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Travel: Running into Charlie Chaplin in Vevey

The little town on Lake Geneva was home to the iconic actor for 25 years, and today, his presence remains as strong as ever

The Charlie Chaplin statue on the banks of Lake Geneva.
The Charlie Chaplin statue on the banks of Lake Geneva. (Anita Rao Kashi)

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The mid-morning air is nippy and crisp, carrying the distinctive freshness that comes from a freshwater lake. The lake surface is still and glassy, broken by gentle ripples near the pebbly shore where a gaggle of geese dive in for breakfast in turns. In the backdrop are dark blue hills, their summits an uneven line under an unbelievably blue sky speckled with clouds that seem like tufts of white cotton. Along the lake’s edge is a promenade lined with linden trees and beds of colourful flowers. Except for a few walkers, some with dogs, it is deserted. It’s meditative to sit on the low promenade wall and soak in the sight and the silence. No surprise then that Vevey, on the eastern end of Lac Leman, or Lake Geneva, in Switzerland, has attracted creative people from the world over for centuries.

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I walk along the promenade, Quai Perdonnet, where it quickly becomes apparent that the town appreciates the illustrious visitors who made Vevey, located in a region called the Swiss Riviera, their home for varying lengths of time. It’s called the “town of images” owing to the presence of the world-acclaimed Swiss Camera Museum and school. But some of its creative guests have possibly contributed more through written words and moving images. Along the promenade, I encounter monuments to Romanian romantic poet Mihai Eminescu and Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol. Elsewhere, I read that Fyodor Dostoevsky, Graham Greene, Victor Hugo, Friedrich Engels and Jean-Jacques Rousseau too called Vevey home for a time.

One name overshadows them all. Almost halfway down the Quai Perdonnet, close to the interactive food museum Alimentarium, surrounded by shrubs and flower beds, is a bronze statue of Charlie Chaplin. Evocative of his character in The Tramp, it’s largely black, with patches of green and shiny brown, where it has probably been touched by visitors. Barely life-size, it was installed in 1989, on the actor’s birth centenary, and is a tribute to the town’s most famous resident, who spent the last 25 of his years of life in Vevey.

Even from a distance, the statue exudes melancholy, an emotion that defined Chaplin’s role and an aspect that British sculptor John Doubleday has managed to capture so beautifully. It’s difficult not to be drawn into that melancholia.

When a large tour group descends, I head into town, discovering that Chaplin is a silent yet dominating presence all over town. A few metres from the promenade, I stumble upon one of Vevey’s long-standing traditions: the bi-weekly market at Place du Marche. It’s a yawning space, the size of almost half a football field, and is the town’s parking space on most days. Except till 1pm on Tuesdays and Saturdays, when the market is held.

Aromas vie for attention, with the gentle smell of fresh fruits, vegetables and greens quickly overpowered by the earthy aroma from mushrooms and root vegetables. They have stiff competition from giant wheels and portioned segments of cheese, the strong smell tickling the nostrils. And then there are the seductive aromas of warm breads and croissants.

The most magnetic, though, is the scent of fresh brewed coffee. The first sip delivers a comforting hit, the perfect boost. Some accounts say the market began sometime in the mid-14th century. That it is rooted in the community is evident: There is a cheerful air, a bonhomie and camaraderie between the vendors and customers that comes from years-long acquaintance. Knick knacks such as the distinctive bowler hat and cane, as well as postcards and posters related to Chaplin, catch the eye.

On Rue du Théâtre in Vevey is a store of the Swiss chocolate brand Läderach, which sells Charlie’s Shoes, rich dark chocolate designed to the resemble the oversize shoes he wore in The Tramp.
On Rue du Théâtre in Vevey is a store of the Swiss chocolate brand Läderach, which sells Charlie’s Shoes, rich dark chocolate designed to the resemble the oversize shoes he wore in The Tramp. (Anita Rao Kashi)

To the right of Place du Marche, narrow lanes branch off to form Vevey’s old town. It is filled with pale yellow, pink and white buildings, hidden historical monuments, museums and churches. Some are just alleys, so narrow it is almost possible to spread the arms and touch buildings on either side. Lore has it that Chaplin’s wife, Oona, pushed him in his wheelchair along these streets and the lakeside, where he posed for photographs with tourists.

About 5km north of the Place du Marche, at the other end of town, is Manoir de Ban, a 37-acre estate with a neo-classical mansion that was his home. On a London-bound ocean liner for the premiere of his movie Limelight in 1952, he learnt his permit had been revoked and he would need to submit to an FBI interrogation on his return. The British actor snapped ties with the US and settled in Vevey (he returned just once, in 1972, to receive an Academy award) till his death in 1977.

Almost 40 years later, it was restored and converted into a museum. Called Chaplin’s World, it showcases his life and work and is possibly the closest embodiment of him as a person and a professional. His trademark hat, cane and Oscars are part of the small collection of static displays. But most of the museum encourages interaction, inviting visitors to sit on the barber chair in The Great Dictator or tilt the sets of The Gold Rush, or immerse oneself in the sound-stage rooms from Modern Times and The Kid.

Predictably, movies and everything around that part of Chaplin’s life dominate the museum. But there are glimpses of him as a person. In a 1960s’ home video, the white-haired star of the silent movie era can be seen frolicking on the lawns, playing with his children, dining with the family, performing tricks... It is here that Chaplin’s real persona comes through, much fuller in character, playful and childlike with his children, far from his melancholic on-screen persona.

Back in the old part of town, the narrow streets are full of pretty doors with ornate brass and bronze knockers, exquisite facades with embellishments, pots of colourful flowers hanging from roofs and window sills, arched doorways, pillared balconies and cobbled nooks overflowing with flowering bushes. Many of the buildings house shops, boutique stores and cafés with old-world wrought-iron furniture lining the pavements. Occasionally, I spot a Chaplin poster or memorabilia.

On Rue du Théâtre, I stumble across a store of the Swiss chocolate brand Läderach, displaying a unique chocolate: a pair of shoes. It is about an inch and a half in length, in a pale gold-coloured metal tin. Even without reading the label—Charlie’s Shoes—the reference in clearly evident.

It is designed the resemble the oversize shoes from The Tramp. Dark, delicate and beautifully moulded, it feels a crime to bite into it. But a series of tastes rush across the palate at first bite: bitter from the outer dark chocolate but also chewy sweetness from caramel and texture from pine nuts. It is supposedly based on three of Chaplin’s attributes—strong temperament, romance and originality.

All the other references to him in Vevey are expected; the chocolate however, feels personal, like literally savouring a bit of Chaplin or taking back a piece of him. For some reason, I think he would approve.

Anita Rao Kashi is a Bengaluru-based journalist and travel writer.

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