Travel: In Geneva, John Calvin is hidden in plain sight

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St. Peter’s Cathedral, Geneva, Switzerland. |

Geneva broke up with John Calvin.

In fact, Switzerland’s second largest city has been majority Roman Catholic for decades.

Popularized by tourists during the Belle Epoque, most visitors are attracted by chocolate, luxury watches, or business (think banking and international organisations). There is also a somewhat overlooked wine scene on the French border that is starting to rival some of the better known titles.

Few seem to know or appreciate that this was probably the most important city of the Reformation. After all, Geneva was where Calvin formulated the type of Protestantism known as Calvinism, and where the Geneva Bible was printed, which would later replace the King James Bible.

I started my visit at St. Peter’s Cathedral in the Old Town.

Technically speaking, it ceased to be a cathedral centuries ago. This is because the Evangelical Church of Geneva, which enjoyed some privileges as the state church of the Republic and Canton of Geneva until its dissolution in 1907, has not held the office of diocese since the last prince-bishop’s abdication in 1533.

Besides, the cathedral, with a neoclassical façade on the west façade and a mix of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, is the city’s oldest continuously used site, as evidenced by archaeological excavations of Roman remains in the cellar-level museum.

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Columnist on the pulpit of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Geneva, Switzerland. |

The pulpit on the north side of the nave was used by Calvin to preach twice every Sunday. A nearby flat wooden chair tied with a rope was also used by him to prevent visitors from sitting down and possibly taking selfies.

As with other medieval churches and cathedrals expropriated by the Protestants, the interiors were whitewashed. Only the chapel in the southwest corner has a similar ornate appearance to what the entire cathedral would have looked like before the Reformation.

Across the Rue du Cloître, a lane whose name translates into English as Cloister Street, is the International Reform Museum. Unfortunately the museum has been closed since 2021 for a renovation that should only last a year.

Another indoor landmark is the Calvin Auditorium.

Dating to the 15th century, the stark chapel was where his contemporaries, including Calvin and John Knox, lectured on weekdays. French-speaking Geneva, then an independent republic, was a safe haven for English Protestants, aka Marian exiles, who took refuge from the brutal reign of the Roman Catholic Queen Mary.

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Calvin received praise for Geneva’s role in the Reformation, while others played a role. Their collective theological contributions resulted in what later became Congregational, Reformed, and Presbyterian denominations.

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Molard Square is where the first Protestant sermon in Geneva was preached by Antoine Froment in 1533. |

One of the others is Antoine Froment.

In 1533 – three years before the city officially outlawed the Roman church – a 25-year-old Froment gave his first public Protestant sermon in Geneva’s Molard Square. The square still exists and is surrounded by cafes and shops popular with Genevans.

Without a doubt, the most visible reminder of Calvin is the Reformation Wall.

Reminding me of Central Park in New York City and the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, Bastion Park has statues of Calvin, Knox, Roger Williams, Oliver Cromwell, and others built inside the old city walls.

if you go

Walking on Calvin’s steps is easier said than done because many important places are unmarked or closed.

Bring a copy of “John Calvin’s Geneva” to get the most out of your visit. John Glass’s essential guide is available in bookstores for around $25.

Peter’s is free to visit, but a small fee applies to enter the museum or climb the 157 steps to the top of the north tower for panoramic views of Geneva’s cityscape.

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The only consistent way to enter the Calvin Auditorium is at 11:00 am during the weekly Sunday service of the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) congregation.

I stayed at the Geneva Marriott Hotel just a few weeks after its opening.

The hotel feels more like a luxury boutique hotel than a tired old Marriott. Despite being close to the airport, the touristy Geneva around Lake Geneva, which attracted Lord Byron and other Romantic poets, is a short tram ride from the station right in front of the hotel. For those who prefer walking, St. Peter’s can be reached in about 50 minutes at a reasonable pace.

Consider dining at Cottage Cafe, located next to the Brunswick Monument. For something definitely more local, head to the Old Town and try the family-run Hotel de Ville or Cafe Clemence, which overlooks Geneva’s oldest square.

Travel planning resources are available on the Swiss Tourism website.

Dennis Lennox writes a travel column for The Christian Post.

Dennis Lennox writes about travel, politics, and religion. It has appeared in the Financial Times, The Independent, The Detroit News, Toronto Sun and other publications. Follow @dennislennox from Twitter.

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