Vevey is a small Swiss city in Vaud at the foot of Mount Pèlerin, with less than 20,000 inhabitants, so one can easily walk around in a couple of hours on a leisurely stroll along the Lake Leman waterfront, with the Savoy mountains looming beyond. The antique Old Town, which has its own history museum, is composed of quiet, winding streets with storefronts holding bakeries, restaurant, cafés and boutiques. The sheer calm of Vevey makes up a good deal of its charm.
Yet Vevey is also a very vibrant city, with great cultural history behind it—here it was that Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote his tremendously popular romantic novel Julie, or the New Heloise (1761)—and it is in close proximity to Vaud’s wine country, Montreux and Chillon. The local bus and train system makes Vevey a good city in which to stay put so as to venture out to other places in the Vaud environs.
Beginning July 8, Vevey will hold its three-week-long Fêtes des Vignerons, an event that occurs every 20 years or so and dates back to 1797. (I’ll be writing more about this in my article on Swiss wines.)
Appropriately for a Swiss town, Vevey has a Museum of Cameras, spread over five floors, and Nestlé, whose headquarters are here, founded the Alimentarium on Rue du Leman, a museum of nutrition, which examines the history and complexity of food worldwide through virtual and sensory exhibitions, including a Body Section in which you can wander through the brain and other body parts concerned with the consumption of food, if that is your wont.
Another singular attraction, above the city of Vevey, is the Charlie Chaplin Museum, which anyone with only the vaguest idea of the movie master can appreciate. For, along with the requisite film clips and historic narratives, the museum has adapted the best ideas from decades of Walt Disney amusement parks and Madame Tussauds wax museums to provide impeccably life-like replicas of Chaplin and his co-stars.
There are tableaus taken from his destitute childhood in the London slums as well as the sets for his most beloved movies. You learn how much of a perfectionist he was, with some scenes requiring hundreds of takes, and what an important composer of film music he was. There are lots of tricks of the eye as well, and, after touring the museum, you have the pleasure of actually visiting the 35-acre estate called Manoir de Ban, where Chaplin retired to with his family in 1953, at a time when his political and personal life came under fire during the McCarthy Era.
Declaring himself “a citizen of the world,” Chaplin lived out his life in Lausanne knowing he was still beloved by a world he had given so much joy to. “I hope that the entertainment I give has some lasting effect on people,” he once said. “I hope they see the beauty that I myself am seeking. I am trying to express a beauty that embraces not only physical characteristics and scenes, but the true fundamental emotions of humanity. Beauty. Beauty is what I am after.”
Hop the Number 201 bus in Vevey, and in half an hour you’ll be in Montreux, a resort city that has acquired all the encrustations that international popularity has brought, beginning in the post-Napoleonic Era. Montreux was part of the Vevey District until 2006, when it became the independent Riviera-Pays-d’Enhaut.
In the 20th century Montreux became a draw for artists, writers and musicians, which included Tchaikovsky, Noël Coward, Oskar Kokoschka, A.J. Cronin and Dame Joan Sutherland, all staying there when the city was much less trammeled and much more of an Alpine retreat. Today nearly half the city’s population is composed of foreign nationals, whose houses and condos have peppered the hills in recent years.
After the establishment of the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1967, the city became a draw for scores of rock musicians who recorded their albums at Mountain Studios; some, like David Bowie, bought homes. The British group Deep Purple wrote the song “Smoke on the Water” after the city’s Casino burned down in 1971.
But by far the rock-and-roll connection above all others is to Freddie Mercury and Queen, which bought the Mountain Studios in 1978. (It is now a charity museum called “Queen: The Studio Experience.”) Mercury had a second home in Montreux and, as with the statue of Rocky Balboa in Philadelphia, a visit to the statue of the late singer in the town square has become a requisite tourist site, with a plaque that reads, “He appreciated the kindness and the discretion of the townspeople and Montreux became a haven for him.”
A walk along the lake is one of Montreux’s principal charms, though the sidewalk along the Rye de Bon-Port is now lined with shops of varying taste and price. The one stop one must make is to visit the great and historic Fairmont Le Montreux Palace Hotel, which opened in 1906 and became the haunt of European royalty and society. During World War I the hotel was used as a shelter for wounded Allied soldiers, but by the 1920s it had again become one of the most luxurious caravansaries, host to many international conferences. In World War II it was again used as a hospital. Deep renovations were made in 1994 and consistently since, with a Winter Garden opened over the Grand Hall in 2001. New, award-winning restaurants and bars were added in the first decade of the present century, with a multi-million-dollar renovation ending in 2014. (I shall be writing about where to stay and eat in Vevey and Montreux soon.)
Not far from Montreux is the remarkably restored 12th century Castle of Chillon, whose fame rests wholly on the 1816 poem by Lord Byron about Francois Bonnivard, the castle’s lone, surviving prisoner. By then the Castle had already become the property of the Canton of Vaud. Ever since, restoration has been on-going, but it is one of the best castle visits I have made in Europe, during which one sees the underground room where Bonnivard was shackled, three formal great halls, defensive measures, the chapel, bedrooms and dining rooms.
The Castle is easily reached on foot (about 45 minutes from Montreux), car (there is free parking), train, bus or by boat. The latter is certainly the loveliest, most romantic way to approach the Castle, which is always the case anywhere on the beautiful Lake Leman.