Vevey is temperate, sunny, and fresh as we step off the train at 11am on a Monday. A smaller-sized city located one major station away from Lausanne, Vevey experiences a small amount of tourism; it is mostly populated by the expansive, space-age campuses of Nestle, and the yearly influx of overflow attendees of the Montreux Jazz Festival.
Every 20 years, however, a very special festival takes place here. After those two decades, as the moment approaches again, those who take up the mantle of organizing this storied tradition are charged to honor all the history that came before it, and in addition, to modernize it for the current day. This year, lights, costumes, vignettes of old, and so much more are put on display inside a grand stadium in the middle of Vevey, built specifically for this occasion. It is called the Fête des Vignerons, or the “Festival of Winemakers”. But for C and I, this festival is not for us to sit perched on stadium bleachers, giggling at multicolored processions of pantaloons for two hours. For us, the FDV means food, and wine, and a whole lot of exploring.
At 11, all is peaceful on the grounds; stand-tenders are just now firing up their grills ahead of the lunch rush. We pass along the side of the stadium, following a low, droning hum permeating the atmosphere around us like a soothing balm. Coming up to a crowd gathered, we see a dozen musicians in historic Swiss garb arranged in a semi circle; each is playing a long Swiss Alpine horn, or alphorn (imagine the Ricola man). They are warming up for the day's outdoor stage shows. It is a lovely palate cleanser for the afternoon ahead; the horn players are all most likely retirees, gathered together to celebrate their culture by playing massive wooden horns in the balmy shade.
We leave the throng and make our way into the grounds; the campus is comprised of structures built specifically for this month-long festival, with no expenses spared. Giant, three-story high terraces on stilts hover over the lip of the shoreline, towering overhead; one may spot lazing attendees from below by small hands dangling over the edges, gazing at the grass-covered mountainsides of France from across the lake.
C and I amble down the shoreline to the east, passing large puppies on leashes begging their owners for a quick swim in the cool water; a New Orleans-style jazz brass band composed solely of jovial elderly men, all extremely talented and dressed in white; and food stands of all shapes, sizes and materials, decorated ornately according to the food being sold. Some stands have handmade paper lanterns covering every inch of the molded metal roof; others feature their own culturally appropriate decor: like Iranian scarves, Turkish rugs, or Moroccan wood carvings. It is a shantytown buffet, clumped together for a singular moment in time. The care taken to decorate every inch of each little shack with swaths of color is impressive. We continue on, searching for the easternmost end of the Fête.
Close to the edge, C's interest is peaked at a Tibetan food vendor. He asks if I've ever had Tibetan food; I reply that I haven't. I take a seat at one of the plywood bench tables, and a few minutes later C returns with an assorted bowl of Tibetan momos, or steamed dumplings. Half are filled with a beef mixture, while the other half are filled with a spiced, stewed, spinach-like green. All are topped delicately with a fresh tomato purée, which adds an acidic zing and brightens up the entire bowl. The momos are long gone soon after they reach the table.
After turning to the west, C and I come across a small stand selling wines by the glass. In French, he asks the bartender for a 'dry, acidic white wine', which she answers with two glasses of FV, the wine label specifically crafted for the festival. It evokes sweet apples and a fresh, fruity acidity, with no hint of sugar. As we walk along in the hot sun, it is one of the easiest-drinking wines I've ever sipped on. Leave it to the Swiss to go through years of painstaking work to produce a limited run of tailored wines specific for drinking at an outdoor festival. May their passionate devotion to the culinary arts never cease.
Still with a half glass left of the FV, C is once again lured into another vendor's grasp. This time it is a truck selling raclette, where instead of a heavy plate of layered potatoes and cheese one would purchase in the Christmas markets, it is a plate of six small hollowed-out potatoes, each filled with melty, tangy French raclette. C orders one and spices them himself with salt, pepper, cayenne, and paprika. It is just enough to send us skipping away clutching our appley wines, and not nearly enough to feel like we need a long winter's nap.
Eventually reaching the far west side of the Fête des Vignerons, we enter a large event canopy, carrying empty glasses. This is the 'Lavaux Passion' Terrace, which indeed has a direct view of the stunning hillside vineyards of Lavaux to the immediate west of Vevey. I ask C for a glass of the St. Saphorin, which is the town closest to us across the rippling lake. This wine is pleasantly medicinal, herbaceous with a hint of cheese in the finish; it reminds me of a crisp winter morning sitting outside on iron patio furniture on the steep slopes of St. Saphorin, admiring the sleeping frosted grapevines while donning a fuzzy, soft sweater. The cool wine transports me somewhere else on this steaming summer day, like all good glasses ought to. To soak up the wine, we munch on taillé aux greubons, which is a salted bakery specialty from Vaud, the canton (or region) that we live in. "Greubon" is a Swiss term for the crackling produced as residue from rendering lard. The taillés are made of puff pastry with the greubons embedded between them. To all southerners reading, they were like flaky biscuits with bacon fat baked in between the layers. Yeah.
The sun is high when we leave the LP canopy; many have retreated underneath awnings or into structures to eat their fondues or other classic Swiss fare. We walk to another part of the grounds, aiming to wait out the rush for a more peaceful dining experience later. We come across what looks like a long stone and wood-lined double wide cut in half; it has a kitchen on one end, and a great black cauldron suspended over a spitting wood fire on the other. A representative of the Gruyere cheese company stands over the pot, agitating the liquid inside with a large wooden paddle. He seems well practiced in the art of cheesemaking; he doesn't even bother to look down at the bubbling cauldron as he answers numerous questions from the audience, who are all staring inquisitively at the mesmerizing goop of Gruyere in the pot. Most are unaware of the smoke cloud continually being blown into their faces, too entranced with the stringy mass that smells like heaven.
The next structure over is my favorite of the day: the dairy cow petting zoo. Bored-looking cattle with names like 'Sissy' and 'Cupcake' are leashed loosely to their stalls, and fed a steady supply of grass and hay. Some are much keener than others, enjoying a nice scritch behind their ears like a giant pet dog. Others opt to ignore the visitors altogether, instead curling up for a long midday nap. I don't feel bad at all for these cows; I had just seen others like them a few weeks before chomping away on the hillsides of Gruyere. At the hottest point of this uncharacteristically sweltering summer, they get to spend their days in the shade, eating and getting petted. Doesn't sound like such a bad way to spend a month. The pen of goats next door to the cows seem to feel exactly the same way, and are quite over the head pats, unless the human possesses a strong scratching hand that feels better than rubbing up against the side of their pen.
After four hours at the fête, C and I still aren't yet hungry again, so we decide to explore the historic district of Vevey existing outside of the festival.
The empty cobblestone streets of the city are deserted in late July; many of the restaurants have closed their doors for the summer, opting to either work at the festival or to vacation around Europe, or to return home somewhere else to visit family. Just a few spots remain open: a group of friends dines under a faded red, sun-battered awning, the smell of roasting garlic creeps out of the open restaurant door; a bored tavern server rests her chin in her hand as she stares out at the empty alleyway, watching the shadows move; a French antique dealer stumbles through his sales pitch to two Italian tourists. By the final street at the edge of the small town, and after passing the garlic door twice, it is time to choose our last restaurant and end our day.
Just inside the main entrance of the Fête Des Vignerons, there is a white tent with AstroTurf flooring, empty decorative bird cages, and synthetic ivy growth dangling from the ceiling. It is the only temporary restaurant so clearly going for a 'secret garden' theme, yet it has been decorated with a light hand, to avoid outright gaudiness. It stands across a green patch of grass and the largest outdoor stage, where, coincidentally, the alphorn players from the beginning of the day are now setting up for their main stage show.
I order perch filets: they are small, boneless lake fish; they are unbreaded, but are sauteed in butter with a paprika-based spice blend. The filets are most often served with housemade tartar sauce and thin-cut french fries.
We sit and watch the show for a time while we eat; I blink; and we're back on the train headed for Lausanne again. There are two bottles of Fête des Vignerons wine in my bag, purchased from the gift shop, and C and I gaze out towards the vineyards as the train drives us higher and higher, slicing like a thin blade between the ambient rows of happy grapes.