Switzerland: The lady of the lake

Switzerland: The lady of the lake

Image credit: STST-STTP

Relax in the glamour of the Swiss Riviera, says Joanna Booth

Like this and want more details? Click here to download and save as a PDF.

How long does it take for vandalism to become valuable?

Not long – if your name is George Gordon Byron and you’re a famously flamboyant Romantic poet and playboy.

Venture into the chilly dungeons of Chillon Castle, and you’ll see that rather than worrying about defacing history, they’re grateful for Byron’s graffiti. The poet scratched his name into one of the stone pillars in this Swiss castle and now it sits under a Perspex cover to preserve it.

Today, destinations rejoice when they hear that Joanna Lumley or Simon Reeve is planning a TV show in the neighbourhood. In the 19th century, Byron had the same effect.

He visited Chillon Castle in summer 1816, was inspired by the tale of a prisoner chained up in the cellars, and had a best-selling poem about it out by that December.

Tourists are still drawn by the chance to see Byron’s name, the dungeon and the pillar where François Bonivard was chained up. Chillon means ‘rock’, and great slabs of it burst up from the floor of the cellar like tectonic plates.

The castle stands on the southern shores of Lake Geneva, backed by the dramatic Dents du Midi mountains.

Its boxy, medieval walls built from caramel-coloured stone were the work of the same stonemason who built Caernarfon Castle in Wales – testament to the relationship between the ruling Savoie family and Britain. (A niece married Henry III; it’s why we have The Savoy hotel today.)

Inside, my favourite element isn’t the dungeon, the banqueting halls with vast fireplaces or the 14th-century frescoed chapel.

I love the secret passageways that lead out of some of the bedrooms, built ostensibly so that aristocratic sleepers could make their escape when the castle came under attack. They lead only to the next room though, which has raised theories that they were used for more recreational night-time adventures.

All that Jazz

Chillon claims to be Switzerland’s most-visited heritage site, but it’s by no means the Montreux area’s only attraction. This pretty town on the Swiss side of Lake Geneva sits in its own micro-climate, often degrees hotter than other spots on the lake.

As part of French Switzerland, there’s a real riviera feel to the place – all glamour, sunshine and lakeside cafes. Picturesque paddle steamers provide a suitably relaxing method of hopping around between the towns that line up along the shore.

Yet statues dotted around town – look out for Freddie Mercury, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Carlos Santana among others – are testament to the fact all is not quite what it seems.

Freddie Mercury Statue - Image credit: Swiss-Image.ch RenatoBagattini
Image credit: Swiss-Image.ch Renato Bagattini

Polite and chic for most of the year, Montreux comes alive during its annual jazz festival. With more than 200,000 attendees, it’s second in size only to the Montreal International Jazz Festival.

Founded in 1967, it started off welcoming all the jazz greats from Nina Simone to Miles Davis, but these days the remit is much wider.

In 2014, there were performances by Lykke Li, Chris Rea and Ed Sheeran, while this year (the festival starts tomorrow and runs until July 18), crowds are set to be wowed by acts including Emeli Sandé, The Chemical Brothers and even Tony Bennett duetting with Lady Gaga.

The most popular acts sell out quickly and accommodation needs to be booked months in advance.

Those who want a taste of the festival year-round need only head over to Fairmont Le Montreux Palace. Jazz festival founder Claude Nobs had strong ties with the hotel, and during the event, some of the smaller acts play in the hotel’s Montreux Jazz Café.

The rest of the year it’s a restaurant packed with memorabilia, from Freddie Mercury’s kimono to countless photos of Nobs with his famous friends.

Recommend clients try Quincy Jones chicken, made with a marinade specified by the star. The adjoining Funky Claude’s Bar hosts live music every night except Sundays to a packed crowd of locals and tourists. The signature cocktail is a heady brew of rum, absinthe and fruit.

Grape Escapes

Hard liquor may be the order of the day at Funky Claude’s, but the region is more famous for its wine. The Lavaux Vineyard Terraces are a Unesco World Heritage Site, which prevents the 30km stretch along the lake shore to Montreux’s north from being developed.

The vines are planted in steep terraces that drop down to the shore, and these structures date from the 11th century. Today, there are more than 300 wineries in this area, their small size limiting production and heightening quality.

At the family-owned Domaine du Daley, winemaker Fred shows us around the cellars, from the latest high-tech equipment to the venerable wooden ‘vases’ – huge casks standing twice my height that hold up to 8,000 litres of the local chasselas wine.

Lavaux Barrels - Image credit: Swiss-Image.ch Hans Peter Siffert
Image credit: Swiss-Image.ch Hans Peter Siffert

This delicious, light white isn’t the only type produced in the area. They make 18, both red and white, from well-known single-grape wines using viognier, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc to blends using gamay with grenache or syrah.

The sun blazes down on the terrace and we sip our way through a selection of white, rosé and red. Tastings start at about £12 for a tasting of two wines. Group size for a cellar tour and tasting must be at least four people.

Visiting cellar doors shouldn’t be missed – the historic buildings and gorgeous views over the vines to the lake make the perfect accompaniment to a tasting.

For rail enthusiasts, there’s a seasonal wine train running round-trips through the area from either Lutry or Cully between April and October.

A ‘train de caveaux’ service runs on weekend evenings, which stops for a tasting. Departures are at 18.30 on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, with tickets starting at about £17. If clients would rather be independent, recommend wine bar Lavaux Vinorama, which stocks more than 260 Lavaux wines and offers tastings from about £9.

Mountain Tracks

Switzerland is famous for its railways and the little wine train is by no means the most spectacular. The GoldenPass line that snakes its way up from Montreux to Rochers de Naye ascends more than 1,600m in an hour, cutting its way through the mountains to a spectacular viewpoint at 2,042m.

Departing each hour from Montreux’s central station, the cog railway performs such disorientating twists and turns – often inside tunnels – that we frequently emerged blinking into the light with no idea which side of us Lake Geneva would be on.

Rochers De Naye - Image credi: Swiss-Image.ch?Philipp Giegel
Image credit: Swiss-Image.ch Philipp Giegel

At the top there’s a cafe, viewpoint and a few yurts that can be hired by those who want to wake up to the breathtaking panorama over the Alps. Rochers de Naye isn’t accessible by road, so some visitors take the train both ways – an adult return costs about £46 – but others choose to walk the 13km down.

It takes about five hours, along well-marked paths, past cute chalets and through meadows filled with wild flowers. If they need any more incentive, there’s sure to be a chilled glass of chasselas waiting at the bottom.

Tried & Tested: Fairmont Le Montreux Palace

Fairmont Le Montreux Palace

When we talk about history in hotels, it’s usually all about crystal chandeliers and wood panelling. Fairmont Le Montreux Palace has this in spades.

It’s a Belle Époque beauty with original features particularly in evidence in the public spaces – ballrooms with soaring ceilings, original stained glass and frescoes above the grand staircase.

Richard Strauss and Vladimir Nabokov stayed here. But this is a hotel with more recent history, too. Its links to the Montreux Jazz Festival mean celebrity guests also include James Brown and Eric Clapton. Deep Purple recorded Smoke on the Water here after the nearby casino burnt down.

Alongside the Montreux Jazz Café and Funky Claude’s Bar, its star dining attraction is the Terrasse du Petit Palais, an outdoor restaurant in an adjoining building to the main hotel, directly overlooking the lake – sunsets are spectacular.

The hotel’s signature Sunday brunches – think Vegas or Dubai-scale banquets – draw people from miles around.

The Swiss know their spas and the one here is exceptional – indoor and outdoor pool areas, plenty of saunas and Jacuzzis, and high-quality treatments.

Unlike the rest of the hotel, the spa area is modern, and the sleek look suits its smooth operation.All 236 rooms have been recently renovated, and most overlook the lake.

It’s definitely worth making sure your client gets a lake view and the chance to have an al fresco morning coffee on their wrought-iron balcony.

Book it: From £251 a night, room-only.


This is a community-moderated forum.
All post are the individual views of the respective commenter and are not the expressed views of Travel Weekly.
By posting your comments you agree to accept our Terms & Conditions.

More in Destinations