A small group of adults and children gathered outside the mairie, or town hall, of Carouge on an early December Sunday waits for Mrs. Claus and some merry elves to arrive and lead them through streets full of boutiques selling local designers’ clothes, jewelry and lifestyle accessories and to-die-for bakery, gourmet and chocolate shops.
The shops on the grid of small streets to each side of two main piazzas outdo themselves with decorations – trees on the sidewalk, awnings and garlands of greenery and lights, imaginative window displays – as beautiful as their wares, and the cafés are full of holiday shoppers.
Not absolutely every store is open on these December Sundays (grocery stores and service venues are closed as usual) so those that are signal this by tying red and green balloons outside their doors – colors not only seasonal, but also the town’s official ones. Periodically, the carillon – one of Switzerland’s largest – in the bell tower of Carouge’s Catholic church rings out a ditty like We Wish You A Merry Christmas that resonates in the crisp wintry air.
Walking Through Carouge With Mrs. Claus
No sooner does Mrs. C. appear, wearing a motherly apron over her red and white Santa suit and hat – her four impish elves wear Santa head gear and large red hearts tied together with ribbon at the shoulders, covering their warm coats – than the group sets off.
We are led up and down the festive streets and squares, into decorated courtyards not normally accessible to the public, into the uncharacteristically ornate 19th century Protestant church with its fresco featuring local Carougeois as figurants in a Nativity Scene, past points of historic interest.
We stop to admire a splendid ornamental fountain and try and find the snail the artist has sculpted on it by way of signature. We enter the Triangle Garden, a court full of palm, olive, cypress, mimosa, rosemary, lavender, even grape vines. As we proceed, small surprises including gifts and treats for us keep appearing as if conjured up by magic hands. The tour is capped off by a lovely, adults-only, cup of mulled wine.
Organizer Of The Christmas Walking Tour In Carouge
Who is the driving force behind the two-hour afternoon tour, which costs 15 Swiss francs ($15) per adult and 5 francs per over-three-years-of-age child? Gianna Loredan, owner and CEO of Illico Travel and Business Services, a Carouge company she founded in 2002.
‘’But I’d been a heritage guide since the mid-90s, so this is actually the thirteenth year of walking tour activity,’’ says the Trieste, Italy, native. ‘’Normally, we only conduct the tours from June to October, but there was popular demand for tours during the holiday season, so we’re in our third year of those. We do two – one in early December, and one closer to Christmas Day.’’
Mrs. Claus is actually Gaëlle Ramboz, an Illico staffer, two of the elves are Loredan’s grandchildren, and Loredan herself is the fairy godmother who sets up the treats like the Pan d’Oro (sweet cake-like bread covered in powdered sugar, see illustration) right before the group appears.
The Town Of Carouge
Carouge was built in the late 18th century by Northern Italian architects in the employ of Vittorio Amedeo III di Savoia who was, from 1773 until his death in 1796, the King of Sardinia.
Separated from the city of Geneva by the Arve River (which not long after coursing past Carouge flows into the Rhône and down to the Mediterranean) it was meant to be not only a Catholic counterweight to the city of Calvin but a trading center that would give Geneva a run for its money and possibly even overtake it.
None of that was to be, however, and today Carouge is a commune in the canton of Geneva with an enviably beautiful Old Town that somehow manages to exude a Mediterranean feel even under grey northern skies. Joined buildings no taller than a few stories high feature shop fronts and doors leading into back courts where residents climb stairs and walk along balconies to reach their living quarters. The trompe l’oeil mural in a private courtyard (our illustration) conveys the spirit.
Other Christmas Events In Carouge
Although the Illico walking tours are in French, both Loredan and Ramboz speak English and point out that tailor-made outings can be organized for English-speaking groups. The tours fit right in with other Carouge holiday attractions, which include an ice skating rink behind the Catholic church, the Rue St Joseph holiday-gift streetmarket on December 11 through 13, and of course the open-on-Sunday stores through December 20.
For more information about the December 20 walking tour, call Switzerland (0) 22 300 59 60, e-mail events[at]illico-travel.ch or go to www.carougemania.ch.
Stores are open on December 13 and 20 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Rue St Joseph Marché de Noël is open Friday December 11 and Saturday December 12 from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday the 13th from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The ice skating rink is free, including free skate rental against deposit of i.d. Closed Mondays, the outdoor rink is otherwise open from 11 a.m. to 19 p.m. except Friday and Saturday when it stays open until 9 p.m. More at www.carouge.ch under Sports/Patinoire.