…and it huffed and puffed along the Alps effusing a sweet smell that brought about the fauna of the region to take in deep breaths of the sugary goodness. I looked out the candy coloured windows to notice that the train ran on a track as dark as a 90% cocoa chocolate bar.
Small toffees hung from bright green trees, and Lac Léman in the distance had a milky white reflection in which I could see little dots of choco-chips jump in and float around in merriment. Up ahead, the track curled around a mountain and I slowly felt the train turn just so I could see the carriages at the back which resembled all my favourite chocolates.
And then we twirled, and twirled, and twirled some more…
As I sat in the train twisting around a lovely smelling cup of hot chocolate, I woke up from my little daydream by the sound of my wife asking my son – for the umpteenth time – to sit down. I’m prone to daydreams mind you – just like my son is likely to ignoring my wife. We had woken up early this particular day to catch a special train from Montreux. A day that would turn out to be an excellent introduction for us to the Swiss way of life.
The Chocolate Train is a full day excursion by GoldenPass Railways that includes a visit to Maison Cailler in the tiny village of Broc and to La Maison du Gruyère where one of the finest and well-known cheeses of the world is produced.
Seated inside a vintage “Belle Époque” – from the period between 1870 and 1914 – carriage, the ride began with a breakfast that justifies the very essence of this train and our eventual destination. Warm chocolate filled croissants along with hot chocolate – and then they wondered why the kids were so active – was perfect to warm us up as the train – this time in reality – chugged up the mountains on this rainy Swiss morning. As I took to the brilliance of the hot chocolate, my daughter made the most of the fogged up windows by practising art on them.
Time seems to fly when there’s so much beauty to admire, and it wasn’t long before we had arrived at Gruyère train station. It was then only a short walk across a street to the dairy where “twice a day, the farmers come to deliver milk… and the master cheese-maker each day produces up to 48 wheels of Gruyère AOP”.
It doesn’t take long at the La Maison du Gruyère – promoted as a “demonstration cheese dairy” – once the audio tour is over. A few minutes are spent watching – from a high glassed window – the cheese-makers work almost mechanically going about producing wheels of goodness. What’s left afterwards is a stroll through the souvenir shop, or if you’ve got time to have a bite in their restaurant.
Still early in the day and our vacation to start buying souvenirs, I do recommend another local speciality; the meringue with its white creamy looking exterior and crunchy, biscuit-like texture, is the classic local dessert when had with Gruyere cream, both of which can be easily bought in the shop.
Leaving The Chocolate Train behind, a bus then took us to the quaint village of Gruyère which is the quintessential Swiss village. Cobbled stoned street with a central fountain, beautiful houses with green creepers covering the face, flowers in blooms all around, cafes and stunning views of the rolling hills, Gruyère’s petiteness is enchanting.
That and it manages to pack in a few surprises as well, like the HR Giger museum which celebrates the fantastical art and sculptures of the Oscar-winning – for Alien – special effects artist. Since we were with kids and the art is somewhat “out there” we didn’t explore it in its entirety, but if you ever find yourself in the region, it’s worth visiting Gruyère for this museum alone.
The surprises don’t just end there, because Gruyère also comes with its very own castle which is pretty, at a vantage point that gives all visitors amazing views of the surrounding areas, filled with fantastic art, and is deeply rooted in the 400-year-old history of the region demonstrated via a little audio-visual presentation.
Sadly it had been a day that wasn’t meant to be spent outside due to intermittent drizzles and rain showers, but Gruyère still left an alluring impression to make me someday return on a bright sunny day and admire it properly.
The bus though it seems waits for no one and it was time now to head further up to the village of Broc which is equally essential historically for an altogether different reason for it is here that Maison du Cailler stands, responsible for some of the best chocolates in the world.
The Swiss love their chocolates and their passion and love for Cailler is evident by it’s presence – with large displays – in every food store that you go to. Although now owned by Nestle, the brand had a strong identity of its own and did I mention they are responsible for some of the best chocolates in the world?
Maison du Cailler is a step by step journey – and audio tour – into the history of the Swiss chocolate manufacturer using props, installations, lights and visuals which ultimately culminates with a – you guessed it – chocolate tasting; Enough chocolates to give your trainer nightmares for months.
If you do plan to visit Maison du Cailler on your own and not as part of The Chocolate Train, you can pre-book a chocolate making class which seemed a lot more exciting and fun and something the kids would have enjoyed a whole lot more.
Comparing the experience at Cailler with another chocolate “factory” I’ve visited, Cadbury World in Birmingham, the Swiss counterpart is a little underwhelming, more academic-ish and less exciting. However, with a play area outside and enough chocolate to give everyone sweet dreams for years, and due to its beautiful location, a visit is recommended.
The Chocolate Train, which had temporarily left us in Gruyère, arrived back almost magically in Broc for the return journey. With bags full of chocolates, cheese, and souvenirs, and finally the sun shining, we boarded our vintage carriage for the last time.
Wait! There still remained an ounce of magic to be experienced.
The journey back to Montreux had views of beautiful lakes in the mountains, picturesque wooden chalets, tunnels and winding tracks, with the scenery reaching its climatic best as we finally approached Lac Léman and the villages with their terraced vineyards that have for long brought character to this region.
La Train Du Chocolat was for us the perfect introduction to Switzerland as it happened to be the very first excursion during our summer vacation. It promoted and showcased two of the most important exports of Switzerland – chocolate and cheese – while glorifying the beauty that makes it one of the most visited countries in the world.
For the children, whether it was the chocolate croissants in the morning, the joy of a train ride, learning how cheese is made, or getting a sugar-high thanks to all the chocolate on offer, it is a day they still remember with a smile. As for the adults, let’s just say, we became children for a day.