Most of you know about gruyère, a hard yellow Swiss cheese, whose flavor lingers with an earthy complexity of nuts, cream, salt and mystery. Which came first, though? The cheese or the town after which it is named? In fact, the origins of Gruyères, its inhabitants and its name lie still in mystery.
I’d read a little about this charming village and castle already. The 1500 inhabitants of the tiny medieval village of Gruyères live atop a hill (801 m above sea level) that commands a magnificent view of the fertile valley of Gruyère and the Préalpe Massifs of Moléson, Dent du Broc, du Chamois and du Bourgoz. Celtic tombs were unearthed at the foot of the hill; and, below the borough of St. Germain, near the rectory of the village, coins and statue fragments prove that the Romans had been there too. According to the historian Henri Naef, the Gruyères family received its title and power from the Carolingian kings.
Reason enough to visit Gruyères, I thought. Excited by our mission — to eat, and drink, and discover history — Jacques and I set out from Aigle on Highway 11 through the Vaudois Alps.
We didn’t realize as we negotiated the winding snow-covered roads that we were following the narrow corridor of the crane’s migration. It was snowing heavily this day in early January as my ToulouseMobile “skied” through world-famous resort villages like La Lecherette, les Mosses and Leysin, all covered in knee-deep fresh snow and alive with ski and boarding frenzy. Along this same general route some thirty thousand cranes migrate every fall and spring as part of a longer trek between Scandinavia and North Africa.
You may well ask: how is this lovely bird connected to our journey to Gruyères? I thought you’d never ask! You see, the crane (“grue” in French) is the town’s heraldic emblem and the coat of arms of Gruyères since 1221. Some relate that Gruerius, the legendary founder of Gruyères, captured a crane and chose it as his heraldic in 436 AD, inspiring the name Gruyères. It is an apt symbol for this enduring and charming place as the crane symbolizes vigilance, long life and eternity. Its heraldic form (rising argent crane on a field of gules) can be found all over the castle grounds, particularly in the stained glass windows and outer lanterns.
We descended the alpine pass and emerged from a winter maelstrom into the stillness of the snow-dusted valley of Gruyère. I spotted the hilltop castle and medieval town, rising like a beacon over the pastoral landscape, long before we reached Pringy. The signs led us up the hill and I parked outside the pedestrian-only medieval village (no vehicles allowed in the village!).
We entered through Chavonne Gate, which opened onto the wide cobbled main street lined with 15th to 17th Century houses and shops. Jacques and I stood next to the central fountain (dated 1805) in the village’s lower borough, taking stock. The wide street wasn’t crowded. Given that Château de Gruyères is the second most visited fortress in Switzerland (only after the Castle of Chillon on Lake Geneva), I concluded that winter was a good time to visit this village to experience it in its more natural state. Up the hill toward the castle, St. Germain Gate divides the village into upper and lower boroughs. The gate is actually part of the smaller St. Germain castle, which now houses the HR Giger museum (Giger, who was born in Chur, is best known for his fantastical artwork for the SF movie “Alien”).
We didn’t make it out of the Lower Borough that day…
My hollow stomach growled; it was already past lunchtime. Jacques pointed to several restaurants that serve food specialties from the Gruyere region: Swiss fondue, raclette and deserts made with double cream cheese. “Or what about Roesti served with veal in a delicious mushroom cream sauce?” Jacques teased me with another signature Swiss meal. I surrendered and we entered l’Hotel de Ville, a rustic eating establishment, where we shared a raclette meal. Raclette is a semi-firm cow’s milk cheese that originated in the alpine region of the Valais. It is traditionally served with potatoes, pickled onions, gherkins and dried meat like jambon cru and viande des Grisons. Kirsch (cherry liqueur), herbal tea or Fendant (local white wine) are traditionally drunk with the meal. I chose a Pinot Gris, which complemented the meal nicely. We scraped the melted cheese off its heated coupelle in a table-top “grill” onto our plates of potatoes and our little stuffed tummies thanked us. The term raclette comes from the French word racler, meaning “to scrape”.
Feeling rather satisfied with tummies appeased, we proceeded
on our tour toward the castle, climbing up the road past the antique grain measures and the Calvary. Alas! Yet another distraction conspired against our attempts to get beyond the Lower Borough that day: a sign at the door of Le Chalet de Gruyères that simply said: “framboises et crème” (raspberries and cream). And this was no ordinary cream; it was Gruyère double cream, made from milk of cows that had pastured in the local alps. Jacques cocked one brow and gave me a sliding smile. We hadn’t had desert.
We entered the cozy traditional café and sat by a window that overlooked St. Germain courtyard. I ordered a café crème with the raspberries and cream that we shared between us. The server, in traditional Swiss folk dress, handed me my café crème along with a chocolate tub of double cream! Bonus! By the time we left the café, dusk had fallen and we decided to return the next day to devote our time to the Upper Borough and the castle.
We returned the next day and this time we climbed the cobbled road directly through St. Germain Gate, past the H.R. Giger Museum and the Tibetan museum, straight to the castle.
Seen in the winter light and dusted with snow, the castle stood in quiet dress, showing its unequivocal face. Only a few tourists wandered the premises and I felt like I had the place to myself. From watch tower to spiral staircase and keep, the castle ambience transported me as I walked through eight centuries of architecture, history and culture. The castle and its grounds enthralled: from the 12th century outer ramparts to the 15th century leaded butzenscheibenfenster (crown-glass or bottle glass windows) of richly furnished baroque halls, and 19th century sculptured garden in the outer bailey.
Highlights of my castle tour included the walk along the 15th century wooden-roofed ramparts of the inner and outer baileys with the jardin à la française, a beautifully sculpted French geometrical-style garden created by the Balland family in the late 19th century at the back of the castle courtyard.
The vaulted kitchen contained a fireplace big enough to cook an entire ox. Jacques pointed out the 17th century sandstone oven and kindly informed me that in medieval times it was used to bake tarts, galantines, and pies. I think he was still hungry (it wasn’t my fault that he ate slowly and I got the lion’s share of the raspberries and cream… :-3 )
The Salle des Chevaliers (Knights room) was another highlight of the castle interior. Painted in the mid-1800s with richly evocative scenes, the elegant room decorated in 19th century furniture conjured meetings of knights before battle. Paintings on the walls celebrate the colorful character of the counts and townspeople in an interesting mix of historical events and
legend: one depicts when enemies attempted to seize the town of Gruyères in 1100 AD but were forced back by the townswomen (after the men had all left to join the crusade) — the women tied lighted candles to the horns of their goats to frighten the enemy soldiers; another panel depicts how Count Rudolph III seized the castle of Rue in 1227 to rescue a noblewoman held prisoner there.
Cut to the Cheese:
La Maison du Gruyere is a working dairy in Pringy, below the village, where visitors can watch the famous local cheese being made. Besides touring the larger mechanized cheese production, La Maison gives a demonstration of the artesian method of cheese making using a large copper pot over a wood fire.
The Gruyères cheese festival occurs every year in the early summer including demonstrations of artisan cheese preparation in the centre of the village, alphorn concerts in the St. Germain courtyard and flag throwing.
Let the gentle tinkling of cow bells lull you to sleep when you stay at La Ferme du Bourgoz, an authentic farmhouse Bed and Breakfast located at the foot of Gruyères.
Elaine and Jacques Murith provide a cozy working farm and serve an authentic farm breakfast made from local products, including fresh bread, family-made cheese and butter and exquisite jam. The farm is a five minute hike from the town.
Constructed around 1270, the Château de Gruyères was continuously lived in by the counts of Gruyere (nineteen of them) until the mid-16th century. The richly furnished castle, rebuilt after a fire in 1493. The last of the Gruyères counts, Michel, went bankrupt in 1554 and died in exile. The castle then became residence to the bailiffs and then to the prefects sent by Fribourg. In 1849 John Bovy bought the castle from the Fribourg government, which planned to demolish it. His brother-in-law Emile Balland restored the rampart walks and put in running water. John’s brother, Daniel, an invalid after a bout of rheumatism, went to live at the castle and decided to restore it; he invited some of the best artists to be his guests, including French landscape artist Corot. The castle was then bought back by the canton of Fribourg in 1938, made into a museum and opened to the public.
Chateau de Gruyeres: tel 026 921 21 02; www.chateau-gruyeres.ch
La Maison du Gruyere: tel 026 921 84 00; www.lamaisondugruyere.ch
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