I first encountered Geneva over the shoulders of an Australian couple. They had the window seats on the inbound Swiss Air flight from Frankfurt and kept mentioning to me how lovely the sight was. I leaned forward, and they were kind enough to move, so I could enjoy the view.
Below us, the impressive snow-capped Jura mountain range extends imperiously, with sharp peaks and sloping, deep valleys. And somewhere amongst them there is the famous Mount Blanc, which I would see later. These were the famous Swiss Alps.
“We are here for holidays,” the Australian couple said. Two retirees, it seemed fitting that they would be spending their days like that, riding the back of the white mountains surrounding Geneva.
Seeing the mountains, I wished I was holidaying, wish I could learn to ski, slaloming down those slopes. For someone from Jos, my affinity for rocky ranges is sort of inborn, but the Shere Hills are not the Swiss Alps, they simply do not compare and seeing those mountains from the air is quite special.
I told them I was in Geneva for the Salon du Livre, to discuss the French translation of my novel at the literary festival. Switzerland has several official languages. For Geneva, French is the lingua franca and the French border cradles the city of Geneva to the extent that, as I would learn later, some people working in Geneva actually live in France and commute daily.
As soon as the plane touched down, goodbyes said to the Australian couple, I was taken to my hotel about five minutes from the airport by a festival volunteer. The hotel also happens to be conveniently located close to the Palexpo Exhibition Hall, a huge gallery that hosts the Salon Du Livre book fair and the famous Geneva Car fair amongst others. It is only a couple of minutes’ walk from the hotel, and is even closer across the car park.
From reputation and from the little I had seen already, it was clear Geneva was an international city. It is the capital of the Romandy Region of Switzerland, the French speaking part of the country and hosts the headquarters of numerous international organisations like the International Committee of the Red Cross, the World Health Organization and the United Nations, first headquatred here in its League of Nations incarnation.
But apparently, Geneva is also the other capital of Cameroon.
The Central African country’s president Paul Biya and his wife Chantal, are known to spend extensive periods at a particular Geneva hotel, the same hotel year in year out.
“It’s like they are at home. They live there,” a former employee of the Intercontinental Hotel had told the World Street Journal in a 2018 report.
So ensconced are the Biya’s in the hotel that employees simply refer to them as Him and Her.
When I boarded my flight from Abuja for Europe, I did not imagine I would discover the capital of another African country nestled in the Swiss Mountains. I wondered then if Biya was in Geneva at the same time, wondered if I might bump into him and Chantal walking down the street, hand in hand.
Being a very short trip, there wasn’t much time to explore the city so when I had a writer friend, resident in Geneva, offer to show me and another writer the town, I thought that was the best way to discover a city, in the company of other writers.
World’s most expensive hotel room
There are many hotels in Geneva and one of the most famous is the Hotel President Wilson. Located near the UN building, the hotel first opened in 1962, and has changed ownership over the years. The current owner, Charles Tamman, has twice invested millions of Swiss Francs to renovate.
In this hotel one finds the Royal Penthouse Suite, the most expensive hotel room in the world.
Located on the entirety of the 8th floor, the Royal Penthouse Suite is reportedly the largest suite in Europe and is a whole banquet of 12 rooms with 12 marble bathrooms covering 1680m2. It also boasts one of the largest TV screens in the world.
At $80, 000 (N28.8million) a night, it is the most expensive hotel room in the world and for that amount, a guest would have a private butler, a chef and a security team at his or her beck and call.
Geneva has a reputation as the playground of the rich, it is definitely one of the most expensive cities in the world with a population of less than 300, 000. Most of the residents are expatriates working with the international organizations headquatred in the city.
However, the likes of Michael Jackson, Rihanna, Bill Gates, Hollywood stars Matt Damon and Michael Douglas have enjoyed stays at the penthouse. Even political figures like Prince Albert of Monaco, Mikail Gorbachev and Hosni Mubarak have all enjoyed times there, as well as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair among others.
Through the bulletproof windows guest could look out and enjoy views of the Swiss Alps, including the famous Mount Blanc, Lake Geneva. For their expensive shopping needs, the Rue du Rhone, the fancy shopping street of Geneva is just a few minutes away.
But that prize is not quite the $40,000 a night, (N14.4m) Cameroon’s Biya pays for a night at the Intercontinental, just a few minutes’ walk up the road.
Across the street from the hotel, Lake Geneva shimmers in the fair light of the city. The light, like the lake is truly beautiful and seeing the alps through this is a treat for the soul. One of the most famous Genevans in history, the philosopher Jean Jaques Rousseau was known to have developed some of his thoughts while walking around the lake in the mild morning sun. Seeing the lake like that, it was understandable to see how contemplative it could make a thinking mind.
Adjacent the lake, and completely unmissable, is the Jet d’Eau, one of the most prominent landmarks of the city. Situated at the intersection where the lake empties into the Rhone river, the fountain shoots out a stream of water 140 meters into the air by two 500 KW pumps. At every given time, there are 7,000 litres of water in the air. So powerful are the pumps that the water leaves the nozzle at 200 kilometres per hour.
The fountain was installed in 1886 and moved to its current location in 1891. The current fountain has been in place since 1951 and often sprays unsuspecting visitors at the slightest change of wind direction. And through the spray of the water one could see some of the buildings of some of the famous Swiss watch makers.
In Paul Biya’s shadow
The idea of Paul Biya and his European capital, run from a Swiss hotel, intrigued me so much I wanted to see this hotel. Incidentally, my guide had it in mind for us to have lunch at a Chinese restaurant very close to Biya’s preferred hotel.
Crossing the Rue du Rhone through a series of side streets, we arrive the front of the UN building, also called Palais des Nations. Beyond the square in front of the building, there is a corridor of flag poles. Built between 1929 and 1938 as the Headquatres of the League of Nations, it has since 1946 become the second biggest UN office after New York. Ironically, Switzerland did not join the UN until 2002.
Across the street, the Place des Nations Square sits between one and the entrance to the UN building. This marble covered square that has dozens of fountains shooting water into the air in choroegraphed movements is designed as a space of expression of political, religious, personal and other views. So it is not uncommon for people to gather there to stage protests. On such occasions, the fountains are turned off. But that evening as there were no protests there, we stood at the edge of the square watching the water shooting up.
“There was a protest here that lasted three years,” my friend said. “Three years and those people didn’t leave. You would come here in winter and they would be here, freezing and holding placards. For three years,” he said.
Three years of protest takes some guts and wondered if they succeeded.
“They didn’t. In the end, they didn’t get what they wanted,” he said.
Their commitment was a powerful statement I respected. But as I stood there watching, the fountains which incidentally looked to me like an explosive geyser shooting up, taking off people’s limbs. I had no idea if that was the imagery the designer wanted to convey but blown off limbs was very much on the mind of the designer of Broken Chair, a giant 12-feet chair sculpture in front of the building.
The wooden sculpture is one of the few monuments around the square. The third leg of the chair is missing and in its place is a shredded stump, like something a landmine had taken off. Apparently, that was the intent of the designer Daniel Berset who designed it as symbolizing opposition to landmines and cluster bombs.
It has an interesting history, this red, three-legged chair. Paul Vermulen, co-founder of Handicap International Suisse conceived the idea of the chair to get the largest possible number of states to sign the Ottawa Treaty on landmines in December 1997. Erected in August of ’97 it was supposed to be in place until December when the treaty would be signed. With only 40 countries eventually signing the treaty, and with huge public support for the sculpture, the chair was left in place until 2005 when it was removed for the renovation of the Palace of Nations. When the work was completed, it was reinstated at the exact same spot and has remained there ever since.
We continued our walk up the street and soon came upon Paul Biya’s capital in Geneva, the Intercontinental Hotel.
“That is it?” we, the two visitors, chorused, in disbelief. It was a nondescript block of a building, like something built in the ‘70s. But apparently it is a five-star luxury hotel that for some reason had caught the attention of President Biya, who since he became president of Cameroon in 1982 has been estimated to have spent a total of $65 million dollars on room rates alone as of November 2018, according to the World Street Journal report.
This money is paid in cash, by a figure known simply within the hotel as ‘the General’. Because they didn’t want electronic currency transfers tracked, the General would simply empty white bags filled with euros on the table, former hotel staff said. So at home have the Biya’s become that in the hotel they are simply referred to as Him and Her.
Without seeing the inside, because we had to make it to our dinner in time, it is hard to understand Biya’s fascination with this hotel and why he has continued to spend a lot of time, and money, in that city, in that hotel.
“Maybe it is beautiful inside,” I said, stopping to take a couple of photos before continuing on our quest for food.
The China Garden Restaurant on Avenue de Bude sits in a building dwarfed by the Intercontinental. The proprietress is very friendly, teasing my friend about his newly kept beard, complaining why she hadn’t seen him in a while, asking him about random friends and colleagues.
“You two seem to know each other well,” I observed.
“It is strange,” he said. “We have never had a conversation like that before. I have no idea where that is coming from.”
We laughed and sat down to our dinner, while discussing writing and what we have all been doing with our lives since the last time we met some years back.
But as I ate, my mind constantly drifted, to conjectures about what Paul Biya could be doing in his hotel room in Geneva. I looked up the windows wildly hoping I could catch a glimpse of him, anything to give me an idea what a sitting president could be doing so far from home for so long that he could only sit at a council meeting once in two years.
In all of it, I thought it was strange that Cameroon, the country my country shared a border with, had another capital in Europe and I was sitting in the shadow of this capital eating Chinese food.
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