This Swiss Riviera happening is the best carnival you have never heard of

Fête des Vignerons: Carnival Fervor on Switzerland’s Riviera

Put this on your bucket list: Vevey’s extraordinary Fête des Vignerons, which takes place only once every 20 years on the drop-dead gorgeous eastern shores of Lake Geneva and is going on right now.

The festival’s main event is part small-town talent show and part Cirque de Soleil, except with a cast of thousands. In fact, a fourth of Vevey’s 20,000 residents perform in the two and half hours spectacle, which takes place daily. To pull it off, 5,500 locals give up almost a year’s worth of vacations and weekends to be rehearsed by world-class choreographers and choir directors.

In fact, the event is so unusual and has such a long tradition (the first edition occurred during the French Revolution) that it has earned UNESCO-protected status as one of the world’s great intangible cultural assets.

The theme of the festival, know affectionately as Fevi, sounds workaday: a year in the life in the region’s vignerons, i.e. vineyard workers. However, we challenge you to leave the arena with dry eyes. And if the dozens of handsome men dressed in the red and white regalia of Swiss mercenaries don’t turn your head, check your pulse.

Do take note that the Vaud region, which includes Lausanne and Montreux as well as Vevey, is known for producing Switzerland’s most beautiful men. And l’esprit de fête (“the party spirit”) make locals more willing than usual to embrace newcomers with open arms.

This year’s edition brings the ancient festival into the 21st century with the inclusion of disabled performers, a depiction of interracial marriage, and a compelling call for environmental protection and harmony with nature.

Switzerland’s Protestant Carnival

I lived for years in Rio de Janeiro, and I couldn’t help comparing the Fête des Vignerons to Rio’s Carnival. Like Rio, Vevey sits between mountains and beaches, except in Vevey’s case many of the peaks are snow-capped. The show has many echoes of Rio’s Sambodromo parade, even if it features modestly dressed Swiss folk rather than scantily clad sambistas. Most of all, Fevi unites citizens with the same infection sense of communal joy that Rio residents call alegria.  

“The whole town celebrates together, without regard race, class, sexual orientation, or physical ability,” says Pierre Smets, a Vevey resident, TV journalist, and performer in this year’s edition of Fevi tells me.

During Fevi, he explains, castes and social distinctions are dissolved, and easy good times infects a city known for its soberly Protestant work ethic. Butchers and truck drivers dance with doctors and lawyers. Political enemies embrace, and rancor of any sort is considered bad form. To reinforce the message, this edition’s purpose-built arena is clad in a rainbow of subtle hues—just a preview of the iridescent costumes that await inside.

Like Fevi, the Vaud’s terraced vineyards are also UNESCO protected, but not just because of their age or beauty. It is, above all, the fact that after nearly 1,000 years, the vineyards are still shared among dozens of highly cooperative small growers rather than international conglomerates.

“Cooperation is in our cultural DNA,” says Eric Maghenzani, a policeman and native of Vevey, “and Fevi is very much expression of that.”

“When you grow up here, your parents are always telling you stories about Fevi,” says Maghenzani, who has never missed a Fevi in his forty-plus years, though there have only been three. “”One day,’ they tell you, ‘you will get to be part of it yourself.'”

Party in the Streets

Tickets are still available until August 11, but even if can’t get hold of any, go to Vevey and join the party that spills out into the streets during and after the show. The spirit of goodwill is palpable everywhere you go, as velvet-gowned jokers, traditionally clad shepherds, and Renaissance mercenaries mix with families and friends at the food stalls installed temporarily along Vevey’s waterfront.

On sunny days, you can join the revelers as they strip to their bathing suits and take a sip in the azure waters of Lake Geneva, which sits just steps from the Fevi’s multi-colored arena. Definitely don’t miss members the recruiting station of the Swiss Guard, where members of the Vatican’s defense force pose with boys who dream of joining up someday.

Beyond Vevey and Fevi

The Fête is also the perfect excuse to visit the incredible diversity of the Vaud region.

Within 90 minutes of Vevey, you can visit prim-on-the-outside, kinky-on-the-inside Geneva, or explore the glacial peaks around Gstaad. Nearer by, little commuter trains wind their ways up into the so-called pre-Alps for hikes like the one that starts in Les Avants. This tiny town of-Époque hotels affords sweeping views of both snow-capped peaks and the ever-changing blues of Lake Geneva. Alternately, just walk up into the stunning terraced vineyards that reach down into Vevey itself.

Just a few minutes away by train lies Lausanne, which is, after Zurich, Switzerland’s most liberal and gay-friendliest city. Head to Le Saxo bar, a pioneering gay presence for decades that still offers a cozy welcome to its karaoke (nicknamed kara-aux-gays) party.  After midnight, MAD is the multi-floor place to be, where the crowd skews late teens to 30s, though crowds grow more age-diverse and international during Fevi.  

The Fête des Vignerons ends on August 11, and you will have to wait decades for the next edition. So make plans now.

If you can’t make it this week, the Vaud remains beautiful and waiting for your visit anytime.

Photos by Robert Landon