Travel: A kind of magic lingers on Lake Geneva's shoreline among the ghosts of rock legends – HeraldScotland

Queen front-man Freddie Mercury casts a shadow over Lake Geneva’s shoreline in front of the Swiss Mountains. Like a rock superhero, the statue portrays the singer in his most iconic pose – with one arm held aloft, standing tall in the famous yellow military jacket he wore at Wembley Stadium in the mid-1980s.
I arrive in time to watch devoted fans leave fresh flowers at the singer’s feet in front of the old covered market. Later, I return for a guided early-evening tour that sheds some light on Mercury’s unique bond with the Swiss Riviera.
By this point, the sky has begun to bruise and the backdrop has changed dramatically. Significantly the sense of breathing fresh, clean air in a mild climate remains. Mercury cultivated a long relationship with the area personally and creatively, first coming here in 1978. Queen would soon purchase Mountain Studios and continue to record here for the rest of their studio career.
The band’s double A-side hit Bicycle Race/Fat Bottomed Girls was influenced by Mercury watching the Tour De France in Montreux. The legendary singer’s quality of life was enriched by this deeply tranquil location in the heart of French-speaking Switzerland.
He once remarked to opera singer Montserrat Caballé, with whom he recorded Barcelona in 1987: “If you want peace of mind, come to Montreux.” Queen would also record Under Pressure here with David Bowie in 1981. The original studio entrance is now covered in graffiti paying tribute to Mercury and the band he fronted for over 20 years, becoming one of the most recognised rock singers in the Western world.
Inside the studio is a permanent exhibition. You can visit the control room, which remains as it was when Queen recorded albums such as Jazz and A Kind Of Magic. There are also cabinets full of theatrical stage costumes and rare memorabilia as well as an opportunity to stand where Mercury recorded his final vocal take in 1991.
The tour points out all the key places associated with the singer such as the property he rented known as “the Duck House”. Shortly before his death in November 1991, Mercury renovated an apartment by the shoreline on Le Quai des Fleurs.
In the summer of 1967, the Montreux Jazz Festival on the site of a casino began hosting many greats from the genre including Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone before inviting rock acts to perform. The original site of the festival was burned down during a fire caused by a fan with a flare gun (who was never caught). This all happened as Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention performed in December 1971. The events were enshrined in music history when Deep Purple wrote and recorded Smoke On The Water about the fire, creating one of the most recognised riffs in rock. The festival continues to operate every year. Next to the casino, an official boutique selling memorabilia marks the significant cultural history of the event.
After a day spent in the company of Queen and an audio tour narrated by Freddie Mercury’s personal assistant Peter Freestone, I return to the Grand Hotel Majestic on the lake-shore for dinner at 45 Grill & Health, which offers fine French cuisine. The views of Lake Geneva and the Alps are stunning from both the restaurant and my room. Hotel staff, like the locals, are easygoing and happy to help the many tourists who have travelled here from around the globe. The Montreux Jazz Cafe is another popular option. Just a five-minute walk from the hotel, the eatery celebrates the links between fine cuisine and the history of the festival with dishes such as Quincy Jones Roast Chicken and the delicious Ella’s Cheesecake.
A short bus ride takes me to the town of Vevey, where I visit Chaplin’s World (voted the best museum in Europe, 2018). I stop for lunch at The Tramp, which is named in honour of Charlie Chaplin’s most famous character in the 1915 silent movie of the same name. Surrounded by movie posters and photographs from the London-born actor’s career, I’m served a flavoursome cheeseburger with salad.
It’s possible to walk onto various film sets and even enter the Manoir de Ban, the actor’s home between 1952 and 1977. You can explore his private gardens while taking in some breathtaking mountain views.
David Bowie also drew much inspiration from Switzerland and his 1979 album, Lodger, was mostly recorded at the Mountain Studios. In 1976, while in the throes of cocaine addiction, the Thin White Duke had bought a house, Clos des Mésanges in Blonay, which is a short train ride away from Vevey. His then wife, Angie Bowie, would live here with their son Zowie (later Duncan) while Bowie moved to Berlin. Before their divorce in 1982 the couple would take turns living here.
Angie Bowie described it as “a commodious cuckoo-clock of a house, très Swiss indeed, with seven or eight bathrooms, a caretaker’s lodge, and a half-dozen acres of prime real estate above Blonay”. The area looks much as it did when Bowie lived here, the deep blue sky and autumnal atmosphere offering a sense of peace.
My next destination is Lausanne, Switzerland’s fourth largest city. The Agora Swiss Night by Fassbind hotel is close to the train station. My room comes with a large bathroom, breakfast area with a view and a free travel card. It’s also in an excellent location, ideal for exploring the rest of the city.
My first stop is to witness the gothic beauty of the Cathedral of Notre Dame of Lausanne situated in the centre of the Old Town. From here I catch a bus to the hills for a walk around the quiet Sauvabelin forest to another former Bowie home, Château de Signal. The singer moved here in 1982 after his divorce from Angie. A decade later he married his second wife Iman, who didn’t enjoy the sense of isolation and the house was sold in 2000.
A visit to Café du Grütli is like going back in time, I recommend the cheese fondue, washed down by an excellent glass of Swiss wine. Alternatively, Cafe de Grancy is a lively eatery offering a classic bistro atmosphere.
Bowie’s 1976 album Station to Station provides the ideal train soundtrack as I travel to Geneva for my final night’s stay at The Woodward. Part of the Oetker Collection, this hotel – designed by French interior designer Pierre-Yves Rochon – provides 26 luxury suites, 21 of them with a lake view. Suites have the feel of a luxury apartment and include a large marble fireplace and a selection of fine-art books.
The Woodward also boasts the largest indoor swimming pool in Geneva and during my early morning swim, the place is deserted. There’s also a sauna, steam room and hot tub. The hotel’s hallway features a classic image of the late Sir Sean Connery as James Bond leaning against an Aston Martin DB5 while filming Goldfinger here in the summer of 1964. In this hub of real-life international espionage, the image summons much about the atmosphere here.
The city is famous for its chocolate so before beginning the journey home, there’s just time to activate my Choco Pass, which allows me to explore the city while enjoying a truffle and a mug of hot chocolate.
Return flights from Edinburgh to Geneva are currently around £55
For more information on The Woodward please visit
Grand Hotel Majestic +41 21 966 33 33 |
Agora Swiss Night by Fassbind +41 21 555 59 55 |
Freddie Tours Montreux
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