Friday, June 23, 2017

Try the “Mountain Man” restaurant near Montreux, Switzerland

Chateau Chillon in Montreux, immortalized by Lord Byron, sits
in the shadow of Le Montagnard  (wikipedia)

VALLON DE VILLARD, SWITZERLAND -- This is a story about perseverance and dedication. In its own personal way it is a love story for it say everything you need to know about  human spirit It is about humility. It is a .story about a Swiss chef who rarely left his beloved hills overlooking Lake Geneva outside Montreux, Switzerland, and it is a story about the determination to do something with your life that brings pleasure to others through your own talents and gifts

His name was Hans Odermatt, and he was one of those people you never forget.
Lord Byron would have
enjoyed knowing Hans
Odermatt  (wikipedia)
It wasn’t so much his hand-knitted woolen socks that made him distinctive.  Nor was it his home-made wooden sandals with broad leather straps.  It wasn’t even his Santa Claus beard that grew down to his chest.  Rather it was his indefinable and intangible spirit; an aura that touched nearly everyone who walked into his little restaurant in Vallon de Villard (Villard Valley), the mountains  that overlook Montreux, Switzerland.

Hans Odermatt was a simple man.  In his youth, he was a carpenter by trade.  When the armies of the world surrounded Switzerland in the 1940s, Hans left his beloved mountains and traveled to Australia where he learned to speak English.

Later, when the war was over, he returned to Zurich where he enrolled in culinary school before moving back to the hills of Lake Geneva.
Steamers criss-cross Lake Geneva between Switzerland and
France throughout the summer  (wikipedia)
Using his life’s savings, Odermatt purchased a 17th century farm in the 1960s.  Recalling the carpentry skills of his earlier life, Hans went to work on the stable and transformed in into a restaurant.  Working with his own hands by day, Hans gradually and methodically built his dream.  In the evening, in order to earn enough money to pay his bills, Odermatt prepared fondue and raclette for the villagers who lived in the countryside.
Golden Pass train glides past
vineyards above Lake Geneva

The restaurant was rustically appointed with wall paintings by Alexandre Guhl and decorated throughout with a large collection of old farm implements. Even today, visitors are captivated by the depictions of traditional Swiss country life that permeate the restaurant. 

When the restaurant was completed, Hans Odermatt continued refining his culinary techniques by expanding his menu and perfecting his craft.  Soon, Le Montagnard Restaurant became well-known throughout the region.  So popular did his establishment become that the rich and famous quickly discovered Odermatt’s kitchen.  William Holden.  Richard Nixon.  Richard Burton.  David Niven.  Even Charlie Chaplin and Charles Lindbergh were visitors at Le Montagnard
Fireworks light up the Geneva sky in August  (wikipedia)
Each night, when his cooking chores were finished, it was Odermatt’s routine to sit in a corner booth of his restaurant with a glass of red wine and proudly observe his domain.  Elegant cuisine, its preparation and the pure enjoyment of his customers savoring each delicious morsel became a passion for the little Swiss chef.

For many, the thought of personally preparing meals for some of the most celebrated people in the world might have been a powerful aphrodisiac for their ego, but not for Hans Odermatt.  When asked about his famous clientele, Odermatt answered humbly, “It’s the villagers who are most important to me.  They come every night, and the rich and famous don’t spend any more than the peasants do.”
Mary Shelley wrote
Frankenstein while staying
in Geneva  (wikipedia)

Indeed, Hans Odermatt was a simple man, for he understood the blessings of life.  He had a sixth sense about what made life worth living; what true quality of life was all about and a love of the natural order of things he saw daily in his beloved hills of Switzerland.

Hans Odermatt is gone now. He died doing what he loved most, cooking in the place he built with his own hands. Today Le Montagnard still operates with limited service, much as it did during the early days when Hans Odermatt served his traditional Swiss specialties to his neighbors on the hillside.

As Hans would express to others, he had no need of a calendar because he could tell what day it was in the spring by where the flowers bloomed on the hillside outside his window. 
The majestic breathtaking Alps add to the aura of Montreux and
Byron's Castle of Chillon  (wikipedia)
Hans probably never heard of Thanksgiving, but he was a man who lived each day of his life with thanksgiving in his heart.

Le Montagnard means “The Mountain Man.”  It’s easy to find.  Just take a taxi from Montreux about 4 miles up into the hills.  The driver will know where it is.

And somewhere from a corner of heaven Hans Odermatt will be watching you dine with a glass of red wine in his hand.

(*Author's note: Pictures of Hans Odermatt are rare and difficult to find. I possess one transparency that was taken in his corner seat at Le Montagnard. When I am able to get it digitized, I will add it to the article.)

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Panama: Central America's undiscovered gem

Embera tribesman poles tourists to his village (Taylor0
PANAMA  In the world of travel and tourism, most people probably know more about the Panama Canal than the country that links the Caribbean Sea with the Pacific Ocean.

But "times they are a'changin'" and though tourism is still relatively new to Panama, it is country that has much to offer visitors with native crafts, friendly people and a rich history as well as being an environmental paradise. Panama has more than 900 species of birds. For that reason alone it has become a major destination for bird watchers from around the world.
Tropical rainforest (Taylor)
Thanks to a rainy season that lasts slightly more than half a year, the tropical isthmus is a haven for plants and animals that is beginning to rival its Central American sister, Costa Rica.

Panama was originally inhabited by several indigenous tribes before the Spanish arrived in the 16th century.
Embera women perform a traditional native dance  (Taylor)
One such group was the Embera-Wounaan people who were once called Choco. Today, the Embera live in small villages of 5 to 20 thatched roof houses along the riverbanks of the country.

But tourism has even found a path to the Embera, who regularly pick up travelers along rugged, uneven shores of a river and carry them upstream in dugout canoes to experience their lives just as it has been lived for centuries.
Typical thatched roof huts set on stilts in the Embera village
Traditional crafts are on sale though this is not a place for bartering since prices are already inexpensive.
Embera crafts for sale

The Embera are a gentle people who are proud of their heritage. Translators explain their history to guests before a traditional fish lunch is served followed by a demonstration of native dancing.

The colorful clothing, though similar to what we would call our Sunday best, is primarily worn for tourists. When visitors are not around, the Embera prefer minimalism when it comes to garments.

To truly embrace the country of Panama, it is probably wiser for travelers to visit the country by land rather than cruising through the canal. Not only will they learn more about the century old engineering marvel that is the Panama Canal, a project that has carried nearly a million ships across it waters, you will also learn about Panamanian craftsmanship which rivals that of artisans anywhere in the world.
Believe it or not this will soon be a Panama Hat  (Taylor)
Begin with a demonstration of weaving a "Panama hat" which, by the way, has its roots in Ecuador. In Panama the hats are known as "Pintado." Some people say the "Panama" designation was an American creation resulting from photos of President Theodore Roosevelt wearing one during the construction of the Panama Canal.
Weaving begins  (Taylor)
No matter. Panamanians are masters at the weaving process that creates the stylish hats. The quality is second to none and in a matter of an hour or less you can witness the completion of a hat from little more than reeds to the finished product. 
Finished Panama hats by master craftsman  (Taylor)
Traditional fine linen makes up the "pollera", a lace blouse and skirt comprised of about 13 yards of material. Creating a pollera is a time consuming art, which takes about a year to a year and a half to complete the entire ensemble. Needless to say this traditional clothing is worn during only the most special occasions.
Panamanian dancer in traditional "pollera"  (Taylor)
Consisting of a ruffled blouse worn off the shoulders, a pollera also features a ruffled skirt on the waistline with gold buttons. Designs usually consist of bright colors with flowers or birds.
Exquisite craftsmanship  (Taylor)
There are two matching pom poms on the front and back, with four ribbons hanging from the front and back on the waist line. In addition, five gold chains drape from the neck to the waist and a gold cross or medallion on a black ribbon is worn as a choker.
A work of art and elegant artistry  (Taylor)
When the skirt is lifted, it resembles a peacock's tail.
Young model  (Taylor)
The hair is usually worn in a bun, held by three large gold combs with pearls that resemble a crown. Earrings are usually gold or coral and the slippers typically match the color of the pollera.
 Quality polleras range anywhere in price from 10 to 16 thousand dollars.

Often this traditional clothing is worn in parades or native dances where the women sway gently while twirling their skirts and the men hold their hats in their hands as they  dance behind the females.
Masks are also popular to wear in ceremonies (Taylor)
There are several legends surrounding origin of the name "Panama" but when combined, most Panamanians will say that the word generally means an "abundance of fish, trees and butterflies."
Ride over a rainforest in a Swiss built cable car  (Taylor)
Trees are certainly indeed in abundance. It is possible to take a short cable car ride across a forested canopy where naturalists keep a keen eye out for animals including a variety of birds, howler monkeys and three-toed sloths.
Sloths are a favorite attraction
Another popular creature to spot is a capybara, a tailless rodent that is the largest in the world.

Dominating Panama's geography is a spine of mountains that forms the continental divide. At 11,401 feet, the Volcan Baru is the highest point in the country.

Natural beauty of Panama

The only missing link in the Pan--American Highway lies in the nearly impenetrable jungle between Panama and Colombia. Until 1903 Panama was part of Colombia.

Tourism in Panama is still in its infancy. Its people are energetic and friendly. Stop in for a beer and some ceviche and you will quickly see for yourself.
Ceviche and beer will make your forget all your cares
Transit the Panama Canal by ship if you wish, but you will miss most of what this delightful country has to offer.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Roman Holiday: Two great tours in the Eternal City

The Colosseum is a massive symbol of eternal Rome
ROME  More often than not, the second time you visit a destination will be better than the first. On that primary trip, travelers typically race non-stop through unfamiliar locations to view all the must-see sites.

Compare that to the second or third time around when there's a frame of reference combined with the luxury of time to seek and discover the hidden gems you overlooked on that initial trip.
Palatine Hill, Home of the
Roman Emperors (wikipedia)
Visitors to Rome this summer can take advantage of two incredible excursions offered by Through Eternity, an innovative tour company which has built its reputation on unique one-of-a-kind in-depth sightseeing programs. This year, Through Eternity is one of a handful of companies that have been awarded the opportunity to visit Nero's Golden House (Domus Aurea) and the Colosseum by Night.

Travelers have the opportunity experience these historic landmarks just as the Romans lived them, through the darkened torch lit tunnels of the Colosseum and the massive gold covered rooms of Nero's palace. The Golden House tour is aided by 3D virtual reality so visitors can see Domus Aurea just as it was in the time of the infamous Roman emperor.
The Roman Forum captures the imagination of a glorious past
For nearly two thousand years, Nero's 200 room Golden Palace has been hidden beneath Palatine Hill overlooking the Colosseum in Rome. Built between 64-68 AD the magnificent residence was destroyed by the Roman people and the Senate to erase the memory of Nero's extravagance and abuse of power.

According to some accounts, Celer and Severus, the architect/engineers of the palace, designed an ingenious mechanism in one location where slaves turned a huge crank that made the ceiling beneath the dome revolve like the heavens while perfume was sprayed to permeate the surroundings and rose petals were dropped on diners below.
Nero's Domus Aurea or
Golden House  (wikipedia)
The Through Eternityprogram begins in a vast column-lined portico complete with a grotto and waterfall that reside within alabaster walls. Courtyards and gardens filled with priceless paintings, mosaics and sculpture reveal themselves to visitors as they stroll through the cavernous complex before arriving at the Octagonal Room.

Here, Nero's guests would lie on couches and feast while admiring the heavens above.
Nero's frescoes are still
vibrant  (wikipedia)

Tours are done just twice a week at appointed times each day, making visits limited. Through Eternity offers a three part tour through the underground palace including the unique experience of donning 3D glasses and virtual animation to recreate the ruins just as they were in Nero's time.

The program concludes with a sparking glass of prosecco and snacks on a rooftop overlooking a 360-degree panorama of the Colosseum and Rome at night
Painting of a gladiator in
ancient Rome  (wikipedia)
The second program of this dynamic duo of tours is a behind the scenes look at the inner workings of the Colosseum and historic past. Through Eternity begins with a moonlight stroll through the two-tiered Colosseum underground where gladiators and animals awaited their fates in side by side cages.
Through Eternity will take you into the labyrinth of caves once occupied by gladiators and animals  (wikipedia)
Even in daylight the labyrinth of corridors and caverns beneath the Colosseum floor were bathed in darkness illuminated only by torchlight. Archaeological digs have produced hundreds of lanterns that only provided  flickering visibility for the competitors before battle in the arena.
The Palatine Hill nestles beside the Colosseum overlooking the
ancient Roman Forum  (wikipedia)
In addition the tour guide teaches visitors about the ingenious mechanical equipment was used to  maneuver massive stage sets into the arena and even to occasionally flood the floor to create mock sea battles.

Following the Colosseum visit, take a walk through history in the Roman Forum to the Campidoglio, designed by Michelangelo.

Through Eternity has been offering unique private and small group tours of Rome since 1999 with a philosophy of taking traveling travelers to many of the lesser known venues and relevant locations that are often located within the shadow of better known monuments and museums.
Victor Emmanuelle Monument at one end of the Roman Forum
sits beside Michelangelo's Campidoglio  (Taylor)
Guides speak fluent English and are selected for their intimate knowledge of Rome, their scholastic background and their professional expertise. It's a combination that provides a powerful experience through the love and passion the guides have for their city. 
The Colosseum at twilight beckons us to journey into the past
of a once glorious empire  (wikipedia)
Many travel experts say that the best way to "discover" a destination is to walk its streets and to immerse yourself into the sights, sounds and even the aromas of the place. (For details contact, Mary Liz Wheelis at The Suite Group 800-783-6904 or e-mail

Through Eternity provides the best of both worlds by providing unique guided walks that allow visitors to learn and discover as they meander their way through the past.

The old adage goes that "Rome is eternal" and the best way to find out is to explore Rome Through Eternity.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Panama Canal: Eighth wonder of the world in a land that time forgot

Massive freighter enters a lock in the Panama Canal  (Taylor)
PANAMA CANAL ZONE, PANAMA Travel tip: If you really want to see the Panama Canal and how it operates, do it by land and sea rather than on a trans-canal cruise.
With a land/sea tour, travelers see the canal from the inside- out as well as the outside-in, discover the history, tour the manmade Gatun Lake, visit Panamanian craftsmen, scoot across the top of a rain forest and see the country up close and personal for about half the price of a cruise.
Some ships only have an 18-inch clearance on each side of a lock  (Taylor)
Collette Vacations offers one of the best travel packages going to this "land between the seas" where the 100 year old waterway connects the Caribbean Sea with the Pacific Ocean. You might just say that touring Panama through the countryside is a "lock."
The world's 50  mile shortcut
The fifty mile Panama Canal project began in 1881 with French teams attempting to link the oceans, but a high mortality rate, largely due to malaria, and engineering problems halted construction until 1904 when the United States took up the challenge.
As one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects in history, the canal eventually opened a decade later in 1914 allowing ships to reduce transit time between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts as well as avoiding the hazardous route around Cape Horn at the tip of South America.
Curiosity seeker on Lake Gatun
There are only six locks for ships to negotiate, three at each end of the canal before exiting into the manmade Gatun Lake which was created to reduce the amount of excavation work. Though both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean are on relatively the same level, the lake sits about 85-feet above sea level, thus making the locks necessary.
While the canal has served its purpose magnificently for more than a century, the need for wider locks became necessary to accommodate modern-day shipping that is even larger. As a consequence, Post-Panamax ships have been making transits through an expanded canal and a third set of locks which began operation only about a year ago.
Where the old canal links with the new (Taylor)
Since its opening in 1914, when approximately 1,000 ships went through the canal, more than 850,000 vessels had cleared the locks by 2013 through one of man's finest architectural achievements.
Today, more than 15,000 ships transit the canal annually.
The canal can now handle modern day ships that are longer
and wider  (Taylor)
As early as 1534, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, ordered a survey across the Isthmus of Panama to determine if it would be possible to bypass the lower tip of South America. Not only would that be a major trade advantage but a huge military factor over the Portuguese as well.
Fast forward nearly four centuries later, and there was interest by some Americans to run the canal through Nicaragua rather than Panama.
Panama is new to tourism
By 1903 Panama declared its independence from Columbia, and as part of the recognition of the new country, a treaty was signed granting the United States rights to build the canal and indefinitely administer the Panama Canal Zone. In the process, the language of the treaty was misinterpreted as granting the U.S. a "99 year lease" on the project.
Though contentious for many months, in 1903, the Republic of Panama became a U.S. protectorate until 1939.
Freighters can carry huge loads to waiting railways  (Taylor)
Once convinced that Panama was a better location than Nicaragua, President Theodore Roosevelt stated at the time "I took the Isthmus, started the canal and then left Congress not to debate the canal, but to debate me."
Using the abandoned French equipment and excavations, including the Panama Railroad, work resumed primarily in the area known as the Culebra Cut.
Culebra Cut is now filled in to make Lake Gatun  (Taylor)
Lake Gatun was artificially created by closing off the mouth of the Chagres River, lowering the walls of Culebra Cut and dredging approach culverts. Large military bases were also constructed to defend the project.
Among the key factors in the success of the canal was the administration of John Frank Stevens, a self-educated engineer, who had the vision to bypass bureaucratic red-tape and send requests directly to the Roosevelt administration in Washington.
Monument to Goethals (Taylor)
Stevens recognized the need for proper housing, cafeterias, hotels, water systems and repair shops to aide the thousands of workers on the project.
Unlike the French approach, Stevens had the imagination to cut through the mountains and dam the Chagres River.
When Stevens resigned as chief engineer in 1907, he was replaced by Major George Washington Goethals of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who completed the project.
To this day the names Stevens and Goethals are as revered in Panama as any beloved leader in the history of any other country.
Cemetery honors the Panamanian soldiers and workers who died working on the canal (Taylor)
In October, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson sent a signal from the White House via telegraph to Panama. That signal triggered the explosion which flooded the Culebra Cut and created Lake Gatun. In that historic moment, the Caribbean Sea united with the Pacific Ocean.
And on August 15, 1914, the freighter Ancon became the first ship to transit the new Panama Canal. During the ten year of construction, some 5,600 workers lost their lives.
The Miraflores Locks building is also a museum telling the history of the canal  (Taylor)
For travelers interested in not only seeing the locks of the Panama Canal, but searching for wildlife on Lake Gatun, browsing the historic museum in the Miraflores Locks building on the Pacific Ocean side of the canal and immersing yourself into the wonders of the Panama Canal, the only way to do it is by land and water.
Panamanians will greet you with a
smile (Taylor)
Tourism is new to Panama. The infrastructure is there for travelers to savor with all the comforts of home, but the people themselves are still going through the learning curve of how best to adapt to their new role in the world. It is that gentleness and kindness of spirit that makes Panama unique and gives it its charm.
For visitors, that translates to stepping into the past to tour a land that time forgot while traveling to a place you will long remember.