By Jim Ferri
The little lakeside city of Montreux, Switzerland has been in the news lately as the site where diplomats from more than 40 nations have gathered for the Syrian peace conference.
UN officials couldn’t have picked a better place since Montreux is not only easy to get to, it’s also a great place to get away from it all.
Less than an hour from Geneva, Montreux is a colorful little city tucked away on the eastern shore of beautiful Lake Geneva, with the Alps providing a dramatic backdrop.
When I visited it a few months ago I was first mistakenly routed to Montreux, France by the French railroad (see “What country am I in?” I asked her”). The two places couldn’t be more different.
The Swiss Riviera
On Lake Geneva the area east of Lausanne to beyond Montreux is known as the Montreux Riviera due to its microclimate, which is beneficial to both winegrowers and tourists.
The region first became known in the 18th century, and gained international renown in the early years of the 19th following publication of Lord Byron’s poem “The Prisoner of Chillon.”
In the ensuing decades other celebrities and notables who came, and sometimes lived there – including Victor Hugo, Gustave Eiffel, Charlie Chaplin, Ernest Hemingway, Igor Stravinski and rock star Freddie Mercury of Queen fame – continued to enhance its international pedigree.
Today the city underscores its International appeal through the Montreux Jazz Festival. It’s the most famous in the region and one of the top music festivals in Europe, although the term “jazz” is a bit of a misnomer since it now features all types of popular music. Held annually in July, in past years it’s hosted such international artists as Ray Charles, Quincy Jones, Miles Davis, BB King, David Bowie among many others.
You’ll feel the international flavor there in other ways, as well. One evening, wanting to taste some Swiss specialties, I wound up enjoying raclette at Chez Gloria, a Swiss restaurant run by an Ecuadorian woman, with an Irish waiter and a Spanish cook. Say hello to the new Europe.
One of the most famous attractions in the area is the Lavaux Vineyards, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Adjacent to Montreux, the steep terraces of Lavaux were cleared and planted by monks back in the 12th century. One of the largest vineyards in Switzerland, they cover more than 2,000 acres along the north shore of Lake Geneva, and include more than 14 well-preserved villages.
I really enjoyed my lunch and wine tasting in the Lavaux, along with the spectacular views out over the lake where old steamers glided back and forth between Montreux, Lausanne and other lake ports. You can see the vineyards by foot, bike, boat or car.
As far as getting there, It’s worth noting that all travelers to Montreux are given the Montreux Riviera Card free of charge by their hotel. It entitles you to free public transportation (bus and train) as well as discounts on admission to some museums. With it you can easily reach the Lavaux Vineyards and other sites such as Chillon Castle by train or bus in a few minutes from Montreux. It makes getting around very easy on your feet and wallet.
After leaving the vineyards I took a train and bus to the other side of Montreux to visit Chillon Castle, the setting of Byron’s novel, and the most-visited historic monument in all of Switzerland.
The castle is in a beautiful setting, as well as a strategic one, and dates back to the to the 13th century when it was built by the powerful Dukes of Savoy who lived in it until the 16th century. Constructed on a tiny island only yards from shore, it once controlled all of the traffic that moved from Italy up through Europe to London, and vice versa. Obviously, control also meant they could tax everyone who passed through.
It’s an interesting place to walk around. When Byron visited it was still a prison and he was only able to visit the downstairs, where he carved his name into the stone on one of the pillars, which you can still see today.
You can rent an audio guides when you enter or, as I did, just get a brochure in English at the ticket booth. It provides the layout of the small castle with a short description of each of the rooms.
A Walk Along the Quay
Chillon is not only an easy half-hour or so walk from the city, it’s also a beautiful one if you walk along the quay on the lake. Looking out across the azure waters to the French Alps, you stroll through lovely gardens watching swans paddling idly by. It’s one of those walks that given the right weather and time of day is almost dreamlike.
Along the way, as in other areas of the city, you also find pieces of outdoor art. On the quay near the Montreux Casino I found a life-size statue of Freddie Mercury, the lead vocalist of the rock band Queen. Mercury adopted Montreux as his home and lived there until his death in 1991. Locals revered him then and, judging by the candles and bouquets of flowers set at his feet, still do.
Across from the statue mothers and their children were watching the swans in the water, while beyond fisherman were standing on a saucer-shaped piece of wharf dropping their lines as the sun started its run towards the horizon in the west. An old steamer chugging by completed the scene.
I enjoyed walking about the old city just taking in the ambiance of the various colored buildings, the colorful flowers up on window terraces or cascading over fountains along the streets, the views of the lake below where the colors changed with the moods of the weather and time of day.
You’ll find museums in the area as well, such as the Musée du Vieux-Montreux in Montreux’s Old Town, and others on such themes as Swiss cameras, games and “Belle Époque” trains in other areas of the Riviera.
You can also take a cog railway up to the summit of the nearby Rochers de Naye, one of the towering Alps. The trip takes 55 minutes to reach the 7,000-foot summit. There you might dine in a restaurant set in the rock face.
If you’re looking for something a bit less lofty, take a cruise on Lake Geneva aboard one of the old-fashioned steamboats that have been part of the lakeside scenery for about 100 years. The boats link the towns of Vevey Marché, Montreux and Villeneuve.
As for hotels, they range from the modest to grand. I stayed at the Tralala Hotel in the older area of the city, which was comfortable, run with typical Swiss efficiency and provided everything I needed including breakfast.
If you go:
Rue du Théâtre 5
Case postale 251
1820 Montreux 2, Switzerland
Tel: +41 848 86 84 84
Tel: (888) 438-RAIL (7245)
Rue du Temple 2
Tel: + 41 (0)21 963 49 73
Avenue de Chillon 21
1820 Veytaux, Switzerland
Tel: +41 21 966 89 10
Admission: CHF12 for adults (CHF10 for 60+ years). Family rate for CHF28
Chez Gloria (Caveau des Vignerons)
Rue Industrielle 30
Tel: +41 21 963 25 70
Cruises are available throughout the year although during the winter months only on Sundays. A second-class ticket for adults is CHF34, or with your Montreux Riviera card CHF17. The boats link the towns of Vevey Marché, Montreux and Villeneuve.