Friday, March 21, 2008

Switzerland: The Las Vegas Spectacular

Here's this week's Las Vegas Weekly column...illustrated! Keep in mind, it was written on Monday. A full week of Swiss travels came after this...

It's a Vegas World: We Just Travel In It

As I type, I am in the central-European equivalent of an Econolodge in some quaint southeastern Swiss town called Fribourg on a week’s vacation and anniversary celebration with my partner Miles. The hotel clerk barely spoke enough English for us to get a couple of extra pillows, we spent much of the afternoon lost without a map in the winding countryside between here and the capital, Bern, and my partner’s one true wish at the moment is that someone serve him a drink with some ice cubes.

And yet, as far away as we are from most of our creature comforts and all that’s familiar to us, I am looking out the window and there it is: Las Vegas. Or some derivative thereof.

It must be some cosmic funny, but this room faces the side of the Casino de Fribourg, its name edited into the classic “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign in a way it’s certain Betty Willis never expected. There’s an advertisement for a slot-club card and the promise of “jeux et spectacles,” or games and shows. Heck, they even unintentionally evoke Steve Wynn in the use of the term “le reve,” as in the promise of “the getaway of your dreams.”

We could hardly resist, of course. Okay, we were really hungry, and it seemed like the only place open for dinner when we arrived last night for our two-night stay in these parts. So off we went to the exciting home of “more than 100 slots” and a few table games. When you enter, you show your carefully scrutinized ID, and then you’re encouraged to pick a metal key out of a large red box. If your key opens a nearby door, you win something. Nobody would say what, and nobody won while I stood watching.

We didn’t stay long. We walked around the casino and threw a couple of francs into the machines; they still use coins here, and the machines still gobble your money before you can figure out what represents a win on the same themed five-reel slot games. The booklet about the slot club was especially entertaining; we learned that 300,000 player points earns you a GPS device and upcoming shows here include a Chinese country-western singer and a tribute band that’s “the closest thing to ABBA.”

Then we moved on to the horrid-looking restaurant, where Casino de Fribourg’s Vegas showed in their attempt to gouge for food. The menu was a simplistic offering of meat and pasta, none of which was less than about $25 per entrée. An “offre special Americaine” was a seeming steal at about $28 for a 200-gram ribeye in barbecue sauce, baked potatoes (spelled “backed”) and a veggie medley. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but we’re counting our pennies on this trip, and this place didn’t seem like the occasion to splurge, so we drove over to the McDrive—really, that’s what they call it—for Big Macs instead.

Amusingly, Casino de Fribourg was the second gambling joint we saw that day. The first was Grand Casino Luzern, which loomed over the water at Lake Luzern in central Switzerland.

We tried going in but found that entrance cost 10 Swiss Francs, or about $9, although we would’ve gotten a Lucky 5-Franc token to play with on one of the 245 slots. We had to leave anyway when I tried to shoot a photo into the casino, unaware that this was illegal.

I did grab a couple of matchbooks on my way out. (Oh, and did I mention I also made off from Casino de Fribourg with a little change bucket as a souvenir?)

That wasn’t the end of our Vegas-related thrills. On a public bus, an advertisement pasted in the window shilled for an upcoming performance of a four-female group called The Acapickels and Orchestra Go To Las Vegas. See for yourself at

One night in Zurich, a German variety show played on the TV in our restaurant. The first act was the stars of the Berlin production of Mamma Mia! doing “Dancing Queen” in their outlandish finale garb.

And the second? None other than ex-Planet Hollywood star Hans Klok, still running as fast as he can around the stage in flouncy shirts to create the illusion of an exciting magic act. Weirder yet, suddenly Pamela Anderson was onstage with him here, too. Presumably this was recorded back when the two were something of a, uh, Vegas item. The banter was in German, so it was hard to tell.

Nowhere we go are we immune to our hometown influence. Every time we tell new acquaintances where we live, just the utterance of the words “Las Vegas” sends an electric pulse coursing through the room.

My favorite? I went to the Swiss parliament in Bern to interview a prominent legislator for a piece I’m working on during this trip for The New York Times. He was excited to be interviewed by that newspaper, but he became positively delirious when I mentioned I hailed from Vegas.

“Vegas! Oh, I love Las Vegas!” he chirped.

Had he ever been?

“Once, long, long ago.” His French accelerated beyond my comprehension, so a fellow journalist helping to translate explained that the legislator had come to the U.S. on holiday after college. He and his friends bought a $500 junker and circled our land. The highlight, even back in 1985? Vegas. I asked where he stayed.

“The Moulin Rouge,” he replied.

Miles and I weren’t even sure whether that place was open as a hotel in 1985, but the legislator wanted to keep chatting about what a great time he had, to the point that I needed to return the conversation to the business at hand.

It was enough to remind us that if we want a vacation free of Vegas chit-chat, we might be best off staying home.


LinFromNJ said...

Oooooh! souvenirs. any extras?