One stopover that deserves a stay: Geneva
GENEVA - In my 15 years as an international tour guide, I visited this city perhaps 20 times. But each time it was a waypoint to what I believed were greater adventures.
People change - and I realized recently that here in Geneva, culture, recreation, leisure, shopping, gastronomy, and geography cohabit in a world-class environment.
Switzerland's second largest city is at the southwestern tip of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva), with the Rhône and Arve rivers flowing west of the city center and the Jura Mountains and Alps hovering majestically in the background. This setting is a primary reason Geneva developed into a focal point for international trade and culture.
The banks of the freshwater lake are lined with bustling cities, genteel villages, castles, vineyards, and cycling paths. Western Europe's highest peak, Mount Blanc, visible from many vantage points in the city, is an hourlong train ride away. But it takes just a few minutes to reach less lofty peaks; a cable car that leads to Le Salève (Geneva Mountain) is less than five miles away.
Since 1559 when John Calvin founded his College and Academy (a future center for Enlightenment scholarship), Geneva has attracted some of the world's most influential artists, musicians, philosophers, and writers. Rousseau, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Balzac, Liszt, Piaget, and Dostoevsky all lived or spent significant time in Geneva, and their influences are palpable.
With roughly 40 museums and galleries, festivals and concerts, a Conservatory of Music that has developed renowned classical talent, and a Grand Théâtre that offers acclaimed operas and ballets accompanied by the city's 100-year old Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, there's a nearly endless variety of pursuits.
And like many of Europe's leading cities, Geneva can be covered on foot. Even at its most distant points, you're never more than a 30-minute walk - most of which can be traced along the lakefront - from your destination.
I spent considerable time at the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum, which chronicles the stories of countries and individuals "who have placed themselves in the service of mankind." From the moment you are greeted by multiple statues of hooded kidnap victims in the museum's courtyard, you gain a deeper appreciation for the significance of the Red Cross movement.
Locals converge for drinks, snacks, sunbathing, and spa services at Bains des Paquis, where 50-minute massages cost $60 and entry to the Turkish baths is $17. Here you're just as likely to share a sauna with millionaire bankers as with university students. The baths are open year-round from early morning to late evening.
A visit to Geneva's Old Town neighborhood is a must. Located on the lake's left bank, it's a rich collection of cafes, art galleries, boutiques, and parks, the perfect place to spend a leisurely afternoon mixing with locals.
With easy access to two mountain ranges, a glacial lake at its doorstep, and bike paths that project out in every direction, Geneva is worthy of the most active traveler's attention. I cycled from Montreux to Geneva, a 60-mile lakefront route that was an ideal way to explore the region. And transporting bikes on the efficient Swiss trains is easy, allowing for one-way journeys. You can rent a bike at Geneva's main station for under $30 a day.
Just outside the city limits, the banks of Lac Lèman rise to accommodate sweeping vineyards that produce some of the country's most flavorful vintages. Tours and tastings can be arranged easily. There are three distinct wine-producing areas surrounding Geneva that host 400 wine growers. The regions combine to produce a rich diversity of varietals, which include Chasselas (the most popular), pinot noir, chardonnay, Gamaret, Riesling-Sylvaner and sauvignon.
The city also boasts more than a dozen Michelin-rated restaurants within a 30-minute drive. Look for ones wearing the "Ambassadeur du terroir Genevois" label on their storefronts. This informs patrons that the food and wines presented are procured locally, providing an intimate taste of the region's best products.
Jerry Soverinsky, a freelance writer in Chicago, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.