Long time listener Liam McCarney is this week’s submitter: he’s living part of the year in Geneva, Switzerland, and wants to share his knowledge of this amazing city with everyone! Even though the city hasn’t been in a Bond movie (yet?), Geneva and Switzerland have some important connections to Ian Fleming and the character of James Bond.
Listen to the podcast itself, with Sandy and Jamie’s commentary, at the bottom of this post.
The City of Calvin is also the City of Fleming and Bond!
I’d like to share some tips and background on a city which is very Bond, and where I have the good fortune to spend most of the year, but has been unfairly overlooked by the film franchise so far. In Goldfinger we see Bond board a plane to Geneva, and the city’s name on his car’s navigation system as he starts driving through Switzerland (decades before GPS!), but we see nothing of the city itself.
Not only is Geneva, with the lake area, a kind of Swiss Riviera and a playground for luxury travel, which is quite Bond-like in itself; it has some very concrete connections to 007. Danjaq, the holding company responsible for the copyright and trademarks of the James Bond film franchise, is based in nearby Lausanne (I happened upon the brass plate one day walking past the offices).
Despite its small size (about 400,000 people) Geneva has all the resources and facilities of an international capital, and Ian Fleming thought it worth including in his book on “Thrilling Cities”, along with the likes of Tokyo, New York and Hong Kong!
Many famous historical figures and writers have ventured here over the centuries, including Julius Caesar (he camped near the lake and his mention of “Genaua” is the earliest known written reference to Geneva). Literary figures include Lord Byron, Mary Shelley (who wrote Frankenstein here during the miserable summer of 1816), Voltaire (who took refuge here whenever he made France too hot to hold him – you can visit his Château in the village of Ferney-Voltaire just across the border), Rousseau (a citizen of Geneva), Goethe, Schiller, Ian Fleming and… James Bond!
Fleming himself spent a year studying at the Université de Genève and working at the League of Nations, and for a while was engaged to a Swiss girl. They only broke up because his mother strongly disapproved of the match. In Fleming’s novels (and in John Pearson’s biography of James Bond based on the novels, which fills in quite a few gaps in Fleming’s narrative and is one of my most treasured books), James Bond’s father was a Highland Scot and his mother Swiss, from the nearby canton of Vaud. I was very happy to see Andrew Bond and Monique Delacroix referred to by name in Skyfall. The film series as a whole contains few references to Bond’s roots, but I think the Daniel Craig films are attempting to construct a more serious and consistent narrative.
James also studied here and honed his skiing skills. John Pearson tells us about the time he accepted a challenge from an arrogant ski instructor to try going down a potentially deadly slope near Chamonix. The University here still organizes ski trips into the nearby French Alps, in which I’ve been a frequent and enthusiastic participant, but with friendlier instructors than young Bond had! I love skiing anyway, but it’s a bonus to feel like I’m following in Fleming’s and in Bond’s footsteps!
As an aside, I think I should mention that the film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service changed my life. It inspired me both to choose Switzerland rather than France or Germany for my first University year abroad, and to learn to ski. I’ve ended up spending most of my adult life in the land of banks, watches, chocolate, skiing and neutrality. As is the case for many serious fans, for me James Bond is more than entertainment – he’s an ideal, someone who has his personality and life totally together, and an inspiration to bring more style, variety and adventure into my own life.
At the opposite end of the spectrum from student life, Geneva boasts many Bond-worthy five-star hotels by the lake, each with its own distinct character. In fact there are more luxury hotels here – often with Bentleys or Aston Martins parked outside – than budget hotels, and there are many places to spend a pleasant evening with a Bond Girl in elegant surroundings. You can find almost any cuisine here, since Geneva’s 400,000 people represent all but 7 of the world’s nationalities! I find Geneva is a good city to eat Italian or Thai, and increasingly, Japanese or Korean, as well as local Swiss specialties. The cheese-based dishes of fondue and raclette need no introduction, but try also Rösti (a whole plate of potatoes sliced in a similar way to hash browns, often with ham, bacon or cheese added), Zürich-style minced veal with a mushroom sauce and rice, and perch fillets from the lake. Traditionally, fondue is prepared by men, and anyone who loses a piece of bread in the cheese has to pay for the whole table. Fondue and raclette are winter dishes, accompanied by white wine.
I’m afraid the Swiss don’t exactly specialize in cheap night-time entertainment! In discos and nightclubs, expect to pay at least 10 francs per drink, and by that I mean soft drinks! Order something like a bottle of wine or a cocktail and you’ll easily pay the price of a good meal. And it’s no good asking for water: they’ll give you mineral water and charge you 10 francs for that too. Regular bars and student-oriented places, I was pleased to see, serve drinks at less outlandish prices.
If you are just going out for a drink most restaurants have areas where you can have a drink without having to order a full meal. In the warmer months THE place where young people hang out in great numbers is Place Molard. On summer evenings the Old Town is also thronging with people and is a pleasant place to sit outside.
Swiss wine, unfortunately, is almost unheard of outside the country, so you should definitely try some local wine. If you have a chance to dine out at the Swissôtel Metropole, their wine list has a most impressive selection of Swiss wines – the canton of Geneva alone contains practically every grape variety. Most Swiss wines come from the French-speaking area, and there are many vineyards to be seen along the lake between Geneva and Montreux. Several wines from Ticino can be found all over Switzerland. Less well-known and smaller-scale wine production takes place in many German-speaking areas, including the city of Zürich and the Berner Oberland. These varieties are especially worth trying, as you may never encounter them anywhere else.
As well as watches and clichéd Swiss souvenirs such as cowbells, cuckoo clocks and other ornaments, chocolate is everywhere and has been molded into every shape and form imaginable and indeed unimaginable. You are absolutely spoilt for choice. During my first year in Switzerland, I overindulged in chocolate and endured quite an ordeal in the dentist’s chair on returning home! These days Lindt and Toblerone can be found anywhere in the world, so try the specialist “chocolateries” for something new or unusual. Supermarkets and department stores also have wide selections of chocolate. You can often find the exact same item cheaper than in souvenir shops.
Upscale shopping is very big here. There are many stores, indeed a few entire streets, where if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it! I’ve seen Brioni suits and shirts on display, and of course lots of Rolex and Omega watches, in the world’s watchmaking capital. While my budget doesn’t stretch that far, I have always been able to dress well at reasonable prices, avoiding overpriced brand names while still finding variety and good quality. Electronics, thanks in part to much lower sales taxes, have also traditionally been cheaper than in neighboring countries. Note that unlike North America, where you hardly notice that it’s Sunday because everything is open, the Swiss like a good old-fashioned Sunday with nearly everything closed, so plan your shopping accordingly.
You can practise almost any sport here; water sports in summer and of course skiing in winter. While there is rarely any snow in and around Geneva itself, there are a number of ski resorts in the French and Swiss Alps an hour or two away by car. The most famous is Chamonix, but I find it’s largely just a name. I prefer to ski in nearby Contamines for the wide, spacious slopes, and in Avoriaz, on the French/Swiss border on the other side of Montreux, for the spectacular scenery. Chamonix is nonetheless a pleasant town surrounded by several ski resorts, including Grand-Montet, where if you’re lucky you can ski until the very end of April, thanks to the high altitude.
Here are a few of my favorite ideas for a romantic moment with your Bond Girl. Try dinner at the classy Les Armures Restaurant in the Vieille Ville or Old Town, where Bill Clinton once dined. Another place to dine in style is Caviar House at Rue du Rhône 30, which also owns a delicatessen. I went there with my favorite Bond girl to celebrate the release of two Bond movies. The Italian restaurant Lacustre, located almost right on the water, is one of the city’s most scenic dining spots. In summer many lakeside bars spring up, where you can enjoy a drink, a snack or an ice-cream.
As an alternative to a restaurant meal, you can go to Caviar House or Globus (a department store with a basement full of gourmet specialties from around the world) to pick up some refined nibbles and wine. Then, weather permitting, you can have a picnic by the lake. My favorite time for this is dusk, when lots of colorful lights are reflected in the water. A romantic but not usually overcrowded spot is the pier leading out to the Jet d’Eau, the world’s tallest waterjet, which can reach 145m when there is no wind. If you’re adventurous, you can walk right up to the railing if the wind is blowing enough of the spray away from you. The Jet d’Eau dates from 1891, the 600th anniversary of the Swiss Confederation, and began as a device for regulating water pressure for some local industry. It looks spectacular lit up at night, and during the day it sometimes has its own rainbow.
A somewhat downmarket, but still picturesque feature of Geneva is the Bains des Pâquis, basically a lakeside swimming area centered on a concrete pier, on the opposite side of the lake from the Jet d’Eau, which includes a sauna, hammam and… one of the best and most reasonably priced fondue restaurants in town! I recently sat outside on a winter evening with a couple of friends, admiring the view, with fondue and hot wine to keep us warm. The lake water is quite clean almost everywhere, and the water temperature in summer, while admittedly not equaling that of the Florida Keys, is perfectly adequate for swimming, though hardier swimmers don’t wait for summer! You can also have breakfast at the Bains des Pâquis and enjoy morning concerts in summer.
There are various daytime and evening boat cruises on offer, which have an obvious romantic appeal, and the finest spot in town for breakfast is on the 3rd-floor terrasse of the Kempinski hotel with a superb view of the lake. I arrived one morning on a night train from Milan and my favourite Bond girl was waiting for me at the station. I had deliberately put on my tuxedo to make it a more Bond moment. We made our way to the hotel to have a buffet breakfast. On that beautiful sunny June morning we were treated to a view of the annual boat regatta on the lake departing Geneva.
On a clear day, to have a spectacular view of the whole canton of Geneva (a canton is the Swiss equivalent of a US state, but with a bit more independence) you can take Bus no.8 to Veyrier. Make sure to board a bus marked “Veyrier-Douane” (customs). Then cross the border into France and take the cablecar up the nearby Grand-Salève mountain. There is a restaurant at the top, as well as a lot of walking trails. Some very energetic souls walk or even bicycle all the way up the Salève! From the lake (and a few other spots in the city) you can have an excellent view of the Mont-Blanc on a clear day. Closer to Geneva than the Mont-Blanc are the Grand-Salève and the Petit-Salève. On the other side are the Jura mountains, sometimes skiable, but less reliable for snow than the Alps.
All these nearby mountains are in France. The canton of Geneva could have expanded its territory after Napoleon, but the very Protestant Genevois didn’t want too many Catholics in their midst. As a result, Geneva has just 6 km of border connecting it to the rest of Switzerland and is virtually surrounded by French mountains, making the territory just about impossible to defend. During WWII the Swiss government decided they would not even try to protect it in the case of a German invasion, but would rather have the Swiss army retreat to more easily defendable Alpine areas.
There are several other noteworthy Bond locations in Switzerland. The two most famous, Piz Gloria in the Berner Oberland from OHMSS, and the Verzasca dam from Goldeneye, have been adequately discussed in previous podcasts, so I will be brief with just a couple of quick tips. To reach Piz Gloria, you will probably need to change trains several times, as is common given Swiss topography. To allow yourself enough time to appreciate the experience, make it a full-day trip and be sure to check the weather conditions and that it’s actually open that day. Once a year (usually in November) the cable car shuts down for maintenance. Note also that the last ascent is at 4 pm. There is the option of taking a series of four (!) cablecars up from Stechelberg, but I found it a much more enjoyable route taking the train from Interlaken to Lauterbrünnen, then Mürren, the ski resort which features in OHMSS, where you can take the cablecar directly to the top.
If going to the Verzasca dam from the Geneva area, you will probably have to change trains in Domodossola (Italy), so don’t forget your passport. A number of locations from the southeastern Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, and from northern Italy, appear in John Gardner’s novel “Nobody Lives Forever”, where Bond struggles to protect himself and his two beautiful companions, as well as his housekeeper May and Miss Moneypenny, from SPECTRE, who have put a price on his head.
Another Berner Oberland Bond location, again featured not in any film, but in John Gardner’s novel “Never Send Flowers”, is the Hotel Victoria Jungfrau in Interlaken, one of the Leading Hotels of the World. Bond must have stayed in quite a few of those! Here literary Bond meets his match for the first time since Tracy and gets into a serious relationship with a beautiful Swiss agent. The Gstaad area, also in the Berner Oberland and long home to Sir Roger Moore, offers a vast skiing area with around 200 km of slopes. There are day tickets available including train fare and lift pass.
As well as the Berner Oberland, in OHMSS we see the historic center of Bern, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The streets around the famous clock tower are very pleasant and picturesque, and there is a good selection of restaurants with outside tables in the big square leading to the Swiss Federal Parliament. Swiss politics are low-key with very little pomp and ceremony – you may well bump into a government minister in the street or on a tram! In the film we also briefly see the Bärengraben, or bear pit. The bear is the symbol of Bern, as the city was named after the first animal its founder caught on a hunting expedition. I used to feel sorry for the bears, stuck in such a confined concrete space, but they have now been moved to a much more suitable spot by the river Aare. A swim in this fast-flowing river is something for the adventurous!
The only downside to this unique and amazing country are the painful Swiss prices. For the last few years, a Swiss franc has been worth slightly more than a dollar, but $100 in the US will go quite a bit further than 100 francs in Geneva! But many places of interest cost little or nothing to visit, and most restaurants, even in luxury hotels, have reasonably priced menus at lunchtime. Recently, Swiss businesses in general, aware of the skewed exchange rates and cross-border competition, have started making some efforts to cut prices. Trains are also expensive, but it’s possible to buy special rail passes which allow unlimited travel almost anywhere in Switzerland for one or more days.
I imagine most serious Bond fans will know better, but on my various travels, I’ve encountered quite a few people who confuse Switzerland with Sweden, or the adjectives “Swedish” and “Swiss”. I explain as patiently as I can that while the two countries may be close in alphabetical order, they’re geographically as far apart as Maryland and Texas!
Sometimes people also ask me if I speak good Swiss, but there is no language called “Swiss”. The three official languages are German, French and Italian, depending on the region. A fourth language is spoken by about 60,000 people in parts of the eastern canton of Graubünden containing St. Moritz. Rumantsch is similar to Italian, but is considered a separate language and the people won’t be pleased if you refer to it as a dialect. In the German-speaking regions, people read and write standard German, but speak their local dialects. Every city and every valley speaks differently, and despite speaking fluent German, I find conversations in Swiss-German dialects difficult or impossible to follow. In the southeastern canton of Ticino (Lugano, Locarno, Bellinzona) Italian is the local language, while in Geneva, as in most of Western Switzerland, the main language is French. It’s pretty standard French, except for a few local words and expressions, and the Swiss (fortunately!) speak more slowly than the French. Increasingly, not always mastering their compatriots’ languages, the Swiss have taken to speaking more and more English to one another!
As in most countries, Swiss society is gradually becoming less formal. People tend to be reserved, but generally courteous and friendly once the ice is broken. I find the German-speaking Swiss to be more friendly and sociable than the Genevois. (As an interesting note, people with Geneva roots going back several generations are at most a third of the city’s population). Similarly to France, kisses on the cheek are a common greeting, the difference being that the Swiss add a third kiss.
We often see Bond catching a local festival. The Swiss National Day is August 1 st, which in Geneva is followed by the Fêtes de Genève. A highlight of the annual Geneva festival is the spectacular fireworks display over the lake. If you’re not lucky enough to have a hotel room overlooking the lake, and want a totally unobstructed view, you will need to get to the Pont du Mont-Blanc bridge about two hours beforehand. Another great Geneva festival, the Escalade, takes place in December, which commemorates the night in 1602 when the Genevois successfully defended themselves against an attempt by the Duke of Savoie (now the bordering region of France) to sack the city. Enjoy lots of atmosphere, hot wine in the streets, and parades in period costume, where the local government officials join in and open up the historic municipal offices in the old city to the public.
August 1st commemorates the day in 1291 when the first three cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden got together for mutual defense, in particular against the Austrian Habsburg Empire. Controlling the Alpine Gotthard pass gave the Swiss a great deal of strategic leverage. Over the centuries, other cantons gradually joined this loose confederation, which became a more unitary state with the 1848 Constitution. Famously neutral for the past 200 years, managing to sit out both World Wars, Switzerland in previous centuries produced some of the most ferocious and feared warriors in Europe. The only remaining Swiss mercenary army serving abroad are the Vatican’s Swiss guards, who still wear a uniform designed by Michelangelo. Most young Swiss men are required to do periodic military service, a policy known as “armed neutrality”, and keep their weapons at home. Despite this and a high gun ownership rate generally, gun murders are rare.
As for Geneva, it was an important city-state from the Middle Ages, loosely linked to the Germanic Holy Roman Empire. In the 16th Century it was a major center of the Reformation, at which time it became known as the “Protestant Rome” and the “City of Calvin”. Under Calvin’s stern and puritanical influence, Geneva people were allowed do little with their money except save and invest it, which helped the growth of Swiss banking. Geneva remained an independent city-state until it joined the Swiss Confederation in 1815, after a brief period of annexation under Napoleon.
The Swiss, a very independent people, have never joined the European Union. In a 2001 referendum on whether to open membership negotiations, there was a 77% No vote. Unlike the EU system of directives from above, the Swiss have an exemplary system of direct democracy, where all important decisions, be they on a federal, cantonal, or local level, are put to a popular vote.
Geneva is surprisingly poorly served for intercontinental flights. Flying in from North America or Asia, you may have to change somewhere like London, Paris, Frankfurt, Helsinki or Dubai. Once here, you can get a free ticket at baggage reclaim, valid for 80 minutes, to take you anywhere in the city. After that, hotels often provide free public transportation tickets for the duration of your stay.
I enjoy the Geneva motor show every March, which features Bentleys, BMWs, Aston Martins and other Bond cars, but I don’t want to own a car here if someone’s giving it away. Traffic moves at a snail’s pace, you’re never allowed to turn where you want to, and it’s impossible to park. The Swiss may have a reputation for being law-abiding, but Geneva is plagued by impatient and careless drivers. Beware of luxury cars and diplomatic plates, whose drivers tend to think they own the road.
Some visitors will nevertheless find renting a car useful in order to visit out-of-the-way places. As in all of continental Europe, you drive on the right. Speed limits are 120 km/h on motorways and 80 km/h on other country roads, and 30 or 50 km/h in built-up areas. Radar units are everywhere. Neat, ordered Switzerland isn’t the best country to have a race like James Bond and Xenia Onatopp at the beginning of Goldeneye – the Swiss police are pretty merciless about speeding and other traffic violations, and it isn’t too hard to lose your license. For the motorways you will need to display a sticker on the windshield with the calendar year on it and for this you pay a tax of 40 francs, which covers the rest of the year. Better than the French and Italian motorway systems, where you have to pay tolls every time. Needless to say, some mountain routes will be impassible in winter or may require snow tires. Fuel has always been cheaper in Switzerland than in any neighboring country.
Despite the best efforts of the local media to portray Geneva as the new Bogota, there is no need to live in fear of what might happen on the streets. The Swiss have a low crime rate, combined with proportionally fewer police officers than almost any other country. However don’t automatically drop your guard. Violent crime is quite rare, but petty theft and pickpocketing unfortunately are not.
The climate is not as chilly as you might expect for such a mountainous country. Indeed, thanks to the lake, Geneva enjoys a milder climate than any other part of Switzerland except Ticino, and Mediterranean-type weather in summer. Nevertheless, winters are quite cold, though not as much so as, say, a Canadian winter. Expect temperatures hovering around freezing and (rarely) a day or two of snow, but the lake itself never freezes. Beware of “la bise” though, a strong cold wind, which during a really cold snap can blow lots of water off the lake’s surface, causing some quite spectacular ice formations around the shore. Spring and fall have generally pleasant temperatures with a fair amount of rainfall. In summer expect days of sweltering heat punctuated now and then by thunderstorms. In July and August temperatures of 30°, or even 35°C are not uncommon. Humidity can build up, but the thunderstorms bring some welcome coolness.
Let me finish by mentioning a few more places of interest.
Yet another distinctive Swiss timepiece is the flower clock, outside the Jardin Anglais, a park located beside the main traffic bridge, the Pont du Mont-Blanc. It’s THE place to be photographed for some reason, and you will see coachloads of tourists of various nationalities making brief stops there for that very purpose. The clock has a different design every year.
The walled Old Town has remained virtually unchanged for centuries and looks much as Rousseau knew it. It is full of cosy bars and restaurants, varied and interesting antique shops, and dominated by the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre, where you can climb to the top for an unparalleled view of the city.
Henri Dunant, founder of the Red Cross, hailed from Geneva and the Red Cross Museum is located near the United Nations. In fact the Red Cross symbol is simply an inversion of the Swiss flag. The European Headquarters of the UN offers tours on weekdays. The Palais Wilson, where Fleming worked for the League of Nations, now houses the UN High Commission on Human Rights.
A village a short train ride from Geneva in the canton of Vaud, and where Fleming stayed, is Coppet. The château was bought in 1784 by Jacques Necker, French finance minister under Louis XVI. His daughter, Madame de Staël, was a notable literary and intellectual figure of the time. Frequent guided tours are available during the day. The château is open from March to October.
I hope someday Geneva is used as a Bond movie location. Maybe when the producers are casting for the next film, I should suggest it and send them a picture of an award I won for acting in a school Shakespeare play. If it’s a Bond film, I’d be more than satisfied with being a humble extra!