Geneva - For the past 50 summers, music lovers have flocked to the banks of Lake Geneva to take in the Montreux Jazz Festival.
Drawing more than 250 000 visitors over its annual two-week run, the festival looms large and dominates the Swiss town's landscape and culture. But Montreux has another claim to musical fame: It was where Freddie Mercury, the legendary lead singer and songwriter of Queen, came to find peace.
Like many well-known rock bands and musicians - including David Bowie, Deep Purple and Iggy Pop - Queen was drawn to Montreux by its quiet solitude and the lower taxes. The band members grew to appreciate the town so much that Mercury rented homes there. In 1979, they bought Mountain Studios, where they did much of their recording. Though Mercury died 25 years ago this month, a visitor today need only go slightly beneath the surface to find his spirit throughout the town.
I visited Montreux in June after a stay in Chamonix, France. With a return flight out of Geneva, I decided to tack on a couple of days in the town, drawn as much by its alpine lakeside location as its music history. I was charmed by both and upon arrival, drawn to the waterfront promenade for a stroll past the town's restaurants, hotels and historical Chillon Castle.
When Mercury came to Montreux in 1978, it was not love at first sight. “He hated it,” says Peter Freestone, who was Mercury's personal assistant from 1979 until his death in 1991. I spoke to Feestone via telephone from his home in Prague. “Early on, in fact, he said that the best place for the studio would be at the bottom of the lake.”
Montreux, apparently, was too quiet for the famously energetic Mercury. “Back when Queen first got here, the town was tiny and there was absolutely nothing to do,” says Freestone. “But if you wanted to record an album, it was perfect.”
Montreux began to appeal to Mercury once he had accepted his AIDS diagnosis in 1987, Freestone says. “At that point, Freddie needed and wanted peace and quiet, and the town could deliver it,” he explains. “The Swiss were very used to seeing famous faces in Montreux, and they tended to leave them alone.” Mercury could visit shops, eat out at local restaurants and move about town without the throng of fans and media following him in Montreux as they did in his home town of London.
Indeed, the city has plenty to offer. If following in Queen's footsteps doesn't appeal, there's the lake, available for recreation of all kinds, touring the history-rich town and taking in the castle. It's easy to enjoy it all in at a relaxed pace and simply people-watch along the promenade. As in most Swiss cities, the food is top-notch, albeit expensive. Montreux enjoys a temperate climate, and touring the area can be pleasant year-round. If jazz and crowds are not your thing, however, you probably want to avoid early July.
Queen produced seven albums in Montreux, including the band's 15th and final one, “Made in Heaven.” The band members knew they were recording on borrowed time; Mercury worked as much as his diminishing energy would allow, with the other three members accommodating his scheduling needs. “The band spent as much time as possible in the studio during this period,” says Julia Tames, media and communications representative for Montreux Riviera, the local tourist office where I checked in. “After he passed, the rest of the band finished the album.” (It was released four years after his death, in 1995.)
“If you listen to the lyrics of A Winter's Tale from the final album, you can hear and see everything in Montreux,” Freestone says.
The album's cover was shot in three frames in Montreux, later combined. The blended photo shows the 10-foot Freddie Mercury statue that still overlooks the lake from the town promenade, the three remaining band members on the shores of the lake and the boat house of the home Mercury rented while in Montreux.
These days, fans of Mercury and Queen can tour Mountain Studios, located on the top floor of the town's casino. The control room is unchanged from Queen's recording days except for a new recording console. Visitors can also see some of Mercury's performance costumes, handwritten lyrics and a wide variety of memorabilia. A brass plate marks the spot where Mercury stood to record his final songs. Both an interior and exterior wall at the building are covered in signatures and handwritten tributes to Mercury.
To enter the studio, you must first pass through the dated, gilded casino and walk up to the second floor. Here Queen's music loudly greets you, even if crowds do not. I had the studio to myself while there, and I meandered through its three rooms at my own pace.
Beyond the studio, “you can feel Freddie all over town,” Freestone says.
There's the statue, a bronze work by Czech sculptor Irena Sedlecka that was unveiled in 1996 and has become, local officials say, one of the 10 most visited tourist attractions in Switzerland. And several of the bars and restaurants Mercury favoured still stand: Fans can have a meal at Brasserie Bavaria, a drink at Funky Claude's, or stay at the Montreux Palace, where Mercury and the band spent many a night.
I stayed down the road/promenade from the palace at the Royal Plaza. Although the location was good, the hotel has seen better days, and a heavy 1980s vibe permeates the property.
Visitors with a boat can get a view of a lakeside house that Mercury rented for several years - he called it the “duck house,” due to the landlord's decorating motif. Each fall, Freestone, who is semi-retired, spends a weekend hosting several boat tours, taking visitors to view the house and other sights. You can generally score tickets from Freestone's website or inquire about them at the tourist office. “We occasionally do walking tours as well, but that's not quite as regular,” he says.
After Mercury's death in 1991, surviving band members Brian May and Roger Taylor and manager Jim Beach set up the Mercury Phoenix Trust (MPT) to raise money for AIDS education and awareness projects around the world.
For the past three years, the MPT has held a fundraising party at the Montreux casino around Sept. 5, commemorating Mercury's birthday. The event is open to the public; fans can purchase tickets through the MPT. This year marked what would have been his 70th.
“It's difficult to imagine Freddie at the age of 70,” Freestone says, “because he never wanted to slow down. We . . . use his birthday as an excuse to party, which is what he would have wanted.”
If you go...
Where to stay
Fairmont Le Montreux Palace
Ave. Claude Nobs 2
The grand dame of Montreux where Mercury and Queen often stayed.
From approximately $290 (about R3 800) a night.
A modern high-rise hotel on the shores of Lake Geneva. From approximately $190 a night.
Where to eat
Caveau des Vignerons
Rue Industrielle 30 BIS
Traditional Swiss fare in Old Town Montreux. Entrees start at $23.
Avenue Nestle 17
One of the oldest restaurants in town and also a Queen favourite. Entrees start at $25.
What to do
Queen - The Studio Experience
Rue du Théâtre 9
Tour the unchanged studio where the band Queen recorded seven of their albums, and Freddie Mercury's final vocals. Open 10:30am to 5:30pm daily. Free.