LAKE GENEVA POSTCARD PERFECT Swiss region distinctive in historic lakeside charm


First impressions are important, and Switzerland's Lake Geneva Region has the art down pat:

Dazzle visitors with sun-brightened mountains beneath a crisp blue sky, a city of medieval splendors and a network of neatly combed vineyards marching primly across flirtatious hills, and you've won their hearts forever. Such scenic attractions might well have been plagiarized from Paradise.

Hard to believe that this region suffers from an image problem. The Lake Geneva Region, which is within the canton of Vaud, is frequently confused with the nearby city of Geneva, a canton or state in the Swiss republic.To further complicate matters, many Europeans refer to Lake Geneva as Lac Leman, the original French name that now technically corresponds only to the sliver of shallow lake by the city of Geneva.

So the Lake Geneva Region and the city of Lausanne, capital of the Vaud Canton, too often get lost in the linguistic shuffle. They deserve better.

Let's look at the distinctive features of Lausanne (population 127,000). First, its setting is superb. Spread across three hills overlooking the shores of Lake Geneva, it is flanked east and west by vineyards and on the north by the dense green Jorat forests. On the far side of the lake, the Alps provide a postcard-perfect backdrop.

When it was the Roman city of Lousonna, it was located on the shores of the lake at Vidy; it was the crossroads of trade and travel between Italy and Gaul and between the Mediterranean and the Rhine. Later, incursions by invading barbarians forced the populace into the hills. Medieval ramparts eventually shielded the new city and its majestic cathedral.

Like most European cities, Lausanne is rooted in its striking cathedral, which is Switzerland's largest. A hybrid Romanesque-Gothic structure, it was first mentioned in 1160 when it was the Catholic Notre Dame de Lausanne. With the arrival of the Reformation in the mid-16th century, it converted to Protestantism. While its towers and spires are striking, its abundance of windows (105 to be exact, 78 of them original) is impressive. The showpiece rose window, dating from 1240, relates the story of creation.

But the cathedral's most singular feature is the town crier, who nightly between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. still climbs the bell tower to announce "10 (11, 12, etc.) o'clock and all's well." Visitors, too, can climb halfway up the tower for a view of the scenic magnificence that frames Lausanne.

Near the cathedral are two museum musts. The first is the Lausanne Historical Museum in the Old Bishopric, notable for its 250-square-foot scale model of the city as it was in the 17th

century. The second is the Musee de la Pipe et Objets du Tabac (7, rue de l'Academie), where more than 2,500 exhibits from 50 countries trace the history of the pipe from its simplest shapes to its most complex and exotic forms.

A covered, medieval, wooden stairway known as the Escaliers ** de Marche leads from the cathedral to the Place de la Palud, home of Lausanne's 17th century town hall, its 18th century Fountain of Justice, and on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, a colorful open-air market offering a profusion of flowers and produce.

More upscale shopping is offered in the Rue de Bourg, a street that in the 17th and 18th centuries was lined with fine mansions. One of them, at No. 26, has been beautifully preserved.

Linked by a mere 6-minute metro ride to the suburb of Ouchy on the shores of Lake Geneva, Lausanne is truly a lakeside city in spirit. On summer evenings, city dwellers descend to Ouchy for drinks, dinner, a stroll along the lakeside and a night on the town. Understandably, many visitors prefer to stay in Ouchy and pop into Lausanne for sightseeing and shopping.

For it is Lake Geneva and the scenic hamlets and villages along its shores that are the hub of the region's tourism. The lake is western Europe's largest, measuring 46 miles long, 8.5 miles wide and about 1,000 feet deep. About one-third of it lies in France, and the Rhone River flows through it to meet the Mediterranean at Marseilles. People swim in the lake as well as in the three swimming pools along its shores. But the prime lake pastime is boating.

One popular lakeside destination is Vevey. If you go by boat, you'll see the lake shores build from the flat banks of Ouchy to a scenic series of ever taller and steeper chateau-studded hills. When a train slices across the terraced hillsides of tufted greens, the scene seems to be an elaborate Lionel train set come to life.

Vevey (pop. 14,000) is about an hour's boat ride from Ouchy. Many prominent personalities have enjoyed its charm, notable among them Charlie Chaplin, who lived for 25 years in the surrounding hills. By the lake stands a statue of the legendary comic graced by pale apricot roses that have come to be known as the Chaplin rose.

Other illustrious presences that have passed through Vevey include Feodor Dostoevski, Victor Hugo, William Thackeray, Felix Mendelssohn and Jean Jacques Rousseau, who wrote of his beloved Lac Leman: "I absolutely must have an orchard by this lake and not any other; I must have a true friend, a kind woman, a cow and a small boat."

I, however, would be content just to be in Vevey on Saturday mornings in July and August to take in the folklore market, which features wine-tastings, until noon and then to visit Vevey's two offbeat museums. They are the Swiss Camera Museum, which contains some of the largest cameras in the world, and the Musee Alimentarium, which tells all about the growth, processing, preparation, consumption and digestion of food. Among its displays, you can get insight into the kitchen habits of the Ifugaos of the Philippines and the Falis of North Cameroon. You'll also see the evolution of the use of cutlery and some place settings from the Middle Ages. The story of food so eloquently told here is illustrated with stoves, pots, grinders and kitchen utensils from diverse times and place.

More trendy and jet-set chic than Vevey is Montreux (population 20,000), where the mountains meet the lake. Scaling the Alpine foothills, the town is unexpectedly sprinkled with palm trees due to the mild microclimate that first drew tourists here at the beginning of our century. Those early tourists were mostly British and Russian. Among their ranks was composer Igor Stravinsky, who was moved by the beauty of this spot to write his famed "Rites of Spring." For the last 25 years, however, jazz has been Montreux's prime musical claim to fame: Every July the greats of the jazz world come to play the prestigious Montreux Jazz


Near Montreux is Switzerland's most visited monument -- the Castle of Chillon. Immortalized in Lord Byron's poem "The Prisoner of Chillon" (which he wrote in Ouchy's Hotel D'Angleterre in June 1816), the castle has some chillingly brutal associations that contrast with its compelling physical charms. For starters, more than 350 witches were burned here.

But the castle's 13th-century origins were much more benign. It was built on Roman foundations to be a tollgate and the summer residence of the Count of Savoy. Modified and adapted according to the varying offensive and defensive strategies of the unfurling centuries, it served, amid the 16th-century strife between the Swiss and the Savoys and between Catholicism and Protestantism, as a prison. At that time, the castle's wine cellar was converted into an execution chamber. While one can visit this dank, dreary chamber and stroll among the assorted medieval mementos of several of the castle's rooms, I find the castle more inviting outside than within.

Of course, no visit to Switzerland is complete without an Alpine excursion, and the Lake Geneva Region offers a breathtaking glacial experience at Les Diablerets. You can get there on organized bus and cable-car tours, or you can be extravagant and arrange a helicopter tour. If the latter strikes your indulgent fancy, the sojourn begins on the train in Lausanne and continues on the M.O.B. train to Chauteau-d'Oex, a cheese-making village.

Traveling by train in Switzerland is an encounter with the sublimely picturesque; this trip is no exception. The pastoral landscape is amply laced with tunnels, bridges and charming chalets (one of them the largest in the land). If you've made arrangements in advance (see sidebar), a helicopter will pick you up at Chateau-d'Oex and take you to the glacier almost 10,000 feet above the real world.

The 15-minute ride affords a God's-eye view of creation. The Alpine zeniths seem but an arm's length away here in the domain of angels. A handful of mountain goats gambols among the crags. A fellow traveler terms the experience "a scenic orgasm." I second the metaphor.

Up at the glacial summit, we espy the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc. Near the restaurant there stand the vertical stones known as "Les Diablerets," or the "little devils." I suppose they took a wrong turn somewhere, for this is nothing if not a slice of heaven.

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