[Vacheron Constantin] The Spirit of Travel

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Geneva is the centre of sophistication and wonder when it comes to timepieces

Watchmaking skills of Huguenots fleeing religious persecution in their native France in the 16th century helped transform postcard-pretty Geneva into a global manufacturing powerhouse

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 June, 2016, 5:04pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 July, 2016, 9:55am

Harry Lime stated in the 1949 classic film noir The Third Man:  “... in Italy for 30 years ... they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland ... they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock”. Obviously, this nefarious character had never been to the second most populous city in the central European country, postcard-pretty Geneva, or he wouldn’t have sold it so short.

Situated in the southwestern most corner on the banks of the eponymous lake (also referred to as Lac Léman), an engaging way to find out about a metropolis that dates back to Roman times, is in Maison Tavel. Built in the 12th century but reconstructed after a 1334 fire, Geneva’s oldest house is now the fascinating five-floored, Museum of Urban History and Daily Life. Inside is a treasure trove of exhibits and artefacts from the medieval era right up to the 1900s including doors, tiles and the blade of a guillotine.

Rather than losing your head, an edifice that’s a head-turner, is the 12th century Cathédrale St-Pierre. It’s around the corner from the museum, and also in the Old Town (Vieille Ville) – a delightful milieu of winding, cobbled streets and romantic quads full of cafes and antique shops. In the 1500s, John Calvin used the imposing temple (and the tiny chapel next door) as a base to help to bring about the Protestant Reformation. A must-do while one is in this building, is a trip to the archaeological site in the basement. Expect to see exquisite 4th-century mosaics, monk’s cells and the tomb of an Allobrogian chieftain.

Switzerland is famed for its watches, with Geneva regarded as the world centre of stylish, high quality models. This tradition dates back to the 16th century: Huguenots (French Protestants) fleeing religious persecution in their homeland, brought their horological skills to this city. Because of the spread of Calvinism during that period, the wearing of jewels was considered ostentatious so forbidden in Geneva; but not watches. Fast forward to 1815 when Geneva joined the Swiss Confederation and, due to innovations by that entity’s nationals - Abraham-Louis Perrelet’s ‘perpetual’ watch, and Abraham-Louis Breguet’s tourbillon – the town emerged as a global timepiece manufacturing powerhouse. Today, as well as a who’s who of top-of-the-range brands, many companies’ head offices are located there, including, the oldest watchmaker in the world, Vacheron Constantin, since 1755.

The earth is ravaged by war, pestilence and famine as ever. Geneva, which is split into eight districts (quartiers), is home to two organisations that have played an enormous role in trying to alleviate such catastrophes. Firstly, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, has a museum where there’s a thought-provoking, interactive three-part exhibition that explores some of the problems of modern society: Defending Human Dignity, Reducing Natural Risks and Restoring Family Links. A 10-minute walk away, it’s possible to do a mini-excursion in the United Nations building, Palais des Nations. Highlights include the 2,000-seater Assembly Hall; the impressive José Sert-muraled Council Chamber, and gifts from foreign countries such as the haunting, Russian-donated painting, “Looking Indifferently” (Mikhail Romadin).      

Instead of the troubled present, witness something that might have a seismic bearing on our future, at CERN (European Organisation for Nuclear Research). A 15-minute drive out of town, their “Microcosm” exhibition enables visitors to learn all about the Large Hadron Collider.  This 27km magnet-containing ring smashes subatomic particles together at a rate approaching the speed of light, making it an appropriate adjunct to a metropolis that has built itself up as a centre of sophistication and wonder.