Les Grottes marché
The central square and its market - Photo by Bill Harby

First of all, there never were any “grottes” (caves) beneath the funky, cool, beloved Geneva neighborhood known as Les Grottes. Rather, the name derives from a dried up stream that had different names over the years, including Nant des Grottes.

The stream is long gone, but this little quarter for which it’s named is thriving, with its heritage of workers’ apartments, squats and protest, and its modern-day evolving renewal as a friendly little village within the city. Not to mention that it’s home to one of the weirdest wonderful apartment complexes in Europe. All this is why the French moniker “bobo” (for “bourgeois-bohème”) is perfect for Les Grottes.

Les Grottes rue
Photo by Bill Harby

Forever linked to the train station

The neighborhood covers several blocks (about 13.5 hectares) just northwest of Cornavin train station. Built in 1856, the station has been Les Grottes’ blessing and its curse.

The bustling new station brought development, so the vineyards and 18th-century estates of two wealthy bourgeois families gave way to narrow streets, small factories, ateliers, houses and apartment buildings for workers and others supporting the area’s emerging industrial character.

Around 1872, new construction brought in more laborers, some of whom were politically active, trying to improve conditions. A cooperative grocery store opened in the quarter, and the anarchist-communist journal, Le Révolté was founded here before relocating to Paris to avoid police harassment.

In 1909, fire destroyed the train station, which wasn’t entirely reconstructed until 1931. During the ’30s, the city prohibited piecemeal renovations in Les Grottes, arguing that it had become impoverished and was home to political refugees. So the city decided to “save” the neighborhood by razing much of it and rebuilding, supposedly in the style of an American downtown. In a clear case of silver linings, an economic downturn and the looming world war forced those plans to remain only on the drawing board.

But the city’s urge to clean up the historic neighborhood struck again in the 1970s with plans to build a shopping center. The citizens who loved Les Grottes as it was (and is) rose up to protect it by establishing independent cafés, markets, crèches and ateliers. The vibrant alternative community won the day, and plans to modernize were abandoned except for selected renovations.

Now, the city has finally become a true friend to Les Grottes. In 2015, earlier plans to expand the train station by demolishing adjacent buildings, were thrown out in favor of underground expansion. Construction is slated to begin this year and continue in different phases for a decade as part of the huge Léman 2030 project.

For several years, the city government has also been nurturing Les Grottes’ alternative character by offering free or subsidized office space to local entrepreneurs and community associations.

Les Grottes marché lunch
Photo by Bill Harby

Maybe the best it’s ever been

One of those non-profit associations is Animatou, which produces an annual animation film festival and other animation film events. Its co-director, Matilda Tavelli, grew up in Les Grottes and still lives here.

Today, her little village within the city “is a popular, multicultural and alternative neighborhood with a spirit of community and protest,” says Tavelli in French. “It’s a friendly neighborhood where it’s good to stroll and discover small businesses and relax on the terraces of various bars and restaurants that enliven Les Grottes.”

Its lively center is the cozy Place des Grottes, once home to a monastery. Here, every Thurs. afternoon from 16:00 to 20:00, people gather at the neighborhood market to eat, drink and make merry, enjoying cheeses, antipasti, breads, fresh fruit and veggies, sausages, local organic wines, beer and other savories from the vendors.

The people-watching of the eclectic mix you can find here is another treat during the market hours. A dreadlocked beauty rolls her cigarette while not listening to the guy talking at her. A thin young man in a stylishly cut blue business suit feeds his toddler while his wife texts someone. Two women sit on the cement in the middle of the square, somehow sequestered with their bottle and glasses, baring their hearts. And lots of others, all ages and nationalities, everyone drinking, eating, talking in French, English, German, Portuguese, Arabic, and other languages – its a festive multi-culti, polyglot mélange. Which of these people live nearby? Probably most of them.

One of the cheese mongers offers trays of sliced mixed cheeses – your choice. Another vendor sells glasses of their Savigny wines from vineyards on Geneva’s outskirts.

The narrow lanes radiating out from the Place are home to cafés, international restaurants, a wineseller, a shop that sells and repairs musical instruments, a fair-trade international shop where the workers are all volunteers, the office for a women’ s shelter, a bike shop, a crèche subsidized by the city, a beer geek bar, the Animatou film office, the headquarters of a lesbian and feminist association, and other interesting little businesses and cultural/social organizations, including l’ Association à But Socioculturel that offers not just art expos and drinks each evening but free meals on Sundays.

Schtroumpfs hall
The entrance hall of the "Smurf" residential complex - Photo by Bill Harby

If only you could live here

It’s no wonder that people want to live in Les Grottes with its old low-rise apartment buildings, where, supposedly, relatively cheap rents can still be found. But the most interesting address is the delightfully surreal, cartoonish enclave popularly known in English as “the Smurf” apartment complex (or “Schtroumpf,” the made-up word by Peyo, the Belgian creator of the little blue creatures). Designed by Swiss architects, and completed in 1984, the four buildings have 170 city-subsidized rental apartments. You'll turn blue yourself if you hold your breath waiting to get a place there. Each year the city gets some 4,000 requests for the rent-adjusted apartments, though they can fill only about 200!

Schtroumpfs facade
Its facade - Photo by Bill Harby