Captivating landscapes, medieval towns, picturesque lakes, cheese and wine… be awed by the splendour of western Switzerland
A STRIKING blue sky provides the perfect canopy for the snow-capped peaks. Forested areas tumble to the valley floor, where an all-pervading calm has settled in for the morning. I could easily sit for hours soaking up the panorama, but I am here on a journey of discovery in a region of Switzerland new to me, reports MICHAEL COWTON
I do not have it all to myself though, for, as if on cue, coach loads of tourists pour into the car park on the edge of the medieval town of Gruyères, and crowd into the small, cobbled market square. Mostly Oriental, cameras and video recorders swing from their shoulders.
Gruyères borders the cantons of Bern, Neuchâtel and Vaud. I had arrived early to pay a visit to La Maison du Gruyère (www.lamaisondugruyere.ch) for a tour of the cheese dairy. During the Middle Ages, noble counts lived in this, the cradle of Gruyère.
Their red flags carried an emblem of a white crane, a ‘grue’. So came about the region’s name Gruyère, the land of the cranes. During this golden age, the Gruyère AOP cheese was born. So, history lesson over, the cheese is still produced by village dairies in western Switzerland according to the traditional recipe. And delicious it is, too.
Following the path by the side of the church, I am treated to a stunning view of Gruyères castle (www.chateau-gruyeres.ch/e/index.html). Constructed in the 13th century, this was once the residence of the counts of Gruyères. Today it is a museum, with a multimedia exhibition serving as a reminder of its history. Under the Gruyères castle, The St Germain castle also contains the largest existing collection of the works of Swiss artist HR Giger (HR Giger Museum/Bar (www.hrgigermuseum.com/index2.php?option=visit), with paintings, sculptures, furnishings and film sets. Giger won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects for his participation in the film ‘Alien’.
Leaving this picture-postcard setting behind, I head back to my original base of Fribourg, a city of two halves, literally split by a railway line. On one side you step into the Middle Ages, and on the other you are in a modern, lively university town abuzz with shops, restaurants and café culture; a juxtaposition of Gothic elegance and contemporary architecture. This is also a town of stone bridges, linking different cultural and linguistic regions.
I wander the cobbled street around the exterior of St Nicholas Cathedral with its Gothic architecture, before heading for an aperitif at Espace Jean Tinguely (Espace Jean Tinguely and Niki de St Phalle/Museum of Art & History www.fr.ch/mahf/en/pub/index.htm) on Rue de Morat, a multicultural centre of art which pays tribute to two great artistic celebrities of the second half of the 20th century, Jean Tinguely and his wife Niki de St Phalle, the couple having profoundly marked Fribourg’s cultural and artistic life. This former tramway depot lies close to the Fribourg Museum of Art and History.
Nature, by all accounts, is a bonus in the contrasting topography of the Fribourg Region, where the local populace have coined the expression ‘back-to-front world’, with the region presenting three different faces: in the north the idyllic lake region; in the centre the canton’s lively administrative centre of Fribourg; and in the south, you have unspoiled nature and a distinctive Alpine climate.
I head to the Lakes Region, and the small, medieval towns of Murten and Estavayer-le-Lac, which lie on the shores of Lake Murten and Lake Neuchâtel. Nestled above the southeast bank of the lake of the same name, Murten is charm personified. Sitting on the language border between French and German, visitors can enjoy a relaxing lakeside promenade, or stroll around the old town’s alleyways and arcades.
It is also possible to take wooden stairs to the original fortified ramparts, part of an almost intact system of fortifications that includes a circular route open to visitors, with spectacular views of the rooftops.
From the terrace of the 13th century castle, you can enjoy lovely views across Lake Murten to the vineyards of Mont Vully, the splendid wines being the ideal accompaniment for a regional fish dish or the famous ‘Nidelkuchen’ (cream cake).
This unique cream tart is produced exclusively at the Aebersold bakery in the town, from where three generations have refined its taste, quality and simplicity. Naturally, I have to test the theory, and having sampled the pastry, I head for The Vully, one of the smallest wine regions of Switzerland, where I enjoy a wine tasting in Le Château de Praz (www.chateaudepraz.ch), a traditional wine cellar run by Marylène and Louis-Charles Bovard-Chervet.
I then head across the road for lunch at Restaurant Bel-Air (www.bel-air-lac.ch) in Praz-Vully, and enjoy fresh perch and, yes, I can vouch for the wine.
I enjoy an afternoon stroll through the medieval town of Estavayer-le-Lac, despite the weather having taken a turn for the worse. The arcades of Chenaux Castle and the 14th century St Lawrence’s Collegiate Church are dominant reminders of the region’s past.
I then take a seat on board a tourist train through the town and down to the lake, which is a mecca for watersports enthusiasts. The area is also home to one of the most beautiful wetland reserves in Europe. The Grande Cariçaie (http://www.grande-caricaie.ch/spip/spip.php?rubrique188) shelters one third of the flora and a quarter of the fauna in Switzerland.
Dinner is at Château de la Corbière (www.chateaudelacorbiere.ch), with stunning views across Lake Neuchâtel. Just two kilometers from the town, the property was built in 1859, and today has 15 beautifully decorated rooms. Guests can enjoy the sun terrace, café and garden, and there is even an exclusive sand beach.
Saillon (www.saillon.ch), the most beautiful village in the suisse Romande in 2013, is known as the most sun-blessed town of Switzerland.
It is also considered to be the best preserved medieval town in the country. Switzerland’s very own Robin Hood lived hereabouts during the 19th century, and the ‘Farinet’s stained glass windows path’ helps to perpetuate his memory. Every four years a beautiful medieval feast (www.medievales.org) is held in the town, the next one being staged this year from 9-13 September.
I discover other surprises too upon my visit the next day. Not only am I in the asparagus capital of the Valais, but also vines are strung out over the hillside on the right bank of the River Rhône. The wines produced here have yet to see the light of day outside Switzerland.
I follow the path uphill from close to the Farinet statue at the foot of the medieval town, passing quaint old buildings which have stood the test of time. I had seen from afar the twin castles Tourbillon and Valeria, landmarks on rocky outcrops standing guard over the valley.
Below the ridges, vineyards are strung in orderly rows; amongst them the smallest registered one in the world, measuring a mere 1.67 square metres. The three vine stocks are owned by the Dalai Lama. Each year the clusters of grapes are gathered and the extracted juice mixed with several hectolitres of good wine, providing a thousand bottles, which are sold for charity.
Never one to miss an opportunity, I call in at the cellar of winegrower Gérard Raymon (www.gerardraymond.ch), where I sample a range of delectable produce.
I overnight at the Hotel La Dent-du-Midi (www.torrente.ch) in Saint-Maurice, and the next morning stroll to the Abbey, constructed against the sheer rock face. The Abbey was founded in the year 515 on the tomb of the martyrs Maurice and his companions who, around 290, gave their lives in witness to their Christian faith. Once the spiritual centre of the Burgundy Empire, and housing one of the richest ecclesiastical treasures in Europe, the visitor is treated to almost 1500 years of continuous monastic life.
The final leg of my journey is a visit to Fort de Cindey, a component of Fortress Saint-Maurice, which in turn is one of the three principal fortified regions of the National Redoubt of Switzerland. The fort was built between 1941 and 1946 in the Scex cliff face immediately to the west of Saint-Maurice to complement the existing Fort du Scex, built earlier in the same cliff. This fort complex encased in rock high above the strategic Saint-Maurice valley was deactivated in 1995.
This has proved an extraordinary journey of discovery, providing an insight into a world well away from the more traditional hotspots of Switzerland, yet so easily accessible. In one small sweep, it is possible to take in art, Gothic and medieval architecture, history, culture, magnificent landscapes, stunning villages… and not forgetting a unique cream tart and splendid wine.
All images ©Essential Journeys/Michael Cowton
Switzerland Tourism – For more information on Switzerland visit www.MySwitzerland.com or call the Switzerland Travel Centre on the international freephone 00800 100 200 30 or e-mail, for information email@example.com. For packages, trains and air tickets firstname.lastname@example.org
Swiss International Air Lines – UK to Geneva: SWISS operates up to 64 weekly flights from London Heathrow, London City and London Gatwick (seasonal during winter) to Geneva. Fares start from £65 one-way* and £99 return* (Economy Flex fare), including all airport taxes, complimentary food and drinks plus – as standard – one piece of 23kg checked baggage in Economy Class. Ski and snowboard equipment travels for free. UK & Ireland to Switzerland: SWISS operates up to 200 weekly flights to Switzerland from London Heathrow, London City, London Gatwick (seasonal during winter), Manchester, Birmingham and Dublin from as little as £38 one-way* (Geneva Economy Light Fare only includes hand luggage). The all-inclusive fares start from £65 one-way*, including all airport taxes. (*Please note this is a leading fare and is subject to change, availability and may not be available on all flights. Terms and conditions apply.) For reservations call 0845 6010956 or visit: www.swiss.com
Swiss Travel System – By road, rail and waterway throughout Switzerland: The Swiss Travel System provides a dedicated range of travel passes and tickets exclusively for visitors from abroad. The Swiss Transfer Ticket covers a round-trip between the airport/Swiss border and your destination.Prices are £104 in second class and £167 in first class. For the ultimate Swiss rail specialist call Switzerland Travel Centre on 00800 100 200 30 or visit www.swisstravelsystem.co.uk
La Gruyère Region: www.la-gruyere.ch/en/index.cfm
Fribourg City: http://www.fribourgtourisme.ch/en/index.cfm
Fribourg Region: http://www.fribourgregion.ch/en/index.cfm
Murten Region: http://www.murtentourismus.ch/en/index.cfm