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  1. Wealth
November 26, 2008

Go Jump in the Lake

By Spear's

For centuries Lake Geneva has been a white-hot cauldron of creativity and avant-garde experimentation. Yes, really, says Steve King

For centuries Lake Geneva has been a white-hot cauldron of creativity and avant-garde experimentation. Yes, really, says Steve King

In the British film noir classic The Third Man, Orson Welles ad-libbed some of the most celebrated lines in cinema history. ‘In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias,’ his character, the black-marketeering creep Harry Lime, twitters merrily, ‘they had warfare, terror, murder, 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.’

Movie buffs can’t get enough of this. It’s the only bit not scripted by Graham Greene, they crow; the only bit anybody remembers. And they have a point. Yet nobody seems to mind that practically every word of it is bunk. It was the Germans, not the Swiss, who invented the cuckoo clock, as any fule kno; and the connection between political mayhem and artistic creativity is the kind of silly thing smart-alec undergraduates get told off for saying in supervisions.

If you need convincing on this second point, go to Switzerland. Check into the Hôtel des Bergues in Geneva. Several things recommend it: it has fab views over the tiny islet in Lac Léman, where a statue commemorates local boy made good Jean-Jacques Rousseau; it’s not far from Madame de Staël’s château and the Villa Diodati, where Lord Byron and the Shelleys ran amok; Jean Cocteau and Edith Piaf stayed there; and Jorge Luis Borges lived across a neighbouring bridge. It is also quite the plushest, most luscious and, since it became part of the Four Seasons portfolio a couple of years ago, impeccably restored hotel in town. Ace bar, too. (Swiss wine. Who knew?)

From there, amble over to the central station and jump on a train for Montreux. Soon you’ll be swishing through Lausanne, where Edward Gibbon polished off his mighty History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; F Scott Fitzgerald cooled his heels while Zelda got over a wobbly spell; and Coco Chanel came to reflect on a career in little black dresses and bobbled power suits. Round the curve in the lake is Vevey, a quaint spot that moved Henry James to write Daisy Miller. Charlie Chaplin and Graham Greene both had their last laugh here. Take that, Orson Welles.

On to palm-treed Montreux, home to Vladimir Nabokov for seventeen years, as it had been to his countrymen Nikolai Gogol, Leo Tolstoy, Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Igor Stravinsky. A larger-than-life bronze of Nabokov — tie, waistcoat, knickerbockers, hiking boots — stands outside the Montreux Palace hotel, where, flush with the proceeds of his first English-language masterpiece, Lolita, he shacked up to finish his second, Pale Fire, and write his third, Ada. Say you’re a Nabokov fan and the concierge may well invite you to inspect the great man’s rooms — or one of them at least, which is known, perhaps a little too grandly, as the Nabokov Suite, and is just as poky as he told reporters it was.

Skip back to the station and hop on to the Golden Pass Line, which writhes and wriggles its way through the Pays-d’Enhaut to Interlaken and Lucerne. Train-wise, you’ve got two options: the Panoramic or the Classic. The Panoramic is high-spec and modern, with special jumbo-sized windows for gawping at the improbably lovely alpine scenery; the Classic is Orient-Express stock, opulent and woody and retro-cool. Take the Classic.
The train spirals at a snail’s pace past Les Avants, where Ernest Hemingway went lugeing down the street in winter and, less butchly, admired the wild flowers in summer.

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Noël Coward came here to restore his bikini-line pallor after his annual sojourn in Jamaica. Later, at Rossinière, the train stops within sight of Le Grand Chalet, supposedly the largest chalet in Switzerland, where the fauxhemian Balthus worked up his lurid fantasies of little girls with big pussycats.

Pressed for time? Go as far as Gstaad — whether there’s snow on the ground or not, it looks like a fairy tale — then turn round and head back to Geneva. It’s a fantastic ride through an enchanted landscape inhabited by the shades of enough geniuses to put a sock in Harry Lime’s know-it-all mouth. And not a cuckoo clock in sight.

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