In 2012, when I attended the 46th Montreux Jazz Festival along Switzerland’s picturesque coastline by Lake Geneva (Lac Léman), I saw a pattern. Some of the most eminent names in literature, poetry, music and films seem to have a connect — almost a sense of belonging — with this coastline.
Jean Jacques Rousseau, for example. The French philosopher was born in Geneva and travelled to villages along the Swiss-France border. His famous epistolary novel, Julie, or the New Heloise was based in Clarens in the canton of Vaud. Even today, the private premises of Crêtes Castle (Château des Crêtes) in Clarens can be spotted across the lake. In fact, this is the venue where Julia and her lover exchange their first kiss in the book.
I chanced upon Rue Byron or Lord Byron Street on an arbitrary walk around the Montreux neighbourhood. As an ardent lover of the late 18th century Romantics movement), I gravitated towards the Byron trail without any persuasion. Byron’s The Prisoner of Chillon was inspired by Chillon Castle (Château de Chillon). The castle has been a part of the historic land route to St. Bernhard Pass, said to be the third highest road pass in Switzerland. This medieval fortress has 25 buildings and three courtyards, protected by two very sturdy circular walls.
However, these personalities remained short-term tenants of the riviera. Unlike Queen’s Freddie Mercury, probably the most renowned resident of the region. In 1978, Queen came here to register and record Jazz, their seventh studio album at the Mountain Studios, in Montreux Casino. It was then that Freddie fell in love with the place. He lived in an apartment in Territet, a nondescript village between Montreux and Chillon, and owned a small house, the Duck House in Clarens, which had private access to the lake.
Queen owned Mountain Studios from 1978 till 1993. They recorded six albums here and after Freddie’s death, David Richards, the engineer of the band, owned the studio. In 2013, after the death of Richards, the ownership further moved to the Mercury Phoenix Trust. The trust, which supports those fighting AIDS, has now created a complete experience around Freddie’s music in this space, exhibiting costumes, letters and lyrics, photographs and videos, music and souvenirs.
In the book Somebody to Love: The Life, Death and Legacy of Freddie Mercury, Brian May, the lead guitarist of the band, is quoted as saying, “Particularly towards the end of his life he was pursued by the press and curious people. He just wanted peace and quiet, to be able to get on with what he did. It was very convenient in Montreux because people got used to the sight of us and nobody made a fuss.”
But Freddie Mercury is only one of the many musicians who have been attached to this alluring Swiss shoreline. Every year, the international Montreux Jazz Festival hosts a plethora of music lovers and artistes from the world over. Started in 1967, this landmark festival has been the brainchild of Claude Nobs, René Langel and Géo Voumard. Nobs, born in Montreux, was a jazz lover himself. He maintained close friendships with most musicians who performed at the festival — the list included Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, Deep Purple, Neil Young, David Bowie and many others. And so, it was no surprise when, on Nobs’ passing in 2013, Montreux’s 2014 festival line-up saw names like Buddy Guy, Van Morrison and Stevie Wonder — they had all come to bid farewell to Nobs.
In the other direction, along Lake Geneva, a distance of seven kilometres away from the Montreux Casino, lies the Alimentarium (food museum) on Vevey’s promenade. One day, I walked from Clarens to come across a Charlie Chaplin statue on this promenade. The statue of the Tramp — Chaplin’s most famous character, faces Lake Geneva and stands amidst well-manicured trees and plants. After America had banned Chaplin’s entry to the country (in 1952, Joseph McCarthy, a US senator, set up a committee which branded Chaplin as a Communist), he found refuge in Switzerland. In 1953, he moved to Manoir de Ban, his house in Corsier-sur-Vevey, where he spent the last 25 years with his wife, Oona, and their eight children. In his letter to Clifford Odets, Chaplin wrote, “We love Switzerland more and more each day”. I found it rather easy to fall in love, too, with the place. The premises are now home to Chaplin’s World, an exhibition area that took me through Chaplin’s work and personal space. Divided into three sections, the Manoir takes guests through his house and the various artefacts of his home; the studio screens his films and the Park is a 10-acre open space around the house.
I sat on a bench on the park surrounded by 100-year-old trees in silence, and thought to myself that a house is, perhaps, the most material form stability can take. And along the Montreux-Vevey stretch of Lake Geneva I had seen numerous such tangible remnants of the past. From Freddie’s studio to Chaplin’s mansion, it is as if each artiste found home and the solace that comes with home, here.