Brian Johnston returns to the Geneva of his childhood for a dramatic city celebration that still grips the imagination.
I'm standing on a street corner, chilly fingers of wind pickpocketing my warmth. Big, bruised clouds have descended to nudge against the cathedral tower. Light from cafes falters across pavements in an old town already in afternoon shadow. I pull my scarf around my nose as random snowflakes lurch from the sky.
The cold and dark of Geneva in early December have chased away the tourists. Besides, this isn't one of those cheery, geranium-splotched European old towns, pretty in pastels. Fervent 16-century reformer John Calvin gave Geneva a rigorous makeover: the cathedral scraped bare, saints demoted from rooftops, frivolity banned. Its tall houses are grey and austere, hilly cobbled streets a penance. On city ramparts, cannon grimace at the dissolutions of catholic France.
I grew up in Geneva and spent most Sunday mornings in the old town, attending church at the Auditoire de Calvin, where Calvin and John Knox once railed. I sat on a hard chair in a chilly draft as a minister in black robes gave sermons about repentance. What draws me back now, though, is the one Sunday of the year that thrilled my young imagination when, beyond the church walls, I heard the rattle of drums and the march of musketeers.
Once a year, Geneva's old town comes alive like a scene from a wondrous novel. Though nostalgic travel usually ends in disappointment, already I'm finding Escalade day back in Geneva uncannily the same. Heralds blow trumpets like great shouts of yellow in the grey winter's day. Women clip-clop by on horseback, grand in ruffs and feathered bonnets. Even the smell brings me back 30 years: chestnuts roasting from street stands, the acrid smoke of mediaeval torches, the steaming flanks of passing horses.
Escalade ("scaling of the walls") is an annual celebration peculiar to Geneva and devoid of the touristy commercialism and hokiness of many European festivals. It commemorates the victory of the Protestant city-state over neighbouring and aggressively Catholic Savoy. On the night of December 11, 1602, a Savoy-Spanish army of 6000 camped below Geneva's walls. An advance guard of Savoyards scaled the ramparts with ladders and almost wrested the gates open before the alarm sounded. As the Genevese spilled from their homes, the Savoyards fled back across the walls and were attacked by the confused Spanish. It was over quickly, but the night enhanced Geneva's reputation and preserved Calvinism in Europe.
Now 1602 is a year fixed in the minds of all Genevese. You might say it's the reason locals don't play loud music or steal bicycles from playgrounds; why they stack their firewood in neat piles and run their trams like clockwork. Yet as I head into the Museum of Art and History, I wonder at the wisdom of Geneva's resistance when I see a full-length portrait of Savoy aggressor Charles-Emmanuel I. The duke is dashing in gold armour, with fine stockinged legs and a cheeky van Dyke beard. He's rather appealing, and quite the contrast with Calvin, a fierce killjoy with beady eyes, a Bible-thumping stare and a wild, prophetic beard.
Buttoned-up Geneva could have become a wanton French provincial town of poodles, pastries and mistresses. Instead, it got stuck with Calvinist preoccupations such as watchmaking and banking. I see the duke's defeat in my Swiss punctuality and unhealthy preoccupation with following rules. Yet, like Geneva, I unbend for Escalade weekend. How can I not feel like an irrational romantic when, outside the museum, cloaked grandees are riding past, and contingents of halberdiers clank with steel gleaming?
Kids dressed up in Halloween-style costumes are singing the Escalade hymn door-to-door in return for sweets. The song drifts across the old town, magnificently atmospheric with smoking braziers and steaming horse dung. I squeeze through the Passage de Monetier on the ramparts - so narrow it's closed the rest of the year - and earn a cup of mulled wine as a reward.
Snow has begun to fall as I make my way though cobbled lanes towards the Hotel de Ville. This was always the place to get hot soup and, with my stomach rumbling, I'm glad to find it still is. I buy a bowl of soup thick with leeks and carrots and dip bread into its cheesy crust. I sit on a cold stone bench near the cannon I once sat astride, warming my innards and my memories.
Vegetable soup is the classic Escalade dish in honour of Mere Royaume, who lived above the ramparts and killed a Savoyard scaling the walls by throwing her soup pot on his head. Now Geneva's shops sell three-legged chocolate pots filled with marzipan vegetables and sweets. On Escalade Sunday, the pots are smashed by the youngest and oldest persons present, as they cry out: "Thus perish the enemies of the republic!" At school, I was in a perennial pout: I missed being the youngest by just a few weeks, and my classmate Paul always demolished the outsize classroom Escalade pot.
Electric lights flicker off at 5 o'clock, leaving a Renaissance-era darkness, flaming torches sending red shadows flickering on facades. Snow settles on cobbles as the culminating parade begins. Fifty-odd riders and another 600 on foot march by: lords and ladies, clergymen and townsfolk in doublets and swashbuckling boots. Knights ride past in metal chest pieces and sashes. Noblewomen in ruffs and spreading skirts sit side-saddle. Then comes a hooded executioner carrying a huge axe, and a group of crow-black Reformation ministers. A cheer goes up for Mere Royaume.
I follow the procession to its end in front of the cathedral, where a huge bonfire is lit, heat blazing against my face. Snow sizzles into flames as a victory proclamation is read out, along with Psalm 124: "If it had not been the Lord who was on our side, when men rose up against us ..." A roar of voices joins in the rousing Escalade hymn.
Then Escalade is over. Bells peal and horses snort, sending out great puffs of condensed breath into the winter night. Snow pads cloaks and bonnets as women gossip on the cathedral steps. Pipers march off and families scurry towards their cars. In the old days, I'd have gone home for vegetable soup. Then a chocolate pot was placed in the middle of the table. "Ainsi perissent les ennemis de la republique!" my sister would shout as chocolate crumpled and marzipan rolled.
Now I wander in the night towards my hotel. Those days are long gone but, as horses clop and lights flicker, my childish wonder remains. It's a lovely night, here in the snow in the heart of Europe, and my hands are warm on hot chestnuts.
Getting there Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Dubai (14½hrs) with onward connections to Geneva (7hrs). Return economy fare from $1734 from Melbourne and $1750 from Sydney low season, including taxes. Phone 1300 303 777; see emirates.com/au.
Staying there Hotel Les Armures provides boutique charm in Geneva's old town among the Escalade action. Seventeenth-century buildings have history with modern comforts, and the restaurant excels in Swiss specialties. Phone +41 22 310 9172 or see hotel-les-armures.ch.
For those who prefer big international brands, Mandarin Oriental Hotel du Rhone sits on the riverfront downtown. It's unabashedly contemporary and impeccably run. Phone +41 22 909 0000; see mandarinoriental.com/geneva.
Seeing there Escalade takes place December 7-9, 2012 and over the weekend nearest December 11 annually. Its culminating procession is on Sunday evening. See 1602.ch (in French only).
Other events that celebrate the past
1. Emperor's Birthday, Austria
This mid-August event in Bad Ischl, near Salzburg, the favourite spa-town of Austrian royalty, celebrates Franz-Josef, who spent most of his many birthdays here. Imperial High Mass is sung, and the Habsburg family rides to the emperor's villa accompanied by regimental bands. Artisans work in the streets. www.kaiservilla.at.
2. Days of Grunwald, Poland
The 1410 Battle of Grunwald between Poland and Lithuania is re-created by 50 mounted knights and 4000 foot soldiers in one of Europe's largest mediaeval showpieces. Held in mid-July, the event includes mediaeval cooking, dancing, handicrafts and music. Archery, sword-fighting and very alarming jousts thrill the crowds. grunwald.info.pl.
3. Luther's Wedding, Germany
The Protestant reformer's home town of Wittenberg re-enacts Luther's wedding to Katharina von Bora in a gorgeously costumed procession of 2000 participants. The celebrations in early July feature Renaissance music, marching bands and performances, as well as a market selling produce and handicrafts. lutherstadt-wittenberg.de.
4. Tewkesbury Mediaeval Festival, Britain
There's a very real clash of metal on shields at this meticulous mid-July re-enactment of the 1471 Battle of Tewkesbury. Visit King Edward IV in his tent, watch falconers and armourers at work, and see the barber-surgeon demonstrate his skills. www.tewkesburymedievalfestival.org.
5. Festival of the Moors and Christians, Spain
This three-day festival in Alicante in late July celebrates the victory of Christian forces over Islamic rule in Spain. Residents look on from windows and balconies as the two armies arrive in town. Religious ceremonies honour local patron saints and a mock battle ensues, complete with gunpowder and fireworks displays. alicanteturismo.com.