Sunday, January 19, 2014

Castles, Cheese, and Chocolate in the Alps

This Sunday, January 19, 2014, I went with four other friends from my law school to a small town in Switzerland recommended to me by my coworker - Gruyéres.   Our train route from Geneva took us through Montreux to Montbovon on the Golden Pass panoramic train.
Unlike my first visit to Montreux, the lake and town was covered in a heavy blanket of fog that completely obscured Lake Geneva and the mountains behind it.  As the Golden Pass train climbed higher and higher above Montreux, we made our way through pitch black tunnels and through the mists that revealed the most amazing view we have yet been blessed with seeing in the mountains.  It was the most beautiful part of our train journey and we were able to see these mountains all the way until we arrived in Montbovon.
Around 11:00am, we arrived in Gruyéres.  The little Swiss town is nestled in the foothills of the Alps and is surrounded on all sides by impressive snow-capped mountains above and rolling green hills and fields below, speckled with little houses and villages.  Gruyéres is famous for a cheese from the region which bears its name.  Our train arrived in the small town at lunchtime so our first stop was the Maison du Gruyéres.  This is the cheese factory famous for producing the Gruyéres cheese.  There is a cute little restaurant connected to it on the first floor by the gift shop.  The restaurant was amazing, and we had some of the best food yet in Switzerland (amazing risotto and macaroni-and-cheese).
The second floor of the Maison has a small exhibit describing the cheese-making process from the cows grazing, production in the factory, to the process the cheese goes through in the cheese cellars over the next five or six months. You get an audio tourguide for the exhibit whose narrator is a cow named Cherry.  Your ticket for the exhibit is also a pack of three Gruyéres cheeses.  The cheese-making process itself was quite interesting and I never knew so much thought went into making cheese.  At certain times, you are supposed to be able to watch the factory portion of the process, but we did not see much aside from some cheese wheels sitting in a briny solution.  
As you stand at the train station (facing the information map) with the Maison to your right, there is a small winding pathway above the road on your let (at about the 10:00 position).  Take that pathway up the hill for about ten minutes and you will come across a castle.  
Yes, a castle.  
Specifically, the Chateau de Gruyéres.  The castle was originally constructed between 1270 and 1282 in the style of the Savoys (like the Chateau de Chillon in Montreux).  The House of Gruyéres owned the castle and twenty counts lived there between the 11th and 16th centuries.  The symbol is a crane (although I think it looks like a chicken), and "Gruyéres" comes from the French word for crane, "grue."
Seriously, that looks like a chicken...
Among some of the castle's most impressive features are the magnificent views of the mountains and valley; a giant fireplace that four people have to stretch out their arms to touch either end; a room painted by famous French painter Camille Corot (whose work I saw in the Kuntsmuseum in Basel); a Genevois paino made in 1835 for Franz Liszt; a scandalous room for counts Jean I, Jean II, and Michel connected to the room of "Beautiful Lucy" (Jean II's love) with a stainglass window featuring Pierre (Jean I's illegitimate son).  Walking along the castle ramparts was also fun.
View behind castle
Castle gardens
Knights' table
Kitchen leading into giant fireplace behind that wall
Room painted by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot
Room of counts Jean I, Jean II, and Michel
Room of Beautiful Lucy
Tapestry in the Castle
No shooting cannons inside
This is the piano for Franz Liszt.
This is what it might have sounded like in the castle:
There is also a beautiful town behind the castle walls on the hilltop that is worth a visit.  In its center, there is a fountain with mountain water.  If you are not expecting the temperature, it might be a shock, but the water feels like the mountain air - fresh, cool, and pure.  
In the small town, there is also a Tibet Museum which houses an impressive collection of Himalayan and Buddhist art.  Unfortunately, we were low on time and had a train to catch, so we missed seeing the museum.  If I get a chance to go back, I won't miss it again.  We did see a statue of a bow that looks like it is from The Hobbit or something though.
Lord of the Rings black arrow?
view of the town below
After running back down the path we took to the castle, we made it to the train station in time to hop a train to Broc-Fabrique (with a transfer along the way) to get to the famous Cailler Chocolate Factory (Maison Cailler).
The chocolate factory tour was a lot of fun.  The way it started off, I half expected an Oompa Loompa from Willy Wonka's factory to hop out at us.
(not an oompa loompa)
The tour tells you all about the history of chocolate and how it made its way to Europe and how Cailler pioneered the Swiss method of chocolate making by adding milk.  In 1929, when the Great Depression hit, Cailler was able to stay in business thanks to a merger with Nestle, which already held a 40 percent stake in the company.  Luckily, both survived.  
What kind of question is this?  The answer is ALWAYS.
At the end of the tour, Cailler shows you part of its chocolate production and lets you sample all of the different kinds of chocolates that it currently sells.  That was our favorite part of the tour (obviously).  My coworker had suggested bringing a bag to take some along, and even though the Swiss employee scolded two of the people in our group, the rest of us were able to take some tasty souvenirs away as well.  It didn't matter all that much though because we all stopped by the gift shop anyway - purchasing Cailler's from the factory store is actually the same price or cheaper than buying it in the stores.
This little girl knows what she wants.
My favorite kind
On our way back on the train to head back to Gruyéres then back to Geneva, we were able to see the castle lit up at night in the mountains.  It was absolutely gorgeous and a beautiful way to remember our trip to the tiny town of Gruyéres.
(picture from Google Image search - train moving too fast between trees for me to grab a decent shot, but this is exactly what we saw)

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Daytrip to Basel

Helvetia with a Seagull on her head
On Saturday, January 18, 2014, I woke up early in the morning and hopped the train to Basel.  Basel is a city divided into two parts by the Rhine River as it cuts its way through Europe and sits right on the Swiss border with Germany.  The German part of Switzerland is very different from the Francophone part (and I'm sure the Italian and Romansch parts that I have yet to visit).  I've been in Geneva long enough to get used to hearing French that I don't understand in the background, and now on this trip, the background sounds completely changed and it took a bit to get used to hearing Swiss German filling the space.  Swiss German is cute though, much more sing-songy than German-German (or "High German" as they call it) with different vocabulary.

Most of the train ride was uneventful, although it did start with me getting rather unceremoniously booted out of first class.  It must have been an older train because when I hopped on, it looked exactly like the second class section of the Swiss trains I previously rode.  When the SBB ticket man came to check the tickets, he examined mine and asked me some questions in French and Swiss German.  I assumed he was asking to see ID or my half-pass for the Swiss rails, so I coolly flashed both cards.  He then told me in English that this was first class and I couldn't sit there.  I said, "oh, okay," but he he stood there blocking me from stepping into the aisle until I had packed up all my stuff and turned left to walk down to the much older second class seating.  This is the Hollywood reenactment of that scene:

Once I got to Basel, the tourist office people in the train station were very helpful and gave me maps of the city and the public transportation trams and buses.  It was still too early for some things to be open, but I made my way over to the Kunstmuseum ("art museum," in German) and started walking through the Altstadt ("old town," in German).  The old town in Basel was beautiful, and the Munsterplatz (plaza in front of the cathedral) was empty so early on a Saturday morning.  I walked along the old streets, past a Basalisk fountain, and through winding streets with houses dating back to the 1300s.
Basalisk fountain (I thought the Basalisk would be bigger)
Basel Gargoyle
Stairway down to the River and Bakery
Shops along the Rhine in Basel
When I got to the river, I walked through some shops to a bakery to grab something for breakfast.  I ate the pastry by the Rhine River, and then walked back up this stairway between old houses to get back to the Munsterplatz to enter the cathedral.  The outside of the cathedral is bright red, and the inside was gorgeous as well.
From the cathedral, I made my way back through the old town to cross the Mittlere Rheinbrucke ("middle bridge over the Rhine").  The bridge itself is lined with flags of all the different cities and cantons in the area.
On the opposite side of the bridge, there is a statue of Helvetia, the Greek symbol of Switzerland.  The "CH" in all official Swiss things stands for "Confederation of Helvetia," the original Greek name for Switzerland that it still bears to this day.  Helvetia is also on the back of the 5 CHF coin.  On the bridge, she sits with her spear and suitcase, overlooking the town along the Rhine.
After wandering around some more, I hopped back on a bus to take me outside of the city over to some Roman Ruins.  My walk took me around the city again, including passing by the bright red town hall building, another church, and the Tinguely Fountain.
GREAT DANES!!!!!!!!!
Here's the other church:

And behind that, the modern art Tinguely Fountain.  The fountain was built in 1977 on the location where the old city's theatre stage used to be.  The new theatre is right next to the fountain.  The fountain also has moving pieces in it, so it's fun to just sit next to it, in the shade or sun, and listen to the water move through the different parts of the fountain.

The bus stop was right next to the Hammering Man statue.  Apparently there are giant Hammering Man statues in different cities in the world, but one of them is in Basel.
When I got to the end of the line and the stop necessary for the Roman Ruins, I realized that from the stop, I still had about another half hour of walking to do.  I wasn't really feeling up for spending that time walking when there was more to see in the city, so I hopped back on the next bus available to go back to the city center.  Since I had some time left before needing to go back to the train station to return to Geneva, I decided to visit the Kunstmuseum.  The Museum is one of the oldest public art collections in Europe.
No pictures were allowed inside the museum, but I wrote down the names of the artists and paintings that I liked the most.  There was quite a variety in the collection, from more classical and traditional pieces to modern and contemporary art.  The museum itself was quite large and a beautiful building in its own right.  I wrote down the names of the artists and paintings that I liked the most from the various exhibits, but the list is quite long (and this is the narrowed-down version).  The museum also had paintings by several artists who painted landscapes of Switzerland, such as Ferdinand Hodler, for whom a street is named in Geneva.

Claude Monet:
Rock Needle and the Porte d'Aval
Bed of Chrysanthemums
The Sea at Antibes
Snow-Covered Boulevard de Pontoise in Argenteuil
Windless Fécamp
Vincent Van Gogh:
Daubigny's Garden
Self Portrait with Japanese Stamp

Caspar Wolf:
Bear Hunt
Stag Hunt
Gelten Falls in the Summer
Lauteraar Glacier
Paul Gauguin:
La Matete (The Market)
Eduardo Manet:
Amazon in Profile
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot:
Italian Villa Among the Pines
Ferdinand Hodler:
Mount Niesen
The Bold Woman
Meadow Piece
Lake Thun
Jungfrau Region
Alexandre Calame:
By Lake Uri
Entry to the Urbach Valley
Johann Jakob Frey:
Caravan Surprised by the Samum in front of the Sphinx
Landscape near Granada
Joseph Anton Koch:
Macbeth and the Witches
Michael Wutky:
Eruption of Mount Vesuvius
Henri Rousseau:
Jungle with Setting Sun
Juan Gris:
The Violin.  Reminds me of a Guayasamin painting.
Glass and Newspaper
The Red Guitar
Pablo Picasso:
The Aficionado
Franz Marc:
Animal Fates
Bison in Winter (the Red Bison)
Oskar Kokoschka:
Wind's Bride (The Tempest)

Basel was quite a fun day trip and tomorrow, it's time to get ready for Gruyeres!

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