A Guide to Magical Montreux, Switzerland: the Perfect Place for a Winter Vacation

CheapOAir Miles Away. January 2020.

Switzerland’s alpine peaks, turquoise lakes, wooden chalets, and rolling hills, attract visitors year-round. Those looking to take a winter break will find plenty of spots around the country offering some of the longest ski runs in Europe, powdery mountains, and cozy log cabins. But if you want to combine unique winter sports with some culture, head to Montreux, a picturesque town located on the shores of Lake Geneva, at the foot of the Alps. Continue reading on CheapOAir Miles Away.

As You Wish, Your Highness! Fun Things to Do in Liechtenstein That Will Give You a Taste of Royalty

CheapOAir Miles Away. Nov 2019.

Liechtenstein is the 6th smallest country in the world and is located in the center of the Alps, between Switzerland and Austria. This breathtaking country has everything from beautiful scenery and a rich art scene, to fine dining and plenty of activities – all at surprisingly affordable costs — making it one of the best destinations to visit right now. Although it is a princely state (meaning there’s a monarch ruling the population of about 30,000), you don’t need to be royalty to enjoy a vacation in Liechtenstein. Here are some great things to do in Liechtenstein that will make you feel like nobility! Continue reading on CheapOAir Miles Away blog.

Trending Bollywood Locations: A Journey

Khabar Magazine. Oct 2019.

Song-and-dance routines are a beloved, signature feature of Bollywood films—but often, the glamorous foreign settings are just as important. Although the locations are only the background, moviegoers can gain much awareness about the country, its landscapes, architecture, culture, and attractions. The spectacular visuals could be a starting point, even a guide, for your next vacation.

As I walk on one of the highest hanging bridges in the world, making my way to get a good view of the surrounding glaciers, a cold gust hits my face. Even though I’m wearing a warm base layer and a down jacket, my body goes numb from the icy crisp of this summer morning. I think about the dozens of movies I have watched, in which a young damsel dressed in a pink chiffon sari dances with delight, singing love songs against the backdrop of these very glaciers!

I tug my wool hat down for more warmth.

Switzerland

For decades, we have marveled at Bollywood’s shots of famous landmarks, scenic locations, and unreal circumstances. Switzerland was one of the first international locations favored by Bollywood starting in the 1960s, and remains so to this day. The small country offers a diverse assortment of landscapes—from tranquil alpine lakes and rolling green hillsides, to snow covered mountain peaks and passes.

Indians are Switzerland’s fourth-largest tourist group from Asia; they account for around 85,000 overnight stays in Interlaken, an area known for its emerald-colored lakes, alpine meadows, and dense forests. Much of the credit goes to the late filmmaker, Yash Chopra. From the Alpenrausch Lake in the movie Chandni, the snow covered Alps in Darr, to Bern and Fribourg in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, audiences have been charmed by their favorite movie scenes, making Switzerland their preferred honeymoon destination.

In 2016, a statue of Yash Chopra was installed in the gardens of the Casino Kursaal in Interlaken. Fans of the filmmaker are often seen striking a pose with the statue.

In 2017, Switzerland Tourism appointed Bollywood star Ranveer Singh (seen in the recent hit Simmba) as the country’s travel ambassador, launching a series of branded videos showcasing his favorite locations and adventures around the country. The country has repositioned itself for millennial travelers craving unique experiences, says Ritu Sharma, deputy director of Switzerland Tourism.

I have to agree. My first trip to Switzerland in 2005 was largely influenced by what I had seen on the big screen. I visited the usual destinations: Zurich, Geneva, Interlaken. But on my recent trip as a seasoned traveler skipping big cities and touristy highlights, I wanted to experience the small towns and festivals of Switzerland. I attended the Fête des Vignerons in Vevey, a rare winemakers festival that takes place only every 20 years, and roamed the charming villages of St. Gallen, an area known to have textile trade relationships with India since before the Second World War.

Montreux, a beautiful city on Lake Geneva, is where I learned about the famous band, Queen, and one of the largest jazz festivals in the world. Then I traveled by the Golden Pass Line through the UNESCO World Heritage vineyards of Lavaux and the Jura mountains, to the Bernese Alps. It was my own version of the ‘Ranveer on Tour’ train that Ranveer inaugurated in honor of his contribution to the increasing popularity of Switzerland as a preferred destination for Indian tourists.

Austria

Tourism Boards understand the impact of Bollywood and work closely with local production studios to offer grants to films. Cine Tirol, a joint initiative by the State of Tirol and the Tirol Tourism Board, has promoted over 86 Indian film productions in the Austrian Alps. A Cine Tirol promoter, with knowledge of Tirolean locations, is established in Mumbai to be in direct contact with leading producers and directors across India. Beautiful sets, excellent infrastructure, and financial incentives attract Hindi and regional movie productions to Austria.

Tirol, also known as the Capital of the Alps, is a picturesque area known for the imperial architecture of Innsbruck and its Old Town Center, visually depicted in the recent release, Tiger Zinda Hai. The movie was filmed in alpine Praxmar and in Kühtai, the historic city center of Innsbruck, as well as in the Imperial Court Palace of Innsbruck.

Apart from the mountains surrounding Innsbruck, the main attractions in this region are the Golden Roof; the medieval historic quarter; Schloss Ambras—a Renaissance castle with its Chamber of Art and Curiosities; the Court Church with a Renaissance cenotaph—tomb of Emperor Maximilian I; the Bergisel ski jump designed by star architect Zaha Hadid; and the Swarovski Crystal Worlds (where the “Enni Soni” ​song in the movie Saaho was filmed).

Karin Seiler-Lall, Managing Director of Innsbruck Tourism, says that Bollywood films and TV productions play a key role in influencing the holiday decisions of many vacationers from India and its diaspora, with a visit to the film locations being a central motive for choosing a holiday in the Innsbruck region. According to Cine Tirol, overnight stays from the subcontinent increased by over 700% between 1998 and 2014.

During my recent visit to this winter wonderland also known as Tirollywood, I notice busloads of tourists from South Asia crafting their Instagram memories under the Crystal Cloud in the garden at Swarovski Crystal Worlds and shopping for souvenirs at the largest Swarovski shop in the world. Stops on the tour also include thermal spas at the Aqua Dome hotel, and the nearby Stubai Glacier, the largest glacier ski resort in the country.

Malta

The movie Bharat traces the history of post-independence India against the backdrop of the turquoise blue waters, ancient walled cities, and limestone fortresses of Malta. This small island country in the Mediterranean Sea, south of Sicily and north of Tripoli (in Algeria), has been recently gaining popularity with South Asian travelers, even though it has seen its share of stardom for decades. Malta was the location for Charas (1976) and Samraat (1982), both starring Dharmendra and Hema Malini, as well as recent blockbusters, Thugs of Hindostan starring Aamir Khan and Amitabh Bachchan, and Bharat with Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif.

Malta’s palm-tree fringed landscape, dotted with picturesque hilltop towns, peaceful seaports, and old fishing villages, looks much like the other various locations where the film Bharat was shot, including Abu Dhabi, Spain, Punjab, and Delhi. As I rode in a traditional fishing boat across Malta’s Grand Harbor, I could visualize dramatic scenes from the movies coming alive over Fort Ricasoli and the nearby Malta Film Studios.

Valletta, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the capital city of Malta, is one of the most popular attractions in the country, packed with museums, cathedrals, gardens, and cafes, where 500 years of history unfolds. Nearby, the islands of Comino and Gozo offer secluded beaches, blue lagoons, and dramatic cliff formations.

In December 2018, Malta hosted the first ever Malta India Film Festival backed by the Ministry for Tourism, and invited filmmakers from all over the world who have either Maltese or Indian elements in their films to build a creative bridge encouraging art, culture, and entertainment involving the two countries. Twenty-six films, including Indian pictures shot in Malta and local productions were screened, while Bollywood actors and producers walked the red carpet during the three-day event in Valletta. Thugs of Hindostan, a $20 million production partly shot in Malta, opened the festival, followed by Raazi and Sanju.

Though many scenes are overshadowed by glamorous dance numbers, Bollywood can offer much awareness about a country, its landscapes, architecture, culture, and attractions. Let the visuals guide you through your next vacation as you watch on screen and then visit in person.

~ Published in the Oct 2019 print issue of Khabar Magazine.

Jérôme Aké Béda’s Journey to Switzerland’s Historic Winegrowers Festival

Cuisine Noir Magazine. Sept 2019.

Twenty thousand spectators gather in an open-air arena built along the shore of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The colorful display of costumes, floats, dances and music, feels no less festive than Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. More than 7,000 local actors, singers and musicians participate in a two-and-a-half-hour show staged by Daniele Finzi Pasca who is known for his direction at the Sochi and Turin Olympic ceremonies.

This is Fête des Vignerons, a traditional winegrowers’ festival held roughly every 20 years in the lakeside town of Vevey. The festival, which connects people from the villages, countryside and vineyards, is recognized by UNESCO on its list of intangible cultural heritage.

Jérôme Aké Béda’s Journey to Switzerland’s Historic Winegrowers Festival
Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

This year, for the first time in the Fête’s 400-year old history, a black African played a leading role. Jerome Aké Beda was one of three professionals tapped to portray doctors on stage as they explained the history of winemaking and argued in their funny banter (in French) how wine should be made while connecting the 21 different acts of the orchestrated performance.

Making History in Wine and Switzerland

Beda was born in Côte d’Ivoire and moved to Switzerland in 1990. He worked as maître d’ at a restaurant and worked his way up to be named Sommelier of the Year by the Swiss Gault & Millau Guide in 2015 and Commander of the Vaudois Wine Order in 2018. Beda is the author of two books, “50 Best Winemakers of Switzerland” and “The 99 Chasselas to Drink Before Dying.”  He still works as a sommelier at Auberge de l’Onde, an upscale restaurant located in the heart of Lavaux region, between Lausanne and Vevey, surrounded by terraced vineyards that make up a UNESCO World Heritage site.

I caught up with Beda soon after his seventh performance on a warm sunny afternoon outside the stadium in Vevey. Fête des Vignerons has twelve shows held over three weeks on some mornings and evenings.

“The artistic director and president of Fête des Vignerons came to eat at my restaurant three years ago. They drank a lot of wine and after that, came back and said to me, I’m picturing you on stage! At first, I didn’t take him seriously, but he came back three times. I consulted my friends and they all encouraged me to do it,” Beda says about how he was selected to play a lead role in the 2019 Fête. “An African person has never participated as an actor before, so I agreed to try it,” adds Beda. When I asked him why he thinks they picked him for the role, he said, “When you make your cinema production, you create a costume and then find the right person to fit in it. They probably saw me as one of the three doctors (who in real life, work as a journalist, a teacher, and Beda as a sommelier).”

A Somm Life to be Proud of

Though Beda had no background in acting, as an award-winning sommelier, he considers himself somewhat of an actor. “I present wines on stage and in interviews.” For the Fête, the three actors practiced in hiding to keep their identities from the public until the first day of the performance. “In Switzerland, everyone knows me as the only black sommelier,” he laughs.

3 Actors on stage at Fête des Vignerons in Switzerland
Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

Beda’s grew up in a country that does not make wine or even grow grapes. He attended Abidjan’s Hospitality School and worked as a butler at Wafou, a famous restaurant in the Ivorian capital. His mentor got him a job in France, and later Switzerland, where he trained with expert sommeliers. Today, Beda oversees 4,000 bottles of fine wines in his cellar and hosts wine dinners and wine tasting classes.

“What attracted me about wine is that you learn about geology, history, culture and meet all kinds of people,” he says. His secret to learning about the wines is meeting the growers themselves, hearing their stories of how they make the wine and visiting the vineyards.

“Our former president of Côte d’Ivoire once said that anybody can achieve something if they believed in it. That’s my philosophy. When I came to Switzerland, I decided I will be the best sommelier. I accomplished that. Now, I feel I became a part of history again. I am proud.”

~ Written for & published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.