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TRAVEL AND ADVENTURE- Gruyeres is Much More Than Cheese PDF Print E-mail
Written by Beverly Mann, Creative Syndicate   
Thursday, 27 October 2011 01:55


The medieval city of Gruyeres, Switzerland, offers visitors more than just cheese.


A couple in medieval garb celebrate the summer solstice in Gruyeres, Switzerland.

Think of Gruyeres, the storybook Swiss city resting at the Fribourg foothills, and the taste of savory cheese comes to mind. This medieval fortressed locale tucked in the majestic Alps, with its 120,000 inhabitants, has produced the popular Gruyere cheese since about the year 1115.

The ancient city has several unexpected surprises for its visitors, however, from Tibetan relics and a futuristic museum to a world-famous chocolate factory that would make Willy Wonka jump for joy. On my recent visit to Gruyeres, I was taken not only by its fairytale ambience but also by all the unexpected events and venues that awaited me.

As the Golden Pass panoramic train inched its way from the petite station of Montbovon, my eyes were glued to the crystal- blue lake trimmed by rows of red-shingled white houses. I was now entering a world of rolling greenery backed by a snowcapped mountainscape with hefty cows grazing the picture- perfect farmlands.

I had just come from two enjoyable days in the pristine city of Geneva, with its grand architecture and luxurious restaurants and hotels, to a pastoral, more simple way of life in nature's own grandeur.

Upon my arrival in Gruyeres, I checked in at the historic Hostellerie Les Chevaliers at the foothill of the Alps with magical views of the 12th-century castle. It felt more like a bed-and-breakfast inn than a hotel. The sumptuous breakfast buffet with fresh cheeses, fruits and fresh baked breads gave me a homey feeling. Within five minutes from my hotel were the walled city gates and the center of town, which was within the castle grounds.

I lucked out by timing my trip during the summer solstice festival, when the town folks donned medieval attire and simulated the life of centuries past. People were actually spinning yarn for clothes and mixing large cauldrons of meats and vegetables over an open pit. At night adults and children danced and sang around a huge open bonfire.

Sandwiched between 15thcentury architecture was a grouping of modernistic sculptures at the Giger Museum, reminiscent of the stark, surreal Dali Museum in the medieval town of Figueres outside of Barcelona, though not as elaborate. Created by futuristic artist, designer and visionary H.R. Giger ,who won the Academy Award for set design in 1980 for "Aliens," the museum houses some 450 biomechanical creature sculptures and paintings with themes around birth, war, violence, the inner human landscape and the erotic. Actual set pieces from the films "Species" and "Poltergiest II" are scattered throughout this avant-garde setting. Swiss-born Giger, who lives in Geneva, created the museum in 1998 and followed it with the even more bizarre adjacent Giger Bar.

After entering this cafe-bar setting, I sat on a high-back swivel bar chair in the shape of a human skeleton, with spinelike archways separating the bar area from the tables. Just next door to the Giger Museum was yet another surprising edifice, the Tibet Museum. This is a renovated chapel converted into a museum in 2009 by the creative endeavors of collector and entrepreneur Alain Bordier. Bordier's passion of 30 years was collecting Himalayan art.

An unusual aspect of this museum is that the sculptures, paintings and ritualistic objects represent 450 Buddhas from around the world. Another element of surprise was the downstairs shrine with a large golden Buddha and a place with cushions where visitors can meditate in between browsing.

"I find the art of the Buddha peaceful and powerful," said Bordier, "and there are so many exquisite representations of this form, which has always interested me."

Leaving these spiritual surroundings and going back into the cobblestone streets and ancient European architecture was a jolt into another culture and time. Everywhere I turned there was an inn and restaurant. I randomly chose Des Ramparts for a fulfilling steak and veggie dinner, fairly reasonable compared to other nearby restaurants.

Before leaving Gruyeres, I visited the adjacent town of Broc and La Maison Cailler, the world-renowned chocolate factory named after Francois Louis Cailler, who opened Switzerland's first chocolate factory in 1819. Besides learning the art of chocolate-making in a Disneylike presentation, I enjoyed the chocolate tasting afterward even more.

Just before departing Gruyeres on a rainy morning, I decided to visit La Maison du Gruyeres, which was near the train depot. Here I saw the production of the ivory-colored Gruyere cheese being made in large vats and then created into a millstone-shaped mold, a fun visit that people of all ages can enjoy.

As I stepped outside, the rain had subsided and a huge rainbow of yellow, blue, green and orange had arched its way over the distant mountains and verdant farmlands. I grabbed my camera to catch this miraculous moment, another reminder that Gruyeres is about so much more than cheese.