Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Chocolate Train and Gruyere Castle

It began as a simple quest to find out how to find a castle which at one stage many generations back had been connected with my wife's family in Switzerland.

We knew it was near Gruyere but how could we find it?

Then, in one of those moments of serendipity, a chance look through the travel section of the Takapuna Library provided the answer that no travel agent had been able to give us.

The Rough Guide to Switzerland not only showed that there was indeed a castle at Gruyere, but the best way to get there was to take a special train which was known as The Chocolate Train.

This left from Montreux every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from June to October. As we were traveling from Milan to Paris by train we learned there was a stopover in Lausanne from which we could get a local train back to Montreux on the morning of our Chocolate Train excursion.

All was settled and the booking was made over the internet with friendly advice provided, upon inquiry, about the best times to catch the connecting train.

It turned out that the castle was but one aspect of the special train. Also included in the day's activities was a visit to the Gruyere Cheese Factory and the Cailler Nestle Chocolate Factory.

The train itself was a Pullman Express and its first-class carriages were furnished almost in 19th Century style with comfortable wide seats, singles on one side of the aisle and doubles on the other, with lush carpeting in dark shades.

Coffee and croissants were served during the rapid, winding ascent above Montreux and into the mountains. Rolling countryside with some vast winter shelters for livestock especially prominent and traditional Swiss alpine homes quickly set the scene for what was to follow.

Seventy minutes after setting out the train pulled into a siding just across the road from the Gruyere Cheese Factory. Passing through the inevitable souvenir shop, audio pieces with various language options were handed to each passenger and they were sent on their way with in-depth commentary of what happened in the cheese-making process. This proved much the same as used to be so common in dairy factories all around New Zealand, but which is little seen by the wider general public nowadays.

The ageing factor is a central part of the Gruyere process and the stored cheeses in their cool room make an impressive sight.

Once a complimentary taster pack has been received it is onto a bus to make the short trip high up to the village of Gruyere. A short walk to the top of the hill opens out an impressive, tidy (this is Switzerland after all where tidiness is a byword) village with cafes, galleries and souvenir shops lining the wide boulevard to the entrance of the Gruyere Castle.

Now in the hands of local Government, the castle has several rooms set aside in period setting but it also houses artworks of a more modern type with some especially impressive works in a tower of the castle.

The garden is another superb feature, especially when viewed from above and even on a dull day the brightness of the colours hits the eye.

Lunch offers a chance to sample the local delicacies back out in the village with the soups on offer a special treat on a cooler day.

Once sated, it is back to the bus and train for the last port of call, the Cailler-Nestle Chocolate factory. Visitors are put into respective language groups and given a quick history of the Cailler-Nestle company and then an explanation of the raw materials that go into making the product. An eye-catching audio-visual display proves especially outstanding, as does a museum of the changing technologies of chocolate making.

This part of the tour does prove to test the patience of some visitors whose desire to get to the tasting room is greater than their interest in the chocolate-making process.

A marvellous array of the different types of chocolate is laid out for testing but the mistake to avoid, harshly learned by those who couldn't get their quick enough, is that there is plenty of time, and plenty to sample, if taken at a gourmand's pace. That also proves important once through the tasting phase and into the wholesale room where chocolates of all varieties are well enough packed to withstand the pressures of on-going travel.

It is back onto the train and a return trip from earlier in the day, but also the chance to capture some memorable shots of the Gruyere Castle atop its hill in the distance.

And as one last treat just before the completion of the journey, Montreux appears out of a setting sun with Lake Geneva as its backdrop - the perfect end to a delightful day's exploration in Switzerland. All thanks to the Rough Guide to Switzerland.