WHEN she was just 19 years old, Mary Godwin spent the summer of 1816 on the shores of Lake Geneva with her future husband, the great poet Percy Shelley, and his friend and fellow verse-maker, Lord Byron. It was here that she wrote Frankenstein, the novel she called ‘my hideous progeny’ — a sensitive and intelligent story born of a nightmare she had one night beside the most beautiful of surroundings.
This year marks two centuries since the publication of that prodigious novel about a wild scientist tormented by the monster he created. I’ve always been fascinated by London-born Mary’s travels in Geneva and with forthcoming film Mary Shelley, starring Elle Fanning and Maisie Williams, focusing on these formative moments, I decide to hit the picturesque Swiss city on Mary’s trail.
She and Percy were ostracised by society — he was already married to a wife who would soon kill herself — and in Geneva to visit Byron, who was in exile after a scandalous separation from his own wife. Percy and Mary — the daughter of two of the most radical political thinkers of the day — wanted to experience the sublime mountain scenery that so influenced the Romantic literature of the day.
One stormy night, in Byron’s rented mansion Villa Diodati, the controversial group challenged each other to write a ghost story. That night Mary fell into an uneasy sleep and had a nightmare about the creation of a monster. Frankenstein was born. The villa, in the swanky suburb of Cologny, is now private property. So after a cheeky glimpse through the railings, I catch a ‘moutte’ river bus (£1.48, mouettesgenevoises.ch) across the lake to Sécheron, a lakeside area where Mary and her lively crew stayed when they first arrived in town.
Their entire holiday was dark, brooding and rainy, thanks to a volcanic eruption that had altered the weather across Europe, and the dramatic landscapes clearly infused Mary’s imagination. ‘Vivid flashes of lightning dazzled my eyes, illuminating the lake,’ she wrote in her novel, ‘making it appear like a vast sheet of fire.’
In 2018, I’m blessed with balmy sunshine and stroll through a string of waterfront parks, peppered with happy, picnicking locals. From the top of the Perle du Lac park I see a carpet of fire engine-red flowers leading down to the huge blue lake with the snow-capped Mont Blanc beyond. However grim the weather when Mary was here, it’s no wonder her imagination was fired by such landscapes.
I tear myself away to head for the neighbourhood of Plainpalais, which features heavily in the novel and is now one of the most vibrant areas in the city. If you thought Geneva was all about rich bankers, good chocolate and accurate timepieces, well, you’re essentially right. But scratch the surface and you’ll find the city can be pretty good fun too, because Plainpalais’s Rue de L’Ecole de Médecine is lined with trendy cafés and bars, stuffed with wholesome-looking hipsters (it must be all those lake swims and mountain hikes).
I make my way to L’Etabli, which manages, against all odds, to be both a Frankenstein theme bar and cool. The decor is a careful balance of green, gold and black, and the walls are covered with graphic art prints inspired by the book. While I’m tempted by a Mary Shelley cocktail featuring rum, passionfruit and grenadine (£11), I’m in need of another kind of pep-up and try an ‘ultra stimulating’ Yerba Mate tea (£5.80), an earthy and slightly bitter South American brew that arrives in a hot wooden gourd and is so packed with caffeine, it nearly blows the top of my skull off.
In the Plaine de Plainpalais, the area’s wide central square, I watch kids trying tricks in the skate park and wander around the buzzing flea market, which flogs everything from old records to vintage jewellery every Wednesday and Saturday. In one corner of the square I stop to shake hands with a statue of Frankenstein’s creature, sculpted to look like he’s running away to the Salève mountain, visible high on the horizon, as he does in the book.
The next day, it’s time to follow him. While the monster can leap up the Salève’s gnarly crags in a few strides, I make do with catching the bus to the bottom of the cable car (£5.55, telepherique-du-saleve.com). I whizz 3,600ft skywards, packed in with mountain bikers and day-trippers, to be greeted at the top by grassy vistas with incredible views.
I take a short hike to a couple of lookout points. From one I can see the white tops of the Alps, from another Geneva spread out like a toy town. Technically, the mountain is in France so remember your passport and a few euros.
Much like Mary’s novel itself, Geneva is a whole lot more than the sum of its stereotypes. Look a little deeper into both and you might find something rather wonderful.
THE GALLERY QUARTER
UNCOVER Geneva’s creative side in the Quartier des Bains (quartierdesbains.ch), a former watchmaking district now home to a collaborative network of galleries and museums.
Start by viewing the seriously out-there pieces in MAMCO, The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (£11, mamco.ch), where you can still see the marks of factory machines on the floor. Pop into one of the smaller, private galleries in the surrounding streets, such as Xippas (free, xippas.com), before refuelling with a Brekkie Brunch of egg and salmon on avocado toast, and a dessert pot, at trendy café Birdie (£14.60, birdiecoffee.com).
Sleep it all off at the Tiffany Hotel (doubles from £103, tiffanyhotel.ch), featuring art nouveau decor with a chic modern twist. On the third Thursday of every January, March, May and September is Les Nuits Des Bains, where all the galleries open late so you can potter around feeling oh-so-cultured with a glass of wine.