We all came down to Montreux on the Lake Geneva shoreline. Van Morrison, Jean-Michel Jarre, Neil Young and Santana are packing their bags and heading for Switzerland. Along with a host of other major music stars, they are performing at a small lakeside town in the mountains. That’s because sleepy little Montreux has become the home of one of the world’s most prestigious music festivals.
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For almost 50 years, the town has hosted acts like Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Johnny Cash during the first two weeks of July. Stars that might turn up their noses at Glastonbury’s mud, jump at an invitation to play on stages right next to the tranquil waters of Lake Geneva. The 2016 festival includes performances by stars like Patti Smith, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, PJ Harvey, ZZ Top and Muse.
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One year I got a close insight into what makes the Montreux Festival so special. I worked as a driver, helping to ferry VIPs from Geneva airport, along the lakeshore to the festival. I discovered that it isn’t the stars that make the festival special – it’s the audience.
In fact, my impression of Montreux is that it is the world’s ‘poshest’ music gathering. You’ll see neatly dressed Swiss families, affluent visitors and fellow musicians. The stalls stretched along the lakeside sell good quality craft pieces and excellent food. You won’t find litter and graffiti, but you will encounter polite chatter and genuine interest in the music.
I found that the music ran for 18 hours every day, including an all-night free disco with leading DJs. While I was there Elvis Costello established a festival record with 12 encores on the opening night. With impromptu jam sessions between stars, intimate workshops with normally unapproachable celebrities and 500 hours of small free venues along the lakeshore, Montreux is the best musical get-together I’ve ever seen.
The town may be part of the land where excitement usually means gathering on the hour to watch a cuckoo clock, but pop’s international jet set seem to love Montreux.
It helps that many musicians have chosen to live or stay around the town. David Bowie and Phil Collins have lived nearby. Queen singer Freddie Mercury spent his last months in his Montreux house writing his final album. After his death his family paid for a larger-than-life lakeside statue of him celebrating his affection for the town. It stands right next to the Festival site.
These rock stars are simply continuations of a long-standing liberal tradition in Montreux. The ‘belle époque’ hotels, glamorous casino and gentle Mediterranean climate made it a favourite among wealthy Victorians. Teashops and lakeside gardens attracted writers like Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein there. Composer Stravinski penned ‘The Rite of Spring’ in the town and Lolita author Vladamir Nabukov was photographed playing chess with his elderly wife on the balcony of the Palace Hotel. From Rousseau to Hemingway, the world’s artistic elite has been inspired by Montreux’s pencil-box panoramas.
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The poet Byron visited too. He wrote about the picturesque plight of a prisoner who was chained to a pillar in the Chateau de Chillon’s dungeons for four years. Today Chillon is an immaculately intact 13th-century castle built right out into the lake. It’s a two-mile walk from the centre of Montreux, along the waterside. The spot has become Switzerland’s most popular historic attraction.
For a longer walk, the four-hour hike up to the restaurants, gardens and viewing points at Rochers de Naye is a great adventure. Most visitors, however, prefer to take the rattling mountain train up, then walk down. But the most adventurous simply jump down from the 2000-metre high plateau – strapped to a hang-glider, of course.
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My favourite Montreux trip is the cruise to Geneva on the Simplon steamer. You’ll be able to gaze at the mountainous sides of the lake from the period boat. The snowy peaks leading down through steep woods and terraced vineyards are reflected upside-down in the shimmering sunny water. So you get double the view.
Yet I suspect most people have only heard of Montreux thanks to the efforts of a local chef. Claude Nobs gave up his cooking job to become a music impresario. He organised his first concert here in 1964 with the unlikely line-up of Petula Clark and the Rolling Stones.
Undeterred, Claude kept trying and his three days of jazz concerts in 1967 were such a success they became annual festival. Claude organized the rapidly growing event every year until his death in 2013. He became a friend to many stars who stayed at his chalet above the town. Bowie was a close friend, Chris Rea let him play harmonica on one of his tracks and he was mentioned in Montreux’s most famous rock anthem.
Deep Purple’s legendary track ‘Smoke on the Water’ begins: “We all came out to Montreux on the Lake Geneva shoreline”. “Funky Claude” Nobs is mentioned in the song because he was promoting a Frank Zappa concert in the town’s casino. The venue caught fire casting a pall of smoke over the lake. Deep Purple were staying nearby and saw the incident… and an enduring hang-bangers hymn was born.
If you’re lucky enough to get tickets for the last night of this year’s festival, on July 16th, you’ll be able to hear it. The headlining act is Deep Purple.