Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Cows equal cheese and chocolates in Fribourg and la Gruyere

Still on food but back to level travel in pre-Alp Switzerland and what to do besides skiing, hiking or mountain climbing.
After a night spent in Charmey sleeping to the sound of cow bells in the pasture behind the hotel, the drive to Fribourg is a treat. Cats out hunting in dewy pastures the shade of golf course greens, apples ripening on the trees and firewood stacked neatly for winter.
We arrived at the Sarine River which winds through the medieval town and its modern city and walked across the flat bridge to the 13th-14th century lower town at the end of the peninsula.
Warning: This may be the last flat thing in Fribourg. We're getting closer to the Alps and changes in elevation, not to mention cobblestone streets abound. It won't be hard to take your time because there's much to see and photograph as you make your way up to the level before the next hill.
There was a flea market in the lower square and, on this the last day of the annual medieval festival, costumed children and adults frolicking down the hill as we walked up. This was and is a university town and was an important stop for pilgrims on the way to San Juan de Compostela in Spain. Look for the directional sign on the wall to the left.
As the hill levels the market square begins; venders of flowers, artisanal cheeses, chocolates, freshly picked mushrooms and colorful vegetables line the pedestrian way.
Just when you think you can't climb another step an even higher hill - many of us would call it a mountain - looms.
Tip: Thankfully, there's a funicular powered entirely by water (!) that takes you to the top.
If you can't linger overnight in Fribourg, as we wanted to but couldn't, give your feet a rest, have a light lunch and drive on to Gruyeres
Tip: To sound like a native, remember it's le Gruyer for the cheese, Gruyeres for the city and la Gruyere for the region
No doubt, this is cheese country with at least one cow for every resident in the region. Necessary because it takes 400 litres of milk to produce one kilo of cheese.
By all means take in a cheese factory to see how Gruyer and Vacherin Fribourgeois are produced. Do sample, but save yourself for dinner - fondue and raclette, of course, the local specialties.
Tip: Always utilize horse-pulled wagons and miniature train trolleys when offered. It's really hilly here.
It's a hike but do tour up through Gruyeres and its castle. There's good window shopping en route so it's easy to pace yourself.
The count didn't need a castle - he had no enemies - but all the other counts had one so in 1250 he built his. The family was cultured; arrtists and musicians were frequent long-term visitors. There are Corot paintings on the wall and Franz Liszt left his piano to them. Half of the hotel has been turned into a museum of fantasy art.
To the delight of visitors - this is as touristy as Fribourg is not - costumed Alpenhorn players and flag tossers regularly demonstrate their talents during the day in the courtyard outside the castle.
As you leave the castle, to the left is the H. R. Giger Gallery - not for the faint of heart and only if you are into surrealistic sadism - and to the right is a cafe based on the Alien of film fame. Giger is the artist who won as Oscar for the original's special effects. Go inside and you'll feel like you are inside one.

There are many charming restaurants for dinner but I know Hostellerie St.-Georges serves a memorable raclette.
From here you can close the circle with a stop in Lausanne and the shores of Lake Geneva or go on to the real Alps. Even in St. Moritz there are level spots!


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