Since so many journalists from around the world were coming, we specially ordered the rains today to wash our mountains and fill our lakes,” said Jurg Schmid, CEO of Switzerland Tourism. He was addressing 139 international journalists from 35 countries who had
landed in Lausanne, on the shores of the glistening waters of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, on a wet and cloudy day.
As we walked in large groups towards the Olympic Museum, where a reception was hosted for us, locals watched in wonder huge groups of
red ‘My A selection of cheese on offer at the Restaurant Le Chalet.Switzerland’ umbrellas moving across the streets towards the beautiful museum which houses the largest archives of Olympic Games.
Each year Switzerland Tourism unveils a special theme; while last year it showcased the charm of the Swiss Alps, this time it is the beauty of the Lake Geneva region in the Vaud Canton through the Grand Tour, a 1,600 km road trip linking the country’s most popular tourist and natural destinations. As Schmid said, the beauty of this route was that one could do it in different stretches, splitting the route into flexible journeys. “Depending on the time you have you can do this trip in stretches of 6–8 days or have a long, peaceful and luxurious holiday for 34 days,” he smiles.
And you also have multiple options for the starting point; beginning your trip from either Zurich, Geneva, Basel, Lugano or some other popular towns. Apart from 11 UNESCO sites, the Grand Tour includes Switzerland’s pride — the snow-capped Matterhorn peak.
Scenic train journeys
Perhaps frustrated by the overcrowded Indian trains, always a challenge for reservations, Indian tourists have always loved to travel on trains in Europe, where most of the time a reservation is not needed! Switzerland is no exception and as the Grand Route has a train option too, Indians might want to grab it, particularly as this route passes through some of the most picturesque spots in Switzerland’s pastoral beauty.
But please be careful while buying train tickets whether online or from stations in Switzerland. Frequent travellers used to the Swiss Pass will now have to categorically ask for the Swiss Travel Pass, as earlier this year the Swiss authorities have made a distinction between the two; the first for locals and the second for foreigners.
At different points in our trip, in this region famous for its vineyards, we are shown stone walls specially constructed around vineyards to soak up the warmth of the sun which gives a special quality to the grapes and the wine made from those
grapes. The whites are more famous here than the reds, which worked fine for me!
Apart from its famous wine, cheese and chocolates, Vaud is home to 55 sports federations and bodies; the International Olympic Committee headquarters is located here.
Art of watchmaking
From Lausanne, I first visit an important route on the Grand Tour — the Jura Vaudois National Park, a huge expanse of forest in mountainous land, which is dry this year because of insufficient rainfall. After some refreshing coffee and local cheese in a traditional chalet here, we are taken to the ubiquitous watch museum — Espace Horloger — for which the Valley de Joux is famous.
Some of the most famous brands in the world are displayed at the museum
which was renovated three years ago at a cost of 1.4 million Swiss Francs. Vincent Jaton, the manager, explains that the huge variety of watches and clocks on display here, some of them dating back a few hundred years, are a collection from watch manufacturers and individuals.
Watchmaking became popular here because in harsh winter months, the farmers didn’t have much to do during the days and started making complicated watches, and slowly the region emerged as a centre of excellence in international watchmaking. Over time the Valley became the cradle of complicated watchmaking. Those of you who have been smitten by Swiss watches would be most happy to play around the three interactive tables in this museum which allow visitors to explore the different skills required to make a “complicated watch” — movement, watch exterior, decoration and finish. It is fascinating to watch the micromechanics that come into play to make the perfect and dependable Swiss watch. In these computerised and interactive panels, which allow you to send emails or share stuff on social media, it is easy to get totally immersed in the glamorous world of Swiss watchmaking.
Some of the clocks with pendulums are obviously heirlooms, which must have been handed over from one generation to another. I quiz Jaton about the collective value of the watches in the museum and the man who is amazed that such a guess can even be attempted, says majestically, “It is impossible to give you the price … it is priceless.”
Golden Pass Train
A highlight of my tour is taking the Golden Pass train that links Montreux to Lucerne, via Chateau d’Oex, where our group was headed. A class by itself, the luxuriously done-up first class coach of the train takes you right back to the famous Agatha Christie thriller and famous Hollywood movie Murder on the Orient Express. It has an old world feel of luxury with its plush and ample seats, wooden interior and classic décor. Nicolas is in charge of giving us details and tells us stories bordering on fairy tales. Such as an 86-year-old lady, whose house is along the picturesque route of this journey and who sits out in her garden the entire day and has spent the last 50 years of her life waving to passengers like us!
Or how Santa Claus, while flying “with Rudolf, his reindeer, across the Lake Geneva region during one of his journeys, saw this beautiful region, had a glass or two of our wonderful wine, and when Rudolf suddenly scratched his foot a little bit, they had to land. He loved our lake and our mountains and has now decided to spend most of the year here!” We all have a good laugh and add bits to make the story even more entertaining. As Nicolas is a handsome Swiss with sharp features, our female-majority group is compelled to listen to his tales!
With the greenest grass you have ever seen, even after a scorching summer, the shimmering waters of the lake, the beautiful wooden cottages and the grassy slopes of the mountains for company, who wouldn’t want to live here, we chant in unison. Nicolas next tells us about the Chocolate Train — oh yes there is one such train — where you can “eat as many chocolates as you like before visiting Nestle’s chocolate factory, where you can eat more chocolates.” Mercifully, he soon pulls out a box of delicious Swiss chocolates and distributes its contents to a very hungry bunch of journalists.
Before we disembark, he shows us a little cathedral saying: “This church is very popular particularly with groups of Indian tourists who like to visit it because the hero and heroine in a very famous Indian movie were shown here.” Of course he has no clue about the movie! Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol in DDLJ, I smile.
Cheese making and fondue
We are next headed for a cheese and fondue experience at a traditional restaurant — Restaurant Le Chalet — where bang in the midst of rustic settings, the cheesemaker transforms over 160 litres of milk in a huge cauldron kept over open fire into special organic cheese, right before our eyes. We are first welcomed with a typical Swiss snack — wine, bread, cheese and smoked meats. It’s a glorious summer day and we enjoy the green outdoor ambience, as the milk is boiling and the cheese granules separating. One person is required to remove the granules; I hesitate looking at the huge quantity but am assured that the farmer will do most of the work.
After donning a brown leather apron, stirring the milk a little bit, more for pictures than anything else, the cheesemaker makes me hold one end of a large piece of thin, muslin-like white cloth. I watch in horror as he pours some ice-cold water on his fingers and plunges them right into the boiling cauldron to place the cloth near the bottom! Together we haul out the cheese granules. The entire quantity, along with the cloth, is placed within a round cane frame, the excess water is drained out with the farmer patting it firmly several times.
Our lunch has been arranged here and we leave the circular block of cheese to cool and set. Lunch is simple, yet delicious … freshly baked bread pieces dipped into a typical Swiss cheese fondue and savoured with sips of white wine.
After about an hour or so, the cloth is removed from the hardened cheese block which will now be transferred into the cellar, where it will remain for six months or so before it’s ready to eat.
A Romanesque church
Visiting a Romanesque church in Rougemont town, laid out in the shape of a cross and built by monks in the 11th century, is an experience to cherish. It has been rebuilt several times and our local female tour guide, dressed in a black top and skirt, wearing a straw hat and carrying a quaint cane basket in lieu of the normal women’s handbag, is an instant hit with us. She explains the “difficult history” of this church, which has been rebuilt several times. It is dedicated to Saint Nicolas de Myre, a martyr of the 4th century and the patron saint of children.
During the Bernese reign, the priory was demolished and a castle for the bailiffs was put in its place. Major restoration work from 1919–1926 uncovered a rich haul of beauty … the stones of the building hitherto hidden by five layers of plaster. The ceiling has now been remade with wooden beams, and the wood, together with the stone walls of the church painted in bright orange and brown, add a unique sense of warmth and quaintness, compelling you to sit down and pray, irrespective of the faith you belong to.
Waves of calm, peace and content engulf me … and I wonder what better way to round off a day filled with cheese, chocolate and wine, and train rides with Santa stories?
Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat