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LUXURY TRAVEL: Switzerland
In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance.
In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
Harry Lime, The Third Man
 
If like Graham Greene's character in the 1940s thriller 'The Third Man', you believe Swiss are so boring that the only thing they have produced worth noting is the cuckoo clock - think again.

Other writers have had a very different view of Switzerland.
 
festival
festival
chillon castle
swiss dairy cows
alpine hut
hotel terrace
village

The fabulous Chillon Castle, for example, is the setting of Byron's poem 'The Prisoner of Chillon'.  The castle rises from the lake with Disney-like towers and formidable stone walls and in its vaulted stone cellars Byron carved his name in a discreet act of early vandalism.

By contrast, at the nearby Fairmont Le Montreux Palace hotel, Vladimir (Lolita) Nabokov's name is legitimately writ large. He lived for 16 years in a suite at this belle époque hotel, which is still visited by contemporary luminaries in their legions.

We've come to this beautiful country in high summer, eschewing the famous winter slopes of the snow peaks for hiking in flower-strewn alpine meadows, exploring Switzerland's vineyards and indulging in stately breaststrokes in the broad waters of Lake Geneva.

Being confused about the names Lac Leman and Lake Geneva, I was told that the French speakers call it the former, the rest of us the latter, and that the words Lac Genève must never, never be uttered. ``It is getting up our nostril, this term,'' says Lorenzo the Magnificent, our guide in the Montreux area.

The twin towns of Montreux and Vevey, less than an hour's drive from Geneva airport, are famous for their festivals. In July, the jazz greats perform in one of the world's happiest musical events -- the Montreux Jazz Festival. The locals join in, bringing with them picnics, kids, parents and grandparents. By the lake shores of Montreux there's a larger-than-life statue of the late Freddie Mercury, of Queen fame called 'Lover of Life, Singer of Songs', paying homage to his contribution to the tourist revenue of Montreux. He once lived in the area. Since 2003 Montreux has paid further homage with an annual tribute festival to his life and music held every September. Freddie wasn't the only one to make a home in Switzerland: Richard Burton, Charlie Chaplin and Audrey Hepburn all lived here too. I am sure they loved the clean air and the spectacular scenery but those two little words 'tax haven' may also have attracted them.
  
... hiking in flower-strewn ALPINE meadows, exploring Switzerland's vineyards and  indulging in STATELY breaststrokes in the broad waters of Lake Geneva.
 
They seem to love festivals, the Swiss. Every 25 years or so - 'once a generation' -  Vevey stages the extraordinary Fete des Vignerons, a festival paying in honour of to the area's winegrowers. It's a performance of Cecil B. DeMille proportions - the first question anyone asks you in a fete year is ``Have you seen the spectacle?'' Planning takes decades, rehearsals begin 18 months before the performances. The locals appear to lose their reason, some seeing the performances five or six times, and at more than 200 Swiss francs ($204) a go, that's big cheese for a people noted for their frugality.

It's a gathering involving entire families over three and four generations. Five thousand or so locals perform and only a few professionals are employed for the main singing parts. We were fortunate enough to see the festival in 1999, so the next one will be around 2020. For 10 days Vevey is awash with stilt-walkers, clowns and the splendid chaps of the Cent Suisse - a 100-strong band of bearded stalwarts who wear traditional red costumes, like Vatican guards who've lost their stripes, plus splendid feathered musketeer hats.

 Children dress up as grapevines, matrons in gold skirts with black velvet crowns and lads in multi-coloured jester caps complete with bells, hop on the bus between Montreux and Vevey giving us a Fellini-inspired ride. I mean, how many times in one's life does one sit between a chap in a blue velvet frock coat with matching blue velvet top hat and a belly dancer? Who says the Swiss are staid!

Apparently versions of the Fete des Vignerons have been virtually unchanged for more than 300 years. 

After understanding the important of this extraordinary ritual whenever we are in Switzerland we always make a point of  sampling the object of the fantasy itself, and on this occasion we do so delightfully at  a  local wine merchant who lets us sample the dry whites of the region. In the Montreux-Vevey area the vines are planted so close together that no machinery can wend its way between them and the grapes must be hand-picked. Terraced right down to the lake's edge, the vineyards are a constant in the area, and the winemakers welcome tourists to their cellars.

In Lausanne, further up the lake, we try far too many of the region's offerings  and are even offered Australian wine, (in honour of the passports we carry)  which is positively vintage compared to the Swiss, which is usually drunk within three years of harvesting.

Lausanne is essentially a walking city, and not for those who won't get out of a car. Its streets are steep and cobbled, its shopping sophisticated, its cathedral magnificent, and its Olympic museum superb. Take the metro down the hill to Ouchy and the lake promenade, taking a walk through the gardens of the luxury Beau-Rivage Palace hotel en route. Here you'll find a pet cemetery dating from early in the century. 'Blinkie, A Little Friend for 15 years' lies alongside Teddy, Sonny Boy, and 'My Darling Negus'. 'Our devoted little Pal Billy'  is just to the right of 'Mirko', and there are countless other little chaps scattered about. Brings a tear to the eye, really, a tear mistaken for Olympic fervour, I fear, as we arrive at the museum. Lausanne is the headquarters of the Olympic movement, and the museum is fascinating, even for someone like me who is not a sporting enthusiast.

From Lausanne, we drift home to Montreux along the lake on board a traditional paddle steamer (deckchairs on the first-class deck are three Swiss francs above the normal fare.) Watching the high-peaked mountains, their base lost in the heat haze rising from the waters, we wonder whether such beauty could be bettered anywhere in the world.

Next day, as we drive up through chestnut and fir and pine woods to the mountains, we discover it can. The village of Villars, and its nearby snowfield at Les Diablerets, are ravishingly beautiful. They're family oriented places, with friendly cafes, bike trails, and networks of hiking tracks in summer. Intrepids can take off para-gliding or go mountain climbing, abseiling and, yes, canyoning. At Les Diablerets, there's also summer skiing on the glacier. In winter, the area provides skiing possibilities of every standard, from precipitous black runs to gentle slopes for idiots like me who ski like a cow rides a bicycle.

Night-life is villagey and friendly, accommodation varied, from B&Bs with local families to pretty posh lodgings. The Luxury Travel Bible suggests that luxury lovers head for Rougemont and Chateau d'Oex and Gstaad, where it's not unknown for Roger Moore, who doesn't ski like the 007 he once was, to run into unsuspecting bunnies on the slopes and where a macchiato costs you the arm and leg you're likely to break as you hit the piste. If skiing is not your bag, take a gentle ride in a horse-drawn sled at Saanen, or wait for spring, and take off in a balloon from the pretty village of Chateau d'Oex. The Luxury Travel Bible suggests staying at the Relais & Chateaux Grand Hotel Bellevue in Gstaad (try the Bellevue Gold massage after a day on the slopes).

Switzerland appears to have it all  - snow, sun, swimming, culture, vineyards and efficient ways of getting about the country, whether it's by train, bus or Shanks's pony. Accommodation-wise  It has   everything from boutique pensions in which to stay, where the duvets are made of down and Madame will give you the leftovers from your butter allocation as you leave, to  the luxury palace hotels where it costs $25 or so to even touch the door handle. 

Then of course there's also the possibility that an ex-007 might always bump into you on the slopes.
 
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Jill Mullens updated 10/4/10
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