By Michael McCarthy
In the middle of the 19th century, with the British Industrial Revolution in full gear, entrepreneur Thomas Cook came up with a clever plan to make some money. In effect, he started a new industry that has come to be called tourism. He created group tours to the alpine meadows of Switzerland where the rich robber barons of Britain could cough the smoke out of their lungs, nibble on cheese and live like kings. It became known as the “Grand Tour,” taking in regions of France and Italy as well. When 150 years later Swiss Tourism asked me if I had any story ideas for a travel article about Switzerland, I suggested a recreation of the Grand Tour and the fine hotels it spawned. At that time there was no talk of bananas.
The Grand Tour starts in Zurich, often referred to (especially by those who have to pay to stay there) as the “most expensive town in the whole damned world.” As I always do, I popped into McDonalds to shoot photos of the menu and prices, ascertaining that a Big Mac and fries cost more than my budget for spending money for the entire trip. Accommodations had been thoughtfully provided for me at the Widder Hotel, which goes back to the 11th century when it was a warehouse. There is something comforting about staying in a hotel over a thousand years old, especially when the upgrades include wide screen, high definition TVs and a sound system from outer space. The management had kindly placed a bottle of fine French wine, some chocolate and a bouquet of flowers on the Napoleon-era oak table to welcome me, so I quickly put the flowers on the mantle and opened the wine for the purposes of scientific research. The free and voluminous cheese and cold cuts plate served well for dinner, given that dinner was not included for free in my itinerary.
Switzerland’s reputation as a healthy destination goes back a thousand years. In the little town now known as Bad Ragaaz, hot springs water bubbled out of a chasm in the mountains. Pilgrims flocked to wallow in the waters to heal themselves. Today the waters are encased in a pool within the interior of the majestic Bad Ragaaz Hotel and Resort, the epitome of swank living, dining, bathing and medical treatments. A plate of assorted fruits awaited me on arrival. Given that it was a Friday, in the dining hall for dinner I went with the sautéed anglerfish saltimbocca with basil sauce on venere risotto and glazed vegetables.
In the morning, given that breakfast was not included, I ate a banana on the train on the way to Andermatt. To work up a healthy appetite for dinner, I walked all the way to the train station, missing my turn and ending up in a hayfield and watching my train go by. The desk clerk at my hotel in Andermatt was annoyed with my late arrival, while I was annoyed that they seem to know more about my itinerary than I did. They also seemed to know that I am a tall person because it was the longest room I had ever seen. My feelings were modified when I noticed the bottle of champagne on the table and a bowl of fruit. Dinner was at the hotel’s signature Japanese sushi bar, which was a shame because I am not fond of bait nor was anyone else because I was the only diner. The grapes, apple slices and pineapple chunks went into the fridge and then into my pocket and into my mouth the next day for lunch.
The southern section of Switzerland is known as Ticino, the Italian-speaking region. The food at the Costello del Sol was as fabulous as my room was ridiculous. It wasn’t a room, it was an entire villa. I felt like stopping people in the hallway to join me so they could save on accommodations and therefore afford to buy me breakfast. The hotel had its own extensive grounds, lake front, farm, vineyards and distillery, and as far as I know it might have had a dairy operation as well. Normally I don’t look at the prices on the menu out of embarrassment because everything for famous travel writers like myself (cough cough) is “on the house,” but I did notice that the side plate containing an amuse bouche of lobster and sauce translated into $90 in Canadian currency, or two Big Macs and fries in Zurich.
At the time of its construction 150 years ago the Palace Hotel in Lucerne was considered the finest in the world. The décor and menu apparently had not changed much since then. Enjoying a dinner with the hotel manager, I opted for the house specialty which turned out to be a lake fish with a Swiss name that was covered entirely in salt and baked in a small oven next to the table by a dirndl-wearing lady wearing big mitts. I passed on ice cream and other treats for dessert but ordered a fruit plate that I surreptitiously slipped into my day bag as the manager went to the front desk to deal with the Chinese bus tour guests shouting up a storm and spitting on the carpets. I ate the banana on the train back to Zurich.
The Baur au Lac, right on the lake front, dated back as far as the Palace. It was the former haunt of the ultra-rich, royalty, executives and the like but it had been reduced to hosting oil sheiks, celebrities and travel writers. Nonetheless it offered a fine inspiration of trout filet or grilled cutlet of turbot among the entrees, or even a sautéed red mullet for those so inclined. For dessert I decided on the composition of berries with lavender ice cream because it sounded good, the lavender matched the smell of the bedsheets in my room and the berries fit nicely into my pocket. Evidently they were out of bananas.
More Michael McCarthy stories can be found at www.transformative-travel.ca