“How many Father Christmas are there?” asks Niko aged six. He has travelled 2,000 metres up the mountainside to the rocky plateau perched above Montreux.
After coming so far, Niko wants to be sure this is no imposter from the global gift network and this one, he feels, looks distinctly different from the one last week.
Montreux, better known for its summer jazz festival, is transformed into the Swiss answer to Lapland in the winter. Golden Pass excursions is the part of Swiss railways (SBB, CFF,FFS) exploiting the many scenic routes throughout the country.
Journey to Santa’s grotto
On this particular journey, visitors to Santa’s grotto enjoy a breathtaking ride above the far eastern end of Lake Geneva to the Rochers de Naye at 2040 metres.
The one-hour long trip by cog-wheel train winds up the steep mountainside from Montreux at 390 metres with spectacular views across the water to the Alps interrupted only by the many tunnels blasted through the rock and, depending on the weather, clouds.
Packed with children, this is the wrong time to travel if you are looking for a relaxing experience taking in the scenery, as the man in ear defenders in the corner would probably testify. The cacophony of noise inside contrasts with the muffled stillness of the snow- laden countryside outside. At the top, through a long, rather dingy tunnel you arrive at Santa’s lair.
“No, I don’t want to see Father Christmas,” said six of the seven children in our party aged between one and six. It was only the promise of a present that finally swung it as the adults wondered edgily what to do.
A photograph and a certificate later and the children were tucking into the gifts (sweets and a bronze badge, dated 2004 strangely). The photo with Father Christmas cost an extra 15 Swiss francs (13 dollars) on top of the train fare including admission of 29 francs for adults, 15 for children (under fives go free).
Marmotte paradise in Rochers-de-Naye
Then it was outside into the snow of which there was plenty for snowballs. Sadly, thick clouds blotted out the panorama for which the Rochers-de-Naye is famous.
But it was the family of hibernating marmottes, the furry mammals the size of cats that are indigenous to the region, which provided almost as much excitement as Father Christmas.
The Rochers-de-Naye is also Marmotte Paradise in the summer but, during the winter months, visitors still have the chance to see the creatures up close in the man-made underground labyrinth next to the restaurant.
The Montreux Christmas market
Once down the mountainside and there is a Christmas market throughout the town, extending along the shoreline and down the main street. There is a wide range of unusual good quality gifts and, after shopping, the covered market hall is turned over to cafes selling warming mulled wine and Swiss Christmas cake.
There is even a giant ferris wheel, which when the sun sinks behind the mountains across the lake and the temperature drops below freezing, really does take your breath away.
Useful website addresses: www.montreuxnoel.com www.swiss- riviera.com/christmas-market www.mob.ch dpa