Switzerland’s Wine Festival 2019: Fête des Vignerons, Vevey

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A Cast of Thousands

Imagine a Pageant spectacular featuring a cast of 5,500, massed choirs, orchestras, brass bands, pipes and drums, alpine horns, over 40 cows and several horses.  Marry this with giant rain drops, silvery fish and a musical score akin to an Opera and you have the legendary Fête des Vignerons; a once in a lifetime festival.

Summer fishing

The Fête des Vignerons is an idiosyncratic traditional festival which takes place at Vevey in Switzerland. It is organised by the Confrérie des Vignerons (also known as the Brotherhood of Winegrowers). The Fête pays homage to viticultural traditions in the entire region – that of the Canton of Vaud. This region is noted for its wine and the famous Lavaux is regarded as the pearl in its crown.  The festival origins date from 1770 when a parade of winegrowers marched around St. Martin’s Church in Vevey.  In 1797, the Abbé-Président and the Council of the Confrérie des Vignerons decided to reward the best winegrowers/labourers in an official, public ceremony.  This transformed the former parade into what is now called the Fête des Vignerons. A platform with 2,000 places was erected in the market place of Vevey so that the many interested people could attend this event in 1797.

Since that time the Fête has taken place no more than five times in a century, with the organizing committee making the final decision on actual dates.  The Fête des Vignerons is registered on the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.  This distinction recognises both the particularities and the essence of the Fête, which is a brilliant and extraordinary spectacle which only occurs once in every generation.

Swiss Guards

In previous Fêtes des Vignerons  musicians played a major role as small figurines called “marmousets” were carried in a procession. The younger generation played the roles of Bacchus, the God of wine, and Ceres, Goddess of grain and harvest. The spirit of the community spurs the artisan winegrowers to push themselves to newer heights of success.

For the 2019 Fête the Confrérie appointed Daniele Finzi Pasca as Artistic Director.  Pasca is renowned for his creative work in the closing ceremonies at two Olympic Games,Turin in 2006 and Sochi in 2014.  For the Fête he assembled a creative team whose attention to detail included the measuring of all 5,500 participants for their costumes. The costumes are all made by a famous Italian costume maker. The footwear for some of the groups are made of kid leather with non skid soles added for protection.

This year’s Fête is currently well underway as it began on July 18 and finishes with a flourish on August 11.  It combines elaborate shows, wine tastings, parades and costume parties. It is very much a community effort with 5,500 locals all involved in the pageant.

The story for the Spectacle at this year’s Fête des Vignerons is the life of the vine and the growers over a period of 12 months.  Hundreds of birds, ants and bees add greatly to the overall flurry of activity that accompanies the growing of grapes.  The grape harvesters, representing the logo of the Confrérie are dressed in silver from head to toe carrying large bunches of silver grapes and give a surreal quality to the overall performance.  Each group excels themselves with their enthusiasm.  My favourite has to be the local villagers attending the Martinmas Fair in honour of St. Martin.  My daughter, her husband and my two grandchildren partook in this ensemble.

I was also particularly taken with summertime which depicts the growers having time off to relax before the harvest.  This scene shows a lake with large inflated pike and perch criss crossing around the stage.  All the scenes are accompanied by a massed choir of hundreds.  One tableau only be described as a myriad of colour as ladies in massive multi coloured skirts weave across the stage dancing the Can-can.  They represent autumn coloured leaves all being blown away.

Another group that stole people’s hearts were the red and white dressed Les Cents Suisses.  Their entrance marching up a platform from the bowels of the arena held everyone in awe.  For the first time les cent pour cent comprised 100 men and 100 women. The 200 then performed synchronized marching holding pikes which had the audience gasp in wonder.

The finale is particularly moving as the cowherdsmen serenade each other from all sides of the arena with the traditional hymn Lyoba accompanied by dozens of alpine horns and cow bells.  This was a goose bump moment and I noticed many of the audience visibly demonstrating their nostalgia for this intrinsically Swiss song.

If you are sitting at home and need to have an experience of a lifetime do try see if you can purchase last minute tickets and fly to Geneva.  Both Aer Lingus  and Swissair fly direct.  Vevay is approximately a 1½ hour train journey from the airport.   The Fête des Vignerons is a once in a lifetime experience and not to be missed at any cost.

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