Posted in Travel

Montreux and Chillon Castle

About a year ago we were in Switzerland, hoping for a snowy holiday. Instead we just had perfectly clear skies and freezing temperatures. I wrote about the first part of our trip, to Zermatt, in this post. This post follows on from that, taking us to Verbier, Montreux and Geneva.

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Ski run at Zermatt

We left Zermatt on the train/shuttle in the morning and picked up our car from the very narrow carpark and headed north then west towards the town of Verbier. I knew nothing about this town except for what I’d seen on the race on Top Gear. My brother had the unenviable task of getting our lumbering SUV up the mountain switchbacks until we arrived at the town.

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Verbier

Anticipating zero parking and general chaos we dived straight into the first (or perhaps second) car park we found and parked up.  It took us all of about 15 minutes to explore the town before we settled on a restaurant for lunch – which might have been the Relais des Neiges. Despite the quite nippy temperatures we sat outside for the view. Mum practiced her French and German on the wait staff and we enjoyed various sandwiches.

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Verbier
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Verbier wasn’t busy at all

With that done we left town and headed in the direction of Montreux, another hour straight north. All was well on the road until we reached the outskirts of the town where we found ourselves at the end of a humongous traffic jam. It turned out there was a Christmas Market in town, and this being a Sunday everyone in Switzerland was trying to get there.

We crawled down the main street and thankfully our hotel was before the market and on the right side of the street, so my brother dropped us off at the front door. They were heading back to Geneva that night before flying back to the UK the next day.

We checked into the Eurotel Montreux, one of the two tallest buildings in town and probably quite an eyesore if you’re not staying in it.

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View from the Eurotel Montreux
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Christmas Markets

In our room we loafed about for a few minutes before opening the door to the tiny balcony and seeing the most spectacular sunset of our lives. It wasn’t just the colors reflecting off the lake and the snowy mountains, or the length of time it lasted, it was the extent of it: easily 50% of the whole sky was some shade of red. It was truly spectacular.

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No filter – it was really this color

Buoyed by the sunset we decided to brave the Christmas markets. Not really sure what dinner was going to entail we decided we’d have something from the market. It was absolutely heaving with people elbowing each other out of the way to get to the stalls selling wooden things, leather things, soap, food, toys and games and other excellent Christmas presents. We stocked up on gifts then I broke out my minimal French and managed to get us a couple of chocolate crepes. They were delicious.

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After this we struggled out of the market and walked along in the dark around the shoreline to see the city lights from a distance. Not having a tripod meant all my photos were hopeless, but it was pretty nonetheless.

The next morning we used free tickets provided by the hotel (the Montreux Riviera card) to take a local train to Chillon Castle. We wanted to get off at the station right next to the castle, but I overheard an announcement in French that “this train goes direct to Villeneuve.” No matter, we got off at Villeneuve and walked along the lake for about 20 minutes back to the castle.

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Walking back to Chillon Castle

Chillon Castle has undergone several centuries of change of ownership and renovations, including one currently taking place. According to the information sheet, the oldest written mention of the castle is in 1150. It sits on a small island and it apparently acted as a strategic location to control movement between north and south of Europe.

We followed the map around the whole castle exploring all the way from the cellar and the dungeons below the waterline to the very highest point of the castle – the keep. It was an impressive place.

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Chillon Castle
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Cellars
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Inside the castle walls
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It’s a little close to the modern world now

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Views from the Keep towards Montreux
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More views from the Keep

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After this we headed across the road to the Restaurant Taverne du Château de Chillon for soup and hot chocolate then walked by the side of the lake back to Montreux, passing manicured apartment blocks, the occasional restaurant, and a statue of Freddie Mercury.

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Walking back to Montreux
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Freddie Mercury

Back in Montreux we collected our luggage then went back to the train station to catch the train to our friends’ place in Versoix, just outside of Geneva. Unfortunately, our faith in the clockwork Swiss rail system was misplaced. There was some issue on the line which meant our connecting train in Lausanne was delayed, or we would need to get a different train, or something, and whatever was going on, the platform had changed. This was quite hard to figure out despite the announcement being in three languages. The conductor started in German (no clue), then went to French where I could pick up something of what was going on, but by the time he got to the English version, he obviously felt like he’d done enough, and just gave the barest of information. All of this was over a train intercom which sounded like the speaker was at the bottom of a well.

Anyway, because of this chaos, the train out of Lausanne was absolutely packed to the rafters, and at each stop about 10 school kids tried to board each carriage. There wasn’t an inch of space to be had, and of course, everyone was wearing their big coats because it was freezing outside. Lack of oxygen quickly became an issue. After about 45 mins of this, things settled down and we were able to get our coats off. Then it was straight into Versoix where our friends greeted us on the platform and took us to their apartment.

We spent the next 2 days in Geneva – post coming soon!

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Posted in Travel

Zermatt, Switzerland

In the tradition of this blog, I’m going to write about a trip that is completely out of season to the time of year this is posted: our Christmas holiday! This is one of several posts I’m planning to write about our trip to Switzerland and the UK this past December.

As usual, our adventures start with an idea by Mum. Zermatt, Switzerland, a picture postcard perfect village in the Alps, is where we were going, and we were going to see snowy mountains.

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Zermatt, Switzerland

Coming from Los Angeles, we packed all the warm gear we had (and bought more) – down jackets, snow boots, long johns, gloves, hats, scarves – and flew via Bournemouth, UK, where we collected Mum and my brother, to Geneva, Switzerland. It was then a two hour drive in the dark to Täsch, followed by a 20 minute train to Zermatt. Because Zermatt is small and car-free, we walked from the train station to the Hotel Butterfly.

Mum had been checking the webcam in Zermatt for about two months, hoping there was going to be snow in the village, but when we arrived there wasn’t even a snowflake.  This turned out to be a Good Thing, because it was already plenty cold enough.

The next morning we decided to go straight up in the cable car and see the Matterhorn. We walked through the village in -6C temperatures and before we’d gone more than ¼ mile the Matterhorn was right there!  While there were machines creating artificial snow on the lower slopes, we could see higher up there was plenty of real snow.

At the cable car terminus we each bought a return ticket for $100 USD (ouch!) to the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise – the next mountain across from the Matterhorn – and got in line with approximately one million skiers to board a cable car. Luckily, the cars were only small, so we got one to ourselves, and soon we were climbing high into the mountains.

At the first station, the doors opened but we didn’t get out because we had a really good view of the Matterhorn from where we were sitting.  At the second (or was it the third?) station we had to change cable cars. This final cable car was absolutely packed with skiers. Then finally at 12,739 feet (8,338 meters) we were at the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise. We peeled away from the mass of skiers and went up to the viewing platform where it was frigid, but the views were spectacular.

It was crystal clear and the visibility must have been 50 miles. We could see the distant mountains, including Mt Blanc, clearly.

After admiring the view for a while we realized we were turning into icicles so we headed down along the long tunnel to the café. We warmed up in a patch of sun and had hot chocolates and coffee.

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Start of the ski run at Glacier Paradise

Since our extremely expensive cable car pass also gave us access to the “Glacier Palace”, we decided to check it out. The entrance was along a long tunnel that winded downhill straight into the glacier. The walls of the tunnel were made of hard ice. When we got to the bottom there were a wide range of ice sculptures on display and, strangely, an ice slide. It turned out the slide was not all that slippery unless you took a flying run at it… which of course, we did.

After satisfying ourselves we’d got our money’s worth, we went back in the cable car (empty this time!) to the mid-station. We had lunch and watched the skiers, then headed back down to Zermatt, running into a wedding on the way back to the hotel.

That evening we went for a walk around the village, comparing the price of glühwein at pretty much every bar in town (answer: they were all 6-10 Euros/glass). We eventually settled on a tiny bar that seated about 10 people, parked ourselves at the counter, and defrosted with 7 Euro glühwein. Then, thanks to my brother remembering to make a reservation, we had dinner at the Restaurant Whymper-Stube, named after the man who was the first to climb the Matterhorn.  This restaurant brings in the entire sitting at once, several times a night. Inside it was so hot that we had to strip down to our t-shirts. Dinner was excellent.

The next morning we left Zermatt (still no snow) then took a quick drive up to Verbier for lunch before Mum and my brother dropped us at the town of Montreux. Read more about that in my next post (coming soon!).