Travelling with the Band

The whole purpose of going to Switzerland was to see Josh, aka The JW Jones Band, play at the Sierre Blues Festival. The band was on tour and had already played at a festival in Tenero, Switzerland and La Cheze, France. We were catching up with them for their last gig of the tour.

Josh’s tour manager booked the band into a B & B hotel outside of Sierre for their day off. We arranged to stay in the same place and meet up at some point in the late afternoon or evening – depending on all of our travel arrangements.

Tim & I arrived in Sierre knowing that we would have to take a bus or a Funicular to the hotel, but not really understanding that the hotel was in an entirely different town halfway up the mountain. In fact, we were staying in Crans Montana, a resort community dedicated to golf in the summer, skiing in the winter. The bus ride to Crans Montana was a harrowing experience to say the least – barreling along narrow switch back roads with a bus driver that clearly knew no fear. We zipped up the mountain, to 1500 meters above the Rhône River valley.

But once we got there we were rewarded with an amazing mountain experience.

The view from our window to the Alps beyond

Our room at the B & B overlooked the Alps, the silhouette of the Matterhorn in the distance, the air mountain fresh. The town itself is predictably oriented toward luxury. Stores that specialize in anti-aging products. A caviar bar. A cigar store. Again, we are out of our financial league.

Josh and the band arrived, and we got to meet Ella, Josh’s new lady love who is bravely travelling with the boys through France and Switzerland.

Josh & Ella in the van

Josh, Jeff & Jessie make up the JW Jones Band and they had a tour manager and driver, Dina, from Germany who looked after everything. But even Dina couldn’t find us a cheap place to eat dinner in this town. We settled on a Thai restaurant, of all things, but the food was surprisingly good, especially after we’ve had long days on the road.

Breakfast at the B & B was like nothing I have ever encountered. The menu is clearly focused on healthy life styles, but that doesn’t take into account the outrageous over eating that one does at a B & B. Here is what we encountered:

  • At least a dozen bowls with different nuts, seeds, dried fruits
  • 6 different home made jams
  • A selection of honeys and molasses
  • Bowls of grains. This was mystifying at first. Dried wheat, barley, rye, oats and many others that I couldn’t identify nor translate. Next to the grains was a small hand grinder. After watching someone else, I saw that you put a spoonful of your selection into the grinder and grind it into a bowl. Low and behold you’ve made your own cereal for breakfast.
  • 6 different fresh breads, fresh croissants
  • fresh fruit as well as fresh oranges and grapefruits and a juicer to make your own juice
  • a plate of cheeses and dried meats, salamis, prosciutto etc.
  • several types of yogurts
  • juices, health drinks and many things I couldn’t identify
  • at least a dozen different loose teas, all in small boxes, perfectly labeled
  • bacon, scrambled egg, and a lovely hot bowl that held what looked like sand in which sat perfect boiled eggs.

This is what I can remember. There was much more. Plus a archetypical lovely “Swiss Lass” who brought us coffee and hot water in a beautiful silver service. Needless to say we took our time. We also took the advice of the band and surreptitiously made sandwiches for later.

The band & Tim outside Château Mercier

After breakfast, the band checked out to move to their Sierre location. The Festival organizers had put them up in the plush Château Mercier. It is very posh, set amongst vineyards yet only a 5-minute walk from downtown Sierre. The band settled into their new digs while Tim & I went off to explore town. It is charming, with everyone full of smiles and good humour. There are 3 official languages in Switzerland: French, Swiss-German, and Italian. We muddled along in our ghastly French and were embarrassed to hear the ease with which people switched in and out of all of the languages.

We met up with the band again at their sound check.

The view from the stage, during sound check

Josh was really impressed with the professionalism of the Sierre team. He was happy with the equipment that they’d brought in and everything went quickly and efficiently. It was blazingly hot, so we made a plan to go to explore the lake. However, we ended up getting separated and Tim & I decided that we couldn’t walk to the lake in the heat. The band was in their car, somewhere, but we took a different route and ended up at the Reiner Marie Rilke museum. This would have been more exciting if some of the information at the museum had been in English. We deciphered what we could, absorbed the photos and moved on.

Josh’s band was scheduled to start at 11:30 p.m. and our special bus back up the mountain to Crans Montana was to leave Sierre at 2:00 a.m. Tim needed to get a bit of a break from the heat, from the walking, so he headed back to the B & B, taking the Funicular (which was a whole other kind of terror, he tells me later) while I kicked around town a bit.

One of the other bands that we met at the Château Mercier was “Davina and the Vagabonds”, from Minneapolis. They were playing a gig at 5:00 at the Château de Villa, on the outskirts of town but still only a 10 minute walk.

At Château de Villa, Davina and the Vagabonds are under the tent

Built in the 16th century, the Château houses a “cave”, L’Oenothèque de Villa, with a selection of wines from over 100 local vintners. There is also a museum dedicated to wine and the wine growers of the region. I looked wistfully at the walking map that would take me on a wine tour, walking from Sierre to the nearby town of Salgesch. But it was blazingly hot and it was going to be a very long night. So I settled for a lovely local Rosé on the terrace, to listen to Davina and her band bounce into some very good Dixieland sound.

At 7:30 Tim and I met up with the band, backstage. We had our own backstage passes!

Josh, Ella & Tim backstage

We got to eat and hang out with all of the musicians. The organizers put together a good feast that included gazpacho, chicken with wild mushrooms, rice, salad, fresh peach tart and an open bar of Swiss wines and beers. There was even some raclette on offer later in the evening.

We watched the bands, waiting for the main event. The organizers had also put together an exhibition of paintings of all of the musicians and we were all really excited to see a huge painting of Josh in the VIP tent.

JW and JW

As it turns out, JW didn’t actually start his set until midnight. But what a set! We’ve seen JW in Ottawa at the Rainbow many times. But this was entirely different. The huge stage with the Alps as a backdrop. The fabulous light show. The screaming groupies (not just us – there were lots of others who have travelled from long distances to see this band). JW and Jeff and Jessie are a hot live band and they delivered. You can watch it on You Tube.

We danced, we clapped, we screamed. He conquered. It was a great night.

JW Jones Band

Just before 2:00 we hobbled over to the bus. Turns out we were the only ones who needed the drive up the mountain (the organizers had planned for everything, except for the low turn out). The twists and turns didn’t seem as bad this time around and we were soon tucked safely into our room, already dreaming of tomorrow’s breakfast.

More than cheese, chocolate and clocks

Tim’s friend Sandra picked us up in Geneva to bring us to her house outside the town of Chexbres. Leaving Geneva we made a quick stop to Cologny to see the Villa Diodati, where Mary Shelley first began to write Frankenstein.

Villa Diodati

It’s hard to imagine such a dark book coming out of a villa set in such a sunny, well-manicured garden.

Born in the U.S., Sandra now lives with her husband and daughter in the Lavaux region of Switzerland. Designated as a World Heritage Site in 2007, the Lavaux Vineyard Terraces stretch for approximately 30 kilometers along the north shore of Lake Geneva.

The Lavaux Terraces

A unique microclimate, the area has been under cultivation as a wine-making region since at least the 11th century, when Benedictine and Cistercian monks created the stone terraces that hold the grape vines to this day. The grapes continue to produce exquisite wines. Why have I never heard of them? “Unfortunately, they do not travel well”, says Sandra’s husband with a glint in his eye. Switzerland is proving to be a country of many surprises.

Sandra’s house is a calm oasis amongst the terraced grape vines, directly overlooking Lake Geneva. Designed as a retirement project by a successful engineer, it is a house whose deep windows open to the extraordinary scenery; a house of “noble” products: wood, stone, and polished granite floors.

View from the house, across Lake Geneva to the French Alps

We sip a Dezaley white wine, the appellation of the region. We watch the mountain range on the other side of the lake slide into the purple of the night sky. The French Alps with the famous city of Evian twinkling on the shore. It is an evening of astonishing beauty and invigorating talk under the scent of pine trees.

Dinner in the "magic spot" with Sandra & Andreas. Photo by Olivia

In the morning, we are given a tour of the area, with a brief glimpse of Saint Saphorin, a tiny town that sits atop an ancient Roman villa and produces some of the best wine in the region. We drive along the lake down to Montreux, known to me primarily for the famous jazz festival.

The Grand Hotel in Montreux

In days gone by it was one of the essential stops for Europeans on a “grand tour”. Sandra also takes us to the Hôtel des Trois Couronnes in Vevey, the smaller of the “grand tour” hotels and the setting for Henry James’ novella, “Daisy Miller”.

Hôtel des Trois Couronnes

We wander into the fin-de-siècle lobby and out onto the gorgeous terrace looking out over the topiary to the sun-drenched lake.

We lunch in Lutry, at the Café de la Poste, right beside Lake Geneva. The specialty is tiny Perch fingerlings, fresh from the Lake. Tim, who knows a thing or two about filleting, can’t imagine the difficulty of filleting these tiny fish, but the taste is well worth any effort. The chef comes to our table to explain the cooking process in which the fillets are soaked in milk for half a day, patted dry and lightly floured on the flesh side only. Butter is melted with a little oil and permitted to slightly brown. The fillets are gently fried, always starting with the flesh side first. A delicious sauce, made from a lemon reduction, melted butter, cream and shallots is ladled over the perfect morsels.

The chef in Lutry sits with us to explain how the Perch fingerlings are made

Sandra surprises us by ordering another specialty of the Lavaux region for dessert: Raisins à la Lie et Glace. La Lie is a distilled alcohol, (“sort of like Grappa”) made from the second pressing of the grapes. White Sultana raisins are soaked in the Lie (pronounced Lee), which is slightly diluted with a simple sugar syrup and some lemon zest. Our spoons dip through the creamy ice cream to the sweet alcoholic prize below.

Our experience of Switzerland is full of surprises. Clearly this is a country of much more than cheese, chocolate and cuckoo clocks!

Tim and Sandra in the tropical climate of Montreux

Touching down in Geneva

We decide to go to Switzerland to see Tim’s nephew, Josh. His band, The JW Jones Band, is on tour in Switzerland and his last gig is in Sierre, about 400 km from where we are staying. Since we’ll have to go through Geneva, we decide to spend a night there, followed by a night in the countryside with a student of Tim’s, and then go onto Sierre. We travel by train from Digoin to Lyon to Geneva.

The Rough Guide tells me that Geneva is the most expensive city in Europe, which is confirmed the minute I try and find a B & B. I book us into a hostel that is close to the train station.

We arrive to find Geneva beautiful, clean and safe. We dump our packs at the hostel and head immediately to the harbor to enjoy a local beer and glass of Rosé.

The Geneva Harbour

The focal point of the harbor is a fountain that jets water 200 meters into the air. It’s blazingly hot, so we walk out on the jetty just to feel the spray.

The Harbour fountain jutting from Tim's head
Lavish apartments around the harbour

There are beautiful apartment buildings surrounding the harbor, all with huge signs advertising the most expensive brand names: Rolex, Cartier, Cardin. The love of money seems to ooze from the stores – I see a stack of gold attaché cases that is the perfect representation for the conspicuous wealth that surrounds us. But the architecture is beautiful and the old city is a dramatic warren of angles and irregular roof lines.

Roof lines in the old village. Note the jet spray in the background.

However, it is clearly not a place for mere mortals to shop. When we try to find a place for dinner, we are floored by the prices – 26 Euros for a piece of lasagna (about $32 CAD). Not that we want lasagna, but it sticks in my mind as one of the least expensive dishes on the menu.

After great argument, we resort to a place recommended by the hostel, clearly for the student tourist crowd. It specializes in chicken dishes. We have walked too much, are too tired, and without thinking order half roast chickens with “country” fried potatoes and “special sauce”. Sound familiar? We realize we have just ordered Swiss Chalet in Switzerland.

St. Peter’s Cathedral, (http://www.sacred-destinations.com/switzerland/geneva-cathedral) best known for being where John Calvin preached, offers a stunning view of the city, and also a unique perspective on the history of the area.

A view of the harbour from the North Tower of St. Peter's Cathedral

We climb the steep stairs to the top of the north tower as the bells chime alongside us.

The Bell Tower of St. Peter's Cathedral

A working archeological site under the cathedral (http://www.site-archeologique.ch/contenu.php?id-node=2) takes us through 2000 years of worship and habitation, beginning with the burial mound of a Allobrogian chieftain in 40 BC. The site has uncovered his remains, but left them in situ. He is observed, but undisturbed. Roman, Celtic, Christian constructions are all exposed under the cathedral. It is the highlight of our brief stay, and helps us to better ground ourselves after the unsettling, ostentatious, contemporary city.

Gondebaud. Roi des Burgondies. 480 - 516 AD