A bit like a pesky little brother who steals your toys and pulls your hair, Carouge tugs at Geneva’s locks, almost thumbing its nose at the broody burghers who live next door. Independent and proud, Carouge curves around Geneva’s borders, serving up the bohemian cheer that has branded it everything from Geneva’s Greenwich Village to its ‘dolce vita’, or even Little Italy, the Italian Royal City or the Sardinian City.
Often thought to be a Geneva suburb, Carouge is not part of Geneva at all. In fact, it was Sardinian for twice as long as it has been Swiss. Like a gateway to the Mediterranean, it is a mélange of Italian restaurants and crowded bars, spiky hair and leather comfortably interwoven with blue-rinsed grannies sipping afternoon tea.
Simply cross the Arve River, Geneva’s second river feeding in from the Savoy Alps, to feel a burst of Italian sunshine from this three-square kilometre patch of city, whose well-aligned streets and architecture confirm its Sardinian heritage.
You could always blame Napoleon
The final salvo in the Napoleonic Wars is said to have been fired right here, on 28 June 1815 when Austrian troops, entrenched on the posh hills of Champel, took pot-shots at the Sardinian city. During the skirmish, a cannonball went astray, lodging itself in a Carouge façade. Some historians say it may still be there, hidden deep in the walls of a modest building on the rue St Joseph.
After Napoleon’s downfall, ownership of the city oscillated as Europe reshaped itself, ending up under the rule of then-French Geneva. Much to Carouge’s dismay, Geneva soon joined Switzerland and history has it that in protest, the recalcitrant Carougeois, still loyal to the House of Savoy, closed their shutters on the Swiss national holiday.
Carouge’s history predates Napoleon, of course. As early as the 1st century BC, the strategic settlement, located at Geneva’s door, boasted tolls and fortifications. Its fortunes fluctuated and after a dark period during the Middle Ages, Carouge re-emerged in the early 1400s under the protection of the House of Savoy.
The city’s modern roots can be traced to King Victor-Amadeus III of Piedmont-Sardinia, a descendant of the Dukes of Savoy, who sought unsuccessfully to compete with Geneva by establishing a new city at its gates (the Savoys having failed to capture what is today the Old Town of Geneva proper). Then 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.
In its search for expansion, Carouge threw her gates open. The 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 eventually cross the Arve for some less austere revelry, for which Carouge remains known today.
Carouge: So near to Geneva, yet so far
The international buzz and mighty business of Geneva next door seem a world away. By day, Carouge’s cafés serve you an espresso, not a skinny latte, and fresh pasta rather than hamburgers – and everywhere, gelato. Carouge reaches its zenith in summer, when flower-filled streets are crowded with rickety tables that overflow with bric-a-brac and grandmother’s antiques, to buy but also for the “plaisir des yeux”.
Carouge is where eclectic meets original, from specialty teas at Betjeman and Barton to Audacieuse, a combination of art gallery and fashion designer. Hand-made jewellery and beads jostle for window space with bookbinders and small publishers, reminding us of a time when global brands did not yet dominate the high street. Eventually, you will be yanked from your reverie by the sharp bell of a tram barrelling towards you in this most mellow of places, the clang of metal on metal dissipating any mistaken illusion that you might have stumbled into a Mediterranean village.
This is a town for walking. And not just along its streets and through the Saturday market but into hidden courtyards. Push open a grille or turn a corner and you just might uncover an invisible alley. With a park bench. And flowers.
Carouge becomes livelier as the day passes. Young people invade its vibrant nightlife which in warm weather spills outdoors, perhaps to the distress of sleepy inhabitants who live above the city’s many bars and restaurants.
The best time of day in Carouge may well be the in-between, the heure de l’apéritif. The sun has slipped away, and the fashionistas, still applying their makeup, haven’t made their entrance yet. The sidewalk terraces are crammed with families, amorous couples and pensioners whose walking sticks are parked neatly by the door.
Smiling faces and the clinking of glass are widespread in this tolerant and unexpected oasis.
The bickering siblings have put their differences aside for yet another day and as evening rolls in, the city limits become porous. Carouge goes out to play and Geneva’s students and cocktail crowd descend for a taste of its incorrigible rebelliousness.
Leyla Alyanak is a Contributing Editor of Global Geneva and writes about travel at womenontheroad.com