In association with Switzerland Tourism
Light, delicate and fruity — Swiss wine is one of Switzerland’s best-kept secrets, and the main reason it’s not better known is because the Swiss drink almost all of it themselves. You may find the odd bottle abroad if you’re lucky, but the Swiss don’t make enough for mass export. If you want to try some you really need to come to Switzerland, and the best place to start is Vevey, a picturesque town a few miles from Montreux.
Side by side on Lake Geneva, Montreux and Vevey tend to get lumped together as one municipality, but despite their proximity they couldn’t be less alike. Montreux is a party town, famous for its annual jazz festival. Vevey is a quieter place, more unassuming and authentic, but once every 20 years it steals the limelight from its brasher twin.
The Fête des Vignerons is a unique event in European viniculture. This year, from 18 July to 11 August, 20,000 spectators will gather in a vast outdoor arena on the waterfront to watch a show performed by thousands of local amateurs — a celebration of the winemaking year.
The first Fête des Vignerons was performed in Vevey in the 18th century, and it’s returned every 20 to 25 years since then. The production team are top professionals (this year’s director, Daniele Finzi Pasca, has worked with Cirque du Soleil) but all the performers (actors, singers, dancers) are unpaid. They do it for the love of it — it’s an honour to take part.
Vevey’s inhabitants spend years preparing for each Fête des Vignerons. For everyone living here, it’s a landmark, an event that comes along only a few times in a lifetime. A million visitors will arrive this summer — not just to see the show but to enjoy the fringe events that spring up around it, from pop-up restaurants to fairground rides.
If you’re not here during the Fête des Vignerons, Vevey is more sedate — but there’s still lots to see and do in this unspoilt lakeside town. James Mason, Graham Greene and Charlie Chaplin all lived here. Chaplin’s old home, the Manoir de Ban, is now a wonderful museum, called Chaplin’s World. The exhibition is exhilarating, and the gardens divine. Anita Brookner’s heartbreaking novel, Hotel du Lac, is set in Vevey’s Grand Hotel du Lac.
Vevey is the gateway to Switzerland’s most important winegrowing region, Lavaux, and a tour around its historic vineyards makes a great day out. The steep fields along this hillside have been terraced ever since the Middle Ages, and the entire area is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Locals say these grapes are heated three times over — by the sun itself, by the heat from these stone terraces, and by the sunlight reflected from the lake.
Getting around Lavaux is easy. From Vevey there’s a special train which stops at several halts amid the vineyards. If you’re feeling more energetic, there are loads of hiking and cycling trails. Most of the vineyards are pretty small, often family-run sidelines rather than big businesses. It’s no problem to drop in, try a glass or two, and buy a few bottles to take home.
Montreux is a lot more glitzy than Vevey. The grandest of its grand hotels is the Montreux Palace, a belle époque pile on the waterfront. Vladimir Nabokov lived there for a while. There’s a charming statue of him outside, leaning back on his chair as if he’s about to topple over.
My favourite walk along the lake is from Montreux to the Château de Chillon, a fairytale castle which inspired one of Byron’s most famous poems, ‘The Prisoner of Chillon’. It’s fun to wander round, but the best thing is the view, of this enormous lake, and the snowcapped peaks beyond.