Most Australians know two things about Switzerland, both of which they probably learned from the Milka TV commercials of the 1990s. Firstly, that it’s an immensely beautiful country with many snow-capped mountains and grazing cows, and secondly, it’s the home of milk chocolate, invented in 1875.
But this landlocked, alp-rich European country – often overlooked for more showy, “fun” destinations such as Spain, France and Italy – offers some unexpected gratifications. In particular, Lausanne and the Lake Geneva region, in French-speaking south-west of the country near the alps. Here you’ll find lakeside wineries, amazing chocolate, outstanding cheese and landscapes that almost look fake, they’re that impressive. Here’s a mini itinerary.
Eat fondue and raclette where it’s made
For the Switzerland experience you’ve always fantasised about, visit Château-d’Oex. You get there by taking an easy, stunning one-hour train ride from Montreux (see below for “Getting Around”), a town on Lake Geneva. The picturesque journey takes you high into the alps – past green valleys, brooks and chalets – to the tiny walkable town. In the summer it’s great for hiking and in the winter it’s blanketed in snow (so you can also come here to ski), but we’re here for the cheese.
In Australia, our opinion of fondue isn’t hugely positive. “I think we have a hangover from the late ’70s because of our families throwing fondue parties, using those cheap sets available from Kmart,” says Jordan Toft, the executive chef at Sydney restaurants Coogee Pavilion, The Collaroy, The Newport and Bert’s Bar and Brasserie. Toft is co-hosting the trip Broadsheet is on, and lends some insights into the food scene.
Le Chalet, quaint restaurant built in 1976, hosts an authentic alpine experience: a cheese-making demonstration. It happens in the dining room, a cosy space where you can also eat the cheese that was made here, where it’s matured for six months.
In an over-sized cooper pot over a wood fire, almost 200 litres of organic milk is transformed into hard cheese, and you can taste it at all stages of the process. Sounds a little staid, but it’s fascinating and only enhances the cheese eating.
You should get an order of the fondue. It’s traditionally made with two types of cheese, white wine, garlic and kirschwasser (cherry liqueur). You tear off a bit of bread and dip it in the melted ooze. Here they also serve a version that substitutes the wine for beer, which makes a lighter dip. “I think why this experience was so great,” says Toft, “is it’s a beautiful product treated simply. It was a good expression of that area. We were all sceptical and they did it well.”
Add in an order of raclette, a semi-hard cheese made around these parts that you melt under a grill set up at you table. Scoop it up on pickles and cured meats. Delicious.
Eat milk chocolate where it was invented
Chocolate, as we know it today, is largely due to the work of a handful of 19th-century Swiss confectioners and entrepreneurs. The first Swiss producer was Francois-Louis Cailler, who developed a technique near Vevey to make smooth chocolate, which allowed it be turned into bars.
Vevey is also where white chocolate was invented by the Nestle company in the 1930s – you can eat and book in workshops, tastings and classes at Laderach. It sounds a little naff, but it isn’t. The chocolate flight allows you to taste and compare different cocoa concentrations, which is surprisingly useful for locking in your preference.
Take a spectacular stroll through Unesco vineyards
You don’t often see Swiss wine on lists in Australia because the country doesn’t produce enough to export. Chasselas is a very old native Swiss grape variety that originated on the shores of Lake Geneva, and there’s at least one to try in every restaurant. “It’s a fresh-drinking grape variety, not overly complex,” says Toft. “It doesn’t have a great deal of length, but has a good amount of acid so goes well with food.”
Take a train to Chexbres to visit the Lavaux vineyards, an unbelievably pretty Unesco heritage site. The terraced vines, which stretch 30 kilometres along Lake Geneva from the Chateau de Chillon to the eastern outskirts of Lausanne, are often described as one of the most beautiful wine regions the world. From Chexbres you stroll to the wineries and through the vineyards, then jump back on the train at Rivaz (there’s an app to follow here). It will be a highlight of your trip.
And other things to do
A no-frills dinner – but one very much capturing the local Swiss ethos – is Au Bon Vin. To get there, take a funicular (fun!) to Lavaux from Vevey. It has many specialities from the local Vaud region on its menu, such as cheese rarebit and metzgete (sausages), and the pub-style eatery is one of the last restaurants that slaughters its own meat. The owner-chef prepares the dishes with the help of his wife.
“For me that was really authentic,” says Toft. “I felt genuine hospitality sitting around the tables eating those many courses. It was done simply – it almost felt like we were in their home, with them plonking plenty of bottles of wine on the table – wine made across the road.”
A good place to explore the local ale scene is La Mise en Bière bar in Lausanne, which stocks a huge amount of beers, with plenty on tap. (I liked Dr Gabs, the biggest privately-owned local brewery). If wine is more your thing, Tacave, also in Lausanne (and Geneva), is a cute wine bar with plenty of Swiss wine. It was the first crowdfunded bistro-bar in Switzerland.
Hotel Base Vevey, less than a five-minute walk from Vevey station, is perfectly situated for exploring the lake. It’s modern, has bikes you can use, and the price includes a breakfast box. If you want to stay in Lausanne, Agora Swiss Night is super-close to the train station but also the hilly town. It’s got a touch of endearing kitsch – there are cuckoo clocks everywhere; bed rugs have the Swiss flag on them – and the breakfast room has a glass ceiling (kind of) so you get a great view of the lake.
It says a lot about this delightful country that almost all hotels in the Lake Geneva region give you a Transport Card for free bus, train and metro travel, as well as discounts on museums.
There are stacks of ways to get around, but for this region rail is really easy and affords some unbelievable views of the lake. Towns dot its shorelines and you can jump on and off where you need to – and use it to get to the airport, too.
Eurail is a reliable, flexible option, especially if you’re visiting several European cities and countries. There are a number of ticket options: a one-country pass, or a Global Pass for unlimited multi-county itineraries that links 31 countries. It includes more than 250,000 kilometres of tracks and you can get a pass for three days or three months, or anything in between (children under 11 travel for free).
The pass also includes travel on the Belle Epoque train to Château-d’Oex, a restored locomotive reminiscent of the Orient Express that takes in some of this region’s tourist destinations. And the Train du Fromage (yes, “the cheese train”, as it’s locally known) departs from Montreux and is part of the Golden Pass line, which offers a scenic trip to the alps and that amazing cheese experience (see “fondue and raclette” above). The trains are always noteworthy, some with oversized windows to take in the scene.
For more on Eurail packages and tickets, visit here.
This article first appeared on Broadsheet on July 19, 2019. Some details may have changed since publication.