Carouge: Unwind in Geneva's hippest suburb

Hop on an orange tram from downtown Geneva and rattle past the opera house, around the open space of Plainpalais and across the Arve River, milky-blue with limestone from the French Alps. When the tram doors clunk open, alight in Carouge. The ride only takes 15 minutes, yet you're in a slightly different world. Prim Geneva has become unbuttoned. Gone is the grey-toned Calvinist city. Facades are pastel pretty and fountains splash. In a Europe of endless regional variations, you've edged just that bit closer to the Mediterranean.

Geneva is infused with the killjoy ethos of Jean Calvin, the mid-16th-century fanatic who bequeathed the city its watchmaking industry, tidiness and bylaws. From the walls of its stripped-down old town, canon still scowl towards the unkempt wantonness of French Savoy. That's where Carouge was founded in 1786, just beyond Geneva's borders. Savoy was a trans-alpine state with a capital in Turin and dukes who were also kings of Sardinia. Its architects worked in the Italianate style and never bothered with city walls. Unlike Geneva, Carouge was an open city. Catholics and Jews mingled, Protestants snuck across the border for conviviality. Carouge did well, piggybacking on Geneva across the river even as it defiantly clanged its Catholic church bells.

Carouge became a part of Geneva in 1816, which had joined Switzerland the year before. It retains its own charms and remains the city's relaxed alter-ego. When I was growing up in Geneva, teenage schoolkids went to Carouge to drink beer, smoke and scuffle. In a small city, it seemed distant. It was louche, laidback and seedy. That has changed. Carouge has become spruce and trendy but, as you sit in its cafes under plane trees and gossip, you could think yourself, if not quite in Italy, at least in France.

This is where Geneva comes on long summer evenings, to sit outside and have a drink. During the day, workers in turtlenecks sit behind plate glass in the offices of design studios. Carouge has become hip. It has an independent cinema and an art space called Flux Laboratory that requires a few strong martinis to appreciate. Le Chat Noir is one of the best live-music nightclubs in town.

Some things haven't changed. There has been a farmers' market in Place du Marche for 200 years. On Wednesdays and Saturdays soil-stained growers sell borlotti beans, punnets of strawberries and mottled pears that the Swiss bake into pastry rissoles. The square also has a pretty peach-coloured Catholic church and a fountain personifying the Arve River in the form of a nymph with a wardrobe malfunction. The bare breasts are certainly French; when Switzerland is personified by Helvetia, her toga is always decently draped.

The fountain in the adjacent square, Place du Temple, is rather Gothic and ecclesiastical. The square also has a plain Protestant temple added after Carouge became a part of Geneva. Still, Place du Temple redeems itself with a cafe-bakery (Boulangerie Wolfisberg) that would have horrified Calvin with its wanton cream pastries and homemade gingerbread ice-cream.

Another of my favourite indulgences, Chocolat Pascoet, is a short walk away on Rue Saint-Joseph (you can bet that many Carouge streets are named for Catholic saints just to taunt the Calvinists). Philippe Pascoet, who's actually French, has a very un-Swiss way of talking about this creations. "Rosemary makes chocolate sing," he says. "Ginger peel is discreet but intense at the same time, like a love affair. Passionfruit awakens your tastebuds."

Some of Pascoet's truffles come in odd but exhilarating flavours such as coriander or sage. Like any good Carouge resident he disquiets Genevans by collaborating with restaurant chefs on outlandish dishes such as chocolate-dusted foie gras and smoked duck carpaccio with chocolate. I'd rather stick to his appropriately named Addictions nibbles: pistachio, almond and orange embedded in white chocolate; raisins soaked in Sauternes and enrobed in dark chocolate.

Across the road lurks another Frenchman, Michel Delomier, owner of Histoire de Vins. Stop by for the best selection of quality Genevan wines in the city: a pinot noir from Pellegrin estate might be the best drop. Local wines have come a long way over the last two decades, diversifying into interesting varietals such as garanoir and gamaret. With practically all Genevan and Swiss wines consumed domestically, this is your chance to buy wines you won't get elsewhere.

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Carouge is a place where city folk come to shop for original gifts different from anything in downtown department stores. Craftspeople sell jewellery, clothes, soaps and gadgets. My favourite is the Jean Kazes atelier, also on Rue Saint-Joseph. Clockmaker Jean Kazes, now in his eighties, still works here on his clocks, which look like abstract sculptures and show off their mechanisms and complications.

"I started by taking the frames off old clocks and exposing the mechanisms. Now I sculpt them from steel covered with gold or chrome," says Kazes. Then he mutters: "There's nothing complicated about it, clocks are very simple, after all they've been made since the 14th century and have barely changed since." For almost-French Carouge, it's a fine piece of Swiss modesty.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

Geneva Tourism, geneve-tourisme.ch

myswitzerland.com

GETTING THERE

Etihad flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Abu Dhabi (14.5hr) with onward connections to Geneva (7hr). Phone 1300 532 215, see etihad.com

STAYING THERE

Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues is Geneva's top hotel, with flawless service and an unbeatable location. Phone 1800 142 163, see fourseasons.com

Hotel les Armures is on old-town gem housed in medieval buildings and has a renowned fondue restaurant. Phone +41 22 310 3442, see hotel-les-armures.ch

EATING THERE

L'Olivier de Provence might be Carouge's best dining spot. It has both a gastronomic restaurant and a more informal bistro section. Phone +41 22 342 0450, see olivierdeprovence.ch

The writer travelled courtesy Etihad and Geneva Tourism.

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