Le Chemin du Gruyère

La Gruyere's picturesque medieval town Gruyeres nestles into an undulating patchwork of green meadows in Canton Fribourg. The scene looks like a miniature garden for the Gods, kneaded into shape by a giant's hand. The town's fairytale castle perches atop a mound with an impressive backdrop: the sharpened nodes of the Dent du Broc (tooth of Broc) and behind this peak, a jagged cliff rising vertically into the sky to create a distinctive lump. We spent the night in the Hostellerie des Chevaliers, a cutesy hotel with wooden-beamed ceilings and, from its perch just below the mound of Gruyeres, spectacular views across this landscape.

The first thing I noticed from our balcony was the tinkling of cow bells singing throughout the valley. This is perhaps a fitting sound for a region that is most famed for its cheese, Le Gruyere AOC. We enjoyed a tour of the Maison du Gruyere, one of the region's largest working dairies. Making cheese is a hard business: the smell and the humidity in the dairy, not to mention the strong stench of ammonia in the 'cheese cave' make for a trade that requires a strong mind. The process is somewhat magical, and getting just the right cheese is about touching and looking. We tried some Alpage cheese - straight from the alpine pastures. It has a lightly fragranced taste, thanks to the wide variety of plants and herbs the cows gobble (amongst the some 20kg of grass they eat daily) including clover, violet and thyme.

While the cheese is a fat, it's certainly good for you. Cheese making has been important to the economy of the area for hundreds of years. Le Chemin du Gruyere, a picturesque trail that meanders 11km between Gruyeres and Charmey, was used as early as the fourteenth century by farmers to export their cheese. The route is popular with tourists now, and it is easy to understand why. Among the highlights are Le Pont qui branle (the wobbling bridge), which in fact does anything but wobble. It is a solid wooden construction that forms an enclosed tunnel to traverse the River Jogne. The path continues through meadows of dancing dandelions, snakes beside the river then winds over to the Jogne Gorge.

Here, the landscape changes completely. High limestone walls reach for the thick canopy of leaves above, and sunlight dapples through creating a sheen on the mint-coloured water. Interesting geological features betray thousands of years of history, including wave-like fissures in the rock and huge boulders left behind in the river. The water was so still when we walked by, that these incredible formations were reflected flawlessly in it. There is a rather steep climb out of the gorge, but you are rewarded with views of the Lac de Montsalvens, a huge reservoir. You traverse its shore on a concrete walkway, with the lake to your right and a vast wall dropping down on your left.

Charmey is less touristy than Gruyeres and has a different backdrop. The mountains are more imposing, more like the Alps. High above on the Vounetz is a working dairy, and you feel you have come full circle. Other highlights in Gruyeres include the Giger museum - H R Giger did the artwork for the film Alien in 1979. It was really not my cup of tea - very graphic and sexualised in a disturbing way, but he was clearly a talented artist. There is an equally disturbing cafe adjoined to the museum. You walk in and immediately feel you have walked into the cavity inside a human's ribcage. There are structures resembling bones, intestines and goodness-knows what, all crafted in a stone-like material. The seats have an unerring black rubber surface, that you just don't want to sit on. A more pleasant experience was dining in Gruyeres' main square in the evening and being treated to an impromptu Alphorn performance. Alphorns, or alpine horns, look like giant smoking pipes - probably twice as long as a didgeridoo. Having always been a fan of Le Gruyere AOC, I now have a marvellous landscape to conjure in my mind next time I am enjoying bread and cheese!
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