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Travel and retreats: Walking the Godly city

24 January 2020

It is 460 years since the production of the Geneva Bible. It’s a great time to visit the city, says Susan Gray


An aerial shot of Geneva and Lake Geneva

An aerial shot of Geneva and Lake Geneva

MARTIN LUTHER pins his thesis to the church door; demons with pokers taunt hollow-eyed peasants as plump clerics sell indulgences; Henry VIII gives Katharine of Ara­gon the shove. . .

As The Reformation in Seven Minutes goes through its paces on screen in the cinema of the Inter­national Museum of the Reforma­tion (MIR), a Mexican wave of shov­ing breaks out among the primary-school class seated beside me, only too keen to re-enact religious his­tory.

When the lights go up, it’s time to start on the main collection across the cobbled courtyard of the mu­­seum, built on the site of St Pierre Cathedral’s cloisters, in Geneva, where, in May 1536, after the arrival of John Calvin in the city, the people of Geneva voted to accept the Re­­formation.

The museum, which opened in 2005 in what was an 18th-century mansion, is the first stop on Geneva’s Reformation Trail: a ten-stop walk created in 2017 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s birth, and to bring alive the part that the city played in the Reformation: as a safe haven for religious refugees and a powerhouse of Protestant ideals.

Other notable stops on the trail include St Pierre’s Cathedral next door; the Reformation Wall monu­ment, and the Place du Bourg-de-Four — an ideal stop for lunch, I’m advised, over John Calvin fridge mag­nets in the museum shop, where I’m also tipped-off that the Audi­toire Calvin is seldom open (the location where Protestant scholars, including Myles Coverdale and John Knox, exiled from Queen Mary’s Roman Catholic London, worked to produce the Geneva Bible).

MIR’s glass cabinets display a version of the Geneva Bible dated 1562; its Roman typeface and crisp layout looking remarkably modern. The Old Testament was completed in 1560, and the New Testament in 1557; it was the first English translation to feature chapters, verses, cross references, and textual notes, and intended for private study. A few cabinets away, Luther’s 1550 tooled-leather-covered Bible, dated 1550, is proving the ideal item for the schoolchildren to chase each other around.

istock The International Museum of the Reformation

I continue on to a display de­­tailing the French Wars of Religion (1562-98), including the St Bartholo­mew’s Day Massacre of 1577, when leading French Huguenots were assassinated and anti-Protestant mob violence spread from Paris to the rest of France, resulting in as many as 70,000 deaths and a wave of refugees to Geneva. Others fled to the city in 1685, after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which had protected the rights and religious freedom of French Protestants.

As well as establishing weaving, watchmaking, and printing in the city, Geneva’s refugee craftsmen expressed their history of persecu­tion in ingeniously portable objects — my favourite in the exhibition: a Bible small enough to hide in a wig.

Downstairs, the exhibit “Train of Good Works” serves up an in­­teresting cocktail of missionaries and reformers, including Charles Darwin and Billy Graham. But I head for the trail’s second stop.

ST PIERRE’s Cathedral, which dates back to 1150, is as impossible to miss in importance and geography as the MIR. Its interior is dominated by an ornate pulpit from which Calvin preached. A row over excommuni­cation ended his first two-year visit, in 1538, but, in 1541, he returned to the city for good.

Tracing the fantastical figures on the 15th-century choir stalls, there is a hint of what the cathedral was like before its decoration and statues were stripped by his anti-Catholic followers; its stained-glass rose win­dows, with circular biblical scenes in each of its ornate petals, still beauti­fully illuminated above the cathe­dral’s plain walls.

As warned in the MIR, pushing the wooden doors of the tiny, 15th-century Gothic Auditoire Calvin (trail stop three) proves fruitless. It’s frustrating to be so close to where the exiles worked. And, near by, the Lutheran Church (trail stop four), which was com­pleted for the city’s German-speaking Lutherans in 1766, specif­ically to resemble a house not a church, is similarly locked (open to trail visitors on a Tuesday and Thursday, and Friday afternoons). But, visiting on a Sunday, as I am, I can attend its 11 a.m. multinational English-speaking service.

College Calvin (trail stop five), now a high school, is also closed. In the 16th century, boys from the age of seven attended six days a week for ten hours of lessons daily, learning Latin and Calvin’s catechism; under­lining Protestantism’s emphasis on lay literacy. Calvin founded the Geneva Academy in the same year, 1559, which has developed into today’s Geneva University.

ALTHOUGH the Reformation Trail is billed as a two-hour walk, to visit all its sites properly takes at least a day-and-a-half. At the Place du Bourg-de-Four, the old town’s focal point (trail stop six), I flop down under a sun umbrella in a bid to rest my legs and escape the 36-degree heat. I order a much-needed sirop, surrounded on all sides by 16th­­­century gabled buildings, many bear­ing an extra storey added to house religious refugees.

Feeling revived but in need of lunch, I head to Les Armures: a restaurant dating from the 17th century whose menus are adorned with a thank-you note from President Clinton (clearly, the Geneva Bibles taken by the Pilgrim Fathers across the Atlantic still reverberate at the highest level of American life).

The restaurant is celebrated for its fondue, and diners at a table near by are gamely forking bread into mol­ten Vacherin cheese. But, warned by a Swiss friend that fondue in summer is for tourists only, I opt for one of Geneva’s celebrated savoury tartes; although the mountain-air-dried beef and ham sounds tempt­ing.

istock Geneva’s acclaimed restaurant, Hotel Les Armures

The colonnaded city hall (Hotel de Ville), where, in 1535, the Conseil des Deux-Cents voted to abolish the mass, is trail stop seven. Inside the cool stone courtyard, I trot up a zigzag ramp, formerly used by sedan chairs and officials on horseback to enter the building without dis­­mount­ing, and head up to the fourth floor for views of the city.

Next is the Reformation Wall, in the Park des Bastions, outside the old city walls. The monument was erected between 1909-17 by Paul Landowski, who also sculpted Rio’s statue Christ the Redeemer. The brooding expressions and long robes of its four giant central figures pack an austere punch in a park full of people having fun (the French Re­­­form­ist preacher Guillaume Farel, who settled in Geneva in 1532 after a dispute with Erasmus, and recruited Calvin as his assistant; the French theologian Theodore Beza, who suc­­ceeded Calvin as Geneva’s chief pastor; Calvin; and Knox).

The open doors of Temple de la Fusterie, the Reformation Trail’s penultimate stop, reveals a scene like a Vermeer interior: a guitarist re­­hearsing on a dais against a pale, classical interior. Geneva’s first church built after the Reformation was constructed between 1713-15, after the second influx of Huguenot refugees to the city, when Louis XIV demanded that France adhere to Catholicism.

Turing left out of the Temple brings me to the trail’s end: Place du Molard, a Renaissance-style, wide, pe­­­destrian street lined with cafés and bars, running down to the edge of Lake Geneva. The preacher and later shopkeeper, Antoine Froment first preached Reformation ideas here in 1533, paving the way for Calvin and Farel.

The centre of the street is dom­inated by the late-16th-century Tour du Molard (Molard Tower), once used as a watchtower to protect the port, now a swish wine-bar over five floors. In the tower’s shadow, Calvin is commemorated in choco­late at Rohr’s confectioners. It may be too hot and sticky to sample their “Petit Calvin” chocolates, but it’s a perfect spot to sit with another icy sirop for a moment of religious or even worldly contemplation.

Travel details

Calvin called Geneva “the most godly city since the time of the apostles”. But there is plenty to do here beyond religion and the Reformation: the city plays host to the highest number of international organisations, including the UN and the International Red Cross (whose museum features immersive experiences highlighting prisoners of war, human rights, and humanitarian aid); Carouge, an Italian suburb, is great for shopping; Fondation Martin Bodmer features a manuscript collection including original Palestrina scores to Shakespeare and early Egyptian papyrus; then there are Lake Geneva and the Alps to explore. BA, Easy Jet and Swissair fly there from about £130 return, or catch the Eurostar to Paris Gare du Nord, from £29; the Metro to Gare de Lyon, the TGV to Geneva (from £26.04). Geneva’s more affordable central hotels are clustered around the main station (Cornavin), but terrific public transport and free Geneva Transport cards for hotel guests makes staying in suburbs, such as Nations (near the UN), a practical option. La Cour des Augustins, near the old town, offers three-night stays from CHF168 pn (lacourdesaugustins.com/en/). Nations, CHF200 for a twin (fassbindhotels.ch). Geneva Hostel, near Cornavin, has en-suite twins for CHF110 (genevahostel.ch/en/). For museum opening times visit geneve.com/en/see-do/500th-anniversary-of-the-reformation.

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