Straddling the border between French- and German-speaking Switzerland, the city of Fribourg (a.k.a Freiburg) is well stocked with its own historical attractions, among them the Gothic bulk of the Cathedral of St. Nicholas and an adorable 1899-built funicular powered by municipal wastewater. But exploring them further will have to wait for another day; it’s time to get back on the road.
On this leg, the GPS and I are unexpectedly in sync, and before long I’m coasting south down the two-lane Route de la Gruyère past wide-eaved farmhouses and rolling sheep meadows, with Lake Gruyère flashing in and out of view on my right. The Gruyère region, of course, is famous for its namesake fromage, and at La Maison du Gruyère cheese factory in Pringy, a perky audio tour will guide you through the entire cheese-making process. If watching whey being squeezed out of a mass of curds doesn’t appeal, head to nearby Broc and the Maison Cailler chocolate factory, whose extravagant visitors’ center claims to be the most visited museum in western Switzerland. I don’t doubt it. The tour ends with an unlimited sampling of the 200-year-old brand’s sweet stuff, and the tasting room is bursting with sugar-high kids like a scene out of Willy Wonka.
Gruyères proper (spelled with an “s”) is another tourist magnet, and again this is not surprising. Instead of doling out chocolate, the old hilltop village treats visitors to a storybook setting of medieval townhouses and mountain pastures centered on a turreted 13th-century castle, now a museum. So what if you have to share it with scads of others? Leaving my car in the parking lot outside, I happily follow the main street’s well-trodden cobblestones past busy sidewalk cafés and souvenir shops to explore Gruyères’ oddball trio of museums—one devoted to the biomechanical horrors of the late Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger, who designed the titular creature in Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror classic Alien; one a trove of Tibetan art; and then the castle itself, where feudal-era furnishings mingle with 19th-century frescoes by Genevan artist Daniel Bovy, who made this his summertime residence in the 1850s.
Lunch in the wooden, cowbell-strewn dining room of the Chalet de Gruyères introduces me to moitié-moitié fondue, a pungent local specialty that blends Gruyère and Vacherin Fribourgeois cheeses. It’s pure comfort food. But the best meal of the trip unfolds in the hills above Javroz-Cerniat Valley, at a sagging 250-year-old former farmhouse called La Pinte des Mossettes. Getting there takes half an hour along a darkening mountain road, and I’m certain I’m lost until I spot the bell towers of the Valsainte monastery, a nearby landmark. “The monks are under a vow of silence,” Georgy Blanchet, my host, explains as he pours a glass of wine. “They are not great customers, but they are peaceful neighbors.”
Georgy’s wife, Virginie Tinembart, is the chef; she’s also a passionate locavore. Dinner features the plants and herbs she foraged that afternoon, along with other area produce: cherry gazpacho drizzled with wild-thyme oil; mozzarella fritters and oregano foam; zucchini stuffed with caponata (a sort of Sicilian ratatouille). It’s a distillation of the very essence of these mountains, packed with natural flavor. I don’t even notice that the menu is vegetarian.
The next day I roll into Thun in the Interlaken region, an area dominated by sailboat-dotted lakes and the prodigious (thank you, Dickens) peaks of the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau mountains. The latter loom across the water from the lakefront terrace of my hotel, the Congress Seepark, where I fortify myself with a gravy-bathed pork schnitzel before walking 20 minutes into Thun’s medieval center. There’s a thousand years of history here to explore (more, if you care to trace the city’s origins back to Celtic or Roman times), but there’s an equally youthful spirit—behold the shivering teenagers waiting in line to leap off the railings of the Kuhbrücke bridge into the aquamarine flow of the Aare River, or the neoprene-clad surfers (yes, you read that right) farther upstream, tethered against the churning white waters that gush under an old wooden sluice bridge.
Obere Hauptgasse, a narrow shopping street lined with boutiques selling everything from llama-wool duvets and shisha pipes to Tibetan thangkas, leads me toward Schloss Thun, the town’s centerpiece castle-turned-museum. I intend only a cursory look at the exhibits, which on the lower levels include a wall-size Burgundian heraldic tapestry captured in the Battle of Murten and any number of evil-looking Swiss pikes and halberds. But each floor of the near-deserted fortress beckons me upward—to the Knight’s Hall, whose towering ceiling beams are stained brownish-red with ox blood; to the dungeon level; to the keep’s spooky timbered attic; and then, squeezing through an embrasure, to one of the corner turrets, where I’m rewarded by sweeping views over the city and Lake Thun. Kids have carved their names into the stonework, I notice with quiet outrage. Yet these ancient walls are accustomed to being defaced; in one of the cells below, a plaque translates this plaintive message scratched into the plaster by a onetime inmate: “Johann Lauber, a cobbler of Adelboden now here in the dungeon of Thun 1889, have been here for three months and one day. Lice and fleas and bugs have been hopping around on my belly.” Thun’s reputation for hospitality has clearly improved over the century.