Friday, February 10, 2012


A bronze Voltaire - leaning on a cane, his left foot out to take another step, an expression of amusement on his face – stands on a pedestal that is engraved with the honorific, “Patriarch of Ferney.”  When Voltaire moved here in 1758 at the age of 64, Fernex, as it was called, was a poor hamlet with a population of 150 on the border of Switzerland. He built a chateau for himself on a small hill that overlooked the village (the chateau is now a national monument open for guided tours).  By the time of Voltaire’s death in 1791, the impoverished community had turned into a thriving town of 1,000 people – thanks to Voltaire, who drained swamps, cleared land for farming, constructed a theatre to put on his plays, built a fountain, school, and church, fed people who were hungry, and developed workshops for making pottery, watches, silk stockings, and leather goods. He also changed the spelling of Fernex to Ferney.  The town became Ferney-Voltaire in 1878 in homage to its patriarch.
We’re living in Ferney – as locals call it – which is now a small city of 8,000 people, many of whom are foreigners, here temporarily, living in apartment buildings and working at CERN or at the various NGOs and UN agencies in Geneva.  In fact, Ferney abuts Geneva, and many Swiss people have moved into this area with open borders because housing here is cheaper than it is in Switzerland.  That’s good for the Swiss.  Not so for us.  The only furnished apartment we found to rent is so close to the Geneva Airport that from our apartment we see planes taking off and landing, and we hear their roar if our windows are open.  But we also see one of nature’s miracles from our kitchen window: Mt. Blanc, the tallest mountain in Europe.  Often it’s hidden in a blanket of clouds or haze, but on clear days when the white crown of Mt. Blanc appears and towers over the surrounding Alps, I’m awestruck. For a frozen mountain, Mt. Blanc is not just magnificent.  It’s voluptuous.

Mt. Blanc's white crown as seen from our kitchen
To arrive at the heart of Ferney-Voltaire from our apartment, we walk down Rue de Meyrin for ten minutes and pass several houses that were built during the time that Voltaire had lived in the town.  We reach the corner of a one-block cobblestoned pedestrian street with the ironic name of Grand Rue.  On one corner of this intersection is the boulangerie-patisserie where we buy bread in the morning.  On the other corner is the only bookstore in Ferney, a restaurant called “Le Patriarche,” and in front of that is the fountain that Voltaire had built.  Across from the bookstore (caddy-corner from the boulangerie) is the Hotel France, which had been the home of Voltaire’s secretary over 230 years ago.

Grand Rue


Voltaire's fountain, Ferney's bookstore

Hotel de France
If we walk up the pedestrian street, we pass restaurants, cafes, boutiques, and one of the best cheese stores in the area.  Then we come to the intersection of Ferney’s only two-lane shopping street, Avenue Voltaire, where we find a small supermarket, pharmacy, flower shop, organic food store, some electronics shops, the post office and town hall, and the statue of Voltaire.  On Saturdays, the largest outdoor market in the region transforms Avenue Voltaire into a carnival of fruits, vegetables, breads, cheeses, meats, fish, olives, candy, clothes, dishware, and people.
Ferney-Voltaire isn’t on the tourist map.  But maybe it should be. 


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