Switzerland: Europe’s Jewel Box

Zurich – Switzerland’s alpine peaks glisten like a magnificent tiara on top of the European continent.On this tour I opened my treasure map to explore some of the gems lying within Europe’s little jewel box: culinary destinations, vineyards, luxury hotels, the pristine lakes, and the urban treasures of preserved medieval neighborhoods, galleries and traditional festivals. But most of all I experienced the riches of unparalleled natural beauty that have inspired poets, philosophers, writers and artists for centuries.

Zurich and Geneva were recently listed on Mercer’s Quality of Living Survey as the second and third most livable cities in the world (behind Vienna).

Guilds on Parade

Guilds on Parade

I arrived in Zurich the weekend of the spring festival (Sechseläuten), not a good time to be a snowman (the Böögg).

Winters Days Are Numbered

Hundred’s of bands, guild members on horseback, animals of all sorts, children and adults clad in period costumes parade the unfortunate 15 foot creature through the streets all day, before entering the city hall park, placing him atop a 30 foot wooden pyre and lighting it on fire at exactly 6 p.m.

Not a good day for a snowman

Not a good day for a snowman

Then everyone counts the minutes until he is completely consumed by fire and his head falls off. The quicker he melts the better the summer will be.

Guild members on horseback ride large circles around the flaming effigy as music plays and thousands roar.

Last year (when I went) it took a mere 12 minutes for the decapitation, and the crowds lost their heads cheering. The quick meltdown bodes well for a long pleasant summer. People cooked their sausages in the ashes of the pyre all evening and it was a joyous night of partying and bands parading throughout Zurich.

Children enjoy sausages cooked in the Böögg’s ashes

Zurich’s old town stretches along both sides of the Limmat River flowing from the lake. The car-free cobblestone streets are a joy to explore and friendly revelers, bars and restaurants present themselves at every turn.

While in Zurich, don’t miss the Chagall windows in the Fraumuenster and take a boat ride on the river or around Lake Zurich for a true sense of the area. This is Switzerland’s banking mecca, with over two hundred institutions, and a shopper’s paradise. Look for the Bahnhofstrasse for the best stores and the train station has lots of bargain hunting and 2,000 trains arriving and departing every day.

Do yourself a favor and purchase a Swiss Pass before you go. This allows you to travel on all the trains, buses, most boats and trams and free entry to hundreds of museums and galleries. It’s a lot cheaper than renting an automobile, especially with fuel costs of $6 a gallon (eight days for $360).

I took a two-hour train ride south from Zurich to the intellectual city of Lausanne, which climbs above Lake Geneva. Because of the hills it is nicknamed the San Francisco of Switzerland. This is where many writers, philosophers and artists have lived. T.S. Eliot composed “The Wasteland” here, Hemingway and Graham Green explored its narrow streets and Dostoyevsky came to escape the Russian winter. Lenin plotted his return while living in Zurich.

Look for the Junod’s Horlogers & Joailliers store and watch museum, especially if you’re in need of a new timepiece.

Paddleboats affords magnificent views

Paddleboats affords magnificent views

The Lake Geneva town of Montreux is a short distance from Lausanne and can be visited by bus or paddleboat, which steams along the lake in double deck splendor. The views are magnificent as you look across to the French Alps.

Also sharing the view on shore are two sculptures, one of a fork imbedded in the lake and the other of Freddie Mercury who lived and died here. One of Queen’s songs was aptly dedicated to the city, “This could be heaven for everyone.”

Spooning by a fork in Lake Geneva, Montreux

Spooning by a fork in Lake Geneva, Montreux

In Montreux you can live the high life at the casino or head down the road to visit Chillon Castle, and its dungeon, made famous by Lord Byron in his 1816 poem, “The Prisoner of Chillon.”

Chillon Castle

Chillon Castle

Switzerland became a destination for the Romantic poets, and artists have embraced the country ever since. James Joyce wrote “Ulysses” in Zurich and is buried in the cemetery next to the city zoo. Other residents included Thomas Mann, Henry James, Voltaire, Dickens, Alfred Nobel, Stravinsky and Vladimir Nabokov.

West of Montreux is Vevey, where Charlie Chaplain called home and milk chocolate was created. The two have been married by Cofiserie Poyet, which does chocolate figures of “the little tramp” and his shoes. This is also the home of two-star Michelin chef Dennis Martin and “molecular gastronomy” for those who like a little chemistry with their food. He will astonish you.

Vineyards of the Lavaux

Further down Lake Geneva is one of my favorite regions, the vineyards of Lavaux. The Chasselas grape makes a delicious white wine, especially those coming form the Chardonne area. You may never get to taste it unless you visit Switzerland, they export only one percent. In Grandvaux you can sample the area wines at J&M Dizerens.

The central Swiss town of Basel is famous for its art scene and last year was really special. “Between Heaven and Earth, the Landscapes” is an exhibit of 70 paintings by Van Gogh, gathered from around the world. It offers a view of the artist’s soul close up. You can examine his famous brush strokes from just feet away. I suggested to the curator that they ought to be wary of razor-wielding maniacs, but it fell on deaf ears.

The exhibit concentrates on the last few years of Van Gogh’s life, including five paintings done in the month he committed suicide, July 1890 at age 37.

If You Go:

You don’t need a Swiss bank account to enjoy a luxury tour through Switzerland. You will pay a little more to stay at the best hotels, dine at the greatest restaurants and luxuriate in the internationally recognized spas, but by spending a little more you’ll collect treasures to last a lifetime. I indulged and will never forget the experience, especially Switzerland’s free of charge natural beauty, “priceless.”

In Zurich I stayed at the Baur au Lac, surrounded by its landscaped garden park on the lakeshore. One of the world’s great hotels, guests have included Wagner and Elton John. It’s Restaurant Francaise and Rive Gauche serve seasonal haute cuisine.

Zurich is an international city. One night I dined at the best Thai restaurant, Ah-Hua, located in the city’s red light zone, Area 4, making for an interesting after dinner stroll.

Traditional Swiss foods can be found in a number of restaurants quartered in the Old Town. One of the best is Kronenhalle, a famous haunt of expatriate writers and artists and the walls are full of artwork traded for meals. Chagall must have eaten well here; his paintings are all over the walls. James Joyce regularly got the corner table and Giacometti, Picasso and Miro are among the artists displayed.

In Lausanne I stayed at the famous Beau-Rivage Palace, where Diana Ross and Phil Collins had their weddings. I had the spa treatment, a lot less expensive. Then ate at Anne-Sophie Pic’s chic new restaurant. She is the only 3-star female Michelin chef. A lighter option is the sushi bar Miyako or in town try Le Nomade.

In wine country we dined on lake perch and frites overlooking the vineyards at Le Raisin in St. Saphorin.

In Basel the Trois Rois Hotel sits on the Rhine and may be starring in the new James Bond movie. Film scouts were checking out the hotel when we visited.

Lucerne

Lucerne

The city of Lucerne horseshoes one end of the lake. I stayed downtown at the modern Astoria Hotel, which has the happening Pravda dance club in the penthouse. Bam Bou, a short walk from the hotel, is a modern Asian-fusion restaurant with a creative young chef.

Just outside of town is the romantic Art Deco Montana Hotel. Reached by funicular, it offers a grand view of Lake Lucerne while you dine in elegance, serenaded by a live piano and violin duo.

You can take the cogwheel railway or the gondola to the top of Mt. Pilatus and then hike to over 7,000 feet for spectacular 360-degree views of 73 Alpine peaks and Lake Lucerne below. The air is thin, so watch your wine consumption at the inn on top of the mountain or you may not be able to count all the peaks. Highly recommended is the toboggan run down the mountain.

Exhausted writer after climbing 7,000 feet

Back in town I boarded the paddle steamer bound for the resort town of Weggis, which has a restaurant featuring the wines of California. It also has a spa and heated vanishing pool at the Relais & Chateaux Park Hotel Weggis, and rooms with wide windows that offer the best view of any hotel on my tour. I had dinner at the Michelin-starred Annex restaurant in the hotel, which has over 2,000 wines in it’s cellar, and lunch at the cleverly decorated Post Hotel Weggis in the center of town.

I reached Switzerland on the new A330 – 300 Airbus making only its second flight. The new plane has revolutionary seating in business class that reclines flat and features adjustable air pillow seats, a pleasant way to arrive when seeking the good life in Switzerland.

Switzerland Tourism provides comprehensive brochures on festivals, local museums, events, restaurants, housing in all price ranges, maps, and guides to all regions.

I choose the treasure map.

John Blanchette

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About the Author

John Blanchette

John Blanchette is a freelance travel writer, television producer and owns a public relations company in Santa Monica, California.

2 Comments on "Switzerland: Europe’s Jewel Box"

  1. Montreux in your story brings back memories: In high school, I went o the Institut Monte Rosa in Territet, just down the lake form the Chateau de Chillon. In the 1960’s there were only 4 or 5 English speakers in a school of several hundred European children. Our field trips were to the top of various mountains and I fondly remember picnic lunches with huge chocolate bars and hunks of cheese. The Swiss franc was 5 to a Dollar and in those days everyone bought cuckoo clocks.

    Snow and glacier coverage was much heavier than it is now. We did not know anything about Vichy except the lake ferry stopped there, and we certainly were ignorant about Swiss banks and tax evaders. But your story nicely paints Switzerland as it still can be for a tourist.

  2. Switzerland is truly the Jewel of Europe. Who can ignore the great sightseeing of mountains and some great natural sites. Few of my favourite things in Switzerland are, Jungfrau Region, Geneva some great falls of Switzerland.

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