Lausanne : St-François and the Bourg
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The train station looks over the unprepossessing Place de la Gare, continuously hectic with human and motorized traffic. A gap between buildings directly ahead marks the steep Rue du Petit-Chêne which winds up to Place St-François on the terrace above. Bedecked with bus-wires, buskers and shoppers, with traffic surging through, St-François – given the adenoidal nickname Sainf by the locals – is the heart of Lausanne’s modern commercial centre, dominated by the giant bulk of the post office and, opposite, the considerably more attractive Église St-François, one of the city’s landmarks. Bishop Jean de Cossonay invited the Franciscans to found a community in Lausanne in 1258; by 1272, they had completed their new church, which then stood at the centre of a monastic complex hard up against the southern city walls. However, various medieval fires took their toll, and in 1536 the Reformation arrived, the monastery was dissolved, and the building was cleared of religious imagery to become the parish church of Lausanne’s Ville Basse (lower town). Further renovations, not all in especially good taste, disfigured the interior during later centuries, and although the church remains an atmospheric retreat from the bustle outside, today not a great deal is left of St-François’ illustrious past.

The quarter in which the church stands, the Bourg, spreads over a narrow ridge between two gorges, and before the nineteenth century stood alone as a separate community, rather wealthier than those all around: the Rue de Bourg, today a somewhat glitzy shopping street rising steeply from behind the church, had much the same style in the past too, lined then with restaurants, inns and luxury shops. In the 1780s, the English historian Edward Gibbon lived in a house on the site of the St-François post office, right at the heart of the high society of the day.

A massive expansion of the city in the early nineteenth century included the razing of many of the old slums, the filling in of the Flon river – which followed the course of the present Rue Centrale – and the construction of grand bridges unifying the disparate neighbourhoods of the city. Most dramatic of these is the Pont Bessières, spanning the yawning Flon gorge from the eastern top end of the Rue de Bourg over to the Old Town. In recent years this has become the favoured spot for suicidal Lausannois to shake off this mortal coil, so much so that every New Year’s Eve the city posts guardians halfway along the bridge to make sure no melodramatic revellers decide to test out their theories of flight; it’s a tradition for locals to stop by sometime during the evening, warm their hands over the fire, share a tot or two and wish each one “Bonne Année!” A walk over the Grand-Pont, first of the bridges to be built in 1844, from Place St-François northwest to Place Bel-Air, can also highlight Lausanne’s extraordinary topography – stairs and alleys running off at odd angles, traffic surging along the valley road way beneath, the lake glittering below on one side and the Cathedral crowning the hill above on the other. Below the Grand-Pont, and also accessed by stairs leading down from beside the distinctive Bel-Air tower (Switzerland’s modest first skyscraper, dating from the 1930s), is the Flon district; once full of merchants and traders, today its warehouses have been converted into dance clubs, alternative cafés, galleries and theatre spaces.

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