When we just moved here, I bought a tourist guide called Secret Geneva. Local guides by local people, written by Christian Vellas and published by Jonglez. It features interesting places in the city, sites that are not well known and information about monuments many people pass every day.
I went to some of these hidden treasures of Geneva and want to share them with you here.
My information will of course come mainly from the guide mentioned above.
1. Tabazan the executioner
This sign is situated at rue Tabazan and it depicts a man with the same name: François Tabazan, the last executioner of Geneva.
He came from a family of executioners and was actually obligated to do this job, because a son of an executioner was not allowed in any other profession. François was an expert in strappado, knucklebones and the boot and also knew how to handle an axe quite well.
He had a very busy working day at the Escalade of 1602 when the Savoyards attacked and failed and he had to hang 13 prisoners and behead 54 assailants who died in combat. At that time there were 10 florins (about a few hundred Swiss francs) to be earned for a decapitation, but the work was irregular.
François died in 1624 at the age of 90.
In the town centre, at the side of the Molard Tower there is a bas-relief that says “Geneva Cité de Refuge”. It is a symbol of the city that has welcomed many refugees and it depicts two figures, one of which is Lenin.
He stayed in Geneva as a political exile and mingled in influential circles between 1903 and 1905 and between 1907 and 1908. This sculpture was added in 1920.
There is however no inscription for people to read, so many wonder why no explanation is provided for the choice of Lenin as a representation for all the refugees of Geneva over the centuries.
3. Henry Dunant
Henry Dunant, born in 1828, is known as the founder of the Red Cross and he also received a Nobel Peace Prize, but he hasn’t always been popular in Geneva.
He was an administrator of the bank Crédit Génévois, that went bankrupt and many Genevans were ruined because of that. Dunant was condemned and dishonoured, fled to France (which he could do because he had a double nationality) and would never return to his home town again. He died in 1910.
Nine years later his nephew wanted to have a monument built to commemorate him. He asked the Genevan government for help but they refused. By 1980 there still hadn’t been built a statue and a group of citizens then collected 14,000 francs to have one placed at Place de Neuve, where it still is today.
The site where you can now look at Dunant’s commemoration is also the place where executions were held. It was chosen because Dunant fought against the death penalty after being traumatized when witnessing a failed hanging.
4. Bomb shelter
At the Magdalene church, there are three doors next to each other in the hillside. Above one of them is a carving of a bomb falling between Ile Rousseau (you can tell by the poplar trees) and Saint Peter’s Cathedral.
The door is the entrance to a bomb shelter, in the middle of the town centre! During the war, Switzerland was a neutral country, but it was nonetheless at risk for being bombed. In 1939 several shelters were built to protect the inhabitants of Geneva from these bombings and this one could hold 1,200 people.
You might wonder how the country could be attacked when being neutral, but apparently that is exactly what happened in 1940. English planes flew over Geneva and dropped eight bombs, which killed four people and injured several dozens. That was not according to plan, so what happened? Well, the pilots were flying at night in a busy sky and probably got a bit off track and they took Geneva for Genoa. Afterwards the British government apologized and paid a compensation sum.
In the Tintin album “The Calculus affair”, one of the characters stays in room 122 of Hotel Cornavin and many fans from all over the world have come to this hotel to stay in exactly that room.
It is only possible since 1998 however. Before that, room 122 didn’t exist, but because so many people asked about it, it was created when the hotel was renovated. The employees at the reception desk have to be very careful though, because some of the guest “forget” to turn in their key when they leave…
6. Escalade (history)
At two o’clock in the night of December 11 1602, Savoyard soldiers unexpectedly attacked Geneva. They wanted to blow up the Porte Neuve and let their troops come into the city through this gate. It was going smoothly and they thought the victory was theirs, but two sentinels heard a strange sound and discovered the enemy troops.
One of them was able to sound the alarm and soon all the church bells in Geneva were tolling. This woke up the citizens of Geneva, so they took their arms and went to battle with the enemy. And everybody played their part.
There are many stories now about the courage of the Genevans, like Mère Royaume (Catherine Cheynel) who poured a marmite of soup over one of the Savoyard soldiers. Or Dame Piaget who threw the key to a passage through her building to the Genevan soldiers, so they could attack the Savoyards from the opposite side.
The only way that the Savoyard soldiers could still win, was by opening the gate, but Isaac Mercier – one of the guards – realized this and let the harrow fall. There was no more hope for the enemy and when they realized that, they withdrew and Geneva gained the victory.
Remember Tabazan from the beginning? That was on the day after the Escalade.
7. Cannon of Peace
The Cannon of Peace is not very visible from the main square of the Palais des Nations, but is still a powerful symbol.
In 1983 it was put at the Palais Wilson during a march that wanted to encourage the Disarmament Conference to continue its work. Unfortunately the talks were suspended a month later.
When the underground parking lot at Palais Wilson was created in 1994, the monument was stored in a warehouse. Seven years later it was still there and when there were plans to upgrade the square of Place des Nations, some citizens launched a petition to give the sculpture a place there.
8. Japanese bell
At the end of the 19th century Gustave Revilliod found a Japanese bell in Aarau, a city in the Swiss canton Aargau. It was quite a mystery how this bell had ended up there, but Revilliod, who brought it to Geneva, was not interested in solving the question.
When Japanese diplomats visited Geneva years later, they recognized the bell, which formerly stood in a temple in a Tokyo suburb. In 1876 there was a fire in that temple and the bell had disappeared.
In 1910 Switzerland gave back the bell, which was very much appreciated. Eighty years later Geneva was offered a replica, that now stands in the Ariana Park.
Near the main station of Geneva there are two sphinxes next to each other that used to stand at the entrance of the Russian Hotel. When the hotel was broken down in the 60′s, the statues were auctioned and forgotten about.
Until the city wanted to redecorate the rue du Mont-Blanc and remembered the sphinxes. They bought the pieces back for more than double of what they had been sold for.
This is the last remaining structure of the lighting system that was used in Geneva. This “fire-pot” had resin and tar in it and was set on fire every night.
In 1526 the Council decided that these lights could only be lit in case of emergency and in 1654 people were asked to put candles in their windows, so firemen could be guided by that light.
It was only when foreign troops arrived in 1782 that this public lighting system was lit regularly, but twelve years later (during the Genevan Revolution) it was considered a luxury. This meant that 108 lights were eliminated and the rest of them were classified as “indispensable”, “necessary” and “useful until 10 pm”.
When the French occupied the city, every light was put out and only after 13 months of darkness, 84 were lit again. After that, the lighting system became more modern and eventually lamps were installed.
11. Bench of justice
Many tourists pass by the stone bench in front of the town hall and plenty take a rest on it too. They probably don’t know that until 1829 it was used by judges to give death sentences from.
A lot of people were condemned here, three of which are “famous”.
There was Jacques Gruet, who lived against the social conventions of the time. He was convicted for atheism and blasphemy and was beheaded in 1547.
Michel Servetus took part in the Protestant Reformation and was seen as a heretic. His punishment: being burnt alive.
And then you had Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Some of his work was seen as offensive and in 1762 he was condemned for it. He had to flee and couldn’t be executed, so they publicly burnt a copy of Emile and The Social Contract. In 1791, thirteen years after his death, the sentence was cancelled.
12. The Antichrist
Geneva was a mostly Protestant city and they even banned Roman religion in 1535. When a bronze plaque was engraved in 1558, it reminded the people of the ban by comparing the pope to the antichrist!
It caused quite a scandal at the time.
The sign was put up on the wall of the town hall and it took until 1814 to take it down again. That year Geneva was preparing to join the Swiss Confederation, which contained Catholic cantons, so a text like that could not stay on an official building. It was removed and replaced by another plaque of the same size.
You can now find the original sign inside of the Saint Peter’s Cathedral.
The legend goes that Saint Peter’s cathedral was built over an ancient temple that was dedicated to Apollo. At the back of the cathedral you can see a sculpture of a face with chubby cheeks that has been named Apollo’s head, although it doesn’t look like any other known image of Apollo. The name was probably given because the Greek god is associated with the sun and this sculpture is round (like the sun).
Several people have studied this and the theories went from it signaling the sun to being just a fantasy of the sculptor. The last explanation is probably the right one, because at one point the sculpture had to be taken out of the wall for renovation purposes and it was then discovered that the face had not been sculpted directly into the wall of the cathedral, but on a column of the 12th century that was later brought here and then put into the wall.
But the legend remains…
14. Victoria Hall
Daniel Barton, an Englishman, came to Geneva in 1883 and ‘founded’ the Nautical Band, an orchestra to give some spark to the regattas and other events. The band needed an auditorium though, because the boat decks could only be used during the summer.
So he ordered to build Victoria Hall, in honour of his wife Victoria-Alexandra and of Queen Victoria, which could hold 1,800 people. When it was inaugurated in 1894, the statue of Harmony was shown in full figure, completely naked.
This was not a common sight, because normally statues were covered strategically at the ‘right’ places (through the positioning of a hand or knee for example). So there was quite some commotion at that time, but after a while, people got used to it and now people pass by it without even noticing it.
This statue of Gondebaud, king of the Burgundians, has been put in a wall at the Place du Bourg-de-Four in the old town. He looks quite friendly, but looks can deceive: he only became king by killing off his family.
In 490 for example his brother Godegisel was king of Geneva, but Gundebaud had him killed after setting fire to the city. And a few years before he had already murdered another brother together with his wife and sons. He only spared the daughters because he could use them for bargaining or strengthening alliances.
16. Twisting street
Rue des Barrières is a small street in the centre, you would just pass it without giving it a second thought. The street has some steps at the end (or the beginning, whichever way you come from), a slope and a big turn in the middle.
It was invented by soldiers to fight off the enemy, who couldn’t fire because of the blind angles.
17. Rodolphe Töpffer
This statue of Rodolphe Töpffer stands in a square a bit out of the old town and is quite hard to find. Rodolphe was the son of painter Adam Töpffer and also wanted to become a painter, but couldn’t because of an eye disease he got when he was 17. He became a teacher instead.
He often took his students on school trips that lasted several weeks, during which they could compare their academic knowledge to real life. Afterwards he drew sketches of these trips and made them into funny stories. He started making albums and those are in fact the very first comic strips.
18. Théodore de Bèze
At the beginning of the shopping street there is a fountain that depicts Théodore de Bèze on one side. He is celebrating the victory of the Escalade (see number 6), but legend says he wasn’t even there for the big moment.
It is said that Théodore was a bit hard-of-hearing and when the attack took place, he didn’t hear the alarm and didn’t even wake up. But this was disregarded by the sculptor of the fountain and he depicted de Bèze thanking God and being surrounded by a group of believers.
The monument was actually made by Savoyard workers, but they didn’t know what it was going to be. When they learned about it eventually, they screamed that they would take the stone back if it wasn’t so heavy!
19. The weasel
The statue of Philibert Berthelier shows a weasel, because he made it as his mascot and always carried one around in his pocket.
Philibert was born in 1465 and served in the armies of Louis XII. He later arrived in Geneva and became a leader of a group of patriots, who wanted the City-State to remain independent. They fought for their goal, but it didn’t end all too well for Phillibert: he was imprisoned and sentenced to death. Where the statue is now, is the place where he was beheaded and then his body was hung from the gallows.
It took almost four centuries before he received a monument.
The place where these cannons stand is very popular with tourist, but not everybody knows what exactly happened to them.
When Geneva was ruled by Napoleon, he requisitioned most of the artillery and after him the Austrians took the remaining 82 cannons in 1814. A lieutenant tried to get them back and travelled to every city where he pleaded his case to princes and generals. It worked and he got 48 of them back, but they were all melted down after several years.
So how come there are still five cannons in Geneva now? One actually never left the city because it had been hidden by patriots and the other four were still in the possession of a museum in Vienna, that returned them in 1923.
21. House of love
The famous composer Franz Liszt stayed only one year in this house (from 1835 until 1836), but it was long enough to get a plaque for it. Even more because he made quite a stir with his relationship at the time…
Liszt was at the time together with the countess Marie d’Agoult, who had abandoned her husband and children to take off with the 23-year-old pianist. She was 29. They settled in Geneva, but the high society wasn’t so happy with the two lovers. Only a few people welcomed them and one of them even signed a false declaration when the couple had their first child.
Marie wanted a career as a writer, but in those days you couldn’t find a publisher as a woman, so she wrote under the name of Daniel Stern. Franz only gave a few lessons at the Conservatory, so they weren’t very rich.
The affair eventually cooled down and ended in 1846.
22. Figure of Rue de la Corraterie
In a street between Place de Neuve and the Old Town is a figure above a door, but nobody knows who this woman actually is.
Is it maybe Lady Piaget? She threw her keys to Genevan soldiers during the Escalade and went back into her room, where she was strong enough to push a big wardrobe in front of the door.
Or is it Mère Royaume, the famous heroine of the Escalade? She was actually from Lyon, France, and had sixteen children. She threw a cauldron over the enemy Savoyards.
Most people prefer it to be the latter. She is still celebrated when confectioners make chocolate cauldrons filled with vegetables of marzipan.
23. Pictet de Rochemont
Without Pictet de Rochemont Geneva wouldn’t be the same.
He started a career in the French army and later became part of the governing council of Geneva. After a while he retired from politics and became a farmer; he was mostly interested in raising merino sheep. However, at one point the city needed the diplomatic skills of Pictet and they asked him to return. He was able to enlarge the territory and would have succeeded in expanding it to the foot of the Jura, but he was stopped because the Genevan Protestants didn’t want to include populations with so many Catholics.
His mission was a success and Pictet returned to his farm and his merino sheep.
24. National monument
The national monument stands in the English garden behind the flower clock. It symbolizes the union of Geneva and Switzerland and the women are… Savoyard!
The statue was made by Robert Dorier, who was born in 1830 in the canton of Aargau. He developed his career partly in France and was probably used to the Savoyard models when he got the assignment for the Genevan statue.
The day before the planned inauguration of the monument, there were riots because of a fixed election, so the ceremony was cancelled and took place five years later.
25. David and Goliath
In the beautiful Parc des Bastions, almost at the entrance at Place de Nevue, you can find a statue of David (from David and Goliath).
He s naked, holds a sword with his right hand and reaches for the sky with his left hand. His right foot rests on the cut off head of Goliath. The statue is the last project of Jean-Etienne Chaponnière and received a gold medal at the Paris Art Salon in 1835.
When it was installed in Geneva, there was apparently some uproar about it. You see, originally David wore a bearskin and a (probably jealous) colleague claimed Chaponnière did that to hide that he couldn’t properly sculpt the human body. And so Jean-Etienne quickly completed a second version, by which he proved the contrary.
26. Cinema Bio
When you walk through Carouge and you come to the market place, you can see Cinema Bio at a corner. At first I thought it was a bio cafe or something, but it turns out it’s actually a movie theatre. So what’s with the name?
It has had many names up until now: Ideal-Cinéma, Chanteclair-Cinéma, Cinéma-Carouge, Carouge-Cinéma and Vox. The V of the last name made that the listings of the theatre came last in the newspaper program me, because it was alphabetical.
In 1972 they changed the name to Bio, short for Biographe, which was the first cinematographic device used by the Lumière brothers.
27. Calvin’s grave
John Calvin died in 1564, at the age of 55, and he had requested before to be buried almost anonymously, without speeches and chanting and also without a mark on his grave. So nobody knew where exactly he was buried at the cemetery of Plainpalais.
In 1840 – 276 years after he died – a small stone with the letters JC was put at the place where it was thought his grave was. It most probably is not the actual place were he was buried.
In 1999 an elected official went even further in disrespecting the wishes of Calvin and he put iron railings around the grave, planted flowers on it and added a plaque. All because he wanted to attract more tourists…
At Champel there is a house with a strange figure decorating the entrance: a faun who is eating babies that he takes out of a basket.
What does this mean?
Apparently nobody knows. Many historians have tried to answer this question, but none had an answer. It might be related to personal memories of the then owner or maybe there was a dark family secret…
29. Rousseau’s birthplace
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in the Old Centre in 1712, but in 1793 people thought he was born in the Saint Gervais area. The street was first called rue Chevelu, but the Genevan authorities changed it to rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau. They even had a big ceremony, a parade, speeches and they placed a plaque.
Later, when it was known that Rousseau wasn’t born there, the authorities had to admit they were wrong, but it was only in 1904 that the original plaque (in commemoration of Rousseau) was replaced with the one you can see now (stating that the authorities changed the name of the street in 1793).
30. The house of a heroine
At the border between Switzerland and France there is an old house that served as a passage for Jews in the Second World War. Its entrance is in France, but when you go out the back door, you are in Switzerland.
Irène Gubier used to live here and when she was a young girl, the French secret service used her house to enter Switzerland without attracting too much attention to themselves. When she later owned the house and World War II broke out, she helped a lot of Jews pass the border. Later, she became responsible for transmitting secret mail and helping diplomats cross the border.
She was arrested in 1944 and deported to the concentration camp in Ravensbrück.
31. Sissi the empress
The Empress of Austria, also known as Sissi (very famous because of the movie) died in Geneva in 1898. There is still a reminder of this event on the first floor of the hotel Beau Rivage, where she was staying at that time.
On September 10 Sissi and her lady-in-waiting left the hotel to go to the ship “Genève” that was waiting for them for a cruise on the lake. When they were halfway, an Italian anarchist (of 25 years old) appeared and attacked Sissi with a long, sharp blade. She thought he had only punched her and so she boarded the ship, but a blood stain appeared on her dress. She was then taken back to the hotel, where she died about an hour later.
Her attacker got prisoned to life, but he hung himself in his cell after twelve years. His head was preserved in a jar of formaldehyde and can now be found in Vienna.