Roughly every 20 years, the otherwise tranquil town of Vevey on the shores of Lake Geneva throws a month-long party called Fête des Vignerons, or Winegrowers’ Festival (18 July – 11 August). Festivities kick off with an allegorical pageant that dates back to 1797, and a local population of 17,600 is expected to swell to 400,000.
At a time when the term “festival” usually means a chanting, chemically fuelled mob scene, Fête des Vignerons seems sent from a more genteel era. Now, if your eyes are glazing over at the thought of a Swiss peasant dance, all booming alphorns and flags tossed in the air, watched by busloads of American tourists, be prepared for a pleasant surprise. I attended the last Fête back in 1999, and it was as if a folk festival had collided with the biggest fancy-dress party in the world, a nearly three-hour event with a cast of 5,500 actors and 1,500 musicians, mostly local amateurs. There were herds of sheep dyed blue, squadrons of folk dancers, cathedral-sized choirs in ritzy costumes, marching bands and a coda of Swiss fighter jets that screamed off the lake and over the purpose-built stadium. It was overwhelming, quasi-mystical, silly and reverential all at once; that sweet spot where Calvinism meets Vegas. Well, there’s plenty to celebrate about the grape here in the canton of Vaud. Walking distance from Vevey lie the terraced hillside vineyards of the Lavaux wine country, so singular in beauty and importance that it’s been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Swiss export less than two per cent of their production – it’s too good to share, as the local boast goes.
For 2019, the shows are in the capable hands of Swiss director Daniele Finzi Pasca, who’s proven his ability to pull off large-scale pomp with the closing ceremonies of the 2006 and 2014 Winter Olympics, along with Corteo for Cirque du Soleil. This year’s Fête des Vignerons theme: a year in the life of the vineyard. Each performance is followed by a rather orderly bacchanal (this is Switzerland, after all) spilling into the lanes of Vevey. It’s that rare time when private caves open up to the public, when festival-goers explore 60-odd food and wine stands, when street performers and those 5,500-plus costumed actors let their hair down. The wine isn’t half bad either.