Stereotypes can be misleading, but they often contain a grain or two of truth.
Take Switzerland: staid, predictable.
Like that most quintessential of Swiss villages, Gruyères: cheese, chocolate, cobblestones and a castle.
Plenty of Swissness crammed into one tiny street.
Lift the veil and the staid, predictable aura weakens, revealing a quirky, surreal side of the town.
Not possible, you say?
A Somewhat Traditional Village
I first visited Gruyères as a child (the village is spelled with an ‘s’ but the region and cheese are not), wide-eyed with wonder at the fairy-tale setting, my most vivid memory being permission to dip a long fork into a huge bubbling cauldron of cheese.
Highly traditional, every last bubble.
Foodie diversion: You’ll want to taste the moitié-moitié fondue so characteristic of this region, half Gruyère cheese and half Vacherin, with a hint of kirsch and garlic. The less traditional all-Vacherin fondue is said to be creamier but I stuck with tradition. White wine goes best with fondue but as a non-drinker I like black tea with cheese dishes. Avoid water or you’ll feel like you’ve swallowed a bucket of concrete.
Much of this cheese – 15,000 wheels of it, in fact – is prepared at the Maison du Gruyère, a local cheese factory. This may sound like a lot of cheese but consider this: each Swiss person consumes 21kg or 46lb of cheese a year. (The country as a whole produces 29,000 tons of Gruyère.)
Cheese making in the Fribourg region, where Gruyères is located, is nearly 1,000 years old, first documented in a letter to a local monastery by Count Guillaume de Gruyère in 1115. The letter describes the monastery’s obligations, including the provision of tools and shelter to the armailli, or local cowherders, who to this day leave the lowlands come May and head for the mountains, where they’ll stay for four months.
Each September, when the cows come down from their alpine pastures, their armailli dress them up in flowers and bells and walk them into Charmey, a village around the corner from Gruyères. It is a festive event with plenty of drinking and eating and local handicrafts, and a highly significant one since these cows provide the fresh milk with which Gruyère cheese is made. The désalpe, as the procession from the mountains is called, is also a way to celebrate traditions and to make sure they stay alive.
Legends, Juxtaposition and Surrealism
According to legend, the village of Gruyères was founded by the knight Gruérius, who spotted a crane flying by, took it as an omen and decided to settle in this lovely land. A crane is a grue in French.
The Chateau de Gruyères stands proudly atop the village, as most fortresses do, but what is jolting is the juxtaposition of modern art with a 1000-year-old setting, forcing cracks to appear along the region’s otherwise utter Swiss traditionalism.
This is an artist’s chateau, with temporary exhibits of art fantastique hidden in the most unlikely corners and futuristic sculptures sharing space with cobblestones. Where I expected tapestries, I also found bright science fiction and where I expected a sculpted knight in shining armor I found a silver harp.
The surprising ancient-modern contrast is nothing compared to the shock you’ll experience across the street at the Giger Museum. The transition from bright sunshine to the museum’s cavelike collection of rooms is jarring, with each exhibit more bizarre than the last: creatures that are half-human half-machine, chairs with backbones and monstrous women with tails – and some adult content. For lovers of the surreal and macabre only.
H.R. Giger, in case you didn’t know, won an Academy Award for best visual effects in a 1980 Ridley Scott movie.
The movie was Alien.
Gruyères: not that staid or predictable.
Is the museum too much for you?
Try the Giger Bar across the street. You’ll feel alienated without actually traveling to another world. And you’ll drink a great cup of coffee.
Another quirky facet of the Swiss: they like their costumes. I happened to visit during Carnival and while parade floats are the norm everywhere, the ski slopes of Charmey were free for the day to anyone wearing a costume.
If you don’t ski (I don’t) strap on your snowshoes and escape the crowds. Head for the wild, pristine hills behind Charmey, where the silence is so intense it pierces the ears and wraps itself around you, each crunchy step echoing in the distance.
Exhausted from snowshoeing, I had no alternative but to find refuge.
In a chocolate factory.
A few minutes away the Cailler plant tour reminded me a bit of Disneyland, with bright lights and moving statues and sound effects and boarding passes that divided visitors into groups. Impressive if you’re under eight…
What will impress you is the room you tumble into at the end of the tour, a chocoholic’s loveliest dream – or worst nightmare, row upon row of tiny perfect rectangles of Cailler’s signature milk, dark and white chocolates, so straight they could be used as rulers. The deeper you push into this temple the better it gets, like a buffet which holds its tastiest morsels until the end. And you don’t want it to end.
Not bad at all for a country that doesn’t grow cocoa trees.
So yes – what with chocolate and cheese and cobblestones and castles (and snow, of course) Gruyères is utterly Swiss.
But Alien? Art fantastique juxtaposition? Animal costumes on ski slopes?
Not staid. Not predicable.
What you need to know
- If cheese and chocolate are on your list, try the Chocolate Train from Montreux to the Cailler factory and the retro Fondue Train from just below Gruyères which turns into a restaurant as you climb into the mountains.
- In winter take a snowshoeing break in the nearby village of Charmey, with hills and valleys so white and pristine you’ll think you’re alone. Or ski on the Moleson above Gruyères and avoid the high prices and crowds of the larger resorts.
- For excellent traditional fondue in Gruyères go to the Fleur de Lys on the main street – it’s outstanding. I stayed at the rustic Hostellerie des Chevaliers and watched deer scamper by my window, with striking sunrise and sunset views. In Charmey, I ate at the amazing Restaurant de l’Etoile. Their émincé de veau (veal stew) and rösti potatoes are possibly the best I’ve ever tasted (along with their homemade gnocchi, if you’re craving some non-Swiss food just this once).
- The désalpe of Charmey will show you Switzerland at its most traditional so if you’re visiting the last Saturday of September you shouldn’t miss this.
- Gruyères is a perfect day trip from Geneva or Lausanne. If you have no car, take the train to Bulle and the local bus to Gruyères, only a few minutes away.