A ram­ble through western Switzer­land

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - Christine McCabe

I am in Es­tavayer-le-Lac in the Swiss can­ton of Fri­bourg. My en­cy­clo­pe­dic tour guide Phyl­lis Pritch­ett de Mar­tini has handed me a copy of her novel, Ren­dez-vous at My Lady’s Manor, a thriller set in this pretty me­dieval walled town.

The book’s hero­ine, Jew­ely, bears a re­mark­able re­sem­blance to my US-born guide, who hap­pens to own a B&B called My Lady’s Manor, but flick­ing through the tome’s open­ing pages I sense it’s also a love let­ter of sorts to Phyl­lis’s adopted home. With its cob­bled streets and me­dieval ar­chi­tec­ture on the banks of Lake Neucha­tel, Es­tavayer has a lost-in-time feel, as Jew­ely notes, where “veg­etable stands are … still set upon the main street just off the curb so the maraich­ers … [can] quickly haul their crates un­der the Gothic vaulted arches if it rains”; and where Do­mini­can nuns re­main in res­i­dence af­ter be­ing granted refuge in­side the city walls in 1316.

So it comes as some sur­prise that the town’s quaint com­mu­nity mu­seum, housed in a creak­ing me­dieval build­ing and oth­er­wise stuffed to the gun­nels with old frocks and can­non balls, also in­cludes a base­ment col­lec­tion of stuffed frogs ar­rayed in a se­ries of as­ton­ish­ing tableaus. The un­for­tu­nate frogs were net­ted in the mid 19th cen­tury when Lake Neucha­tel was high and Fran­cois Per­rier, re­cently re­turned from Italy, had too much time on his hands.

Taxi­dermy may once again be de rigueur in de­sign cir­cles but I’ve yet to see a stuffed frog af­fixed to the wall of a smart apart­ment in the glossy pages of World of Interiors. Per­rier’s 108 in­dus­tri­ous am­phib­ians are far from static. They play bil­liards, or cards with a teensy weensy deck, they prop in a bar­ber’s chair (what frog ever needed a hair­cut?), set off on mil­i­tary ma­noeu­vres or sign im­por­tant le­gal doc­u­ments with a pen fash­ioned from a sin­gle hu­man hair.

They are in the worst pos­si­ble taste but riv­et­ing nev­er­the­less and have been re­cently re­fur­bished to the tune of CHF100,000 ($140,000), nat­tily spot-lit and dis­played in sleek cases like Cartier jewels. Musee des Gre­nouilles is just the first in a se­ries of quirky mu­se­ums I’m to en­counter in the French-speak­ing part of western Switzer­land, as I ride trains and buses and walk the wildflower-strewn mead­ows and idyl­lic vil­lages.

Is there any­where love­lier in spring, I pon­der af­ter re­tir­ing to the Ho­tel-Restau­rant Bel-Air in Praz-Vully over­look­ing nearby Lake Murten for the house spe­cialty, which is not frogs, but tiny fil­lets of lake perch pan fried and served with boiled pota­toes. I wash down the meal with a crisp ries­ling from the sur­round­ing Vully, one of the small­est wine re­gions in the coun­try. The area com­prises only 150ha of vines and 18 fam­ily-run winer­ies whose vin­tages are rarely spied out­side Switzer­land. At the re­cently mod­ernised Chateau de Praz, dat­ing back to 1521, wine­maker Mary­lene Bo­vard-Chervet hosts visi­tors in a smart tast­ing room. Drop by to sam­ple her freiburger, made us­ing a wild yeast (and a tricky grape to grow), or chas­se­las, an aper­i­tif-style wine typ­i­cally used in fon­due.

The best spot for din­ner (and in­deed an overnight stay) is the lake­front Chateau de la Cor­biere, just out­side Es­tavayer-le-Lac and re­cently re­stored by Anne Lise and Philippe Glar­don. The 19th-cen­tury home of a glam­orous count­ess who was con­veyed to the dock in a lit­tle ca­ble car with a cra­dle large enough to ac­com­mo­date her vo­lu­mi­nous gowns, the im­pres­sive chateau en­joys an Ar­ca­dian as­pect lapped by long-grown wildflower lawns run­ning down to the lake and a pri­vate beach. There are 15 gue­strooms; the count­ess’s orig­i­nal apart­ments, with creak­ing par­quet floors, are on the sec­ond floor, and more mod­ern ac­com­mo­da­tion has been in­serted be­neath gi­ant beams in the third-floor ser­vants’ quar­ters.

My spring jaunt con­tin­ues to Gruy­eres and a tour of a state-of-the-art cheese dairy. This op­er­a­tion is a long way from the 18th cen­tury when cheeses were taken down to Vevey on the backs of mules be­fore be­ing trans­ferred to flat boats for the voy­age to Geneva. To­day 170 vil­lage cheese­mak­ers turn out 870,000 wheels a year. At La Mai­son du Gruyere, Cherry the cow nar­rates a cheesy au­dio tour of the mod­ern-day process. She’d prob­a­bly rather be up the moun­tain with her besties munch­ing on her es­ti­mated daily in­take of 100kg of flow­ers, in­clud­ing wild thyme, cumin, vanilla orchids, vi­o­lets, lilies, even nar­cissi. Th­ese are cru­cial flavour notes visi­tors can sam­ple at La Mai­son du Gruyere us­ing per­fumer’s can­is­ters.

Ap­petite sharp­ened, it’s up the hill to the vil­lage proper, pos­si­bly the pret­ti­est in Europe, with a broad cob­bled high street lead­ing up to a fairy­tale 13th-cen­tury cas­tle and tulip-stuffed parterre set against an alpine back­drop. I’m ex­pect­ing Heidi to skip around the cor­ner at any mo­ment; in­stead it’s a pointy-bo­somed alien stand­ing on the high street just be­low the cas­tle who cap­tures my at­ten­tion. She’s sta­tioned out front of the Musee HR Giger, where the works of the Swiss artist, most fa­mous for his de­signs of Ri­d­ley Scott’s Alien, are housed. In­side you’ll find Giger’s art­work for the movies and across the street the weird Giger Bar, dec­o­rated in un­set­tling “biome­chan­i­cal style” that feels like be­ing in­side the

belly of the beast. I pre­fer the en­chant­ing hill­top cas­tle, it­self claim­ing a strong link with Swiss artists and to­day, along with fres­coes, me­dieval can­vases and a pianoforte made for Franz Liszt, you’ll find con­tem­po­rary art and in­stal­la­tions.

The sur­prises con­tinue in Saint-Mau­rice in Valais, about 70km south of Gruy­eres, a small town at the bot­tom of a nar­row canyon lead­ing to the up­per Rhone Val­ley and home to the as­ton­ish­ing UNESCO-listed Ab­baye de Saint-Mau­rice. Tucked into sheer moun­tain rock and home to about 40 Au­gus­tinian monks aged 31 to 97, it’s the long­est con­tin­u­ously in­hab­ited abbey in Europe, claim­ing one of the con­ti­nent’s rich­est col­lec­tions of ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal trea­sures.

Fol­low­ing the mar­tyr­dom of Saint-Mau­rice and his The­ban le­gion at the end of the third cen­tury, the for­mer Celtic vil­lage of Acaunus be­came an im­por­tant place of pil­grim­age, con­nect­ing Can­ter­bury with Rome. The abbey is cel­e­brat­ing 1500 years this year and dur­ing re­cent months has com­pleted a bril­liant up­grade of the vis­i­tor ex­pe­ri­ence. Au­dio tours take a cir­cu­lar route through the basil­ica with its stun­ning con­tem­po­rary stained-glass win­dows de­pict­ing the mar­tyr­dom of the African le­gion­naires, into the cat­a­combs and the fan­tas­tic arche­o­log­i­cal site tucked into the cliff face and con­tain­ing Ro­man ru­ins, the foot­print of the 4th-cen­tury basil­ica and the tombs of the mar­tyrs, all pro­tected from fall­ing rocks by an enor­mous sail. The mu­seum is housed in a dark­ened vault crammed with glit­ter­ing trea­sures en­dowed by roy­als from across Europe over more than a mil­len­nium.

This tiny town is re­mark­able for an­other crack­ing at­trac­tion, a se­cret sub­ter­ranean fortress tucked into the moun­tain in an alpine tra­verse high above the rush­ing Rhone. It’s im­pos­si­ble not to chan­nel James Bond as I fol­low guide and for­mer sol­dier Chris­tian Vaucher up a steep moun­tain path to a small cafe perched high above the river. But we’re not here for a cuppa; in­stead we duck be­hind the cafe to en­ter a dark­ened moun­tain tun­nel, at the end of snow melt and fol­low­ing a week of rain, run­ning with wa­ter. We slip and slide along the dimly lit pas­sage un­til we come upon a huge locked metal door. Chris­tian ex­tracts a key from his pocket and we con­tinue on through the dark­ened labyrinth un­til we ar­rive at an­other un­marked door. Be­hind lies Fort de Cindey, a World War II and Cold War in­stal­la­tion that re­mained a se­cret, even from lo­cal vil­lagers, un­til 1995.

The scene is BBC pe­riod-drama per­fect and feels like the troops have just popped down the moun­tain to grab a quick fon­due. Uni­forms are hung neatly, beds made, hos­pi­tal cor­ners in­tact, maps are laid out in the com­mand room, herbs sit on the counter in the gleam­ing kitchen with its enor­mous steel vats.

Our small group of visi­tors can’t re­sist play­ing sol­diers. We press the sirens, call HQ on the wind-up phone, load de­com­mis­sioned mis­siles into anti-tank guns with their bar­rels pok­ing out through small holes in the moun­tain, then climb on board and take aim at the vil­lage be­low. We peer over a precipice where a creak­ing ca­ble trol­ley was used to haul pro­vi­sions up the moun­tain be­fore en­ter­ing the vast store­rooms where we load up with army-ra­tion choco­lates (you have to love the Swiss) and cam­ou­flage um­brel­las. The lat­ter come in handy when we leave the fort and wind our way to­wards la Grotte aux Fees, a thun­der­ing wa­ter­fall in­side the moun­tain. A board­walk takes visi­tors straight through the spray (wear sen­si­ble shoes) and around the mys­te­ri­ous un­der­ground lake that would have fans of Lord of the Rings on the look­out for Gol­lum.

Chris­tian re­mem­bers vis­it­ing the grotto as a child and won­der­ing what lay be­hind the heavy metal door. “The vil­lagers of Saint-Mau­rice had all sorts of tales about what went on in the moun­tain,” he says, “but no one seemed to know it was a mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tion.”

Stand­ing in the eerie grotto, drenched to the skin, I have an ir­re­sistible urge to race back to Es­tavayer and lib­er­ate Per­rier’s frogs. They would love it here.

Gruy­eres, above; a young vis­i­tor to the stuffed frog col­lec­tion, Es­tavayer-le-Lac, above right

Gue­stroom at Chateau de la Cor­biere, far left; cas­tle at Gruy­eres in a per­fect alpine set­ting, left

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