LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND — The dancers moved together, weaving around the stadium in fanciful, crayon-coloured costumes. I watched them sing in lilting tones, locking hands and forming a huge circle that reminded me of the Who folks chanting in Dr. Seuss's Whoville.
It seemed like a fairytale because it kind of was. I was sitting in a stadium on the north shore of Lake Geneva, watching the Fete des Vignerons, a centuries-old viticultural celebration of Swiss wine traditions that only happens once in a generation. With a law that prohibits the festival from taking place more than five times in a century, I felt unbelievably lucky.
Filled with music, dance and wine, the festival honours ancient traditions that define the Vaud region, where Lucerne is located.
With lakeside boulevards and glistening Alpine panoramas, the Vaud region is fittingly called the Swiss Riviera. Vevey, the home of the Fete des Vignerons, displays all the charm you’d expect from a storied waterfront village surrounded by emerald terraces of vineyards. I strolled the narrow pathway to the gently sloping market square, where the festival’s open-air arena towered above me.
Above: The lovely vineyards between Lausanne and Vevey sweep down into Lake Geneva.
A teeming crowd inched toward the entrance, clutching bottles of water to fend off the July heat. The stadium held an audience of 20,000, piled into seats perched high over a stage the size of an Olympic swimming pool. Four elevated stages and hundreds of loud speakers hinted at the upcoming spectacle that happens only every 20 years or so.
On the sidelines, I watched performers lining up in flamboyant costumes; some as 17th-century wine growers, some as bees.
The light dimmed and the three-hour performance opened with a grandfather explaining the process of winemaking to his wide-eyed granddaughter. Although the show was performed in French and a detailed program explained the storyline, it wasn’t necessary. The joy, music and over-the-top drama transcended any language barrier. The 5,500 performers portrayed mercenaries, fairies, royal courts, foxes, playing cards and dedicated wine growers. Choirs, bands and an orchestra joined to tell the story of how wine growers tended their vineyards during the early 17th century. The sight was like nothing I’d ever experienced. It resembled the magic of Cirque du Soleil, combined with the pageantry of the Olympics and topped with the history of folk celebrations.
Later, I wandered out of the arena to partake of the fruits of the festival. Wine booths were lined up all over the grounds and I sipped Swiss wines made from the 250 grapes cultivated in the region, as plumed and be-ribboned performers paraded through the street beside fife and drum ensembles and brass bands. The revelry and fun was contagious but the serenity of the vineyards of Lavaux beckoned.
Left: Vevey sits on the shores of Lake Geneva. Right: Charlie Chaplin's former home in Vevey is now a museum.
I hopped a boat that glided over aquamarine waves to the village of Cully, located in the Lavaux vineyards. Stepping off the boat, over 27km of terraced vineyards stretched before me.
The Lavaux Express, an open-air, wheeled train that traversed the slopes of the vineyards, offered the perfect overview. The one-hour ride looped around four vineyards before stopping at the highest point. Looking over the top of the vineyards, the deep green of the vines connected with the azure of Lake Geneva for a stunning vista.
The terrain is so steep that machines are rarely used and the grapes are mostly harvested by hand. There are seven different wine circuits throughout the region, with panels explaining the local viticulture history. During the September harvest season, visitors can buy a wine glass for $8 and go from vineyard to vineyard to sample the wines. But since it wasn’t harvest season, I stopped at Maison Butin-de-Loes in Grandvaux for a casual dinner punctuated with copious bottles of local wine, with a crisp, white Chasselas the standout.
The canton of Vaud provides a lot more than wine and pristine scenery. The capital Lausanne boasts the oldest gothic cathedral in Switzerland — built of local sandstone in 1190. Perched on a hill, Lausanne Cathedral is the highest point in the city and is noted for the Rose Window — a 13th century stained glass window that displays 105 vivid discs that portray the Medieval views of creation and the seasons.
Above: The Olympic museum in Lausanne earns a gold medal for the treasures it exhibits inside.
While I walked through the aisles, the iconography appeared a little off to me. The guide explained that Lausanne was invaded by Bern in 1536 and the population was converted from Catholicism to Reform. Most of the statues were whitewashed and defaced. Peering at the walls and windows, I could not locate any blatant Christian symbolism but there was a small desk off to the side with a stamp for pilgrims following the ancient Via Francigena route from Canterbury to Rome.
For the best views of the city, the cathedral’s bell tower provided a panoramic landscape of rooftops and tree canopies. When the city dims and night approaches, a night watchman takes up his post in the bell tower. He calls out the time from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., a tradition that has lived on in the city since 1405.
Perhaps more than anything else, Lausanne is known as the home of the International Olympic Committee. All over the city, white flags with five multi-coloured interlocking rings wave above the streets. Unfolding on the shore of Lake Geneva, the Olympic Museum houses the Olympic torches and medals for all the Olympic Games and 50 screens that reflect the spirit and history of Olympism.
Surrounded by a manicured park dotted with fountains and art installations related to sports, approaching the museum felt like entering a private world of athleticism and high achievement. With four stories and 1,500 objects, the museum presents an exhaustive overview of the themes of Olympic history, games and spirit.
Taking in all the information was a little overwhelming because there were treasures everywhere, including the first Olympic flag and Jesse Owens’ track shoes from the 1936 Berlin Games. Thankfully, a chic café with scenic views of the Alps and Lake Geneva occupies the top floor of the museum and provided a great spot to rejuvenate.
Just 25 minutes outside of Lausanne, the 10-acre country estate where Charlie Chaplin lived the last 25 years of his life served as a fascinating peek into filmmaking history. Although it’s called Chaplin’s World, the museum/park/interactive studio does not require that you be a Charlie Chaplin fan to appreciate the magic. The journey began with a short film tracing the actor’s life from a London-born prankster to silent film star. I was startled when the screen rolled up and revealed a real film set, complete with backdrops from the actor’s iconic movies and props like his bowler hat.
The sets were designed for participation; from a police station with a captain's hat and a candlestick phone to try, to a barber shop with a chair to sit in behind a figure of Charlie clutching shears. But the literal scene stealer was the cabin that famously rocked over a cliff’s edge in the film The Gold Rush. When I stepped into the cabin, the special effects flung my body around just like I was “the little tramp” himself.
As I walked around the estate, through the gardens and around the manoir where Chaplin lived with his wife and eight kids, vineyards and mountains stretched into the background and reminded me that natural beauty and cultural riches are everywhere in Switzerland.