Discovering Gruyère's 'most beautiful' village
Apart from its world famous cheese, the Gruyère district can also boast of being home to a village voted this year the most beautiful in French-speaking Switzerland. The Local’s Morven McLean pays a visit to the village of Gruyères to find out what makes it so special.
Perched on a craggy hill and offering stunning views of the surrounding Fribourg pre-Alps, Gruyères (the spelling of the village adds an "s" to distinguish it from the region) is a tourist magnet attracting around one million visitors a year.
With its castle, perfectly preserved medieval centre, red geranium-festooned restaurants serving local cheese and cream specialties on terraces offering panoramic vistas, and shops selling upmarket locally crafted goods, it is no surprise that the quintessentially Swiss village appeals to foreign tourists.
On a beautiful late autumn day when low season means most of the shops and some museums are shut, small parties of Asian visitors are still stopping to admire the views and sample their first fondue.
The chateau of Gruyères. Photo: Switzerland Tourism
Gruyères was recently voted “most beautiful village in western Switzerland” by the public and a panel of judges in a competition run by the French-language magazine L’illustré and broadcaster RTS.
Gruyère district tourism official Guillaume Schneuwly says this is recognition of all the effort that has gone into preserving the medieval and local character of Gruyères.
“But it’s also acknowledgment of the fact the Swiss love Gruyères and what it, and the surrounding region, represent,” he tells The Local.
Despite its picture postcard appearance, Gruyères represents “a traditional and authentic image of Switzerland” for many Swiss, according to Schneuwly.
Cream, cheese and chocolate
Stéphane Chartrand, who lives in the German part of the canton of Fribourg, never fails to take visitors from abroad to visit what she considers to be one of the prettiest villages in Europe.
“Gruyères is a little jewel — a must see for any visitor who likes beautiful scenery and great local typical foods, like meringues and Gruyère double cream,” she tells The Local.
And then there’s the cheese, ‘Le Gruyère AOC’, which you can watch being made in the village’s demonstration dairy, and then sample in the adjoining restaurant.
Le Gruyère received official certification in 2001 and is now made in 178 dairies across the cantons of Fribourg, Vaud, Neuchatel, Jura and Bern.
Photo: La Gruyère Tourism
Around 30,000 tonnes of it is produced annually, with two-thirds of that consumed in Switzerland and the other third exported to the European Union and North America.
Le Gruyère is one of two cheeses used to make the region’s famed Moitié-Moitié fondue – the other being Vacherin Fribourgeois.
From the demonstration dairy next to the train station at the foot of the hill it’s only a short hop to Broc, the site of Switzerland’s oldest chocolate maker, Cailler, where visitors can take an interactive guided tour and then stock up on chocolate bargains in the factory shop.
But beyond its obvious culinary appeal, Gruyères and the surrounding district also have many cultural attractions.
First among these is the 800-year-old castle, built as a fortress but later, after the Burgundian Wars, evolving into a stately home. Its eclectic range of exhibits includes capes belonging to Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, and a mummified hand, believed to have arrived from Egypt as a relic in the Middle Ages.
While the castle celebrates the area’s history, two new museums in the village provide a contemporary edge.
The Tibet Museum houses a personal collection of Buddhist art from the Himalayas in a renovated chapel, while the HR Giger Museum showcases paintings, sketches and mechanical sculptures from the fascinating and bizarre world of the late Swiss surrealist artist and Oscar-winning creator for Ridley Scott’s film Alien.
The adjacent museum bar, where the ceiling, walls, floors and fittings were all modelled by the artist in the Alien style, is a world away from the many traditional Gruyères cafes with their wood panelling and gingham tablecloths.
If Gruyères is the most beautiful village in French-speaking Switzerland, the nearby peak of Moléson at 2,002 metres above sea level claims to offer the most beautiful panorama in the region, taking in Lake Geneva, Mont Blanc and the Bernese Oberland.
In winter the ski area covers 30 kilometres and offers blue, red, black and nursery slopes accessible by funicular and cable car from Moléson village. Children aged up to nine go free.
“This is a very nice family ski spot, with a very cosy atmosphere in the restaurant at the bottom of the hill,” says Chartrand.
Tobogganing at Moléson. Photo: La Gruyère Tourism
“It’s also very nice that you can just park the car and it’s then just a few metres walk to the gondola.”
In addition to its ski slopes, the area also boasts a network of well-marked snowshoe paths and a four-kilometre toboggan run.
New this winter season is an obstacle park aimed at experienced freestyle snowboarders and children wanting to try out the sport.
The slopes are open from December 13th — snow conditions permitting — and the obstacle park will be inaugurated two weeks later.
The funicular at Molèson links up to a ski lift and a sledge run. Photo: La Gruyère Tourism