This post (the first of a three-part Switzerland travel series) was written by Deborah Grossman from the San Francisco Bay Area.
Switzerland has a mighty mix of attractions considering it’s ten times smaller than California. Though Zurich and Lucerne receive more tourist attention, the towns along the Montreux Riviera hugging Lake Geneva in South West Switzerland are hidden treasures. From Montreux, the famous jazz-obsessed town, to Charlie Chaplain’s town of Vevey with an easy segue to Rougemont in the Alps, you may fall in love with a destination surrounded by natural beauty.
At the start of my recent journey, I rediscovered the famous efficiency and approachability of Swiss travel epitomized by Edelweiss airlines, a partner with Swiss airlines. Direct flights to Zurich are now available from Tampa Bay, Las Vegas, and San Diego with Denver and Orlando scheduled for 2018. The friendly flight attendants personally hand you the edelweiss flower-bedecked comfort packet and describe the dinner menu for the upcoming delicious meal.
Given the excellent Swiss Rail services, the two-hour ride from Zurich to Lausanne was pleasurable as we passed by agricultural lands and then vineyards. During my tour, I traveled to and from destinations by train without a hitch.
Lavaux, UNESCO World Heritage Vineyards
After an enchanting visit to historic and hip Lausanne, I headed for the Lavaux region. A short, 10-minute train ride leads to Cully, a tiny, lakeside, wine-centric village at the base of vineyards scaling steep hills from Lake Geneva. UNESCO honors vineyards only when the cultural landscapes are carefully tended by families dedicated to preserve agriculture and produce quality wine.
Patricia Longet, third-generation, co-proprietor of Cave de Moratel in Cully, sustainably farms in the area blessed by ancient soils, sun, and cooling lake breezes. “Even the French don’t know we make wine,” said Longet. “It is our secret.”
The 12 villages of the Lavaux appellation host 200 winegrowers who all produce a small quality of wine. Call ahead to visit tasting rooms. The Lavaux Vinorama wine center in Rivaz pours samples of local wines.
For hikers, the 14.3-mile Lavaux Trail meanders along vineyards, tiny train stations and boat landings with markers informing about winemaking culture and the history of Lake Geneva.
Insider Tip: Contact Longet for a private vineyard tour and tasting. The mini-museum at Cave de Moratel highlights cultural traditions of the harvest and winegrowing. Longet also rents a two-bedroom apartment at the winery-house.
Vevey: Film lovers and festival haven
The big draw in Vevey is Chaplain’s World, the new Charlie Chaplain museum opened on the film-maker’s birthday in April 2016. Actor-clown, movie producer, humanitarian, Chaplain was a complex figure who spent his latter decades with his third wife raising their young children in the town. The museum, comprised of his former mansion and a building dedicated to his movies, highlights all aspects of his life with interactive displays of movie sets and cinema clips.
The many events hosted by the city include the celebrated Vevey Folk Market held during July and August. During the next biennial Festival of Images in Sept. 2018, Vevey will delight photography lovers with both indoors and outside displays. The next Fête de Vignerons, held every 20 years with over 5,000 actors and singers celebrating the wine heritage of the region, will occur in July 2019.
For exceptional accommodations, the elegant Hotel des Les Trois Couronnes and Spa (The Three Crowns) is situated on the lake. Les Trois Couronnes Michelin-starred restaurant and the more casual 3C dining room offer local and continental specialties.
Insider’s Tip: Save some time to sign up for culinary outings with Chef Lionel Rodriguez of Les Trois Couronnes.
Montreux: Music and More
The world-renowned Montreux Jazz Festival lights up the town every July with musicians and music fans from around the world. Concerts are also held in smaller towns from Cully to Vevey.
Along with music, Montreux is known for gourmet dining such as Restaurant 45 at the Grand Hôtel Suisse Majestic. The nearby Très Café presents fresh and contemporary versions of many continental dishes.
Along with a diversity of clubs and restaurants, Montreux gives easy access to Chillon Castle, a 1,000-year-old, living history museum. The self-guided tours provide background on the history from the Dukes of Savoy to the inspiration for Lord Byron of his famous poem, “The Prisoner of Chillon.” The castle is a short boat or bus ride from Montreux. Check for concerts and other performances held here.
Another interesting fact on the castle is the wine program. Barrels filled with well-known Swiss winery Badoux wine are stored for aging under water and later bottled under the Chillon Castle label.
Insider’s Tip: Visit the hip Badoux winery tasting room, La Badouxthèque, a short 20-minute drive from Montreux. Located in the Chablais wine area in the village of Aigle near Yvorne, La Badouxthèque’s modern bistro ambiance brings fun to the wine tasting experience of their most well-known wine, Aigle Les Murailles with their iconic lizard on the label. Once a pest in the vineyard, the lizard is now emblazoned around the 1908-established Henri Badoux winery, one of the largest in Switzerland. Near Badoux is the historic Chateau d’Aigle castle with a fascinating wine museum and annual chasselas wine festival.
Chateau d’Oex and Rougemont
From Montreux, I boarded the Goldenpass MOB Cheese Train to the village of Chateau d’Oex. The terrain during the hour-long ride is strikingly beautiful as the train weaves through tunnels and up into the green hills of the region of Pays-d’Enhaute, (high country). At Chateau d’Oex, you walk across the street to Le Chalet where l’Etivaz, an AOP protected cheese from the area, is made and served as fondue. The cultural heritage is displayed around the restaurant—and you can help stir the cheese when it’s thickening in a big copper kettle.
At lunch, the traditional protocols for fondue are explained: A small piece of bread is dipped into the cheese, twirled, and then dabbed into a mound of pepper you have ground on the plate. Local white wine Chasselas is served by the carafe. For dessert, meringue is dipped into a creamy, sweet white sauce.
To walk off the sumptuous lunch, visit the Pays-d’Enhaute Museum. Here you can imagine Alpine life over time. The recreated room displays portray life scenes of various period furniture with emphasis on cowbell lore, local crockery, and lacework. I was especially enchanted with the area’s famous paper cutting artworks displayed throughout the house.
A brief 15-minute train ride northeast leads to Rougemont, a tiny village with many options for hiking, paragliding, hot air ballooning, biking tours, and nearby skiing venues. Among several resorts open from April to October, the Hotel de Rougemont offers modern, lodge-like rooms with fireplaces and balconies where I listened to the cowbells musically ringing in the breeze. The peaceful Alpine ambiance is relaxing and renewing with the bonus of a luxury spa experience.
Gourmet restaurant Le Roc offers hay-roasted Swiss lamb and beef with a Swiss risotto of spelt grain. Dessert was brightened by local apricot brandy called apricotine.
Insider’s Tip: Combining an itinerary of Chateau d’Oeux with Rougemont offers history buffs, fondue and gourmet food lovers a happy mix of experience—all in the same canton (county) of Vaud as the Montreux Riviera.
Deborah Grossman is a freelance food, drink and travel writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can find samples of her travels at deborahgrossman.com.