Les Bains Title
Photo by Bill Harby

First of all, there are no “bains” (public baths) in Les Bains, the little landlocked arts neighborhood within the Jonction district. Not anymore. But Rue des Bains, which runs across the quarter, is named for the baths that once existed near here by the Arve River. In 1912, these were converted into therapeutic baths by Balkan Wars veteran Dr. Charles Yersin.

Les Bains Boutique
Photo by Bill Harby

From Cold to Cool

But in the early 1920s, the sensible doctor relocated his clinic from the frigid Arve to near the warmer Rhone. So today, the neighborhood we call Les Bains provides therapy primarily as a cool hangout for artists, students studying at one of the University of Geneva branches here, journalists who work at either the enormous Radio Television Swiss building, or nearby Tribune de Genève newspaper, and many other Genevois(e) who gravitate to the casual, sympathique bistro-style cafés and edgy modern-art galleries.

As an unofficial quarter within Jonction, Les Bains is loosely boundried by Blvd. de St. George, Ave. du Mail and Blvd. Carl-Vogt. Wandering the neighborhood, you might be struck by the contrast between the warmly lit wood-paneled bistros with lion-tamer chairs and small tables usually buzzing with conversation, versus the bright little private galleries whose white walls exhibit progressive, often abstract modern art. Do these two aesthetics clash? No, not unless yin and yang clash.

Les Bains Photo
Photo by Bill Harby
Les Bains Lutherie
Photo by Bill Harby

Street art and architecture

Oddly for an arts neighborhood, Les Bains doesn’t boast much street art, though there’ s a crazy-wonderful huge graffiti mural on a wall by the Université / Uni-Mail, and a few blocks away, a marvelous psychedelic painted goat at the little Place de Jeux du Parc Gourgas.

Best of all is the stunning trompe-l’ oeil artwork embedded into the wall of an apartment building on Rue du Vieux Billard 14. Where do the real windows end and the painted windows begin?

Eye-grabbing architecture doesn’t jump out at you around Les Bains, except for the imposing Beneficent Big Brother RTS HQ staring down with its monster antenna dish. But there are a few wonderful exceptions. The roofline of the Musée d’ Ethnographie de Genève (MEG) is an enticing puzzle of diagonal and diamond shapes rising from the contrasting organic curves of the urban garden paths leading to the entrance. Right across the street on Blvd. Carl-Vogt, the façade of the University Carl-Vogt is a hypnotic wall suggesting braille messages. And over at Blvd. St. George 16, there’s the red, oval building that looks like robots might live inside. 

Photo by Bill Harby

Green peace

Strolling Les Bains is no walk in the park; there’ s precious little green space. The Place de Jeux du Parc Gouragas offers a small playground for kids and parents. And next to the Université de Genève / Uni Mail is Parc Baud-Bovy, where somebody, perhaps from the mathematics department, decided to plant lots of skinny trees in rows.

But there is one sublime green space on the outskirts of the quarter. The Cimetiere des Rois (Cemetery of the Kings) is a gorgeous peaceful park with grand old trees, loosely pruned shrubbery and unique headstones befitting the final resting places of the many luminaries buried here.

They include city benefactor William Favre, Argentine literary giant Jorge Luis Borges, and Griselidis Réal, a firebrand Swiss writer, sex worker and voice for the rights of sex workers. Also buried beneath these grounds is Protestant reformer Jean Calvin, though the exact location of his resting place is a secret – but one has to wonder how close he lies to Madame Réal. This park, with its spongy grass and long shadows, is beautiful above ground, fertile beneath with its many great hearts and minds.

But the peaceful cemetery is an outlier to the lively spirit of Les Bains, where you can spend hours or days wandering.

Les Bains Question
Photo by Bill Harby