91: Geneva: Get Up + Go, Or Not?

Wiki-excerpt on Geneva's fountain: Five hundred litres (132 gallons) of water per second are jetted to an altitude of 140 metres (459 feet) by two 500 kW pumps, operating at 2,400 V, consuming over one megawatt of electricity.

New York, London, Geneva – there are some city names that everyone knows, yet there is just one in this mini-list that travel-guru Rick Steves ignores altogether: Geneva.

That fascinates us. After all, who doesn’t recognize the Geneva Convention, which undergirds international humanitarian law. I have even read the thing, not to better myself but just so I could get smarmy with a friend whose favorite phrase was “in violation of the Geneva Convention,” which it turned out he had not read, just as I suspected. Nevertheless, it is a fun weighty document to throw around in a debate, so I don’t really hold this against him.

Geneva’s tourist bureau is pretty mad at Rick Steves for overlooking them, but they should think again. What do they have that would draw Rick Steves, who pares his travel advice down to typical North American vacation spans (“best in 22 days,” “best in 14 days”) and tourist mini-breaks of a few days?

Rick Steves is not Geneva’s biggest problem. Bern, Lucerne and Zürich are, not to mention the dozen teensy Swiss villages that are so charming they easily beat out Geneva as a great day-stop (Thun, Neuchatel, Appenzell, Solothurn …).

On paper, Geneva has it all: A lake, a river, a promenade, an old-town, a storied and gloried past and the French Alps for a backdrop. For the well-heeled, there is Cartier (as plentiful in Switzerland as Wal-Mart in America), Louis Vuitton and Chanel. And yet, there is a problem, best symbolized with Geneva’s 110+ year-old fountain.

The thing is one straight spout jetting up from Lac Leman (also known as Lake Geneva). It sends five hundred litres (132 gallons) of water per second up to around 460 feet at 124 mph. This height leads to the boast that it is the tallest in the world. Geneva should be nervous about this: As soon as this claim comes to the attention of engineers in Dubai, they will build a 1,000-metre fountain.  But to get back to Geneva: A plaque at the base of the stone jetty by which visitors can stroll out to the fountain jet explains that the water’s white appearance is due to a special nozzle that injects tiny air bubbles into the water.

Would that be like the same nozzle hardware stores sell for $1.29 that can be fitted over kitchen taps? Seriously, Geneva, the city who gives the world the Red Cross, you can do better. If in over 100 years it has not occurred to you to do something else with your fountain besides inject air into it (Old Faithful does that without any special nozzle) and cast a light on it at night, then you need to convene a new committee to travel the world to see what else has been going on in fountain technology lately. San Diego’s Sea World would be a good starting place.

This is one of two stones brought down by glaciers during the Ice Age. Known as Pierres du Niton (Neptune's Stones), this stone was once used as the reference point by which the Swiss measured altitude, says the writers of Eyewitness Travel: Switzerland.

If that does not suit, they could also hire a grouchy old man to randomly point the spray at passersby – as unpleasant as that might be for tourists it would at least add an element of excitement and unpredictability to the site.

The fountain says that Geneva thinks going big is enough, but it is not. There is, in fact, a sense of bigness in Geneva’s downtown, a sense that this is truly a working city with practical matters on its mind. That is not a bad thing, but the town leaders are goofy to then get snooty when a leading travel guru rightly identifies it as such and gives it a pass.

But all this is not to say that Geneva is not worth the visit. It is, provided you have already seen Lucerne, Zürich, Bern, Neuchatel, Thun and Solothurn.

Tomorrow: More on Geneva and what to see/do there. 

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