Feature Despite Switzerland's reputation for high prices and a less than exciting social scene, Tim Lott could not help but fall in love for this city's charms.
Won over by Lausanne
Switzerland would not be my first choice for a holiday, or even my 10th choice. I don't like skiing, fondue is naff - one might even say cheesy - and I can get as much decent chocolate as I want from my local deli. What's more, it seems a long way to go to be exorbitantly overcharged. My wife, on the other hand, loves The Sound of Music, fresh air, mountain peaks and tidy streets. I suspect that she secretly yodels in the bath. She needed a break and the chance of 36 hours in Lausanne, on the banks of Lake Geneva (Lac Lehane in French) seemed a tolerable amount of time to spend in a place that I assumed would be picturesque but lacking in excitement.
Arriving in the town in the early evening - Lausanne is in the French part of Switzerland, in the south-western corner, 50 minutes north of Geneva - much that met my gaze accorded with my prejudiced ideas of Swiss provincial life. There was no doubt that the scenery was attractive - Alps in the distance, glassy lake in the foreground, chalet-style houses and litter-free streets - but it was raining and it was hard to get enthused by the joys of the landscape since the damp air gave little in the way of viewing prospects.
We had a swift stroll around the Flon, the supposedly lively student area of the city, before making our way to our hotel. There are two large university campuses here, so we expected it to be buzzing with life on a Friday evening. But in fact the shops were closing up and the streets seemed more or less empty. The few outlets we did venture into - a shoe shop and some fashion boutiques - were, as predicted, wildly expensive albeit more funky than I expected.
Things perked up when we reached the sanctuary of the hotel. I knew that the Hotel Beau-Rivage Palace, down on the shores of the lake, was meant to be a paragon of old-style Grand Hotels: Victor Hugo, Charlie Chaplin and Nelson Mandela were just some of the luminaries that had stayed at this Victorian edifice (it was founded in 1861). I am more a man for intimate boutique establishments, but it won me over immediately. The sheer antique grandeur of the place was the main appeal, with its ornate rotunda ceilings, lakeside balconies overlooking vast gardens and immense dining rooms.
I feared there would be a little bit of pseudo-Gallic snobbery here, given the history and the opulence, but there was nothing of the sort - the staff couldn't have been more solicitous and welcoming. We had a few drinks on the terrace overlooking the lake and gardens. To our right there was a somewhat surreal outsize sculpture of a chessboard with life-size pieces (anyone who was a fan of the cult TV show The Prisoner would feel at home) and beyond that the lake itself. The weather was clearing slightly now and you could see the Alps jutting towards the heavens.
We retired to our enormous room, which enjoyed one of the best views I'd ever seen - an awesome vista over lake and Alps. The bathroom was pink marble, a little ostentatious, yes, but this isn't a place that apologises for itself and the cosmetics were Bulgari. My wife was in seventh heaven and I had to admit I was getting a taste for la vie bourgeois. The next morning we were greeted with a perfect blue sky. The air really was invigorating - I felt clear headed and alive. There was a boat trip from the nearby pier of Ouchy to the French town of Evian, on the other side of the lake, and we treated ourselves to first class tickets. It was a wise decision; the tourist throng on the lower decks were left behind and we had the upper deck more or less to ourselves.
We did not have time to stop off in Evian, although if you take your passport along you can easily skip off for an hour or two. But it didn't matter because I just love boat trips and this was a gorgeous one, partly because of the stunning weather and also because there was no music, no "tourist commentary", in fact no static whatsoever. It was just a lovely 90-minute return journey across an iridescent lake with barely a ripple on it set in magnificent scenery.
It was very romantic and when we were greeted on our return to Lausanne by the inexplicable sight of a thousand or so red and white balloons floating up from the town - no one was able to tell me what they were doing there - we were practically in a honeymoon mood. The romantic atmosphere continued when we took lunch at Anne-Sophie Pic's restaurant at Le Beau-Rivage. For those who aren't familiar with her, Anne-Sophie Pic is the first female French chef to be awarded three Michelin stars in 50 years and only the fourth woman ever to be accorded the honour.
The restaurant itself, unostentatious and modern with clean geometric lines, overlooks the lake from ground floor level, but it made no attempt to compete with the food, which was a good decision since it was quite the most extraordinary meal I have ever eaten. I could devote the rest of this article to those two and half exquisite hours of mutual "aahs" and "oohs" that my wife and I periodically issued between, or even during, mouthfuls. Suffice to say that from the Swiss wine to the six-course meal, we were in bliss. The highlights included blue lobster with berries and red fruits, foamy cream with celery and green pepper lobster juice and roasted saddle of Sisteron lamb, runny Banon cheese with sweet onion, tangy rocket, capers and black olives. Thank you, Anne-Sophie, for one of the greatest gastronomic experiences of my life.
Next we turned our attention to art. For one of the - or perhaps the only - surprise that Lausanne holds is the Museum of Outsider Art (Collection de l'Art Brut) at Avenue de Bergieres. I approached it with suspicion. Outsider art is in a sense amateur art - works by untrained artists who might be suffering from mental illness or even confined to institutions. I imagined it would be worthy rubbish: in fact it is a remarkable collection. Not only was the art stunning in its rawness and power, the stories behind the artworks were worthy of an exhibition themselves.
For instance there was Angus McPhee, a Scottish crofter who made sculptures out of plaited grass and then discarded them on the grounds of the institution where he was confined for 50 years, speaking not a word from the moment he entered the facility. Then, after half a century, he was reunited with his sister. She talked to him of a horse they used to own. "Aye it was a fine gelding," said Angus, his first words in five decades. He never spoke again.
Then there is Marguerite Sir, who spent years compulsively sewing a wedding dress for an imaginary wedding that she desperately wanted, having long before ceased all other artistic activity in the mental hospital in which she had been confined. The dress is beautiful and the story's poignancy makes it appear even more so. A lifelong spinster, Marguerite died shortly after finishing the dress. I could go on, but this place is not just a curiosity of crazy freaks. It is a building full of remarkably powerful art and it is alone worth the visit to Lausanne.
That night we went and ate fondue and I realised that, naff or not, I did like it after all. The Cafe de l'Eveche at rue Louis Curtat is a student hangout with a large and lovely garden. The fondue menu offered a wide variety of possibilities, but we had basic gruyère and tomato with potato and bread as dips and cheap, excellent local wine. It wasn't Anne-Sophie, but it was a solid night out at, by Swiss standards, a reasonable price.
Lausanne is the home of the International Olympic Committee, and has a fine museum dedicated to the Games. Unfortunately, I am desperately uninterested in sport, but the sculpture garden is striking, particularly the kinetic sculpture of the human torso by Berrocal at the entrance. I also enjoyed the exhibition of Olympic torches and some ancient equipment - the old wooden tennis racquets and weightlifters' barbells seemed so antique and cartoonish it was hard to believe they had ever been used seriously in global competition.
Finally we dropped into the Museum of Photography at the Museu de l'Elysee, set in a park adjoining the Olympic museum. The main exhibit was of the vivid industrial still lives of Carlo Valsecchi, but the most exciting material, to me, was deep in the basement - an exhibition of monochrome Russian photographs of extraordinary power from the Second World War. One shot of a stag standing on a hill as bombs burst around it will remain etched in my memory.
We took the silent, clean (and for all Lausanne hotel guests, free) metro back to the station to finish our whistle-stop tour. It had gone well. For somewhere I expected to be bland, I had on two distinct occasions been rocked back on my heels (Anne-Sophie Pic and the Museum of Outsider Art) and on one occasion was very pleasantly surprised. If the weather is good and your pockets are well-lined, Lausanne deserves as many stars as a weekend destination as Anne-Sophie does as a chef.