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Montreux makes merry the traditional way

(Montreux Christmas market)

A visit to Montreux before Christmas proves that some traditions are alive and well. For a few weeks every December, the palm trees and swanky hotels are pushed into the background as the annual Christmas market becomes the focus of the town.

The president of the Montreux Christmas market, Pascal Bettex, stops and inhales the enticing smells of freshly baked biscuits and cakes coming from a chalet run by a confectioner from France's Alsace region.

More than 100 small wooden chalets have been set up on the Grand Rue and in the covered market place. "That's what makes a Christmas market," Bettex explains, "the smells, sights and sounds of Christmas."

The nose follows the scent of biscuits, crepes, melting cheese and mulled wine; the eyes wonder at the marvellous crafts; the ears take in the sound of folk music and choirs singing Christmas carols.

Bettex and his colleagues on the Montreux Christmas market committee are a hard bunch to please when it comes to the selection process. "We like to have people who sell things that you cannot find in warehouses or other markets," he says.

Bettex says that, unlike many Christmas markets, which import cheap products from Asia, most of the goods and crafts on display in Montreux are made in Europe, and many are locally produced.

One artisan who has become a regular fixture makes small pictures using only the springs and other internal workings of watches. Another makes his own musical instrument, the Maui Xaphoon.

Jacques Sandoz uses a laser to cut flat figures and designs out of metal. The metal image is then laid on an acrylic glass plate and a candle placed behind to give the impression that it's a silhouette. A cut out of Santa on his sleigh appears to be flying against the moon.

Bettex himself sells traditional Christmas decorations made by a couple in Germany. The couple hand-paint them with Christmas scenes.

"Many people that we'd like to have here are already aware of the reputation of our market, and they call us," says Bettex. "As soon as you've attained a certain standing it gets easier."

The Montreux Christmas committee limits the number of food and beverage stalls to one in every five. It wants to ensure that the market does not become a place where people just come to eat.

Even so, visitors expect to eat well and the accent this year is on French cuisine. A woman, dressed in folk costume, has travelled from Brittany to sell traditional crepes from her region. Another chalet tempts passers by with oysters, also brought in from Brittany, washed down with champagne.

In the covered market, a man from Savoy, across Lake Geneva, fries up a hearty dish of potatoes, cheese, onions and bacon.

Other attractions include a life-size Nativity Scene, complete with a real donkey and sheep, and a large area taken over by the local foresters.

The woodcutters have recreated a small forest scene on the quay. A path leads around and over twisted and broken logs in memory of the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Lothar - which hit Switzerland and other parts of Europe last Christmas.

The real draw though is the drinks bar the woodcutters have set up and the large pot of punched tea kept steaming over an open wood fire.

Few can resist the smell of pine and wood smoke, or the tea, and for a few short weeks each year, the bar becomes not only the centre of the market, but also a meeting place for most of Montreux.

by Dale Bechtel


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