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A whistle-stop tour, not for weight-watchers

Alpine scenery is also served up on the chocolate train

(swissinfo.ch)

It may reinforce a particular clichéd view of Switzerland, but there are worse ways of seeing the country than aboard the chocolate train.

Admit it. Among the first things you think about when the word Swiss is mentioned are cheese and chocolate.

But the reason Swiss cheese and chocolate are world-renowned are because they are good, and throughout the summer, the chocolate train will take you to see some of the best examples being made. First, there is the medieval castle-village of Gruyères and its modern demonstration dairy; then the Nestlé-Cailler chocolate factory in Broc.

"Tourists want to see real Switzerland," says Niklaus Mani, of the MOB railway, our guide for the day. "And cheese and chocolate are certainly part of real Switzerland."

These factories at Gruyères and Broc are open to the public, and you could easily visit them under your own steam. What makes this outing special then, is the train.

"It's a beautiful train. It goes through beautiful countryside," Mani says.

Pullman Express

He's right. The locomotive pulls two classic Pullman Express coaches, built in 1913 and 1914, which have been painstakingly and luxuriously restored, as well a less ancient "panoramic" carriage. The Salon coach, with its wooden interior and accommodatingly plush green seats, is a great place from which to watch the scenery pass by.

"We had a lot of trouble getting the right wood, windows and fitting, because some of the original ones were broken," Mani says.

The MOB, the French abbreviation for Montreux-Bernese Oberland, was for many years, the longest electrified narrow-gauge railway in Switzerland, at 73 kilometres in length.

It is one of around 60 private rail companies that are nonetheless part of the Swiss national travel system, so Swiss Pass tickets are valid. Tickets for the chocolate train - and the trans-alpine panoramic journeys that the MOB and others run - can be bought at any mainline station.

After leaving the fin de siècle splendour of Montreux, the train rises through the surrounding hills and entering the canton of Fribourg, via the Jaman tunnel, this year celebrating its 100th birthday.

We are now in Gruyères country - rolling green hills, liberally sprinkled with the obligatory wooden farmhouses and cattle. They have not just been put there for the tourists, of course. There would be no Gruyères cheese and Cailler chocolate if it were not for these ruminants.

Cheese-making

Our first stop is at the Maison du Gruyères, a demonstration dairy, where, we are promised, we will discover all the secrets of Gruyères cheese making.

It is difficult to learn all of these secrets and buy our souvenir cheese, fondue pots and tea towels in the time available. But this modern factory-cum-tourist centre is without question, informative and accessible.

It is also a real dairy. Every day, the master cheese-makers produce 48 round Gruyères cheeses, each weighing 35 kilos. The cheese is produced in four large vats, each holding 4,800 litres of milk. There is also a cellar, where up to 7,000 cheeses can ripen.

"When people see how the cheese is made, and how long it takes, the rules we have to respect, they are affected in a more emotional way. And then they will prefer to eat Gruyères than other cheeses," says Catherine Bussard, who is head of marketing for Gruyères in Switzerland.

After this whirlwind visit, we have a little longer to have lunch in the village of Gruyères itself. In keeping with the spirit of the day, a fondue is a must, though beware: the chocolate is still to come.

The village of Gruyères, a tourist haunt that somehow manages not to descend into outright tackiness, is a bizarre mixture of the medieval and the modern. Alongside the quaint medieval houses, there is the H.R. Giger science fiction museum, in the wonderfully preserved castle, an exhibition of fantasy and surreal art.

Chocoholics

And just in case you forgot to buy your cheesy souvenirs at the Maison du Gruyères, there are plenty of opportunities to do so here. You may also want to purchase that other local speciality: meringues and double cream. I told you this trip was bad for the waistline.

Having climbed aboard the train again, we set off for Broc, and the Cailler chocolate factory. Cailler is one of the best-known chocolate brands in Switzerland. The name remains, even if it now forms part of the Nestlé empire.

"The brand Cailler is very important for us. It says a lot about the quality of our product," says Marion Spree, a Nestle "chocolate scientist" at Broc.

"It's important for us that we only use milk from this region, so it has the particular taste of Gruyères. This is very important for Swiss consumers," she says.

Spree assures me that working in Broc has not affected her love of chocolate: "the longer I live here, the more I love Swiss chocolate. The taste is incomparable," she says.

Unlike at the Maison du Gruyères, there is no guided tour of the Broc factory - ostensibly for hygiene reasons. To learn about the chocolate-making process, visitors have to make do with a film.

We are then taken into a tasting room and invited to sample the entire range of Cailler products - a task beyond all but the most voracious of chocoholics.

From here, we are ushered into the factory shop, where more of those typically Swiss souvenirs are available. Then, it is back on the vintage Pullman Express coaches for the return journey to Montreux.

The pleasantness of this leg of the journey depends largely on how much you have overindulged at Broc.

And as for losing all those extra kilos? There are lots of good walking holidays in Switzerland.

by Roy Probert

The tour

The Chocolate train runs every Wednesday between June and October, and every Monday in July and August. The price, around SFr 75, includes not only the train fare, but also entry to the two factories and Gruyères castle.


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