Montreux, Switzerland

Smoke on the Water

Why is a small Swiss town at Lake Geneva is forever connected to both Deep Purple and Queen? And how do we somehow manage to draw a straight line  from them to international express trains?

Smoke on the water, fire in the sky
Smoke on the water
They burned down the gambling house
It died with an awful sound
Funky Claude was running in and out
Pulling kids out the ground

If you think the lyrics to Deep Purple’s 1972 hit Smoke on the Water are a little unusual, it’s because this is not so much art than journalistic reportage. This really happened. Deep Purple were in Montreux (a small town on Lake Geneva just south of Lausanne) to record a new album at a lake-side casino, but during a Frank Zappa concert the venue caught fire and burned down to the ground. There was fire in the sky, smoke on the water, and a guy named Claude was indeed saving several young people who had hid from the flames in the casino.

His full name was Claude Nobs and he was a Swiss legend. He founded the Montreux Jazz Festival back in the 1960s, and it remains one of the world’s most important music festivals to this day. Not just for jazz, but also pop stars and rock groups. It runs for the first two weeks of July: 16 days of concerts, with as many free venues as ticketed events.

The festival is the reason Queen recorded several of their albums in Montreux, including their final one, and the city is infused with the spirit of music in general and Queen in particular. Tellingly, the finest accommodation at the Fairmont Montreux Palace is not your typical royal suite, but the Freddie Mercury Suite. (I’ve seen the cosy top-floor suite and also enjoyed an excellent whisky cocktail at the hotel’s bar: Smoke on the Water. It was very smoky indeed).

The view of the lake and Alpine peaks from Montreux

Claude Nobs died in a skiing accident a few years ago, but I recently had the honour of being invited to his amazing chalet in the mountains high above Lake Geneva. It stood just as when he died, complete with a number of very eclectic collections. I remember one of 1950s jukeboxes, and especially an entire wall taken over by model trains. The photo below is the piece de resistance of the train collection: A 1960s German TEE train – arguably the sexiest train ever, made in a golden era when industrial designers generally couldn’t help drawing up the sexiest transportation machines of the century: The Concorde, the Boeing 747, the Queen Elizabeth 2.  You wonder why they stopped doing sexy and switched to boring and generic.

TEE is short for Trans Europa Express, a European network of first-class-only trains that connected the major cities on the continent. Today, that network has been replaced by the various high-speed trains like TGV. While the TEE was sexier, the high-speed network has never been more impressive. And fittingly, some very fine expresses ride the rails below the chalet and alongside Lake Geneva. From Lausanne you can make it through the Alps to Milan in just a few hours, while a TGV in the other direction will get you just as fast to Paris. 

Silver Tray’s base at Lake Geneva is in charming Lausanne, the biggest and most interesting town on this side of the lake, and just a hop and a skip from Montreux by local train. Even when the hills are not alive with the sound of music, the scenery around Lausanne is stunning enough to make you want to burst into song. Sail on the lake on an old steamer, visit picturesque vineyards on the steep hillsides, and definitely hike the mountains. One great hike involves taking the mountain railway from Montreux that passes right by Claude Nob’s old chalet and continues to a mountain summit with amazing views of the lake and snow-capped peaks.  From the summit, a number of scenic hikes await – ranging from very easy to border-line insane. Take your pick


The TEE model train in Claude Nobs' chalet

Journeys visiting Mosel

Several Silver Tray journeys pass through historic Koblenz at the confluence of the Rhine and the Mosel, and always include a full-day pass to unlimited crusing on steamers on both rivers.

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