Lausanne : introduction
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St-François / the Bourg, Collection de l'Art Brut, The Old Town, Ouchy and the lakefront

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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.

Victor Hugo

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. 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.

Aiding the dynamism, a defining feature of the city is its international population of students, attracted to the prestigious University of Lausanne, Switzerland’s biggest, and the French-language arm of the Federal Institute of Technology. Hundreds of language schools and private academies enhance the city’s reputation for learning, along with the world-famous École Hotelière, training ground for top chefs and hotel staff. An array of international study programmes helps to feed Lausanne’s uniquely diverse multi-ethnic makeup. This youthful spirit, and the city’s hilly aspect, have also given Lausanne a new role as European blading and skateboarding capital: when the sun shines, every public space hisses with the spinning of tiny wheels, and the Ouchy waterfront in summer echoes to the clack of skateboards. Bladers have been clocked doing 90kph on the city’s hills, and in the winter, after days of heavy snow when blading is necessarily curtailed, it’s not unknown to see the same intrepid characters skiing through the streets down to Ouchy.

On a more orthodox line, since 1874 Lausanne has been the home of the highest Swiss federal court of appeal, and has also attracted many multinational companies, not least Philip Morris, who chose Lausanne as a base from which to sell their Marlboro, Chesterfield, Suchard and Toblerone brands to Europe and Africa. However, the feature which the tourist office has lit upon is that the International Olympic Committee has been headquartered in Lausanne since 1915, and has attracted to the city an array of world governing bodies in sports ranging from chess to volleyball; they tout the city as “Olympic Capital” and endlessly plug the rather vapid Olympic Museum. It’s a mark of Lausannois spirit that given the chance to host the 1994 winter games, the locals dismayed the municipality and the IOC by voting the idea down and embracing the annual International Roller and Skateboarding Contest instead.

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