Photo by Karim Ben Van on Unsplash

Switzerland, for Indians, is a vintage picture postcard–the splendour of the Swiss Alps lording over designer villages with pretty houses that stand in sunny glory watching glass-topped trains passing by in silent admiration. So when most Indians visit this small central west European country they are invariably reminded of Yash Chopra couples in shawls and striped sweaters drooling at each other and at nature beyond. But there is more to this Alps beauty than just the beauty of Alps. Geneva in the French-speaking part of Switzerland for one. For its size, Geneva is incredibly international in its dispensation and the sheer beauty of the city that blooms where Lake Geneva gives way to river Rhone, makes it an attractive destination in the heart of Europe. 

Geneva, historically, has been fiercely independent and was an unaligned city-state till after Nepoleon’s exploits. Only through the Vienna treaty did it become part of Switzerland. Since then, it has attracted writers, statesmen, artists, drifters and oddballs who came to hide from, in most cases political and in some cases personal, vendetta. And in a way as a tribute to its neutral soul, the League of Nations was founded here after the First World War in 1919. But much before that, in 1864, Geneva became the birthplace of one of the world’s most admired organizations — the International Red Cross. Geneva is now the European headquarters of UN, the headquarters of International Labour Organisation (ILO), the World Health Organization (WHO), and for those who have read the extravagant adventures of Harvard Symbologist Robert Langdon in Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, Geneva is also the sight of the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) which houses world’s longest particle collider. 

Every winter, Geneva hosts several spectacular festivals that make the pretty town look even prettier and most well-known of these is the La nuit du festival or ‘Trees and Lights festival’. Several clusters of trees around the city centre are decorated with varied lights, colours and paints and music is played around them to evoke a splendid unison of winter chill and Christmas thrill that would hold one’s breath for long. The Mayan light installation near what is ostensibly world’s longest single bench on one corner of the old town to the gentle espousal of the blue lights which caringly cloak the trees lined opposite the magisterial Beau Rivage, this year the lights and trees festival was worth a look or two. 

But perhaps the most stunning installation is the surreal alignment of six masculine figures sitting, standing or hanging in athletic abandon around the gothic magnificence of the Rousseau memorial. Created by a French artist and funded by the city council, this year’s installation, according to the rumours flooding Rhone, is the best in years. The idea is that of a group of six genteel, timeless figures keeping watch, almost nonchalantly, over the hurly-burly of a pristine city. The memory of Rousseau, one of Enlightenment’s intellectual heroes, makes the figures pregnant with meaning and gives the installation its cosmic, somewhat archival quality.

If you are on that side of Europe this winter, make it a point to visit Geneva this year. It will warm your heart and your mind in equal measure.