Sunday, January 19, 2014

Castles, Cheese, and Chocolate in the Alps

This Sunday, January 19, 2014, I went with four other friends from my law school to a small town in Switzerland recommended to me by my coworker - Gruyéres.   Our train route from Geneva took us through Montreux to Montbovon on the Golden Pass panoramic train.
Unlike my first visit to Montreux, the lake and town was covered in a heavy blanket of fog that completely obscured Lake Geneva and the mountains behind it.  As the Golden Pass train climbed higher and higher above Montreux, we made our way through pitch black tunnels and through the mists that revealed the most amazing view we have yet been blessed with seeing in the mountains.  It was the most beautiful part of our train journey and we were able to see these mountains all the way until we arrived in Montbovon.
Around 11:00am, we arrived in Gruyéres.  The little Swiss town is nestled in the foothills of the Alps and is surrounded on all sides by impressive snow-capped mountains above and rolling green hills and fields below, speckled with little houses and villages.  Gruyéres is famous for a cheese from the region which bears its name.  Our train arrived in the small town at lunchtime so our first stop was the Maison du Gruyéres.  This is the cheese factory famous for producing the Gruyéres cheese.  There is a cute little restaurant connected to it on the first floor by the gift shop.  The restaurant was amazing, and we had some of the best food yet in Switzerland (amazing risotto and macaroni-and-cheese).
The second floor of the Maison has a small exhibit describing the cheese-making process from the cows grazing, production in the factory, to the process the cheese goes through in the cheese cellars over the next five or six months. You get an audio tourguide for the exhibit whose narrator is a cow named Cherry.  Your ticket for the exhibit is also a pack of three Gruyéres cheeses.  The cheese-making process itself was quite interesting and I never knew so much thought went into making cheese.  At certain times, you are supposed to be able to watch the factory portion of the process, but we did not see much aside from some cheese wheels sitting in a briny solution.  
As you stand at the train station (facing the information map) with the Maison to your right, there is a small winding pathway above the road on your let (at about the 10:00 position).  Take that pathway up the hill for about ten minutes and you will come across a castle.  
Yes, a castle.  
Specifically, the Chateau de Gruyéres.  The castle was originally constructed between 1270 and 1282 in the style of the Savoys (like the Chateau de Chillon in Montreux).  The House of Gruyéres owned the castle and twenty counts lived there between the 11th and 16th centuries.  The symbol is a crane (although I think it looks like a chicken), and "Gruyéres" comes from the French word for crane, "grue."
Seriously, that looks like a chicken...
Among some of the castle's most impressive features are the magnificent views of the mountains and valley; a giant fireplace that four people have to stretch out their arms to touch either end; a room painted by famous French painter Camille Corot (whose work I saw in the Kuntsmuseum in Basel); a Genevois paino made in 1835 for Franz Liszt; a scandalous room for counts Jean I, Jean II, and Michel connected to the room of "Beautiful Lucy" (Jean II's love) with a stainglass window featuring Pierre (Jean I's illegitimate son).  Walking along the castle ramparts was also fun.
View behind castle
Castle gardens
Knights' table
Kitchen leading into giant fireplace behind that wall
Room painted by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot
Room of counts Jean I, Jean II, and Michel
Room of Beautiful Lucy
Tapestry in the Castle
No shooting cannons inside
This is the piano for Franz Liszt.
This is what it might have sounded like in the castle:
There is also a beautiful town behind the castle walls on the hilltop that is worth a visit.  In its center, there is a fountain with mountain water.  If you are not expecting the temperature, it might be a shock, but the water feels like the mountain air - fresh, cool, and pure.  
In the small town, there is also a Tibet Museum which houses an impressive collection of Himalayan and Buddhist art.  Unfortunately, we were low on time and had a train to catch, so we missed seeing the museum.  If I get a chance to go back, I won't miss it again.  We did see a statue of a bow that looks like it is from The Hobbit or something though.
Lord of the Rings black arrow?
view of the town below
After running back down the path we took to the castle, we made it to the train station in time to hop a train to Broc-Fabrique (with a transfer along the way) to get to the famous Cailler Chocolate Factory (Maison Cailler).
The chocolate factory tour was a lot of fun.  The way it started off, I half expected an Oompa Loompa from Willy Wonka's factory to hop out at us.
(not an oompa loompa)
The tour tells you all about the history of chocolate and how it made its way to Europe and how Cailler pioneered the Swiss method of chocolate making by adding milk.  In 1929, when the Great Depression hit, Cailler was able to stay in business thanks to a merger with Nestle, which already held a 40 percent stake in the company.  Luckily, both survived.  
What kind of question is this?  The answer is ALWAYS.
At the end of the tour, Cailler shows you part of its chocolate production and lets you sample all of the different kinds of chocolates that it currently sells.  That was our favorite part of the tour (obviously).  My coworker had suggested bringing a bag to take some along, and even though the Swiss employee scolded two of the people in our group, the rest of us were able to take some tasty souvenirs away as well.  It didn't matter all that much though because we all stopped by the gift shop anyway - purchasing Cailler's from the factory store is actually the same price or cheaper than buying it in the stores.
This little girl knows what she wants.
My favorite kind
On our way back on the train to head back to Gruyéres then back to Geneva, we were able to see the castle lit up at night in the mountains.  It was absolutely gorgeous and a beautiful way to remember our trip to the tiny town of Gruyéres.
(picture from Google Image search - train moving too fast between trees for me to grab a decent shot, but this is exactly what we saw)


Anonymous said...

Got to have some cheese Gromit!

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