Travels & Traditions: The Lake Geneva Region, Switzerland - #309

BURT WOLF: The Lake Geneva Region of Switzerland consists of a district known as the Canton of Vaud. Its Southern border is made up of villages, small towns and a few mid-sized cities that spread out along the shore of Lake Geneva. Its western and northern frontiers run through farm communities and small villages in the Jura Mountains that share a border with France. And much of its Eastern edge rises into the Alps.

Of all the natural wonders in Switzerland, a snow covered alpine peak is probably the most amazing. And one of the best places to get a look at what's happening up here is Glacier 3,000. 

To get here I took a train from Lausanne to the edge of the mountains, and then I worked my way in with a Post bus. The Post buses are part of the Swiss travel system

and they will take you all around the country. My destination is the town of Col du Pillon. Now the serious ascent begins. George Carlin had a good question. If mountain climbers go up Mount Everest because it's so hard to climb, why do they always go up the easy side? Makes you think.

The top of Glacier 3,000 gets snow during 11 months of the year, so even in summer it's winter. Confusing, but interesting. It's June and people are marching around on snow shoes, snowboarding, snow scooting and sliding around on inter tubes. On the way back from the glacier I stopped into the teeny town of Rougemont. It has a beautiful Romanesque church that was built by monks in 1080.

The classic round arches tell you that it's in the Romanesque style. When the Reformation arrived in 1555 the protestants covered the painted walls with white plaster. But in 1919 the paintings were rediscovered and restored to their original beauty. Rougemont's main street is lined with shops that are filled with local antiques. But the main reason I came to Rougemont is to take a look at a craft called decoupage. The word means to cut out. The objective is to cut out a design, paste it on a surface, cover it with varnish and end up with a decorated object.

Collette Rossier is a master of decoupage. She learned about the craft during the 1960's but didn't take it seriously until her four children went off to college and she began using it as therapy for her empty nest syndrome. Decoupage has been a European folk art since the 1100's but it got big in Venice during the 1600's. At the time there was a great demand for lacquered furniture imported from China and Japan, but few people could afford the real stuff. The Venetians started using decoupage to produce imitations that ended up being extraordinarily successful. Today almost every European country has its own style of decoupage, with the exception of Transylvania where sharp instruments are not allowed.

I've been traveling around the Lake Geneva Region on a Post bus. But for centuries the best way to get around the neighborhood was to hop on one of the Lake Geneva sailboats. It was an informal service that was already in existence when the ancient Romans arrived. But it took on considerably more structure when the Lake Geneva shipping company went into business in 1823. Their boats carried local residents from town to town along the lake shore.

My fellow passengers taught me how to play jassen, the national card game of Switzerland. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I'm getting killed here.

BURT WOLF: By the middle of the of the 1800's tourists began coming aboard, and they still do. Taking a ride on a lake steamer is still the best way to see the beauty of the Lake Geneva shore, the small towns and the surrounding mountains.

For thousands of years the north shore of Lake Geneva connected northern Europe with Italy and the eastern part of France. It was an extremely important commercial route. At one point the mountains press up against the shore leaving a very narrow passage for the road. This strip was known as Chillon and has been inhabited for over 5,000 years.

During the 800's a fort was built on a small island just offshore. In the 1100's it developed into a castle controlled by the Dukes of Savoy. The castle was able to control all movement on the narrow road. It was the ideal point for the collection of tolls which made a major contribution to the Duke's wealth. Lorenzo Stoll was my guide.

LORENZO STOLL: We are here now in the main living room of the castle, that's where I would say the social events of the count family, the Savoy family, would happen. And the room has some very specific characteristics, like for example, an Italian Renaissance style wooden ceiling. The oak pillars that are supporting the roof are original. They're more than 700 year old ... a Swiss oak tree.


LORENZO STOLL: And if you look at the big windows facing the lake you might ask but why in a castle of the Middle Ages would have such big windows, because on this side there was no defense needed as of the lake was a natural defense enough and also because on the other side it was still Savoy. Switzerland was basically a farming country, so the soldiers did not have much money. So they were building very basic weapons, such as this one which is a piece of wood with some nails on it. And if you would slam it on somebody's head it would be efficient enough for what it was built for. This one was used by Fantasens to get down the knights from the horse by cutting the horse’s Achilles tendon with this. And once the knight was lying on the ground stuck in his 200 pounds heavy armor you would stick this part of the weapon into the knight's throat. 

LORENZO STOLL ON CAMERA: Burt, this is maybe the castle's most intimate room, as it used to be the count's bedroom. And what is surprising about this room is the size of the bed.


LORENZO STOLL ON CAMERA: Small ... it's not because the people were smaller at those times, but because they were sleeping seated in the bed.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: They'd sit up and sleep?

LORENZO STOLL ON CAMERA: They'd sit up and sleep and a lot of pillows, for one main reason, was that it was said that only dead people were lying in the bed. So they were thinking that if they would lie to sleep it might attract the bad eye on them and they would die earlier.

BURT WOLF: In 1817 the British poet Lord Byron used this castle as the setting for his poem "The Prisoner of Chillon."

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: It tells the story of a clergyman who was chained to these pillars for five years because he advocated a more representative form of government than the Dukes of Savoy appreciated. Lord Byron, who was into bondage, loved the story and even carved his name into one of the pillars. 

BURT WOLF: The boats that sail on Lake Geneva make regular stops at most of the towns on the shore. And you can get on and off and back on wherever you like. One place you might like to get off is the town of Vevey which is just to the east of Lausanne. Vevey is the cradle of the Swiss milk and chocolate business, and accordingly the headquarters of Nestle, the world's largest food company and the largest company in Switzerland. Vevey is also a popular resort that faces out on Lake Geneva and the Alps. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: But for me Vevey is most famous as the town where Charlie Chaplin came to live in 1953. Chaplin was born in London in 1889. His family were vaudeville performers and he followed in their footsteps, eventually becoming the superstar of the silent screen.

BURT WOLF: During a tour of the United States in 1912 he was noted by the Keystone Film Company who introduced him to film audiences around the world.

His most famous screen character, the little tramp, was so widely appreciated that Chaplin came to be regarded as the greatest comic artist of his time and one of the most important figures in the history of motion pictures. When he passed away in 1977, Blaise Poyet, his favorite chocolate maker, called Chaplin's son and asked if he could honor Charlie's memory with a special chocolate. Together, they worked on a recipe that would reflect the character of the little tramp. It was very much like the real Chaplin, a little bitter, a little sweet and always filled with surprises.

They came up with a mixture of bitter and sweet chocolates that they formed into miniature copies of the shoes that Chaplin wore in his films. The shoes are set into a box with their heels together and toes apart, just the way Chaplin walked in his movies. The box itself is actually a movie film canister. It's tied with a ribbon that's printed with a movie film pattern. A bittersweet memory of a man with an amazing talent that was always surprising.

I decided to leave Vevey on the wine train which runs along the north shore of Lake Geneva. The north shore of Lake Geneva is one of the most important wine growing regions in Switzerland. Between Lausanne and Montreux is the Lavaux district. The grapes grow on steep terraces that have been cut into the mountains. The hills face south and get lots of direct sunlight, but the lake also acts like a mirror and bounces even more warmth into the vines.

I got off at the town of Chexbres and started to walk the wine trail. There are about 20 miles of road that wind through the vineyards. The map says that the winemakers have an open door policy, but they also have an open bottle policy. When you see an open door you can walk in, introduce yourself to the winemaker and he'll open a bottle so you can have a taste of his work. He'll also tell you how it's produced, the history of his family and his opinion of the present administration.

These are the Bovy vineyards in Saint-Saphorin. Eric, who runs the vineyard with his brother Vincent, is the fourth generation of his family to make wine from these vines. The wine is less than a year old, fruity with a slight bubbly texture, and ideal for the local specialties.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Have I mentioned how much I love my work. 

BURT WOLF: And the place where I enjoyed many of the local specialties was Le Table de Palace Restaurant in The Lausanne Palace Hotel and Spa. The dining room is elegant and has a great view of Lake Geneva and the Alps. It's been awarded a star by The Michelin Guide and the food that I was served by Chef Eric Redolat was excellent. He has a five course tasting menu that must be pre-ordered and can only be prepared for a maximum of six people. 

We started with smoked trout with a cucumber sauce that a hit of caviar on top. Then an espresso cup of morel mushrooms in a creamy froth. The saucer held a small piece of sautéed foie gras and a teeny slice of toasted homemade bread. Then a slice of pan fried sea bass with Mediterranean vegetables. Perfect lamb over a thick puree of potatoes, a selection of Swiss cheeses from an outstanding cheese cart. And for dessert, sautéed apricots with a scoop of almond ice cream. 

The wine steward, Christophe Mantau, selected a different Swiss wine to go with each course. Swiss wines are not easy to get outside of Switzerland, but they're very good. In addition to La Table du Palace the hotel has a Parisian style bistro, a garden restaurant with a health conscious menu, and a couple of comfortable bars, including the Bar de Palace which displays a series of works by the painter Leroy Nieman.

The hotel itself is just what the name implies. It looks and feels like a palace and the guests are treated like royalty. Royalty often comes to Lausanne. BB King, Prince, Duke Ellington, Count Bassey ... royals that became royal the hard way: they earned it. The hotel is a member of the leading hotels of the world, and its general manager, Jean-Jacques Gauer is the chairman of the organization. The Palace also has an outstanding spa, indoor heated swimming pool, serious exercise equipment, a Jacuzzi that reduces the tension in your muscles, a relaxation terrace, and of course, massage and body care treatments. I like the one where they make believe you're sushi and wrap you in seaweed.

The towns and cities in the Lake Geneva region have been attracting tourists for over 300 years, which has given them sufficient time to develop an outstanding range of hotels and inns. They range from the great, internationally famous properties like The Lausanne Palace, to smaller facilities in towns like Montreux, and on to the 24 room hotel de Commune in the little village of Rougemont. 

The hill of Lausanne was once capped with a Roman fort. Today it is the base for the largest gothic cathedral in Switzerland. Gothic architecture got started in France during the mid-1100's and is marked by a pointed arch instead of the older, round Roman arch, and flying buttresses supporting the outside of the building that allowed the structures to be higher and wider. Critics in Italy disliked the style and called it "gothic" as a derogatory reference to the gothic barbarians who destroyed Rome in the 400's.

Inside, pointed arches and ribbed vaults made it possible to have more open space and bigger windows. The cathedral had been under construction for over 100 years when it finally opened in 1275. It was a catholic church until 1536 when Lausanne joined the Reformation and became a protestant city, at which point the interior decorations of the building were covered or removed in keeping with the protestant concept of simplicity. 

Much of that move to simplify took the form of smashing the art to smithereens. The works were considered graven images and in need of immediate destruction. It would appear as that images of women were more graven than images of men. The Queen of Sheba lost her head, but Solomon remained almost intact. The only important element to remain from the period before the Reformation is the stained glass rose window which was installed during the 1200's, presents the story of creation. The Lausanne Cathedral is the only one in Switzerland that still has a night watchman. Every evening he mounts the ancient staircase into the bell tower, and there, from ten o'clock until two, he faces the four corners of the earth and calls out the hour.

WATCHMAN: (French)

BURT WOLF: "I am the watchman and ten o'clock has rung."

WATCHMAN: (French) le dix ... C'est la ... (Coughs)


WATCHMAN ON CAMERA: Oh, merci beaucoup.

BURT WOLF: (In French) It’s nothing.

The automated bells of the Cathedral reminded me that Switzerland is a focal point for mechanical music makers and I decided to spend the next day taking a look at what they were doing.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The world epicenter for music box manufacturing is the village of Sainte-Croix and a good way to get there is on the fast train from Lausanne. There's one leaving just about every hour. While I was still in the states I purchased something called a Swiss pass, it allows me to ride around Switzerland on buses, boats and trains.

BURT WOLF: The train will take you through one of the most picturesque valleys of the Canton of Vaud and up into the foothills of the Jura Mountains. Sainte-Croix is the hometown of Rouge. A company that produces music boxes, musical pocket watches and singing birds. You can visit the factory and see how the boxes, watches and birds are made. At the end of the Second World War it looked like the business was coming to an end. But American troops passing through Europe found the boxes fascinating and brought thousands of them home as souvenirs. In the process, they saved the industry. In the center of Sainte-Croix is the CIMA Museum, which is dedicated to the history of mechanical arts. They have a large collection of music boxes and animated figures. Christine Combes is one of the curators. 

CHRISTINE COMBES: This is one big piece we have here in the museum, it’s a Decap, it comes from Belgium. This one was made in 1950. You can see loads of instruments, they all play together except the saxophone there.

BURT WOLF: The music is controlled by sheets of paper with holes that indicate where and which notes should be played. These are really early computers. They also have even more animated couples.

CHRISTINE COMBES: This is something special in Europe. She is Columbine and she has a lover, Perrot is just beside her she's going to write a letter and she will send it to Perrot and write, "a Perrot," and it comes back to put the point on the i and the accent on the a. And also when she's finished her message she will wink ... give a little wink at you. Look at her, she's beautiful. Now Columbine has finished her letter, the postman brought it and delivered it to Perrot and there Perrot is very happy. Here we see the love letter and he's going to prepare his reply. He's going to write very quickly because he skipped school several times, but he has a lot to say. Listen ... look at it. 

Oh la-la, he's falling asleep ... look, look, look ... hey, Perrot, Columbine is waiting ... wake up. Perrot ... ah he is ...

BURT WOLF: For a less automated approach to music there is the Montreux Jazz Festival. In 1967, Claude Nobs, a former restaurant chef, founded the festival which has become the world's biggest and most famous annual jazz event. For 16 days there is virtually non-stop music. It’s run by a non-profit foundation and each year over 200,000 people show up. There are concerts you pay for and off-site events that are free. 

That's a brief look at the Lake Geneva Region of Switzerland. I hope that you have enjoyed it and that you will join me next time on TRAVELS & TRADITIONS. I'm Burt Wolf.