It was a tour to sweeten the rigours of the international media conference that Switzerland Tourism throws every year. Not that the jamboree needed sweetening, consisting as it did of going up and down the Jungfrau in excellent Swiss trains, dining at the finest Italian restaurant in Interlaken (it’s the La Pastateca at the Victoria-Jungfrau hotel, by the way), watching Fredy Nock, member of Switzerland’s oldest circus family, set a new world record for the longest (160m) and highest altitude (over 3,800m) tightrope walk and other such strenuous stuff.
We were a diverse group of scribes: Justin from the US of A, Ricardo from Spain, Sylvia from the Netherlands, Yana and Gabriele from, respectively, Moscow and Rome, the Koreans with their massive cameras, chaperoned most efficiently by Sunny, Swiss Tourism’s rep in Seoul, Tomas from the Czech Republic, Ursula and Fred from Germany. And, of course, Marianne and Alain, the good folks from Swiss Tourism who kept the herd together. The question was: where could the jaded Swiss Alps junkie go that he hadn’t gone before? Answer: Fribourg. We were promised a mix of mild outdoor activity (walking and boating), fine dining (yes, they have that in Switzerland), ample cheese and chocolate and a medieval town that would take our breath away.
Half the fun was getting there, on board the GoldenPass Panoramic train. The scenery came juicily framed by the panoramic windows, which this train company pioneered in 1976. (These visionaries also run the seasonal Chocolate Train, its Belle Époque coaches transporting passengers to a chocolate factory, a cheese farm and more in the summer.) We passed Gstaad and Saanen, towns which catalysed our love affair with the Swiss Alps after reams of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge were filmed here. Saanen marked the border between the German- and French-speaking parts of Switzerland. The Panoramic runs all the way from the Bernese Oberland to the Lake Geneva region but we got off at Montbovon, from where another charming train hauled us to the little station of Gruyères.
The walkabout began almost immediately. Unlike their Swiss-German brethren, the Swiss-French were a laidback lot, we’d been told, and that things would be a lot more relaxed on this side. This did not seem to extend to our walk which, long and lovely as it was, proceeded with clockwork precision.
We had hit the hallowed Sentier des fromageries, the Cheese Dairy Trail. To call it a trek would be doing it too brown — the path was way too comfortable. It rose steeply uphill, disappearing into thick woods. When we thought we could not walk anymore, the road levelled out and we spilled on to a rolling meadow.
A third of Switzerland’s formidable cow population resides in the canton of Fribourg. Long before your first bite of the delicious local Gruyère, you can smell the cows, or at least their shit. They were all around us, tackling the slopes with the dexterity of dainty maidens. We had heard the occasional cowbell on our way up. The tinkling now deepened to a chorus, announcing lunch.
A few short paces ahead lay Les Mongerons, an alpine cottage, where we shared rustic mountain fare across a communal table — crusty bread and saucissons, washed down with cold wine. Not one, not two, but three kinds of fondue were passed around, but the one that won hands down was the moitié-moitié (half ’n half), the local Fribourg fondue made with equal parts of Gruyère and Vacherin.
The lunch had to be worked off so we proceeded, if it can be believed, further uphill, past pastures, apiaries and more cows, before descending to Moléson village, which lay in the shadow of the 2,000m-high Moléson peak, the pride of the Fribourg pre-Alps. At this point, walkers are usually rewarded with a traditional-style cheesemaking demonstration in an alpine hut dating from 1686, but we’d arrived a little late.
Having had our fill of walking, we drove to our next destination — the thirteenth-century settlement of Gruyères, which lends its name to the world-famous cheese. We parked outside the traffic-less town and walked (sigh) along cobblestoned streets to the castle on top. At that time of year, the window boxes were legally required to be bursting with flowers and not one was flouting the law. The town’s heraldic representation, the crane (grue in French), emblazoned everywhere, inspired its name.
The château is steeped in history and its resident historian, Anna Petrikoff, was kind enough to walk us through it. We saw an ancient armoury, an equally ancient kitchen, the room that French painter Camille Corot painted, another where the chevaliers (knights) used to meet, a chapel with stained glass windows. Seat of the counts of Gruyère (the region is spelt without an ‘s’), the castle was constructed in 1270. It later came into the care of the administrators of Fribourg, who redecorated it in the Baroque style. In the mid-nineteenth century the castle was owned by two Geneva families, who invited influential artists to decorate the rooms. A tour of the Château de Gruyères is therefore a tour through eight centuries of architecture, history and culture. In other rooms, there were other wonders, but we were in a hurry. Journalists always are, even if they’re not going anywhere. We emerged on to the castle’s perfectly manicured French gardens. The pear trees were heavy with fruit.
Downhill, in the more modest castle St Germain was the HR Giger Museum, showcasing the work of the Swiss surrealist whose designs for Ridley Scott’s Alien earned him an Oscar. We didn’t have time for the museum but did squeeze in a round of drinks at the gory Giger Bar. Dinner was a sumptuous, typically Swiss, affair before we turned in for the night at the Hostellerie des Chevaliers.
So is Moscow safe?” I asked Yana over breakfast the next morning. Turned out, every journalist on the trip had asked her this question. She seemed unfazed. Leaning over, she whispered, “It’s safer than Rome.”
That morning we hit the Chemin du Gruyère, the Swiss Chocolate and Cheese Trail. A truly picturesque one, it is one of Switzerland’s top 32 (yes, they have quite a few of those). The entire trail runs from the village of Charmey up to Gruyères but we cheated and went only about halfway. The trail took us along the Lac de Montsalvens with its fjord-like inlets. Crossing a swinging bridge, we slipped into the welcome shade of trees. (Switzerland was unseasonably warm at the time.) We emerged into a glade, edged with apple trees and wild berry bushes. The dam, built in 1921, which created the lake, sprung into view. We stopped to catch our breath. Ricardo poured out some Swiss wine (yes, they have those too!) which he’d lugged from Charmey. Good man. It was a light wine from the Valais and our gratitude was swiftly expressed — “To Ricardo,” “To Ricardo.”
On the other side of the dam lay the Jaunbach gorge (or ‘Les gorges de La Jogne’ in French). Wooden walkways made negotiating it a breeze and we went along the playful stream surrounded by high limestone walls. There was a shrine to the Mother Mary. There was a small waterfall. There was a dog so well trained he would only pee near the trashcan.
We’d passed up the town that gave its name to the cheese, but we weren’t going to pass up the chocolate. Our next stop was the village of Broc, home to the venerable chocolate brand, Cailler (now owned by Nestlé). It was a chocolate addict’s heaven. Even before we reached we could smell the chocolate — the valley seemed suffused with the bittersweet aroma. At the chocolate factory, we made our way into the visitors’ centre, a modern building in stark contrast to the more than a century old heritage building next to it. The interiors were done up in shades of chocolate, milk and caramel. The interactive guided tour offered a fascinating insight into the history of chocolate. Emerging into the factory itself, we were greeted by sackloads of cocoa beans from every corner of the world. They produce 18 million kilos of chocolate annually, but the milk comes from just 1,775 cows. One could see some of those chocolates being made right there, the legendary branches, manufactured since 1904. Then there was the tasting room where you could sample as much chocolate as you liked but weren’t allowed to take any out of the room. This was the only point in the entire trip when it looked like things could get ugly. “For you, when is it time for chocolate?” quizzed a graffiti wall. ‘Kabhi, kabhi,’ I cornily scribbled. And then it was time to go: ‘Abhi, abhi.’
We passed through the town of Bulle, where the Sonneurs de Cloches (national festival of Swiss cowbell ringers) was in full swing. There’s this worn image we have of the Swiss: beneath a benign exterior, they are a mad mountain people, just so many cuckoo clock-making, alphorn playing, cow-milking and yodelling-in-the-evenings bunch. Well, it’s all absolutely true and that’s why we love them so much.
On the banks of another lake, the Lac de la Gruyère, we made a picnic of delicious cheese sandwiches and, well, more wine. Ricardo napped. There was an island in the middle of the lake, and some of us decided to kayak to it. I partnered with Ursula. Ursula, twice as old as me and twice as driven, urged me to row harder, and harder, and harder. We would have finished first, but graciously allowed another boat to row in a few seconds before us. The island of Ogoz was once not an island — this lake is manmade too. There were old ruins and a pretty church, the chapel of St Theodul, both dating from the thirteenth century. A romantic tale held it all together, but it’s a story best savoured in situ.
We spent our last night in the town of Fribourg, where not a lot of Indian tourists may have gone but a fair number of Indian IT workers have. The delights of Fribourg’s Old Town, which boasted, among other things, a funicular railway that ran on wastewater, would have to wait for another day though. We dined at Le Pérolles, one of the finest restaurants in town, where I discovered that the Swiss had a cuisine that went beyond potatoes and cheese. It had been a great trip and we were all a bit sad it was over. But this did not distract us from the amuse-bouche of rabbit carpaccio or the astonishing crème brûlée of duck liver that followed. Then the proper stuff rolled in: some pike from the Gruyère lake topped with a thyme emulsion and the tenderest grilled beef, both paired with superlative Swiss wines. Dessert was ‘La Poêlée de pruneaux du Fellenberg’. Pan-fried prunes don’t impress you much? I can tell you they put me in a right plum mood and the world didn’t seem such a bad place after all.
Swiss flies direct to Zürich from Mumbai and Delhi. Fares start at around Rs 40,000 return (ex-Mumbai) and Rs 40,500 (ex-Delhi), inclusive of taxes and surcharges (swiss.com). Hopping flights on Aeroflot, Emirates or Turkish Airlines can be cheaper. From Zürich, there are trains to most tourist destinations in Switzerland. A Swiss Pass buys you unlimited travel on Swiss trains, buses and boats. Get one on raileurope.co.in (they’re offering two for the price of one right now).
You need a Schengen visa to enter Switzerland. The visa costs Rs 4,200; details at vfs-ch-in.com.
Where to stay
Gruyères We stayed at the Hostellerie des Chevaliers, just outside the town gates next to the town parking. The rooms were plain but comfy and offered splendid views of the castle (from CHF 160 doubles, including breakfast; chevaliers-gruyeres.ch). For more atmosphere, stay within the town, at the Hôtel de Ville (from CHF 240 doubles, including breakfast; hoteldeville.ch).
Fribourg We stayed at the perfectly serviceable Au Parc Hotel (CHF 260; CHF 205 on weekends, including breakfast; auparc-hotel.ch). The Best Western Hotel de la Rose (from CHF 185; hoteldelarose.ch) is close to the train station and town centre. The Auberge aux 4 Vents is an eclectic manor house set in a garden (CHF 260; aux4vents.ch).
What to see & do
Gruyères The highlight of this atmospheric medieval town is its castle (entry CHF 9.50), which also hosts a thrilling multimedia show (CHF 9.50; chateau-gruyeres.ch). The town also boasts the HR Giger Museum (entry CHF 12.50; hrgigermuseum.com) and the Tibet Museum (tibetmuseum.ch).
Broc The Maison Cailler chocolate factory offers tours in several languages and is a popular attraction (cailler.ch).
Molèson This village is home to a cheese dairy offering demonstrations as well as a small amusement park. A funicular transports you to the top of the eponymous peak.
Outdoors There are numerous nature trails in the region, all well signposted. You can go kayaking on La Gruyère lake (kayaking starts at CHF 60 per person; see kayakaventure.ch).
Fribourg This heritage town’s highlights include the St Nicholas cathedral and an Old Town to rival Gruyères, with over 200 beautiful Gothic façades, bridges over the river Sarine and decorative drinking fountains. Splurge on a meal at Le Pérolles (tasting menu CHF 165; leperolles.ch).