Latitudes is a NEW monthly column where Travel Writer Debbie Stone takes readers to destinations and excursions around the world.
Switzerland is known for many things – stunning Alpine scenery, Swiss watches, Swiss cheese and of course, delectable chocolate. It’s one of the wealthiest countries in the world and often ranked best for skiing. But there is so much more of this tony country to explore.
From a noted British poet and a famous film actor to a celebrated French fashion designer and the lead vocalist of the rock band Queen, Switzerland is no stranger to celebrities. Lord Byron, Charlie Chaplin, Coco Chanel and Freddie Mercury, all resided, at one point in their lives, in or around the French-speaking regions of Lausanne and Montreux.
And though you won’t see these celebrities around town today, you might catch a glimpse of other celebs at the bar at Beau-Rivage Palace. The resort is one of the most prestigious in the city. Stars love the hotel, and for Diana Ross, as well as Phil Collins, it’s served as the perfect wedding destination. If for nothing else, it’s well worth the visit to have cocktails.
Lausanne’s appeal is widespread. From its glorious location on Lake Geneva and its Mediterranean ambiance to its flourishing arts scene, it is a striking city. The Cathedral of Notre-Dame, a 13th century Gothic edifice with 105 stained glass windows, dominates the landscape and establishes the town’s medieval roots. And there are even buildings dating back to the Middle Ages lining the cobblestone streets. But Lausanne is much more than just a pretty face; it’s also a destination for learning, commerce and culture which attracts university students, business titans and visitors from around the globe.
The International Olympic Committee and the state-of-the-art Olympic Museum are both based in Lausanne. The interactive museum tells the Olympic story over time. One floor is devoted to the origins of the ancient Olympic Games. Other galleries delve into the greatest feats and stories about athletes who participated in the competitions. Outside the museum, overlooking scenic Lake Geneva, is the Olympic Park, which features works of contemporary artists and sports activity areas.
Art and culture aficionados will rejoice in the city’s offerings. The Hermitage Foundation, a gem of a museum housed in a preserved 19th century villa features exhibitions of paintings and sculptures. Another very unique, must-see cultural attraction in Lausanne is the Collection de l’Art Brut. The impetus for this museum stemmed from a donation of works by French artist Jean Dubuffet. He began collecting creations outside the mainstream in hopes of shedding light on art that was free from cultural and social conditioning. Works on display are by untrained and/or struggling artists. Some had mental illnesses while others were deemed social outcasts. Though the pieces can be disturbing at times, they are truly fascinating, as is the accompanying biographical information about each of the contributors.
Lausanne is also a magnet for shoppers who flock to Place de la Palud and Rue de Bourg. Both are pedestrian-friendly areas with over 1,500 boutiques, stores and colorful open-air market stalls.
When it comes to nightlife, the Flon district is the place to be. The area was once an industrial hub and architects preserved the original style of the buildings during renovation. Today, it’s a collection of avant-garde structures that contain shops, offices, apartments and entertainment venues.
And with Lausanne’s Lake Geneva backdrop, it’s impossible not to want to spend some time near or on the water. Stroll down the beautiful lakeside promenade, or opt for a boat ride to explore neighboring Evian-les-Bains, France. Though only 30 minutes separate the two cities, luxury travelers know they are worlds apart from one another when it comes to culture, people and ambiance.
Finding good food is never a problem in Lausanne. From award-winning fine dining establishments and cozy cafes to trendy bistros that boast inventive and exciting meals, Lausanne has it all. But besides the delicious food, I really couldn’t wait to taste Swiss chocolate. I know sampling is an activity in and of itself, so I took it very seriously, especially when I was informed by a noted chocolatier that eating chocolate or drinking a chocolate beverage should be an intensely emotional experience. He emphasized the power of fine chocolate on one’s psyche, explaining that it has the ability to set your mind free.
Lausanne provides easy access to the nearby UNESCO World Heritage site – Lavaux Vineyard Terraces. It’s a favorite for luxury travelers. And even if wine is not your thing, you’ll want to put this Swiss treasure on your list. The vineyards feature 10,000 vine terraces which hug the steep slopes facing the Alps above the shimmering waters of Lake Geneva. This is the birthplace of the Chasselas grape variety, a wine appreciated for its pure scents and delicate fruit notes. Other varieties grown here such as Pinot Noir, Gamay, Cabernet Franc, Gamaret and Sauvignon are a testimony to the richness of Lavaux’s terroirs which benefit from a temperate climate. Patrick Fonjallaz is one of 250 vineyard owners in the Lavaux region. He is the successor of 12 generations of wine producers, a wine dynasty established in 1552. His winery is destination-worthy, not only because of the high quality of the wines, but because of its breathtaking views of the surrounding area.
Continuing south from Lavaux along the lake, you’ll soon come to Montreux – Switzerland’s “festival city” and a noted international tourist town for luxury travelers. Like Lausanne, many celebs have been drawn to this area because of the beauty, moderate weather and excellent quality of life. Among the sights to take in is Chillon Castle, the most-visited historic building in Switzerland. It’s located on a small island on the lake. In modern times, the castle has become famous for inspiring Lord Byron’s poem, “The Prisoner of Chillon,” which was based on the true story of François Bonivard, a political prisoner from Geneva. Byron is said to have carved his name in one of the columns in the dungeon where Bonivard was kept for several years. The castle has had many well-known visitors over the years including Henry James, Victor Hugo and Salvador Dalí.
If you happen to be in Montreux during the first weeks of July, you’ll share the town with the masses who come for the Montreux Jazz Festival. Created by Claude Nobs, a young, enterprising Swiss man with a love of music and a forward-thinking approach to technology. He organized the first festival in 1967 and over the years its popularity has extended across the globe, attracting musicians from a wide variety of genres. Ray Charles, Pink Floyd, Chicago, Santana, Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison and Miles Davis have all performed at this global festival. The headliners play in the acoustically sophisticated Auditorium Stravinski, while lesser-known acts give their shows in smaller venues around town. The energy and enthusiasm is palpable among the festival goers.
In between devouring Swiss chocolate and sailing along the lake, make sure to take the GoldenPass Line to Les Rochers-de-Naye. It’s the top of the mountain that dominates Montreux. The train to the summit takes less than an hour. And at almost 7,000 feet, the view overlooks Lake Geneva with an impressive panorama of the mountains. Atop, there’s an Alpine garden with flowers and plants and even colonies of marmots, commonly known as the mascot of the Alps, which live in the expansive area.
If you decide to spend more than 24 hours here, make sure to check out the two local restaurants and choose from several authentic Mongolian yurts to spend the night.
For Switzerland travel information: www.MySwitzerland.com