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Carouge, Geneva’s Alter Ego?

Like siblings who can either be in synch or at odds with one another depending on the minute, Carouge teases Geneva by being so close, yet so distinct.

To Geneva’s solid tradition Carouge serves up rebellion, thumbing her nose at the broody burghers of Calvin’s city.

And if your first approach to Geneva seems a bit severe, along comes Carouge all dressed up in party clothes with a mug of beer in hand.

All you have to do to shift dimensions is hop the tram from downtown Geneva for a few stops.

As soon as you cross the Arve River, sunshine will sneak into your world, like a gateway to the Mediterranean, a mélange of Italian restaurants and crowded bars, spiky hair and leather comfortably interwoven with blue-rinse ladies sipping afternoon tea.

You will have reached Carouge, a proud and independent entity with its own municipal government and town hall, its complicated history and its Sardinian overtones.

It’s been called the Greenwich Village of Geneva, its Little Italy, the Italian Royal City, the Sardinian City, and Geneva’s ‘dolce vita’.

Yet technically (and spiritually), it isn’t part of Geneva at all.

Carouge’s troubled history

Hovering at Geneva’s door, this little patch of less than three square kilometers has had a tumultuous past.

Carouge’s modern roots can be traced to King Victor-Amadeus III of Piedmont-Sardinia, a descendant of the Dukes of Savoy, who decided to compete with Geneva by establishing a new city at its gates (the Savoys having failed to capture Geneva proper). From a 17-house hamlet, Carouge grew quickly into a two-market “Royal” city, its tolls abolished to encourage commerce, its architecture a harmonious patchwork of Sardinian and Piedmontese buildings and properly laid-out streets.

To increase its population and expand its reach, Carouge threw her gates open. Its large Jewish community built a synagogue, and Protestants preached freely in this Catholic city. So close to Geneva, it was inevitable that dissatisfied Calvinists would find their way to the less austere side of the river for a bit of booze and revelry.

The French Revolution made Carouge French and later, kicking and screaming, it became part of Geneva (which was also French at the time). After more tussles, Carouge (and Geneva) were eventually attached to Switzerland, where they sit today. History has it that in protest, the recalcitrant Carougeois closed their shutters on the Swiss national holiday.

I should go see if they still do.

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Swiss customs officers in Carouge

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The streets of Carouge haven’t changed much since this time… a bit spruced up perhaps but little more

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All historical photos courtesy the Carouge archives

Carouge: So near to Geneva, yet so far

Carouge is a world away from the mighty business and international buzz of Geneva next door.

By day it is a laid-back, dreamy collection of original little shops, of tea-rooms where you’ll drink a ristretto, not a double skinny latte, and eat a fresh salad or fresh pasta, without a burger or cheese fondue in sight. Tiny restaurants vie for space with boutiques selling glass sculptures and beads and original jewellery.

Carouge is for artists and artisans, its interiors and exteriors designed to please. Art galleries sit next to publishers and bookbinders and even if you have no intention of ever buying anything, the “plaisir des yeux”, the pleasure of the eyes, will pull you along.

Frilly dresses and ancient lamps sometimes spill onto the sidewalk from antique shops, placed on rickety tables that bake in the sun. The cobblestones have been smoothed by centuries and if you stick to the side streets, you’d swear you were in a sleepy Mediterranean village, especially when the summer sun is high.

Eventually you’ll be yanked from your reverie by the sharp bell of a tram barreling towards you in this most languorous of places, the clang of metal wheels on metal rails dissipating any mistaken impression you may have had of being further to the South.

This is a town for walking – not just through the Saturday market but into courtyards. Push open a grille or turn an alley corner and you just might enter a tiny haven utterly invisible from the street.

Carouge, in the middle of a hot summer day.

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By night Carouge’s bohemian personality emerges, when the lunchtime crowds turn into fun-seeking hordes of fashionable young people. While this outdoor nightlife might delight them, the inhabitants who happen to live a few floors above are slightly less enchanted.

My favourite time in Carouge is the in-between, the heure de l’apéritif. The heat of the sun has slipped away, and the evening’s fashionistas are still applying their makeup. The sidewalk terraces are crammed with families, amorous couples and ancients whose walking sticks are parked neatly by the door.

Everyone is relaxed and smiling, glad to be part of this most special of little corners. The siblings have stopped fighting and the city limits have become porous. As Geneva unwinds, its people drift into Carouge for an evening al fresco.

Things every Woman on the Road should know about Carouge, Geneva

  • Carouge GenevaTo reach Carouge from Geneva, hop on the #15 tram headed to Carouge. This map will show you the location of Carouge in relation to Geneva. 
  • If you have the time, you can easily walk to Carouge from Geneva in half an hour. Once in Carouge, walking is the best way to get around. Here are a few itineraries both to and within Carouge. 
  • The Camino, at least the part of it known as the Geneva Way, goes straight through Carouge. So yes, in theory you could walk to Spain.
  • Fancy a beer? Order a mug of carougeoise, the local brew.
  • A few of the sights: the Blavignac fountains – there are four and carry the builder’s stamp: a snail; the neo-classical Temple built when Carouge was aggregated to Geneva – far more exuberant than any you’d see in Geneva; the baroque Sainte-Croix church; and the Louis XVI-style Maison Jacquemard-Guinand. For more on Carouge, visit the Tourist Office and pick up their City Guide
  • Worth noting is that Carouge is utterly safe for women, during the day or at night. It is, however, an urban area and near a large city so yes, things can and do happen. But not often. (That said, medical care in Switzerland is devastatingly expensive so make sure you have insurance – I recommend World Nomads).
  • Geneva and Carouge can be expensive when it comes to hotels. If you plan to stay a few days, consider staying in neighbouring France, in Ferney-Voltaire just over the border.

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{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Sally September 7, 2016, 9:11 am

    Yes I agree with your description of Carouge, though my experience of this lively town was very brief…having walked through it from Geneva in May this year, as the start of my walk to le Puy en Velay. I was lucky enough to start my 20 day, 350km , walk on a Saturday, so could enjoy the wonderful market. The town has a very different feel than Geneva- more down to earth, accessible & much more intimate. Well worth a visit!

  • Andrea September 27, 2016, 12:28 am

    Sounds like an interesting side trip during my time in Switzerland … thanks!

  • Jackie November 13, 2016, 5:00 pm

    I worked in Geneva for the best part of three years, and never realised that Carouge was a separate town! Just thought it was a district of Geneva (which I could never work out how to drive to), so only went occasionally by public transport!! Obviously, I missed out!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak November 14, 2016, 1:35 pm

      An easy assumption (which we’ve all made) considering they’re separated by a single tram stop on a very short bridge!

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