Head for the Hills

by Vincent Vichit-Vadakhan / Photos by Vincent Sung

Breathtaking lake views and towns packed with culture and history are easily overlooked, but missing them would be a huge mistake.

It’s not like the Swiss are trying hard to keep it a secret. They call the stretch of the shore of Lake Geneva that runs from Lausanne through Vevey and on to Montreux the Swiss Riviera, a name that evokes waterfront vistas and carefree exclusivity to people around the world. There’s Montreux’s world famous Jazz Festival. A long list of celebrities from royalty to the arts have elected domicile here.

Calling the area undiscovered is perhaps an exaggeration, but it is unfairly overlooked. Lausanne is a scant hour from Geneva Airport by train and Vevey just a few minutes further, but many would-be visitors sail through on their way to the slopes of Zermatt and Verbier without ever setting foot on the lakeshore. If only they knew what they were missing!

That View

First off, there is the jaw-dropping perspective over the too-blue-to-be-real waters of Lake Geneva (that residents know as Lac Léman). The French Alps feel almost close enough to touch. The water really is that clear: 80% of tap water is filtered from the lake, and yes, you can drink from the tap and swim in the lake as soon as the weather is warm enough for you. Both Lausanne and Vevey have lakefront promenades, but serious walkers can stroll the 35 kilometers from Lausanne to the medieval Château de Chillon immortalized by Lord Byron’s narrative poem The Prisoner of Chillon. A shorter hike from Lausanne to Vevey should take about five hours unless you make a detour up the hill into the terraced wineries of Lavaux (which you will). When you’re ready to head back, buses and trains connect all the towns on the shore and run as predictably as Swiss clockwork.

More modestly, a walk in Lausanne from the station Ouchy-Olympique (with two lines, Lausanne is the smallest city in the world to have a metro) to Denantou Park will give you a generous dose of those killer views.

“Under” the Station

Exterior at Beau-Rivage Palace hotel

The walk takes you along the edge of the elegant neighborhood known as Sous-Gare or literally under the station, past the historic Beau-Rivage Palace hotel. Next door you’ll find the Olympic Museum, filled with memorabilia from the games and athletes and an interactive section that allows you to test your Olympic skills, an ode to the Olympic spirit. The museum’s park is studded with sports-themed artworks by Niki de Saint-Phalle, Botero and Alexander Calder. Up the hill (one of the three on which Lausanne is built) is the Musée de l’Élysée, dedicated to world-class photography exhibitions.

Cité

If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in Place de la Riponne on a Wednesday or Saturday morning, check out the market for specialties like Gros-de-Vaud, a modern take on traditional cheese-making. Riponne is also where Lausanne has embraced that contemporary culinary phenomenon called the food truck.

Interior Courtyard at Rumine Palace

Visit the Palais de Rumine, built with the funds that philanthropist Gabriel de Rumine left the city in 1871. It houses five museums, including the Museums of Fine Arts (now moving to Plateforme 10 below) and Archeology. A footbridge connects the museums to la Cité and the town’s stunning gothic cathedral, a Protestant place of worship since 1536. Though it was stripped of many of its ornaments during the Reformation, you can still see traces of the original colors at the Painted Portal.

Take the Escaliers du marché (Stairs of the Market) down to place de la Palud, where the statue of Justice stands in front of City Hall. You can’t leave without stopping at Dan Durig’s chocolate shop where some sweets are made with raw unroasted cacao, giving the chocolate a round, fruity flavor. Enjoy more treats at La Ferme Vaudoise where the best artisanal meats, cheeses, and wines from around the Canton of Vaud are sold.

Flon to the Station

Librairie Payot, the largest bookshop in French-speaking Switzerland, also stocks books and periodicals in English. Cross the shop to get to the Garages du Flon, now the heart of Lausanne’s pedestrian shopping district on the site of what once was a series of merchandise warehouses, as you can see from the ramps, tracks, and other industrial fixtures still in place.

Not far up the hill, you’ll find the Collection de l’Art Brut, the largest museum of outsider art in the world. A term coined by Jean Dubuffet in the mid 20th century to describe work unbound by the conventional art world, Art Brut often reflects the fantasies and psychological states of its creators. The epistolary art, ornately crafted envelopes and letters sometimes addressed to Dubuffet himself, shouldn’t be missed.

Back down the hill next to the train station is the dramatic new Plateforme 10. Built on the site of locomotive depots, it has been designed to become the cultural hub of the city. Over the coming months and years, museums including the Fine Arts and the Élysée will move in, joining other exhibition and performance spaces.

Where to Eat

Brasserie de Montbenon is located in what was originally the Casino de Montbenon built-in 1909. When the International Olympic Committee moved to Lausanne in 1915, the building was used as its first headquarters. Today, in addition to the restaurant that serves modern brasserie classics like roasted bone marrow and steak tartare, the building also contains the Cinémathèque where films from the Swiss Film Archives are projected and an events space. Unsurprisingly the esplanade affords those stunning lake views.

La Pinte Besson first opened for business as a wine merchant in 1780 making it the oldest such establishment in town. Today locals and visitors alike come to dip chunks of crusty bread into unctuous cheese fondue (add a generous shaving of black truffle for something really special) and garnished rösti (crispy potato pancakes). A little local Chasselas by the glass, carafe or bottle will wash down the rich, satisfying fare.

Celebrated chef Anne-Sophie Pic, who holds three stars for her first restaurant in Valence over the border in France, earned another two at the Beau-Rivage, her first off-site restaurant she opened 10 years ago. The choice was an easy one, she told the Magazine. “[There was] an encounter with an establishment with which I share values, and my desire to explore the Swiss terroir,” she explained. “I discovered exceptional products that enriched my creative process like pine buds, mountain cheeses, wild herbs and freshwater fish from Lac Léman.” Féra and omble chevalier are among the local fish she has embraced.

Where to stay

The luxurious Beau-Rivage Palace opened in 1861 and the “new” wing was added in 1908. The ballrooms have been used for international treaties and the guest book reads like an international Who’s Who including Coco Chanel, Keanu Reeves, the Dalai Lama or the late King of Thailand, who spent much of his childhood in Lausanne. The nec plus ultra is a spacious suite overlooking the lake.

Vevey

Just a few minutes down “the coast” lies Vevey. The wineries of Lavaux between the two cities have been listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO. Chexbres is where the great American food writer MFK Fisher found and lost the great love of her life that she later recounted in The Gastronomical Me. In Lutry, Cyril Séverin revived the Domaine du Daley, the oldest registered business in Switzerland whose original cellars were built in 1397. While other producers keep their production at home, Séverin found markets in Asia, like The Four Seasons in Hong Kong or a distinguished luxury watch merchant in Tokyo, who serves Daley’s Pinot Noir alongside far more prestigious Romanée-Conti. The Vinothèque de la Maison Rose in Cully, where some of the terraced vineyards in the UNESCO heritage site are located, is a wine shop where you immediately feel at home. It is run by Danielle Debraine Wannaz, the daughter and sister of winegrowers, who shares her stories and arranges tastings with her customers.                                                                     

Back in Vevey, the Confrérie des Vignerons or ‘Brotherhood of Winegrowers’ has a museum that retraces its history over centuries. They hold a festival to honor the most skilled winegrowers once a generation and the first celebration this century will be held in Summer 2019. The festivities are expected to attract a million visitors and will take over the town for three weeks.

Bravo! is a beautifully designed shop where you’ll find everything Swiss, from textiles to food to live performances. The Jenisch Museum focuses on painting, drawing, prints, and engravings. And the Alimentarium is a unique museum (look for the 8-meter high fork stuck in the water outside). Celebrity chef Philippe Ligron who runs the museum’s food experiences described his mission. “We are not just explaining the food, we want to make people aware of eating thoughtfully,” he says. “We accompany them on a journey to re-connect with food” through exhibits and workshops that bring guests into the museum’s garden and out to meet artisans. But this is not just another cooking class. “We add a human dimension, a story. The dialogue we create with the visitor is very important.” In short, a perfect outing for a foodie.

Perhaps the most surprising museum is Chaplin’s World, the house Charlie Chaplin spent the last three decades of his life. The house proper is a tribute to the man and his life, drawing you into his daily routine. The Studio on the other hand cleverly lets you become a part of his sets and films. Attention: selfie op guaranteed!

Where to eat

In Cully, the Auberge du Raisin is a veritable institution, concentrating on local ingredients like Swiss-grown poussin (young chicken), grilled hanging from a chain in front of an open fire, in a 15th-century fireplace in the middle of the dining room.

On the lake in Vevey, Chef Aurélie Seignouret takes creatively playful takes on an ingredient or a theme, and multiplies it by three, like the trio of Bierschwein pork (belly, chop, and cheek) or of lake fish, all served on the same plate.

Excursions

The Château de Chillon lays claim to being the most visited historical attraction in the country and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a perfect fairy tale castle with dungeons and towers that juts dramatically out onto the lake with real insight into the workings of the castle.

Glacier 3000 takes you into the heart of the Swiss Alps. In addition to winter and summer sports, you can take the Peak Walk, the only place in the world where you can walk from one mountain peak to another on a suspension bridge.

Where to stay

Grand Hôtel du Lac is plush and atmospheric, like the Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name by Anita Brookner. What it isn’t is dark and melancholy as described in the book, thanks to a more recent refit. As its name suggests, the view of the lake is what you’re after, though the Michelin-starred Les Saisons restaurant and the in-house spa are nice perks too.

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