Lunchtime in Gruyères
For the lunchtime break provided during The Chocolate Train day trip from Montreux, Switzerland, we stopped for a couple of hours in the medieval old town of Gruyères, Switzerland.
I haven’t seen many of the famed small Swiss towns yet, though I plan to do so this summer. (I hear hiking from small Swiss town to small Swiss town makes for the quintessential Swiss experience.) This stopover on our day trip gave me my first view of a little Swiss town in the Alps.
Old-town Gruyères, which you can’t reach as easily on public transportation as you can via car or bus, focuses almost exclusively on tourism. Honestly, as cute as it is and as surrounded by undulating pre-Alpine foothills and green working farms as it is, keeping the little medieval town in healthy operation could only happen through tourist activity (or so it seems to me).
The tiny medieval city center has little other than one or two small hotels, a few gift shops, and a handful of restaurants with classic dishes to satisfy every tourist’s wish for Swissness. Yet even if you pass on food and ignore the shops, you can enjoy the views: From multiple vantage points on the rolling cobblestone streets, you look out on the gorgeous rural landscape around the town and its castle.
Château de Gruyères
I’ve seen enough castles in my European travels that I marvel at how each of them can still surprise me.
In the case of Château de Gruyères, the beauty of the location and the majestic medieval fortified castle perched on the uppermost hill would prove enough of an oo-ah sight for most. Yet above and beyond the setting and the well-maintained castle interior, I enjoyed the curators’ decisions around how and what to preserve of this castle’s long and varied history.
The castle arose atop its hill in the 13th century, built by counts who lost it in the middle of the 16th century, after which it served as a residence to a series of bailiffs and prefects and government officials until the middle of the 19th century, when two families took ownership. The last member of the family who lived in the castle turned it into an artists’ commune, hosting several well-known names until the cost of ongoing restorations pushed him to sell it to the local government in the middle of the 20th century.
Showcasing this extensive and varied history would challenge the best of curators. In the case of the Château de Gruyères, the conservators have chosen to create a visitor experience for each of the castle’s eras in different rooms and hallways. Part of this decision involved honoring the last residents—the artists—through maintaining some of the art from the castle’s commune era and hosting current-day experimental-art exhibits that have the spirit and flavor of some of the work fostered in the castle in the early 1900s.
The H. R. Giger Museum in Gruyères
In step with the modern-art topic, though separate in timeline from the chateau’s former purpose as an artists’ colony, the surrealist artist H. R. Giger (yes, that H. R. Giger, the one who inspired the aliens in the “Alien” film franchise) set up home and shop in Gruyères.
His former house now houses a museum of his work. Also, nearby, I saw a bar with a Giger theme. We didn’t have time to visit either, though I’ll stop in for the novelty of it if I return to Gruyères in the future.
A note, though, for families traveling through Gruyères: From even the exterior, I’d posit that the H. R. Giger attractions don’t include children as a core audience.
Le Chalet Café in Gruyères
My mother’s husband, Pete, had never eaten fondue before, so we couldn’t miss the opportunity for a fondue meal during his first Switzerland trip—especially at lunchtime in a little town with the name of a famous Swiss cheese.
My Lonely Planet guidebook recommended a restaurant that would have required a few-kilometer walk into the countryside (as we didn’t have a car). Though I could have used the walk to earn my fondue—and to work off the fondue after eating it—we didn’t have enough time to hike there and back before needing to board the bus for the next stop on our tour. Of the options in the tiny town center, we chose Le Chalet Café, which had an outdoor terrace (on a beautiful day!)—and pots of fondue on several diners’ tables.
We found ourselves pleasantly surprised by Le Chalet Café: The fondue came plentiful and tasty, served with potatoes and bread for dipping. The cured ham and salad that we ordered to share as sides provided the perfect accompaniments. And, though we pretended that we couldn’t eat even one more bite after the main and sides, we managed to consume an entire shared serving of meringues with Gruyère double cream, a traditional dessert. (Sorry, I didn’t get a picture of the dessert before we gulped it down in what seemed like three bites.)
Further, kudos to the restaurant’s small yet efficient wait staff, who busily handled an onslaught of lunchtime tourists with aplomb and even a measure of cheer. Busy lunchtimes in restaurants challenge the best staff even when the tables don’t only seat foreigners who can’t understand the menu, the language, or how the food should work once served. (Watching a dozen tables of tourists try to navigate fondue proved its own entertainment.)
A Visit to Gruyères: Recommended
I hear the hills around Gruyères have lovely hiking trails—including one entirely focused on local cheesemakers—which might make a visit to the town a weekend getaway or a one- or two-day jaunt.
However, if hiking doesn’t appeal to you, Gruyères has just enough to keep you occupied for two or three hours as a day trip or as a stop on your way from one place to another through Switzerland.
Yet don’t let the limited options for activities in the small town nudge you toward missing a brief sojourn in Gruyères. The three of us unanimously recommend a visit.