Category Archives: Switzerland

food France Switzerland

Raclette and Fondue in the Alps

When Eric and I visited the French and Swiss Alps a few weeks ago, a friend told us to try the Raclette and Fondue in both countries because of the regional differences in preparation. This was good advice for the Fondue, but I didn’t notice much difference when it came to the Raclette.

Raclette is a dish where a hunk of cheese is melted by a heat source and then the melted part is scraped onto boiled potatoes and dried meats, accompanied by pickled pearl onions and gherkins. For the best experience, you have to eat fast once you scrape the cheese onto your plate, because the cheese hardens again after a minute or two.

Raclette is a fun meal to share with others, and the cheese is tasty. It is a simple meal in terms of ingredients, but it does require special equipment to melt the cheese. I wonder if it is not better in a home setting though. Since we only had it at restaurants during our trip, our vegetable selection was limited to the potatoes, pickled onions, and gherkins. You could easily have a more interesting spread of vegetables at home.

When we had Raclette in France, we were served half a wheel of cheese. Needless to say we did not come close to finishing it. In Switzerland, however, we were only served a block, probably around half a kilogram or one pound of cheese, which we finished. The amount and the style of heating device were the only real differences we noticed between France and Switzerland.

Raclette in Annecy, France    Fondue in Chamonix, France

The Fondue was delectable in both France and Switzerland, but there were some differences. Since there is a variety of regional cheeses in this part of the world, the cheese used in the Fondue naturally changes from place to place. In France we had Fondue savoyarde with Comté and Beaufort. In Switzerland we had “moitié-moitié,” or half Gruyère and half Vacherin Fribourgeois. The Swiss one tasted the closest to what I expect traditional Fondue to taste like, but they were both deliciously cheesy. I think the French one had more white wine in it, or perhaps omitted the classic Kirschwasser in the recipe.

As with the Raclette, I think you could have more interesting Fondue dinners at home by picking out your own veggies and sides. In the restaurants our choices were limited to bread and potatoes. To me, this got a little boring before the meal was half-way finished. Overall it was still an experience to eat Fondue in the Alps, and it would be interesting to try even more cheese combinations in the future.

For now we are back to eating cheese the normal way — on a baguette — but another Alpine cheese specialty we may try this winter is a baked hot box of Mont d’Or (Mont d’Or au four ou boîte chaude)! I’ll report back on how that is another day.

France Switzerland

Travels in the French Alps and Swiss Alps

Over the winter holiday, Eric and I took a week-and-a-half long trip to the Alps. First we visited the French Alps in the towns of Annecy and Chamonix. Then we toured the Swiss Alps around Lac Léman (Lake Geneva). All the areas we visited were breathtakingly beautiful.

French Alps

The French town of Annecy is a lovely lake town. We toured Lac d’Annecy on one of the tour boats and there were many great views around the lake, including several other towns and villages and four chateaus. We also toured the Palais de l’Ile and Château d’Annecy. The Palais offered a historical perspective on the region, while the interior of the Château was more focused on artistic installations. Since we visited the town a few days before Christmas, the Christmas market was in full swing near the Church of St. Francis. There were many free samples and a wide array of products on offer, though I would say it was one of the more commercial Christmas markets I’ve been to in that many products were not regional and most vendors sold goods intended to be gifts or consumed at home, as opposed to food and beverages intended to be consumed on location. Finally, Annecy also had a ton of gourmet food shops. I imagine you could have a fantastic picnic along the lake in the warmer months with food sourced from the fromageries, charcuteries, patissieres and boulangeries. We settled for buying some fancy caramels to eat in our hotel room as it was too cold for a picnic. Also, if you are in town on a market day you’ll find even more tasty morsels on the streets and alleys – the market was impressive for a town of that size.

Tiffany in the Alps, near Chamonix

We next drove to Chamonix, a French town known for its views of Mont Blanc and skiing. Chamonix is a very touristic town given its popularity as a ski resort. We stayed there over Christmas, and were pleased to find that many shops and restaurants in town were open even on Christmas Day. Thus, the potential nightmare we faced by running out of toothpaste on the morning of Christmas Day was easily averted. We didn’t ski while we were there because we decided it would be too expensive since we would have to rent and/or buy all the gear – one downside of moving to Europe with nothing but two suitcases. The conditions were pretty poor for skiing anyway – there wasn’t much snow and about half of the trails were closed. We even heard they were making snow on one mountain, something Eric was affronted by given that we were in the Alps! The weather was also poor for viewing Mont Blanc from the Aiguille du Midi, so sadly we did not get to go to that observation point. We did take the Brévent cable car to get a view of Mont Blanc across the valley. The views were nice, but the hot chocolate we had at the top at “Le Panoramique” café was terrible.

The day after Christmas Chamonix and the surrounding area were hit by a snow storm. We finally got the snow Eric had been hoping for on this trip, but we also had to drive through it on our way to Montreux, Switzerland. The drive was quite an experience as we got to try out snow chains for the first time. Even with them we nearly wrecked the car twice on a particularly treacherous village road just over the border in Switzerland. Due to the snow it took us most of the day to get from Chamonix to Montreux, with a few stops for food and sightseeing; the GPS had estimated a mere 45 minutes.

Swiss Alps

We next made Montreux our base for four days while we explored the Swiss Alps. Montreux itself was mostly just OK. The old area of town, Vieille-Ville, was quite nice to walk around and take in views of the lake. The promenade along the lakeshore was also a pleasant place to walk. The main attraction, Château de Chillon, is about two kilometers outside of town, and accessible from the promenade. We toured Chillon and learned a great deal about the local history. The tour was quite extensive, and we felt rushed to get through it all before closing time even though we probably spent 3 hours there in total. The views of Chillon from along the lakeshore are particularly nice.

While staying in Montreux we also visited the Gruyère district. We visited La Maison du Gruyére, a operational cheese-making museum. The cheese-making process was interesting to see, and we got to sample three different ages of Gruyère cheese. We also visited the old town of Gruyères and the château there. The Château de Gruyères was another lovely place to visit. The interiors of this château are a bit more current than the others we visited on this trip, as it was lived in until the 1930s. Thus, the feel of the place is more Victorian than medieval. As the château sits atop a hill, there are some fantastic views of the countryside. We also visited the Cailler chocolate factory in nearby Broc. This was a fun place to visit, but be warned that when we went, there were masses of visitors and tour groups. We had to wait about 2 hours for our tour to begin, so we had to entertain ourselves in the gift shop and movie theater beforehand. At the end of the tour you get to sample as many chocolates as you can stand to stuff your face with, so don’t pig out on purchased chocolate before the tour like we did. (If Eric goes back, he’s bringing a water bottle of milk.)

Vevey is just north of Montreux and has a very nice old town and the best photography museum Eric and I have ever been to. You could spend a whole day in this museum because the audio guide has several minutes of audio (in English, among other languages) for almost every single display case, and there are five levels to the museum!

Further north along the lake is Saint-Saphorin. This place is a spectacular little village amid the Lavaux vineyards. It is all old stone houses and cobbled roads, and there are footpaths that take you up into the vineyards. It is an incredibly tranquil place.

We spent the New Year in Lausanne on the final leg of our journey. For New Year’s Eve the tradition is to light up the cathedral at midnight. Eric and I went to see this, and it was OK. We looked at it for about ten minutes and then left. Lausanne itself was just mediocre as a destination — there are some nice shops and churches to visit, but not too much more to recommend it.

When we headed back to France, we found several more cute towns along the shores of Lake Geneva. Morges, Saint-Prex and Nyon are all worth a visit. Morges has a pleasant old town and harbor area. Saint-Prex is a small, peaceful town, and if you can find your way up to the church, the view is worth it. Nyon has a nice château with exhibitions covering the town’s history as a center of porcelain production and the history of the château as the municipal prison.

Switzerland was mostly a good place to visit, but at times it was breathtakingly frustrating and expensive. As for the frustrating bits, they were mainly due to either the universally poor standard of customer service in Switzerland (for example see Eric’s post on Hôtel Bon-Port) or due to the timing of our visit. As we found out, visiting Switzerland just after Christmas and into the first few days of the New Year is not an ideal time – many restaurants, especially in the small towns and villages, close up for several weeks to take their own vacations. Of those that don’t close for several-week vacations, many of the remaining close up on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. So, just watch out for that if you take a trip there yourself around the winter holidays. Also, parking seems to be terrible in all major Swiss cities. There is virtually no overnight parking, and if there is it tends to be very expensive. The high cost of visiting Switzerland was inevitable, but even though our hotels and meals cost more than we would have liked, we found that most of the attractions were relatively inexpensive. The hotels of Montreux and Lausanne actually offer special cards that get you free public transportation within the region, and the one for Montreux gives special discounts at many of the nearby attractions.

car Switzerland

Hôtel Bon-Port in Montreux, Switzerland, molests cars!

On my winter vacation (2 weeks mandatory time off!), we went to the Alps, staying in a few different cities in France and Switzerland. I’ll post more later on some of the things we saw during our trip, but here I wanted to rant a bit about a terrible experience we had at Montreux’s Hôtel Bon-Port.

Minor stuff

We stayed at the Hôtel Bon-Port for four nights, taking day trips around the area. The hotel was relatively cheap and it seemed to be in a decent location. There were some minor issues that I’ll describe first and then a major problem with poor management and customer service that I’ll get to below. The room was mediocre and small. The safe in our room never did work, even though the manager said he was going to fix it. There was no free WiFi. For some reason they made the circa-2000 decision to instead provide a PC for guests by the lobby, and charge 5CHF per half-hour for WiFi in the room. Trust me when I say that providing a computer will never be as cheap for a hotel as just providing free WiFi and it will also mean a significantly worse experience for guests. Most people who need internet have their own devices, so it just doesn’t make sense to do it this way. I used their computer a couple times and it was laggy because of all the software on there. Notably, somebody had installed some sort of internationalization app for one of the Asian languages that I believe was causing problems. Also, even before getting to the stuff below, I knew the manager didn’t really understand hospitality after I heard him yell at some guests for ringing the bell at the desk more than once.

Major stuff

Now to the real issue that brings Hôtel Bon-Port down from a mediocre three stars to a pitiful zero stars: Parking in Switzerland is terrible. I’ll try to post on this in more detail, but basically Swiss cities don’t seem to want visitors because they provide basically no overnight parking spots. This hotel offers underground parking for 15 CHF per night. This seemed like a decent deal considering that there were no other options closer than a 10 minute bus ride. Plus the car would be indoors. We had just paid a bunch of money to get it detailed (washed, waxed, etc.) right before our trip, so it was fairly clean. We thought if we kept it in the garage it could stay that way and be safe from damage.

On our last night we came in late after driving in a bit of snow coming down the mountain. When we got back, only one spot was available, plus another easier spot that said “no parking” but which we knew from previous nights people were sometimes allowed to use. To make my life easier, we chose the no parking spot and gave the keys to the manager in case he needed to move it, as we had also done previously.

Our car after a night at Hôtel Bon-Port our car next to a concrete wall at Hôtel Bon-Port

The next morning, we came down and found the car moved (which was fine) to the other parking spot. We noticed right away that it was a terrible parking job. He had parked it next to a concrete wall such that we had to put it in neutral and push it out before I could get in. If he had pulled it forward just a few more centimeters, it would have been no problem. Before attempting to move it though, we noticed a large white streak across the side of the car. The streak was about one meter long and we really didn’t know what had happened. We immediately informed the employee at the desk and she called the manager. I spoke to him for about 20 seconds before he actually yelled at me and accused me of accusing him of things. I told him very clearly that I wasn’t accusing him of anything, but that I was paying him 15 CHF for parking and I want to know why my car has a big streak on the side. We had no idea at that point what exactly had happened and we were mostly trying to ensure that the paint hadn’t been damaged. It was dark down in the garage and we had not yet pulled it out.

After we got it out of the garage and into the light, we pieced together what had happened. After his awful parking job, he exited the car through the driver’s door and squeezed himself (he’s a big guy) between the car and the wall. He must have rubbed himself all over the car when doing this, rubbing whatever salt residue and dirt there was into the paint. We didn’t find any scratches that we could positively link to this, but any time you do such things it is bad for the paint/wax in the long term. The girl working at the desk agreed that this is probably what happened and she told us that he would email us later in the day. Now it is 5 days later and he didn’t contact us. We see that he billed us the full amount for parking that night, even though our car looked terrible until we got back home and gave it a wash.

Stay away from Hôtel Bon-Port!

Note that I have no general problem with giving my keys to somebody. I used to be a valet at a resort in Scottsdale, so I have parked a lot of very expensive cars (Porsche, Rolls Royce, etc). I took pride in it and I took good care of the cars I drove. So I am fine with somebody else moving my car, but that comes with responsibility. There is no excuse for rubbing oneself all over a customer’s paint job. There is also no excuse for the manager of a hotel to be mad when he is asked to talk to upset customers. The correct move would have been to not charge us for the final night of parking, but this manager was not a big enough man to swallow his pride and admit that he may have accidentally caused this issue. He needs to realize that Hôtel Bon-Port is not a panini joint.

Please don’t stay at Hôtel Bon-Port. I’m sure many people have no problems there, but the moment you do have a problem, the manager yells at you instead of solving it.