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Smoke on the Water: Cigars, Hollywood, Rock Legends and Trains in the Playground of Europe

The shore on Lake Geneva in Montreux

Zermatt, Switzerland – By the time the gondola reached 9,000 feet, we were in the middle of a whiteout. It was pure static outside our sizable tin can, which rolled back and forth, whipped by the 45 mph winds, enveloped in a gray blur of snowflakes. The gondola, with a capacity of roughly 30 people, had no heat and a handful of passengers. Toes and fingers were icy despite multiple layers of gloves and socks.

The trek up the side of an Alps mountain was a high point of a Swiss Alps visit, which took in the city of Geneva followed by a week based in the village of Montreux, using the country’s excellent train system to visit other towns including Bern and Lucerne.

While the country of eight million is a quarter the size of Florida, its attributes include four languages – Italian, French, German, and English – that vary in frequency and fluency depending on the region and a setting that never lets you forget that a great piney wilderness is never far.

The south is Alps territory, the north is the Jura Mountains, and in between are rolling plains and relatively shallow lakes – Lake Geneva comes in at around 1,000 feet deep, a piker compared to Crater Lake in Oregon, which is a scary 2,000 feet deep.

Hotel President Wilson Geneva

The country is widely known, sometimes disparaged, for its politically neutral stance in world affairs. But it also has mandatory military service. It is among the more civilized destinations – we saw one cop, a train patroller searching for passengers who didn’t pay their fare – and while it has some sketch, the country’s residents enjoy a relatively crime-free life.

The trek originated in the way some great journeys begin: With a cigar, a glass of wine and a self-imposed challenge: “How hard can it be to see this?”

It was a March evening, the cigar was a Drew Estate Undercrown, the wine was a smooth red, and the thought came from looking at the gatefold photos in Machine Head, the 1972 album by Deep Purple. The small black and white pics showed the fleecy band members with gear set up in hotel corridors, a burning building, and a United Nations “dove” logo.

But it was the song that put Purple on the map, “Smoke on the Water,” that sealed the deal. The lyrics describe a casino fire, name drop Montreux on “the Lake Geneva shoreline,” and speak of recording the album in Montreux’s Grand Hotel. The original plan was to record using the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio, a portable recording trailer, at the casino. But the casino was leveled by a fire during an afternoon performance by Frank Zappa the day before Purple were to begin the sessions. “We ended up at the Grand Hotel/It was empty, cold and bare,” the song goes.

The Grand Hotel, about two miles to the north, became the studio the band would use, parking the recording trailer in an alley behind the hotel. This needed to be seen and understood.

Cigars, Cuisine, and the United Nations

Davidoff of Geneva Flagship store in Geneva

We landed in Geneva in the morning, with an immigration check that consisted of one bored officer who never once looked up. We stayed at the Hotel President Wilson, a rightful five-star property on the main avenue that traverses Lake Geneva. The city features a wide path that has a horseshoe around the lake, with booths for bike rentals, boat rides, souvenirs and food. It’s a scene for sure, with more locals than tourists on the first weekend of November. It’s the calendar’s sweet spot for travelers who prefer small crowds; the summer is done, and the ski season is a couple of weeks away.

Geneva is home to the primary international office of the United Nations, as Deep Purple noticed, and it’s open to visitors. While the U.N. has been a benign and costly venture, it’s a mandatory stop for the politically curious and we’re glad we took the time.

The U.N. began at the urging of President Woodrow Wilson, who led the charge to establish first the League of Nations, headquartered in Geneva, following WWI. His idealistic embrace of pacifism was internationally influential and from the League of Nations came the United Nations after WWII.

Wilson is still revered in Switzerland; our hotel is named for him and sits on Quai Wilson, a main avenue named for the 28th U.S. president that traverses much of the lakefront. His Switzerland legacy of the U.N. is a worthwhile visit, regardless of how peaceful your politics.

The visit involves some predictable bureaucracy, and includes an advance reservation, a modest admission fee, a QR code and a passport number sent ahead of time.

Restaurant La Grappe d’Or

Groups come in at around 20 people and are broken into smaller packs of five, each with a guide, also accounting for language. There are plenty of English speakers among European visitors and that was the main dialect.

The building is a linoleum/tile tribute to institutions everywhere, but the drabness fades away in the quarters of the representatives, and their spacious meeting rooms. These are lushly carpeted, wood-paneled rooms that resemble courtrooms and are designed for the best sound.

A group that includes 193 member countries has some translation needs, and this is handled via automatic transcription software that beams through headphones, allowing each member to hear the conversation in his or her native language. The library presented a deep dive into the history of the U.N. in Geneva and included letters and transcribed speeches. History geeks take note – the tour is guided and allows limited time on any one place in the U.N., so you’ll have to check into the ephemera quickly as the guide chatters.

The highlight of the tour was the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room, a 16,000-square-foot room that featured an ornately painted domed ceiling that appeared to drip stalactites in blue, red and yellow, mixed into a background of greens, grays, and blacks. Some of the stalactites were over a foot long. The ceiling was created by Miquel Barceló, a contemporary Spanish artist who used a reported 100 tons of paint to complete the work, which was unveiled in 2008.

The disappointment was the closed cafeteria. We’d already imagined this vast menu of international foods, but it was closed as part of a renovation that we expect will take forever to achieve. Much like world peace.

The Palais des Nations, the main building of the United Nations Office in Geneva
Photo: Vassil/ Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain

We walked back to the hotel in a pouring rain that allowed us to duck into little places for shelter that made it a rewarding soak. The small tailor shop, the bodega with a tiny humidor, and finally, La Grappe d’Or (The Golden Cluster, as relating to grapes – it took a second), a hole in the wall restaurant that served a perfect niçoise salad to go a with a heaping cheese fondue.

Eating at the plentiful luxe restaurants can be pricey and time-consuming, and we learned from talking to some locals that there are easy in-out places that have fresh food. Our best find was at the top of Manor, the country’s major league department store chain. The multi-storied outposts start with a grocery on the ground floor that equals Whole Foods, filled with Swiss and French wines, fresh fish, meats and produce.

The restaurant is based on stations and an abundance of prepared foods, including salads, juices, soups, a hot bar and beer and wine. Custom prepared pizza is also available, and everything is priced at least 10% lower than any restaurant. Take the food and sit outside on the welcoming, spacious patio. It was a find that we used a few times during the trip, as Manor is ubiquitous. Not far from Manor is a stretch of luxury. It’s where Davidoff of Geneva has been based since 1911, when Henri Davidoff opened his store about a four-minute walk from its current corner location at Rue de Rive 2, where it sits among a very Swiss chocolatier, a Rolex store and a perfumery.

Lake Geneva from the Grand Hotel Swiss Majestic in Montreux

Entering the store is like walking into a library; hushed, reverential and soothing. The humidor is predictably filled with the best of Davidoff, but also features a selection of other brands, the lighting perfect, the hanging tobacco plants a nice touch. They’re set off by a prodigious display of fine single malts and other brown spirits along with the best in luxury accessories. The interaction with the perfectly coiffed clerks is simple; you get what you want, you pay, you leave. It’s not a social occasion but walking around the store is reward enough.

El Septimo is another story; its tiny second floor store is welcoming and cozy, with a space to smoke overlooking the busy street below. The décor is modern and simple, like a cultured trust fund kid’s Manhattan digs.

Our hotel also offered a humidor – common in Switzerland – although the country has also fallen to the no-smoking mania that began in the U.S. As a result, while the hotel was fine, with rooms featuring nine-foot-tall windows viewing Lake Geneva, the smoking “room” was a cramped stool with a table and an ashtray off to the side of the building. No view, little light, good luck. We didn’t use it.

Charlie Chaplin, Vino and Machine Head

Passenger train through the Jungfrau mountains just east of Montreux

A trek to Montreux provided the chance to use the heralded Swiss train system, where, yes, the trains always run on time. Eerily so, and don’t be late.

First move is to get the Swiss travel pass, as trains are deceptively pricey. And you should ride the trains frequently and without reserve, as they are top notch, featuring comfort, convenience and wine. Don’t forget the wine; we rode from Bern to Montreux with a carafe of a local red that magnified the countryside as the sun set. We watched from a seat in the lounge in the second level of the double-decker train car – magical.

Also: Trains are BYOB – yes, we have that in the U.S., but it is sanctioned in Switzerland.

You can get tickets for any journey in the country online, from the app, at a machine in the stations or from the staffed counter. We did a mix of machine and counter, as some of our trips were tricky and we didn’t want to cut connections too close – the only people chasing trains in these stations are Americans and Italians. Another thing to remember though is that you can buy a ticket for a 5 p.m. departure and if you miss it, the ticket still works for the 6 p.m. So, if you have no schedule, things are good.

Montreux was the smart bet for a place to base. We checked into the Grand Hotel Suisse Majestic – no relation to the makeshift Deep Purple recording locale – which was a 200-foot walk across the street from the station.

It’s a perfect location, walkable to anything in the immediate area including restaurants, shops and venues. Most sufficient were traditional European breakfasts with crusty bread, olive oil, cheese and smoked salmon chased with strong French coffee and mineral water.

The hotel bar has a full cigar room, with a humidor containing all the hits and plenty of space with cushy chairs.

The village is best known for the annual Montreux Jazz Festival, held since 1967. The town is filled with reminders and memories of the event, which has featured some of the biggest names in rock, jazz and pop, from the brilliant (Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, Rory Gallagher) to the bland (your decision).

 Souvenir shops push anything branded with the festival, while signs in November are already priming visitors to return in July for the event.

Right after assigning our room – looking at, yes, Lake Geneva – the hotel clerk handed over two passes for the local bus, which allows free rides on the transit that spans the town’s 13 square miles. The pass was a valuable ticket to anywhere and included discounts for museums and other attractions.

We spent the first night enjoying more Swiss pinot noir, which accounts for around 30% of the grape production in the country. It’s rare to find a Swiss red in the U.S., and it was a treat despite its shared traits with the finer French pinots. Sometimes just being near the fields gives it a psychologically enhanced flavor. The Montreux Casino is the town square, set one block off the main drag with a back deck opening onto a lake view. The two stories feature a ground floor gaming area and a second-floor restaurant. The building’s main auditorium fits 1,000 people and is used as a venue during the jazz festival. When it burned in December 1971, it left a gap-toothed smile in the town’s waterfront for four years while it was rebuilt.

Illustration: Florin Safner

While the casino was walkable from the hotel, we flexed the bus pass for the ride to the Grand Hotel, carefully figuring out how to track down a defunct lodge that was once considered one of Montreux’s finest. A Google image shows a shuttered Thai restaurant facing the main road in front of the hotel, perhaps a landmark.

Using some local maps, mostly in French, we got off at the proper stop, at the Thai restaurant. Just around the eatery sat the hotel, unremarkable except for a small plaque on the door: “This plaque marks the anniversary of one of the best-known rock albums of all time, Deep Purple’s Machine Head.” The narrative goes on to describe the events that led to the Grand Hotel.

The hotel was in disrepair, but the door was open and inside, a cleaning crew was at work on some of the failing wood panels. The parquet floor pattern remains, the same as seen in one of the small photos inside the Machine Head jacket.

It was a moment. Mission accomplished.

The next day Charlie Chaplin hit our radar. Who knew the diminutive silent movie actor with the questionable upper lip had anything to do with Montreux?

In fact, he moved to Switzerland in 1953 after being chased out by some of Hollywood’s rabid anti-commies, but also amidst a Mann Act rap, which he beat.

His former estate is now Chaplin’s World, a museum about 15 minutes outside of Montreux. It is an enlightening, well-done traipse through Chaplin’s storied life. It takes visitors through his home as well as around the verdant grounds on the 37-acre tract, which includes outbuildings and gardens, with a view of the lake in the distance.

Each room in the museum includes screens showing Chaplin films as well as artifacts from those movies, including the cane, hat and shoes Chaplin wore in his silent film heyday.

The rooms of the home contain furniture of the era – Chaplin died in 1977 – while showing home movies of his 11 children and his last wife, Oona, who met Chaplin on set in 1942 when she was 17 and he was 53. It was a three-hour museum, with plenty of visuals to take in, along with a little history. The moral of the story appears to be stay in your lane; Chaplin’s career would have been stronger had he not mused about world affairs and his own political “feelings.” And stay clear of female cast members before they’re legal.

Into the Alps

Lakeview Bar and Cigar Lounge at the Burgenstock Resort on Lake Lucerne

Zermatt was never on the agenda. We were aware that the weather would be nearing full-on winter and we knowingly carried with us the threads that anyone who once lived in Michigan would pack. So the evening planning session was a go; to get to Zermatt required a 6 a.m. train to a bus to another train, 90 miles over rugged territory to the southeast toward the Italian border. And it would be a snowy 30 degrees up there in the foothills of the Matterhorn.

That sounds like a great day to travelers, probably not so great to tourists, who would be advised to charter a car.

And we were off, standing on the frigid Montreux train platform in the dark. While it was a balmy 42 degrees when we left, the temps dropped with each stop. We hopped on a bus that drove up a mountain and the snow came and never left, as we were increasing altitude. The mountain ranges stretched out a little more and no longer were we looking up at them as much as sideways at them. We were then discharged outside another train station, this without any hospitality frills, with vending machines rather than kiosks for sustenance and no one else around aside from some skiers. This was a 32-degree wait for the next train, which wound around the mountains as we approached Zermatt, pulling into the frigid village station after three hours in transit. It was a true ski village, with folks in fur-lined down coats walking among bars, coffee shops and ski and snowboard supply stores. Snowflakes drifted around everything, making the entire scene into a snow globe.

The Scottish Smoked Salmon at the Lakeview Bar and Lounge

We wound through the village streets and found ourselves in front of the church, St Mauritius, a beckoning parish that dates to 1285. Its simple exterior is enticing, a beacon at the end of a shopping area. The ceiling features an artistic rendering of Noah’s Ark and demands attention because the room’s inspiring dome looms large over the parish. The altar is traditionally ornate and features sculpted art.

We wound our way past the inns and motels – nothing oversized in the village, and some were nicer than others – and found the ticket booth for the tram. It would take us from 5,300 feet to 12,000 feet, well short of the Matterhorn’s 15,000-foot peak but good enough.

“You won’t see anything, it’s all snow up there,” the woman told us. “They’ve stopped the skiers, even.”

Yes, we will, I thought. A whiteout is something.

The trip is made in two separate rides. One goes to 8,000 feet. The next to 12,000 feet. We took both.

We sat in the creaky tram, while waiting for our pilot to arrive. It was cold – bitter cold – and the thump of our departure was welcome. Snow fell steadily outside and the angle of our car moved us sideways, the wind pitching us a little once in a while. At the first stop, we waited on a platform in the cold for everything to roll.

This was the leg of the blizzard-like conditions, a frenzied blast of dark whiteness that pitched us into a zone of nothingness. There was zero visibility, and someone mentioned that no skiers were being allowed on the slopes.

Make that one more hard-to-understand thing in this world – skiing.

As we approached the station at the top, the snow broke a little and we could see the ground 300 feet below. That 4,000-foot climb sheared another 10 degrees off the temp, and we arrived in 15 degrees. The cold was bracing, and we saw skiers in a small room near the gondola drop taking off their gear after being chased from the shuttered slopes, melting ice dropping off their brows and hats.

The peak at Matterhorn Glacier Paradise has the highest mountain station in Europe

But past the motion, the views and the challenging climate was yet another reward just up an escalator, the Restaurant Matterhorn Glacier Paradise.

Making the best of the high vista with wide views for miles, the restaurant is an open-floored panorama of the Alps. This was off-season, allowing visitors full walk-around privileges.

The on and off gusts of snow delivered a flurried frenzy past the windows every three minutes or so, and to witness nature in its fury inside this warm globe was something you carry out of there in your head.

The restaurant offered a generous selection of alcohol and food, with a mix of self-serve and wait service. The restaurant also features a viewing platform, which would have been reserved for crazy people on this stormy day.

We could have stayed all night, but the rides up and down the mountain were infrequent and not nearly as steady timewise as the country’s trains. We spent around 35 minutes up there, savoring our Alpine existence.

We returned to the village and a small bar and restaurant for some German beer followed by a long ride back to Montreux. The trip back was filled with playing back the wonder of Zermatt and the climb through the cloudy snow-filled skies. It was fortunate that this was at the end of the Switzerland trip. Leaving on this high note answered the ‘why?’ question of travel. We move and see and do because it’s there and because everything is an adventure when you haven’t been there before. It’s often unpleasant, this travel thing, filled with anxiety and fear of the unknown. This is human nature at play, the dislike of giving up control. The upside of globe-trotting is the reward that lurks around every corner – a snowy gondola, a taste of food you didn’t know you liked, and the achievement of navigation.

Switzerland Cigar Sidebar

Where to Smoke

Cigars in Switzerland are part of the nation’s fabric, dating back to the 1500s. But the game was elevated starting in the late 1800s when Villiger was founded, then enhanced when the Davidoffs moved their family business from Kiev to Geneva in 1911. Since that time, these two brands have endured to become the first names to drop when talking of the country’s cigar legacy, and for good reason; they are purveyors of the finest of cigars. Here are some smoking suggestions for your travels in Switzerland.

This article appeared in the Mar/Apr 2024 issue. Subscribe today to get the magazine in your mailbox.

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