The small Swiss town of Vevey is surrounded by terraced vineyards and turquoise water on Lake Geneva (Credit: Anna Muckerman)
A party for the ages
Sublimely located on Lake Geneva’s north-eastern shore overlooking the Alps, the small Swiss town of Vevey is surrounded by terraced vineyards and turquoise water. But once every 20 to 25 years, hundreds of thousands of people descend on this tranquil, 19,000-person town on the Swiss Riviera as it transforms into a bacchanalian world.
Known as the Fête des Vignerons (“The Winegrowers’ Festival”), this Unesco-designated celebration dates to 1797 and only takes place once a generation. Locals don elaborate costumes and open underground wine vaults for late-night revelry, while chirpy flautists and drummers march down cobblestone streets and a grandiose open-air theatrical production takes over the market square. For several weeks, people of all ages and backgrounds dance, sing and drink – all for the sake of promoting a tradition that many don’t associate with Switzerland: winemaking.
Why the long interval between parties? It’s said that locals celebrate with such fervour that it takes at least 10 years to recover, and another 10 years to plan. This summer’s extravaganza – which took place from 18 July to 11 August – was only the 12th edition of what some call the world’s largest wine event. It cost 100m Swiss francs (£78.25m) to organise and attracted a million people.
The Fête des Vignerons is a winegrower’s festival organised no more than five times a century (Credit: Anna Muckerman)
The winegrower kings
The Fête des Vignerons is a winegrower’s festival – not wine festival – organised no more than five times a century by the Confrérie des Vignerons (Brotherhood of Winegrowers), an association that encourages and promotes vine production in the region. The festival honours the living viticultural traditions of the acclaimed Chablais and Unesco-listed Lavaux regions surrounding Vevey, whose 830 hectares of terraced vineyards and winemaking families have been producing some of the world’s best Chasselas since the Middle Ages.
On the first day of the festival, the best winegrowers (vignerons-tacherons) are awarded grapevine-inspired crowns for their work in the vineyards (not necessarily for the wines they produce) in a lavish coronation ceremony held in a specially built arena that’s redesigned and rebuilt for each Fête. This year’s arena could hold 20,000 spectators – a seat for every Vevey resident.
To judge the winners, experts appointed by the Confrérie meticulously evaluate 270 hectares of vineyards surrounding Vevey between Pully and Villeneuve, as well as vineyards from Yvorne to Lavey in the Rhône Valley three times a year. The experts grade the tidiness of winemakers’ vineyards and the health of their grapes, among other criteria. The group established the Fête in 1797 to encourage winegrowers to take better care of their vines. By all accounts, it’s worked marvellously.
“It’s better than the Olympics because I’m king for the next 20 years,” Jean-Daniel Berthet, a winegrower at Luc Massy Vins, reportedly told his boss after his coronation in 2019.
The Fête is a living tradition passed down from generation to generation (Credit: Anna Muckerman)
More than just a wine event, the Fête is a living tradition, passed down from generation to generation, that pulsates through Vevey’s viticultural roots. Although no Fête is the same, each has a coronation ceremony, where, like the Oscars, the results are top-secret until names are announced on stage by the head of the Confrérie.
That same day, a large procession marches by the lake, allowing the public to greet the prize-winners and Confrérie members and marvel at the sumptuously costumed performers. However, it’s the city-wide Ville en Fête, with its pop-up food stalls, late-night wine bars, outdoor concerts and open-air theatrical show, that keeps the party going for weeks.
The event features a ticketed show and many colourful parades (Credit: Anna Muckerman)
“When we wear costumes, we [Swiss] become different people,” said Liliane Pahud, who participated in this year’s Fête as a burlesque dancer.
The highlight of the 2019 Fête was a 2.5-hour open-air show (Credit: Anna Muckerman)
The highlight of the 2019 Fête was creative director Daniele Finzi Pasca’s 2.5-hour open-air show that poetically interpreted a year in the life of a vineyard worker, with flying fairies, drumming ants and dancing wine-themed playing cards. The production featured 5,500 volunteer actors from the region, plus singers, musicians, animals and an orchestra. Original music was created by three different composers over four years, and the show featured more than 6,000 individually hand-sewn costumes. In total, it was performed 20 times during the festival’s 25-day period.
“When you come from the outside, you see things differently,” explained Finzi Pasca, who spent most of his career abroad, staging Olympic ceremonies and Cirque du Soleil shows until the Fête des Vignerons brought him back to his native Switzerland. He and his team spent much time observing the winegrower’s way of life, finding inspiration in ordinary objects; for example, the yellow plastic baskets for harvesting grapes were incorporated into the opening and closing harvest scenes as drums.
Marching parades have been a part of the Fête since 1797 (Credit: Anna Muckerman)
The 2019 Fête kicked off on 18 July with a kaleidoscopic 6,000-person parade. This marching tradition dates back to the inaugural Fête of 1797, which began with a 700-person parade in Vevey’s market square.
The 2019 Fete had more parades than ever before, thanks to two brand-new additions: 13 parades representing the Swiss Confederation’s cantons and a hypnotically illuminated parade each night.
This year’s Fête was easily the biggest ever (Credit Anna Muckerman)
The first 21st-Century Fete
“For the first time we’re selling tickets online,” explained François Margot, the head of the Confrérie des Vignerons, when ticket sales launched in September 2018. “Now the whole world can come.” In prior years, it was not easy for outsiders, even Swiss from other cantons, to attend since tickets could only be purchased in person. As a result, this year’s Fête was easily the biggest ever.
Aside from this 21st-Century update, this year’s spectacle used cutting-edge technology. The temporary 20,000-seat, earthquake-proof, open-air arena built in Vevey’s market square featured five stages and the world’s largest LED screen to give all attendees an immersive theatre experience. This year’s attendees also had the chance to see the show at night, which is a break from past tradition, and drew 375,000 people to its 20 performances – with many attending multiple times.
“Each performance was a different experience” said Sabine Liebherr, a Vevey resident who saw the 2019 show five times: at night, in the afternoon, for the coronation and finale.
To top off the millennial makeover, this year’s festival was much more inclusive than ever before. Each of Switzerland’s 26 cantons were invited to show off their heritage by hosting outdoor performances, food tastings and wines on designated days. But most notably, more women – including female winegrowers – took centre stage.
For the first time in the festival’s 222-year history, a female winegrower was crowned queen (Credit: Julie Masson)
A landmark Fête for women
The Cent-Suisses (Hundred Swiss) was a historical, all-male Swiss Guard unit who were mercenaries for the kings of France from 1471-1830 and were once tasked with protecting the Confrérie and its vineyards from looters. Since 1819, the folk troupe has participated in the Fête des Vignerons’ processions, show and coronation ceremony, marching before the Confrérie and its winegrowers.
To mark the 200th anniversary of their participation in the Fête des Vignerons – and to make a little dig at tradition – Finzi Pasca created the Cent Pour Cent (Hundred Percent): a theatrical troupe made up of 100 women and 100 men wearing a more playful and feminine version of the group’s red-and-white uniforms. Instead of swords, they carried long light sticks symbolising peace.
In addition, for the first time in the festival’s 222-year history, a female winegrower was crowned queen: Corinne Buttet, who works for Vignes de Vevey and Obrist SA vineyards. Women also joined men in representing the Confrérie des Vignerons in the Fête’s parades and shows, and for the first time, there was a female among the Confrérie’s seven wine experts who conduct the inspections of the vineyards.
The Fête is only held when there's a big reason to celebrate (Credit: Anna Muckerman)
Once a generation
Twenty-two years of revolution, wars and famine in Europe between the first two Fêtes des Vignerons (held in 1797 and 1819) set the generational tempo and precedence that the event should only take place when there is reason to celebrate – and when the Confrérie could afford it. But it is precisely this generational element that makes the Fête so unique.
“My 93-year old father came to watch the parade. He’s from Vevey and has seen four Fête des Vignerons.” Pahud said. “His favourites were 1977, because I was in it, and this one. He was so proud. He smiled, he cried. It’s probably his last one and he’s comfortable with this. He enjoyed the moment and that’s it.”
“In 1999, when I was younger [12 years old], I came and was mesmerised by the positive energy of this Fête,” said Gabriel Tétuz, a flag carrier for the Cent-Suisses, who works as a mechanic, gardener and farm helper in Chexbres. “I told myself that for the next one, I want to [be in it]. Mission accomplished.”
The region's winegrowers attribute their viticultural success to the unique climate of the region (Credit: Anna Muckerman)
The three suns
“Do you feel the warmth here?” asked Antoine Bovard, a bronze-winning recipient in this year’s Fête and a 15th-generation winegrower, as he placed his hand on a stone wall in his namesake vineyard, Domaine Antoine Bovard. “Voilà! This is one of our three suns.”
The concept of the three suns is how Lavaux’s winegrowers explain the unique conditions that are much more conducive to growing grapes than elsewhere in Switzerland. Winegrowers set the stones that form their vineyards’ walls facing south, so when the sun sets, the heat that has baked them during the day then provides the vines with heat throughout the night. The other sun, besides the star in the sky, is the reflection of the rays off Lake Geneva, which acts as a mirror, reflecting the Sun’s rays back to the terraced vineyards to keep the grapes from freezing in the winter and spring.
A choir of cheesemakers from the canton of Fribourg, north of Vevey, has been a popular fixture at the Fête since 1819 (Credit: Anna Muckerman)
The chanting cheesemakers
The Choeur des Armaillis de la Gruyères (“The Choir of Gruyères Cheesemakers”) from the canton of Fribourg, has been a popular fixture at the Fête since 1819. They represent the pastoral region between Vevey and Gruyères, a 28km stretch where Alpine cheesemaking, lakeside winemaking and the French and German languages meet.
When the alphorns sound in the show and the first words of Le Ranz des Vaches, an ancient melody sung by Swiss herdsmen to call cattle, are belted a cappella – “Lyoba, lyoba!” a reference to the region’s pastoral roots – there isn’t a dry eye among the Swiss. (Perhaps for this reason, the hymn was forbidden for Swiss mercenaries to sing, as it was believed the nostalgia and homesickness this song could conjure would drive them to leave battle.)
At this year’s Fete, one stage started singing, then people on the opposite side took over, as if herdsmen were calling out from different valleys or mountaintops.
More than 50 wine-tasting cellars opened for the 2019 Fête, transforming the town of Vevey from quiet to carnivalesque (Credit: Anna Muckerman)
More than 50 caveaux (wine-tasting cellars) opened for the 2019 Fête, transforming the town of Vevey from quiet to carnivalesque. Historically, these cellars were only reserved for the Fête’s actors, volunteers and organisers and were located in underground chambers with vaulted ceilings. But for this year’s event many also popped-up in commercial storefronts like former real-estate offices and even a music school to accommodate the larger crowds.
If the show is the Fête’s heart, the convivial caveaux are its veins, where costumed revellers stay drinking local wines and dancing with new and old friends to loud tunes until the wee hours. This merrymaking is rather remarkable for a place like Switzerland, which has rather strict noise laws.
As soon as the festival ends, most of the caveaux and their debaucheries disappear. “What happens in a caveau, stays in the caveau,” said one Cent-Suisse.
The next Fête des Vignerons will take place between 2039 and 2044 (Credit: Anna Muckerman)
An emotional finale
After years of planning, months of rehearsing, and 25 days of performing and celebrating, no-one from Vevey or the nearby towns could believe the Fête was finally finishing. “I don’t want to think about it,” said Pahud. “I’m just enjoying it to the end.”
At the last show, Finzi Pasca implored the crowd not to wait another 20 years to dance. “Attendez-pas vingt ans!” he said, and cued the musicians to play the finale again. “Let’s start over, and dance together once more!”
Oh, and be sure to mark your calendar for the next Fête des Vignerons, which will take place sometime between 2039 and 2044.
Why We Celebrate is a BBC Travel series that revels in how a festival or event is intertwined with a place’s culture