Geneva Bursts Into Bloom

GENEVA -- As the snows start to melt on the majestic Alps and the winter cloud lifts, Geneva shakes off its winter blues - or rather grays - and breathes in the sweet spring air.

Soft laughter floats through downtown cafe terraces; boats glide past the lake's landmark 140-meter-high water fountain and lush parks blossom after months of hibernation. When warm weather comes, graceful old paddle-wheel steamers will churn back and forth across the lake carrying tourists and commuters.

Although it lacks the romance of Rome, the panache of Paris and the life of London, Geneva is well worth a visit both in its own right and as a springboard to nearby attractions.

"Geneva is really a place where people meet," Ariane Schibli of the tourist office says. "It has a lot to offer. It's cool."

The city of 180,000 inhabitants boasts more than 130 hotels, largely to house delegates to the countless international conferences that have given it a somewhat stuffy image as the world's biggest talking shop.

Accommodation prices tend to be high compared to other European cities. But many hotels, ranging from the elegant five-star buildings along the lakeside to the more modest establishments cramped around the railway station, offer special weekend packages. And there are increasing options for backpackers with a centrally located youth hostel, new "city hostel" and campsites.

Indeed, you don't have to be wealthy to enjoy the charms of the city, especially in spring and summer. A daily bus pass for unlimited travel costs just 5 Swiss francs ($3). Better still, rent a bike and take advantage of the cycle paths to escape aggressive and impatient car drivers.

Most of the main tourist attractions are centered on the lake: the water fountain; a 5-meter-diameter floral clock made of more than 6,500 plants; and miniature trains linking up fragrant parks with an estimated 40,000 rosebushes.

Feeling hot and sticky after trawling the sites? The main Geneva beach - a large grassy expanse that boasts an Olympic-size pool, a huge water toboggan and a kiddie pool - is a popular summer hangout for the locals.

More cosmopolitan is the Bains de Paquis, near the heart of the city. It has a "female only" side with a large shady area and shallow water perfect for small children. It's a great place for breakfast - the muesli is a must - and for tasty lunch dishes.

There are a variety of cruises on either state-operated boats, on which half-price rail passes are valid, or private ones offering multilingual interpretation.

It's worth taking one of the longer trips just to marvel at the sumptuous lakeside properties of the fabulously wealthy who make their home along the shores of Lac Leman, as Lake Geneva is known. The cute village of Hermance is a favorite destination, as is the flower-decked medieval village of Yvoire across the French border.

Away from the water, there's a twice-weekly open-air flea market at the Plainpalais park. Just outside the city, historic Carouge is often dubbed Geneva's "Greenwich Village."

Between June and September, there are hundreds of concerts - some of them free - in various parks and in the cool town hall courtyard in the old part of the city. And for three days in mid-June, the town is consumed by jazz, classical, rock and techno during the Festival of Music. It's designed for the natives rather than tourists and is family oriented and fun.

By contrast, the main Geneva Festival, July 28 to Aug. 6, is loud, flashy and commercialized. The otherwise genteel lakeside is transformed into a garish fun-fair with the celebrations peaking in a techno parade, a Brazilian-style street party and finally a night of stupendous fireworks. It attracted some 1.6 million visitors last year - including many Arab tourists who are regulars at the festival.

Generally speaking, Geneva - the historic birthplace of Calvinism - is not the place to come for wild nightlife, even though there is an endless selection of bars, clubs and restaurants. The Swiss prefer to linger over a glass of wine or beer rather than get roaring drunk. A popular nightly fixture is Cinelac - an open-air movie theater on the edge of the lake that shows a mixture of classics and new films, all in the original language rather than dubbed into French. Buy tickets in advance to avoid the long lines and take insect repellent.

Geneva is an great base for excursions, ranging from popular Swiss destinations such as Gruyeres or Montreux to the French mountain resort of Chamonix and the charming French lakeside town of Annecy with its network of canals.

Northern Italy and the Burgundy and Provence regions of France are also within easy driving distance. In fact, many locals say that one of the best things about Geneva is how easy it is to get away from it.