Article Published in THE HINDUSTAN TIMES

When Geneva celebrates victory

Navtej Sarna

Geneva is, by any standards, a quiet sort of place. On most evenings the shops close by a quarter to seven, the traffic trickles to a halt and a soporofic silence descends on the city. One may be excused from wondering whether this is indeed the centre of Europe when one stands in the middle of a main street with only some lonely headlights coming one's way or some straggler rushing home at about 8 O'clock. There are no wild merry-makers making their boisterous way to the nightspots, nor is there music on the streets. In fact there are few nightspots to talk about. Much store is obviously set by the idea of going to bed early. Its very healthy, clean and, of course, quiet and does wonders for tired nerves.

No wonder then that people look forward so much to the celebrations of Escalade on Dec 11 and 12 every year. The city suddenly seems to wake up and people take to the streets, all heading for the old town with its narrow streets and cobbled squares. For once, one can see more people than one can count in one breath and there are actually queues to buy the hot soup or the hot wine.

The story of the Escalade goes back four centuries. Geneva, as a prosperous, independent bastion of Calvinism was coveted by various Catholic Dukes of neighbouring Savoy during the 1500s. Finally in 1602, more than a thousand mercenaries commanded by the Duke of savoy marched towards Geneva on the longest night of the year. Since the Genovoise had not yet adapted Pope Gregory XIII's modifications of the Julian Calendar, it was not Dec 21-22 for them but rather Dec 11-12. The men led the first attack by a ..................................................................................... the fought from behind their large shields called mantelets and after a fierce fight, the mercenaries were driven back. According to legend, the wife of the director of the mint-Mother Royaume was cooking vegetable soup in a cauldron late at night when she realised that the city was under attack. She poured the hot soup on the attackers who were attempting to scale her walls and then threw down the cauldron, killing one of them. This turning point of the battle has become the most memorable symbol celebrated by the Escalade.

The mercenaries finally fled for their lives. Sixty eight of them were killed and only 18 defenders of Geneva lost their lives. It does not sound like much of a battle as battles in medieval history go. But it has certainly made the cauldron of Mother Royaume or a "marmite" a permanent feature of the house of Geneva. Chocolate replicas, full of sweets, are kept and then smashed to smithereens by children with the declaration- "Thus perish the enemies of the Republic".

This year too on December 11 and 12, when even the weather seemed to be part of the celebrations and the sun shone reluctantly but obediently, the old town seemed to have travelled back for centuries.

Men in authentic costumes scaled the walls and demostrated the use of the muskets and an ancestor of the machine gun; fife and drum bands marches through the lanes and little children in traditional costumes sang songs in the old dialect of Geneva for a few frances. Period costumes abound and you may find yourself rubbing shoulders with a witch. A secret passage is open to the public and you can hear choir groups singing in the courtyard of the town hall. Watch the street theatre groups and follow the horsemen through the narrow lanes.

The climax of the weekend came on the second night. A torch lit parade marched around the old town for about two hours with four stops during which a proclamation is read describing the events of the Escalade. The procession finally rolled into the square outside the St. Pierre's Cathedral.