Europe's Jewel Box
Story and photos by John Blanchette
urich Switzerlands 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 Europes 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 has inspired poets, philosophers,
writers and artists for centuries.
and Geneva were recently listed on Mercers Quality of Living Survey
as the second and third most livable cities in the world (behind Vienna).
Guilds on parade
I arrived in Zurich the weekend of the spring festival
(Sechselauten), not a good time to be a snowman (the Boogg).
Winter's days are numbered
Hundreds 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
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.
This year 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 Boogg's ashes
I dined that day at the medieval linen hat makers
guildhall, Zunfthaus zur Waag, with two hundred hat-toting members.
Zurichs 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, dont 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 Switzerlands banking
Mecca, with over two hundred institutions, and a shoppers 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. Its
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 Junods Horlogers & Joailliers
store and watch museum, especially if youre in need of a new timepiece.
Paddleboat 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
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 Queens songs was aptly dedicated to
the city, This could be heaven for everyone.
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.
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 this year its 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 artists
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
Goghs life, including five paintings done in the month he committed
suicide, July 1890 at age 37.
If You Go:
You dont 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 youll
collect treasures to last a lifetime. I indulged and will never forget
the experience, especially Switzerlands free of charge natural
In Zurich I stayed at the Baur au Lac, surrounded by
its landscaped garden park on the lakeshore. One of the worlds
great hotels, guests have included Wagner and Elton John. Its
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 citys 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 Pics
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.
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 its 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.
Tourism, (877) 794-8037, 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.
A few more photos:
Local future bar tenders
Dada and Business Class, Les
Portes du Soleil (French Alps), Zurich
Express, Switzerland, Swiss
rail trips, Eichhorn
Schwyzerorgelfabrik and Musikhaus