Geneva On the Road

Geneva, Switzerland
Resting on the southwestern tip of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva), Geneva is the cosmopolitan, graceful soul of Switzerland's French-speaking territory, a high-profile crossroads of wealth, influence, and cultures from around the world.

Rolls-Royces purr past manicured promenades, and grand mansarded mansions stand guard beside the River Rhône, where yachts bob and gulls dive. The combination of Swiss efficiency and French savoir faire gives Geneva a chic polish, and it is home to some of the world's most luxurious and exclusive stores and extravagant restaurants.

And while Geneva is well known as a stronghold of private banks, it is perhaps less known as the home of the European headquarters of the United Nations and the birthplace of Calvinism and the International Red Cross.

The city was known for enlightened tolerance long before Henri Dunant founded the Red Cross, however: It gave refuge not only to religious reformers John Calvin and John Knox but also to the writers Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Honoré de Balzac, and Stendhal. Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley, Richard Wagner, and Franz Liszt all escaped to Geneva when scandal erupted at home.

The conservative Genevois still seem to hear Calvin tsk-tsking in their ears as they hurry by the pricey boutiques and palatial hotels. It is the well-heeled and well-traveled foreigners who seem to indulge themselves the most, as executives jet in and out, and Middle Eastern oil money flows in.

But Geneva does let down her discreet chignon twice a year. Every August the city organizes a 10-day-long party, Les Fêtes de Genève, that draws huge crowds to the waterfront for a spectacular grand finale of fireworks set to music. The Fête de l'Escalade (Festival of the Escalade), in December, celebrates Geneva's independent spirit.