If you’re searching for a rainy day activity in Geneva, look no further than the Site Archéologique, the museum beneath Geneva’s Cathedrale Saint-Pierre in the Old Town. This museum allows visitors the opportunity to tour excavations beneath the cathedral, some of which date back 2,000 years.
Excavations at the site began in 1976 and continued through 2006. You can scroll through a bunch of pictures from that time here.
Several of the tours I’ve taken at historical sites have been dry, boring and seemingly interminable, but I found this one interesting and well-paced. It took me only a little over an hour to complete, but someone could easily spend twice as long exploring all of its exhibits.
Even though tourist season seems to be in full swing in Geneva, I managed to escape the crowds when I visited the museum on a Monday morning. Being the only person walking through wasn’t what I was expecting (in a good way), but it was also somewhat creepy – there are a few dimly-lit passages, it’s almost completely silent, and at one point a skeleton is unexpectedly just around a corner.
In the picture above, you can just see the side of a big hole where the archaeologists went searching for the chieftain’s skull. Here’s a better shot:
Photo Credit: Site Archéologique
One feature of the museum I liked most was the color-coded guide showing from what period of time certain layers and areas of the excavation dated.
The mold of La Clémence, the largest bell of the cathedral, is preserved and on display:
The bell was cast in 1407 and had to be cast in a pit underground to avoid explosion due to the pressure of molten metal. Here’s what it would have looked like:
Remains of monks’ huts from the 3rd and 4th century are also part of the tour.
Each hut was set against the northern wall of the cathedral, and the two-room huts were heated by radial conduits. Here’s what they probably looked like:
One of the highlights of the museum for me was the mosaic pavement (5th century). Originally, there were 45 panels on the pavement. It served as the floor of the bishop’s receiving room, and had under-floor heating. Some panels have aged better than others, and the pavement has been subjected to both careful and not-so-careful restoration over different periods of time.
Here are some more highlights from the tour:
Old Town is one of my favorite neighborhoods in Geneva to explore, with its winding cobblestoned alleys and centuries-old buildings, and my tour of the Site Archéologique makes we wonder what else lies beneath its streets!
You can find out more about the Site Archéologique here (English and French), and more information about the cathedral is available here (French only). Admission is 8 CHF and includes a guided audio tour. Group tours and combination tickets are also available; you can find more information on admission and tours here.
We are a group of international women living in Geneva, Switzerland. If you would like to join the AIWC, please visit our website at http://www.aiwcgeneva.org/.