Welcome to the Swiss Riviera!
Didn’t know there was such a thing as “The Swiss Riviera”? Well, allow us introduce you to Montreux….
We left Interlaken and the Bernese Alps this morning nice and early, keen to be on our way to do the last two legs of The Golden Pass train journey from Interlaken to Zweisimmen, then on to Montreux. As we pulled out of the station on the Golden Pass Panoramic Train (with its extra large windows and glass ceiling), the morning sun had just risen above the mountains and was painting the town and Lake Brienz a marvellous golden yellow. It was a wonderful last view of Interlaken and its magnificent surroundings.
The train quickly left Interlaken behind and followed the Southern shore of Lake Thun for about half and hour before taking us out into the Simmental Valley. Named after the River Simme that flows through it, this is one of Switzerland’s most fertile valleys and, as we discovered today, home to LOTS of bell-wearing dairy cows. The cows of this region (Simmental cows) are reportedly renowned for their milk and meat – they are very big and muscular, with horns, but seem to have a very passive temperament despite their daunting appearance. As well as cows the lush green meadows of the Simmental Valley were dotted with large farmhouses and barns. We were told today that the farmhouses are big because traditionally they were supposed to house the farmer, his family and their workers; and the large wooden barns are designed to be big enough to house animals, store agricultural machinery and shelter crops all under one huge roof.
The Golden Pass train stops in a few small alpine villages and reaches its highest point around the village of Zweisimmen. This tiny town of 2,500 people is popular in winter with skiers and snow boarders as you can literally ski from the front door of your chalet onto one of the many ski fields around the village. In summer the ski fields turn into a hiker’s paradise, with hundreds of kilometres of trail criss-crossing the hills. There are about 4 Golden Pass trains that run between Interlaken and Montreux every day (during summer) so we had made plans to stop in Zweisimmen for a few hours to go for a hike, then catch one of the later trains down to Montreux. Leaving our bags with the attendant at the train station (for a fee of course – this is Switzerland after all: nothing is free!), we then went out for a lovely hike through the hills around the village.
Having worked up an appetite we wandered back into “town” to find a rustic little eatery where we could partake of some local produce. The town of Zweisimmen itself was tiny, but oh so cute. There was one restaurant open in town and fortunately they did serve some wonderful, rustic local fare; their menu was an eclectic mix of Italian, French and German cuisines with a definite Swiss edge to it (i.e. cheese with everything!). We had a wonderful lunch there and are really glad we took the opportunity to stop in Zweisimmen, even if it was for just a few hours, to see a bit more of the countryside.
The next Golden Pass Panoramic train picked us up around 2:00pm and we sped out of Zweisimmen and away from the German-speaking part of Switzerland, heading towards French Switzerland. I was madly trying to remember some of the more useful phrases from my high school French lessons was we crested up out of the Simmental Valley and began our journey through the mountains of the Gruyère National Park. This park includes the area around Lake Geneva and is named after the little town within its confines that produces that delicious hard, yellow cheese we know and love….
The mountains within the Gruyère National Park are seriously jagged and rocky; in fact, many are given the name dent, the French word for “tooth” because they are so sharp and tooth-like in appearance. The train wound its way further and further uphill until we entered a tunnel that seemed to just go on forever (I found out later the Jaman Tunnel in about 5km long). When we finally emerged from the darkness, it was like we were in another world – like we’d left the alpine meadows of rural Switzerland behind and entered a 19th-century French seaside village. Lake Geneva stretched out below us all around us wooden German-style farmhouses had been replaced by stone French-style houses and mansions. We were glued to the window the whole way down the mountain-side to Montreux, marvelling at the change in scenery.
We arrived in Montreux around 4:00pm and quickly found our hotel, a lovely boutique establishment up on the hill overlooking the lake with mountain views to boot. As soon as we’d dropped our bags off and changed into shorts (it’s MUCH warmer here than up in the mountains!), we didn’t waste any time and headed straight for the water-front promenade. This part of the Switzerland is referred to as the “Swiss Riviera” due to its pleasant microclimate*, long history as a getaway for the rich and famous, and similarities to the Mediterranean Riviera in terms of atmosphere and architecture. We knew Montreux was on Lake Geneva and expected an epic lake-side location, but neither of us expected it to be quite so…, well, French! Strolling along the promenade this afternoon, enjoying our ice creams and marvelling at the warmth of the air, it really felt like we could have been in Nice (just without the golden beaches and salty air of the French Riviera). The Swiss Riviera has been an incredible discovery – we love it here already!
*Although it is on the edge of the Alps, Lake Geneva has created a microclimate of its own due to the sheer amount of water it holds. In winter, the lake waters hold heat making the harsh mountain winter milder; and in summer the lake cools its surroundings. This means the steep slopes around Lake Geneva are blessed with a temperate and rather pleasant microclimate.
We spent what was left our day strolling along the promenade, marvelling at the blues and greens all around us. So as you can see we’ve have had yet another marvellous day in Switzerland and are looking forward to spending the next couple of days here in the small resort-town of Montreux. We are right on the shores on Lake Geneva, in the French-speaking part of the country. France is literally across the lake and we could see the famous spa town of Evian (you know, where the water comes from) from our dinner table this evening. We’re thinking of taking a cruise around the lake tomorrow and maybe popping over to France for lunch. Or maybe we’ll go up into the Alps behind Montreux and spend another day hiking through the green, green hills of Switzerland. So many choices! We’ll let you know tomorrow which we decided to do…. Au revoir until then nos amis!