Switzerland's lake of stars

Our writer discovers the wilder side of Switzerland as she explores Lake Geneva’s celebrity legacy


You’d think the serene shores of Lake Geneva, framed by alpine meadows and majestic snow-capped peaks, were as far as you could get from the wilder climes of showbusiness. Yet perhaps because of its very serenity, many controversial figures in the arts have made the Swiss Riviera their home, from Charlie Chaplin and Vladimir Nabokov to David Bowie and Freddie Mercury.

And most have left their legacy, making this picturesque region a place of cultural treasures as well as tempting visitors with its gorgeous scenery and surprisingly fine wine.

Notably, this year marks the first anniversary of Chaplin’s World, a remarkable conversion of the actor’s fabulous Swiss family mansion into a superb museum 40 years after his death and 65 years after he moved into the house where he was to raise nine of his 11 children, once he had been denied re-entry to the USA.

Actress Geraldine Chaplin, the oldest and best-known of the brood — and an old acquaintance — remembers the children’s dining room being situated in what is now the ladies’ loo. “This is where we’d wait for our lift to the local school, which Dad insisted we attend for the first couple of years,” she reminisced as we walked round during her first visit in several years.

“My father was very Victorian, and we were presented to our parents for 45 minutes while they had cocktails, but didn’t get to join them in the formal dining room until we were grown up.

“After our mother died, two of my brothers raised their own families here, but when I was last here the house had already been abandoned for several years, and there were trees growing up through the living-room floor!” she recalls. With such extensive maintenance needed, the huge property was eventually sold to preserve the Chaplin legacy.

The apples have not fallen far from the tree — Geraldine lives just down the street in Vevey, her brothers up the hill — and hers is not the only famous face visitors might spot while exploring the house.

One block has been turned into a huge studio set where clips of Chaplin’s great movies are permanently on display, while home movies illustrate life chez Chaplin. Sophia Loren and other celebrities who were lavishly entertained here during Chaplin’s twilight years have been back to see the old place too.

Set aside a full half-to day visit, especially if you plan to enjoy the gardens running down towards the lake. The obvious place to stay is the bright and airy Modern Times hotel built to serve Chaplin’s World; as you’d expect, images of Charlie are everywhere, very tastefully presented.

Once under consideration as co-star for Chaplin’s 1952 masterpiece Limelight, which featured his eldest three children, Audrey Hepburn is the star’s neighbour along the lake — for this summer at least.

The gamine actress’s legendary association with couturier Hubert de Givenchy is being celebrated in the lesser-known city of Morges, which like Vevey, is easily reached by train from both Geneva Airport to the west and Montreux to the east. Previously unseen photographs documenting the actress and designer’s professional collaboration along with letters, sketches, dresses, hats and accessories, will be on display in the town, near the star’s own former Swiss home, until September 17.

Montreux itself has perhaps the greatest celebrity associations as home to an annual jazz festival which has featured greats from Dizzy Gillespie to Count Basie; Herbie Hancock is headlining this summer’s golden jubilee.

It is also the site of the fairytale castle of Chillon which inspired one of Britain’s 18th century wild child celebrities, Byron, to write an epic poem as well as carving his name on a pillar in the dungeon.

As well as being home to Switzerland’s most visited monument, this elegant little lakeside town has where Nabokov, author of Lolita, and his wife Vera stayed for the last 16 years of his life, at world-class hotel in the Fairmont Montreux Palace. Book ahead for a lakeview room, although anyone can enjoy dinner in the jazz bar or wander the lakeshore admiring the sculptures, including a statue of Freddie Mercury.

Drawn by the peaceful atmosphere, the singer settled here after visiting in 1978 and recorded some of his best-known songs in Montreux. Bowie also lived close by for more than 20 years, sending his son Zowie to school in Vevey, and recorded hits of his own in the Montreux studio owned by Queen.

And with the train skirting the lake all the way from Geneva, it’s easy to reach a string of towns nearby. Lausanne with its elevators and funicular carrying visitors up through the town, has one of Switzerland’s great palace hotels, the legendary Beau Rivage, while the summer food market in Vevey comes with street musicians.

In between, the Lavaux vineyards, have earned Unesco World Heritage status. Many wineries receiving guests can be reached by a pleasant hilltop hike, or the Terres de Lavaux tasting centre close to Lutry station is a great place to sample a few vintages with some excellent local produce.

Cheese lovers shouldn’t miss a day trip to Gruyere, accessible by special panoramic train from Montreux station.

And while slurping the world’s most delicious fondue served by dirndl’d waitresses overlooking Alpine meadows and listening to the tinkling of cowbells, you are only steps away from the museum devoted to HR Giger, the surrealist artist who famously created the monsters for the Alien movie franchise.

For all Switzerland’s chocolate-box image, travellers looking for a destination with more of an interesting edge, will find this part of the country has controversy and drama galore.

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