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on the right tracks in switzerland
“Are you happy with your table?” the waiter asks as we sit down for dinner in the Ritz dining room. “It’s perfect,” we tell him. “Good,” he says, “Lady Thatcher was sitting in the very same seat for lunch today.” We are positioned in the top right hand corner of the room looking out on what has been called the finest dining room in London and if it is good enough for the Iron Lady it is certainly good enough for us.
We are at the beginning of our journey to Switzerland, looking forward to the drama of its surroundings and in particular Lake Geneva with its backdrop of snow capped mountains. Good holiday deals to Switzerland are not always easy to get but if you know where to look you are sure to find a good offer. Next to a visit of Geneva you can add to that a night in Lyon, France’s city of food, where else would you want to go?
We set aside four nights for our journey, making sure there are no silly early starts and that we have plenty of time between train changes, although in Switzerland you don’t need to worry about catching connecting trains even if they are only five minutes apart. These spacious almost silent electric trains run like clockwork. Of course, if you don't have the time for train travel, there are plenty of flights to all the major cities in Switzerland, including Zurich, Geneva and flights to Basel.
But let us return to our dinner at the Ritz. John Williams, the Executive Chef, has been at the helm of the Ritz kitchens for some years now. We like nothing better than catching up with him in his kitchen office, deep in the bowels of the Ritz where he holds court. It’s like descending into the engine room of a ship, throbbing and buzzing with activity. For years now I have been trying to time a visit to the Ritz to catch the season for black headed gull’s eggs (it only lasts a fortnight) and once again we miss it, for we are too early. The eggs are collected under special license from their nest sites and John makes a point of serving the eggs every year; they are delicious. Never mind; he promises to prepare a special, five-course dinner for us instead.
The Ritz waiters know exactly how to look after anyone who sits down at their tables and the head waiter begins by offering us a glass of silky, pink champagne which we drink with our first course, a jellied shellfish consommé. This is followed by langoustine, belly pork and pumpkin puree, roast quail with foie gras, a fillet of beef that cut like a slab of butter, a cheese course and then puddings of rum baba with apple cheesecake and a champagne sorbet, passion fruit mouse and coconut ice cream. In between all that we drank various glasses of wine which we allowed the sommelier to choose and deliver. No wonder we went to bed to sleep the sleep of the gods and wake the next morning eager for breakfast and our onward journey.
At the sensible hour of 10.30am our Eurostar train slides out of St Pancras and whisks us to Paris in little more than two hours. From Gare du Nord station we catch the Metro to Gare de Lyon where we climb the steps to the most amazing station buffet restaurant in the world, the famous Train Bleu. Not hungry enough for a full lunch we have some coffee and splash out on the restaurant’s famous rum baba while we wait for our super swish TGV train to Lausanne. This is a four hour journey so we play our usual trick to sustain us and ask our hotel for a picnic lunch, and in this case the Ritz provided us with delicate finger sandwiches of ham, cheese, chicken and smoked salmon, together with a salad, more ham, salami and cheese. Then, in a separate box, there is an array of little cream cakes, with some slices of fruitcake to round the whole thing off. It couldn’t be better and as we spread it all out we get admiring smiles and looks from our fellow passengers. “That’s what you get when you stay at the Ritz,” we tell them.
On a perfect spring day we have wound our way along the edge of the glassy blue waters of Lake Geneva not quite believing the sheer beauty of the snow capped mountains as they soar endlessly into the sky. Rafts of mallard and tufted ducks are diving in the clear water and little fishing boats are netting the tasty perch that the lake is famous for. Later we may be able to enjoy them filleted and cooked in batter.
Right now we are like happy train spotters, for we have travelled all the way from Scotland by train, with East Coast, Eurostar and then TGV from Paris to Switzerland - train heaven where trains run on time and are spotlessly clean. And as we head for platform eight a two-carriage rack and pinion is waiting to take us to Glion. It will climb up the mountain like a little clockwork toy, passing through tunnels that were cut out of the rock more than a hundred years ago and then out into the clear air with Montreux falling away below us.
Ten minutes later we alight at Glion’s charming station and walk up the hill a few metres to the Victoria Hotel. The air is fresh and invigorating and the sun so warm that we are drawn to the hotel gardens overlooking the lake and mountains like a pair of butterflies. A large magnolia tree is in full bud and waiting to burst into flower; roses are pruned and a line of old trees neatly pollarded. For 130 years visitors have been coming to this hotel to take the air and enjoy good food and it’s not difficult to understand why those early Victorian travellers found it all so exciting.
Dinner is served in the elegant surroundings of the formal dining room. And wandering around keeping an eye on it all is the owner Toni Mittermair, a walking example of that special breed of Swiss hotelier. Forty years ago he came here and decided to buy the place; he gave it a new lease of life and now keeps it on the straight and narrow with his eye for detail and old fashioned standards of cuisine and service.
For dinner we tuck into a delicious terrineof foie gras with melt in the mouth tiny brioches, followed by rib of veal and sole meuniere. To round it all off an antique, wooden trolley trundles towards us groaning with chocolate and fruit puddings, cream cakes and pastries. How nice to choose with our eyes and we greedily sample two or three!
Bright and early the next morning we go back down the mountain on the little train to Montreux where a big train whisks us back along the lake to Cully, close to Lausanne. We get off and walk down the hill to the lakeside marvelling at the crystal clear water. The only thing missing is the flotilla of eight paddle steamers that ply Lake Geneva in the summer. These Belle Epoque vessels, with a paddle on the port and starboard side, are at least a hundred years old. Every winter they are dry docked in Lausanne and lovingly looked after until May when they come back into service. It’s another way of getting from town to town on the trail of good food, for wherever there is a boat or train station you are never far away from an excellent restaurant.
Our inn for the next two nights is the Auberge du Raisin. We came here ten years ago and fell for it, along with its ebullient owner Adolfo Blokbergen. Sadly he is no longer with us but his chef Peter Hassler has taken over and runs it in the same welcoming manner.
The dining room is just as we remember it with a huge wood fire where they roast beef and lamb on chains hanging from the stone lintel of the fireplace. We order Chateaubriand for two and watch it sizzle in front of us. The maitre d’, Giacomo, keeps an eye on it basting and turning the meat until it is ready. He then carves it into succulent, pink pieces and brings it to the table for us to inspect. “Perfect,” we tell him. He recommends a Swiss wine to go with it and we eat and drink until we can barely keep our eyes open.
Our next stop is Geneva, pristine, some say clinical; say what you like, it is clean and safe. Every other shop sells watches and there are banks we haven’t heard of around every corner. It is also the cuisine capital of Switzerland, although you need a fat wallet to enjoy it. We hand over £5 for a delicious cheese sandwich, which we eat by the lake and the Jet d’Eau, the 140 metre high water spout that leaps into the sky. A better bet would have been to go for the plat du jour that most restaurants offer but we are saving ourselves.
That night we dine in the restaurant of our hotel, the Cigogne, and are once again treated to exemplary service and excellent food. The restaurant manager is a model of politeness and efficiency. We start with a spinach and split pea soup swimming with pieces of lobster, followed by grilled calf’s sweetbreads with a crayfish tart, and Rossini style beef fillet; a delicious guava and passion fruit pudding with coconut sorbet rounds it all off.
An old friend is staying here too, Natale Rusconi who steered the Cipriani in Venice for so many years and turned it into one of the great hotels of the world. If anyone should know a good hotel when he stays in it he should and he is full of praise, for it and the manager Philippe Vuillemin.
Domaine de Chateauvieux is an old farmhouse surrounded by vineyards just out of Geneva. This is where Philippe Chevrier has fulfilled a boyhood ambition to be a chef and moulded this hotel around his ideas of what makes the perfect country retreat. Old winepresses decorate the courtyard, a shop sells his own foodstuffs and his rooms are bristling with chestnut beams and Bang and Olufsen wizardry.
We opt for the special menu, a feast of several courses that includes Jerusalem artichoke mousse together with a lobster cream with cocoa and oxtail confit, an emulsion of mussels with grapefruit and saffron, Brittany lobster with lemongrass and peanuts, sea bass with winkles, veal with morrels followed by local and French cheeses, all accompanied by glasses of local red and white wine to complement each dish. Dessert is delicious wafer thin pineapple ravioli with passion fruit sorbet, coffee and petit fours.
Once again we go to bed replete and bowled over by how well we have eaten in this stunning corner of Switzerland and all within sight of a railway track! The only thing that escapes our taste buds is the perch but we are saving that for the next time.
Leaving Switzerland from Geneva by train after such a gastronomically satisfying few days could have been something of a let down but knowing that our destination was Lyon our spirits were high! Lyon is known as France’s second city and famous for its banking, printing and textiles, not to mention the Roman city of Lugdunum and the oldest Roman amphitheatre in France. But the French, thinking of their stomachs as usual, are more interested in the food that it serves up. And so are we!
Two hours later we arrive in Lyon which sits on the banks of two rivers the Rhone and the Saone and to get to our hotel, the Villa Florentine, we scoot by taxi, first across the Rhone and then over the Saone before climbing a steep hill where we are nicely greeted and welcomed by the hotel staff. We enjoy a refreshing glass of fruit juice while checking in and then sit in our room for a while admiring the panoramic views of the city. It would have been quite easy to nod off for an afternoon nap but this amazing place had other ideas. We are keen to explore the ancient streets below us before dinner so we descend what seems like a thousand steps and set off through the cobbled streets. You can never go hungry in these streets. Whatever your taste, whether it be simple or fine dining, the bistros and restaurants are waiting to serve you.
We had booked for dinner at our hotel but there was still time to sample one or two tasty morsels. This being the city of food, cafes, restaurants and bouchons serving typical Lyonnaise sausages, patés and roast pork, and boulangeries are everywhere. We stumble on an artisan bakery with its old wooden counters topped with white marble and we sample an almond-based pastry filled with fruit that is pure bliss. We are near the Cathedral St-Jean and along each side of the delightful rue St-Jean the tiny shops glow with an endless array of crafts and comestibles. We start to think that it would have been better not to have eaten in our hotel, for we pass yet more inviting bistros and mouth watering restaurants all ready and waiting to serve dinner. Reluctantly we climb back up the long flight of steps, puffing and panting back to our hotel. After a quick shower we come down to dinner and of course we needn’t have worried. It is another triumph but what else could we expect in this city where you can only dream of food?
Keith Allan and Lynne Gray travelled to Switzerland with East Coast Trains and Rail Europe.
East Coast, www.eastcoast.co.uk, Telesales, 08457 225
Rail Europe, www.raileurope.co.uk 08708 371371
Swiss Flexi Pass, entitles you to unlimited 1st class travel on railways, boats and most alpine post buses covering a network of over 16,000 kilometres and must be purchased in the UK prior to departure. Telephone 00800 100 200 30, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.MySwitzerland.com/rail
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel de la Cigogne
17, place Longemalle, CH-1204, Geneva,
0041 (0) 228184040 www.cigogne.ch
Route de Caux, CH-1823, Glion sur Montreux
0041 (0) 219628282, www.victoria-glion.ch
L’Auberge du Raisin
Cully, Place de l'Hôtel de Ville, CH-11096, Cully,
0041 (0) 217992131, www.aubergeduraisin.ch
Domaine de Châteauvieux
Path Chateauvieux, 16 Peney-Dessus, CH-1242 Satigny-Geneva
0041 (0) 227531511, www.chateauvieux.ch
25 Montée Saint-Barthélemy, 69005 Lyon, France
0044 (0) 72565656, www.villaflorentine.com
Husband and wife, Keith Allan and Lynne Gray are travel writers and photographers based in Berwick upon Tweed on the English/Scottish border. They have worked for The Times, Daily Telegraph, Financial Times, House and Garden, Scotland on Sunday and The Hrald. For more than twenty years they have worked as freelance producers and reporters for BBC Radio, working from their own independent studio for BBC Radio 4, Radio 5 and Radio Scotland as well as the BBC’s World Service.