Swiss region distinctive in historic lakeside charm


March 01, 1992|By F. Lisa Beebe | F. Lisa Beebe,Contributing Writer

First impressions are important, and Switzerland's Lake Geneva Region has the art down pat:

Dazzle visitors with sun-brightened mountains beneath a crisp blue sky, a city of medieval splendors and a network of neatly combed vineyards marching primly across flirtatious hills, and you've won their hearts forever. Such scenic attractions might well have been plagiarized from Paradise.

Hard to believe that this region suffers from an image problem. The Lake Geneva Region, which is within the canton of Vaud, is frequently confused with the nearby city of Geneva, a canton or state in the Swiss republic.To further complicate matters, many Europeans refer to Lake Geneva as Lac Leman, the original French name that now technically corresponds only to the sliver of shallow lake by the city of Geneva.

So the Lake Geneva Region and the city of Lausanne, capital of the Vaud Canton, too often get lost in the linguistic shuffle. They deserve better.

Let's look at the distinctive features of Lausanne (population 127,000). First, its setting is superb. Spread across three hills overlooking the shores of Lake Geneva, it is flanked east and west by vineyards and on the north by the dense green Jorat forests. On the far side of the lake, the Alps provide a postcard-perfect backdrop.

When it was the Roman city of Lousonna, it was located on the shores of the lake at Vidy; it was the crossroads of trade and travel between Italy and Gaul and between the Mediterranean and the Rhine. Later, incursions by invading barbarians forced the populace into the hills. Medieval ramparts eventually shielded the new city and its majestic cathedral.

Like most European cities, Lausanne is rooted in its striking cathedral, which is Switzerland's largest. A hybrid Romanesque-Gothic structure, it was first mentioned in 1160 when it was the Catholic Notre Dame de Lausanne. With the arrival of the Reformation in the mid-16th century, it converted to Protestantism. While its towers and spires are striking, its abundance of windows (105 to be exact, 78 of them original) is impressive. The showpiece rose window, dating from 1240, relates the story of creation.

But the cathedral's most singular feature is the town crier, who nightly between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. still climbs the bell tower to announce "10 (11, 12, etc.) o'clock and all's well." Visitors, too, can climb halfway up the tower for a view of the scenic magnificence that frames Lausanne.

Near the cathedral are two museum musts. The first is the Lausanne Historical Museum in the Old Bishopric, notable for its 250-square-foot scale model of the city as it was in the 17th

century. The second is the Musee de la Pipe et Objets du Tabac (7, rue de l'Academie), where more than 2,500 exhibits from 50 countries trace the history of the pipe from its simplest shapes to its most complex and exotic forms.

A covered, medieval, wooden stairway known as the Escaliers ** de Marche leads from the cathedral to the Place de la Palud, home of Lausanne's 17th century town hall, its 18th century Fountain of Justice, and on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, a colorful open-air market offering a profusion of flowers and produce.

More upscale shopping is offered in the Rue de Bourg, a street that in the 17th and 18th centuries was lined with fine mansions. One of them, at No. 26, has been beautifully preserved.

Linked by a mere 6-minute metro ride to the suburb of Ouchy on the shores of Lake Geneva, Lausanne is truly a lakeside city in spirit. On summer evenings, city dwellers descend to Ouchy for drinks, dinner, a stroll along the lakeside and a night on the town. Understandably, many visitors prefer to stay in Ouchy and pop into Lausanne for sightseeing and shopping.

For it is Lake Geneva and the scenic hamlets and villages along its shores that are the hub of the region's tourism. The lake is western Europe's largest, measuring 46 miles long, 8.5 miles wide and about 1,000 feet deep. About one-third of it lies in France, and the Rhone River flows through it to meet the Mediterranean at Marseilles. People swim in the lake as well as in the three swimming pools along its shores. But the prime lake pastime is boating.

One popular lakeside destination is Vevey. If you go by boat, you'll see the lake shores build from the flat banks of Ouchy to a scenic series of ever taller and steeper chateau-studded hills. When a train slices across the terraced hillsides of tufted greens, the scene seems to be an elaborate Lionel train set come to life.

Vevey (pop. 14,000) is about an hour's boat ride from Ouchy. Many prominent personalities have enjoyed its charm, notable among them Charlie Chaplin, who lived for 25 years in the surrounding hills. By the lake stands a statue of the legendary comic graced by pale apricot roses that have come to be known as the Chaplin rose.

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