SWITZERLAND: SAY CHEESE
A ramble through western Switzerland
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