Joining the jet set around Lake Geneva
You know what this reminds me of,” I say to my wife as the boat pulls away and we feel the judder of its huge steam engine. “The Titanic!”
She’s not the happiest of voyagers when it comes to travelling across water, and my observation – though really rather astute – is met with a frosty gaze. Desperate to recover as this two-hour cruise has just begun, I point out the ornate staircase sweeping to the upper deck. All we’d need is Kate Winslet and some ice and the illusion would be complete.
“Hmm, yeah,” says my wife, swaying a little. “I suppose it does. I think I’ll just have a bit of a sit down.”
Deciding there and then that Lake Geneva is probably the nearest we’ll ever get to a sea crossing, I grab the kids and vow to make the most of my time on this turn-of-the-century paddle steamer, one of five that have been lovingly restored by a company called CGN, which runs a fleet of rather large boats on Lake Geneva for the benefit of tourists and commuters.
Flashing my Gulf News credentials, we’re allowed down below to see men in boiler suits tending to an immaculately clean engine, vast parts of which are rotating menacingly mere feet from their heads. It’s red-hot down there, so we race up to the bridge to have a word with the captain. Our conversation – due to language problems – ends swiftly.
On a vessel that really does look like it could have once bobbed along in the wake of the ill-fated Titanic, his small room is the only thing that looks out of place, a bank of blinking computer screens at odds with the
Zipping across the lake, we take in spectacular sights, such as the legendary Chillon Castle
rest of the vessel. Anachronisms aside, it’s reassuring to know that modern technology is on hand to keep everything safe – even if Lake Geneva hardly looks threatening.
“It’s not so calm in winter,” a grizzled local tells us as we peer over the rail at the back of the boat. “The waves can sometimes be a metre or more if it’s stormy.” I decide not to give that news to my wife, who is clinging to her chair and willing the journey to be over.
Lake Geneva is one of those rare places where you don’t have to go very far each day to feel like you’ve arrived somewhere new. Thanks in no small part to the boats – and also a fine road that rings it – you can be almost anywhere along the lake’s shore within a matter of hours. On the western edge is Geneva itself, bustling, stately and sometimes rather serious; on the eastern side is Montreux, home of the annual jazz festival and with a cool, laid-back vibe. To the north are the beautiful terraced vineyards of Lavaux and the attractive Swiss hillside city of Lausanne. And to the south, on the French side of the lake, is the town that soon becomes our favourite: Évian-les-Bains – home of the world-famous mineral water.
You can almost see each of these four points from all of the others, which creates a magnificent feeling that they combine to form one mini-kingdom. With the mountains surrounding the lake providing a formidable – though picturesque – barrier, the lake becomes the motorway. Zipping across it with my family we take in some spectacular sights, such as the legendary Chillon Castle, a medieval fortress built on a rock that juts out into the lake not far from Montreux. Built around 1,000 years ago, it’s just the place to get lost in your own Game of Thrones fantasy, with incredible views from its narrow windows and endless wood-panelled rooms in which to linger and imagine swearing allegiance to the Starks or Lannisters. Lord Byron’s poem The Prisoner Of
Chillon was written about this place in 1816, and we’d put money on things barely having changed in the near 200 years since.
At the opposite end of the lake, the passage of time is equally absent
in the astonishingly well-preserved medieval French village of Yvoire, another candidate for a Game Of
Thrones backdrop and easily one of the nicest little spots I’ve ever been to.
Bent and crooked wooden buildings stoop to form dark alleyways, which on a sunny day means fingers of light sneaking into nooks and crannies and illuminating the multitude of tempting souvenirs set out in front of the shops.
We’d stop and eat, because the whole place has a lovely, outdoorsy feel to it, with tavern after inn after hotel all serving tempting-looking meals, but we’ve another boat to catch. We want to see Geneva’s magnificent 140-metre water fountain – the Jet d’Eau – from the lake itself, and we scramble for seats at the front of another mini- Titanic.
The jet doesn’t disappoint, all 500 litres per second of it, casting a wide spray over the harbour. We pass a happy 40 minutes or so seeing it grow from a pin-prick on the horizon as we leave Yvoire to the white, foaming tower it becomes as Geneva approaches. The kids wonder what would happen if you were to try to balance on top of it. Our best guess is a mouthful of water and lots of bruises – but one heck of a view.
Our fortnight here is split between a hilltop wooden chalet where the kids cock an ear towards the woods listening for bears, and the Évian-les-Bains, whose patronage by the mighty Danone brand – owners of Evian water – means there’s never a dull moment. There’s a lavish fireworks ceremony on Bastille Day, there are beautifully maintained public gardens at every turn, and the promenade is spotless. Not quite a Disneyland for water fans but perhaps not far off.
Évian-les-Bains is watched over by two grand hotels that sit side-by- side and form part of the luxurious Evian Resort, which also includes a championship golf course, spas and even the town’s 120-year-old casino.
The two hotels – The Royal and the Ermitage – have been drawing Europe’s most discerning holidaymakers for over a century and the aptly named Royal in particular is fit for a king, having been named in honour of King Edward VII of England, who had promised to be one if its first guests when it opened in 1909. Ill-health meant he never quite managed to fit in a visit, but the hotel has, however, played host to Greta Garbo, Errol Flynn and other luminaries – and still they come.
It’s impossible to visit Évian-les-Bains and miss its watery connections: as well as the crystal clear lake lapping at its shores, the mineral water is omnipresent. Its journey starts high up in the Alps and then slowly trickles down through the rock before emerging bottle--
ready at several springs in the town. Indeed, you can’t visit one of these springs without seeing a small queue of locals re-filling a bagful of empties.
The most famous of Évian-les-Bains’s springs is the Source Cachat, whose virtues were discovered in 1789 when a visiting nobleman from France’s Auvergne region put his lips to it. He found the water to be “light and freely flowing” and started drinking from the spring regularly, quickly claiming the liver and kidney pains he’d long been suffering from were starting to disappear.
Thirty years later, people were not only coming to the tiny town to drink the spring water but to bathe in it, and, sensing a golden business opportunity, Évian-les-Bains started marketing itself as a chic, luxurious spa town, a more bracing alternative, perhaps, to the likes of Baden-Baden in Germany or England’s Bath. The European bourgeoisie came in their droves. It was as if the French Riviera had quietly moved itself inland.
To bring the town’s story bang up to date, we hook up with a local guide who takes us on a walking tour of the town centre. There are only 8,000 residents, she explains, but more than 30 gardeners, whose work along the promenade brings dashes of verdant tranquillity to proceedings.
One of the best buildings in the town centre is the grand and impeccably preserved house that the Lumière family once lived in.
Auguste and Louis Lumière, as every Frenchman will tell you, were the earliest film-makers in history, and the family home – now an incongruously ornate town hall – is a delight. In one gilded room in particular the spirit of the swinging turn-of-the-century parties that the Lumières once held there hangs palpably in the air. It is France’s Belle Époque at its most regal, and the wondrous former bath house next door is similarly evocative, with its domed roof and original signage, which once pointed male bathers one way and females the other.
Where some spa towns trade on a sense of ‘faded glamour’, it’s hard to imagine Évian-les-Bains ever having been more attractive than it is today. Unusually, too, it seems blessedly unmolested by the tourist masses. Not that the kids notice, of course.
One of the best buildings is the impeccably preserved house that the Lumière family lived in
They’ve found a leaflet for a water park up the road, and it’s got one of those vertical drop slides where you fall so fast you arrive before the scream’s even left your lungs.
“Can we go, Dad?” they ask, as I work out the remortgage we’ll need in order to pay to get the four of us in. “Haven’t you had enough of water yet?” I ask, optimistically. The answer, of course, is no. As every youngster will tell you, you can never have enough of messing about in water, and as holiday locations go, it doesn’t get more watery than round here.
The charm of Évianles-Bains has been drawing crowds since the early 1800s
There boats offer a charming way to explore the lake
The Jet d’Eau pumps 500 litres per second high into the sky
Some spa towns may trade on their faded glamour, but Évian-les-Bains has never been more gorgeous
Lake Geneva – the perfect place to go messing about on the water