Who needs the EU?
, that's for sure. As other countries forge bonds, Jeremy Atiyah
explores a land that likes to remain apart Switzerland
25 April 2004
, riding noiseless trams and looking at beautiful parks and
expensive shops. Authoritative studies say that Geneva is the world's best country to live in. But is it a happy place? Switzerland
The Swiss haven't always had it so good. They've had their wars. Two hundred years ago, their country was roughly equivalent to today's
But what does this internationalism do for a country? Aren't the Swiss in danger of forgetting who they are?
Well, that's an impression you can get. Right now, I'm in the windy old town of
Meanwhile, in the present day, I ride a tram to
And when I later board the train to
I see little justice in this, but then again, I am now being treated to an expensive lunch by a nice lady from the tourist office at the Lausanne Palace Hotel, which means tucking into perch fillets fished straight from the lake, along with a dandelion salad and a crisp white wine, while looking out over Lake Geneva's clean, blue waters stretching out mistily to the feet of the massive French Alps.
"Of course we have our own character and personality!" protests my hostess, when I politely express my reservations. And she proceeds to tell me that the Canton de Vaud (of which Lausanne is the capital) is a land not just for international sports federations, but also for people who eat sausage with leeks and potato mash, and speak a rustic French that makes Parisians giggle.
And don't I know what invariably happens to people the first time they arrive here by train from grey
I have a funny feeling that she is right. If
Later, I stroll round the Lausanne Palace Hotel, looking for ghosts of tourists past. These giant hotels by the shores of
The curious European custom of living in grand Swiss hotels may have become outmoded as a result of the stock market crash of 1929 (not to mention that other unpleasantness, the Second World War), but it is by no means dead and buried. If our own Queen were overthrown, I would urge her to take rooms at the Beau Rivage: located in the lakeside suburb of Ouchy, it is right by the pier for boats from
When I visit the Beau Rivage, its splendid gardens and terraces are almost empty. But this has been one of the world's top hotels for more than 130 years. In the rooms, I find original carpets, paintings and giant walk-in wardrobes. At least 10 families still live here on a permanent basis. And down in the garden, in a discreet flowerbed, is a poignant collection of headstones - for the pets of the hotel's residents. Here lies Toots (1889-1903); here lie Tosca, Binkie, Lumpi, Beppo, Billy.... Later I drop in on the hotel's Ball Room, with its dome and stained-glass windows and gilt friezes and cherubs. The dances here, I fear, are not what they were.
Next door to all this lounges the Olympic Museum, another mandatory stop for tourists to the lake, with its admirable anti-war message of internationalism and neutrality. But on the grounds that it says nothing to me of autochthonous Swiss culture, I decide to go to a chocolate shop instead.
This is more like it. The chocolatier is a man called Dan Durig who, oddly, comes from
He shows me Madagascan and Ethiopian chocolates as he might show Merlots and Chardonnays. He produces bars of every degree of strength, ranging from pure milk to pure chocolate. We swill them round in the mouth, discussing the after-taste and the implications for health. (Cocoa butter, apparently, is good for cholesterol.) What could be more indigenous than this?
On the last morning, I take the train 20 minutes up the track to Montreux. It is a cold, quiet, misty day, with snowy peaks soaring straight up from the shores of the lake. If you care to buy an apartment here, you may need to learn the French word époustouflant (flabbergasting) before discussing the panoramas with your estate agent. The celebrities who have bought these views over the past 50 years include Charlie Chaplin, Vladimir Nabokov and Freddie Mercury.
I'm more interested, though, in jolly Lord Byron, who, with impeccable taste, beat them all to it by more than a century. His particular interest was in the Chateau de Chillon, down the road from Montreux. There it still is, guarding the pass between the mountains and the lake, rising from the water, a bizarre jumble of crumbling towers, turrets, freezing baronial halls and ancient vaulted dungeons.
As the first to arrive today, I take my chance to rush round alone, before the tour groups arrive. The waters lapping on the mossy walls of the keep are dark under black skies, but as clean and cold as the day of creation. I repress a Byronesque desire to leap into them.
On a column in the dungeon, I see Byron's name where he carved it 190 years ago. Through the open slits in the walls, I hear the cold wind blowing and the waters of the lake slapping on the buttresses. Even in the 21st century, it is hard not to follow Byron in taking the romantic view, and using the imagination (rather than facts) to construct this strange and beautiful country.
GIVE ME THE FACTS
How to get there
Return flights from London Heathrow to
Where to stay
The Hotel Beau Rivage, 13 Quai du Mont-Blanc (00 41 22 716 66 66; www.beau-rivage.ch) offers double rooms from about £205 per night with breakfast costing an extra £7.50.
For more information
Switzerland Tourism (00800 100 200 30; www.myswitzerland.com).