For the last 50 summers, music lovers have flocked to the banks of Lake Geneva to take in the Montreux Jazz Festival. Drawing more than 250,000 visitors over its annual two-week run, the festival looms large and dominates the Swiss town's landscape and culture. But Montreux has another claim to musical fame: It was where Freddie Mercury, the lead singer and songwriter of Queen, came to find peace.
Like many well-known rock bands and musicians - including David Bowie, Deep Purple, and Iggy Pop - Queen was drawn to Montreux for its solitude and lower taxes. The band members grew to appreciate the town so much that Mercury rented houses there. In 1979, they bought Mountain Studios, where they did much of their recording. Mercury died 25 years ago this month, but a visitor today need go only slightly beneath the surface to find his spirit throughout the town.
I visited Montreux in June after a stay in Chamonix, France. With a return flight out of Geneva, I decided to tack on a couple of days in the town, drawn as much by its alpine lakeside location as its music history. I was charmed by both, and, upon arrival, was drawn to the waterfront promenade for a stroll past the restaurants, hotels, and historic Chillon Castle.
When Mercury came to Montreux in 1978, it was not love at first sight. "He hated it," says Peter Freestone, who was Mercury's personal assistant from 1979 until his death in 1991. I spoke to Freestone by telephone from his home in Prague. "Early on, in fact, he said that the best place for the studio would be at the bottom of the lake."
Montreux, apparently, was too quiet for the famously energetic Mercury. "Back when Queen first got here, the town was tiny, and there was absolutely nothing to do," says Freestone. "But if you wanted to record an album, it was perfect."
Montreux began to appeal to Mercury once he accepted his AIDS diagnosis in 1987, Freestone says. "At that point, Freddie needed and wanted peace and quiet, and the town could deliver it," he says. "The Swiss were very used to seeing famous faces in Montreux, and they tended to leave them alone." Mercury could visit shops, eat out at local restaurants, and move about town without throngs of fans and media following him as they did when he was home in London.
The city has plenty to offer. If following in Queen's footsteps doesn't appeal, there's the lake, available for recreation of all kinds; touring the history-rich town; and taking in the castle. It's easy to enjoy it all at a relaxed pace and simply people-watch along the promenade. As in most Swiss cities, the food is top-notch, albeit expensive. Montreux enjoys a temperate climate, and touring the area can be pleasant year-round. If jazz and crowds are not your thing, however, you probably want to avoid early July.
Queen produced seven albums in Montreux, including the band's 15th and final one, Made in Heaven. They knew they were recording on borrowed time. Mercury worked as much as his diminishing energy would allow, with the other three members accommodating his scheduling needs. "The band spent as much time as possible in the studio during this period," says Julia Tames, media and communications representative for Montreux Riviera, the local tourist office where I checked in. "After he passed, the rest of the band finished the album." (It was released four years after his death, in 1995.)
"If you listen to the lyrics of 'A Winter's Tale' from the final album," Freestone says, "you can hear and see everything in Montreux."
The album's cover was shot in three frames in Montreux, later combined. The blended photo shows the 10-foot Freddie Mercury statue that still overlooks the lake from the town promenade, the three remaining band members on the lakeshore, and the boathouse of the house Mercury rented while in Montreux.
These days, fans of Mercury and Queen can tour Mountain Studios, on the top floor of the town casino. The control room is unchanged from Queen's recording days, except for a new recording console. Visitors can also see some of Mercury's performance costumes, handwritten lyrics, and a wide variety of memorabilia. A brass plate marks the spot where Mercury stood to record his final songs. An interior and exterior wall at the building are covered in signatures and handwritten tributes to Mercury.
To enter the studio, you must first pass through the dated, gilded casino and walk up to the second floor. There, Queen's music loudly greets you, even if crowds do not. I had the studio to myself while there, and I meandered through its three rooms at my own pace.
Beyond the studio, Freestone says, "you can feel Freddie all over town."
There's the statue, a bronze work by Czech sculptor Irena Sedlecka, that was unveiled in 1996 and that has become, local officials say, one of the 10 most-visited tourist attractions in Switzerland. Several of the bars and restaurants Mercury favored still stand: Fans can have a meal at Brasserie Bavaria or a drink at Funky Claude's, or stay at the Montreux Palace, where Mercury and the band spent many a night.
I stayed down the road/promenade from the palace at the Royal Plaza. Although the location was good, the hotel has seen better days, and a heavy 1980s vibe permeates the property.
Visitors with boats can get a view of a lakeside house that Mercury rented for several years - he called it the "duck house" because of the landlord's decorating motif. Each fall, Freestone, who is semiretired, spends a weekend hosting several boat tours, taking visitors to view the house and other sights. You can generally score tickets from Freestone's website or inquire about them at the tourist office. "We occasionally do walking tours, as well," he says, "but that's not quite as regular."
After Mercury died, surviving band members Brian May and Roger Taylor and manager Jim Beach set up the Mercury Phoenix Trust (MPT) to raise money for AIDS education and awareness projects around the world.
For the last three years, the trust has held a fund-raising party at the Montreux casino around Sept. 5, commemorating Mercury's birthday. The event is open to the public; fans can purchase tickets through the trust. This year marked what would have been his 70th.
"It's difficult to imagine Freddie at the age of 70," Freestone says, "because he never wanted to slow down. We . . . use his birthday as an excuse to party, which is what he would have wanted."