A taste of Switzerland in the canton of Vaud.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Switzerland? Cheese? Chocolate? Or picture-postcard landscapes where mountainous topography gives way to glacial lake waters? My first experience in the city of Lausanne in the notoriously neutral country offered all the above and much more.
On a towering hilltop overlooking the city of Lausanne, I find myself standing inside the 787-year-old Lausanne Cathedral. Here, within the inner sanctum of Switzerland’s largest Gothic building, I find myself mesmerised, not by the ornate stained glass windows or colourfully painted frescos, but by an organ. Strategically positioned above the congregation, this wind instrument with its 7,396 pipes splays out like the wings of an angel.
It’s not the first time I’ll be awe-struck on my five-day trip to the Vaud region in western Switzerland, one of the 26 cantons that form the Swiss Confederation. Those who know me will be well aware that I’m more of a foodie than a culture vulture, yet I’m enraptured with the city of Lausanne from the moment I step off the train from Geneva. The charming lakefront city offers travellers a juxtaposition of old and new, where Hermes and Louis Vuitton boutiques intersect the medieval shop-lined streets.
The confusion of “uphill, downhill”
This confluence extends to not only retail and architecture but the region’s culinary scene, where traditional dishes such as cheese fondue and locally produced wine vie for attention against international fare on menus across the hilly city. Here in Café Saint-Pierre, a stone’s throw from the Lausanne Cathedral, I experience my first taste of Switzerland.
The causal café is awash with locals during a busy lunchtime, with wooden tables spilling out into the street to capture the summer sunshine and a glimpse of the lakefront vistas for which Lausanne is known. A daily changing menu offers hearty soups, summer bowls stacked with chicken, salmon or falafel and (our personal favourite) a fuss-free cheeseburger from the Nardi butchery in Cully, laden with candied onions and bacon.
Over lunch, I’m able to get to grips with the city and its transportation system of street-side elevators and a multi-directional metro. Affectionally referred to by locals as “uphill, downhill”, it’s imperative you know in which direction you need to travel to avoid confusion. If all else fails, head to the lake.
Detours and distractions
Navigating the narrow streets from the cathedral down towards Place de la Palud, a brief detour calls for a gelato stop where diverse flavours such as stracciatella and honeycomb catch my eye. Twenty photographs later, I arrive in the cobbled square known for its 16th-century fountain and statue of justice. Here, a large Swiss flag drapes ceremoniously between the old buildings, while a clock presents the history of Vaud in animated scenes every hour upon the hour. The bustling square is home to cafés, boutiques, and several essential foodie stops, including La Ferme Vaudoise, a grocery store selling cheese, charcuteries and pâtisseries from local farms, and Durig Chocolatier, where too pretty to eat handcrafted chocolates are seductively laid out in glass displays, tempting passers-by to purchase a sweet treat.
Foodie distractions aside, a trip to Lausanne’s Olympic Museum is a must, even if you’re not of the sporting persuasion. Lausanne was officially designated the Olympic Capital in 1994, despite being home to The International Olympic Committee since 1915. This interactive museum houses permanent and temporary exhibits relating to sport and the Olympic movement. Here, visitors can immerse themselves in the history of the Olympics through the 1,500 objects displayed throughout the sprawling modern museum. Highlights include all of the medals and Olympic torches created for each of the summer games, Usain Bolt’s running kit, and Paralympic paraphernalia.
With all the sporting action causing me to work up an appetite, I head back into the historic old town for dinner at the traditional Café du Grütli. The authentic bistro-style restaurant feels classic as soon as I cross the threshold, with simple wooden furniture filling the quaint dining room in a restaurant that has been serving fresh regional produce since 1986. The building itself is much older, dating back to the year 1340. Here escargots, jambon et pomme frites and veal Cordon Bleu have become firm fixtures on the menu. And while we may not be in the snowy Swiss Alps, I cannot resist the luscious cheese fondue, where plump potatoes and crisp cubes of bread are the ideal accompaniments for dipping into the delicious melted Gruyère cheese.
A true taste of Switzerland
An early start the following morning brings me to the lakeside resort of Ouchy, where the tranquil waters of Lake Geneva await. With the mountains of France a 30-minute boat ride away, the lake measuring 73km in length and 310m in depth is the region’s lifeblood. It’s a place to swim, sail or fish and a visit to the alluring waters has become part of the daily routine for many Lausanne residents. Not wanting to get my feet wet, I opt for a scenic cruise on a steam paddleboat, with lunch aboard (of course).
As the vessel chugged out of the port, hugging the shores of the lake on its journey an hour east to the pretty town of Vevey, I’m treated to a three-course lunch anchored around proficient Swiss hospitality. Passing tiered vineyards and quaint villages, the waterfront vistas are almost as impressive as the charming dining room decked out in hues of gold and red. There’s an old-world charm to dining in the stern of the paddle boat and I relish every last bite of my cured ham with melon, tender veal cheeks with cocoa nibs and a mascarpone panna cotta with strawberry and basil.
Back on dry land, I meander up through the winding city streets, past flowered gardens, picturesque châteaus and ancient aqueducts that are common in this French-speaking part of Switzerland. My final destination is Brasserie de Montbenon. Housed inside a casino overlooking Lake Geneva, the restaurant’s grand dining room gives way to a leafy terrace that provides the perfect spot for sundowners as the sky comes alive with fluffy pink clouds before a drawn-out European evening approaches. Surrounded by dancing honey bees, a menu of classic beef tartare with Mesclun salad and toasted bread, plump ravioli parcels stuffed with ricotta and market tomatoes, and artisanal meringues with Gruyère double cream end our stay in Lausanne on a sweet note.
From elevated cuisine overlooking the lake to classic Swiss dishes served in a Medieval street setting, Lausanne is a city bursting with culinary surprises. Skip Zurich or Geneva and head lakeside in Lausanne for a true culinary adventure where cheese, chocolate and charcuterie are the trend du jour.
GO: Visit www.myvaud.ch for more information.