Mercury, heavy metal and a jazz explosion

Swiss ease ... the statue of Freddie Mercury.
Swiss ease ... the statue of Freddie Mercury. Photo: AFP

Special report

Kristie Kellahan discovers a monument to the Queen frontman in the festival town of Montreux.

Ahhh, Switzerland: postcard-pretty mountains, stylish timepieces, creamy milk chocolate and Freddie Mercury. Hang on a minute ... Freddie Mercury? As in the outlandish late frontman of Queen? Indeed.

Mercury fans travel from all over the world to pay homage at his striking three-metre tall statue on the banks of Lake Geneva at the foot of the Alps in the Swiss town of Montreux. Visitor numbers swell for Freddie Mercury's Montreux Memorial Day, held annually in September.

You see, Montreux was the home of Mountain Studios, bought by Queen in 1978. The town was the inspiration behind the 1995 single A Winter's Tale on the album Made in Heaven, one of the last songs Mercury ever recorded.

It's one of the many surprises in store in Montreux, an alpine town of fewer than 25,000 people. That number swells almost ten-fold in early July each year for the Montreux Jazz Festival. Considered one of the most prestigious music events in Europe, it has attracted high-profile performers including Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Sting, David Bowie and Paul Simon. Festival-goers enjoy concerts, intimate performances, themed dinners and a roaring trade in local bars during the two-week event.

British band Deep Purple headlined the festival five times, and even wrote the famous song Smoke on the Water about the events of 1971, when a fan wielding a flare gun set the Montreux Casino ablaze.

Montreux is the sort of place where millionaires retire and minor European royalty spend summer breaks, when they're not in residence in Monte Carlo. But the attitude here is not elitist; travellers are welcome and the local restaurants and hotels buzz with a friendly atmosphere. Switzerland is also surprisingly affordable for Australian travellers, with the Swiss franc trading at close to parity with the Australian dollar. This makes accommodation, meals and tours easier on the hip pocket.

At the Grand Hotel Suisse Majestic, a classic lakeside European-style holiday resort, a deluxe room with lake view, including breakfast and dinner at the nearby casino, costs from $180. It would be difficult to find a prettier spot for a hotel. Opening to the lakefront and with the Alps in the distance, the hotel is conveniently located across the street from the train station.

Once we arrive by train in Montreux we simply cross the street with luggage in tow, check in to the hotel and enjoy an evening cocktail on the terrace. Like many visitors to town, we make a stop at the casino, a glittering behemoth of entertainment and gaming opportunities. More sedate thrills can be found at Chateau de Chillon (Chillon Castle). Switzerland's most visited historic monument, the castle has 1000 years of history and guided tours are available.

A gentle stroll along the lake or through the main square, Place du Marche, is a great way to get a feel for Montreux, an unexpectedly diverse pocket of Switzerland.

Kristie Kellahan travelled courtesy of Rail Europe.

FAST FACTS

Getting there A four-day first-class Swiss Pass costs $416 for unlimited travel across Switzerland's train, bus and boat network.

For online bookings and to check schedules see raileurope.com.au.

Staying there Grand Hotel Suisse Majestic is centrally located near the train station on Avenue des Alpes. It is in the Belle Epoque style but recently underwent a major renovation. Rooms start from 163 Swiss francs ($180); suisse-majestic.com.

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