The municipality of Gruyères comprises four villages with a population of a mere 2,200. One of these is Gruyères which sits on top of a hill. Picturesque and traffic-free, it begs you to stroll its cobblestone main street and discover unusual treasures.
This region is the birthplace of the world-famous cheese Gruyère AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée / Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). Everyone has heard of, if not tasted, this semi-hard, aromatic cheese. Its versatility is enormous, but it’s best known as an indispensable ingredient in fondue, the quintessential Swiss dish. There it’s either mixed with other cheeses such as Emmental and Appenzell, or fifty-fifty with the soft cheese Vacherin in the aptly named Moitié-Moitié (half-half) fondue.
La Maison du Gruyère, a cheese dairy located at the foot of the hill and just a few steps from the train station, welcomes you to watch cheese-making live. It’s nicely set up: you walk up to the second floor where you view the workers preparing Gruyère in huge copper vats below. Audio tapes and graphic displays explain the steps involved. You’ll also get a glimpse of their cheese cellar, which stores some 7,000 wheels. Cheese production demonstrations last two hours and usually take place twice a day. Schedules can change, so, best to check ahead.
The road leading to the village itself is quite steep, but buses leave from the train station and stop at the entrance to the town. If you choose to drive, you’ll have to park your car in the lot below the village and walk-up. Stroll the length of the cobblestone street, and at the end, you’ll reach Gruyères Castle.
The view from the windows of this imposing 13th-century castle is impressive. Alpine mountains and open fields stretch as far as the eye can see. At the foot of the castle is a meticulously cultivated garden planted in the French-style. Inside the castle houses collections from its long history, including the capes of the Order of the Golden Fleece, and its intricate stained-glass windows date from the Middle Ages. There are also paintings by Corot, the troubadour decorations of the Knights’ Hall, and a massive open fireplace with an oven and hanging pots. If you want to explore the castle on your own, handouts are available in twelve languages and a 20-minute video is presented 14 times daily with headphones that have translations in eight languages.
Tours are by request and your guide will regale you with some of the many local legends such as La Belle Luce, John the Cripple and the Brave Women of Gruyères, who used their goats to defeat the enemy. With the soldiers outnumbered the women assembled the goats, hung bells on their necks, and put candles and torches on their horns and sent them running. Your guide will bring this tale to life and you’ll almost see and hear the wild herd with their flaming horns stampeding on the battlefield, sending the horrified invaders running for their lives.
Who would have expected a Tibetan museum in a remote village like this? And what a delight it is! Founded by the Alain Bordier Foundation in 2009, it houses about 300 sacred Buddhist sculptures, paintings, and ceremonial objects. Dating from the 6th to 18th centuries, most are from Tibet, but others are from various Himalayan regions like Nepal, Kashmir, Northern India, and Burma.
At the entrance, visitors are given a flashlight and descriptions of the items on exhibit. Beautifully displayed under diffused lighting along a narrow hallway with soft music and eastern scents piped-in, you’ll feel transported to another world. Special among all the treasures is a small but exquisite Vairocana Buddha, an iconic figure in Mahayana Buddhism who radiates serenity and is typically viewed as the universal Buddha.
The hall opens into a wider room with a winding staircase that leads to a viewing balcony. Once you spy the strategically positioned small couch head back down and have a seat to admire an unexpected sight. A wall of Buddhist art is backed by an elevated and richly decorated vault with gorgeous stained-glass windows from the former Chapel of Saint Joseph. Oriental and Occidental cultures and Eastern and Western religions all meet here.
HR Giger Museum
Now, let’s jump a few centuries for a visit to the HR Giger Museum in the Château St. Germain castle close by. Talk about culture shock: from dreamy Buddhist objects to hard, no-holds-barred Surrealist art of the late 20th century.
One of the world’s most prominent artists of Fantastic Realism, Giger is perhaps best known for winning an Oscar in 1980 for “Best Achievement in Visual Effects.” He walked away with the prize for his design of the alien’s head in the film, Alien. Instead of staying in Hollywood, Giger opted to move to this secluded town and acquire the Château St. Germain. Converted to a museum in 1998, it displays the largest and most impressive collection of his paintings and sculptures, furniture and film designs.
Don’t miss stepping into the one and only HR Giger Bar next door. Shocking, fantastic and macabre, you’ll be smiling from ear to ear. A vault of imitation bones in strange shapes forms the ceiling; seating is also in the shape of bones or skeletons; on shelves along the walls sculls gaze back at you and of course, the music is very loud!
Need a break afterward?
A short walk down the narrow cobblestone street back towards the entrance brings you to the widest part of the village which is graced with a central fountain and lined with typical Swiss shops, small hotels, and restaurants. Choose a restaurant where you can sit outside and observe the many tourists milling about then order a bottle of Fendant wine and a Cheese Fondue — made with Gruyère cheese, of course!
The country code for Switzerland is 41.
Where to Stay :
Hôtel De Gruyères – Located at the gates of the medieval city of Gruyères and its castle at the foothills of the Fribourgeois pre-Alps, Hôtel De Gruyères offers two restaurants and a wellness center. Ruelle des Chevaliers 1, CH-1663 Gruyères; Tel. +41 26 921 80 30 ; www.gruyereshotels.ch
Hôtel Deville – Eight charming rooms await in the heart of the village of Gruyère. City Hall, Rue du Bourg 29, CH-1663 Gruyères; Tel. +41 26 921 24 24; www.hoteldeville.ch
Where to Eat:
Le Chalet de Gruyères – Indulge in fondue, raclette, double cream, and all the other local delicacies. Rue du Bourg 53, CH-1663 Gruyères; Tel. + 41 26 921 21 54; www.gruyereshotels.ch
What to See & Do:
La Maison de Gruyère – Place de la Gare 3, CH-1663 Pringy-Gruyères; Tel. +41(0)26 921 84 00; E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for demonstration schedule. www.lamaisondugruyere.ch
Gruyères Castle – Rue du Château 8, CH-1663 Gruyères; Tel. +41 26 921 21 02; www.chateau-gruyeres.ch
Tibet Museum – Fondation Alain Bordier, Rue du Château 4, 1663 Gruyères;
Tel: +41 26 921 30 10; www.tibetmuseum.ch
HR Giger Museum – Château St. Germain, 1663 Gruyères; Tel. +41 26 921 22 00; www.hrgigermuseum.com