What do music legends Freddie Mercury, Tina Turner and Phil Collins; famed British poet, Lord Byron; beloved author, Ernest Hemingway; F1 race champ Michael Schumacher; Czech supermodel Karolina Kurkova; tennis superstar Boris Becker, and silent film maestro Charlie Chaplin have in common? Aside from their monumental contributions in their respective fields, these celebrities, at some point in their lifetimes, fell madly in love with the mountainous Central European country – nestled within stunning snow-capped peaks and bounded by crystal lakes – that is Switzerland. So enamored with the country were these folks, in fact, that many of them chose to call the Swiss Riviera their home.
It is easy to be entirely taken in by this Swiss slice of Eden: beauty so alluring that it is almost indescribable, serenity so soothing that it is nothing short of divine, and charm so captivating that it is wholly enchanting.
Montreux, the resort town on the eastern end of Lake Geneva, was our first taste of Switzerland. This was – by gracious invitation of Switzerland’s premier hospitality educators, the Swiss Education Group – to be our home over our almost week-long foray into all things Swiss.
As the asian Traveler editorial team alighted from the train which had taken us from the Geneva Airport to Montreux, our weariness began to dissipate. The scenic ride had proven a welcome respite from the grueling, almost 20-hour journey from Manila to Amsterdam via Taipei, then from Amsterdam to Geneva, through to Montreux. Fatigue ebbed as we took in deep breaths of crisp, clean air and made our way from the station, down winding cobblestone streets, to nearby, historic Grand Hotel Suisse Majestic, where we were billeted. The centuries-old establishment, with its landmark Belle Epoque building, provided us a glimpse into the charm of Montreux.
It was love at first sight. Montreux had me under its spell, an enchantment brought on by quaint, quiet streets lined with greenery, curio shops, specialty boutiques, turn-of-the-century buildings and heritage homes, with the occasional small terraced vineyard (a sneak-peek into a UNESCO Heritage Site, the Lavaux region’s vineyard-lined hillsides, where we later on, at the Vinorama, sampled fine wines made from the area’s lauded Chasselas grapes). The enchantment deepened upon reaching the waterfront: Lake Geneva sparkled in jewel tones of blue, varying in hue and intensity, with beauty rivaled only by the sight of the majestic snow-capped Alps, rising in the background from behind billowy white clouds.
Music fills the air
The history of Montreux is steeped in music. Heavy-hitting band, Queen, in fact set up shop in Montreux (frontman Freddie Mercury relocated there), and the Queen Studio Experience at the Montreux Casino is a must-visit, especially for music lovers and fans of the band. A statue of Mercury stands tall by the waterfront.
Long-held as a musician’s muse, presumably for its highly-pleasing aesthetic qualities, the city remains the venue of the annual Montreux Jazz Festival, founded, in part, by “Funky” Claude Nobs in 1967. To date, this festival is one of the world’s largest, with over 200,000 people flocking to Lake Geneva’s shoreline each year, in July, to witness performances from some of the most renowned musical acts.
Music fills Montreux’s air, with the city’s genteel rhythms pervading daily life. Wrought iron music-themed sculptures dot flower-filled parks and public gardens, for instance, in constant homage to Montreux’s melodies. On a couple of occasions, I chanced upon sidewalk performers; one, strumming happy tunes on a guitar, the other, bowing romantic ditties on a violin. On another separate occasion, a marching band took to the streets, accompanied by revelers in national costume, in commemoration of a rifle association’s anniversary.
The Romance of Chillon
Speaking of romance, nothing exudes the air of it more than a fairy tale-like castle. Imagine, then, a spectacular 11th century stone citadel, on an island rock just on the shores of Lake Geneva, jutting out into its crystalline waters. How romantic would that be? I could barely get over the awe I felt, beholding Château de Chillon or Chillon Castle, once home to the Counts of Savoy, the Bernese and the Canton of Vaud, and also utilized as a medieval fortress and prison. Its draw is irresistible, and it is among the most visited historical monuments in Switzerland and throughout Europe. Moored on a large island rock, south of Veytaux, in the canton of Vaud, just on the border of Montreux, Chillon is an architectural gem and a window into bygone days of royalty and nobility, chivalry and bravery, love and war. Records date the oldest parts of the castle back to 1005, and one can only stand in utter amazement at the gorgeous Gothic vaulted ceilings and archways of the underground chambers, the rustic appeal of the open air courtyards, the moat’s mystique, and the lure (and lore) of the Great Halls, chapel, living quarters, 14th century murals, 1000-year old furnishing, towers, sentry walks and ramparts. Take your time, as I did, at Bonivard’s Prison, where Lord Byron was said to have been held captive, and make sure to climb to the castle’s highest turret (a bit daunting, but well-worth every step!) for a breathtaking view of Lake Geneva and Montreux.
How do you fondue?
Mealtime in Switzerland is refined and full of pleasing nicety, much like impeccable manners. Freshness, flavor, quality and great service are the hallmarks of eating out, Swiss-style. The SEG team, ever the gracious hosts, made sure our bellies were full and our hearts were happy by taking us to some of the Swiss Riviera’s finest gustatory spots. Among these havens are the Montreux Jazz Café Restaurant in the Fairmont Palace, and Ze Fork in the nearby town of Vevey. At the former, I feasted on the delectable and tasty Filet de Perche de la Montagne du Lӧtschberg (perfectly battered and crisp Lӧtschberg perch fillet, served with tartar sauce, French fries and a green salad), whilst enjoying the Café’s live jazz music and extensive jazz memorabilia. At the latter, on a stop in Vevey, it was the succulent Filet de Féra à la courge and fenouil, sauce citron romarin (Fera filet with pumpkin and fennel, swathed with an exquisite lemon and rosemary sauce).
Nothing, however, says “Welcome to Switzerland! Enjoy our cuisine!” more than piping hot cheese fondue and zesty raclette. Fondue, a divine mix of melted Vacherin and Gruyere Swiss cheeses, with white wine, is an all-time Swiss classic, while melted raclette cheese poured over boiled potatoes, eaten with gherkins and pickled onions, remains a best-loved Swiss dish. To enjoy both dishes in one meal – as we did when we wined and dined at Le Museum Restaurant – is true Swiss indulgence. Tucked away in a corner of Rue de la Gare, in Montreux’s delightful Old Town, Le Museum is a tad tricky to find. But once you enter its cozy, dark wood, Medieval-inspired interiors, this tavern will prove an instant favorite Montreux haunt.
On the agenda, as well, during the course of our stay, was a quick foray into the town of Vevey, in the canton of Vaud, on the north shore of Lake Geneva. Everything about Vevey is vivid and postcard-perfect views abound. As we walked by the waterfront, after a sumptuous meal at Ze Fork, we happened upon “the” Fork – actually, it’s hard to miss! Just a hop and a skip away from Vevey’s famed Charlie Chaplin statue, and directly in front of the Alimentarium (Food Museum), The Fork rises out of Lake Geneva’s water, in all of its 8-meter-high and 1.3-meter-wide stainless steel cutlery glory. This art installation by Swiss sculptor Jean-Pierre Zaugg was first embedded in the lake in February 1995, to mark the Alimentarium’s 10th anniversary. It was later on removed, until the Canton of Vaud decided that The Fork could stay. The surreal sight reappeared permanently in Vevey in 2007, and has been amusing visitors and residents, since.
From The Fork, take a stroll down Vevey’s tree-lined streets to Läderach, for some of Switzerland’s finest artisanal chocolate. This chocolate atelier is every cacao-lover’s fantasy fulfilled. As soon as we walked into the shop, the smell of freshly-made chocolate filled us, as the sight of row-upon-row of fine Swiss confectionery danced before our eyes. It was as much educational as it was delicious, to be schooled by expert chocolatier Mr. Poyet, who gave us a sampling of Läderach’s famous Chaplin’s Shoes (done in chocolate, of course) and of several other excellent, unique chocolate creations.
To see Charlie Chaplin’s actual shoes, one need not go far. Chaplin’s World, which is the home-turned-museum of one of Vevey’s more acclaimed residents, Charlie Chaplin, is minutes away from the waterfront. Opened in April 2016, this new attraction showcases Chaplin’s life achievements in 2 buildings loaded with mementos and collectibles. We had great fun, albeit, not enough time, at this highly interactive museum.
Like an inspired masterpiece
Switzerland is an exhilarating journey into the realms of blissful gratification. At the end of my journey, I find that, despite my very best efforts, words still fall short in describing Switzerland’s sublime splendor.
Then again, in the face of such explicit yet ethereal beauty, perhaps words are not necessary.