Saturday, November 21, 2009

Chocolate and cheese and other sins Swiss

This is a piece which I wrote to sum up our Swiss trip. The idea was to debunk the nation that Switzerland is beautiful but unidimensional. And bring in a food lover's flavour to it of course. I conceptualised this as a magazine article or a chaper in a Travel book. So its not really short. The only mainstream media people to have published me so far are Mumbai Mirror. The only way this will fit in a newspaper will be if they delete every alternate line. Well here's the article, a long read I must warn you. Hope it sees the light of day someday.

“Switzerland’s like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’ll get next” with apologies to Mama Gump
The audacity of hope
I must confess that Switzerland wasn’t on the list of our dream destinations. Nor were we planning an international trip this year. It all began when I was invited to present a market research paper at a conference at Montreux, Switzerland. My wife decided to join me and soon we went into a holiday planning mode.
Our mail inboxes were clogged, phone lines were busy and the roads outside our house was jammed in the run up to the trip as friends and well wishers kept telling us that we were making the biggest mistake of our lives. The common refrain was that Switzerland was pretty but boring, the place for Yash Chopra besotted tourists, not for ‘people like us’, that there was no history or character. Most suggested that we should go to the conference and then branch out to the rest of Europe. The fact that we planned to spend a fortnight there, including the conference week, made many want to jump out of their windows in despair and disgust. Add to that Lonely Planet’s cheerful introduction which said that Switzerland was a place that even folks from Western Europe would find too expensive.
Despite the red flags we started our arduous journey via Dubai to Zurich with a prayer and a thermal suit.
Smoke on the water
Zurich airport was cold, antiseptic and efficient. We took the escalator down and went to the train station. We were guided to the appropriate terminal by a very kind and patient grandpa at the help desk. Lonely Planet was right, Switzerland had an ageing population and was a bit like a Parsi Baug. As we found out, the folks at the stations and the ticket collectors were extremely helpful, warm, spoke fairly good English and doubled up as tourist guides, country ambassadors and even babysitters at times.
We were armed with a ‘Super saver’ Railway pass on the behest of our enterprising travel agent. This opened all train doors, got us onto all buses, ferries and even got us discounts and free entries into museums. A railway pass is a must if you are going to Switzerland. If you are going on your honeymoon you can afford to leave your spouse behind but not the Super Saver Swiss railway pass.
My wife and I did our Dilwale Dulhaniya bit and jumped into a train with our suitcases and reached Montreux a train switch and four hours later.

Our hotel at the French speaking Montreux, Villa Toscane, was a restored villa with no staff except in the mornings. We drew the curtains open and looked out onto a most amazing view. A tranquil lake. The lake of Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the water’. A stately mountain. And a huge balcony and a terrace by our side. We were living the Princess Diaries.

We had to go the adjoining hotel lobby for breakfast which for me turned out to be a warm croissant, a pat of butter and more than a pat of Nutella chocolate spread. The salty burst of butter rushing to meet the noble, hazelnut chocolate spread, cocooned in a maternal bread is the stuff which makes heaven what it is. Add a good strong coffee, with a point of view, and you have just what was needed to start the day. Did I mention that every coffee that we had at Switzerland, be it at Starbucks, or at supermarket dispensers, or at elegant cafes or at hotel breakfast buffets, was a work of art matching up to the best treasures sleeping in Swiss bank vaults?

Yes we’ve all attended conferences at fancy hotels. But this one was special. It was at the Music Convention Centre, home to the International Jazz Festival, when we market researchers weren’t discussing statistics.

A bus ride of twenty minutes and you reached the Chillon Castle which looked like it was straight out of an illustrated Hans Anderson book. A castle which inspired Lord Byron to pen a poem and vandalise the dungeon walls by etching his name.

Montreux was also where we had the first Swiss national dish of Roesti, assorted meats served with fried, soft potato straws (roesti). This had my Parsi wife jumping in joy as she found it to be a cousin of her Sali per eendus and Sali per kheemas.

Montreux is where I realised that pizza needn’t be a melted goop of cheese and tomato puree on bread. We sat by the lake, close to aapro Freddy Mercury’s statue, and had a very elegant pizza with shards of Emmenthal, blobs of Mozarella, fresh rocquette leaves, cherry tomatoes and pepperoni … individual tastes which came together as one happy family on the crisp naan-like pizza crust.

There was a Lebanese, Mediterranean joint too which was an Asian god send for Indian tastes. Is this a good time to say that Montreux is where we tried a horse steak? In case you are wondering, it was a fairly tough cut of meat.

World Peace

Our next stop was Zermatt but not before we had our Eureka moment. We figured out that most cities were within an hour of each other by train and you can visit a city without basing yourself there. So we made two trips to Geneva from Montreux. During the first we saw the largest clock made with flowers and Le Jet d eau, a fountain on the lake which touched the sky. The picturesque stuff done, we came back for a reality check the next day.
We went to the Red Cross Museum. We walked through records of the worst of human atrocities and left, as my wife put it, happy for the lives we have.
We then went to the U N Building and sat in the conference halls where Indira Gandhi, Castro, Arafat and Bush had deliberated before us. Where the Security Council got together the morning India and Pakistan detonated the big N.
On the way back we said hello to Mahatma Gandhi. His was the only statue on the lawns outside the U N building. The cobwebs on his ears were a telling statement of the place of his philosophy of non-violence in today’s world.
The high point of Geneva for me though was the extremely cheesy quiche which we had at the supermarket at the station. Each bite made me grin like a Happy Cow. This was the quiche which spoilt me for all quiches after that.
She’ll be coming down the mountains
We finally hopped onto a train to the German speaking Zermatt. A town which is famous for the Matterhorn glacier. The mountain on Toblerone packs. ‘Climbing’ the peak meant three cable car rides. Just the way a lazy Bengali like me would have it. We finally touched snow when we reached the top. This was the perfect setting for a Hindi film song. The layers of thermals, woollen caps, gloves, sweaters, which seemed so incongruous when we bought them on a hot sunny afternoon at Linking Road, suddenly became life savers. We went into the café at the landing and had the best spaghetti Bolougnaise that I have ever had – loving and nourishing. I felt life return to me as I wrapped my palms around a warm cappuccino. We decided to stroll down on the way back and stumbled upon a village fair to sell sheep. This is where we discovered the secret Swiss treasure of Racalette; melted cheese, served with boiled potatoes and pickle a blockbuster star cast. We walked back to our hotel, Christiana, which, like every building in Zermatt, looked like Hansel and Gretel’s house with pretty pink and orange posies. The hotel where the concierge, Frank, welcomed us with a plaintive cry of ‘we missed you’ when we checked in.

Bern Identity
We made a couple of day trips to Berne which we fell in love with. I could tell you about the pebbled roads and the picturesque stone buildings of this Unesco heritage city. Of its clock tower. And its Church, Munster House, with its tower of 394 steps. I am proud to say that I am married to a lady who was one of the few to scale the all 394 of them. I could tell you about the charming market where people played chess with live sized coins on the road. Of the magnificent Parliament House. And of our visit to Einstein’s House. The house where the genius came up with the idea of the Theory of Relativity. Of the Wild Chasse (antelope) which I had at a meat shop cum restaurant and its tender, soft meat. But the one memory of Bern that I’ll cherish the most is the amazing smell of bakeries that welcome you the moment you got off at the Bern railway station. Coffee, cakes, quiches, pies, sandwiches, canapés, pretzels, steaks, cookies, Chinese (!) fried rice … definitely the tastiest railway station I have ever been to.
Irritating Interlaken
We made a stop at Interlaken which had so many fellow Indians that we felt that we were back home at Dadar station. A fairly boring, commercialised place. The base to the City Hotel Oberland, the worst hotel of the trip of otherwise lovely hotels. If I remember Interlaken at all it will be for the charming Restaurant Bebbe, its enthusiastic staff in black and white leopard print tights and exaggerated American accents from Hollywood of the fifties. The great racalettes, fondues, roast pork and roestis that they dished out. Topped with free ice cream on the last night.
Chocolate, cheese, heaven
Our next stop, Lucerne, was, as the cliché goes, heaven on earth. Just what the doctor ordered after Interlaken. Its medieval wooden bridge, the Kappelbruecke, which was burnt down and rebuilt was the stuff of poetry. Lake Lucerne was beautiful and rejuvenated you.
Another lovely hotel, The Waldstatterhof, Gothic outside, uber cool inside, with very friendly staff. The Picasso Museum with some very weird paintings and photos from the master’s last years. A quaint Saturday market, picturesque old town quarters. Dark chocolate with hazelnut slabs which we nibbled on at a Chocolaterie called Merkur, on our hotel receptionist Ricky’s advice.
Mc Flurry at Mc Donald’s … a shake with an M&M in every bite. And a cheese shop called Haas Barmetteler. Where the staff spoke English and from where I picked some lovely grainy Gruyere, Luc Noir, a cheese which reminded you of a salty old sailor, and slices of my new love, Racalette, to bring home to Mumbai. All are memories in my tummy now.

The last supper

Our last stop was Zurich. We arrived on a Sunday. All malls were shut. This was a big blow as we’d kept all our shopping for the end.
We got on a river cruise as we were at a loss for what to do. There was a sense of jubilation when we got down after what was the dreariest three hours of our lives for most who were on the boat.
But the magical night had just begun as we were looking for a good place to eat. We stumbled upon a Zurich Film Festival kiosk full of volunteers with ‘Free Polanski’ buttons. This is where we met Shivani, a second generation Swiss girl of Indian origin. She loved Zurich and was hurt to see that we were disappointed with the city. She enthusiastically pointed us to a lane called University Grasse. We walked through empty cobbled lanes with cathedrals lit up in a lovely yellow glow and the odd street musician giving us company. We eventually reached the street she had sent us to. It was dotted with little cafes, with tables on the pebbled roads, candlelights, and waiters calling out for customer a la Juhu Chowpatty… a setting which only Picasso could have conceived for our last night at Switzerland. We had the ethereal and creamy veal roesti with an unpronounceable name which Shivani enthusiastically recommended. And a Swiss treasure called Cordon Bleau … a cholesterol feast of crumb fried pork stuffed with ham stuffed with cheese. Which, might I add, before you get too excited, was dry and chewy.
Our shopping did happen the next day as my wife bought enough chocolate for Switizerland to topple over once we left. Lunch of a blue- blooded coffee in aristocratic sliver ware, ham quiche and smoked salmon canapés, mysterious and exotic dark chocolate pastries at the Sprungli café, of Lindt and Sprungli fame, and we were set to say auf weiderschen and au revoir to Switzerland.
As I sat on the plane I suddenly remembered all the warnings about getting bored out of my wits at Swizerland. Pity we never got the time to check that out.

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