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Sharing Alpine Shores: France and Switzerland

Most of us would agree that trying to cram in 10 countries in 13 days is not the best way to see Europe. However, it is possible to get a two-for-one experience and do justice to both countries — Switzerland and France — in a pair of cities that are so close it would be a shame to visit one and not the other.

If your group enjoys Europe and would like to get to know these countries more intimately, a week spent exploring Geneva and Evian will prove delightful.

Getting To Know Geneva

Geneva’s Jet d’Eau, a fountain in the middle of its namesake lake, is as much a symbol of the city as Big Ben is of London, the Eiffel Tower is of Paris and the Colosseum is of Rome.

The single column of water shoots 460 feet in the air and erupts with the force of 132 gallons of water every second, frequently spraying those standing on the side of the lake with misty droplets. On sunny days, it’s often colored by rainbows.

Unfortunately, my first sight of the Jet d’Eau came with rain rather than a rainbow and fog as thick as cotton. I had to squint to see anything at all. Not a very auspicious introduction to Geneva, frequently referred to as the Capital of Peace.

As the headquarters of 200 international organizations, including the International Red Cross and the European United Nations, it’s easy to see why. The city is cosmopolitan in the real sense of the word, and one can often hear conversations in 25 languages on a stroll along the lake or in the city’s business district.

But as famous as it is for its humanitarianism, it’s equally known for a luxurious lifestyle that includes the world’s best banks and watches and, even more to my liking, its best chocolates.

Lake Geneva divides the city into new and old sections. Most visitors start with the latter, on the south side of the lake. A good place to begin exploring is St. Peter’s Cathedral, which became the center of the city’s Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. John Calvin preached here, and his seat can be seen in the north aisle.

Climb the 157 steps leading to the cathedral for a panoramic view across Geneva and the mountains of the Jura and foothills of the Alps. After your cathedral visit, check out the nearby Museum of the Reformation. The museum, in the 18th-century Maison Mallet, traces the history of the Protestant Reformation not only in a religious sense but socially and culturally as well.

Wander through Place du Bourg, one of the oldest squares in the city, and Grand Rue, Old Town’s main street with its smart shops, cafes and bakeries.

Well-Earned Reputation

When it comes to food, Geneva — being in a French canton of Switzerland — has a reputation for culinary excellence that rivals Paris. On my first night, I popped into the Café du Centre, a typical bistro on Place du Molard. One of the oldest brasseries in Geneva, it had a menu of comfort food just perfect for a rainy, damp evening.

Starting with a platter of French and Swiss cheeses, I moved on to cod with olive oil, mashed potatoes and spinach — tasty without being overly fussy. Even the white-coated waiters are devoid of attitude, welcoming the opportunity to explain menu items.

My second day in Geneva proved to be better weatherwise, so I set out on foot to explore more of the area surrounding the lake. Lake Geneva — or Lac Leman as it is known in French — is something of an oddity, being both glacially fed and with the Rhone River flowing out of it.

Take a water taxi or a boat cruise to get a glimpse of both shores, or head out the pier to Bains des Paquis, an urban beach where city dwellers meet to swim, take a sauna or eat fondue in the restaurant.

In the summer, you can swim in the pools or, if you are adventurous, in the lake, although you will have to share it with the ducks and swans. In the winter, everyone flocks here for the city’s best fondue served in the warmth of a rustic cabin.

The famous Flower Clock leads to the Rue du Rhone and the display windows of the world’s greatest watchmakers, including Rolex and Patek Philippe, which even has its own museum showcasing Swiss and European watches from the 16th to the 20th centuries.

If it’s true that every great city deserves a great hotel, Geneva has one in the lakeside Hotel d’Angleterre. Prominently situated on the Quai du Mont-Blanc, it’s a boutique hotel catering to a global clientele.

From the glass walls of its elegant Windows Restaurant, guests get a bird’s-eye view of the Jet d’Eau while feasting on such delicacies as duck foie gras with red apple compote, mulled wine jelly and brioche, lobster and scallop carpaccio with salmon caviar, and wild boar stew with traditional garnish.

Have a predinner drink in Hotel d’Angleterre’s legendary Leopard Room Bar, with its cozy fireplace, dark paneled wood and impressive list of whiskeys and cognacs. The sophisticated bar crowd includes diplomats and international titans of industry with, it is hoped, hefty expense accounts‚ especially if they want to avail themselves of the bar’s star attraction, an 1848 Armagnac that costs $520 a shot.

If my first day in Geneva was one of rain and fog, my last day began with bright sunshine. I took a stroll down to the lake for a final look at the Jet d’Eau. As the plume of water rose skyward, I could swear I saw a rainbow.

Falling for Evian

I think I love Evian. That thought sprang to mind during a morning walk on the sun-dappled, cobblestoned streets of this charming town on the south side of Lake Geneva — or Lac Leman on the French side.

It started out as lust after getting a whiff of the tantalizing aromas wafting from bakeries and brasseries. It quickly deepened into something more as I admired the colorful floral murals painted on many buildings, and lust turned to love during a stroll along the flower-bedecked lakeside promenade.

By the time I stopped to admire the neoclassical Villa Lumiere, once the home of two brothers credited with the invention of  cinematography and now the city’s Town Hall, I was completely smitten.

Evian, with a year-round population of only 8,000, though it swells to 40,000 in the summer, was founded in 1789 and has been a noted spa town since 1824. European aristocrats afflicted with gout, arthritis or merely the overindulgences associated with a life of privilege flocked here to take the healing waters.

Architectural remnants of that glittering era remain. While the lakeside casino would seem more at home on the Las Vegas Strip, other buildings are jaw-dropping in their splendor. In addition to the Villa Lumiere, there’s the Cachat Pump Room, once the center of spa-based social life. Still used for public events such as concerts and art exhibitions, its Art Nouveau architecture features a large semicircular glass window and a cupola made of glazed tiles.

Also in the Nouveau style is the Source Cachat, a colorful fountain of mosaic tiles, where a continuous thin trickle of water marks the spot where world-famous Evian water ends its journey from its source in the mountains, a journey that takes an unbelievable 15 years to complete.

Famous for Water

Rare is the soul who leaves Evian without filling a bottle from the fountain, giving him or her bragging rights once back home. I arrived bearing my single bottle just behind a gentleman who was in the process of filling two cases of bottles. Since it’s free, many people like to stock up.

The mountains where the water begins its journey are, of course, the French range of the Alps, dominated by Mont Blanc, the tallest in the Alps, with its majestic snow-covered peak and wrapped in its necklace of glaciers.

On a lovely sunny day I hiked to the Plateau de Gavot, the catchment area where rain and melting snow soaks into the ground.

Here, at a site known as the impluvium, the water begins its 15-year journey down the mountain. The process may be lengthy, but it’s worth the wait, as Evian water is known for its clarity and healthy properties; it’s used for medical treatments and to fill the pool at Les Thermes, the Evian Thermal Spa.

It’s not possible to tour the Evian plant, which produces 7 million bottles of water per day; but as a brand, Evian is ubiquitous in the town. The company owns the casino, a golf academy and two popular hotels — the palatial five-star Hotel Royal and the chaletlike four-star Hotel Ermitage — with the two connected by a lush park and surrounded by 47 acres of wooded grounds.

I spent a lovely evening at Hotel Ermitage’s La Table Restaurant but stayed at the Hotel Royal. To say that it’s royal is no overstatement, having opened in 1909 to provide Britain’s King Edward VII, a frequent visitor to the town, with a suitable place to stay. Sadly, he died before ever having a chance to check in.

One of the pleasures of staying here is dining here. La Veranda, the brasserie, overlooks the lake, and Les Fresques, the gourmet restaurant, has a spectacular decor that features Sistine Chapel-like ceiling frescoes and a live tree in the center of the room.

For golfers, the hotel’s Golf Academy is a must, and for those who love pampering, the Hotel Royal’s spa, with its range of treatments and La Prairie products, is the ultimate haven.

The hotel’s Sports and Culture Department can also arrange for any of 80 different activities, from the sublime — dog sledding in winter and hiking in the Alps the rest of the year — to the ridiculous — scooting, a combination of biking and snowboarding. Since Evian and its environs offer year-round delights, you can take your pick from land-, lake- and mountain-based activities.

On an absolutely picture-perfect fall day, I chose to sample the lake on a 44-foot sailboat. Strains of music from Evian’s fountain of dancing waters could be heard as I set sail, a gentle breeze and a warm sun my traveling companions. Oh, yes — and a bottle of Evian water to remind me where I was.

As I sipped a digestif made of local botanicals found in the Alpine Region and surrendered to the absolute serenity, I amended the first thought I had had upon seeing this charming town. I know I love Evian.

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