There’s more to Switzerland than bankers, cuckoo clocks and pocket knives.
Over the centuries Switzerland’s Lake Geneva has attracted English aristocrats on their Grand Tour of Europe, inspiration-hungry writers, international jet setters and the occasional cashed-up despot. The perfect aesthetic alliance of mountains and water has provided visitors with a spectacular summer retreat. And the Grande Dame of the tourist industry is still bringing in the visitors. With castles, stunning alpine scenery, elegant hotels, fine food and chocolate, the Swiss Riviera is Europe in miniature. Here the most appealing aspects of the old world come together in a genteel yet compelling destination.
The holiday towns of Montreux and neighbouring Vevey, on the north-west shores of the lake, epitomize the charm of the region. At the Grand Hotel du Lac and Hotel des Trois Couronnes guests can enjoy a slice of Belle Epoque along with their view of the French Alps. France lies on the other side of Lake Geneva but its influence stretches well beyond the border. It can be tasted in the food (especially the dreamy chocolate éclairs at Babette’s boulangerie) and heard everywhere. This is the heart of the French-speaking part of Switzerland.
Every summer Montreaux and Vevey kick up their heels during the international jazz festival. Thousands of visitors descend on the Swiss Riviera for a fortnight of all-night music sessions. For the rest of the year, visitors engage in the more sedate pursuits of exploring the old towns, riding a steam ship across the lake or just strolling along the palm-fringed promenade and admiring the view. On a sunny day, with the 2221 metre Dent D’Oche towering over Lake Geneva, there could be nothing more perfect.
The backdrop to the Swiss Riviera is no less impressive. The massif of Moléson rises among the Swiss Pre-Alps, snow-covered in winter, but in summer – ablaze with wild flowers. A cable car services the 2002 metre summit, providing dramatic views across the mountains and access to walking tracks.
Closer to the lake, the world-heritage listed Lavaux vineyard terraces hug the hills for 30 kilometres behind Montreux and Vevey and on to Lausanne. A thousand years ago Benedictine and Cistercian monks cleared the area and built terraces to cultivate grape vines. The wine growing was later delegated to lay people and it is their descendants that still tend the vineyards, 17 generation on.
Another piece of the region’s history lies a short distance from Montreux – behind the walls of Chateau de Chillon. The fortress, built on an island in the lake, is considered one of the best preserved medieval castles in Europe and is Switzerland’s most popular tourist attraction. The site of the castle is believed to have been occupied since the Bronze Age. The castle itself was built in the twelfth century, when the House of Savoy controlled the shores of Lake Geneva.
English Romantic poet, Lord Byron (one of the castle’s many visitors) tells the story of an unfortunate monk who spent years in the castle’s dungeon in The Prisoner of Chillon. Other reminders of the castle’s unwilling occupants are inscribed into the stone pillars. But it is the castle’s toilets that capture the imagination of my children. From the highest turret, the old-fashioned dunnies plummet to the lake below – the ultimate loos with a view.
Another nearby medieval must-see is the hilltop town of Gruyères. The village is so beautifully positioned, with its fairytale castle sitting among the Pre-Alps, that it might have been airbrushed into the scene by Tourism Switzerland. But the village itself is real enough – a wide cobbled street of perfectly restored houses, souvenir shops and cafes. What is surreal is the futurist artwork of H.R Giger that greets visitors on a stroll to Gruyères Castle.
A museum dedicated to the creator of Aliens has prompted a very mixed reception from visitors. His bizarre humanoids certainly look incongruous amid the centuries-old stone-work of the Chateau St Germain, but the museum is worth a peek. So too is H.R. Giger’s bar across the street. The bar is designed to resemble the inside of a whale, with chairs that look like spines. Switzerland’s favourite surrealist knows how to shock.
Vevey has also had its fair share of artistic controversy. An eight metre high fork, planted in Lake Geneva 14 years ago, has prompted debate ever since. The giant piece of cutlery was intended as a temporary installation to mark the Nestle food museum’s 10th anniversary. It became such an integral part of the city, local authorities recently agreed to leave it there. A statue of Charlie Chaplain, one of Vevey’s most famous former residents, will be keeping an eye on the fork from his well-tended flower bed indefinitely.
The fork will leave Grand Tour nostaligics scratching their heads, but it certainly makes for an amusing photograph.