Medieval magic

A city frozen in Middle Ages, Lausanne has some of the most spectacular cathedrals, lakes and vineyards.  Ranjita Biswas explores the wine country and more...

In college, for the English literature course, we had The Prisoner of Chillon by legendary romantic poet Lord Byron, where he tells the story of monk Francois Bonivard imprisoned in the Castle of Chillon in the Middle Ages. Byron wrote the famous poem sitting by the Geneva Lake at Ouchy, a port and a resort today. The castle of Chillon is at Montreaux near Lausanne in Switzerland. 

Walking on the promenade by the lake in Lausanne brought back all those memories of the poetic description. “Lake Leman lies by Chillon’s walls: A thousand feet in depth below.” Locals call the lake Lac Leman, as did Byron too.

Intellectual capital

Indeed, Lausanne was once known as the intellectual capital in this part of Europe, and thinkers like Rousseau and Voltaire made it their home as well. Even today, it has not lost its reputation as a centre of art and culture, with a vibrant performing art scene and nightlife, attracting visitors all year round.

Bare bodied chestnut trees lined the promenade, as winter seemed reluctant to leave the land in the month of March. On the other side of the lake is France and even on the Swiss side, the ambience is decidedly French with most locals conversing in French. In the evening, the twinkling lights of Évian-les-Bains, a French town across the serene waters, beckon enticingly. In winter, ski enthusiasts throng here, as the snow-clad slopes in the Alps are not too far away.

Speaking of sports, Lausanne is a Mecca of sorts for sports-lovers. Obviously, as the Olympic Museum is located here. Lausanne is the headquarters for the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Baron Pierre de Courbutin, the father of modern Olympics, shifted the administrative centre of IOC to neutral Switzerland in 1915, as the impending World War I hovered over Europe. The tour around the museum is a fascinating journey back into the history of the Games, with the tasteful display of artifacts from ancient Greece to modern games. For instance, the history of the Olympic flame tells of its journey from a time when the Greeks used rays of the sun to light the flame to today’s high-tech parabolic light.

From the museum, the old town of Ouchy is at a walking distance. it is home to several old structures including a castle (which is now a hotel) and several restaurants. Lausanne is a green city with gardens and flowering beds skirting the roads, and it is a pleasure exploring the city on foot.

Close to the promenade is Beau-Ravage Palace Hotel, restored to its 19th century glory where dignitaries, including former Indian Prime Minister A B Vajpayee stayed during a G8 summit in 2003.

From Zurich, it takes around two hours to reach Lausanne by train. A Swiss rail pass is all that is needed. The pass also facilitates travel to other places in Switzerland, with the added advantage of discounts at many popular destinations in this beauteous land.

The rail journey is a visual treat as it gives you a panoramic view of the Alps and the Lavaux region. Some of the most exquisite vineyards are seen clinging to the hillside down to the lake. This is an ancient wine-making region since Roman times, and has been declared a World Heritage site. The present vine terraces, however, have been traced to the 11th century when Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries controlled the land.

Back in time

Being at the crossroads of north-south routes between Italy and the north sea, Lausanne has been an important town from ancient times. The city is arranged on three-tiers. The old quarter of Lausanne, once called Lousonna, is on the Cité Hill. A walk up to the steep path will lead you to the Place de la Palud, which has been meticulously maintained. It was here in the 13th century town square flanked by Bishop’s Palace and Chateau Saint-Marie, that the Protestants launched the Reformation campaign in 1536.

Climbing up a rather steep cobbled path, we came across the magnificent sight of the Cathedrale Notre-Dame, known to be the finest Gothic church in Switzerland. The city looks like a toy model town from here. In the distance, the peaks of the Alps turn pink with the afternoon glow. It was quite a breathtaking view.

No wonder standing here Victor Hugo had written: “From the terrace of the cathedral, I saw the lake above the roofs, the mountains above the lake, the clouds above the mountains, and the stars above the clouds. It was like a staircase where my thoughts climbed up step by step and broadened at each new height.”

Walking down the narrow lanes lined by quaint restaurants and boutiques and pubs still bearing individual insignias like a cock or a goat’s head (they served as markers for illiterate folks those days), it was like going back in time. At the centre of the old town, there is a statue of a blind-folded lady of the Fontaine de la Justice in blue, built in the 16th century.

Visitors, locals, wait here to watch colourful mechanical figures emerging on the wall behind for a chiming display every hour, a tradition apparently dating back to several centuries. After all, time-keeping precision and Swiss reputation go together.

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