TRAVELS IN THE TIME OF CORONA
... AND WAR
Travel industry super publicist Geoffrey Weill guides us through his trip in Switzerland.
Lining the shore of Lake Geneva in the city of Lausanne (fourth largest in Switzerland), giant red banners are hanging. Each one is emblazoned with the number “100” and “1922-2022.” I wonder what it is they’re celebrating. And then, when I check into the gorgeousness of the Beau-Rivage Palace Hotel, I recall that it was here in its gilded Beaux-Arts halls that the Treaty of Lausanne was negotiated a century ago, ending themostly-forgotten war between Greece and Turkey. Kemal Ataturk actually sat in this place, signed the treaty, and then took the Orient Express direct from Lausanne to Istanbul to create modern Türkiye. It seems unthinkable to face the knowledge that 100 years after that peace agreement was wrought, the world is looking yet again at an unfathomable, dreadful, unneeded conflict in Europe – albeit a reassuring thousand miles to Lausanne’s east.
For centuries, Switzerland has been a center of neutrality. Two world wars were fought all around its borders, while spies, emigrés and refugees, sat in its security and tranquility. Because of its proud neutrality, Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations was born here in 1920, and then made impotent in Washington, by the refusal of the United States Congress to sanction America’s membership. A world war later, the United Nations has its parallel headquarters to New York in Geneva, the city to which Henry Kissinger would commute to negotiate our exit from Vietnam. John Kerry spent months in the Malmaison Suite of Lausanne’s Hotel Beau-Rivage Palace, as the west and Iran hammered out the 2015 nuclear deal. And yet, for the first time in half a millennium there are more than murmurs in Switzerland of its necessity to waive its vaunted neutrality, and to side with NATO and the west as it watches the macabre, ominous doings in Ukraine. What’s more, Swiss bankers, known since time immemorial for their secrecy and nonalignment, have frozen the accounts of Russian oligarchs.
But I am not here to talk peace, or unfreeze my nonexistent Swiss bank account. I am here as part of the hardships of my daily grind that has me jetting to some of the best hotels on earth for a few days of chat, updating, and sublime cosseting. I had flown last Tuesday on a United 767 from Newark to Geneva, and within ninety minutes of landing, was sitting by the pool at the Beau-Rivage Palace soaking in the unseasonable-for-March rays of sunshine. My first impression after arrival at Geneva Airport is that as far as Switzerland is concerned, the pandemic is over. Yes, masks must be worn on public transport. But nowhere else. There are no inspections of vaccination cards, no social distancing, and PCR seems to stand for “Please Carry Right on.” It’s a mite alarming at first, but eventually, quite liberating, as you unlearn the automatic reaching for one’s mask. It isn’t over, of course, but in many places on both sides of the Atlantic, it seems to have taken on the tenor of not much more than the winter cold season. For my part, I’m going to be wearing masks every winter from now on. This has been my third winter without my usual spate of colds.
Lausanne’s Beau-Rivage Palace opened a very long time ago…in 1860. America’s Civil War started the following year. When the hotel was unveiled, five of Abraham Lincoln’s predecessors (Van Buren, Tyler, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan) were still alive and kicking. Thomas Edison was 13, César Ritz was 10. The following year Queen Victoria saw the death of her beloved, husband, Albert, and her first tentative step out of seven years of grief was to visit Switzerland.
The Beau-Rivage Palace stands on the lakeshore, today a coming together of two palatial edifices – the Beau-Rivage of 1860 and the Palace of 1904. The connection between the two hotels was, and is, two giant Belle Epoque ballrooms, perfect not merely for grand banquets and weddings, but for the peace talks that would bring salvation to large parts of the planet. The Beau-Rivage Palace is celebrating this very month – the reopening of the original Beau-Rivage wing after a two-year, head-to-toe, soup-to-nuts renovation by France’s master of hotel reimagining, Pierre Yves Rochon. Greeting journalists at the reopening cocktail reception in the same Malmaison suite where John Kerry and Emmanuel Macron are two of many of the distinguished who have slept in its giant bed, general manager, Nathalie Seiler-Hayez said, “Pierre Yves Rochon’s renovation is a brilliant combination of retaining the history and dignity of the grand hotel, with the lightness and technological brilliance of the 2020’s.” Seiler-Hayez says that the only good thing to have resulted from the pandemic was that it was possible to close half the hotel for the renovation without business suffering. Which is not entirely true. Because when Covid hit and the citizens of each European nation could cross no borders, the German-speaking Swiss from the north and east of the country, instead of jetting to Mallorca or Sharm-el-Sheikh, suddenly discovered that their own country has its own Riviera – the shores of Lake Geneva, of which Lausanne is the vacation capital. Indeed, the summers of 2020 and 2021 saw more people speaking German than French at the Beau-Rivage Palace, says Seiler-Hayez.
A swift forty minutes from Geneva Airport, Lausanne is the first of three stately resorts on the lake to the east: Vevey, Montreux, and Lausanne. The medieval Chateau de Chillon sits on its own peninsula in the lake. This is French-speaking Switzerland where, I am told, the French language is purer than anywhere in the Francophone world, including anywhere in France. Half an hour northeast is Gruyère, home of the cheese with holes, and the Cailler chocolate factory where the finest Swiss chocolate has been produced since 1898 from the milk of Gruyère cows. And two hours to the east is one of Switzerland’s most famous chicer-than-chic spots, the ski resort of Gstaad.
But Lausanne is much more than a resort. Tyler Brulé’s admired Monocle magazine calls it the world’s best small city. Home to 200,000, it is the base of the International Olympic Committee, whose fascinating museum is next door to the Beau-Rivage Palace. Teeny-tiny corporations have their home here too: Nestlé, Phillip Morris, Deloitte. And the Family Foundation of the Basel-based Sandoz pharmaceutical conglomerate owns the Beau-Rivage Palace, as well as Lausanne’s four-star-plus Château D’Ouchy andAngleterre Hotels (Byron slept in the latter), It also owns the Hotel Palafitte, 50 miles to the north, in Neuchatel, which is Europe’s only over-water hotel – a gorgeous touch of the Maldives on a Swiss lake.
So Lausanne is truly a city. Construction of the once-Catholic-now-Protestant cathedral began in 1170. Itspatrician opera house opened in 1871. When google tells you which are the ten best museums in Lausanne, you know there are many more. But perhaps the most exciting is the new Platforme 10 museum, where old masters and contemporary art are housed in a building transformed from a part of Lausanne’s station. And it is the station that helped build Lausanne. The 19th-century railroad line built from Paris to Milan was purposely designed to avoid the most challenging hills and valleys of Switzerland bringing it directly to Lausanne (instead of Geneva). Thus Lausanne was to become a central part of the journey from Paris to Venice, Trieste, Belgrade, and, ultimately -- with Agatha Christie stealthily writing in the art déco dining car -- on to Istanbul.
In its 160 years, everybody who is anybody has stayed at the Beau-Rivage Palace. In the ground floor hallway to the bar, the Miyako restaurant, and the Café Beau-Rivage, there is a gallery of autographed photographs, each in a beautiful, black passe-partout frame. From Gary Cooper to Bono, from the Duke of Edinburgh to President Reagan, from Charlie Chaplin to Elton John. After the liberation of Paris in August 1944, Coco Chanel fled to the Beau-Rivage Palace and stayed until the early 1950’s when she could return to a Paris that would choose to forget her wartime collaboration with the Nazis. Legend has it that her dog is buried in the hotel’s immense park, but nobody quite knows where.
It was in 1893 that what is still regarded as the world’s most famous and respected hotel school opened adjacent to the Beau-Rivage Palace. Thousands of students of the École hôtelière de Lausanne have learned to make beds, set tables, and serve "elegantly without servility" in its hallowed classrooms, and then gone on to run some of the world’s most fabled hotels. And many of its students continue to intern at the Beau-Rivage Palace, hence providing a tenor of service that is probably more exquisite that at any hotel in Switzerland, a country where hotel service is considered an art so highly regarded as to be one of its many national treasures.
Back in 1860, the hotel was, of course, financed, built, and run by men. Fast forward 162 years, and the staffing of the Beau-Rivage Palace is one of the most liberated of any “grand hotel” in the world. In addition to Nathalie Seiler-Hayez, its charming and gregarious general manager, the marketing team, and every department is peopled without distinction of gender, color or identity. The red-haired and brilliant Sylvie Gonin is the hotel’s Head Concierge, who not only knows everything there is to know about Lausanne, but who can also summon a helicopter, a train seat, or an iPhone cable with a snap of her fingers. The hotel has several restaurants, but its superstar eatery is “Anne-Sophie Pic at the Beau-Rivage Palace.” Ms Pic was born into a family of Michelin-starred chefs in 1969 in Valence, France, where her restaurant earned her one of the few Michelin 3-Star gradings awarded to a female chef in France. Her outpost in Lausanne currently has two Michelin stars, but a third is hoped to be on the horizon.
The hotel’s Cinq Mondes spa is, as is the hotel, devoted to calm, beauty, and wellness. Minutes from Lausanne are the vineyards of the Canton de Vaud, where some of the best Swiss wines are produced. The wines of Switzerland are superb, and just about sufficient for the needs of the Swiss, which is why so few bottles are exported. To become a devoté of Swiss wines, visiting Switzerland is a must.
The northern shore of Lake Geneva (Lac Leman in French) is Swiss, while most of the southern shore is in France. Lake steamers chug visitors to Montreux and Geneva, but my favorite ride is the 30-minute journey directly across the lake from Lausanne to the French town of Evian. There is a museum and shrine to its eponymous springs, and my happiest stroll is to the 18th-century fountain where Evian residents line up with shopping carts and empty bottles to fill them directly from the source.
When I checked out of the hotel, I mentioned the red 100-year (1922-2022) banners displayed on the lakeshore. And I learned that despite the Beau-Rivage Palace’s history of peace-making, the banners had absolutely zero, zip, nada to do with the century-old Treaty of Lausanne. I was abashed, and perhaps a touch disappointed to learn that the banners are there not to commemorate the making of peace, but to celebrate the centennial of the Lausanne Hockey Club. Oh well.
If you ever doubted that the pandemic is close to over, you needed to be with me at Geneva airport on Sunday March 27, 2022. Great snaking lines wove to each airline check-in desk. The line for security involved a half-hour wait, a nightmare for those last-minute checkers-in. Fortunately, I had arrived early for my flight to Rome aboard ITA, the government-owned successor to the collapsed Alitalia. Yet, as I sat at the boarding gate and watched my Airbus A320 arrive at the jetway, it still was emblazoned with the red and green stripes and the slanted Alitalia logo.
I shall be returning to the Beau-Rivage Palace in a month, and I will add more insights then. I might even learn something about hockey. For now, though, Italy beckons.