LAUSANNE tends to inspire hyperbole. In a country of spectacular natural beauty it is the most beautiful of cities, Switzerland’s San Francisco, a city of incredibly steep hills that has developed tiered above the lake on a succession of compact, south-facing terraces…From the terrace of the cathedral, I saw the lake above the roofs, the mountains above the lake, the clouds above the mountains, and the stars above the clouds. It was like a staircase where my thoughts climbed up step by step and broadened at each new height.
Vistas of blue water, glittering sunlight and the purple and grey of the looming, whitecapped Savoy Alps peep through between gaps in buildings or at the ends of steeply dropping alleys. Much of the city is still wooded, there are plenty of parks, and the tree-lined lakefront promenades spill over with lush, beds of vibrantly colourful flowers. Attractive, interesting, worldly, and well aware of how to have a good time, it’s simply Switzerland’s sexiest city.
The comparisons with San Francisco don’t stop at the gorgeous setting. If Switzerland has a counterculture, it lives in the clubs and cafés of Lausanne, a fact which – odd though it seems – lies broadly within the city’s long tradition of fostering intellectual and cultural innovation. From medieval times, Lausanne has stood at the Swiss cultural avant-garde. Back then, the cathedral crowned the city the most influential of the region; it still sits resplendant on an Old Town hill, the country’s most impressive Gothic monument.
After the Reformation, students flocked to Lausanne’s pioneering university, and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, restless Romantics sought and found inspiration in the setting and the life of Lausanne. It remains a grand-looking city, full of shuttered foursquare mansions and ritzy shopping streets, and with its own glamorous lakeside resort of Ouchy; but, despite the looks, there are few cities in Europe that so actively value and support the pleasure principle.
For decades, the municipality has generously subsidized art and culture of all shades, resulting in a range of festivals, live music, clubs, theatre, opera and dance to rival a more sluggish metropolis ten times bigger than 300,000-strong Lausanne. It would be an exaggeration to say you could find anything you wanted in Lausanne, but the happy combination of a long tradition of cultural experimentation, open and willing audiences and chunky public subsidies gives the city’s arts and entertainment a refreshing breadth.