Youth culture thriving in Olympic capital

The lakeside at Ouchy attracts young and old. Switzerland Tourism

Lausanne is one of the grandest places in Switzerland, home of the International Olympic Committee and some of the country's most expensive hotels. But as Roy Probert found out, beneath its genteel veneer, there is also a thriving youth culture.

This content was published on September 28, 2000 - 16:20

Not surprisingly, many visitors to Lausanne get to know the city by climbing the steep streets of the old town and visiting the Notre Dame Cathedral - the highest in Switzerland - and the magnificent town hall.

But Lausanne, built as it is on hills, is nothing if not a city of contrasts, and in one of the valleys hidden below the old town, lies the district of Flon, the counter-culture hub of the city, where you are likely to rub shoulders with artists, musicians and poets.

Dominating Flon is the Bel-Air Tower. This symbol of Swiss architectural innovation rises up to challenge the cathedral for dominance of the city. Built amid a storm of controvery in 1932, the tower now houses the world-famous Bejart Ballet and the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra, and its clean lines provide a fitting backdrop to this most modern of districts.

Flon itself looks like a collection of old warehouses. Which is not surprising as that is precisely what it is.

"For a tourist coming here, it's not immediately obvious what goes on in Flon, because most of the interesting activities happen inside the buildings," says Just One, producer for one of Lausanne's most celebrated musical talents, the hip-hop band, Sens Unik.

"It's really unusual to find a district in the middle of a city to be so full of open spaces and so relaxed," he told me in the group's studio, which is in one of Flon's trademark rectangular blocks.

Flon has its origins in Lausanne's rapid expansion in the second half of the 19th century. Between 1874 and 1915 the River Flon, by then little more than an open sewer, was covered over to create a new industrial and commercial zone.

Later, as industry moved out to the city suburbs, bohemian types moved in and transformed it: "Flon is unusual because it's right in the middle of the city, you have lots of spacious but relatively cheap premises," Just One points out, adding that this was the prime reason for Sens Unik locating their operation in this area.

Where other cities would have characterless shopping centres, Lausanne, almost by accident and a quirk of geography, has developed a mecca for alternative and contemporary culture.

"Artists have always concentrated here and that has created its own particular spirit and atmosphere, which is quite different to the rest of Lausanne," says Just One.

"It's a friendly place where people are always bumping into each other. It's a bit like downtown New York," he says.

It's here that every self-respecting trend-setter comes to buy the right clothes, the right CDs and the right ethnic ornaments for their apartments. The warehouses have been brightly decorated and converted into shoe shops, comic stores, art galleries, and fashionable bistros. You'll also find the offices of left-field magazines and record labels.

It's also the place to come for nightlife: "Nearly all the best clubs in Lausanne are in and around Flon," says Just One.

"They play all different styles of music - latin, house, soul, funk. The fact that all the clubs are concentrated in a small area means there are lots of young people, and that gives it a great atmosphere."

But is this alternative youth scene something that the city elders actively promote as a tourist attraction?

"The authorities are relatively proud of the ambiance that exists here. But it's not something they particularly encourage, they just let people get on with it," Just One adds.

Flon is not the only part of the city where youth culture is thriving. Just One suggested I visit the lakeside districts of Vidy and Ouchy, best known for their splendid stately homes - the Chateau de Vidy, headquarters of the IOC, and the neo-gothic Chateau d'Ouchy.

Vidy is a remarkable area. Appropriately for the seat of the Olympic movement, the whole area seems to be a celebration of sport. It's a place young people come to exert themselves or to chill out.

This was the site of the Swiss National Exhibition of 1964. Everywhere you look is a football or rugby pitch, a tennis court, an athletics track, a rowing eight or a marina full of yachts. Between these cyclists, joggers and inline skaters hurtle along a network of paths.

The Lausannois also know how to relax. Just along the lakeside from this sporting zone is the town's main beach. Part shingle, part sand, it is backed by a large expanse of grass.

There can be few finer things to do than sitting by Lake Geneva, looking across at the French Alps and, on a warm day, immersing yourself in the clean, cool water.

Continuing along the lake, you come to the spacious, modern promenades of Ouchy, the most important lakeside area of Lausanne. Most eye-catching is the Place de la Navigation, once a busy industrial port, but since 1995 a spacious public area, all curved concrete steps and rows of soothing fountains.

Here the inline skaters give way to skateboarders. For Lausanne, with its huge slopes, is truly a skateboarders' paradise. And Ouchy, with its open spaces, is where they congregate every evening.

"You can travel from one side of the city to the other, bombing the hills on your board," says Jason Singer, owner of Babylon, Lausanne's top skateboard shop. "It's a bit like San Francisco."

"Ouchy is a great place to come after work or after studying. You've got the sunshine, the lake and the mountains - it's really relaxing. And there's lots of space to try out new tricks," he told me.

It may be the parks, or the blueness of the lake, or the brightness of the stone used on the lakefront, but the sun always seems to shine in Ouchy. Narrow your eyes and it could be Nice or Cannes.

Jason explains that the long marble benches that run along the Ouchy promenade, where older inhabitants come to play at giant chess sets, are perfect for practicing your stunts.

And there seems to be an easy cohabitation between the two cultures. As the chess players concentrate on their next move, the boarders take it in turns to weave between them and try to leap onto the ledges, not always successfully.

The skateboard culture has become so well-established in Lausanne that it has its own indoor skatepark and hosts an international skateboarding Grand Prix every other year.

Be it Ouchy or Flon, Lausanne seems more than happy for its public spaces to be colonised by the young. It sends out a message that living an alternative lifestyle is acceptable. It's a message that many young tourists find appealing.

by Roy Probert

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