Montreaux- Queen, The Tramp and All That Jazz

The French Alps rise in the distance over the placid azure blue lake. Grapes hang lazily in the sunlight on vines in manicured rows that zigzag from the stone cottages to the shore. Every photo looks like a postcard. You can’t take a bad one. 

Generations .of rockstars and jazz artists have come here to record, relax and live in one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Lake Geneva is the centerpiece for half a dozen French and Swiss towns all within an hour’s drive of each other: Geneva, Lausanne, Montreaux, Evian, to name a few. I came here to see Freddie Mercury’s statue. I found much more than I could have possibly expected.

Find the Real Person in This Installation, Montreaux, Switzerland Photo: Bill Wiatrak

I’ve been a fan of Queen since I heard Bohemian Rhapsody for the first time in the late 70s. Not long after this groundbreaking hit, Queen bought their favorite recording studio, Mountain Studios in Montreaux, Switzerland in 1979. The studio was no stranger to international artists. For years, it had recorded albums from the likes of bands such as David Bowie, Yes, AC/DC. and Iggy Pop. Mountain Studios was connected to Montreaux’s casino which featured headline acts from across the world. Queen recorded “Jazz” and all its subsequent albums there until Freddie’s death. The studio was then purchased by David Richards, one of the band’s producers and eventually turned into a Queen museum after his death in 2013.

Queen Museum Montreaux, Switzerland Photo: Bill Wiatrak

Queen recorded 6 albums at Mountain Studio as well as solo works by Freddie and Brian May. Today, fans can visit this iconic place and trace the history of the band with a collection of records, photographs, letters, and a mockup mixing board of the one used by the band.. Wannabe producers can remix Queen tracks, cutting or adding vocals, drums, and reverb effects. Some of the songs featured in the studio are mixes that were begun by Freddie and then completed after his death by the remaining members of the band. The result, “Made in Heaven” contains tracks such as “Let me Live” and the title song “Made in Heaven” which both feel like Freddie might have been sending messages from beyond. No entrance fee is charged for the museum, but donations are welcomed.

Freddie Mercury’s Duckhouse’s Lakefront (house not visible), Montreaux, Switzerland Photo: Bill Wiatrak

Freddie spent the last few years of his life in Montreaux living on the lake at The Duckhouse. The estate is now available for rent but it’s not open to the public. If renting Mercury’s home is out of your budget, you can still peek over the fence and see the view that was used as one of the photos for the final album cover. The remaining band members are gazing across Lake Geneva at the French alps in the background. The silhouette of the boathouse is clearly visible. The main photo of the album is Freddie’s statue right on the public waterfront in Montreaux and is easy to find. Just look for a giant Freddie and a crowd of people with cameras in hand.

Freddie Mercury Statue, Montreaux, Switzerland Photo: Bill Wiatrak

The casino that houses the studio has its share of rock and roll stories. The most famous tale occurred when Frank Zappa was playing a concert the night before the venue was to be closed for the season. The band Deep Purple had arrived to use the space (along with the Rolling Stones mobile recording trailer) to record their next album as soon as the casino became vacant. This was never to be, however, because an audience member shot a flare gun at the rattan ceiling and caught the building on fire. As the casino burned to the ground, the founder of the Jazz festival, “Funky Claude” was able to rescue those who were trapped inside. No lives were lost and the Stones’ recording trailer survived. Deep Purple wrote a song about the chaotic night and “Smoke on the Water” became their biggest hit. 

We all came out to Montreux
On the Lake Geneva shoreline
To make records with a mobile
We didn’t have much time
Frank Zappa and the Mothers
Were at the best place around
But some stupid with a flare gun
Burned the place to the ground

Posing with “The Tramp” Statue Photo: Valentina Harvey

Strolling around the promenade that borders the lake in Montreaux, there’s countless statues of modern art and famous people as well as constantly changing displays from world famous artists. Besides Freddie’s bigger than life tribute, it’s impossible to miss the giant fork sticking out of Lake Geneva. The fork was installed to mark the 10th anniversary of the nearby Alimentarium museum which highlights Swiss cuisine and Nestle’ , the Swiss chocolatier (Yes, Nestle’ is Swiss, not American). Directly across from the enormous utensil, “The Tramp”, a bronze cast of Charlie Chaplin’s most famous character stands as quietly in the park as he was in the silent movies.. It’s a beautiful statue, surrounded by gardens as well as even more outdoor art. Is that doors hanging on a tree? An installation made from Keurig cartridges?

Charlie Chaplin’s Home, Montreaux, Switzerland Photo: Bill Wiatrak

But, back to Charlie Chaplin…After getting booted out of the US during McCarthy communist paranoia, Chaplin settled in Switzerland with his family and lived there until his death in 1977. Charlie was buried in a small cemetery in Corsier-sur-Vevey, a short distance from his home. The following year, his body was stolen by grave robbers, who demanded a ransom of $600.000. His widow refused to pay it and an intensive police search began for the suspects. After five weeks the robbers were caught, the body recovered and reburied (this time in cement). You can visit Charlie’s final resting place on the way to Chaplin’s World

The Albert Einstein Bathroom, Charlie Chaplin’s Home, Montreaux, Switzerland Photo: Bill Wiatrak

Charlie’s former home is now a museum and a fitting tribute to the man who contributed so much to the film industry. Chaplin’s World is a fantastic timeline of Charlie’s life, from his poverty-stricken childhood in England, to his success in silent films as an actor, producer and innovator. An older figure of the film legend greets you as you arrive through the front door. As you walk through the home’s two storeys, there’s clips of Charlie’s movies, and realistic life sized figures of Chaplin’s family and associates. My favorite selfie was with Albert Einstein in the bathroom, where the mirror reflected only him. As large section of the second floor is devoted to his first “talkie”, an anti-Nazi satire (and his most successful film), The Great Dictator.

The Fork Sculpture, Montreaux, Switzerland Photo: Bill Wiatrak

Claude Nobs (Funky Claude) organized what is now the second largest jazz festival in the world ( Montreal is first) in 1967. Originally, Montreaux Jazz Festival featured only jazz artists and took place at the casino. In 1970, the festival opened up to other artists such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa. As you might have already guessed from the lyrics of Smoke on the Water, the venue burned down in 1971. The casino was rebuilt a few years later, but the festival now takes place at the convention center but extends throughout the entire town. You’ll find many jazz greats immortalized as statues throughout the city as well.

Chillon Castle, Lake Geneva Photo: Bill Wiatrak

On the eastern side of the city, Chillon Castle rises above Lake Geneva and creates one of Switzerland’s most beautiful vistas. Chillon is one of my favorite castles in Europe because of it’s perfect background of the alps and lake, a nice dungeon, fantastic turrets and great rooms. It’s everything I’d expect a castle to be from the movies and more. The castle’s date of construction is unknown, but there’s written references to it’s existence from over 1000 years ago. The House of Savoy and the Bernese (16-18th century) are its most famous residents. In short, it’s a photographer’s dream and I can’t figure out how it has managed to escape being in a James Bond movie.

Montreaux is absolutely an unmissable destination. I can’t believe it took me so long to discover it. Thanks for that Freddie!