The subtle but lovely part of flying Swiss to Geneva is breakfast, a fresh pain au chocolate. And afterwards as you settle into a good book or a nap a basket comes round with the most divine chocolate bars, as a prelude to a country that says it all; quality, timing and hospitality.
The 90-minute flight whizzes by and in no time I could see the shore of Lake Geneva as we came in to land. I was embarking on a short visit to Switzerland inspired by The Grand Tour, that escape to the continent for Britain’s elite that was popular from 1660 – 1840’s. If you weren’t well heeled you could also try to find a sponsor. It was a kind of intellectual right of passage that the likes of Shelley, W. J. W. Turner and Lord Byron undertook.
From Geneva I travelled by train to Lausanne a 46-minute journey. I mention the time, as it is very important in Switzerland. They are very good at efficiency where it counts, my 8-day rail card allowed me to travel as I pleased on the whole system including many of the Alpine routes that twist and turn as if they had be carved from a chef’s spiralizer.
My first class carriage was very comfortable with wide reclining seats and plenty of legroom. I wondered if Lord Byron had travelled in as much comfort with his menagerie of dogs, cats and a bear? (He was a known eccentric)! He settled on the shores of Lake Geneva where he befriended Percy Shelly the famous poet and Shelly’s future wife Mary Godwin. Over a rainy three days they set about telling each other ghost stories. Mary wrote Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, as it is sometimes known.
Lausanne is the home of the Olympic Museum a tremendous homage to the modern games. As I walked about I was tickled to see so many pieces form the recent London Olympics in 2012. I attended some of the events and even watched the torch process through my part of London. The Olympic Committee convenes here and it is widely regarded as the Olympic ‘capital’.
Lausanne is the cultural capital of French speaking Switzerland in the canton of Vaud. Sitting on the shore of Lake Geneva it lies opposite Évian-les-Bains, France of the bottled water fame. Views of the Jura Mountains are to the northwest. It has a tranquil feel with small boats passing by to add to the serenity.
Byron stayed in Lausanne on his way to Italy. It is built on three hills and has plenty of cobbled streets and old buildings. The Place Saint – Francis is the centre of the pedestrian zone. Here you will find Tabac Besson a smoker’s delight that once furnished one of Lausanne’s more famous residents, George Siminon the author of the Maigret detective stories. It remains untouched and the same as it was in the 1930’s when he would call in daily to buy his tobacco. Coco Chanel also lived here and Charlie Chaplin spent his last years not far away.
The grand splendour of Our Lady of Notre Dame cathedral is worth seeing. Built around 1190 – 1250 it is in the Gothic style (no doubt an influence on visiting novelists during their grand tour). There are spectacular stained glass windows and a peculiarity I’ve not see before. The congregation’s chairs are divided, one half face the altar and the other half face the enormous organ at the back to listen to recitals.
A perfect place to pick up some outstanding cheeses and meats is La Ferme Vauboise. The selections on offer are varied and as ever I had something I’ve never tried before – Bouchon, a goat’s cheese shaped like a wine cork. This comes in a couple of varieties with chilli or herbs or black pepper. It has a sharp tart taste and size of the ‘corks’ makes it the perfect nibble. Buy some if you visit – it’s lovely.
I lunched at Auberge du Chalet des Enfants a 12th century Abbey that produces incredible food, another first here with gently pickled strawberries and pork. The veal was also worth mentioning, it came with a hyssop sauce, barley and fennel. Great food in their very pretty garden saw the afternoon drift away.
If you fancy pushing the boat out you could stay at the Beau Rivage Palace – a super hotel with manicured lawns that roll down to the river and en suites larger than some London flats. Classy.
The evening brought another treat, a cruise on a Belle Epoch steamer The Rhone. This was a peerless way of ending the day on the lake. Watching the sun dance across the lake and flicker on the mountains while sipping something cool will be a lasting memory. Calm, pure and perfect.
We moored up after an hour at the foot of a vineyard and motored up to an ancient village where local wine producers were serving their wines. This part of Switzerland is full of independent wine makers and while this event is not an everyday occurrence it is possible to visit most vineyards for tastings.
I was to be the guest of producers of Eppesse both white and red varieties. The dinner was set in marquees with open sides looking out onto the lake stretched across the vineyard. Smoked salmon followed by beef risotto and a very boozy cherry layered pudding, as the last remnants of the day’s light ebbed away the view was unique. I watched an Edwardian boat sail across the vast tract of Lake Geneva. A glimpse into a bygone era that still has its place. Switzerland has many surprises, vineyards, culinary excellence and respect to past traditions.
My next encounter with the lake’s edge was in the small town of Nyon. While this sleepy backwater boasts a superb Roman museum (The remains were discovered in 1976 and were kept underground to allow building above), over 20 water fountains with delicious cold fresh mountain water streaming out of them and pretty houses and architecture I was interested to discover that I was not the only intrepid journalist to pound the shore path.
George Prosper Remi visited Nyon in 1912 as a boy scout and then again in later life when he was better known by his pen name Hergé the author of Tintin. Inspired by these visits part of the story of ‘The Calculus Affair’ is set here and what is incredible is that you can walk along Qui Louis – Bonnard on the lake’s edge and it looks exactly the same as he drew for his Tintin magazine between 1954 – 1956. Green benches and pollarded trees look identical to the wonderful drawings. Tintin also arrives at Geneva Airport and catches a train to Nyon.
The culinary firsts kept on coming. I called into one of only three family-run restaurants that make Malakoffs. It’s a kind of cheese fritter that has a legacy that goes back as far as Napoleon. The story goes that his army was on the march to assist the Serbs in the Crimea War in 1893 along the way he picked up recruits. After the battle for Fort Malakoff Napoleon’s cook knocked up this dish with what was available, cheese, spices, herbs, garlic and wine. The recipe is a well-kept secret but the cooking process is not. I had a go, measuring exactly 78g of ‘mixture’ you then place and it on a roundel of bread, smooth it to a soft semi sphere shape then cook in pork fat for exactly five minutes. The result is not unlike a semi solid fondue – really tasty but filling. I managed to eat three but that was enough!
Chocolate was on my mind. I had heard of a local chocolate maestro who has made for the good and the great, local dignitaries, pop stars even Antonio Banderas! Tristan Carbonatto lives for chocolate and taste. He ‘salon’ offered a cornucopia of smells and tastes unknown to mere mortals. How about sesame and soy sauce and salt flavour? Or white chocolate with salt and green tea? The list goes on. Tristan is a bubbly character, enthusiastic and engaging. He will make anything to order (literally anything) and positively encourages the unusual and peculiar, it’s impossible to visit his place without buying something after all he has 130 flavours either on the shelves or in development. If you catch the bug you can even have lessons in the art on the premises.
The Majestic Hotel in Montreux opened in 1861 and is very grand and my large airy room looked over Lake Geneva. I even had a small terrace from which to watch the evening unfold on the promenade below me. The hotel’s interior is a bit like Claridge’s in London, marbled floors, liveried staff and that swish of confidence not found in every hotel. Its position was perfect just opposite the station. And was my home for the next couple of days.
Dinner was at the Jazz Cafe in the Fairmont Hotel. The scene of many a late night performance from Jazz’s famous alumni. It’s all plush red carpets, marble and eclectic design think duke box in the bar and modern art everywhere. After dinner it was time to catch one of the late night acts in the music bar.
A bright sunny day took me to the Lavaux, winemaking country. The climate is warmer there than other nearby regions. All I could see were vineyards in every direction, neat, crisp and ordered. It is said Lavaux has three sons. The one in the sky, the reflection from the lake and the ‘pudding stone’ found in the local and used to create the terraces for the vines. The Chasselas grape is normally an eating grape but uniquely the Swiss use it just for winemaking. They make a pretty good job of it too it produces a perfect match for cheese and fondue.
Roger Barbary the grandson of founder Christophe makes wine from his own vineyard using stainless steel for fermentation instead of wood, as it doesn’t affect the taste he produces about 20,000 bottles a year of which 70% is white. Award winning and like all the producers of this region he is fiercely proud of his wine. His wine is not well known as most of it is consumed in Switzerland and little sold in Paris.
Another fine lunch at Auberge Grandvaux on a charming terrace offering shelter under trailing vines and tables overlooking the lake. The first course was served in sardine tins, smoked pike with tomatoes. Perch from the lake followed, fresh and clean with lemon.
Dinner was at ‘45’ the hotel restaurant situated in a giant conservatory with super views of the lake. A platter of cured meat, Mozzarella and tomatoes followed by a fine steak was all I needed. It had been a long day and one full of flavour and new tastes.
On my last morning in Montreux I took the bus a few kilometers out of town to visit Châteaux de Chillon a beautiful island castle on Lake Geneva. It holds a strategic position that the Romans first recognized. A castle of some sort was started in 1005 and by the 12th century the Counts of the Savoy dynasty were using it as a summer home.
It is Switzerland’s most visited castle and definitely worth seeing. The internal structure is nearly all-accessible to the visitor and I was left free to discover its delights rambling along wooden walkways and narrow stone passages, it is the definition of a castle. There are wall paintings, four great halls, bedrooms and the dungeons to explore.
It was in the dungeon that Lord Byron took inspiration from the castle’s most famous prisoner, François de Bonivard who was held there in 1530 for six years before being rescued. Byron carved his name on the of the gigantic pillars and wrote The Prisoner of Chillon, here is an extract:
There are seven pillars of Gothic mould,
In Chillon’s dungeons deep and old,
There are seven columns, massy and grey,
Dim with a dull imprison’d ray,
A sunbeam which hath lost its way,
And through the crevice and the cleft
Of the thick wall is fallen and left;
Creeping o’er the floor so damp,
Like a marsh’s meteor lamp:
And in each pillar there is a ring,
And in each ring there is a chain;
That iron is a cankering thing,
For in these limbs its teeth remain,
With marks that will not wear away,
Till I have done with this new day,
Which now is painful to these eyes,
Which have not seen the sun so rise
For years—I cannot count them o’er,
I lost their long and heavy score
When my last brother droop’d and died,
And I lay living by his side.
Chained up De Bonivard could only walk so far and the marks are clearly visible. It has a dank musty smell about it. If you were to imagine an ancient dungeon to keep prisoners in this is it – a must see when in this part of Switzerland.
A country with so much to offer and all this from just one of 26 Cantons! The journey from Geneva to Montreux on the train is impossible not to enjoy, rich with history, excellent food and wine, creative eccentrics and some of the best scenery you’ll find anywhere makes it one of my favourite places to visit. I can’t wait to discover more of this seemingly small but incredibly diverse country.
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