Geneva : around the train station
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Rue du Mont-Blanc is Geneva’s landmark street, a broad boulevard lined with airline offices and souvenir shops that slopes up the hill towards the train station and stands at the heart of the commercial shopping district. As with most such streets, though, it’s what happens either side that’s much more interesting. The St Gervais quarter, just west, was formerly the preserve of watchmakers, jewellers, engravers and goldsmiths. These days it has lost virtually all its character to traffic and modern commerce, although its old Gothic church survives on Rue du Temple.

Spreading east of Rue du Mont-Blanc is the cosmopolitan, rough-edged district of Les Pâquis centred on the long Rue de Berne – not a pretty place but crammed with restaurants and cafés devoted to every conceivable cuisine from Senegalese to Filipino. An equally visible feature of the Pâquis are the numerous sex shops and street prostitutes of Geneva’s flourishing red-light trade. The further north you go, the quieter it gets; conversely, you could head out to the lakeside Quai du Mont-Blanc for a stroll north, past the marina and ranks of luxury hotels, to the beautiful Parc Mon Repos, first of five adjoining parks which lead you into the international area.

Immediately behind the station is a small residential area known as Les Grottes, a web of twisting lanes and mostly unrenovated nineteenth-century houses. In sharp contrast, on Rue Louis Favre, just off the main Rue de la Servette, you couldn’t fail to spot the public-housing estate which looks as though it’s been thrown together from plasticine. This is the Schtroumpfs (generic Euro-speak for the “Smurfs”), an exercise in Gaudi-esque fantasy which is worth a half-hour detour of anyone’s time. All the estate’s high-rises have lumps and blobs everywhere, giant mushrooms holding up balconies with cobweb railings, whimsical spiral staircases and twisted-liquorice columns, everything in a riot of primary colours. Pointless decoration in mosaics or arabesques covers the place. Designed by Robert Frei, Christian Hunziker and Georges Berthoud in the early 1980s for the municipality, it’s a mad exercise in architectural whim … but by all accounts the residents, who inevitably have come to be called Smurfs themselves, love it.

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