Lausanne, Switzerland, review: Welcome to the Swiss Lake District
08:00 06 March 2016
With its museums, nightlife, spas and castles Caroline Oulton finds Lausanne the perfect winter break with her teenager
It was my birthday and couple of nights in Switzerland with my fourteen year old daughter beckoned. Lausanne seemed the perfect fit for a winter city break with plenty to do, sprawled down a steep hill on the shores of a lake and requiring just a short hop by plane to Geneva followed by forty minutes on the train from the airport to its heart. We were staying at the enchanting Chateau d’Ouchy, a grey baby castle of a hotel with young and attentive staff. Our lovely room was in a turret with floaty filmy four poster gauze curtains and views over the lake with snow-capped mountains behind. It was girly heaven and we felt like Pixar princesses!
Lausanne is the only city in Switzerland with a metro, and as befits one of the greenest cities in Europe, the power generated by its braking on the very steep slopes is harnessed back into the system and reused. Our first night, courtesy of this efficient little beast, we shot up the vertiginous hills to the old town to eat at the cosy and traditional Café Grutli. I had homemade sausage, of ‘very young deer’ shot by the chef’s brother-in-law and served with madeira sauce and cranberries.
The next day, we wandered round the splendid cathedral built in 1275, with its medieval frescos, and glorious rose window. Concerts regularly feature the new 7000 pipe organ that took ten years to build and every day since 1425, a watchman has called the hours between 10 pm and two from the bell tower. My daughter took a selfie with a Swiss singer Bastien ‘Lucky’ Baker, whom we bumped into in the central square watching the performing clock strike the hour, before we headed back to the park by the shore to inspect the Olympic Musuem.
Lausanne is home to the headquarters of the National Olympic Committee and outside our hotel there was a lit up electronic count-down in minutes to the next Games. I had been a little sniffy in advance but this recently refurbished museum, proved to be full of zip, colour and interactive fun! Outside is a 100m running track, with red lights that flash down the side indicating where Usain Bolt would be relative to you as you run. You enter the museum under a bar at the current high jump record and marvel. As this museum celebrates the Olympics as a whole, it feels inspiring and not remotely jingoistic; we loved the wraparound screens showing high points of the different opening ceremonies and displays of the different torches and how they reflected characteristics of each country. There were machines where, for example, you could test your own prowess or not at the skiing and shooting event, or gauge your reactions or balance. Somewhat exhausted by the scale of the museum and the dazzling temporary Rio show, featuring art, music and videos, we collapsed into the museum’s zingy café TOM overlooking the lake, to tuck into a funky colourful lunch topped off with Brazilian inflected coconut ice cream and fruit.
The beautiful historic five star Beau Rivage Palace hotel just a few minutes away, is where the 1923 Treaty Of Lausanne was signed and where John Kerry negotiated with Iran last April. As our hotel has the same owners, my daughter, for a modest sum, was welcomed into its world class spa with its inside outside pool and gym whilst I spent a happy afternoon at the Museum D’Elysee in the park just behind the Olympic Museum. Dedicated to photography it is currently show-casing a wonderful retrospective by Werner Bischof, a Magnum photographer who roamed the world after WW2. This museum was rather ramshackle with additional exhibition spaces up in the attic amongst the rafters and down in the basement, an enticing bookshop and a little home-spun café. It was an intriguing place of considerable charm and not the kind of exhibition space I had necessarily expected to run into in Switzerland.
On the second night we ate in Le Nomade restaurant in the trendy ex-industrial Flan district. Lausanne with its large student population boasts a robust nightlife, with thousands of youngsters coming to the city each weekend for the clubs, the electronic D club having been voted best Swiss nightclub a couple of years running. We also admired La Miroirterie, an old glass factory converted into a bar by Bruen and Walchi with spectacularly breathing plastic walls.
Our last morning we took a train for half an hour along the lake to the medieval castle of Chillon immortalised by Byron in his epic poem the Prisoner of Chillon, written 200 years ago this year. To my amazement, my daughter pronounced the audio guide the best she had ever experienced. There are wall paintings, models, furniture, a high sentry walk, dungeons and an attractive misty walk along the lake to Montreux where we picked up a pastry and a train for Lausanne.
There are 20 museums in Lausanne and I would have liked to have seen the trendy MUDAC decorative arts museum. Stand-out however, and as unique in its own way as the Olympic Museum, is the Museum Art Brut or Outside Art, reached via a steep journey up from the lake on the no 2 tram. Assembled by Jean Dubuffet in 1975, the collection celebrates artists from outside the mainstream, many of whom spent their lives in prisons or hospitals and it is spread over several floors. The walls are painted black, there are no windows, and the combination of intensely personal art, photographs and brief biographies of all the artists combines to offer the visitor an extraordinarily intense experience.
Then it was back to the airport, with sadly, not quite enough time to squeeze in Particules - an appealing sounding shop selling ‘traditional foodstuffs in hipster packaging.’ or Port Franc, coffee in a shop selling vintage furniture…. However, it’s always nice to leave somewhere hoping to return ….