The February cold in Switzerland was intense and the chill in the air was unmissable as I waited to board the train from Zurich to Gruyères, a quaint town in the heart of Switzerland. The train was dot on time, and as I settled down into my cosy, warm window seat, the cold was the last thing on my mind. I was just overwhelmed by the rustic beauty of nature all around. The snow-clad landscapes were so utterly enchanting that it kept me hooked onto my seat throughout the three-hour journey. And this was a fitting prelude to the idyllic town of Gruyères, which was voted the most beautiful village in western Switzerland in 2014.
Perfectly preserved antiquated character
Located in Fribourg canton, Gruyères is situated in the upper valley of the Saane (also called Sarine) river with a view of the mighty Fribourg pre-Alps. Perched at a height of just over 2,500 feet above sea level, this hill town that looks straight out of the pages of a fairytale attracts over a million visitors each year. It is key to note that this town is home to one of the most renowned and popular cheeses in the world, the Gruyère AOP and, in fact, lends its name to the region La Gruyère, which produces this delicacy.
Much of the town’s beauty is attributed to the careful preservation of its local character and traditions, which makes it authentically Swiss. From cobbled pathways, fountains, picture perfect store fronts and beguiling houses, everything in Gruyères has an old-world charm and a vintage vibe. The best way to experience this pastoral beauty is by exploring the old town on foot. Lined with interesting shops, cafes, houses and museums, the main street is about 300 metres and the walk is akin to taking a journey back in time. Old fashion wrought iron sign boards, colourful facades, balconies and windows tastefully done up in cottage core aesthetics (think plenty of wooden accents, fresh flowers in baskets, gingham checkered fabric upholstery) and elegant architecture makes for a fascinating experience.
Kaleidoscope of sights
The old town offers an array of alluring sights spanning art, architecture and culture. The 13th century Castle of Gruyères, which is at a higher altitude, is one of its key attractions. Dominating the town’s little skyline, the castle was the residence of the erstwhile Counts of Gruyères. It has now been converted to a museum housing scores of artefacts that give visitors a comprehensive view of the history of the town. Strolling through the gardens and ramparts of the castle offers stunning views of the surrounding landscape, including the picturesque rolling hills that is so characteristic of Switzerland.
If you are a fan of museums, this town boasts of some unique ones. The H.R. Giger Museum showcases the work of famous Swiss surrealist artist H.R. Giger who was also the brain behind the creation of the Alien in Ridley Scott’s movie with the same name. This one-of-a-kind museum is filled with Giger’s art, sculptures and paintings and forms for an insightful visit. The eclectic Giger Bar, located opposite the museum, is known for its quirky decor and is an extension of Giger’s artworks. A fun way to unwind after some engaging sightseeing!
Curated by the Alain Bordier Foundation, the Tibet Museum is yet another rare spot. Housed within the serene environs of the St. Joseph chapel, the artefacts displayed are the personal collection of Alain Bordier, who is highly passionate about Buddhism and Buddhist art, culture and philosophy. The ambience within is zen-like and the exhibits include sculptures, paintings and religious artefacts, some of which date back to 6th century. Attractive paintings of Thangkas, ritualistic beads, bells and conches sourced from Tibet, Nepal and Burma are noteworthy.
Of cheese and chocolates
Chocolate and cheese are synonymous with Switzerland and Gruyères offers quite literally a wonderful taste of both. The region is known for its legacy of cheese-making since the early 12th century and the region’s hard cheese Le Gruyère is a much sought-after speciality. Manufactured till date in a traditional manner, the formula of making Le Gruyère cheese is patented and handed over from generations.
The Gruyères Cheese Factory aka La Maison du Gruyère is the perfect place in town to visit in order to experience this exclusive process of cheese-making that consists of up to eight complex stages. A visit here is a treat for the senses and one can witness the entire life cycle of the cheese manufacturing that is conducted in a highly-controlled environment replete with quality checks. The highly aromatic cheese is ideal for making fondue and pairs perfectly with potatoes, grape and garlic. Do not forget to visit the souvenir shop below to carry home some fond memories of your Gruyères sojourn. There is a restaurant too, which is the perfect place to sample some signature Swiss delicacies, like the delectable cheese fondue and raclette.
At the risk of sounding cliched, no visit to Switzerland is complete without visiting a chocolate factory. And when in Gruyères, take a short train ride to Broc about 5 km away to visit the renowned Maison Cailler chocolate factory and museum. Founded by François-Louis Cailler in 1891, Cailler is the oldest Swiss brand that continues to sustainably manufacture some of the finest chocolate in the country using native ingredients, including fresh milk from local dairies and ethically sourced cocoa. Ingenuity and innovation have kept this brand going strong and till date, it remains one of the most sought-after chocolates in the world. The speciality of Cailler chocolates is the use of condensed milk as opposed to milk powder that gives the goodies a creamier and velvet-like texture.
A delightful visit in every sense, the Maison Cailler factory has an extensive museum wherein visitors can discover the insightful history of chocolate as well as of brand Cailler. The pictures, videos and exhibits cover the whole process of chocolate-making. At the end of the tour, you can view the actual production of a sample batch. As the delectable treats come out of the assembly line, you can sample them too! There are special activities for children too, depending on occasions like Christmas or Easter. The perfect way to end this sweet adventure is to visit their retail outlet within the complex where you can shop and take home signature Cailler creations, which include gourmet delights and customised creations.
With an array of sights, Gruyères offers much more than bucolic beauty. It makes for an ideal day trip from any of the main Swiss cities, including Geneva, Basel, Berne or Zurich.