Lake Geneva: A Swiss mix of old, new
In the southwest corner of Switzerland, Lake Geneva separates France and Switzerland with a serene beauty. A collage of castles, museums, resort towns and vineyards, this region merits a few days of exploration, though you can get a swift overview of its highlights even in a day.
Last summer I took time to relax and enjoy the tranquil and elegant city of Lausanne (the area’s best home base). With a characteristic old town, towering cathedral and delightful lakeside promenade, it has the energy and cultural sophistication of a larger city, but is home to only about 140,000 people.
The Romans founded Lausanne on the lakefront — but with the fall of Rome and the rise of the barbarians, the first Lausanners fled for the hills, establishing today’s tangled old town a safe distance uphill from the lake. The steep city feels like a life-size game of Chutes and Ladders. Two-dimensional maps don’t do justice to the city’s bridges, underpasses, stairways, hills and valleys. Even the Metro trains and platforms are on an incline.
Wandering the pedestrianized Rue de Bourg in the old town, I could see the multiethnic makeup of today’s Switzerland (one of the most diverse countries in Europe) on parade. Though the region’s official language is French, the language situation is potluck, with German and Italian also prevalent. (Be careful to pronounce Lausanne correctly — “loh-ZAHN” — and don’t confuse it with Luzern.)
One of Lausanne’s highlights, the Art Brut Collection, is like nothing else you’ll see in Europe: a museum filled with art produced by untaught artists, many labeled (and even locked up) by society as “criminal” or “insane.” Thumbnail biographies of these outsiders give insight into their unbridled creativity.
In 1945, the artist Jean Dubuffet began collecting art he called “brut” — created by self-taught, highly original individuals who weren’t afraid to ignore rules. In the 1970s, he donated his huge collection to Lausanne, and it has now expanded to 70,000 works by hundreds of artists: loners, mavericks, people on the fringe, prisoners and mental ward patients. Touring the idiosyncratic collection, I pondered the fine line that separates sanity and insanity when it comes to creative output.
Down by the lake is another tourist district, Ouchy (pronounced “ooSHEE”). It’s the happy domain of commoners, office workers and roller skaters — a fun zone with fountains, parks, promenades and restaurants. The Ouchy lakefront is also where you’ll find the topnotch Olympic Museum (Lausanne has been home to the International Olympic Committee since 1915). The museum celebrates the colorful history of the games, with a century’s worth of ceremonial torches and a look at how medals have changed over the years. This place is a thrill for Olympics buffs — and plenty of fun for those of us who just watch every two years. Surveying gear from each sport (such as Carl Lewis’ track shoes and Sonja Henie’s ice skates), you can follow the evolution of state-of-the-art equipment.
The most picturesque way to see Lake Geneva is by a two-hour boat cruise from Lausanne to the region’s best sight: the islandcastle of Chateau de Chillon. Elegant Frenchstyle villas with pastel colors, frilly balconies and mansard roofs grace the lakeshore and instill an air of gentility. On my last visit, I sailed past the dreamy terraced banks of Lavaux vineyards and on toward Montreux — a relaxed resort famous for its jazz festival each July.
Though not heavy on sights, Montreux offers sublime views of misty Lake Geneva and the cutglass peaks in the distance. For an easy side trip from Montreux, hop on the Chocolate Train. It stops at a chocolate factory and at the foot of Gruyeres, the ultra-touristy town that’s justifiably famous for its cheese, which you can see being made in a cheese production house. The French-speaking Swiss countryside to the north is worth exploring, especially if you’re driving. Along with tasty chocolates and fragrant cheese, it’s sprinkled with crystal-clear lakes and sleepy cows.
My final destination, Chateau de Chillon, is set at the edge of Lake Geneva, about 20 miles southeast of Lausanne. This medieval fortress is Switzerland’s best castle experience. Because it’s built on a rocky island, it has a higgledypiggledy shape that combines a stout fortress (on the land side) and a residence (on the lake side). Remarkably well-preserved, the chateau has never been damaged or destroyed — always inhabited, always maintained.
There’s plenty of gorgeous scenery in Switzerland, but Lake Geneva is one of the real charms. Whether presenting unusual modern art or serving up traditional Old World flavor, Lake Geneva sparkles with romantic ambiance. Its laid-back vibe makes it the perfect place to just be on vacation.
At the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, artifacts recall the ancient Greek beginnings of the athletic competitions.