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Aside from my wife’s penchant for Alpen cereal, her Swatch watch and Victorinox luggage, I can’t say either of us has much connection to the small, alpine country with secretive banks, citizen soldiers, and a recently-discovered dislike of minarets.  Switzerland is a country that we have both managed to miss during our hopscotch explorations of European countries.  Until last week.

An invitation to a conference in Lausanne seemed too good to pass up.  Google Lausanne and picture yourself there in mid September and you’ll see why the idea was attractive.  The city is located on the shores of Lake Geneva, (Lac Leman en francais), a beautiful, glacier-gouged bend in the Rhone river.

Lausanne is touted in my guidebook as the Swiss San Francisco, perched as it is on steep inclines, with the lake in the foreground and the mountains beyond.  The chief drawback to the trip was the necessity of dove-tailing the visit with my wife’s teaching schedule.  The entire adventure would all have to be packed into six quick days.

Since the first two days were dedicated to the conference, I was on my own to explore the city and check out the art exhibits.  There was a subway stop just outside our hotel, so it was quick and easy to get up to the “old” part of the city. The sleek, automated subway line was very popular, connecting the city center and the train station to the lakefront below, an area of Lausanne known as Ouchy.

The contrast of the two most popular art exhibits couldn’t have been more stark.  There was an engaging Edward Hopper show in a lovely chateau set discretely in a park.  Even though there are surreal aspects to Hopper’s work, the “Art Brut” collection, initiated by Jean Dubuffet from the work of mentally-ill, marginalized eccentrics, loners and outcasts, blew the lid off Hopper’s most challenging works.  Unimpressed by artistic traditions or social norms, much of the work was disturbing and the brief bios of the artists were depressing. I was glad to get out into the sunshine.

At one time, the city must have been dominated by Notre Dame, a magnificent gothic cathedral, but the grace of the setting has now been lost. The beautiful interior makes up for it.  At almost every turn, one plaque or another lets you know that Lausanne has been a favorite stopping place for centuries.  “[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….” – Victor Hugo.

In two short days I threaded my way through the old city and snapped hundreds of photos, trying to capture the place with pixels so my spouse could get a sense of where she had been.  It was hardly fair to drag her away from Lausanne on her first free day, but she didn’t protest too much.  I wanted to see what Switzerland has always meant to me– mountains.

It may be a cliche, but it does seem like you can set your watch by the trains once you figure out the schedule. It is all  synchronized so that connections are simply there.  My idea was to catch a train along the lake to Montreux, then change for the Golden Pass train heading into the mountains towards Interlaken.  I thought we would get off at Gstadt.  It was the only town I had heard of and the guidebook said there were hikes in the area that were serviced by ski lifts.

The town is two stops beyond French-speaking Switzerland, however, and my silver tongue suddenly turned to lead. We strolled through the glitzy village feeling like backpackers hiking through Paris.  Our goal was the lift of Wispile, which would whisk us up to 1911 meters (6,270 feet), paragliding heaven.

With an inadequate map, a lack of information and time, we decided to hike halfway down the mountain along a gravel road, then take the lift back down to the base.   We just might make the next train to Montreux.  It turned into a jog at the end with seconds to spare.

Sunday morning was glorious.  We headed down to Ouchy to catch the boat for the Chateau de Chillon, a medieval castle made famous by Byron, who had the appalling audacity to carve his name in one of the pillars in the dungeon.   The castle is built on an island, a strategic spot that provided the Savoy family with a lucrative tax on trade.

Like the previous day, the timing of our exit was impeccable.  We emerged just in time to herald the arrival of the hundred year-old paddle steamer, “La Suisse.”  We clambered aboard, settled back, and watched the vineyards of Lavaux pass us by.  I could easily imagine a return visit, one day spent walking from vineyard to vineyard.  Another day hiking from pass to pass in the mountains.  A long night in a cosy bed covered by a down duvet, waking to the sound of cow bells.  And a long lunch at that Michelin-starred restaurant.  Check out the rest of pics by clicking on any one running alongside the post.

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