2018 started off fabulously with my husband, Gerald, and I heading to Switzerland mid-January. I have been to Switzerland before, Zurich to be exact, but only for a quick self-guided city tour while on a six-hour layover en route to London. This trip was full-blown Swiss immersion.
Here a few facts to know about Switzerland before you go: It is not in the EU, so have CHF at the ready. 74% of Swiss people speak German, followed by 21% French (mostly in the western part of the country), 4% Italian and a mere 1%, Rumantsch. So, depending upon the region you visit in Switzerland, be prepared to hear (and ideally speak) any of the three major languages.
Ger and I started our Swiss adventure in Geneva. We had an amazing experience seeing the Swiss Alps for the first time from the airplane. The views were simply breathtaking.
We had done some research ahead of our trip and discovered that there is a complimentary train ticket into Geneva for visitors. So, we retrieved it in the baggage claim area and headed to the train station. Our base for the week was Fribourg, but, we decided to explore Old Town Geneva before heading that way. In Geneva people speak mostly French, so Ger was my interpreter for the day.
Our first stop in Geneva was La Mont Blanc bridge, about a ten minute walk from the Geneva train station. The view of Lake Geneva and the famous Jet d’Eau were amazing from the bridge. There is also a walkway that’s almost level with La Rhone River underneath the bridge that we took a gander along as well. It’s such a unique perspective to get – being almost level with a flowing body of water. The water of La Rhone River is crystal clear, has a very unique tint of green, and attracts numerous swans and common terns (birds that look like mini seagulls – in my humble opinion).A quick lesson about the Jet d’Eau. Jet d’Eau literally means “water jet” in French. It is located on Lake Geneva and known as one of the tallest fountains in the world. Originally in 1886, the fountain was built to release the excess pressure of a hydraulic plant at La Coulouvrenière. As the water spouted into the air, it quickly became a symbol of the city, so as such, it was amplified and relocated to the point that is considered to be the center of Geneva. The jets’ engines pump 500 liters of water per second to the height of 140 meters. Pretty crazy, huh? The fountain acts as a symbol of strength for Switzerland to this day.
(Pictured: Common terns line the ropes hoping for a snack from the locals)
From the bridge, we walked through Jardin Anglais where we stopped off at the famous Flower Clock or L’horloge Fleurieis. The clock face is composed of approximately 6,500 flowering plants and shrubs. The flower clock stands en honorarium to the great watchmakers of Switzerland. For those of you who don’t know, Switzerland is known for its production of high-class watches, such a Rolex, Omega, and Tag Heuer (to name a few).After soaking up the Flower Clock goodness, we were off to Old Town Geneva. What a beautiful place. Note: If you opt to bring your carry-on with you, there are lots of cobblestone streets and hills in Old Town, so be prepared. Old Town is filled with lovely street cafés, restaurants, squares, and more.
One of our favorite locations in Old Town was a big square outside of the Saint Pierre Cathedral. Saint Pierre Cathedral was constructed in the 11th century and has served as Geneva’s main church for over 850 years. Now, the square was one of our favorites because there was hardly anyone walking around, and being nestled into the buildings surrounding it, the square provided a sweet moment of solitude and reflection. It also allowed for a welcome break from the sound of our luggage wheels struggling along the cobblestone streets.
(Pictured: The lovely square that provided us a sweet moment of solitude.)Around the side of the church is a lovely street that leads to a public rooftop terrace that overlooks Old Town and provides a glimpse of the Jet d’Eau. Amazing view, no?
After our quick exploration of Old Town, we headed to the Geneva train station to catch the train to our hub for the week, the medieval town of Fribourg. The train ride took about an hour and half. We passed vineyards, farms, beautiful lakeside chateaus, and more. It was a beautiful train ride. Upon our arrival in Fribourg, we walked about ten minutes through Old Town before we arrived at the Hôtel de la Rose, our hotel for the week.
We had a lovely double room with a vaulted wood ceiling and two windows that reminded me of sunroofs. The view outside was amazing: the Notre Dame Basilica (the oldest church in Fribourg – dating back to the 13th century) and the Poya Bridge were the highlights. The church bell rang on the half hour and the hour as well, which only added to the charm of the hotel. Great way to top off a Sunday.
Monday was my first day exploring alone as Ger had to work for the week. So, I headed to Gruyères. It is easily accessible by train from Fribourg – you only have to make one connection in Bulle. The train journey is pleasant and the views that you’ll encounter along the way are for the books.Y’all, I won’t lie; I was totally unprepared for the stunning beauty of Gruyères. Everyone needs to visit: it’s unforgettable, in every way ;). Upon exiting the train station (a tiny little thing – two tracks), I headed for Gruyères Castle.
Google Maps (my direction companion of choice) led me up a hillside path yielding amazing views of the town of Gruyères and then along a one-lane street that led to a church. From there it was up another hillside path and into the Chateâu du Gruyère. Photos below will attempt to illustrate how beautiful the walk was.
Gruyères Castle has stood atop a hill adjacent to the Alpine foothills since the 13th century. From all points of the castle the views of the Swiss Alps are insane (even from the old rampart). The Castle of Gruyères is one of the most famous in Switzerland and is noted as a Swiss Heritage Site of National Significance. When visiting, you can ask for a combined ticket for Gruyères Castle and another museum (I chose La Maison du Gruyères) for CHF 16. It’s the way to go.
I won’t lie when I tell you I was the only person in the entire castle. I had a 13th century castle all.to.myself. I needed to pinch myself every now and again (and convince myself that there is no such thing as ghosts) as I was walking around. Surreal. The most famous thing housed in the castle are the three capes of The Order of the Golden Fleece – located in the Knights Hall – pretty special to see in person.(Pictured: A modern painting featured in the castle museum from the International Fantastic Art Collection. There were many paintings to admire but the colors in this one stood out to me.)(Pictured: The Knights Hall. The three capes of The Order of the Golden Fleece are located here. Sadly, I did not get a picture of them. But, in person, they looked very delicate and aged – time does do that to fabric.)Picturesque. I still can’t believe I had a CASTLE to myself. So amazing. Once I completed the castle tour, I made my way back into the medieval town center and then down to Gruyères to check out La Maison du Gruyère.
So, La Maison du Gruyère is a museum dedicated to all things Gruyère cheese. In addition, Gruyère cheese is produced and aged here there, as you can see in the pictures below. The museum also provides daily demonstrations of how the cheese is produced, the timetable of production is here, in case you’d like to time your visit around a certain part of production.
Here are some fun facts about Gruyère cheese: True Gruyère AOP is produced in Switzerland. When it has been aged between 6 and 9 months, Gruyère is soft with a slightly sweet taste. It is identified as “classic Gruyère” starting at 10 months and has a full-flavored and aromatic taste. Some wheels of cheese will be matured up to 18, or even 24 months, allowing for a strong aromatic taste to develop – perfect for the lovers of strong cheese. (Source: Le Gruyère Switzerland)La Maison du Gruyère is also inclusive of a restaurant, La Maison du Gruyère Restaurant, in which the majority of dishes contain, you guessed it, Gruyère. Of course, I had to go, and I opted for the Gruyère Macaroni (though the Gruyère tasting menu was tempting) because when else am I going to get to indulge in food like that at one of the sources of Gruyère? Never. And let me tell you, it was gorgeous; a meal I will not soon forget.
After enjoying my late lunch, I crossed the street to the train station and caught the train back to Fribourg. The sun was in the process of setting when I returned, so I captured a few photos of Old Town as the light was ideal; see below.
For dinner, Ger and I made our way to Les Trentenaires with his work colleagues. The ambiance in Les Trenteraires is modern chic meets French bistro. I ordered a chicken Caesar salad for dinner because, Gruyère macaroni, and Ger got a burger with homemade chips. It was very tasty, but I didn’t get a snap as the conversation at dinner was excellent and I was totally distracted. But, I did manage to get a photo of dessert. If this picture is any indication, you can tell the food is made with love and care. Make your way there if you are ever in Fribourg!
The next day I stayed local and explored Fribourg. Now, one of the interesting things about Fribourg is that both French and German are spoken here. The Sarine River divides the town and thus where each language is spoken. We were staying on the French side of town, so French is what I heard spoken most of the day.
In doing research on what to explore in Fribourg, Old Town was highly advised, so, I headed that way. The first stop in Old Town was the Pont de Berne, a covered Swiss timber bridge still in use. The bridge today dates back to 1653. Impressive, huh?After making my way down to admire and traipse across the 16th century bridge, I headed to another one, the Pont de Milieu. This bridge dates back to the 17th century – another impressive feat. And yes, I traipsed across this one as well. You can clearly see the Loreto Chapel atop the molasse wall from this bridge. The Loreto Chapel is closed in January, or I would have made my way up to explore.
Post enjoying the river views and sounds, I trekked back up the medieval hills to the Zaehringen Bridge to admire the lovely views of the Sarine River and the Poya Bridge. Did I mention that Fribourg is also known as the town of bridges? 15 bridges span the Sarine River in Fribourg alone. The Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Fribourg was my next stop. To say that the cathedral is massive and imposing would be accurate. It is a Gothic-style church that was completed in 1430. The stained glass windows are beautiful inside, but, the things that caught my eye were the massive organ and the lovely nativity scene that was still set out next to the altar. If I were to picture a perfect nativity scene, this would be it. Lovely.
From the cathedral, I headed to the Musée d’art et d’histoire (The Museum of Art and History) where I stumbled upon a lovely outdoor garden with a sculpture from Niki de Saint Phalle. Then, off I went back into the hills of Old Town. At this point, I was truly just wandering the town with no agenda; trying to soak it all up and see where the day led me. This approach yielded some amazing views, a quaint riverside walk, and lots of medieval hill footpaths. I was totally better for it. I need to try to adopt the approach of aimless wandering more often.
All the walking (6.5 miles to be exact) had allowed me to build-up an appetite for dinner. So, I met Ger and his colleagues at Restaurant Pizzeria Capricciosa (a cozy Italian locale). Dinner was filled with fabulous conversation and again, I didn’t take one photo of the food. But, I can tell you about it. I ordered a simple green salad to start and rosemary chicken with homemade pommes nouvelles for the main. The food was both very satisfying and VERY tasty. I would recommend it for dinner to anyone.
The next day I was off to Bern. It’s a direct train ride from Fribourg to Bern – about 20 minutes in total – so it made my goal of exploring the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Old Town Bern easy. This was the only thing on my agenda for the day and, I used an iPod AudioGuide to do it (only 18 CHF). I collected the iPod at the Bern Tourism office upon my arrival into town. The walking guided tours of the city are only held on Saturdays in the winter months so this was a great alternative, and it allowed me to learn a thing or two about Old Town Bern.
I won’t go into detail about the entirety of the tour (takes about 4 hours). But, I will note my personally favorite parts under some of the photos below – including the massive snow storm that I walked around in for about 3.5 of the 4 hours!(Pictured: The Clock Tower (Zytgloggle) in the distance and the Zähringen Fountain (Zähringerbrunnen). The Clock Tower was constructed the early 13th century and has served the city as guard tower, prison, clock tower, and civic memorial. It’s also known as a city landmark. The Zähringen Fountain was built in 1535 as a memorial to the founder of Bern, Berchtold von Zähringer. The statue is a bear in full armor with a bear cub at its feet. The bear represents the bear that, according to legend, Berchtold shot as he was searching for a site to build a city. You’ll see quite a few of these fountains dotted around the town; it was a way for medieval people to access water in the town center.)(Pictured: The Cathedral of Bern or Berner Münster. It’s a Gothic-style church that was constructed in the 14th century. The spire is 100 meters (330 ft) and it is what makes Berner Münster the tallest cathedral in Switzerland.)(Pictured: Bernese snow-covered mopeds. This felt quintessentially European to me.)
The pictures below were taken in the heart of the snow storm. This was before a flash of lightning (or else I dreamed it) and massive rumble of thunder snow occurred while I was crossing the Nydeggbrücke Bridge that spans the Aare River and connects the Old Town to the new part of the city. I decided to head back into town after that act of Mother Nature. And then, as I was walking back through Old Town, there was a break in the storm. Don’t get me wrong, I love snow and would have welcomed snow all day long. But, being drenched, I did welcome the reprieve. (Pictured: Old Town Hall. It was built from 1406 to 1416. The Old Town Hall serves as the seat of the Cantonal Government as well as the meeting place for the City Council. It’s a beautiful old building, don’t you think?) (Pictured: Close-up of the Zytglogge.)Anybody up for a game of snowy chess?After my winter wonderland experience in Bern, I took the train back to Fribourg where I met Ger and his colleagues for another lovely dinner. This time we ate at Ristorante Pizzeria Milano where I ordered an appetizer of fresh Burrata and pesto pasta for the main. I failed to take pics of the food yet again as the company was so pleasant.
Post-dinner, a few of us decided to go for a night walk around the city. Below are some photos from our night outing. We ended up walking around Old Town as Ger had yet to explore it. Needless to say, it was a lovely end to the day.
On my last day exploring Switzerland, I decided to travel to Morat/Murten (they speak both French and German there too). It was forecast to rain all day, but, as they say, “rainy day, who cares”. Murten is about a 30-minute direct train ride from Fribourg, so it’s easily accessible. You’re in for a treat if you choose to visit. Murten is a charming medieval town nestled next to Lake Morat: I can only imagine that it would be perfect in the summertime. The lack of tourists in the winter is a plus; I had the entirety of the rampart on the town walls to myself.
I’m going to show a panoramic photo below because it gives great perspective as to what you see when you first approach the town. Lake Morat is directly in front of you and the medieval walls are imposing on your right. This view sets an awesome expectation, and from there, the town does not disappoint. Charm exudes from everywhere: the tiny squares, to the arcade-covered shops, to the homes themselves.My first stop in Murten was the Berntor (Tower of Bern). It has a lovely clock face and requires you to take a stroll thru the arcades to reach it. My second stop was the Ringmauer Rampart (the medieval city walls’ covered walkway). As I said before, I was the ONLY person strolling the rampart. It was an awesome experience. The views of the city rooftops, the rolling hills, and the lake are amazing from up there. The ramparts are a must-do in the town of Murten. When making your way up (or down) the ramparts, the former town clock of Murten’s City Hall is on display. It’s tick-tocking away enclosed in the safety of a glass house and very unique to watch how it works up close and personal.From there I strolled the medieval streets until I reached a French church (one of three churches in the town). The church was closed (as were the other two), but, the lakeside views from the churchyard were fabulous.
Now, beside the Hotel de Ville is a doorway that leads through a long hallway to a set of stairs. Those lead you to more stairs that you follow down to the street. From there, Lake Morat is staring at you from across the road. Take a gander along the marina and soak up the lake views. Even in the rain it’s beautiful so in the sunshine, I can only imagine how wonderful it is!After my lakeside walk, it was back to Fribourg to me. I needed to dry out and get ready for dinner. A Swiss fondue dinner to be exact. Café du Gothard is known by the locals as a Fribourg institution and the place to get fondue in town. So, Ger and I made our way there for a romantic dinner for two.
English is not spoken at Café du Gothard, so I had to use Spanish to order dinner for the two of us (any excuse to practice Spanish is a good one for me). The fondue was so.friggin’.tasty. Though we could not finish the massive pot of melted cheese, it was a food experience we will not soon forget. The restaurant also has a sculpture that Jean Tingley donated hanging from its walls. It’s totally funky and reflective of his artistic style. You must stop in if you ever visit Fribourg.After dinner, Ger and I headed to the Gutenberg Museum. It is open until 8PM on Thursdays so we decided to look around. It’s a great little museum. For those of you who don’t know, Johannes Gutenberg introduced mass printing to Europe through use of the printing press. Very significant stuff. We woke early the next morning to catch the train back to Geneva Airport for our flight home to Dublin. I must say, I really enjoyed our time in Switzerland. It is a stunning and highly efficient country (as you might have noticed, all my travel was done via train). I would definitely recommend visiting. You will not be disappointed. Until next time, I’ll be dreaming of Swiss fondue.
Au revoir & auf wiedersehen!