Montreux Marché de Nöel

Montreux Riviera at Christmas, Marché de Nöel

"Pas de retour à Genève," said our train conducter with a straight face as he looked at our return tickets from Geneva to Montreux. He was only joking, course, when he told us that we could not come back from Montreux—but after a few hours in this beautiful lake side town, we thought maybe there was something more to that funny train conductor's joke. After all, even Queen's legendary frontman Freddie Mercury was so smitten with Montreux after recording some of his last songs here that he decided to stay. The feeling was mutual; the city of Montreux claimed Freddie as their own and a statue of him still stands triumphantly on the shores of the Montreux Riviera.

Freddie Mercury statue in Montreux

We came to Montreux in search of good old Christmas cheer, as did everyone on this side of Lac Léman, it seemed. It was the first weekend of the Marché de Nöel and a Sunday (when stores and restaurants are typically closed in Switzerland) so people were drawn to it like chestnuts to an open fire.

Roasting chestnuts at Montreux Marché de Nöel (Christmas Market)

We came in search of whimsical Christmas ornaments to bring extra cheer to our home. Most of the little booths sold artisanal handicrafts, from glass-blown decorations to hand-carved and painted soaps, which were not exactly what we were looking for. But eventually we found a few choice Christmas tree ornaments to take home: a little vintage-looking John Deere airplane and a whimsical little mercury glass owl. I still regret not buying one of the naughty gnomes, I must admit.

Montreux Marché de Nöel (Christmas Market in Switzerland)
Montreux Marché de Nöel (Christmas Market in Switzerland)
Naughty middle finger gnome at Montreux Marché de Nöel (Christmas Market in Switzerland)
Montreux Marché de Nöel (Christmas Market in Switzerland)

We were pleasantly surprised by the array of delicious things to be devoured at the Christmas market. We expected the hot mulled wine, raclette and fondue but were thrilled to discover sandwiches piled with seared foie gras and duck meat, then drizzled with either fig or truffle sauce. We stayed long enough to also grab dinner from one of the stands hawking staggering amounts of rösti, gratin des pommes, pork hocks, sausages and sauerkraut. And of course to have some good old, spiced vin chaud.

Foie gras sandwich at Montreux Marché de Nöel (Christmas Market in Switzerland)
Sausages, potatoes and sauerkraut at Montreux Marché de Nöel (Christmas Market in Switzerland)
Vin chaud at Montreux Marché de Nöel (Christmas Market in Switzerland)

Despite the crowds, Montreux was a delight. We took some time to also walk around the lake and take in a glorious sun setting behind the Alps. That was where we came to the conclusion that what makes Montreux so special is that it gives you the feeling that something cool can always happen while also giving you the assurance of peace. As Freddie Mercury said, "If you want peace of soul, come to Montreux." We certainly found some of that there and true to the train conductor's word, we found ourselves reluctant to leave and eager to return.

Montreux Marché de Nöel (Christmas Market in Switzerland)
Sunset by Lac Lèman in Montreux, Switzerland
Montreux Marché de Nöel (Christmas Market in Switzerland)

Gruyère: Hiking the Swiss Chocolate and Cheese Trail

Hiking in Gruyère

We came to Gruyère lured by promises of sublime views and flavors—and Gruyère certainly delivered. It is a region with a great variety of dramatic landscapes to explore and deliciously rich delights to sate your palate.

It took us a little under two hours to drive our rented car from Geneva to the town of Charmey on a Thursday afternoon. If you decide to drive here, too, make sure you take a car with some horsepower—there are more than a few uphill roads and you don't want to worry, as we did, that you'd have to jump out and push a little Puegeot up the mountain. The drive is gorgeous, especially when the road wraps around the lovely city of Montreux. We drove to the recommended starting point of the hike, Charmey, and parked our car at the museum where it stayed safely while we went off to explore. Charmey is also well known for its spas but we had other indulgences in mind. We went into an unassuming little boulangerie to have some quiche and salad for lunch, topped off with coffee and the meringue dipped in double cream that this region is famous for. I have loved meringue since I was a kid but have never before tasted them dipped in rich cream. It's a life-changing experience that you cannot miss if you're in the area!

Meringues and Gruyère double cream

Hopped up on sugar and caffeine, we felt ready to take on a 2-hour hike. From the residential area, we found our way to rolling green hills set against lush tree-covered peaks. It's the type of landscape that makes you want to burst in song like Maria and the von Trapps. 

Hiking in Gruyère, Switzerland

Not long after, our path turned into a wooded forest edged by turquoise waters. It soon led us to a suspension bridge where J couldn't help but jump up and down to make me feel queasy. The bridge isn't that long though so I made it through (and snapped some photos midway to annoy him right back).

Hiking in Gruyère, Switzerland
Hiking in Gruyère, Switzerland

The path brings you to the shore of Lac Montsalvans, one of Fribourg's reservoirs, then to the impressive dam that it feeds. From there, it descends into Jaunbach Gorge, which to me is the most beautiful part of the hike. Here you go through numerous tunnels and wooden walkways, and see small cascades and beautiful rock galleries carved by rushing water through the centuries. The gorge is usually open from April to October only because the water levels can change very quickly, so take this into account when planning your hike.

Jaunbach Gorge, Gruyère, Switzerland
Jaunbach Gorge, Gruyère, Switzerland
Jaunbach Gorge, Gruyère, Switzerland
Jaunbach Gorge, Gruyère, Switzerland

The nature walk ends in the town of Broc, where if you have better timing than us, you can visit the chocolate factory of Cailler and cap off your hike with some delicious Swiss chocolate. We finished our hike right as the factory was closing so we rewarded ourself with a beer in town instead before hopping on a bus back to Charmey to fetch our car.

Sheep in Broc, Gruyère, Switzerland
Charmey, Gruyère, Switzerland

From Charmey, we drove up to the Old Town of Gruyère to claim our reward for the day's exertions: a sumptuous dinner of fondue and wine. The Old Town is impossibly charming, with its cobblestone streets and Medieval buildings set against craggy mountain peaks. We dined on the terrace of Le Chalet de Gruyere, one of the most adorable little buildings in town. Our feast of viande séchée (traditional Swiss cured meat) and young potatoes, bread, pearl onions and cornichons dunked into that big pot of melted cheese was the perfect end to a day of many delights.  

The Old Town of Gruyère, Switzerland

Lavaux: Hiking the Swiss Wine Trail

Hiking in Lavaux, the wine terraces of Switzerland

Our first hike in Switzerland was, funny enough, not exactly a hike but a long and meandering walk through what could possibly be the world's most beautiful wine country. Lavaux is vast and an undulating swathe of terraced vineyards set against the turquoise waters of Lac Léman and the towering peaks of the Savoie mountains. Stretching 30 kilometers from St. Saphorin to Lutry, Lavaux is a UNESCO Heritage Site, protected since 2007.

It's very easy, albeit pricey, to take the train from Geneva to St. Saphorin. On a Sunday afternoon with little planning, we coughed up about 50 francs each for the pleasure of traveling round trip by über efficient Swiss train. It was a good option for a couple who didn't feel like driving under the influence—and the views are stunning, especially when you get to the Lavaux area (make sure to take a seat on the right side side of the train). But if you have a group of at least 4 and a willing designated driver, coming to Lavaux by car would probably be the most economical option.

Hiking in Lavaux, the wine terraces of Switzerland
Old Town of St. Saphorin in Lavaux, the wine terraces of Switzerland
Classic Swiss house in Lavaux, the wine terraces of Switzerland

We came on a Sunday because we were more interested in hiking and enjoying the scenery than swilling wine. If you are more interested in the imbibing part, do not come on a Sunday as, similar to most everything else in Switzerland, the winetasting rooms are shuttered then. We quite liked having the quiet medieval towns and rolling vineyards mostly to ourselves, through the heat was punishing in late August with most of the walking route fully exposed to sun. October is supposed to be the optimal time to visit Lavaux so that one can enjoy the golden foliage and fruit-laden vines at more comfortable temperatures.

Vines with grapes in Lavaux, the wine terraces of Switzerland

We meandered along the Swiss Wine Route and walked from St. Saphorin to Chexbres, which is deservedly known as the balcony of Lac Léman. The incline is very steep and on a hot day, it can feel like torture to take on that climb. But when you get to the top, you'll find that it is absolutely worth it. Aim for the popular bar Le Deck at the hotel Le Baron Tavernier for postcard perfect views. Le Deck is only open from April until about September but if you come at the right time of the year and can manage the wait (they don't take reservations), the views here are splendid. If you have a more urgent hankering for beer, as we did, you can simply cross the street and have a drink at the hotel. The advantage to this approach is you are also likely to see the impressive parade of luxury cars zipping through this most picturesque of driving roads.

View from Chexbres in Lavaux, the wine terraces of Switzerland

We ended the day by walking from Chexbres to Epesses, which was mercifully all downhill and with amazing views most of the way, to boot. The train tracks in these parts are all the way down near the lakeside so you always have the option of waiting alongside the lake, watching the locals paddleboard and swim in the incredibly clear and clean waters. Even without the wine and with all the sun-drenched walking, we fell in love with Lavaux. You can't miss it if you're coming through this part of Switzerland!

Hiking in Lavaux, the wine terraces of Switzerland

La Salève - Hiking to the Balcony of Geneva

View of Geneva from Mont Saleve

The Swiss life is known for certain key pleasures: cheese and chocolates as major food groups, and hiking and skiing as national pastimes. As we continue settling into our new life in Switzerland, we've also started to partake more and more in these delights. Funny enough, however, our first hike as Geneva residents was not in Switzerland but across the border in France. Nothing quite drives home the oddity of this Swiss city tucked in the bosom of France as the process of hopping on a Swiss bus, crossing the border on foot and hiking up a French mountain to get a proper overview of Geneva.

La Salève is the closest and most easily accessible mountain for Geneva city dwellers looking for a good nature romp. You can take Bus #8 all the way to the end of the line in Veyrier, cross the border and take any of about a dozen possible hikes up the mountain. I brought my passport but the office was closed that Sunday so we unceremoniously crossed over into the EU.

Hiking up Mont Saleve

In addition to multiple hiking trails, one can easily reach the top of Salève by car or cablecar (a one-way ticket for the téléphérique is 4,30€ while a round-trip ticket is 6,30€). We elected to hike up the mountain and take the téléphérique down, which I recommend. While going up a mountain is certainly more challenging that going down, we decided to save our knees from the pain of a steep descent, and are still glad that we did.  

View of the Telepherique du Mont Saleve

We basically winged it, as far as hiking routes go. Similar to Switzerland, Salève had several signs pointing to and estimating times for various routes. We took the route to L'Observatoire, which at 2 hours and 15 minutes is the fastest but also has the steepest incline. It is largely a walk among the trees, with occasional breaks where one can glimpse Geneva—not the most impressive views, if you've hiked elsewhere in stunning Switzerland, but delightful enough for us amateur hikers. We largely enjoyed just being away from the city, taking on a physical challenge and communing with nature.  

When we reached the peak, we found ourselves reluctantly back among the tourist throngs at the landing point of the téléphérique. I pulled out my euros and we enjoyed some hotdogs at Buvette Sympa. We skipped having a beer here as we intended on walking on to L'Observatoire but I would urge you to try the special Mont Salève microbrew at this point. We continued on to L'Observatoire and along the way passed the table d'orientation where we were lucky enough to glimpse a paraglider beginning his flight to the plains down below. When we reached L'Observatoire, I was surprised to find a Buddhist temple adjoining the restaurant. It felt anachronistic, almost, but the colorful Buddhist flags flapping in the wind did make for a stunning visual together with the view of the city of Geneva. At the restaurant, we enjoyed the view with some beers on the terrace then walked back to take the téléphérique down.

Mont Saleve, France

We didn't consult any guides before hiking up Salève but you would perhaps enjoy the guide prepared by Téléphérique du Salève (available in English and in French), as it has a lot of interesting historic tidbits about the mountain. If you plan well and are a more experienced hiker, you can also join the Geneva Association of friends of the Salève for their Sunday 10am hikes, which can take 5 to 8 hours (3 hours of which will consist of a rapid climb). You can find more information here.

Happy hiking!

Moving to Geneva: Separating Fact from Fiction

Rainbow at the Jet d'Eau in Geneva, Switzerland

Like most people moving to a new city, I tried to do my research before coming to Geneva. By research I mean gathering as much second-hand information as possible, from hounding folks who used to live there to reading every blog post and book I could get my hands on. I had an inkling that all this research would, in the end, probably only prove slightly useful — after all, I found that to be the case when I moved to New York. In the end, you always find your own way, whichever city you pick as your new home. But until you finally set foot in your new city, you're likely to be afflicted with the moving scaries.

So while I realize that telling you about my experience might only end up being a tiny bit useful for you, I'll do it anyway because packing and moving to someplace you've never been is nerve-wracking, folks! Other people's stories won't always help you find your way, but having an idea of what to expect can soothe the moving scaries. So without further ado, let me share what I've found to be fact versus what I've found to be fiction now that I've moved to Geneva.

"You'll get by with just English."

Umm, not quite.

"Parles-vous anglais?" I hopefully asked a régie (real estate agent) on the phone, who none too delicately replied in French that no he did not and why should I expect him to when I spoke neither French, Italian nor German. Fair enough. I soldiered on in my limited French and even tried Spanish when he claimed he understood that, but eventually he gave up and handed the phone to a colleague who could speak some English. Scenarios like this are perhaps what people mean when they say you can get by in English. You can get by playing charades with the Swiss and most other people in the world, but do you really want to?

I would urge you to take some French classes, binge on Duolingo and install Google Translate on your smartphone to smoothen your transition. It might be different if you have a relocation firm and a highly competent Francophone secretary handling everything for you, but if you're moving as a regular person, it can be a challenge. From the infamous régies to the delivery guys to the telco company, English is not always an option. My French is somewhere around kindergarten level but it has been better than nothing, so do study up!

"Finding an apartment is a nightmare."

Sadly, this is closer to fact than fiction. Good apartments are in short supply in Geneva and free apartments generally have several applicants in line. If your work is demanding, you might want to use a relocation agent because finding an apartment is time- and attention-consuming. You will have to make an appointment to see each place and depending on the circumstances, you may view it with an agent, have to coordinate with the existing tenant, or pick up the keys from the régie to view on your own. Viewing times can be terribly inconvenient and you may find yourself running back and forth to work while looking at apartments at 9am, 2pm and 7pm.

As a new arrival, you may find the document requirements confusing. For example, an attestation de non-poursuite stating that one is free from outstanding debts in Switzerland is typically required for an applicant's dossier, but a new arrival should obviously not have any outstanding debts if new to the country, right? Sure, but get the document anyway to have all bases covered. With competition so high for apartments, any little miss can take you out of consideration. Also apply for as many apartments as you can because chances are, most will not even bother to call you back, let alone give you the apartment. I put in a total of six applications and got one acceptance, one rejection and nothing but the sound of crickets from the rest.

As frustrating as it all can be, luck will eventually smile on you. I was on the verge of a breakdown when we finally got the news that our application was accepted for an apartment that we loved. Even better, we ended up with a landlord who speaks English perfectly and manages the building impeccably. The process can be a nightmare but it's not unrealistic to think that you can end up with the apartment of your dreams ( ... well, if your dream apartment is one with a spare bedroom, a view of something more than a wall and sufficient sunlight for a window sill herb garden ... if you're thinking private jacuzzi, maybe dream on or live in France!).

Foie gras salad at Les 5 Portes in Geneva, Switzerland "Everything is SO expensive."

On The Economist's Big Mac scale, Switzerland tops the list for most expensive burger in the world, so there's definitely truth to this statement. After a decade in New York, however, I have gotten used to paying exorbitant prices for things so expensive is relative.

Compared to New York, apartments are cheaper with a 2-bedroom in lively parts of the city running between CHF 2500-2800. With the CHF almost one-to-one with the USD, this is a far better deal than New York where a studio in Brooklyn Heights can run up to USD 2500 these days. Note, however, that renters must put away 2-3 months worth of rent in a special bank account that is still under the renter's name but linked to the landlord. This serves as a guarantee and will only be released by the bank at the end of your rental contract after the landlord has ensured that the apartment is intact and in move-in condition for the succeeding tenant. This will significantly affect your liquidity, so watch out. In some cases, you can sign up with a company like Swiss Caution, which will put up the guarantee for you for a fee. As of this writing, however, international civil servants residing in Switzerland on a carte de legitimation no longer seem to be eligible for this service.

For furniture, however, even Ikea prices are comparatively more expensive here. So if you have furniture that you love and a relocation package from your company, bring as much as you can to Switzerland. Check your electronics, however, as most of them will likely not work because Switzerland uses 230V while America uses 110V. Some electronics, like computers and cellphone chargers, work from 110-230V so those can easily still be used here, but I would advise you to stock up on Swiss adaptors beforehand.

Eating out can be exorbitantly expensive in Geneva so tread carefully. I am forever scarred by a CHF 60 lunch that consisted of two glasses of fresh orange juice and two salads made with regular pantry ingredients (feta, olives, sundried tomatoes and artichokes). On the other hand, while I am still incensed by that CHF 24 salad, I have come back repeatedly to Les 5 Portes, which serves a salad worth every franc of its CHF 28 price tag. This "salad" is topped with seared and terrine foie gras, and many other scrumptious things. If you choose well, there's high quality food worth its price to be found, but you must seek it out!

Parc de la Grange in Geneva, Switzerland
"Stores close so early and don't open at all on the weekends! It's so inconvenient!"

Yes, it was an annoying transition for me, a 10-year New York resident used to strolling into the bodega to pick up coconut water at 3am, to contend with Switzerland's shopping hours. It took a couple of weekends of burning a hole through our pockets by having to eat out for me to learn to always keep my fridge and pantry stocked. Indeed, grocery stores generally close by 7pm on weekdays, 6pm on Saturdays and all day on Sundays. While grocery stores in the train station and airport are open 7 days a week and up to 10pm on weekdays, it can be like the Hunger Games in there on Sundays so I avoid it, if possible.

I would never admit it to my trusty Brooklyn bodega guy but the truth is, now that I'm used to the idea, I am starting to enjoy the relaxation forced upon you by Sunday store closures. We're still nesting so we tend to use most of our free time going to the stores to buy stuff for our home, but because they are only open for so long (and on some days, not at all), we're forced to let it go and just enjoy ourselves in the evenings and on Sundays. I have to say, there are definitely worse things in life than being forced to relax at home or sit in the park with a book because nothing is open.

"Apartment rules are crazy! You can't flush your toilet or take a shower after 10pm. And you have to do your laundry during an assigned time slot, which could be 3pm on a Wednesday!"

This had me mildly terrified about living in Geneva, given my nocturnal bathroom using habits. But when I asked my AirBnB host upon arrival and my landlord a month later if this was true, both looked incredulous and mildly insulted by the question. I received replies to the effect of, "Of course you can flush and shower after 10pm. Who on earth gave you the idea that you can't?!" That being said, we have noticed that when our upstairs neighbor empties a full bathtub, it sounds like it is raining above our bedroom, so we try to be conscientious about our evening bathroom use. Because most of the buildings here have been around for decades, sound travels easily. The Swiss are very conscious about keeping noise levels down in order to live harmoniously in tight quarters, so we try our best to do the same. But they're not so considerate that everyone holds it until daybreak, so fear not.

As for laundry, it's true that buildings have schedules for their common laundry room and you could be given an inconvenient slot. Ours would have been 7pm on Fridays, for example, if we had chosen to take it. But most apartments are also set up to have a washer/dryer installed so you can make your own decisions about when to do your laundry. Having said that, you can imagine that the sound of your spin cycle going at full throttle would cause a fair amount of noise and vibration for your downstairs neighbor. So again, be considerate and don't do laundry late at night, or better yet use the delayed start timer on your machine so your laundry gets done while you and your neighbors are out at work. While it may seem annoying think about your neighbors all the time, you will appreciate it when you realize how comparatively more peaceful it can be to live amongst the Swiss.

La Barje in Geneva, Switzerland "It's so boring there."

To paraphrase Monsieur Forrest Gump, "Boring is as boring does." You could live in a city as vibrant, crazy and hectic as New York and still be bored if you choose to stay in your apartment watching Netflix. You could also live in a city touted as boring like Geneva and never be bored if you take advantage of everything at your fingertips.

It can be "boring" if you're looking to discover a new cocktail bar every weekend; not so if you're looking for a different hiking trail every seven days. It can be boring if you're looking for clubs with bouncer-guarded lines; but if you're looking for gorgeous bars on boats or right beside a beautiful river, you'll always be able to find a seat there and you won't be bored at all. Geneva will never entertain the way New York or London does; it will entertain as Geneva can, and that is not a bad thing at all. All else fails, it is laughably easy to travel out of Geneva, with the airport just a 10-minute train ride away from Gare Cornavin, the main train station.

Flying over Lac Léman, Switzerland "It's a big adjustment but you will grow to love it."

On our last family trip, my uncle told me, "I love traveling but the best part is always coming home." I remember finding that strange because I have always enjoyed traveling and most of the time dreaded traveling back. On my most recent trip to Ibiza with J, however, I finally felt it. I wasn't necessarily raring to leave paradise, but coming home with my guy to our home in a city we now felt extremely comfortable in really was something to look forward to. It might have been a combination of finally traveling without saying goodbye to J, the ease of travel between the two cities, or simply finally having a home to call OUR own. I don't know what it was exactly, but at that moment, I was grateful for Geneva and how it has allowed us to build our first home together. Slowly but surely, I am falling in love with our new city.

Bonjour Genève !

Lac Léman/Lake Geneva in Geneva, Switzerland

A little over two weeks ago, I started a new chapter in Geneva. After nearly a decade of living in New York, I picked up and moved to Europe to get a leg up on my career and to finally be in the same place as my love. It has been a pretty big change of pace, to say the least. At 8.406 million, New York City's population tops that of the entire country of Switzerland by 325,000 — nearly twice Geneva's population of 188,000. So I spent most of my first few days wondering where everyone was until I realized this is everyone.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Like the swans on Lac Léman, I find myself sailing through daily life with minimal aggravation. After years of choking subway morning commutes, I can now calmly walk to work. On the days that I use public transportation, I always have a comfortable seat and a peaceful ride. At work, everyone says a polite "Bonjour" or "Bonne soirée" when we cross paths, and the men hold doors and ensure that I enter the elevator first — gracious behavior I'd largely forgotten in the daily New York rat race. When I go out with friends and colleagues, there's always ample room — whether it's at a lakeside terrace, a bar on a boat, a trendy cocktail bar or a popular fondue spot. The city is incredibly compact so even when nights out run late, we can always walk home. No power tripping bouncers, no shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, no pricey cab rides. The struggle is over, it seems — for the fun stuff, at least.

Rebuilding a life, however, takes time. I arrived with my passport and contract, and had to rebuild everything from there. We forget about it after staying in one place too long, but it's all the little boring details that make us a "real" person (though paradoxically, all on paper): a bank account, a functioning debit card, a residence permit. Day by day, with each piece of paper signed, sealed and delivered, I am starting to feel more and more like a real person again. With God's grace (and the infamous Swiss Régies' blessings), I might even have a proper address soon! In the notoriously difficult Swiss housing market, one can only hope.

In the meantime, I soothe the relocation stress with bread dipped in melted cheese and swills of Swiss wine. And day by day, I find little things to love in our new home.

Boat and Jet d'Eau on Lac Léman/Lake Geneva in Geneva, Switzerland
Swan on Lac Léman/Lake Geneva in Geneva, Switzerland
Bateau Genève in Geneva, Switzerland
Paddle boarding on Lac Léman/Lake Geneva in Geneva, Switzerland
Bâtiment des Forces Motrices in Geneva, Switzerland
Reformation Wall, Geneva, Switzerland
Poppies and flowers in Geneva, Switzerland
La Petite Reine in Geneva, Switzerland
Fondue from Bains de Paquis, Geneva, Switzerland
Cave Ouvertes, Geneva, Switzerland