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Gorged on Gruyères

Jessica Brogan

Gruyeres in western Switzerland

Having never been to Gruyères (Greyerz in German) before, when my Swiss husband told me that we were going to make a day-trip there, I immediately conjured up images of large grey buildings producing billions of cheese rounds to distribute around the world. I thought we were going for that – to gorge ourselves on aged cheese - which was not a bad goal. Instead, we found ourselves exploring the fairy tale castle of a tiny fortified village which sits on a small hill among the canton of Fribourg's green hills. Of course, there was cheese too.

Gruyères, about 35 km from Fribourg on the A12 motorway (exit Bulle), is a mediaeval town, in the Saane valley among the Fribourg Pre-Alps. Incidentally, though we know the word as meaning a cheese, the name Gruyères actually comes from the French word "grue" for crane, which is the symbol of the town. The ancient town sits atop a hill which pokes up from the valley, which is why you have such a lovely view, either from the valley looking at the town, or from behind the castle walls, looking out on the valley.

It has always been a small town; in the last hundred years, the population has doubled, so that now there are approximately 1,700 people. Like many Swiss towns, at present, the economy revolves around hotels, forestry, or services (usually resulting in people commuting to the nearest city, Bulle). Given the fame of the Gruyère cheese, it is surprising to learn the only around 10% of the economy is devoted to milk production and cattle. However, the tourism that this cheese produces is a high contributor to the local economy, as evidenced by the fact that it was the reason we were visiting, before we knew how splendid the town is.

We entered the pedestrian village by the pedestrian road, leaving the car in the parking lot at the bottom. A trackless train is the only form of motorized transportation allowed in the village. I recommend this Petit Train to anyone with difficulty walking, as the hike, though less than a mile, is rather steep. Each side of the main courtyard is lined with apartments with flowers overflowing the balconies, cafes filled with travelers and kitsch souvenir shops, though even the latter manages to look appealing in this setting. We sat down at a restaurant terrace – since the Swiss get a coffee before anything else. Instead of just coffee, we received a regional treat – Double Cream - rich cream (a mere 48% fat) which accompanied the coffee in its own miniature milk pail. It is sweet and thick in texture, and will have you turning your nose up at other cream afterwards. Tasting this cream made me sure that the cheese would be amazing as well.

Double Cream for your Coffee

Double Cream for your Coffee

Gruyeres Castle and Garden

For the rest of the morning we walked through the grounds of the castle, which was built in the 1270s, and the manicured garden. The tour of the castle takes you through eight centuries of architecture and history, with impressive collections of furniture and paintings from past centuries. The castle is open every day, though the hours are shorter between November and March.

Near the castle is an incredibly surprising museum, both for the content, and the difference in style between the art and the scenery it lies in. The H.R. Giger museum has a collection of his graphic/fantastic paintings and sculptures, depicting all sorts of bizarre landscapes and creatures. Even if the art is not your style, the detail is impressive. A rare piece of trivia: it was Giger's who drew the creature that would become "Alien" in the Alien movied.

Eventually it was lunch time. Lunch on a restaurant terrace sounded sublime, but the restaurants in the town are, of course, slightly more expensive. Besides, some internal hunch told us that the local grocery store would heap more rewards. Did it ever! Visit the local COOP supermarket to stock up on the essentials: fresh baked bread, tomatoes and cured ham. This will all be added to the thick wedge of Gruyères cheese you inevitably bought in a Fromagerie in the village. But, don't think I'm sending you there just for the food. In the opening plaza there are re-enactments of former village life, including an elderly woman knitting in a rocking chair, wearing an ancient milkmaid dress and a costumed young man explaining the milking process to a group of young children with the aid of a plastic cow. This is the kind of thing that makes a day.

However, the day wasn't over. In the afternoon we drove the car down about five minutes to the nearby La Maison du Gruyère, which is easily identified by a large building with an even larger parking lot. This is a great interactive museum, where we toured the plant and saw the cheese making in process. There is an amazing amount of milk coming into this factory by day – enough to make over forty rounds of cheese per day, all of which are made to follow strict AOC code (AOC meaning the distinction given to products made only in one region, in a controlled area, by traditional methods). The master cheese-makers of Gruyères come from the same small family, having the same surname. This is the standard for AOC products, therefore, this is the stamp that you want to look for when buying any cheese or wine in Switzerland. Free samples along the tour meant only one thing – we were staying there for dinner! Indeed, there is a restaurant incorporated into the building where you can have Gruyères Fondue made by the traditional recipe. La Maison du Gruyère is open daily. Cheese-making tours are from 9:00am to 11:00am and from 12.30pm to 2.30pm and take place three to four times a day, depending on the season.

Gruyeres in western Switzerland

With all the cheese, you might feel the need to exercise. Just nearby is Mont Moléson, which is suitable for hiking, however there is also a cable car to the summit. For the very athletically-inclined, contact Gruyeres Escapades to plan an adventure, perhaps hand-gliding or rafting.

Accommodations

Personally, we made it a day trip and went back to our Swiss Romande village we call home. However, for a comfortable, quaint place to stay, I recommend the Farm at Bouroz, located only five minutes from the old town. It is approximately 42 Swiss Francs a night, including breakfast and a gorgeous view of the valley and town. Breakfast is made from local products, and if you stay with them during the summer you can opt to see how they are made.

Resources

www.gruyeres.ch: Gruyères Tourism official site

www.petit-train.info: Petit Train in the village

www.chateau-gruyeres.ch: Chateau de Gruyères

gigerweb.ez-internet.org: H.R. Giger museum

www.lamaisondugruyere.ch: La Maison du Gruyère

www.gruyere-escapade.ch: Gruyeres Escapades to plan an adventure, perhaps hand-gliding or rafting (in French)

www.lafermedubourgoz.ch: Accommodations, Farm at Bouroz


Jessica lives in Switzerland and write the In Search of Dessert blog.

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