Narcissus graces shores of Lake Geneva

The narcissus fields above Montreux are a popular vantage point for views over Lake Geneva (photo: Montreux Tourism)

Montreux is best known for its jazz festival and Golden Rose television awards, but it was the annual blooming of the white narcissus flower that helped to put the lakeside resort on the map more than a century ago.

This content was published on May 25, 2001 - 10:55

Thousands once flocked to Montreux to admire the white narcissus, dubbed "May Snow" by locals after the blanket of white flowers which stretches for several kilometres.

They still bloom in early May at altitudes of over 1,000 metres above the glistening blue of Lake Geneva. But an annual festival to mark the occasion gradually waned until it disappeared after the Second World War.

The event is now making an unexpected comeback. Claude Forel, who leads walking tours in the hills above Montreux, says visitors to the area are attracted not just by the flowers but by their unusual abundance.

"What makes this area so unique is that here you can see not just isolated patches of narcissus flowers, but hundreds of thousands of them," he says.

"It's rare to find whole fields of narcissus, but I think people are also fascinated by the pure white of the flower, the colour of virginity."

First festival in 1897

An early form of eco-tourism began at the turn of the last century, when the citizens of Montreux decided to celebrate the blooming of the famous white flower above the town. The success of the first festival in 1897 encouraged the authorities to turn the event into an annual celebration.

The birth of mass tourism brought increasing numbers of overseas tourists to the region and by the first decade of the 20th century the Narcissus Fair had become a highlight of the Swiss festival calendar.

Decades before the idea for a jazz festival was first conceived, international orchestras, ballet troupes and opera ensembles were invited to Montreux to perform at the fair.

Parades of floats decorated with hand-picked narcissus flowers brought thousands on to the streets while every year several tonnes of the flowers were cut, packed up and sent around the world to promote regional tourism.

But the festival fell into decline shortly after the Second World War and the depleted fields of narcissus stood largely forgotten.

It was only in 1999, following the formation of an Association for the Protection and Promotion of Riviera Narcissus, that a new brand of eco-tourism was launched and the idea mooted to encourage a new generation of visitors to discover the fields above Lake Geneva.

The Swiss Landscape Fund drew up an action programme last year to promote the development of agriculture and tourism in the region, while financial subsidies are offered by the cantonal government to farmers who agree not to mow narcissus fields or put cattle out to graze on the protected land.

Flower considered nuisance

"Local farmers consider the flower to be a nuisance because it serves no agricultural purpose," Forel says. "The only thing going for it is its beauty, though this should be enough to ensure the protection of the flower."

Forel is confident that visitors will respect the natural environment and remains upbeat about the future of the town's erstwhile symbol: "I think the narcissus will remain in Montreux for ever - it's certainly been here since the formation of the land.

"This flower is living proof that nature still goes on and that there are ways of protecting things we have been given. I think this is already a great achievement."

The 2001 Narcissus Festival, which includes guided tours of the fields and a programme of musical and theatrical events, runs until June 4.

by Ramsey Zarifeh

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