Switzerland. get natural. Lavaux, UNESCO World Heritage. The ÔTrain des VignesÕ above the Burignon Domaine at St-Saphorin. View across Lake Geneva towards the Savoy Alps (F).
Schweiz. ganz natuerlich.Statue von Freddie Mercury in Montreux.

The canton of Vaud has a colourful personality and history that is entrancing, writes Frederick Tan Wee Cheak

THERE is much more to Switzerland beyond Lucerne, Interlaken, Zurich and Geneva, the most popular Swiss destinations among Malaysians in the past decade.

Snuggled on the northeast coast of Lake Geneva (although the locals prefer to call it Lac Leman) lies a hidden gem that is the canton of Vaud, and its fabulous offerings.

Vaud belongs to the French-speaking part of Switzerland, and that is no surprise as Lausanne, its capital city, is located just across the lake from the town of Evian in France. The city of around 140,000 people, built atop a trio of hills with the Flon river running beneath its streets, has a colourful personality and history that will take visitors many days to unravel.


LAUSANNE

I arrive at Lausanne on the tail-end of summer for a whirlwind tour and find myself dazzled by its charms despite the gentle drizzle that shades everything in a misty veil of grey. And only moments after stowing away my luggage at Hotel Continental, located conveniently across the street from the central train station, I am off searching for adventures.

One of the city’s many landmarks is the centuries-old Lausanne Cathedral, an imposing structure that cuts through the skyline. Built of rough sandstone, its design is influenced by the Gothic architectural style. Two rows of stained glass windows shower the interior in curtains of kaleidoscopic light, while a massive 7,000-pipe organ crowds one end of the hall.

Interestingly, from the year 1405 to this day in a long unbroken stretch, a lookout has been stationed at the bell tower attached to the main building to call out the time from 10pm to 2am daily, as well as warn of fire. From here, I am treated to a breathtaking view of the city, with Lake Geneva a carpet of sapphire blue in the distance.

The smaller, but no less grand, St Francois church overlooks a bustling square in the city’s commercial area.

At Lausanne’s Old Town area, narrow steep cobbled lanes criss-cross like a maze. Interesting items can be seen from the shop windows, from expensive Swiss watches to gourmet chocolates and novelty trinkets. At its centre is the Place de la Palud, a market square built in the 18th century now surrounded by shops and cafes. Every Wednesday and Saturday, stalls selling a variety of fresh produce and traditional cuisine can be found here. A fountain with a statue of the proverbial Lady of Justice stands guard, steps away from the 17th-century Town Hall with its two copper dragon head gargoyles.

Meanwhile, Flon, a former industrial wasteland, has been transformed into the new shopping and partying district. Dotted with fancy restaurants, bars, clubs and boutiques, it beats to the pulse of the city.

But a visit to any historic city is incomplete without checking out its arts and culture. Mudac, a tiny museum of contemporary arts and designs, is located next to the cathedral. Its two current exhibitions captured my imagination with their play on colours (“Chromatic”) and reflections (“Mirror, Mirror” ).

But it was two other museums that caught my attention. The Collection de’Art Brut is dedicated exclusively to outsider art. Outsider art is defined as art produced by self-taught artists who are not part of the artistic establishment. And at the Brut museum, these artists are inmates of psychiatric hospitals, prisoners, or marginalised people.

The majority of the Art Brut pieces are from the collection of Jean Dubuffet, a French painter and sculptor recognised as the founder of the art movement. And “astonishing”, “immersive” and “impressive” can barely describe the unique treasures held within the walls.

From the imaginary “Athosland” by Michael Golz, to costumes by Vahan Poladian and terracotta sculptures by Stanislaw Zagajewski, and paintings by Anna Zemankova, I found myself captive to the simplicity as well as complexity of the art pieces by those troubled souls.

Lausanne, recognised as the Olympic Capital since 1994, is also home to the Olympic Museum, which houses three floors of permanent and temporary exhibits to celebrate the global sporting event and honour the men and women who represented the epitome of sportsmanship.

A must-visit destination for any sports fan, the museum takes visitors on a travel through time from the very first Olympic to the 2008 gala in Brazil. More than 10,000 artefacts, from the torches to mascots and equipments used by athletes, are on display, each with a story to tell. A woman next to me sheds tears, caught up in the moment as she moves from one display to another. By the entrance, Andre Ricard’s Cauldron burns with an “eternal flame” to reflect the Olympic spirit, unquenched even by the assault of the rain.

Another not-to-be-missed attraction is a cruise onboard a paddle boat from Lausanne to neighbouring towns.

Swaying gently in the shallow bay at the port of Ouchy is the La Suisse, a beauty built in 1910, overhauled a decade ago, and now the flagship of the eight-boat Belle Epoque fleet. A round-trip across Lac Leman to St Gingolph, passing by the historic Chillon Castle, takes roughly two hours, but time floats by swiftly as one drinks in the amazing sights, savours delicious dishes from the menu, and relaxes in the warm sunshine and cool breeze.


VEVEY

I disembark at the town of Vevey, the “gateway” to the roughly 800- hectare Lavaux vineyard region that was recognised as a Unesco world heritage site in 2007.

Vevey is not only the final resting place of legendary comedian Charlie Chaplin but also the home of food giant Nestle, founded here in 1867. A short train ride away is Chexbres, one of the many villages, where terraced vineyards hug the slopes and spread out like a vast green ocean against the turquoise of Lake Geneva and the shadowy mountains beyond.

I walk around small paths to better appreciate the area from different angles, and signs put up at regular intervals provide educational information. A “wine train on wheels” is also available for those too tired to walk.

The Domaine Bovy estate, one of a few dozen in the region, has won many awards over the decades and is now managed by brothers Bertrand and Eric Bovy.

Eric says wines in Lavaux, made from the “Chasselas” grapes, acquired their exquisite fragrance due to the “three suns” — the one in the sky, the one reflected in the lake and, at night, the heat accumulated within the stone terraces on hot summer days.

“Most people don’t know about Swiss wine and it’s not because they are inferior, but rather because we don’t produce enough to export,” he says with a big laugh.

And there is no greater satisfaction after a long tiring day than to sip local wines and nibble at aged cheese from a high vantage point, where the fresh air is scented by a hint of sweet grapes.

At the nearby picturesque village of Saint-Saphorin, the L’Auberge de l’Onde restaurant offers mouth-watering cuisine to provide the perfect closure to the half-day jaunt. From Saint-Saphorin, it’s only a 15-minute train ride to Montreux, the next pitstop.


MONTREUX

Montreux may be best known for its association with legendary rock band Queen and its lead singer Freddie Mercury, who was once quoted as saying “if you want peace of soul, come to Montreux”.

The group produced arguably its best album, Made In Heaven, at the Mountain Recording Studios, which it had bought in 1979.

The studio, located inside the Casino de Montreux, is now a museum dedicated to Queen and Freddie, where a collection of memorabilia is on display, including some of his performance costumes and handwritten lyrics. To mark his time in Montreux, a bronze statue of the singer was placed by the waterfront in 1996, and till today, it remains a shrine among his legions of fans.

English rock bank Deep Purple’s hit song Smoke On The Water was also inspired by a fire that broke out during a Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention concert, here in 1971.

Meanwhile, Montreux, set against the spectacular backdrop of the Swiss Alps, is also where my journey to Interlaken on the Golden Pass scenic train line begins. The train cuts through the mountain passes smoothly while the view is a spool of endless masterpiece, continuously breathtaking and jaw-dropping.

Its operator, Montreux Oberland Bernois, also runs the famous Chocolate Train to the charming medieval town of Gruyeres, where the secret of chocolate making is finally unveiled.

One trip, two days and three destinations. My journey will bring me to Interlaken next, full of optimism on what else Switzerland has to offer. The locals have a saying, “C’est comme vivre dans une carte postale” — it’s like living in a postcard — and I couldn’t agree more.

MONTREUX Riviera is Switzerland in a nutshell because it has all the attractions — lake, mountains, vineyards or urban centre — in one destination, says Julia Tames, the PR & Media Manager at the local tourist office.

The city is taking steps to make the holiday experience enjoyable for its visitors, including Muslims. Several restaurants now offer halal food.

Around Montreux, there are the Le Palais Oriental, Grand Hotel Suisse Majestic (three days’ notice needed) and Fairmont Le Montreux Palace & Le Mirador (one day notice). In the Vevey region, there are the Aladin, Swagat and Le Mirador Resort & Spa. Visitors can also choose from a selection of vegetarian or seafood dishes.

Meanwhile, the Fairmont le Montreux Palace also provides the Quran and prayer mats on request from its Muslim guests.


A WELCOME ON MY SENSES

INTERLAKEN, in the canton of Bern, has been the starting point of many adventures into the Jungfrau region and the rest of Switzerland for more than 100 years.

Its name, which means “between lakes” in German, comes from its location between the beautiful Lake Thun and Lake Brienz, which flare out from the town like a pair of giant emerald wings.

Interlaken also sleeps in the shadows of the three titans of Jungfrau, Eiger and Monch of the Bernese Alps. Harder Kulm, the “Top of Interlaken”, can be reached after a short funicular drive and a five-minute walk, where the “Two Lakes Bridge” viewing platform (with the resident cow) provides a spectacular view of the surrounding areas.

But I arrive at the town with other members of the media not for the mountains or lakes, but rather for the climax of Unspunnenfest, a special festival held only once every 12 years.

The Unspunnen was first held in 1805 and is meant to unite a region that was wracked by conflicts following Napoleon’s Act of Mediation in 1803. Many of the events from those days, including a parade and competitions in singing, shooting, wrestling, boulder throwing and Alphorn playing, have survived and are still drawing many participants.

I am greeted by a welcome of the five senses on my arrival.

Hundreds of people in elaborate and colourful traditional costumes chat away in German, French, Italian, English and other languages while laughter rings out in the background. The smell of food floats in the air, intertwined with the scent of wet grass and smoke from pipes.

A giant tent is set up at one end of the Schweizer Platz, flanked on three sides by tiny ones selling food, drinks and souvenirs, while a big “arena” with rows of seats dominates another section.

The chilly rain that signalled the onset of autumn fails to dampen the merriment in full swing. The place is alive with the sound of music and singing. Performers provide impromptu entertainment, belting out musical pieces to the cheers and applause of the crowds. The first day ends with a dinner and an evening of entertainment, the “Grosse Unspunnen Stubete”, in the big tent, where I am introduced to live performances of the electrifying Swiss yodelling and other alpine folk music and songs.

Yodelling is a form of singing involving repeated and rapid changes of high and low pitches once used to call in the livestock but has since become an important national heritage. Thousands have gathered under its roof, making new friends and getting reacquainted with old ones, as the efficient service crew keeps the flow of food and drinks going.

The next day, the crowd grows even larger and the partying mood ticks up another notch despite the semi-persistent drizzle.

Near the centre of the ground, a stone tossing contest, the event most associated with Unspunnen, is taking place. For the main contest, competitors have to hurl the Unspunnen stone, which weighs exactly 83.5kg, as far as they can. Grunts of exertion accompany each attempt, to be followed by loud cheers from the fans.

At the arena, hundreds of participants of all ages, all dressed up in traditional costumes and rain jackets, gather for mass folk dance. It is easy to get swept up in the moment as they move in rhythm to the music blaring out from the loudspeakers.

At another location, the sweet mellow sounds of the 4-feet- (1.22 metres) long Alphorns waft through the air, bringing to my mind images of snow-capped mountains and cows grazing on a lush green carpet of grass, under the watchful gaze of the herdsmen.

The highlight of the day is definitely the performance by the Silvesterklaus with their huge clanging cowbells and slow yodel. The dance, which can track its roots to the 1600s, is traditionally seen only twice a year — Dec 31 and Jan 13 on the Gregorian and Julian calendars, respectively — to mark the new year.

The finale of Unspunnen, on my final in Interlaken, started with a ear-piercing scream of jet engines. The six planes of Patrouille Suisse, the acrobatic team of the Swiss Air Force, cut through the morning sky like blades in a variety of manoeuvres, each with the famed Swiss precision. Paragliders, meanwhile, dot the sky like graceful birds.

The grand parade featuring more than 70 groups dressed in colourful costumes from the 26 cantons of Switzerland follows soon after. There are musical bands, dancers and horsemen displayed their skills along with musketeers and performers of “whip cracking” that creates a sound like firecrackers going off.

The Unspunnen festival is an eye-opener into the culture of Switzerland and its people.

I have an unforgettable experience and many wonderful memories from Interlaken and other parts of the country. Maybe it’s time for yours.


UNSPUNNEN FUN FACTS

The festival is named after a ruin near Interlaken.

* The last event was planned for 2005 but postponed to the next year following catastrophic floods in many parts of Switzerland.

* The Unspunnen stone, which weighs 83.5kg, has been stolen a few times, the most recent being 2005. It has not been recovered.

* The best rifleman at the first Unspunnen in 1805, Johann Kaspar Beugger from Aarmühle, was blind in one eye.

* Around 12,000 participants took part in the 2017 edition of the festival, along with 150,000 visitors.


FAST FACTS

Malaysian visitors in Switzerland

2010: 21,618

2014: 37,732*

2016: 33, 378

Nights spent in Switzerland

2010: 44,590

2014: 70,750*

2016: 64,344

*Peak

DID YOU KNOW?

* The official languages in Switzerland are German, French, Italian and Romansh. But English is widely used, too.

* For easy travel, purchase the Swiss Travel Pass, the all-in-one ticket by rail, road and waterway throughout the whole of Switzerland.

* The Swiss Federal Railways offers a convenient, worry-free baggage transfer service from your current address to be delivered to the next destination for a small fee.

* The Swiss Travel Pass also includes the Swiss Museum Pass, allowing free entrance to 500 museums and exhibitions.

* The water throughout the country is potable and safe to drink, such as from the tap in the hotel room or public fountains.

* Bollywood superstar Ranveer Singh is the tourism ambassador for Switzerland.

* If all the Swiss hiking trails are laid end-to-end, you can hike around the globe one-and-a-half times.

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