Looking for a Mediterranean-style break? Montreux’s luxury hospitality is the perfect launchpad to discover lakeside terraced vineyards, mountain peaks, celebrity haunts, and a Christmas spectacle.
Vladimir Nabokov Monument vis à vis Fairmont Le Montreux Palace
It’s easy to understand why artists including Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, and Vladimir Nabokov flocked to Montreux: the glamorous resort town on Lake Geneva enjoys a mild microclimate, making its lakefront promenade dotted with art, Mediterranean trees, and turn-of-the-century architecture a draw any time of the year.
Nabokov, fresh off the success of «Lolita» in the U.S., spent the last 16 years of his life in Switzerland. He and his wife took a suite at the Fairmont Le Montreux Palace, a sprawling, 113-year-old Belle Epoque-style luxury hotel. The city’s claim to fame is an annual jazz festival – the world’s second largest after Montreal (more than 50 Montreux concerts are currently available for streaming on the jazz festival’s website).
The Fairmont, which sits adjacent to the main concert hall, rightly says “forget jazz, this is Montreux’s other claim to fame”. An attraction in itself (the “Nabokov suite” can still be booked and the ballrooms are popular for weddings), the Fairmont retains the mystique of its original era with a modern update: our lakeside room was tastefully designed in light, neutral colors while retaining vintage touches like a fashionable beige velvet settee that wouldn’t be out of place in “Mad Men”.
Rooms are spacious for business and relaxing while providing a warm welcome. As one would expect from a five-star estate, service is impeccable, from the in-house jazz café classics like beef tartar and lake perch alongside more modern fare like a quinoa, avocado, goji berry salad, to the cozy atmosphere and “giggle waters” of Funky Claude’s bar, the glass-encased La Palmeraie breakfast hall, and Willow Stream spa.
The 2,000-m2 spa, which is about to undergo a two-stage refurbishment, features a spacious indoor pool, a nicely equipped gym, and separate men and women’s whirlpool, sauna, and hammam. The pool and gym will still be accessible to hotel guests, while massages and facial treatments will be offered elsewhere in the hotel in specially converted rooms.
In large part because of Montreux’s jazz festival every summer, the area has always attracted big stars: country star Shania Twain lives a few minutes up the road, between Montreux and nearby Vevey. Charlie Chaplin retreated to a country home overlooking Lake Geneva with his fourth wife, Oona, after the U.S. denied him re-entry in 1952. Freddie Mercury found peace in the city, where Queen recorded seven albums. The Studio Experience is highly recommended – as well as a visit to the lakefront statue of Mercury, donated by Queen and family and friends of the band’s front man (devotees regularly leave flowers at the foot of the statue, adjacent to Montreux’s late 19th-century covered market.
Less than four kilometers down the riviera you will find Château de Chillon, a 12-century castle built on a rocky islet, featured in a novel by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and made famous by Lord Byron’s poem, “The Prisoner of Chillon”.
“A day without laughter is a day wasted.”
For those eager to venture out into the alps or lakeside towns around Montreux, a foundation devoted to Chaplin’s life opened a museum four years ago in the 37-acre estate high above Vevey, where he and family lived from 1953 to 1977. Now a museum, Chaplin’s World is worth seeing for fans of his more than 80 films as well as those less familiar with Chaplin: it is less a traditional museum experience than the set of the film icon’s life. Providing an interactive experience, visitors literally emerge through a film screen onto Easy Street, a soundstage film buffs will recognize from several of Chaplin’s movies.
The career of Chaplin, one of the most important figures in the U.S. film industry, intersected Britain and the U.S., silent films and “talkies,” and large parts of his work were overshadowed by war. A complicated figure who lived a big life, Chaplin signed a $1 million studio contract one year before World War I began. He started filming “The Great Dictator,” a film parodying Hitler which he wrote, directed, produced, starred in, and wrote the musical score for, just days after the Second World War broke out.
By the 1950s Chaplin was in the crosshairs of McCarthyism in the U.S. – the weightiest issue that led to his Swiss retreat. He also had a proclivity for very young women: his second wife claimed Chaplin had seduced her when she was just 15, and Oona O’Neil was just 18 when Chaplin made her his fourth wife in 1943 – he was 54.
The home-turned-museum does a good job embedding his life into historical context – contemporaries from Winston Churchill to Albert Einstein make appearances as do Woody Allen (a huge fan who paid homage in film several times) and Michael Jackson (who reportedly took the inspiration for the “moonwalk” from Chaplin as well as from Black entertainers of the time such as Cab Calloway).
Chaplin World mutes the less savory parts of the film giant’s life in favor of portraying him as an attentive husband and father to eight children with Oona – which by all accounts he was in Corsier sur Vevey. Film fans will enjoy never-before-seen footage of a white-haired Chaplin playing with his youngest children on the grounds of the estate – more impish and childlike than his own offspring. The museum decorates and offers special events for families at Halloween, Christmas, and Easter.
Other ideas in Vevey include a Saturday morning food market, which those in the know call one of the best produce markets in Switzerland with an amazing selection of local meats, cheeses, and other local specialties; and the Alimentarium, an interactive food museum (an eight-meter-high stainless-steel fork planted upright into the lake marks the spot). Le Duo Creatif, where lines frequently form out the door for its famous croissants and patisserie, is a hidden gem in neighboring La-Tour-de-Peilz. The area’s lake frontage means boats are transportation too: a tour from Vevey (or Montreux) to Villeneuve and Saint-Gingolph – a beautiful, small French village – takes less than two hours. Engineering nerds will want to check the CGN timetable: the boat authority maintains a fleet of magnificent steam-powered boats which chug regularly from village to village.
Besides the temperate climate, there are several reasons to go now: Montreux’s fabled Christmas market won’t take place this year, but a corona-compatible winter festival, Plaisirs d’Hiver, will offer a taste: six stations dispersed throughout the city with food chalets, crafts, entertainment, and a Ferris wheel (from November 25 to January 4). The Fairmont’s house bar, Funky Claude’s, is offering a cocktail master class. Each month is devoted to a spirit, beverage, or style – New Orleans and bourbon, vodka and ice, bubbles and bubbles.
Montreux locals swear by Laiterie de Gruyère, which stocks an extensive selection of local cheeses, specialties, and wines; Confiserie Zuercher, run by the fourth generation of the family owners, is known for Rochers de Nayes, or dark ganache truffles with 65 percent Maracaibo chocolate named after Montreux’s famous mountain. For more adventurous spirits, a trip to Glacier 3000, the linchpin of Les Diableret ski area, is a must. The mountain station at the highest point of the Vaudois Alps was designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta features a 107-meter suspension bridge between two peaks.
Before winter sets in entirely, Lavaux’s terraced vineyards offer easily accessible strolls through wine-making towns like Epesses, Saint-Saphorin, and Grandvaux. Many wine producers in the UNESCO heritage-protected area offer tastings, and the Vinorama in Rivaz is a good place to sip a Chasselas, learn about the varietals, and stock up your cellar.
Montreux is easily accessible by car, the train journey through the Lavaux region is spectacular, but the touristy option is the Golden Pass Line, which links the city with Interlaken and Lucerne with a panoramic view through three mountain passes. A Belle-Epoque-themed train connects Montreux with Gstaad and Château-d’Oex.
“as if…his marble was the moon”
To ensure an exceptional visit, the Fairmont’s concierge, Mathieu Terisse, a “Clef d’Or” or highest order of concierge who wear a set of crossed gold keys on their lapel, is happy to let reveal his hidden gems in Montreux – or make customized luxury arrangements, like a hot air balloon, complete with fondue in the clouds.
Author Katherine Bart is a Zurich-based financial journalist who enjoys traveling in her free time. Her stay was offered by the Fairmont Le Montreux Palace and all photos are her own.
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