Eating in the Capital of the Olympics

It isn't London, it isn't Greece — it's on a lake in Switzerland
Eating in the Capital of the Olympics
iStockphoto/ thinkstock

Lausanne looks over Lake Geneva (also known as Lac Léman) in Switzerland.

The 2012 Olympic Games begin in London on July 27. But unless you planned way ahead or have some mighty good connections, you're probably not going. If you want to get a little taste of the Olympics, though, and eat some good food while you're at it, there's an alternative destination you might consider: Lausanne, Switzerland, official headquarters of the International Olympic Committee.

Overlooking Lake Geneva (or Lac Léman, as the Swiss prefer to call it), about 35 miles from Geneva itself, Lausanne is a quiet, attractive city on a piece of gently curving shoreline at the top of the lake. It's up high enough to be able to survey much of the surrounding landscape, with its dramatic Alpine backdrop, but borders the lake and thus is linked intimately with its cosmopolitan community of commerce and leisure. (For one thing, the famous spa of Evian, with its black-tie-and-ball gown casino, is sparklingly visible just across the water on the French side of the lake.)

The earliest settlement on this spot dates from Roman times, if not earlier, but Lausanne — named for the river, once called the Laus, now the Flon, which flows into it from the north — began to grow into a real city only in the 15th century. Between 1536 and 1798 it was occupied by the Bernese, and was a municipality of only minor importance in the Swiss Confederation, but in 1803, when Napoleon divided Switzerland into 19 new cantons, the city was named capital of the canton of Vaud, and its fortunes improved. Later in the 19th century, it grew into an important railway junction, and with the opening of the Simplon Tunnel on the route to Italy in 1906, it found itself in the middle of the principal trade corridor between Paris and Milan, and profited accordingly.

The city owes its Olympic connection to Pierre de Frédy, the Baron de Coubertin, the visionary French educator who founded the modern Olympic Games in the late 19th century. The Baron was quite taken with Lausanne, attracted by its beauty and its central location (at least in Western European terms), and probably also by the fact of Switzerland's traditional political neutrality, and he decided that it would be the perfect home for his new organization. Accordingly, he negotiated contracts with the city, signed in 1915 at the Lausanne Town Hall, which provided for facilities for committee offices and archives here, and for an Olympics museum.

The IOC's first home in Lausanne was in a suite of rooms at the Casino de Montbenon in the middle of town (still used for civic functions). Soon outgrowing the space, the organization moved first to the Villa Mon-Repos (a 17th-century chateau in which Voltaire had staged his famous tragedy Zaire for friends in the 1730s) in the beautiful city park of the same name, and later to the Chateau de Vidy in the suburb of Vidy, just southwest of the city, where it remains to this day.

There isn't much to see there. There has been an Olympics museum on the site since de Courbetin's day. It closed down in 1970, reopening a dozen years later in a rather haphazard, even slightly tacky incarnation. (A poster for the ill-fated 1972 Munich games included just this one reference to the massacre there of Israeli athletes: "The Olympic Games certainly were in no way responsible for the carnage. They were used by the Palestinians as a 'sounding board', to quote a term used by Jean Lacourtre in Le Monde.") That museum was replaced by another, considerably more elaborate, in 1993, on the 99th anniversary of de Courbertin's initial call for a revived Olympic Games. That one, in turn, closed down last year, with a newer, more improved version scheduled to debut in 2014.