Christmas in Switzerland
Story and photos by John Blanchette
eneva, Switzerland It was December and snow was falling in the
Alps. Throughout Switzerland
Markets were preparing to celebrate the season. The air was full
of aromatic spices wafting from the large pots of steaming red, mulled
gluehwein, which the Swiss drink to chase the evening cold. The scent
of fresh cut evergreens and wood smoke mixed with roasting chestnuts,
frying sausages, cheese raclette and brewing coffee wandered through
the narrow streets.
Curious shoppers dressed in the colors of
the toys examine the season's possibilities
Excited little children ran past the booths selling
crafts, hand-made clothing, wood carvings, ornaments, wine tankards,
nutcrackers, candles and gingerbread, pressing their faces into the
nearby shop windows to look at toys. White Christmas lights illuminated
the cities and towns and carolers, bell ringers and melodious holiday
yodeling brought harmony to this special place to celebrate the holiday
I arrived from Los Angeles on Swiss International Air
Lines, which has direct flights from several American cities into Zurich
Airport, a magnificent newly remodeled facility. This is the sixth year
in a row they were voted best airline.
Trains running throughout the country link up at the
airport. There is no need for an automobile in Switzerland. It is far
less dangerous and costly to take public transportation in winter. Gasoline
is between five and six dollars a gallon and an eight-day Swiss Pass,
which allows you to ride all the trains, buses, boats, most trams and
enter over 400 museums for free is only $330. You can save 10% buying
the pass in the U.S.
Jutting above the very center of Europe, the Alps are
at their most majestic here. The Swiss speak four national languages,
reflecting the influence of its neighbors, France, Germany, Austria,
Liechtenstein and Italy, and almost everyone knows some English. For
such a small country there is great diversity.
Zurich is also home to the
largest Christmas Market, located in the train station, where a
huge tree is decorated with 10,000 glimmering Swarovski crystals.
Holiday decorations brighten the streets in
Fondue is primarily a winter indulgence and I indulged
at several restaurants in different parts of the country during my stay.
Each restaurants fondue is a little different, depending on the
cheeses employed with the garlic, Kirsch
and other ingredients. Bread is the primary dip; none of the restaurants
I visited used fruits or did a chocolate or meat version.
One of the best is in Zurich lying at the top of Mount
Uetliberg, offering a panoramic view of the city. A special tram runs
up the steep incline. You are so close to heaven that once inside the
restaurant you feel overpowered by the aroma of angels feet; fondue
is heady stuff in a glass enclosed restaurant.
Local custom only allows fondue to be consumed with
white wine or tea, no red wine, soda, beer and no ice in your water.
Otherwise expect disastrous effects on your digestion. According to
our guide this is a quirk of the Swiss. They have rules which make things
"either forbidden or compulsory" in all spheres of their lives.
The nearby town of Einsiedein has a traditional country
Christmas Market with local food stands and homemade sausages, preserves,
liquors, crafts and ornament booths that meander down the curved main
street for a quarter mile. The smells are intoxicating.
The town is dominated by the Abbey, a major pilgrimage
site, famous for its incredibly ornate baroque cathedral and its
icon, the Black Madonna, the Virgin Mary statue which was blackened
by candle smoke and remains black at the request of the parishioners.
Snow falling during rush
outside the train station in St. Gallen
Appropriately for such a time conscious country, from
Zurich in the north I followed a clock-wise route, visiting Christmas
Markets in St. Gallen to the east, Montreux to the south and Geneva
in the West, moving from German speaking areas to French.
The beers are excellent in Switzerland and other than
Lowenbrau are produced by relatively small breweries. In Zurich
I enjoyed Steinfels brewpub and in St. Gallen you can take a tour and
get a tasting at the Schutzengarten Brewery, an easy streetcar ride
from the train station. Beware of the brauhauses and nightclubs if you
are a non-smoker, tobacco is still widely enjoyed with alcohol.
St. Gallen boasts the tallest Christmas tree in Switzerland
and the lighting ceremony is an annual event complete with caroling
and children dancing and playing under the tree. Free Gluehwein was
served to all, enhancing the holiday spirit.
St. Gallen has the highest altitude of any city in Switzerland
and has one of the countrys finest universities. It is known for
its fine linen and textile work and the museum is impressive.
A two-hour train ride south will bring you to Montreux.
Sculptured into the hillsides above Lac Leman (Lake Geneva), it looks
across the deep blue waters to the ascending snow capped Alps. Just
down the Lake is the Chateau de Chillon, made famous in a poem by Lord
Byron, who carved his name into one of the castle beams.
Chateau de Chillon near Montreux and a magnificent
view of the Alps
Montreux has the largest outdoor Christmas Market, with
over 200 Swiss chalet-like booths hugging the walkway along the lakeshore.
The neighboring town of Vevey is an artistic center and was home to
many of the worlds greatest writers, composers and philosophers.
Stravinsky wrote the Rite of Spring in Vevey and Hemingway, James Joyce,
Henry James, Graham Green, Charlie Chaplin and many others lived here.
This is one of Switzerlands finest wine growing
regions as well, with vineyards spilling down the steep hills, especially
above the villages of Vevey, Chexbres and throughout the Lavaux region.
Storm clouds shot from the train between Montreux
The train from Montreux to Geneva runs along the lake
and faces the magnificent Jura Alps. After about an hour of jaw-dropping
views, you enter Switzerlands most cosmopolitan city, the home
of Calvinism, the Red Cross, United Nations, World Health Organization,
World Trade Organization and League of Nations. Forty percent of Genevas
180,000 population are foreign.
Like a nose poking into eastern France, Geneva lies
at the tip of Lac Leman, where it flows into the Rhone
River. In the center of the lake the tallest waterspout in Europe,
Jet deau, proudly proclaims the free-flowing spirit of the city.
Jet deau spreads its influence over
the lake in Geneva
Old Town, built in the hills overlooking the river,
is the place to go for the Christmas Markets and the traditional restaurants.
The village of Carouge, just outside of Geneva, offers a picturesque
view of the 18th century, with narrow streets, courtyards, gardens and
little shops. At the towns Christmas Market you can purchase local
crafts, the omnipresent sausages and homemade preserves.
The dollar goes a long way in Switzerland compared to
other parts of Europe relying on the Euro. The Swiss Franc is about
ninety cents to the dollar and the bargain shopping chain Denner offers
great prices on liquors, chocolates, perfumes and other common items.
Its cheaper and offers better choices than at the airport Duty
Free stores. But for really good Swiss chocolate look for the Sprungli
If You Go
In Switzerland holiday fare revolves around the cow
and usually features bratwurst, veal in many forms, potatoes and dairy
products. Surprisingly restaurants uniformly serve excellent salads.
In Zurich, restaurants serving traditional holiday foods
include Vorderer Sternen Grill, offering the best sausages in town.
Tina Turner is a regular. Oepfekhammers has been open since 1700.
You get free wine if you climb up into the rafters and drink a full
glass upside down. Do it early.
Le Dezaley features food from Vaud. Opened in 1925,
the Kronehhalle was a favorite for artists and writers and the walls
are full of their art. The beautiful Lake Side restaurant on Lake Zurich
is also next door to the casino if you want to gain and lose at the
same time. In the nearby town of Einsiedein try the local beer with
the veal at Drei Konige.
Wienerberg in St. Gallen near the university serves
excellent veal. Also try the rosti (Swiss version of hash brown potatoes)
and veal at Restaurant Zum Goldenen Schafli.
In Montreux Chalet Edelweiss specializes in Fondue served
family style on long benches.
In Geneva, RestO by Arthurs is one of the
cities finest contemporary restaurants, Cafe Papon is built inside a
castle and serves on long communal tables. Cafe de Peney is a lovely
country auberge in the wine country of Peney-Dessous outside of Geneva.
Hotel recommendations include Walhalla in St. Gallen,
Cornavin in Geneva, Hotel Four Points Sheraton in Zurich and in Montreux
indulge at the Grand Hotel Suisse-Majestic, which overlooks the lake.
Every hotel I stayed in had feather pillows and down comforters to keep
the cold Swiss air away.
Tourism, (877) 794-8037, provides comprehensive brochures on the
Christmas Markets, festivals, local museums, events, restaurants, housing
in all price ranges, maps, and guides to all regions.
Dada and Business Class, Zurich
Express, Switzerland, Swiss
rail trips, Eichhorn
Schwyzerorgelfabrik and Musikhaus