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With the help of an old blue bus, Roy Probert discovers that Geneva doesn't have to cost a fortune

Monument to the Reformation: one of the many free attractions in Geneva. Switzerland Tourism

Geneva as a budget destination? Surely some mistake? The first sight the bewildered traveller gets of the city is the bustling and occasionally intimidating Cornavin railway station.

This content was published on July 29, 2000 - 08:03

It's a far cry from the eerie magnificence of the Jet d'Eau fountain or the grandeur of the old town.

When the station does eventually spit the bedraggled backpacker out into the city, he's confronted with money - expensive boutiques, signs for private banks and insurance companies.

"This is a wealthy city," they seem to brag. "Prepare to part with your cash."

But what the foreign traveller doesn't know yet is that you can have fun, food and a place to sleep in Geneva and it doesn't have to cost a fortune. Help comes in the unlikely shape of an old blue bus, or Le Car as it's affectionately called.

As you leave Cornavin station in the direction of the lake you may spot this unassuming little vehicle parked on your right-hand side.

Everything the impoverished traveller could wish to know about cheap accommodation and free entertainment is contained within these four metallic walls. This is a gold mine of useful advice cunningly disguised as a slightly outmoded form of public transport.

It's the answer to all your tourist prayers. Honest.

Le Car has been offering its service since before all of its volunteer workers were born. In 1974, it was used by a group calling itself the CAHJ (which roughly translated means the group for welcoming and accommodating young people) to find places for music fans to kip down for the night during a rock festival.

I entered the bus expecting not to be able to move for young Americans and their rucksacks. Instead I found two elderly ladies who were quite clearly locals. I felt relieved but slightly cheated

"We're mainly here for the young travellers," says Léon Meynet, who coordinates the CAHJ's work during the summer. "But we also get a lot of Geneva people who want to know what's going on in the city, perhaps because they have friends visiting from abroad and they don't know what's available."

Le Car opened its doors to this diverse public on June 20 and by the time they close again on September 9, the trusty old bus will have welcomed 10,000 visitors - between 100 and 150 people a day.

So, Léon, imagine if you can - and it shouldn't be too difficult - that I am an impoverished British student, who has just stepped off the train from Paris. I'm hungry, irritable and tired. What do you recommend?

"Well, we've got a list here of cheap restaurants, and cheap places to sleep," says Meynet. Sounds promising.

"One of the cheapest is on the University Campus, which is in a nice part of the city. There you can share a dormitory for six people and it costs SFr16 a night. Or there's a hostel where you can get a single room for SFr15, or we can tell you about some of the squats."

"You recommend squats to people?"

"Absolutely."

"OK, what about entertainment and sightseeing," I ventured.

Léon rattled off an impressive list of things to do in Geneva, none of which would require me to so much as look for my wallet, let alone take it out and use it.

He informed me that as well as the obvious landmarks - the Jet d'Eau, the old town, the cathedral, the floral clock - virtually all of the Geneva's museums are free; there are numerous open-air concerts (modern and classical) in the city's impressive parks and gardens - which are well worth a visit even when there's no accompanying music.

Le Car is staffed almost exclusively by volunteers. Aged from 18 to 25, they responded to advertisements put up in local schools and colleges. They all speak English. Some speak a couple of other languages. One of them speaks five.

And they're friendly and helpful. Always happy to point you in the direction of the very leaflet that will make your stay in Geneva pleasant, and above all, cheap.

But don't they ever get hassled by tired and irate backpackers?

"Sometimes," says Amal Bourjouala, one of the 12 helpers. "But usually people come in here knowing that we are going to help them. The atmosphere is really good."

The lights stay on in the little blue bus until 11 pm, meaning there's help at hand even for those people emerging from the murky depths of Cornavin station late at night.

The last thing they might want to do after getting off the train is get on an old bus. But if they want a good time in Geneva, it may be worth their while.

by Roy Probert

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