By Carol Sorgen
Chocolate, cheese and Heidi? If that’s what comes to mind when you think of Switzerland, it’s time to revisit this beautiful Alpine country…as I did on a recent trip to Lausanne-a cosmopolitan city with a small-town feel.
Situated on the shores of Lake Geneva (known as Lac Leman in French), Lausanne is just 41 miles northeast of Geneva. Since Lausanne doesn’t have an airport of its own, most visitors fly to Cointrin Airport in Geneva. After an easy, overnight nonstop flight on Swiss International Airlines from JFK Airport in New York, we arrived in Geneva the following morning where a car was waiting to meet us for the short drive into Lausanne.
If you want your hotel stay to be as much a part of your experience as your visit to the region itself, check in to the Beau-Rivage Palace, a beautiful Belle Epoque hotel set in its own ten-acre park (complete with a dog cemetery for the pets of long-time guests!) overlooking Lake Geneva.
The first wing of the hotel, the Beau-Rivage, was built in 1861 and was a mecca for the titled, the wealthy, and the renowned. An annex, Le Chalet, was built in 1864, and the second wing, the Palace, was added in 1908. The Beau-Rivage and the Palace are now joined together, with 169 individually decorated rooms, 29 suites, and 27 deluxe rooms with lake view.
Blending the old with the new, modern amenities such as a mini-bar, whirlpool tub, cable television and wireless Internet access have been added to the spacious rooms with their high ceilings and elegant furnishings. In my room a terrace that extended the length of both the bedroom and bathroom provided picture-postcard views overlooking Lake Geneva and the French Alpine peaks beyond. The beautiful public spaces of the hotel, with their marble floors, stately pillars and polished mahogany, mix well with unexpected contemporary touches such as the streamlined glass elevator or comfortably styled salon beyond the reception area.
It wasn’t easy to tear myself away from the hotel (and truth be told, there was a snowy afternoon when I succumbed to the lure of the whirlpool tub in my oversized bathroom, sipping wine, nibbling chocolate and looking out at the lake and mountains through the terrace doors), but as I had never been to Lausanne before on earlier visits to Switzerland, I was eager to see if the city matched the impression written by Victor Hugo:
“Lausanne is a block of picturesque houses, spilling over two or three gorges, which spread from the same central knot, and are crowned by a cathedral like a tiara….On the esplanade of the church…I saw the lake over the roofs, the mountains over the lake, clouds over the mountains, and stars over the clouds. It was like a staircase where my thoughts climbed step by step and broadened at each new height.”
The town, which is the provincial capital of the Canton of Vaud, has a long history, from the time it was known as Lousanna in the Roman era, to the modern European city it is today. Lausanne is built on three hills overlooking Lake Geneva. The city is compact enough to walk, but if you don’t want to make the uphill climb under your own steam, the Upper Town (Haute Ville), which is the oldest part of the city, and the Lower Town (Basse Ville) or Ouchy, are linked by a small subway.
Part of the charm of visiting Lausanne is simply meandering through the winding streets, drinking in the atmosphere. But there are, to be sure, several sights well worth seeing as you stroll.
First among these is the Cathedrale de Notre-Dame, also called the Cathedrale de Lausanne. This beautiful example of Gothic architecture is Switzerland’s largest church. It was begun in the 12th century by Italian, Flemish and French architects, and was completed in 1275. In the 19th century, the cathedral was restored by Viollet-le-Duc, who was renowned for his restoration work on the French cathedrals of Chartres and Notre-Dame-de-Paris. Protestant services are held on Sundays at 10 a.m. and 8 p.m., but are closed to nonworshiping visitors then. You can visit at other times, however, and the cathedral also holds evening concerts throughout the spring and fall.
Located on the northwestern side of town, the Chateau de Beaulieu et Musee de l’Art Brut, is situated in a chateau that dates from 1756. The museum displays works collected by the painter Jean Dubuffet from prisoners, the mentally ill and the criminally insane, similar to the “outsider” art displayed in Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum.
For more traditional artworks, visit the Musee Cantonal des Beaux-Arts, which is Lausanne’s principal city museum, devoted to the works of 19th century artists who painted in western Switzerland. You will also find a collection of French painters, including Degas, Renoir, Bonnard, Matisse and Utrillo. The complex in which the museum is located also houses the Geological Museum, the Museum of Paleontology, the Archaeological and Historical Museum and the Zoological Museum.
Since 1915 Lausanne has been the home of the International Olympic Committee, and in 1993 the city opened the Olympic Museum (conveniently located next to the Beau-Rivage Palace Hotel) that traces the history of the games since they debuted in ancient Greece. If you’re already gearing up for next year’s Winter Olympics in Italy, this is the place to go, with its Olympic Study Center, library, information center, video library, artifacts, and state-of-the-art technology that allows you to get “up close and personal” with the great Olympic moments and athletes.
As beautiful as Lausanne itself is, you’ll want to see some of the towns and villages that lie just beyond, accessible by train, car or lake steamer. Vevey, for example, 11 miles east of Lausanne at the foot of Mount Pelerin (which you can ascend by funicular), is filled with interesting shops and restaurants, and through the years has been visited-or been the home of-numerous celebrities, including Charlie Chaplin and Ernest Hemingway.
Two miles east of Vevey is Montreux, the principal resort of the Swiss Riviera, which has also had its own share of famous residents, such as novelist Vladimir Nabokov. You can stroll through the crooked streets of Montreux as well as walk along the lakeside promenade. Just two miles south of Montreux on the lake is the Chateau of Chillon. Most of this beautiful castle-one of the best-preserved (and most photographed) medieval castles in Europe-was built in the 13th century, although its oldest section is believed to be about 1,000 years old. The most famous of the prisoners held in Chillon’s dungeon, Francois Bonivard, was immortalized by the poet Lord Byron in “The Prisoner of Chillon.”
Leave time in your visit to Lausanne for wining, dining and entertainment as well. Once snubbed by wine aficionados, Switzerland’s vineyards are making a name for themselves. The Lavaux area, which stretches from Lausanne to Vevey and Montreux, is home to some of the most famous vineyards in Switzerland. Situated on steep, terraced hillsides that look over Lake Geneva, these vineyards must sometimes use helicopters during the harvest period to collect the grapes.
Many of the vineyards are open to visitors. We stopped at Domaine du Daley in the small village of Lutry. The domaine first became a vineyard in 1392 and was owned by the church until 1937. Today’s owner, Marcel Severin, was born at the domaine, where his father worked for more than 24 years. In 2003 Monsieur Severin bought the Domaine du Daley, which produces traditional Swiss white wines such as Chasselas and Pinot Noir. Monseiur Severin was on hand during our visit to the Domaine, but it was his son, Cyril, who speaks fluent English, who led us on a tour of the winery-wine tastings included!
You won’t find it hard to enjoy a good meal to accompany these Swiss wines. In the village of Lutry, for example, we sampled a traditional regional meal of filet of perch in a light lemony butter sauce at the picturesque Café de la Poste. The next day my friends and I broke bread together over a pot of bubbling fondue at the Grutli bistro (a more formal dining room is located above) in Lausanne’s Haute Ville, and at the Café de Riex, a charming village café where “everyone knows your name” (or soon will), we enjoyed a hearty Swiss Sunday lunch of sausage, cabbage and potatoes.
Dining at the Beau-Rivage held its own treats. The hotel offers several dining options, including the casual Café Beau-Rivage, and La Rotonde, the fine dining gourmet restaurant that just received its first Michelin star. The first Thursday of every month, La Rotonde presents a wine region with a special dinner accompanied by select wines-the Thursday we were there, each course-which included an appetizer of cod with sweet pepper and olive juice, a first course of seafood risotto, a main dish of roast pork with mushrooms, and a dessert of Stilton cheese, followed by a lacy chocolate pastry with caramel ice cream-was accompanied by a different port wine.
Dinner “from the menu” at La Rotonde was no less delicious, with my last evening’s meal made up of mille feuille of crab, shoulder of lamb, and warm chocolate tart. (After meals like this, you may decide to forgo the subway and take advantage of the hilly walks throughout Lausanne!)
Lausanne is a sophisticated cultural city with an opera house, chamber orchestra, and the Bejart Ballet Lausanne all having homes there. We planned our visit to Lausanne to coincide with the annual week-long, springtime Cully Jazz Festival, held in the charming village of Cully, between Lausanne and Montreux. Begun in 1983, the festival has gained a reputation throughout Switzerland and nearby countries for its low-key, intimate flavor, with performances taking place in various venues, from tents set up on the banks of Lake Geneva, to Gothic-inspired churches, to cozy wine cellars sprinkled throughout the village.
Many performances are free of charge and there is a decidedly informal, non-commercial atmosphere that pervades the Festival with covered tents for mingling and eating before and between concerts. Forty groups or individual artists performed throughout the week of the festival; the performances we saw indicated the eclectic diversity of performers who are attracted to this low-key, yet first-rate festival-from the quirky and humorous Swiss-American Erika Stucky, to the Grammy Award-nominated pianist Jacky Terrasson, to the energetic Brazilian group of Nova Onda Do Pelo. Next year’s festival will be held from March 24-April 1 and is well worth including in your vacation plans.
But I wouldn’t wait that long to visit this beautiful town. Lausanne is definitely worth seeing again and again.
If you go:
* Swiss International Airlines, www.swiss.com, flies nonstop from New York to Geneva. From the Washington area, you can catch an inexpensive flight on Independence Air, www.flyi.com, to JFK Airport (Independence and Swiss are in the same terminal so it’s an easy transfer from one gate to the next).
* The Beau-Rivage Palace is located at Palace du Port 17-19, CH-1000, Lausanne 6, Switzerland. The hotel can be contacted at 011 41 21 613 3333, www.brp.ch, firstname.lastname@example.org, or through The Leading Hotels of the World, 1-800-223-6800, www.lhw.com.
* For more information on Lausanne, visit the Lausanne Tourist Office online at www.lausanne-tourisme.ch.
* The Cully Jazz Festival has its own site, www.cullyjazz.ch, although at the moment it’s only in French. (Translate through Googles main page)
* You can visit the Domaine du Daley online at www.daley.ch.