The land of cheese, chocolate and clocks commands a steadfast hold on the traveller’s imagination.
Switzerland’s jaw-dropping alpine scenery and equally indelible railway journeys, is the archetypical postcard impression synonymous with the nation. But if you’re looking to spice up a Swiss journey with a touch of Monte Carlo extravagance, be sure to add Geneva and the Swiss Riviera to your holiday itinerary.
Sprawling Lake Geneva is encircled by towering alpine peaks; including the Jura mountains to the west, and the vaulting French Alps to the south. Even at the height of summer, some of the tallest peaks are still flecked with snowfall.
The glitzy Swiss towns that skirt the water’s edge were first thrust onto the Grand Tour route two hundred years ago, feted in prose and poetry by the likes of Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, Leo Tolstoy and Hans Christian Andersen.
On the southwest lip of Europe’s largest Alpine lake, the city of Geneva is a unique and singular experience. Half of the city’s population are foreigners, predominantly due to the fact that this most international of cities is the world headquarters for a roll-call of lofty entities, from the Red Cross to the International Labour Organisation.
Essential sightseeing starts with the spritzing city landmark, Jet D’Eau. This is the world’s tallest fountain, a gushing sky-high plume that reaches 140 metres in height. It is a truly impressive sight around the lake – and can even be seen from the sky by passing aircraft.
Stop by St. Peter’s Cathedral, which is a hodge-podge of Gothic and neoclassical style. First built 1000 years ago, the Protestant John Calvin preached here in the 16th century. Situated in Geneva’s atmospheric old town district, another top drawer is Maison Tavel, a 14th century house which provides an authentic taste of Genevan life, over the past 700 years.
But it’s the sparkling lake, its manicured flower gardens, august statuary and mouth-watering views of mighty Mont-Blanc that will continue to wrest your attention.
To accentuate the lakeside glam of Geneva, push the boat out and pamper yourself to a night at the gorgeous Grand Hotel Kempinski.
All rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows and feature marble bathrooms. Many rooms offer melt-in-your-mouth views of the Jura Mountains and Lake Geneva.
A variety of lakeside restaurants are featured. My favourites include the Tse Yang which serves superb Chinese cuisine, and Le Grill which specialises in succulent steaks and sizzling seafood. The FloorTwo Bar, a triumph of white leather sofas, dark floors and chrome fittings, is the picture-perfect place to enjoy some cocktails and drink in the views.
All guest rooms boast floor-to-ceiling windows and marble bathrooms. For extra-indulgence, treat yourself to a massage treatment at the hotel’s splendid new Le Spa.
Situated on the eastern shores of Lake Geneva, Montreux has long been a playground for poets, playwrights and pop-stars. Often described as the jewel of the Swiss Riviera, glittering Montreux is a lakeside resort oozing X-factor.
In the 1980s, the front-man for celebrated rock band Queen, Freddie Mercury, relocated from London to Montreux to escape the jaws of starry-eyed fans. The locals loved having the superstar as an honorary resident, and he remained living here to the day he died in 1991. Shortly after he lost his battle with AIDS, town officials funded a magnificent bronze statue of Freddie Mercury, which takes pride of place in Place du Marche, adjacent to the lakefront.
Heading east from the statue is the town’s modern looking casino. In 1971, during a concert by Frank Zappa, a rocket-flare was fired into the ceiling of the casino, and the entire building was soon engulfed by flames. As clouds of smoke towered above the waters of the lake, Ian Gillan of Deep Purple, who was watching the spectacle from his hotel room, was inspired by the dramatic sight, and Smoke on the Water was the result.
A short walk further east will bring you to one of Switzerland’s most evocative sights, Chateau de Chillon. This fairy-tale castle is pinned to the shores of Lake Geneva, like a medieval brooch.
Built for the Dukes of Savoy in the 13th century, a real crowd-pleaser is the underground prison, which was immortalised in Lord Byron’s The Prisoner of Chillon.