Wine, Crépes, View

Lausanne is a smallish Swiss city with more culture than cities three times its size.

What traveler doesn’t want, or appreciate, a room with a view? In that way, I was twice blessed on a recent January morning in Lausanne, Switzerland. From my balcony at the magnificent Beau-Rivage hotel, I gazed out at both tranquil Lake Geneva (Lac Léman in French) and the French Alps rising up on the other side. They were snow covered and splendidly savage. Also visible off in the distance was the Jura—a smaller, forest-covered mountain range that follows the France-Switzerland border and separates Europe’s iconic rivers, the Rhone and the Rhine. It was a Sunday morning, and the 10-acre park below the hotel was quiet save for a couple of joggers. At the quay just beyond, a man hopped in a skiff and puttered out into the mist—searching for perch, perhaps, or maybe just peace of mind.

     For tourists contemplating Europe, the big cities are always a lure—Paris, Rome, Berlin, Barcelona, Prague. But there is pleasure to be had in more modest places such as Lausanne, where the scene is languid—and yet urbane. Located just 30 miles from Geneva, an easy half-hour train trip, Lausanne is situated on a steep hillside overlooking the lake. It rises up from the former fishing village of Ouchy on the shore, where the Beau-Rivage squats, to the city center some 700 feet above. (And one could walk higher still.

     It’s hard to avoid Gothic churches in Europe, and that is especially true in Lausanne. The massive Cathedral of Notre Dame, built in the 13th century and consecrated by Pope Gregory X, dominates the skyline. It looms—a stern reminder of the bishops who once ran the city before being ousted by the city-state of Berne in the 16th century.

     The church has more than 100 stained glass windows and Europe’s only remaining night watchman. I’d heard that he appears nightly, on the hour, from 10:00 p.m. until 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. My Virginia Living colleague and I showed up just before 10:00 and stood waiting near the front entrance. The hour seemed to come and go—we saw nothing. Then we heard a voice, but it was faint and barely discernible. Looking up, we saw the barest outline of a figure in the bell tower above. Then came the words, “C’est le guet—il a sonné l’heure” (“I am the night watchman; the hour has struck”). He then moved to each of the other three sides of the tower and repeated the same phrases.

     It’s a charming remnant of old Europe, and a bit of a misleading one. Lausanne, in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, is not at all a musty town. It’s just the opposite, in fact. There are two universities in the city, and lots of young people. Owing to its location on crescent-shaped Lake Geneva, it is best known as a summer holiday town. People come to swim and sail on the lake, although the wind is said to be capricious. Festivals are held year-round. The biggest is the City Festival, a multi-cultural, open-air event that’s a major attraction in July. Held in the old part of town (la cité), it features 120 shows and twice that number of free performances—many of them on the streets and said to be cutting-edge. Flon, a former industrial district turned trendy arts and entertainment enclave, hosts an electronic music festival in May.

     The Lake Geneva area is paradise for those who like to establish a base camp and then make day or weekend trips. Milan, Paris, Zurich: All are less than four hours away by train. Montreaux—famous for its annual jazz and pop music extravaganza—is on the lake, too, a 13-mile hop from Lausanne by boat or train. Evian, France, is directly across the lake from the Beau-Rivage Palace. It’s not a hugely charming town, I was told (but do drink the water).

     Better, perhaps, to explore Lausanne itself, which has far more in the way of cultural, educational and culinary attractions than one expects in a place with only 130,000 people. The Collection de l’Art Brut, for example, is one of the world’s best-known museums of “outsider art.” Indeed, it was established in the 1970s after artist Jean Dubuffet, who pioneered the term “raw art,” donated his large collection to Lausanne. Inside there are works by many loners, misfits and crazies.

     The Béjart Ballet is equally renowned. Its late founder and choreographer, Maurice Béjart, was brilliant and avant-garde. In January, Lausanne hosts the Prix de Lausanne, the famous classical dance contest that has attracted talented amateurs annually for 36 years. The International Olympic Committee is headquartered in Lausanne (its museum and park are right next door to the Beau-Rivage). For introspective sorts, the Lausanne cinématique, located near the Parc de Montbenon, is said to be among the best in Europe. It has copies of 70,000 old and unique films—and shows a few of them every day.

     Vaud, of which Lausanne is the capital, is a wine-growing region with a reputation for producing good whites. Numerous vineyards, some of the best owned by the city itself, cling to hillsides around the lake. I saw them during a boat trip to Montreaux. Get a first-class ticket and you can drink a little wine (and have a meal) while glancing at half-a-dozen little villages near Lausanne. Little stone walls separate one plot of grapevines from another. Dezaley Vineyard, one of the area’s most prominent, has its own big sign on a hill, reminiscent of the iconic Hollywood sign in Los Angeles. I took the boat trip mainly to get a look at the Château de Chillon—a 13th-century castle on the edge of the lake, in Montreaux. While living in Lausanne, Lord Byron wrote a famous poem called “The Prisoner of Chillon”—about a fellow who was shackled at the castle for six years by the Duke of Savoy in the 16th century for speaking in favor of the Reformation. Those were the days.

     Lausanne is a manageable city—you can walk it, if you’re fit. After a fairly steep hike up Rue du Petit-Chêne, I strolled through Place de St. François, the focal point of la cité. There, I decided to peek inside the Église de Saint François, a former Franciscan convent built in 1270. It’s got to be the only church in Europe with automatic doors (in a medieval church, one expects to put the shoulder to four-foot-thick slabs).

     Coming out, I noticed a crèpe stand in the plaza. Food break. For 9 francs (about $8), I bought a warm crèpe with ham, mushrooms and cheese. Just the thing. I then indulged both my curiosity and sweet tooth with a hot Belgian waffle (gaufre chaude) with raspberry sauce.

      During the break, a group of eight young women ambled by offering chocolate cookies. The all wore placards with this question on the front: “Qui est la future mariée?” (Who is the future bride?) One in the group was getting married on Sunday. “This is hen’s night,” said a friend of the bride-to-be. They were selling the cookies to raise money for the evening’s festivities. I gave them a couple of francs, suggested Las Vegas as a honeymoon destination and then fled.

      The Rue de Bourg is the main shopping street in town. It has clothing stores, a tea room, cafés, a steakhouse and an outstanding pâtisserie named Ladurée, a branch of the Parisian original founded in 1862. It had an impressive selection of macaroons—I bought two boxes. In the alcove of a small electronics shop, I joined a group of locals nervously watching Swiss hero Roger Federer win a tough third-round match at the Australian Open on a TV in the display window.

      Saturday is market day in Lausanne, and a couple of streets fill with fruit and vegetable vendors. There were ample supplies of spices, olives—and plenty of fruit, including several different varieties of apples and pears, many grown locally. Dark-colored bottles of raisiné were conspicuous—it’s an apple and pear juice used for baking.

      Unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of good restaurants in Lausanne—it’s got about 300 of them. At A La Pomme de Pin, a simple bistro tucked inconspicuously behind the cathedral, I had a “best of duck” salad and then lamb chops and potatoes. Rösti—dry-roasted potatoes cut into small pieces and eaten with lamb and veal—is a favorite with le peuple Vaudois. So is fish. Lake Geneva provides some pike, trout and perch for the locals, but not nearly enough. Most of the city’s fish is imported from Poland, Spain and Italy. My dessert—chaud-froid soufflé au citron (a warm/cold lemon soufflé)—was superb. Café Romand, in the Place de Saint François, is the place to sample Bavarian food. Saucisse aux choux (sausage with leeks and potatoes) is a favorite with the locals, and so is a croûte au fromage. Hearty dishes, both. The Swiss cheese was thick, creamy and plentiful. Cholesterol check, please!

When you spend the better part of a day clambering up and down hills, it’s good to retreat to what many travel experts consider one of the world’s best hotels. There are old hotels, grand hotels and grand old hotels—and the Beau- Rivage Palace is decidedly in the last category. There are numerous “beautiful shoreline” hotels around the world, including a swanky one in Geneva, but the Lausanne house is in a class of its own—literally: It is not associated with any other hotels of the same name. The Sandoz Family Foundation, started in 1964 by sculptor and painter Marcel Edouard Sandoz, owns the Beau-Rivage. He is the son of the founder of Sandoz SA of Basel, a pharmaceutical company now known as Novartis.

      The hotel is nearly 150 years old. A group of local investors bought a tract of lakeside property from an English family in 1857—and four years later, the impressive neoclassical (Italian Renaissance) hotel was open for business. In 1908, the neo-baroque-style Palace wing was added and connected to the original by La Rotonde, then and now a classical gastronomique, or eating hall, with turn-of-the-century frescoes around the ceiling. You have to step away from the place—get out on the lake, really—to see the two different and quite beautiful styles.

      Important historical conferences have been held there, including the signing of the armistice ending the war between Italy and Turkey in 1912 and the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, affirming the independence of the Republic of Turkey from the Ottoman Empire. Over the years, many social and political luminaries have stayed at the hotel—Coco Chanel, Gary Cooper, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham. So have heads of state—Nelson Mandela, Carlos Menem of Argentina and more. According to Luis Aurelio, one of the hotel’s bright-eyed chasseurs (a bellman with additional duties), British soccer star Frank Lampard was a recent guest, and singer Phil Collins, who has a home in the area, pops in occasionally.

      Like most five-star European hotels, the Beau-Rivage is opulent, but without the stodginess one might expect from a place with its history. There are 169 rooms—33 of them suites (Napoleon, Art Deco and Contemporary among them, the last reflecting the 1930 aesthetics of Bauhaus and Le Corbusier). A majority of the rooms have balconies, with lake views and jacuzzis. All have Bulgari bath products and bathroom cups from Crabtree and Evelyn.

      The Beau-Rivage and its sister property next door, the Hôtel Angleterre and Résidence, employ nearly 400 people, and they all seem to stay busy. According to Samantha Polgar, the hotel’s duty chief on a Sunday, the occupancy rate last year was 71 percent—a record. “This year, we’re hoping for 72 percent. We have many regulars. A lot of them tell us they feel at home here—we are very proud of that.”

      During my visit, the clientele was quite diverse and younger than I would have thought—a nice mix of people, the majority, seemingly, middle-aged Europeans. It’s a place where you can eye a dazzling young blonde flouncing out of the hotel’s new Cinq Mondes spa after her weekly (or is it daily?) treatment, see parents and their children in the hot tub adjacent to the serene indoor swimming pool, and later spot wizened, well-to-do gentlemen smoking cigars in the elegant English bar. (I joined them one evening and had a Cohiba—one of the benefits of traveling.)

      The centerpiece of the hotel is the stunning Salle Sandoz—a massive, colonnaded ball room with a domed ceiling of stained glass. Want to throw a formal party for 600? This is your place. Four huge crystal chandeliers and classical sculptures adorn the ceiling; murals and frescoes, the walls. Some of the original turn-of-the-century murals were painted over and are being restored. Here the grandeur of the Beau-Rivage is frozen in time—a waltz, anyone? Polgar told me the room is used fairly regularly for corporate soirees.

      For all the history, the hotel management takes pains to keep the mood contemporary and the facilities up-to-date. Just beyond the marbled lobby is a cozy, elegant lounge (in earth tones) where hip guests can be found throughout the day sipping coffee or champagne. The hotel recently opened a sushi restaurant, which is small and hard to find, but smartly designed with big photographic negatives of geishas on the walls. “We try to keep our traditions but give our clients something new every few years,” says Minh-Tan Bui, a public relations staffer at the hotel.

      The Cinq Mondes Spa, aligned with a French group, has been a hit. Forbes.com and Travel & Leisure magazine have given it very high marks. Like most top spas, it offers a variety of “wellness rituals” and treatments—Ayurvedic massage, Balinese massage, Taoist facial massage and a body scrub with natural papaya extracts, to name a few. There is a private VIP suite for two—couples can share a bath, get their muscles kneaded side by side and loll afterwards in a private garden. I got a Balinese massage, which one needs after the long flight to Europe. Before or after this indulgence, customers sip espresso or tea and nibble on figs and oranges.

      The hotel’s top restaurant, La Rotonde, recently received a Michelin star. It was closed while I was there, but Michelin cited chef David Sauvignet’s “delicate langoustines, and “the zest” of the “eggs à la truffe.” No worries: The Beau-Rivage Café, located downstairs, is a fine brasserie that would easily surpass a top restaurant in most places. It’s got a raw bar, and the entrees include rabbit, turbot, sea bass and scallops.

      The Beau-Rivage Palace was renovated in the late 1990s, and a more modest update to the rotunda area is scheduled to begin later this year. (It’s not expected to affect the operation of the hotel.) “We cannot just change things ourselves,” says Polgar. “We have to be very careful and get permission from a [historical board].”

      That’s as it should be. Impetuousness is not something one wants in a five-star hotel. The Beau-Rivage has made its formidable reputation over the decades by being refined and attentive to detail. It has changed, and smartly, which is why younger generations of Europeans, and other international travelers, find it just as desirable as earlier generations of socialites did.

      Whether one visits Lausanne and then happily discovers the Beau-Rivage or vice versa, the two go nicely together.

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