Lake Geneva: A Swiss mix of old, new

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - REAL ESTATE -

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.

DO­MINIC ARI­ZONA BONUCCELLI/RICK STEVES’ EUROPE PHO­TOS

At the Olympic Mu­seum in Lau­sanne, ar­ti­facts re­call the an­cient Greek begin­nings of the ath­letic com­pe­ti­tions.

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