In my recent travels I’ve made an effort to attend a church service in my host country, because I think it’s a great way to immerse yourself in the culture. I attended service at Westminster Abbey in London and Catholic Mass in Havana, and while I felt some similarities from the patterns of worship at my own Presbyterian church, both experiences were quite different and left me feeling humbled and truly like a guest in a new place – an uncomfortable but good feeling.
So when I found myself with a free Sunday this past weekend, I looked up one of the few English-speaking Protestant churches in Geneva – the Church of Scotland. I noted that their website mentioned the church being in a historical location, but in Europe you quickly learn that pretty much everything is “historical” in some way or another. Despite carefully planning my route I of course got lost, and so when I finally found the correct building I rushed in and grabbed a seat, paying little mind to my surroundings.
As I caught my breath I realized I was sitting next to a poster describing the history of the church, and did a double take as I read that the site I was at had served as a place of worship since the 5th century and hosted both John Calvin, leader of the Reformation, and John Knox, founder of the Scottish Presbyterian church, in the 1550s.
I can’t comprehend a building dating back to year 1556, much less 401. And I certainly didn’t expect to spend Sunday morning at a place that greatly influenced the development of my own branch of religion. Even more discombobulating was the fact that the auditorium was quite humble – thick stone, wooden chairs, an organ, a podium, and very simple stained glass. The service itself was also simple, led by a preacher with a very heavy Scottish accent and interspersed with Scripture readings from members and simple hymnals. The room was only maybe half full – I overheard a member saying that it usually fills up more towards the middle of summer, when more tourists are around. For such a historic site, it was very unassuming.
Visit for yourself
The Church of Scotland, Geneva is located at 1 Place de la Tacconerie in Old Town. Services are in English every Sunday at 11am
My church adventures didn’t stop there, however. When the service ended I stepped outside and was greeted by a cacophony of noon bells coming from…the Cathedrale St. Pierre, which was literally steps to my right. I don’t know how I missed it – it’s only the most gigantic Gothic-style church in the city.
Being a lover of old stuff and pretty stuff, I wandered right in. And by wander I mean tripped up the staircase while gaping at the 6ft-diameter stone columns and arched blue entryway and trying not to run into tourists.
The interior of the Cathedrale is impressively huge, and quite austere thanks to the Calvinists, who removed most of the murals and stained glass from the previously Catholic church when they moved in in the 1550s.
In one corner of the church is the Chapel of the Maccabees, a small chapel that stands in stark contrast to the austere Cathedrale in that every square inch of it is decorated in color, embroidery, or leafing. I spent a good long time taking it all in, and I believe it might be the most beautiful church I’ve ever been in. The pictures certainly do not do it justice.
After leaving the Chapel I learned that for 5CHF you could climb to the top of the church towers for a beautiful view. I happily paid, not quite expecting to spend the next 15 minutes in a state of semi- panic attack as I climbed five stories of single-person-wide steep stone spiral stairs. Eventually I reached an interior platform and was mildly relieved before realizing I had another three stories of implausibly narrower stairs to reach either of the two towers.
Fortunately, the view was more than worth the claustrophobia and constant certainty that at any moment I would somehow plummet off the side of the building to my death.
On one side shined Lac Leman, dotted with sailboats and stretching into the distance past the edge of sight. On my other three sides, mountain ranges, each a bit distinct, rose green, blue, and tiered with snow and rock. The maze of the city stretched everywhere, and people wove their way through the streets, lazily on the warm Sunday afternoon. Like a scene from a movie, a street band started playing “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and the notes caught on the summer breeze and found me at the top of the tower, far above it all.
Sometimes, the most wonderful days occur entirely accidentally.
Visit for yourself
Opening hours for St. Pierre are:
1st October - 31st May:
Mon-Sat: 10am - 5:30pm
Sunday: 12pm - 5:30pm
1st June - 30th September:
Mon-Sat: 9 am - 6:30pm
Sunday: 12pm - 6:30pm
Last entry to the tower half an hour before cathedral's closing time. Entry to the cathedral is free; climbing the tower costs 5 CHF per adult or 2 CHF per child, and access may be purchased at the back of the cathedral.
When visiting, be mindful and respectful of worship services. The cathedral also hosts concerts and performances throughout the year, many of which are free - check the schedule ahead of time.