“Comment ca va?” asked the young man.
“Nickel, nickel” beamed the waiter when greeted unexpectedly by a friend. The loose translation of “nickel” is … couldn’t be better, and I certainly felt the same way.
The sun was shining over the Lausanne shoreline, the sky a hazy blue, the September temperature in the low twenties, and the view was to die for. Nickel indeed, I thought to myself – who wouldn’t feel shiny and lustrous in this picture-postcard immaculate setting?
I have always had something of a love affair with Switzerland ever since my first brief visit in the late 1980s. I can recall with total clarity my first view of the mountains across the lake, and couldn’t believe that anywhere could be so utterly beautiful and tranquil. This was a long way from the home counties. Since then I have discovered the city centres of Geneva and Zurich, the ski resorts of Valais and the Bernese Oberland, and the palm trees of Lugano. Switzerland captivates me like no other place.
Yet Lausanne has always been something of a transitory acquaintance. Flying into Geneva and then taking a car or train to head to the ski resorts, usually in a hurry, Lausanne has been an exit on the autoroute, a stop on the train, but never a place to linger. Yet with its lakeside location surrounded by mountains, Olympic connections and a reputation for wonderful culture and cuisine, I always knew it held the ingredients for a perfect city break.
Finally, the chance arose to stay for a weekend and it was not one that I was going to refuse. Just half an hour or so by train direct from Geneva airport, it’s so easy to arrive into the heart of Lausanne and then travel around by metro or bus (both free for tourists) or on foot.
The Ouchy area which runs along the lakeside is a good place to start exploring and take in the breath taking view of the open lake with France in the far distance on the other side. Lac Leman is immense, and if it were not totally flat and calm it feels like looking out to the open sea. Elegant cafes line the front with smart and courteous waiters, and there can be no more pleasant way to spend a couple of hours than sipping tea, eating cake and watching the boats come in and out of the ports, in the early autumn sunshine. Bliss.
A boat trip is recommended and a selection of elegant veteran paddle steamers offer a varied programme of trips across the lake to Evian, or along the Swiss side up to Montreux and the Chateau de Chillon. With not quite enough time to take the longer trip, we enjoyed first class travel on the top deck of ‘La Suisse’ feeling like movie stars basking in the sunshine, and went as far as the picture perfect village of Cully. Famous for its wine production, there are thousands of hectares of vineyards stretching up the hillside as far as the eye could see.
The Lavaux Express is a mountain road train that goes through the heart of the vineyards and climbs up to a high coastal road from which the scenery and views make the heart soar. Our charming driver Patrick (a local man who spent 34 years working for Kodak before retirement) took to the roads with gusto, and as our little convoy of carriages ground to a halt high above the water, a small wine testing booth appeared as if from nowhere, and we were offered a selection of delicious local vintages. Sipping wine in the late afternoon sun and gazing out across the lake where the water was as still as a millpond, it’s hard to put into words the feeling of total contentment.
And for those not in the know, Swiss wine is exceedingly good, the only frustration being that 98% of it never leaves the country. Another good reason to visit and try it for yourself!
Staying at the Hotel Carlton was an excellent base for a short stay, situated within easy walking distance of both the lake and the town, and with an excellent restaurant for those who prefer a quiet evening in. Heading away from the lake and up to the city centre, it’s hilly but very walkable, and there are all the elements for a perfect city experience. A stunning cathedral, chic shopping, a fabulous food market, numerous cafes, patisseries, museums, theatres, cinemas and all with a backdrop of the most beautiful scenery. The lake and the mountain views are never far away. Who wouldn’t want to live here I reflected, with an urban experience on the doorstep, and endless walking and skiing a short train ride or drive away?
In the opposite direction, and just a few minutes’ walk away from the Hotel Carlton is the Olympic Museum which is an essential part of a visit to the city, and an especially important attraction in 2016 following the Rio Games. An early start is recommended to avoid the crowds. Well laid-out across three floors, the visitor is taken from the early days of Greek Olympia when only men were allowed to compete, through the pioneering spirit of Pierre Coubertin who brought the games back to life at the end of the 19th century, and culminating with our modern times of high tech athleticism.
Highlights (for me) included the video of Michael Phelps clinching gold by 0.001 seconds, a result made possible only by the most sophisticated digital chronometry; and the high jump bar at the entrance standing at 2.45m – a record unbroken since 1993 by Javier Sotomayor. I reflected why it could be that humans are getting faster and stronger, but yet they cannot jump higher.
Tom’s Restaurant on the 3rd floor is the perfect panoramic spot for Sunday morning brunch. Tom is in fact not Switzerland’s answer to Jamie Oliver as I initially imagined, picturing a jovial moustachioed chef in a gingham shirt and lederhosen. Tom is in fact the acronym for The Olympic Museum. And a very delightful brunch ‘Tom’ serves too – a welcome repast at the end of the visit, sitting in the sunshine overlooking the lake which glistened and shimmered. Like a piece of nickel in fact.
For a special weekend break, there is much to recommend about Lausanne. The pace of life is tranquil, the views are incredible and the climate is benign, making this a perfect place to relax. The Swiss are so civilised and friendly. Cars stop to let you cross, the waiters are smiling and the shop assistants are genuinely pleased to see you. My only regret was not to be able to stay longer and explore more of the city and the surrounding mountains and villages. I do need to add that this is not a budget break, but for quality, service and an overall first class experience, it is worth indulging for a treat which is very special.
For more information, visit www.lausanne-tourisme.ch