We have just finished our main course at Lausanne’s railway station restaurant and are pondering whether to have cheese or go straight to pudding. These are important questions for carefree travellers. I ask our sprightly waitress if we can see the dessert menu, or perhaps have some cheese first. “We don’t have cheese at the end of a meal in Switzerland, but I can arrange for a selection of cheeses for you if you would like,” she replies. Behind her polite smile I reckon she secretly wants us to be sent straight to a Swiss rehab dairy and be reformed in the proper cheese ways. For a split second we feel culturally inadequate but we get over it soon enough thanks to a crème brûlée.
Eating at the Buffet de la Gare is an endearing experience. The large room, with its post-war murals of Swiss towns and landscapes, makes it feel like a trip back to the 1950s.
It’s unpretentious and the food is nothing grand, but we have a decent meal at a decent price. Service is efficient without being rushed. Just what you need when you’re in-between trains, in the way that people were in-between trains 60 years ago.
Not that we are. Being Sunday in Switzerland, the choice of eateries is limited. Very limited. It pretty much boils down to Starbucks or the buffet. Everything else is shut, as it becomes clear in the course of our stroll around the old town.
Having checked in late morning at our hotel we merrily set off for the musée des beaux arts which, Dr K said in a tone which was definitely more than a recommendation, has an extensive collection of Swiss paintings that we should not miss. So up the hill we proceed, through passageways and over bridges.
The only other people we meet during our ascent are other visitors. Shops are shut, cafes are shut. It’s a pleasant sunny Sunday morning and the whole town is shut. It makes for a relaxed walk up to the museum and cathedral, but if, like us, you are used to bustling streets seven days a week, it feels a little unreal too.
LEAVES, WASHED AWAY
On the way we stop at Eglise St Francois, a 13th century church which sits off one of Lausanne’s main thoroughfares. The church has survived creeping development and plans for demolition, and it is now surrounded by tall modern buildings. The resulting square is a little anonymous, but not unpleasant, with enough trees to make you want to linger.
The church itself is a haven of piece in a busy part of town, as I realise when I go back the following morning. Tramlines, buses and dense traffic run noisily along its southern wall. Walking into the church, with its humble Romanesque interior and quiet atmosphere, is like pressing the pause button, leaving life to go on apace outside. A large but remarkably unintrusive installation, ‘Un Jardin A St Francois’, which is part of Lausanne’s garden festival, creates a further sense of peace.
The work features leaves that seem to be washed away slowly over the church floor by an invisible watercourse. If you’re in Lausanne this summer, go and see it; it’s on until 28 September 2014.
A few streets up – and down, and up again – we get to the museum, having gone past the town hall, a building in the 19th century Swiss ‘montagnard’ style with amusing gargoyles.
The museum, an elegant Italianate building which reminds me of Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight, is hardly busy.
Disappointingly – and inexplicably considering how enormous the museum seems to be – the permanent collection has been put away to make room for a temporary exhibition of paintings from the Tretyakov museum. Having made the journey, we go in. It’s a bit like the exhibition that was at the National Gallery in London a few years ago but it turns out to be much more extensive.
By now we’re ravenous and beginning to get a bit ratty, but as there’s no coffee shop at the museum, we push on to the cathedral, which is just around the corner. There’s a fantastic view over the town and lake. Inside, nothing extraordinary but there’s a good chapel with painted figures.
By the time we finish our tour of the cathedral it’s pushing on to 3pm and Godfather P is about to faint from lack of food. It’s the most touristy bit of the old town but everything is shut, so we head back down to the train station in search of sustenance; there’s bound to be something.
We breathe a sigh of relief at the sight of a few chain eateries and are momentarily thankful for globalisation as we order bland sandwiches and bland coffees at one of them. Which is when we spot the Buffet de la Gare across the road.
Already regretting our dull international food we head back to the hotel for a scrub and to regroup. But we have a plan: dinner at the buffet, which we have found out by now is recommended in a couple of guidebooks, with a pre-prandial stroll along the lake.
Lakeside is clearly the place to be, as we discover when we get there in the early evening. Ouchy, once a wealthy outpost of Lausanne, is only a few very short stops from the city on the underground. We could probably have walked it in ten minutes. The place is teaming with families, walkers and joggers. It’s much cooler than up in town, and the views across the lake and over to the mountains are visually refreshing.
We walk past grand 19th century hotels. Godfather P and I conjecture about whether we should have stayed at one of these instead. Dr K flatly replies that a room for the night in one of these would have blown our whole budget for the week. We carry on along the shoreline, marvelling at the sunset over the mountains on the other side of the lake.
Then, a few drops, followed by a long rumbling of thunder. We can see the storm rolling over the eastern end of the lake towards us. Suddenly the sky turns black and the heavens open. It’s a proper summer storm in the mountains: violent, with big plump angry drops hammering the air.
We shelter, in the company of dozens of others, under the arcades and newsagents’ awnings. A few minutes later the rain has washed away the stickiness; the air is cooler and the atmosphere less oppressive. We get back on the tram to the station. The rest, at least for today, is a matter of cheese, or absence of it, and our thoughts turn to tomorrow’s drive to Bern.