Friday, April 18, 2014

Montreux and Chateau Chillon et La Chasse aux Sorcières

My travels through Western Switzerland naturally took me through vineyard country and the breathtaking shores of Lake Geneva. And finally to the resort town of Montreux.

Attractions in Montreux

Surrounded by undulating vineyards, Montreux is an unpretentious though charming upmarket resort town gracing the shores of Lake Geneva. Often described as the jewel of the Swiss Riviera, Montreux comes alive in a big way every July for its annual jazz/rock festival. This is the best-known music festival in Switzerland and one of the most prestigious in Europe, being the second largest annual music festival in the world (after Canada’s Montreal International Jazz Festival). The festival has attracted names like Marianne Faithfull, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa, Deep Purple, Prince, Eric Clapton, Ray Charles, B.B. King, Santana, and Van Morrison. Freddy Mercury of Queen made Montreux his second home. Deep Purple’s song “Smoke on the Water” tells of the events of 1971, when a Frank Zappa fan with a flare gun set the Montreux Casino on fire and destroyed it. The Casino was reopened in 1975.

Long before it became known for its international music festival, Montreux had already become an international tourist resort since the early 1800s. This charming lake-shore town with its stylish Belle Epoche hotels and cobble windy streets captivated artists, writes and musicians over the years. Some that bear mentioning include Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, Leo Tolstoy, Ernest Hemingway, Victor Hugo and Hans Christian Anderson. The Empress Elisabeth “Sissi” of Austria also enjoyed strolling the streets of Montreux.

The most famous of the Belle Epoche hotels is probably the Montreux Palace on Grand Rue. The Centre des Congrès across the street houses a concert hall dedicated to Igor Stravinsky who composed his Rite of Spring in Montreux.

Bed & Breakfast Accommodation in Montreux

Castel les Chenes
I decided against the mad bustle of downtown and opted for a different experience. I chose a charming bed and breakfast in the residential quarter of Montreux (Territet) at the foot of Mont Fleuri and above the bay of Territet. Originally built for a French countess in 1928, Castel les Chênes became the home of Hermann & Ulla Schusterbauer, who used it as a language school (it still functions as one) and currently operate it as a bed and breakfast. Set in the midst of a beautiful terraced garden, the charming castle perches over a steep cobblestone road that winds its way above the town. Castel les Chênes enjoys a splendid 180 ° view that spans the Alps of Valais and Vaud, Lake Geneva, Chillon Castle, Montreux, Haute Savoie (in nearby France) and the Jura. This bed and breakfast is barely a 10-minute walk from the Lake, Territet station, the bus service to Montreux and the funicular railway to Glion.

Rooms vary from the stylish chambers on the ground floor to the cosy beamed rooms on the top floor. Each bedroom (1 to 3 single beds) has its own wash-basin and most, like mine, have a balcony with a panoramic view. Communal shower and toilet facilities are available on each floor.
After a warm bath and one of Ulla’s signature hot chocolates, I was ready for adventure. The Chateau de Chillon—possibly the most visited castle in Switzerland—lay just southeast of Montreux in the charming town of Veytaux. I could see it from my balcony on the second floor. I fetched my hat and scarf and was scampering out the door.

Chateau de Chillon

Chateau de Chillon
Easily one of Switzerland’s most majestic medieval castles, Chateau de Chillon is set on a rocky spur on the eastern shore of Lake Geneva. The castle ramparts command a marvelous view of the entire lake. Although it originated around the 11th century, its present structure reflects its 13th century renovations. Chillon was built for the Dukes of Savoy, who once ruled this region. The duke built a number of castles to guard the verdant valleys from the Bernese to the north.

I overheard one tourist attest that the castle was, “romantic, beautiful, fascinating and with the most impressive and scary outside toilet I have ever seen, 50 meters free fall and with strong ventilation.” Hmmm… There are many paths to exhilaration, I suppose.

Inner courtyard of Chateau de Chillon
While it was the centre of court life for the dukes of Savoy, the castle also served as a prison. Its most famous captive was Francois de Bonivard, imprisoned there for six years in the 1530s for political incitement. Lord Byron immortalized him in a poem called “The Prisoner of Chillon”. Francois Bonivard was imprisoned in the underground cellar, previously used as a storeroom for supplies and weapons. Bonivard was held captive there for over xx years before he was liberated by the Bernese.

La Chasse aux Sorcières
dungeons of Chillon

Chateau de Chillon was also the epicenter for witch hunts during the 1400s through to 1500s and many “witches” were kept there. I toured the castle during a witch-hunt exhibit and learned that the Pays de Vaud was the site of major witch-hunts between the 15th and the 17th centuries. During that time, more than 2,000 “witches” were burned there. On an aside, did you know that Switzerland holds not only the record for the longest-lasting repression of witchcraft but also for the largest number of people persecuted as witches, in relation to the population.
Chillon Castle became an important detention centre for individuals suspected of witchcraft, either awaiting trial or execution.
Gölden Anna was the last person in Europe to be condemned as a witch. She was executed in 1782 in the Protestant canton of Glarus, Switzerland.

Outer rampart of Chillon
Nina Munteanu explores the “witch-hunt” in her historical fantasy “The Last Summoner” (Starfire), which takes place in Poland and France. The main character, a young baroness living in 1410, discovers she has strange powers and is hunted as a witch.

The Charm of Villeneuve

Feeling rather peckish after scampering all over the castle grounds and dark dungeons, I leapt into my ToulouseMobile and drove in search of a place to eat. Within five minutes I found myself driving along one of old Villeneuve’s narrow cobbled lanes and spotted an attractive looking restaurant crowded with patrons—always a good sign.

The Bienveillance, avec Specialities Chinoises, is a gem inside this quiet old town. I walked into a rather exotic setting of high ceilings, old lamps, jade dragons and palm trees.
I started out with hot and sour soup, which was a perfect blend of hot and sour soup and full of goodness like seaweed, tofu and other vegetables. It was a hard choice between the canard aux germes de soja and the chicken with red curry. The curry won; and so did I. I ended my delicious meal with a wonderful signature Swiss café crème. Magnifique!  

Montreux and its nearby villages is its own destination; but it also provides a strategic centre for adventurous forays to other places in Western Switzerland like Geneva, Lausanne, Neuchatel, le Molésons, Gruyères, Aigle, Sion, les Diablerets, Glacier 3000, Mont Blanc, and Zermatt.

Contact Information:
B & B: Résidence Castel Les Chênes 
Hermann & Ulla Schusterbauer 
Avenue de Naye 15 
CH 1820 Montreux-Territet; tel: +41 (0)21 963 0880; fax: +41 (0)21 963 7334; email:; website:

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Swiss Cows are a Cat’s Best Friend

Swiss cows in Arth Switzerland
Think of it: milk, cheese, chocolate, butter, cream…café crème! I was in Toulouse heaven when I toured Zurich and the countryside of Central Switzerland this spring. As the Swiss would say, es war ausgezeichnet! I feasted on the best that cows can offer. That had a lot to do with the Brown Swiss cow. And here’s why…

Brown Swiss is the breed of dairy cattle that produces the second largest quantity of milk in the world. The milk contains on average 4% butterfat and 3.5% protein, which makes it ideal for cheese production. The Brown Swiss is a large cow with long gestation, large furry ears, and a lovely docile temperament. They are also hardy and need little care or feed.
Known as Braunvieh in German, the Brown Swiss originated on the slopes of the Swiss Alps, which made them resistant to heat, cold and many other common cattle problems. The Brown Swiss, as we know it in the United States today, originated in several cantons I traveled through: Schwyz, Zug, St. Gallen, Glarus, Lucerne, and Zurich of Switzerland. Here’s what the Brown Swiss cow offers so happily and impeccably:
Swiss cows in Seelisberg, Lake Lucerne
BUTTER: In Switzerland, butter is more of an experience than a condiment. Its fresh and bold taste carries with it the fresh smell of alpine meadows. Swiss butter makes one incredible escargots bourguignon baked with Café de Paris sauce like the six I “inhaled” at the Swiss Chalet in Merlischachen. Swiss butter melts in your mouth with a delicate nuance of the Swiss countryside. It is tasty plain on bread, croissants or butterzopf in the morning for breakfast. As I scarfed down the tenth piece of light rye with herb-tomato butter at the Rossli in Schonenburg, I pulled contemplatively at my whiskers and decided that its exquisite taste is “because the cows are happy”.  Most Swiss cows graze freely outside in small family farms, benefitting from the fresh air, good food and pleasant pastoral setting. The Swiss are very proud of their cows, after all. Spring festivals abound around the Swiss cow, complete with regalia and huge intricately decorated bells.
curious Swiss cow
CHEESE: Cheese permeates and forms an integral part of Swiss life. As with my compatriots in France, the Swiss consider it both an everyday food item and something ideal for a feast. The Swiss will commonly serve a platter of six or seven different kinds of cheese, along with fresh bread, dried meat or cervelat, and fruit, along with a generous amount of good red wine.  I partook of many cheese platter picnics, accompanied with wine, and cervelat salad.
Switzerland is home to about 450 varieties of cheese. Ninety-nine percent of Swiss cheese comes from cows milk with the remainder made up of sheep and goat milk. This is considerably different from France, where goat milk cheese is very popular.
Here are some of the popular Swiss cheeses from extra hard to soft: Sbrinz; Emmentaler; Gruyere/Greyerzer; Berner Alpkaese; Schabziger; Appenzeller; Bundner Bergkaese; Mutschli; Raclette; Tere de Moine; Vacherin Fribourgeois; Tilsiter; Vacherin Mont d’Or; Formaggini; and Gala.
Two great warm-cheese dishes, usually served right about now during the cold winter months. Fondue is cheese melted in a wine-kirsch mixture, into which you dip chunks of bread. (I’ve never encountered other dipping stuff here like apples and so on.) And there is raclette, a big chunk of cheese held close to the fire until it starts to melt, and then the melting cheese is scooped off with a knife onto a plate, and eaten with bread, boiled potatoes, cornichon pickles, and sometimes some dried beef.Swiss milk is also unique. People new to Switzerland would describe it as richer tasting, more creamy with a hint of countryside meadow in its aroma. Some need to get accustomed to the vollmilch (whole fat milk), and I’ve heard that they cut it in half with low-fat milk.
Toulouse's cafe creme
Think of all the things you drink and eat that use milk. Now you know what I’m getting at. And then there’s café crème. My pure enjoyment of this simple beverage was surely a function of both the Swiss fresh water, fresh air, fresh mountain crème and excellent espresso coffee. Not to mention the awesome setting and view.
My take home message here is this: when you go to Switzerland, keep your diet at home and savor the exquisite palate-thrilling tastes that the Swiss Cow offers, in all aspects of your fine dining experience, from elegant creamy morel sauce over rahmschnitzel to a simple café crème.
I’ll be back to see my friends!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Castles, Cobbles and Coffee in Sion

Rue des Chateaux
It was the name originally given to the stronghold captured by King David of the Israelites and where a temple was built on the hill above it. It also means “an imaginary place considered to be perfect and ideal”.

In Switzerland, Sion is the capital of the Canton of Valais but otherwise fits the description well. Like the original one, this Sion (pronounced See-ohn) is also overseen by a fortified church, Notre-Dame-de-Valère. In fact, there are two hills with fortified castles that rise above this charming medieval town, nestled in the fertile Rhone Valley and surrounded by vineyards and orchards.

Sion is an attractive town of 27,000 with a long history. Archeological evidence suggests that the site was inhabited during Neolithic times. People came to the otherwise flat valley floor, attracted by the two jutting rocky hills, visible from afar and now adorned with the medieval castles Valère and Tourbillon. “They are an odd sight, which matches the common Swiss notion that the locals (named Sédunois, after the town's Latin name Sedunum, meaning Place of Castles) are themselves a bit odd, impenetrably taciturn and clannish,” says one Swiss website. Sion enjoys a beautiful climate: dry, mild and consistently clear; its afternoons are bathed in bright sunshine, and I could imagine myself in rural Spain – warm, dry breezes blending the aroma of dusty pine needles with the chittering of thousands of cicadas. Sion's wines are outstanding.

Attracted by the two medieval castles that crowned the two hills above the town, I steered my ToulouseMobile from the highway and took the narrow cobbled Rue des Chateaux up a steep incline to a parking lot from which I could scamper to either castle. The late 13th Century Chateau de Tourbillon with its crenulated walls is now in ruins. On the other hill, the Chateau de Valère is a 12th or 13th Century fortified church and houses the world’s oldest playing organ (made in 1390). No, I didn’t play it like Inspector Clouseau’s mad boss, but I did feel rather peckish after that long walk up the hill.

In search of a good food and coffee experience, I drove down the windy cobbled lane that spilled out onto Rue du Grand-Pont, the wide tree-lined and cobbled main street of the old-town. There, across the street from the Hotel de Ville, with its 17th century clock tower, I found what I was looking for: La Croix Fédérale, a restaurant and brasserie with arcade windows in the Valais tradition.  Its sign looked as old as the medieval town itself and invited. As soon as I entered, I knew I had hit the jackpot. The place was filled with locals, lingering over wine and roesti, and discussing philosophy and politics. The smell of fondue permeated. Perfect, I thought. It was a cat’s paradise.

Patrons of Croix Federale get friendly with Toulouse
I sat down by the window and nodded to the two gentlemen lingering over a carafe of white wine. They nodded back. I ordered  Roesti d’Alpage and a Salade Bruschetta de Gambas  from the waitress. She gave me a strange look, like she’d never seen a talking French stuffed cat before; but to give her credit, she took my order. To accompany my Valais meal, I chose a local white wine from Sion; a 2010 Hurlevent Petite Arvine.  I found it light yet wonderfully expressive in subtle fruity notes. It was the perfect companion to my savory meal. 
Roesti is a simple farmer’s leftover dish. Essentially roesti consists of shredded potatoes cooked then baked with cheese and other things, representing a gourmet version of “hashbrowns”. This dish was lovingly baked with mushrooms, cheese, onions, ham and a fried egg on top. The subtle flavors had married wonderfully in the baking dish and I feasted happily with puffy cheeks. The salad was its own feast. Presented in a colorful arrangement of pickled beets, carrots, and greens accompanying the bruschetta and sweet shrimp, it ate itself.  Well, it’s just an expression; I did the eating, of course! Don’t forget that great walk I had!

Toulouse and his Roesti
Dalia, the manager, later joined me with drinks and we shared stories of travels, good food and animals. I showed her a picture of my whippet friend, Sparky in the USA, and she showed me her two dogs on her iPhone.

Contact Information: La Croix Federale, Pub, Bistro, Brasserie; Grand-Pont 13,1950 Sion, Valais, Suisse; telephone: 027 322 16 95
Toulouse with his cafe creme

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Trendy Italian Cuisine Zurich-Style: Cucina Ristorante

Zurich Altstadt 
We’d been strolling Zurich’s trendy Kreis 5 neighborhood, along Heinrich-Strasse (our destination was eventually the Abaton Movie Theatre), when my nose—and practiced eye—caught sight of Ristorante Cucina, situated on a quiet corner of Luisenstrasse and Heinrich-Strasse. We weren’t in a hurry and my tiny tummy decided to “purr” loudly. Nina smiled and nodded. Within a moment she was climbing the small staircase and opened the great wooden door. Cucina’s stylish Mediterranean interior of crimson walls and leather chairs invited us in and we found a table by the window facing Heinrich-Strasse.

Our waiter, Johir, who comes from Bangladesh and has lived in Zurich for eight years, took our order and served us bread and olives. We selected the Cami 2006 Amarone red wine dela Valpolicella, a robust full-bodied and aromatic wine that just fills your mouth with elegant pleasure and lingers with fine scents of dried fruit. 

The elegant roundness and sense of adventure of Amarone makes it one of Italy’s wine treasures and a great choice to go with a flavorful Italian meal. We’d first ordered a glass each, but after a sip, Nina looked at me and we both nodded: we needed a bottle.

The combination of dark and green olives with artichoke hearts and exquisite wine sent us both spinning into a sensual paradise.  According to Johi, the olives are olive oil-cured with fine herbs and presented with artichokes. The green olives were likely French provencal (imported from France); recognized for their excellent association with bread and cheese. The dark olives were likely the petite French niçoise olives that have a sweet nutty flavor, and are known for their delicious pairing with bread and wine (fancy that! Just what we had). They may also have been Italian ligura, gaeta, or lugano olives. Either way, they were exquisite and we had to order more of them too. 
Nina poured some Fiorucci aceto balsamico di Modena into a golden pool of extra virgin olive oil (Cubrol oro) and let the bread soak up the delectable mixture. As she gazed up in distracted euphoria I stole several more olives.

The award-winning restaurant (open since 1994) is best known for its brick-oven pizza, lovingly Cucina as the best pizza place in Zurich, and possibly all of Switzerland!
Toulouse gets a tour with Saritas
made to perfection by Herr Pizza Meister Saritas and his team of pizza makers. It’s no surprise that the Zurich Radio 24 cited

Saritas, who bakes with gusto and penache, invited me to oversee his team make their pizzas. Oval individual-sized pies are imaginatively created on a table by the oven then baked in the Cucina wood-burning stove and served on wooden cutting boards. 

The imaginative variety of pizzas is immense. The choice occupies at least two pages on their menu that includes antipasti, zuppe (soup), salatoni (salad), hausgemachte or pasta fatta in casa (house-made pasta), risotto, carne (meat dishes) and pesci (fish dishes). Their pizzas al forno a legno (from wood burning stove) include a delectable variety of over thirty choices (that I counted on the menu) such as the Genovese (tomato mozzarella, ricotta and pesto), the Carnivora (tomato mozzarella, herb butter and sliced veal) and the Vichinga (tomato mozzarella with salmon and rocket lettuce). 

Intriguing ingredient selections include truffle oil, reisencrevettenschwanze, capers, raw rindshuft, rucola, rocket and eggplant. 

Of course, being who we are, we didn’t order pizza. Instead, we both ordered something from their hausgemachte pasta. Nina ordered Tagliatelle (noodles) ai funghi porcini (noodles with mushrooms in a Weisenwein sauce—oohlala! It was fun and zesty with a lingering sweetness). I chose the Cannelloni alla fiorentina (Cannelloni filled with ricotta and spinach with mozzarella baked on top in a creamy rose sauce—“Perfeto!” or as they say in Switzerland, “Ausgezeichnet!”). This “comfort food” pinged all the sensual pleasure sites in my brain and sent my whiskers curling with the elegantly married tastes of cheese, spinach, pasta and sauce. We shared and congratulated one another on our “ausgezeichnet” choices. In both cases, the meals paired exquisitely with the wine and the olives.

We had no room for desert (having filled on second-helpings of antipasti). I was stuffed! (Ok... enough of the jokes, already!) But the ristorante serves some wonderful deserts according to the menu and I'll be back. 

Meals are advertized as going on average of 55 CHF when you count all the dishes and wine. Main dishes average 21.50 to 24.50 CHF.

Contact information:
Luisenstrase 40, 8005 Zürich
Telefon: 044 271 37 40
MO bis FR: 11h30-14h00 / 17h30-23h00
SA & SO: 11h30-23h00