Tracking Alpine Ghosts


The so-called Swiss Riviera is a place where Disney might have come to study prototypes for castles. In the relaxed corner of Switzerland tucked between France and Italy, sheltered by the imperious Alps, the towns along eastern Lac Léman (in English, Lake Geneva) are dotted with fairy-tale castles — and those castles are haunted by ghosts.

Ghosts seem to whisper from every shadow in this moody lakeside region, where the grand old chateaus and misty weather ensure you won’t mistake Montreux, on Lake Geneva, for Portofino. There are the ghosts of the unfortunate enemies of the medieval Savoys, who ended up in subterranean castle dungeons. Then there are more recent ghosts: the many artists, writers and composers who have called this region home, such as Nabokov, Stravinsky and Tolstoy, Voltaire and Rousseau — even Freddie Mercury, whose statue gazes over the lake from a park in Montreux.

And there are abundant Jewish ghosts in the region — the canton known as the Vaud — where Jewish life has been contracting and consolidating since World War II. These ghosts include thousands of Jewish refugees who survived the war in a Beaux-Arts palace, thousands more who never made it to the neutral country, and once-legendary institutions where Vaud Jewry once thrived.

For many, Lausanne — the cosmopolitan hub of this region, and a good place to start exploring it — is the most enchanting city in Switzerland. The lake shimmers; the sky is astonishingly blue; the mountains, visible from everywhere, are nowhere more stunning. Throw in some of the best hot chocolate and fresh ice cream you have ever eaten, and it’s not hard to see why everyone is in a good mood.

Hilly and charming, Lausanne has evidently gentrified since the days when my dad was a student at the local conservatory of music. Back then, barely a decade after the war, he complained about the terrible coffee and damp chill; today, with posh boutiques dotting the Old Town and plush featherbeds in the hotels, life is quite a bit more comfortable. There’s even a metro system, handy when you don’t feel like climbing those hills – for a city of just 130,000. And with such good hot chocolate, who even needs coffee?

Lausanne feels less mystical than other stops along the Riviera route, but a stroll through the Old Town reveals religion’s central place in multi-ethnic Swiss culture. Perched on a hill in the upper town, the Lausanne Cathedral has dominated the urban skyline for nearly a millennium; inside, the architecture is at once awesome and restrained, a synchronous parade of soaring Gothic arches.

A short way down the hill is another, newer national landmark: the Lausanne Synagogue, which recently celebrated its first 100 years. Moses’ stone scrolls sit atop the grand white façade, which also boasts an oversized Star-of-David rose window and a Moorish arched entryway. With the closing of the historic temple in nearby Montreux, this elegant sanctuary became the last shul in Vaud, left to cater to a community that numbers a little over 2,000.

Montreux, a lush and balmy resort town just east of Lausanne, is full of ghosts. Catherine and her soldier love took refuge amid the balmy climate here in Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms,” while Lord Byron gazed at these palm-shaded shores as he composed his verses in between swims.

More recently, the shuttering of Montreux’s synagogue closed the door on institutional Jewish life that flourished in the early 20th century. Montreux was a mecca for Jewish scholarship from the 1920s, when the Yeshiva Etz Chaim was founded as the first in Switzerland; arguably the most prestigious Talmudic academy on the continent, Etz Chaim was associated with the likes of Rabbis Jehiel Jacob Weinberg and Moshe Soleveitchik. The building, set above the Old Town, sheltered Jewish refugees during World War II but closed in the ’80s.

Some 3,600 feet up from the tidy boulevards and lakeside gardens, the village of Caux is the site of another, more well-known refugee story. You don’t have to be a mountain climber to get here; just grab a train and enjoy the breathtaking ride, with Mont Blanc out the window. And do it early in the day, because the mountains tend to cloud over in mid-afternoon.

On the aptly named Rue de la Panorama, the former Caux Palace was a Belle Epoque hotel of the old school; its gleaming white turrets and wine-red roof, speckled with white Swiss-lace designs, offer a commanding view over the lake (indeed, those spires are visible from downtown Montreux).

During World War II, the hotel was used as a holding camp for Jews, many of whom were seeking refuge from Austria and Hungary. Today the building offers a different kind of hospitality: it is now the Swiss Hotel Management School, but in the late ’90s a plaque was installed to memorialize not only the 1,400 Jews who survived 1944 within those walls, but also those who were turned away at the Swiss border.

Of all the fairy-tale castles that dot Lac Léman, however, the Chateau de Chillon has perhaps the grimmest — and most mysterious — past of all. From Montreux, you can reach the Chateau by trolley, boat or bus, but a stroll along the two-mile lakeside path that leads to it is most likely to put you in Byron’s romantic frame of mind.

This thousand-year-old castle is among the most iconic of Europe — which is really saying something. Its slate spires appear to rise out of the misty lake itself, an illusion created by its position on a tiny spit of land that juts into the water. Once the lair of the noble Savoy family, the Chateau is well known for the dank, gloomy dungeons carved into its rocky foundation. I stared at the lake, shimmering blue in the midday sun, and thought of all those poor souls trapped in the basement.

As in any fairy tale, these castles and gardens — indeed, all the towns of the Swiss Riviera — come with their fair share of ghosts.