus or a tram (Geneva has a great public transport system). Stop off anywhere for hot chocolates and cakes, even the simplest places offer high quality fare. Ride the solar-powered trains that ply the quais on either side of the Lac Leman to get a great view of the city and its environs. A boat ride to the town of Nyon, complete with lunch on board, makes for a nice excursion on a sunny day. You could also take a train up to Gruyère, famous for its thick, double cream, or to Montreux, for a lakeside lunch and a walk along the Swiss Riviera.
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