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From the Rhône to the Rhine: Thonon and Geneva


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When I created our itinerary Thonon was just an inexpensive place to lay our heads before driving to Geneva in the morning. Airbnb's in the French town were half the price of those in Geneva. Once I began my usual investigations I discovered that in an enormous stroke of luck the town's weekly market was on the morning after we arrived. I also realized that we couldn't miss the medieval town of Yvoire a little further west on the lakeshore. The full day I had planned to spend in Geneva was shrinking rapidly but on the bright side we would have more than enough interesting activities to fill the day. We were eager to see the town and we still had the matter of dinner to attend to so we walked along the outskirts of the old town to an Asian fusion bistro that seemed to have good reviews. It was an interesting change from the European food of the last few days but not as tasty as we had hoped. On our walk back to the Airbnb the sun had already disappeared behind the mountains on the opposite shore of the lake but its glow still illuminated the clouds and gave the rippling water an eerie shine.
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In the morning we followed my first rule of France, which is that if you aren't out of the house before eight you're going to be out of sync for the entire day. In France the energy of the morning markets has dissipated by eleven and they are essentially closed by one in the afternoon. Lunch is best taken between noon and one thirty and dinner best completed before nine. Then it's early to bed to be ready to rise at seven. It seems that every time we violate this principle we suffer some adverse consequence. I did a good job herding everyone out and we had completed the short walk to the weekly market while there was still some early morning crispness in the air. We were really surprised by the size of the market considering that Thonon had seemed like such a small and sleepy town. Besides the extensive selection of fruits, vegetables, meat and fish there were several vendors preparing cooked food. This was a welcome change from Switzerland where it had been somewhat difficult to put together a satisfying breakfast in a morning market.
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One of the best things about being up early and within walking distance of the market is that we had plenty of time to bring all our purchases back to the Airbnb to have breakfast instead of sitting on a curb or negotiating with a cafe. We were able to enjoy our roast chicken, paella, and fresh produce in the comfort of home and then pack our belongings once again. It was time to get back on the road.
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Most of the towns along the shore of Lake Geneva look like typical lakeside resorts with modern housing similar to anywhere else in Europe. One exception is the village of Yvoire which has somehow maintained its medieval character with well-preserved stone houses on a small network of narrow streets. It's unclear how Yvoire remained intact while other villages were tearing down their old structures and building updated accommodations to attract vacationers. Entering the village feels like passing through a time warp to the 13th century, although the illusion might be more complete if it wasn't for the hordes of tourists and all the boutiques and cafes that clearly weren't intended for the town's few residents. Although Yvoire lacked the appealing cobblestone streets of other old towns the buildings were dramatically decorated with colorful flowers in pots and planters as well as thick clusters of ivy on the stone walls. It was clear there was a coordinated effort to create a certain aesthetic impression and I have to admit it was remarkable.
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Close to the water the imposing Château D'Yvoire stands apart from the rest of the village. The building is largely a 19th century reconstruction from ruins left after a fire in 1591. The castle is privately owned and not open for visitation. Small sailboats bobbed gently in the transparent, blue-tinged water of the harbor.
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Aside from the lovely town itself the main attraction of Yvoire is the Garden of the Five Senses. This garden close to the château has five small sections each of which is devoted to a different sense. It was interesting to think of plants as having separate visual, tactile, olfactory, gustatory, and even aural characteristics. It's not a historic garden nor is it cheap but we found it to be quite well-designed and enjoyable. If one was looking to economize I definitely wouldn't describe it as an essential stop but I'm partial to gardens and greenery.
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In comparison to Gruyères, the other medieval town we had visited, Yvoire felt more antiquated and charming but it was still very touristy. From the ubiquitous flowers to the painted shutters and the omnipresence of ice cream it was clear that the town had embraced tourism as a primary source of revenue. It was a beautiful village but not somewhere I would go to feel transported back to medieval times. One other advantage over Gruyères was that there was less emphasis on souvenirs and postcards and more on genuine artisanal crafts.
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Geneva occupies the opposite end of Lake Geneva from Vevey and Montreux. Although Geneva is culturally affiliated with France and was once part of its territory, the defeat of Napoleon and the subsequent Congress of Vienna in the early 19th century resulted in the city being incorporated into the Swiss Confederation. Because the surrounding areas remained with France the border was drawn to create a polypoid intrusion into France that included Geneva and the adjacent villages.
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As we drove into Geneva along the coastal road it was clear that we were entering our second true metropolis of the journey after Zürich. The inland side of the road was lined with an endless series of stately apartment blocks and the boats in the harbor were several sizes bigger than we had seen in the other lakeside towns. We were arriving too late for the Plainpalais morning market but we adhered to our plan to begin our exploration in Place du Bourg de Four. This central square of Geneva dates back to Roman times and is considered by many to be the cultural heart of the city. Despite it being a weekday the cafes were quite busy and the air was filled with the hum of conversation. It took some time to absorb the human energy that permeated the square and admire the architecture of the distinguished buildings that surrounded us. I didn't even notice the incongruous white upright piano that stood on the sidewalk until the kids sat down and started to play it. It felt as though it had been placed there just to welcome us to Geneva.
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Outside of Place du Bourg de Four, Geneva's old town was rather compact and devoid of commerce. It mostly consisted of the side streets around St Pierre Cathedral, the famed site where John Calvin successfully advocated for Protestantism in the 16th century. St. Pierre was one of several Roman Catholic cathedrals in Switzerland that were co-opted by the Protestants with attendant destruction of much of the religious ornamentation within.
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We continued our walk into the modern, commercial neighborhood at the southern tip of Lake Geneva. This is an area where many of those "Top Ten Things You Must See in Geneva!" are located so there were many expensive boutiques and sidewalk cafes here. We crossed a wide thoroughfare to reach the Jardin Anglais, which contains the most famous flower clock in Switzerland. There was a street food festival going on inside the park which would have been tempting if we weren't still rather full from breakfast. They did have an impressive variety of cuisines from around the world and we would certainly have returned if we had been staying the night. From the promenade at the shoreline we could see Geneva's landmark Jet d'Eau. This two hundred meter waterspout was originally born as the solution to a technical problem of sporadic increases in the water pressure at the city's hydraulic plant. Although that technical issue was eventually resolved in other ways the jet had already become a popular attraction and a new version was installed at a more visible location. It has subsequently become an emblem of the city and is prominently featured in articles and videos about Geneva.
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Part of the reason why I had shortened our visit to Geneva to just a few hours was that I had a difficult time finding specific things to do. Guide books and blogs prominently featured the flower clock and the water spout but how much time could one really spend looking at those simple things? We decided to walk west along the promenade where the Rhône emerges from the lake and begins its southwestern journey to Lyon. We encountered another Globus department store and decided to try the food court, remembering the beautiful selection we had been forced to pass on in Lausanne. Unfortunately this Globus didn't match our first experience in quality or atmosphere but at least we were able to resolve the issue of the kids' midday meal.
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We crossed the Rhône via the pedestrian bridge and made our way to the Quai du Mont-Blanc, passing the ornate Brunswick Monument. From here the view of the lake was a little different but it was essentially the same scene of joggers and bicyclists as every other part of the lakeside promenade.
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At this point we had exhausted all our options for the areas within walking distance so we decided to head back to the car. I had saved Geneva's covered market, La Halle de Rive, for the end of our walking tour. The market was so inconspicuous that when we arrived at the designated location I thought that Google Maps had misdirected us. Eventually we figured out that rather than having its own structure the market occupied the ground floor of a banal office building that blended into a long line of similar edifices. Despite the inauspicious setting the market was quite enticing once we were inside, full of the smells of cheese and freshly cut meat. A great deal of care and creativity had been put into the displays of food within the refrigerated cases and piled on the countertops, although the market wasn't very busy. The prices were quite high and we knew we would be seeing similar products in the French morning markets for the next few days so we didn't make any purchases.
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Before leaving Geneva we drove to the adjoining town of Carouge on the far side of the River Arve. Carouge was established in Italian architectural style by a descendant of the Dukes of Savoy who wished to create a rival to the cultural metropolis of Geneva. Although still a separate municipality Carouge was reduced over the years to a suburb of greater Geneva and is considered one of its more bohemian and iconoclastic neighborhoods. We had a dual purpose with our Thursday afternoon visit: to explore the neighborhood and to see the weekly market on Place du Marché. We started with the market which proved to be relatively small and sparsely-attended although the atmosphere was pleasant enough. Afterwards we moved into the side streets which were pleasant enough from an aesthetic standpoint but hardly energetic. The asphalt streets were quite wide and the buildings were relatively low which detracted somewhat from any feeling of intimacy. There were a number of galleries and cafes making a game attempt to stir up a bohemian vibe but they occupied a much smaller area than we had expected. Overall Carouge seemed like just another nondescript neighborhood we might have passed through on a city walk without stopping. Perhaps the area is more dynamic on weekends but on this afternoon it was something of a disappointment.
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Geneva was the impetus for the Swiss leg of our trip but we felt less affinity for it than several other cities we had visited in the prior days. Zürich had been especially enjoyable and there was no question that in atmosphere and energy it had been far superior to Geneva. Even the smaller cities of Lausanne and Bern had been preferable. Of course we were only in Geneva for about five hours so it's certain that we missed many hidden attractions, but as far as first impressions go we didn't find any overwhelming reason to return. It wasn't anything we had to dwell on because we were coming up on one of the most highly anticipated sections of our trip, the stretch that would take us through some of the most beautiful and gastronomically distinguished cities in France. We piled back into our car for the short hop to Annecy where we were due to meet our Airbnb host at seven.

Posted by zzlangerhans 12:03 Archived in France Tagged road_trip family family_travel travel_blog yvoire tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

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