Lausanne : the Old Town
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Located in the tranquil core of Lausanne’s Old Town, the cobbled Place de la Palud is a perfect spot for people-watching: with shopping streets cascading through the square from all sides, plenty of pavement cafés and the handy Fontaine de la Justice usually ringed with promenaders perching on its wide rim, it’s a tempting place to take a break for a reviving café renversée, especially if the Wednesday and Saturday morning markets are in full swing. Every hour on the hour, mechanical figures emerge on the wall behind the fountain for a little chiming display. Dominating the south side of the square is the arcaded Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall), built in 1675 on the site of a covered marketplace dating back to the fourteenth century.

Place de la Riponne and around
From the Place de la Palud, Rue Madeleine leads up to the huge Place de la Riponne, a plain of concrete usually dotted with students hanging out or sitting on the steps of the overbearing Palais de Rumine on the far side – an absurdly grandiose late nineteenth-century neo-Renaissance structure adorned with lions, angels and pink marble, named after a local philanthropist and designed by a Parisian architect who hadn’t actually bothered to visit Lausanne beforehand. The palace is now home to a clutch of museums, most interesting of which is the Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts (Tues & Wed 11am–6pm, Thurs 11am–8pm, Fri & Sat 11am–5pm; Fr.6; SMP). A huge percentage of its works, including those from the medieval and Baroque periods, and all its Renoirs, are currently in storage in the basement; instead it displays three rooms of Swiss art from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries (including many Vaudois artists), and devotes most of its time and energy to high-quality exhibitions of contemporary art hung in the brighter, less fussy rooms at the back.

From Riponne, Rue Haldimand heads down to the church of St Laurent, in the heart of the old quarter also known as St-Laurent. The Rue de l’Ale and Rue de la Tour bring you further west – past the crooked Pinte Besson, the city’s oldest tavern, to the stout, circular Tour de l’Ale atop the hill, built in 1340 during a reorganization of the city’s defences. The traffic hub of Place Chauderon is a few metres south and downhill, at the head of the Pont Chauderon, third of the major bridges spanning the Flon valley. On the south side of the bridge is the Montbenon park with, tucked into the trees, the Swiss film archives, housed in the fin-de-siècle casino building now transformed into the Cinématheque Suisse.

The Cathedral
Stairs lead up from both Place de la Palud and Place de la Riponne to the higher points of the Old Town. The atmospheric Escaliers du Marché, covered wooden stairs heading up from Palud, deliver you to Rue Viret, circling around the pinnacle of the hill, from where more stairs bring you up to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame (daily 8am–7pm), generally acclaimed as Switzerland’s finest Gothic building, on a par with the greatest of French Gothic architecture. A short tour around the walls brings such a claim home. Elegant and proportioned towers, turrets and spires claw their way up stage by stage into the sky, the south facade is studded with a spectacular giant Gothic rose window of stained glass, and flying buttresses encircle the exterior of the choir and ambulatory. The foundations of the current building were probably laid in the mid-twelfth century, with construction continuing from 1190 through to the cathedral’s consecration in 1275. Despite extensive renovations and alterations just before the Reformation, and the loss of the altars, screens, and most of the statuary, paintings and glass during and after it, the cathedral has lost none of its grace and poise.

You enter through the west portal, bedecked with figures and dubbed the Montfalcon portal after a sixteenth-century bishop. The interior Great Porch, an unusual lofty open arcade with its recessed doorway and two tiers of columns, echoes similar setups in English cathedrals such as Lincoln and Canterbury, and it’s been suggested that Notre-Dame’s main architect, Jean de Cotereel, may have been Norman or part English himself. Just beyond, a squarish vestibule gives into the vast, broad Great Bay which, prior to 1504, was actually an open thoroughfare which connected the Rue Cité-Devant (to your left) with the Rue St-Étienne (to your right) under a vaulted gallery and beneath arches which seem extra large now that they have been enclosed within the building.

The interior of the cathedral is stunning, every line and detail drawing your eye dizzily up to the lofty vaulted heights. On the south wall of the nave is the impressive Painted Portal, dating from 1215–30; its exterior is still encrusted with original statues, but has suffered badly from weathering in recent years, and may well still be covered for protection. The crossing and transept, a few steps up from the nave and filled with light, are endowed on the south side with the glowing thirteenth-century rose window. Opposite is the doorway to the former cloister, above which columns in front of the rectangular windows have been snapped off to allow more light to enter the building. A few steps up again is the choir, housing some exceptionally beautiful thirteenth-century carved choir stalls; on the left is the tomb of Otto of Grandson, a rather diminutive figure for such a celebrated medieval knight. You’ll find more, extremely worn tombs ranged around the ambulatory running under the walls, and also in the crypt beneath the choir. With a truly spectacular view over the whole of the city and most of Lake Geneva too, climbing the southwest tower (Mon–Sat 8.30–11.30am & 1.30–5.30pm, Sun 2–5.30pm; Fr.2) is one of the highlights of visiting Lausanne.

Right next to the cathedral building is the Ancien Évêché, the old Bishop’s Palace, which has been converted into the Musée Historique (Tues–Sun 11am–6pm, Thurs until 8pm; Fr.7, audioguide Fr.4; SMP). Crammed with all kinds of displays illustrating the history of Lausanne, its highlight is the giant scale-model of the city in the basement, with an excellent accompanying commentary (in English) detailing the history of the various neighbourhoods since medieval times – the least of it is that you can finally get a clear, bird’s-eye view of how the city’s hills and valleys lie in relation to each other.

North of the Cathedral
Two parallel streets, Rue Cité-Devant and Rue Cité-Derrière, lead up from the cathedral to the top of the Old Town. Oldtimers bemoan the fact that the Ancienne Académie at 7 Rue Cité-Devant, built in the 1580s as Lausanne’s first university, formerly lay at the heart of a bustling student quarter, but that since the new out-of-town campus opened, the students have all departed. It’s true that the alleyways are now tranquil, but they’re also uniquely atmospheric, the blank old facades giving away little of their long history. A number of tiny cellar theatres, as well as mouthwatering smells wafting from the dark interiors of small bistros, hint that the quarter is far from dead. At the very top of the Old Town sits the unshakeable Château St-Maire, begun in the fourteenth-century and completed in brick by northern Italian masons a century later. The structure symbolizes political power: in former times it was the residence of the Bernese bailiffs, and today it is the seat of the cantonal government of Vaud.

Rue de la Barre continues north, rising over the workaday district known as Tunnel, busy with traffic and home to many students, accessed by stairs down to the left (west) of the street. Place du Tunnel is ringed by bars, cafés and music venues, while the eponymous tunnel itself – a major traffic route – cuts beneath Rue de la Barre and the whole Old Town hill through to the eastern districts of the city, which hold another of the city’s groundbreaking museums, the Fondation Claude Verdan (Tues, Wed & Fri noon–6pm, Thurs noon–8pm, Sat 11am–6pm; Fr.6; SMP), 21 Rue du Bugnon, accessed also by bus #5 and #6 (to Montagibert). Otherwise known as the Musée de la Main (Museum of the Hand), it’s dedicated to Professor Verdan, a specialist in reconstructive hand surgery, and is a surprisingly engaging tour through how we use our hands – to communicate, to shape our environment, and to kill – mostly avoiding the preachy and the overly scientific.

The open Bois de Sauvabelin, the beginnings of the Jorat forests, flanks Rue de la Barre northwards. Set into the park some way up (and this is no mean hill) is an expansive nineteenth-century villa housing the Fondation de l’Hermitage art gallery (2 Route du Signal; Tues–Sun 11am–6pm, Thurs until 9pm; admission varies; SMP; bus #16). The foundation owns a permanent collection taking in Degas, Sisley and Magritte, but displays only portions of it to complement the two or three high-quality temporary shows it mounts each year. The park, and the bus, continue further up the hill to the Signal viewpoint (643m), and on past lawns and copses to the pretty Lac de Sauvabelin, encircled by pines and oaks.

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