ITINERARY AS EXCERPTED FROM KAREN BROWN’S E-BOOK:
Switzerland has some of the most enchanting, remarkably well-preserved, medieval villages and cities in all of Europe, whose character and charm suggest a style of life that slipped by many centuries ago. In these towns you find ramparts enclosing a maze of cobbled streets, enticing buildings, painted fountains, intricate clock towers, turrets, and a wealth of history. Sometimes capping the crest of a hill, perched precariously on a valley’s ledge, or snuggled next to a river, these walled villages and cities captivate the imagination and are fascinating to explore.
This itinerary wanders from Geneva to Zürich (or if you prefer, instead of Zürich as your destination, you can choose Lucerne, which is just a short drive beyond). It is possible to zip between the cities in just a few hours via the fast freeway system, but if you have the luxury of time, this leisurely route introduces you to places you might not otherwise see-leading you through glorious countryside, over breathtaking passes, and to romantic medieval towns.
RECOMMENDED PACING: We recommend a minimum of six nights for this itinerary. This does not include the nights you choose to spend in Zürich.
THREE NIGHTS in Geneva: You need three nights in Geneva in order to have two full days to visit its museums, stroll through the cobbled streets of its delightful old town, and-not to be missed-enjoy a boat ride on the lake.
TWO NIGHTS in Gruyères: One day is needed en route to the walled town of Gruyères. If you were to drive directly there, the travel time would be very short, but instead we suggest you make a large loop-visiting along the way a couple of superb castles, enjoying some cute villages, and winding your way over several splendid mountain passes. Then you will need two nights in Gruyères to give you one full day to savor the charm of this adorable village, visit cheese factories, and tour a chocolate factory.
ONE NIGHT between Gruyères and Zürich: We suggest that you choose one more stopover en route to Zürich, such as Fribourg, Murten, Bern, Solothurn, Basel, Schaffhausen, or Stein am Rhein. As you read on, choose a place that most appeals to you.
ITINERARY ENDS in Zürich. If you are planning to extend your trip, the following itinerary, Swiss Highlights, the Best of the Best, dovetails seamlessly with this one.
NOTE: This itinerary includes so many sightseeing suggestions along the way and we are aware you won’t have time to include them all. We describe our favorites so that you may choose those that seem most appealing to you.
You will be captivated by Geneva with its sophisticated beauty and international air. As you meander through the parks and promenades, you could be anywhere in the world-you see all nationalities and hear all languages.
Geneva is frequently thought of primarily as a modern city-an international center for banking and commerce with splendid hotels, fine restaurants, a wealth of museums, and superb shopping. All this is true, but Geneva also has one of the most attractive medieval sections in Switzerland.
OLD GENEVA: The old part of Geneva is located on the south side of the Rhône River. Here the hills rise steeply from the shore of the lake and the streets twist and turn in a maze of fascinating little boutiques, hidden courtyards, fountains, flower-filled squares, and picturesque buildings. The heart of the old town is called Place du Bourg-de-Four, which was the marketplace in the Middle Ages. The plaza, graced by a fountain and many colorful 16th-century buildings, is especially charming. Many of the most famous buildings in Geneva face the plaza, including the Palais de Justice (a 17th-century building which was the court of law), the Hotel de Ville (an 18th-century building with a Renaissance façade that was originally the city hall), and the Ancien Arsenal (the place where weapons were stored in the 18th century).
NEW GENEVA: On the north side of the Rhône, circling around the lake is the newer part of Geneva. In this area there are peaceful lake promenades punctuated with splendid flower gardens, stately hotels, small squares, and elegant shops. In the spring Geneva becomes a small Holland with glorious tulips blooming in every little park. Like the medieval section of the city, the newer part is also perfect for strolling. Within walking distance are many museums and interesting places to see.
TOURIST OFFICE: When you arrive in Geneva, make a beeline to the tourist office to pick up some city maps and ferry schedules, and find out what events are scheduled during the time of your visit. Geneva abounds with cultural possibilities such as concerts, theater and opera. In addition, many of the museums feature special exhibits that might appeal to you. Note: Be aware that most of the museums close Monday.
SIGHTSEEING HIGHLIGHTS IN GENEVA
Walking Tour: One of the best ways to get the “feel” of a city is on foot, but often you miss something along the way without a guide. The Geneva Tourist Office offers a two-hour walking tour of the old part of the city with a guide who will lead you back through history as you discover hidden courtyards, fountains and picturesque squares, plus a glimpse into the Cathedral and the Town Hall. You can return later on your own to revisit in depth some of the places that most appeal to you. The tour departs at 10 am every day except Sunday, from June to September. The departure point is the Geneva Tourist Office. If you have a group of five (which often is possible if traveling with friends or family), the tourist office can put together a special tour, tailor made just for you.
Audio Self-Guided Tour: In addition to its guided walking tour, the Geneva Tourist Office offers a self-guided audio tour that covers 24 points of interest and takes approximately 2½ hours. On this tour you receive a portable cassette recorder, headset, and a map showing the locations of places described. The rental period for the headset is a maximum of four hours.
Saint Peter’s Cathedral: The medieval part of Geneva is crowned by the 12th-century Saint Peter’s Cathedral, which dominates the old town. Within the church you find a triangular chair supposedly used by Jean Calvin when he preached at the cathedral and the tomb of the Duc de Rohn who was the leader of the French Protestants during the time of Henry IV. Perhaps the most spectacular feature of Saint Peter’s is the climb to the top of the north tower (there is a small fee for this) where you have a panoramic view of Geneva and beyond to the lake and the majestic backdrop of the Alps. After visiting the church, wander down the little twisting streets, exploring small antique shops and back alleys-you cannot get lost because it is all downhill and when you are at the bottom, you are at the lake.
Palais des Nations: The Palais des Nations is one of the largest conference centers in the world. It was built in 1936 as home to the League of Nations, which at the time was optimistically the World’s hope for world peace. It is now the seat of the European branch of the United Nations. The palace is set in a park called Parc des Nations, which is enhanced by sculptures. (Open daily April through October. Closed Saturday & Sunday November through March. Guided one-hour tours-available in 15 languages).
Petit Palais Museum: The Petit Palais Museum, housed in a beautiful 19th-century palace, features French painters from the end of the Impressionist period. Included are works by such renowned artists as Monet, Picasso, Renoir, Chagall, and Cézanne. (Open daily except Monday mornings and holidays.)
Museum of Old Musical Instruments: The Museum of Old Musical Instruments displays a fascinating collection of European musical instruments.
Patak Philippe Museum: Since you are in Switzerland, home to the finest clockmakers in the world, it is fascinating to visit the Philippe Museum, which displays a fabulous collection of timepieces that span 500 years of clockmaking. Not only Swiss clocks are featured, but also those from all over Europe.
Jardin Anglais: The Jardin Anglais (English Garden) snuggles on the edge of the quay, at the foot of the old town. Highlighting the lovely gardens is an intriguing clock that keeps perfect time. Made of 6,500 plants, which are changed according to season, the clock is placed in the garden to honor the clockmakers of Switzerland.
Maison Tavel: The oldest house in Geneva is the Maison Tavel. It was built in the early 1300s by the Tavel family whose coat of arms still graces the Gothic turret.
Musée du Vieux Genève: the Musée du Vieux Genève (Museum of Old Geneva) is housed in the Maison Travel. It features exhibits showing the daily life in early Geneva, including 12 rooms furnished as they would have been in the 17th century. On the top floor is an interesting model showing how Geneva looked in days of yore, before the walls were torn down.
Jet d’Eau: when exploring Geneva you cannot miss the Jet d’Eau (located on the south bank of the lake), which is a huge spout of water that soars into the sky. Originally it had a utilitarian purpose-a practical way to release the extreme water pressure. However, everyone was captivated by the plume of water, so it was decided to turn it into a permanent fixture of Geneva. Today floodlights accent the fountain at night, enabling it to be seen from afar.
Musée International de la Croix Rouge: The Red Cross (an international organization whose mission is to alleviate suffering throughout the world) was started by a Geneva banker, Henri Dunant, in 1863. The Musée International de la Croix-Rouge, a modern concrete and glass building, was built to honor the great works accomplished by the organization.
Musée d’Art et d’Histoire: The stunning Musée d’Art et d’Histoire (Museum of Art and History) houses an awesome collection of art-including fine paintings, sculptures, paintings, and archaeological treasures that date back thousands of years. While in the museum, don’t miss the Palace Salon, an impressive room that has been furnished in the elaborate style of the early 19th century.
Boat Trips: Lake Geneva (Lac Léman) has many quaint towns hugging its shoreline. You can drive to all of them, but one of the most romantic ways to visit is one of the sixteen boats that ply the lake. When you arrive in Geneva, go down to the pier and check the ferry schedules. It is a bit like a puzzle to plan your route so that you have the fun of hopping off and on at charming, small villages. It is especially challenging (and fun) to choose a picturesque village for lunch, and then check out when the appropriate boat will arrive to take you back to Geneva. If you miss the returning boat, there are buses and/or trains back to Geneva. There are also many boat excursions available in the summer season where everything is prearranged for you, such as the following examples.
Cruise along Geneva’s Shores: a 55-minute cruise along the shores of Geneva, leaving from the Quay du Mont-Blanc or the Jardin Anglais.
Cruise of the Lower Lake: a 3½-hour cruise going to Nyon and Yvoire, leaving from the Quay des Eaux-Vives.
Tour of the Lake: an all-day tour of the lake, leaving from the Quay du Mont Blanc.
Lunch Cruise: a 1½-hour lunch cruise, leaving at 12:20 pm from the Jardin Anglais.
Evening Cruise: a 3½-hour cruise, leaving at 6:35pm from the Jardin Anglais.
SIGHTSEEING HIGHLIGHTS NEARBY GENEVA
Lake Geneva is in the shape of a quarter moon. The southern part of the lake forms the border with France. As you follow the northern shoreline from Geneva (positioned at the western tip of the lake) to Montreux (which is positioned at the eastern tip of the lake) the scenery is idyllic with steep hills covered with vineyards that terrace down to the water’s edge. Snuggled next to the lake are appealing medieval villages and sophisticated towns that are fun to visit and conveniently close to Geneva. Most of these are accessible by boat, should this be your preferred means of transportation. If your time is limited, you can often go one direction by boat, and return to Geneva by a local bus or train. We have listed some of our favorite places to visit.
TOWNS TO VISIT ON THE SOUTH SHORE OF LAKE GENEVA:
Hermance: Just a short distance southeast of Geneva you come to the quaint medieval village of Hermance, which is tucked right on the edge of the lake. This is one of the last towns in Switzerland before you arrive in France. The town is accessible by bus, boat, or car. Many people from Geneva come here to dine at the very charming and exceptionally fine restaurant, Auberge d’Hermance, which also has a few guestrooms.
Yvoire: Although not in Switzerland, we cannot resist suggesting a visit to another medieval jewel, Yvoire-one of the most enchanting villages in France. Snuggled right on the lake, Yvoire is easily accessible to Geneva by boat or car (it is about a 32-kilometer drive from the city). This tiny walled, medieval town is an absolute jewel. Its fantastic setting, twisting cobbled streets leading down to the waterfront, colorful harbor, ancient castle, boundless displays of brilliant flowers, and quaint stone houses will win your heart. With its many restaurants in town, Yvoire makes an excellent place to stop for lunch. Our choice is the restaurant in the 200-year-old Hotel du Port, which has a terrace overlooking the lake.
TOWNS TO VISIT ON THE NORTH SHORE OF LAKE GENEVA (arranged in geographical order as you trace the shoreline east from Geneva to Montreux).
Note: If you prefer, you can stop to see some of the towns along the north shore when you leave Geneva and are en route to your next destination, Gruyères. However, since that is already a pretty full day, we recommend visiting the places that most appeal to you before leaving the city.
Coppet: Located about 12 kilometers from Geneva, Coppet is the first quaint lakeside town you come to after leaving the city. Picturesque, 16th-century, arcaded houses flank both sides of the road that runs through the middle of town. For sightseeing, visit the Castle of Coppet that was the home of Germaine de Staël. She was an outspoken young Swiss noblewoman living in Paris who unwisely criticized Napoleon and had to flee to the safety of her father’s castle in Coppet. The lavishly furnished castle is open from mid-April through September. If you want to take a boat excursion to Coppet for lunch or dinner, the Hôtel du Lac has a delightful restaurant with a lakefront terrace.
Rollet: The highlight of the small village of Rollet, which is beautifully situated on the waterfront in the center of the wine-growing region, is its handsome, 13th-century, moated castle that stretches to the edge of the lake. Built by the Duke of Savoy, the castle is very picturesque with a proper moat, turrets, and towers.
Morges: (Northeast of Geneva, on the north shore of Lake Geneva): Morges, a tranquil town snuggled on the edge of the lake is enveloped by beautifully manicured vineyards. Like so many of the towns that grew up along the lake, it has its own fortification, a dramatic walled castle accented by ramparts and towers. Within the castle you find a museum that will delight boys of all ages: the Figurine Museum that features dioramas of lead soldiers in famous battles, ranging from Babylon to Mexico. Another museum in town is the Musée Alexis Forel, which is located in a 15th-century mansion. Sponsored by the famous engraver, Alexis Forel, the museum features rooms with antiques that span periods from the 15th to the 20th centuries. For little girls of all ages, one of the highlights of the museum is a large doll collection.
Tolochenaz: If you are an admirer of Audrey Hepburn, before leaving Morges, take a bus or car to Tolochenaz, which is just a couple of kilometers west of town. This was the home of Mrs. Hepburn, who lived here for the last thirty years of her life. She was much beloved by people throughout the world, including local volunteers who have set up the Audrey Hepburn Pavilion which displays many of the mementos and photographs of her life. In addition to being a much-admired actress, she devoted many years of her life traveling around the world to help children in need. Proceeds from the entrance fee go to her foundation, which perpetuates her dedication to orphans and young children.
Saint Sulpice: Just before you arrive in Lausanne, you come to the small medieval town of Saint Sulpice. A pretty promenade traces the edge of the lake, and just up the street from the boat dock, there is a pretty, unostentatious stone church that dates back to the 11th century. Originally built as a Benedictine priory, the church hosts many musical events.
Lausanne: Lausanne is a charming city that dates back to the 4th century when the Romans built a settlement here on the shore of the lake. In later years, the city moved away from the waterfront and to the top of the hill for better defense. This shift created a city that today is made of three sections: the lakeside area, the business area, and the Old City.
The part of Lausanne that stretches along the lake is called Ouchy. It used to be a small fishing hamlet, but today is quite posh with grand lakefront hotels, pretty parks, soaring fountains, lovely gardens, a beautiful promenade, and a boat harbor brimming with yachts of the rich and famous.
Vieille Ville, the oldest part of town with twisting narrow streets, stretches across the top of the hill. Many of Lausanne’s prime sightseeing targets are here, such as the stunning 12th-century Cathedral of Notre Dame (considered by many to be Switzerland’s most beautiful Gothic church), and the Château Saint Marie, a handsome yellow sandstone castle built in the 14th century for the bishops of Lausanne.
The newer, more mundane part of the Lausanne is its business area, which is sandwiched between Ouchy and the Vieille Ville.
Cully: One of the most peaceful places along Lake Geneva is the medieval village of Cully. Its setting is particularly appealing since the town is off the main road. The town is very attractive with picturesque old buildings and cobbled streets that lead down to the waterfront where a pretty park stretches in front of the lake.
Montreux: Montreux is a sophisticated town nestled along the shore of the eastern tip of Lake Geneva. Densely wooded hills rise steeply to the east, forming a protective screen behind the town and capturing the warmth of the sun. Montreux’s view (out over the gorgeous blue waters of Lake Geneva and beyond to soaring mountains) is breathtaking. An old-fashioned promenade traces the waterfront, a favorite spot for a lazy stroll.
Because of its allure as a place to live, large apartments have been built in Montreux, but it still exudes an aura of old-world elegance with its grand hotels and exclusive mansions with lawns stretching to the water’s edge. Artists and musicians too have long been drawn to the beauty of Montreux. For those who enjoy gambling, Montreux has a casino, but one of the main attractions is the romantic Castle of Chillon, perched on a tiny peninsula 3 kilometers south of town.
Clarens: Just a short distance from the center of Montreux you come to a very upscale suburb called Clarens. This jewel has a glorious setting with panoramic views across the lake to the snow-clad French Alps. For many years Clarens has been a favorite vacation spot for the rich and famous from all over the world-many of whom stayed to build beautiful villas.
Glion: For the most spectacular view in the area of Montreux, take the small funicular that climbs the steep hill from the ferry landing at Territet (about 1 kilometer south of Montreux) to Glion, a small town perched high above Montreux. The best vantage point is the charming Hotel Victoria (a fine place to have lunch or dinner).
FROM GENEVA TO GRUYÈRES
On your way to Gruyères we suggest a leisurely route that includes sightseeing highlights, three mountain passes, and superb scenery.
Leaving Geneva, follow the route along the north shore of Lake Geneva. As you leave the city, there are two choices: either take the fast expressway A1, or the slower country road that follows the lakeshore, meandering through the quaint towns lining the waterfront. Assuming you have already visited some of the towns along the lake, we suggest you take the expressway, which runs high on the hillside above the lake. The scenery is lovely with tenderly cared for vineyards terracing gracefully down to lake.
When you come to Lausanne, don’t take the road into town, but instead bypass the city by going north for 3 kilometers and when you come to the junction, take the A9 toward Montreux. Just a few minutes beyond Montreux, take the exit marked to the Castle of Chillon (Château de Chillon).
Castle of Chillon: The origins of the Castle of Chillon date back to the 11th century (and probably much earlier since Roman coins have been excavated on the site). In the 12th century the castle was taken over by the Counts of Savoy, who for the next several centuries continued to expand and enhance it. Real fame came in the 19th century when writers such as Shelly, Cumas and Victor Hugo told the world about Chillon’s singular beauty. But, it was Lord Byron’s “The Prisoner of Chillon,” the poem about François de Bonivard’s imprisonment in the castle that made it so famous. The setting is a photographer’s dream-it wouldn’t be more picture perfect. Perched on a tiny island jutting into Lake Geneva, the castle looks more like a Disneyland creation than the real thing-a genuine fortified castle. A quaint covered bridge (which used to be a drawbridge) links the mainland to the castle which is encircled by a thick stone wall interspersed with round, turreted towers. Once inside, there is much to see including the chapel, Bonivard’s underground prison, and various grand halls with medieval furnishings.
Castle of Aigle: After your visit to the Castle of Chillon, return to the A9 and continue south. Very shortly you come to the exit marked to Aigle. Leave the expressway here and drive into town and following the signs to Aigle Castle. This is an absolutely stunning castle-a real jewel whose fairy-tale quality is further enhanced by its lovely setting on a gentle knoll wrapped by endless fields of manicured vineyards. The wines produced here are acclaimed as some of the best in Switzerland.
The castle, which was built in the early part of the 13th century as a stronghold for the Counts of Savoy, would alone be worth a visit just because it is so picturesque, but it also features two museums and an exceptionally attractive restaurant.
You cannot drive up to Aigle Castle so park your car below and walk up the road to it. The first museum is not in the castle, but rather housed in La Maison de La Dîme (Tithe House), positioned just across the street from the castle gate. As you enter La Maison de La Dîme, there is a charming restaurant, which makes a great lunch stop, particularly if it is a sunny day since it has a splendid outdoor terrace. Upstairs from the restaurant is the Wine Label Museum that displays wine labels from over 52 countries, dating from the early 19th century to the mid-20th century. It won’t take long to go through this museum since it is quite small. Don’t tarry because you need to allow plenty of time for the castle.
Walk across the road from La Maison de La Dîme to the castle. As you enter into the courtyard there is a ticket office. One ticket suffices for entry both into the Wine Label Museum and the Castle. It is fun to begin your tour by a walk around the ramparts before exploring the many rooms of the castle. Your tour is self-guided and the rooms are all numbered, corresponding with those on the leaflet given to you as you enter that explains what you are seeing. There are 17 rooms in total, including the wine cellar, private living quarters, an art gallery, and a reconstruction of an 18th-century tavern.
Leaving Aigle, continue south on the small back road toward Ollon, at which point you leave the lower Valais and take a narrow road in the direction of Villas-sur-Ollon. The first part of the road gently weaves up through beautiful vineyards and grassy meadows and then becomes more fractious as it climbs higher up into the mountains. When you come to Villars, a well-known ski resort in winter and a haven for hiking in summer, follow signs to Les Diablerets and Gstaad (do not turn off on the road that goes to Gryon and Bex). As you leave Villars you traverse the Col de Croix, a pass which offers excellent views: on the left are beautiful alpine meadows and on the right, impressive mountain peaks.
The Col de Croix drops down to the town of Les Diablerets where you turn right toward Gstaad, going over another pass, the Col du Pillon, which presents a different type of scenery; the mountains, soaring over 3000 meters, are more precipitous and covered with glaciers. You will gasp in amazement when you see gondolas suspended by cables that seem to be thousands of meters in the air, using far-spaced towers for support. The cable cars literally get lost in the clouds. There are many photo opportunities along the way: herds of cows adorned with bells, green meadows dotted with alpine huts, glaciers, and mighty mastiffs.
When the road flattens and you arrive in the quaint village of Gsteig, look to your left where there is a richly decorated, Oberland-style chalet that oozes old world charm with its darkened wood façade, brilliant red geraniums, and tables on the terrace with red and white checkered tablecloths. Behind the chalet (now the Bären hotel) there is charming church with a tall spire stretching into the sky; the two buildings together make a stunning photograph.
After Gsteig, you come to Feutersoey. Although the town is not special, if you want to buy a cowbell, this is a good place. On the left side of the road is an antique shop, the Antiquitäten Romang, where you can find a large selection of wonderful old bells.
From Feutersoey, it is only about fifteen minutes or so until you arrive in Gstaad. In spite of the fact that Gstaad has an international reputation as a very chic ski resort catering to the wealthy jet-set, the town retains much of its old-world, charming simplicity. The setting of Gstaad is magnificent, with rugged mountain peaks rising steeply on each side of the valley. In summer the hiking and mountain climbing is excellent, while in winter Gstaad offers one of the most famous networks of ski trails in Switzerland. The center of town is pedestrian-only. There are excellent hotels, many boutiques, and colorful restaurants in Gstaad, making it an exceptionally good choice as a place to spend the night, if you have time to extend this itinerary. In spite of its sophisticated exterior, at its heart, Gstaad is still a simple farm town. In the early morning you can frequently hear the melody of cowbells as the cows are walked through the streets on their way to pasture.
From Gstaad continue north for 4 kilometers to Saanen where you turn east (on road 11) and continue for about 22 kilometers to Reidenbach. Turn left at Reidenbach and continue west in the direction of Bulle and Gruyères. As the narrow road climbs up from the Simmental Valley, it first goes through green meadows and gentle hills. As you approach the Jaun Pass, the road begins to make many more turns and rises sharply upward. The scenery here is nothing short of spectacular with stunning views of distant valleys and mountains whose deeply cut escarpments (favorites for rock climbers) are reminiscent of the Tetons or the Dolomites. After cresting the Jaun Pass, the scenery is once again gentler as you drop down into the beautiful Pont du Javroz Valley. On your left, you will see a pretty vista of Lac de Montsalvens. When you arrive in Broc, follow signs to Gruyères.
Gruyères: Although considered by some to be a bit touristy, Gruyères remains one of our favorite places in Switzerland-a toy-like, medieval jewel crowning the top of a small hill, visible from afar as you approach. This is such a special place that it is considered a national monument and is protected by the Swiss government. Cars are not allowed into the village, which is pedestrian-only. However, you can drive briefly into town to leave your luggage at your hotel before parking your car in one of the designated areas below the entrance into town. This postcard-perfect village attracts busloads of visitors who crowd the small main street during the day. Happily, most of the tourists come only for a few hours and in the evening the village regains its fairy-tale quality. Plan your sightseeing excursions to avoid the bustle of the midday influx of tourists and return in the late afternoon to this idyllic Swiss village which is then yours to enjoy in peace and quiet. Sit on the terrace of your hotel and have a drink, listening to the tinkling of cowbells as the sun fades.
Within the town there is just one main street, prettily faced by enchanting farmhouses that have been converted into restaurants, hotels, and boutiques. The one cobbled street that traverses the town dead-ends at the Castle of Gruyères, a marvelous fortress. A visit to the castle, which is built around a courtyard, is highly recommended. In addition to an art gallery (where exhibits change from time to time) there are numerous rooms that are handsomely furnished in antiques, including a huge dining room, bedrooms, and a kitchen with a huge fireplace that used to be where all the food was cooked. The castle is open daily April to October from 9 am to 6 pm, November to March from 10 am to 4:30 pm.
Gruyères is a convenient town to use as a base for sightseeing. If you are lucky, you might even have the chance to listen to some of the horn blowers, dressed in the regional costume, blow their impossibly long horns. The town is surrounded by rolling hills that flow gently up to magnificent mountains. In summer the incredibly green, lush meadows are dotted by contented black-and-white spotted cows with bells that tinkle softly as they graze lazily in the pastures. Adding to the idyllic scene, wildflowers abound in the fields and window boxes overflow with bright geraniums.
After seeing so many cute cows nearby, it is not surprising to learn that Gruyères is in the center of one of Switzerland’s famous dairy regions-the cheeses and creams are marvelous. While in Gruyères be sure to enjoy a delicious quiche, a crock of rich fondue, or, if in season, linger over a bowl of delicious fresh berries smothered in divinely rich, thick cream.
Cheese Museums: A highlight when in Gruyères is to discover how the delicious cheeses you have been enjoying are produced. We highly recommend you visit two museums-one very modern, one very old.
The closest cheese museum is La Maison du Gruyère, located at the bottom of the road as you come down from Gruyères, opposite the Pringy-Gruyère train station. Here you find, housed within a large modern building, the cheese factory, a museum, a restaurant, and a shop. The factory produces up to 48 huge wheels of Gruyère cheese a day. There is an excellent, self-guided tour of the factory. As you enter you receive a packet with samples of aged cheeses and pick up your headset. The dialog is in various languages including, of course, English. You follow a designated path passing by excellent displays that show the history of cheeses, and then on into the cheese-making factory where you look down from a high, glassed-in gallery to view the entire process of cheese making. The factory has four 4800-lire vats and a cellar where up to 7,000 wheels of cheese can be stored and aged. As you progress, all of the stations are marked-you just need to access your headset to hear a narration describing what you are seeing. The factory is open from 9 am to 11 am and from 1 pm to 2 pm or 3 pm depending on the time of year.
In striking contrast to the modern factory in Gruyères, it is great fun to go to the tiny village of Moléson-sur-Gruyères to see cheese being made in the old traditional way. Moléson is nestled high in a mountain meadow where for hundreds of years farmers have been taking their cows in the summer to graze in the lush pastures, and while there, to make cheese. For this excursion, go down the hill from Gruyères, turn left and follow signs to Moléson, about an 8-kilometer drive. When you come into town, park your car where you see a sign to the Fromagerie d’Alpage and walk up the hill on a private road to the wonderful 17th-century, stucco and timbered farmhouse. Here you have a chance to see cheese being produced in the traditional way, just has it has been for hundreds of years. In the front part of the house there is a shop where all kinds of local products can be purchased. Just behind is the room where the cheese is produced. The tour starts with a video showing the manufacturing of regional products and continues with watching one of the local, expert cheesemakers stirring the fresh milk in a huge metal caldron over an open fire. Later, the cheeses are pressed into large round wooden boxes. Plan your day so that you can be at the old factory at lunchtime since one cozy room serves as a restaurant, where many cheese dishes are featured. If the day is warm, meals are served outside on the terrace. NOTE: You cannot just arrive and expect to take a tour of the Fromagerie d’Alpage since the number of visitors is strictly limited. Reservations are essential. Tours are given daily from mid-May to mid-October-the first one at 9:30 am. Be sure to call ahead (026) 921 10 44 or email: email@example.com. The website is www.fromagerie-alpage.ch. If there is no answer, it is possible to make a reservation at the Gruyères Tourist Office: (026) 921 85 00 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cailler-Nestlé Factory: If you are a devotee to the joys of chocolate, when planning your trip to Switzerland, include a visit Caillers-Nestlé factory located in the town of Broc (about 5 kilometers north of Gruyères). Its history dates back to 1897 when Alexandre Cailler, who was bicycling through the area, discovered the perfect spot to open his new chocolate factory. Milk is one of the most important ingredients in producing fine chocolate, so when he saw so many lush pastures dotted by plump cows, Mr. Cailler decided that Broc would be the ideal place to set up shop. The factory is a bit out of the heart of town, but strategically placed signs lead you to it. From the moment you park your car and start walking toward the factory, you will immediately become aware of the fragrance of chocolate. The 45-minute tour begins with a video giving the history of chocolate. Then a guide leads you through various rooms with displays featuring its history, starting with the Aztecs who were the first to discover and use the cocoa bean from which they made a bitter drink. The Conquistadors brought this exotic bean back home and the cocoa drink became a favorite of the Spanish court. Later, the Swiss learned to further process the bean, combining it with rich cream, creating the wonderful chocolate we know today. Don’t leave before the end of the tour; it finishes in a tasting room where large tables are set with trays laden with samples of every imaginable kind of chocolate candy cut into small squares. You can nibble to your heart’s content-all included in the tour price. The factory is open for visitors from Monday afternoon through Friday from May 2 to the end of October (closed on holidays). The tours, which are limited in number of participants, are offered at 9:00 am, 11:00 am, 1:30 pm, and 4:00 pm. Tel: (026) 921 51 51.
GRUYÈRES TO ZÜRICH-WITH A STOP EN ROUTE
If your time is limited, you can drive directly from Gruyères to Zürich in just a few hours. However, we recommend you break your journey and spend at least a night in one of the towns described below. The suggested route to Zürich includes more sightseeing than is possible to squeeze into in two days. Although you won’t have time to do it all, our suggestions will provide an idea of the possibilities.
Fribourg: From Gruyères, follow signs to the freeway A12, and continue north for 25 kilometers to Fribourg, a beautifully preserved medieval city, most of which is on a bluff wrapped by a bend of the Sarine River. The splendid 13th-century Saint Nicolas Cathedral, famous for its life-sized statues, dominates the town. Within walking distance is the impressive 16th-century Hôtel de Ville (town hall) adorned with an impressive clock tower, the Musée d’Art et Histoire (Museum of Art and History), the 18th-century Basilique of Notre-Dame, and the splendid 13th-century Franciscan church, Église des Cordeliers. The upper part of part Fribourg is interesting, but my favorite section is the lower part of the city which is even older. You can reach it by walking down a steep road to the river and crossing over the Pont de Saint Jean, and then you are in the ancient part of the city with its maze of quaint streets, historic houses, pretty squares, and renaissance fountains. You can cross back over the river by means of the Pont de Berne, a delightful old covered bridge.
Murten: From Fribourg, it is about 15 kilometers on a small back road through the countryside to Murten, a jewel of a walled medieval village nestled on the banks of Lake Murten. You cannot drive into the heart of town, but there is a large, underground garage near the main gate. You enter Murten through a gate in the medieval wall that completely surrounds this fairy-tale village with its cobbled streets, quaint houses, flower boxes, brightly painted fountains, and charming squares. Before exploring the town, climb up to the ramparts and walk the wall for a bird’s-eye preview of what you are going to see. Murten is like an outdoor museum. Strolling through the town, you can study many of the 15th-century buildings and the walls that date from the 12th century. There is a castle at the western end of town built by Peter of Savoy in the 13th century. As you stroll, watch for the town hall, the French church, the German church, the Bern Gate (with one of the oldest clock towers in Switzerland), and the Historical Museum which displays weapons, banners, and uniforms from the Burgundian battles. Plan your day to allow time for a boat ride on Lake Murten. There is a schedule posted on the dock or the tourist office can give you the times.
Murten is the most charming town in the area, however if you want to do a bit more exploring, there are things to see nearby. One place of interest is Avenches. You can reach it by following signs to the A1 (just a couple of kilometers from Murten) and heading south toward Yverdon. After about 6 kilometers, take the Avenches exit. It is hard to believe as you look at this sleepy little hamlet of about 2,000 inhabitants that in the 1st and 2nd centuries it was a powerful Roman city boasting a population of over 20,000. You can grasp the mood of this “lost city” of the Romans when you visit the amphitheater built to seat 10,000. In a tower over the amphitheater’s entrance is a museum displaying some of the artifacts found in the excavations and an interesting pottery collection.
Leaving Avenches, return to the A1 and continue south for 11 kilometers. Exit at Payerne and go into town to visit its famous 11th-century abbey. This Benedictine abbey is supposed to have been founded by the Empress Adelheid, wife of Emperor Otto I. The church is one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in Switzerland.
From Payerne, do not return to the expressway but instead take the small backroad west to Estavayer. Like Murten this is a medieval walled village; however, unlike Murten, it is not on Lake Murten, but sits on a hill overlooking the much larger Lake Neuchâtel. Estavayer is a quaint town, but not quite as fairy-tale perfect as Murten. After strolling through Estavayer, take the back roads north along the west side of the lake and circle back to Murten
Bern: Leaving Murten, return to the A1 and follow signs to Bern. Continue on the expressway as it loops around the north side of the city. Take the Bern Wankdorf exit and follow signs to the center of the city. The road leads to the Nydeggbrücke (Nydegg Bridge). If you are only going to be in Bern for a few hours, there are several parking areas before you cross over the bridge where you can leave your car for a short while and walk into town. On the left-hand corner as you face the bridge, there is a tourist office where you can pick up maps and brochures, plus watch a short video on Bern’s history. Just in front of the tourist office is the Bäengraben (the bear pit) where you can say hello to the bears that have been a symbol of Bern for hundreds of years. The legend goes that the nobleman who founded the town decided to name it for the first animal shot on a hunting trip. As you have probably guessed, it was a bear; hence the name Bern. If you plan to spend the night in Bern, it is best to park your car in the center of town. To do this, cross over the Nydeggbrücke and, at the first street, turn right and follow signs on Postgasshalde that lead to an underground parking garage.
Bern, an enticing, well-preserved 16th-century walled city, sits on a plateau that is looped by the Aare River, at a point where its banks fall steeply to the river below. To further enhance the setting, the Alps rise in the background. The setting alone would make Bern worth a stop, but the town is brimming with character-truly a 13th-century storybook wonderland. Bern is the only Swiss city that has been declared a world heritage landmark.
The main street in the old town is Marktgasse, which stretches from one end of town to the other. Along the street are many charming medieval buildings, arcaded sidewalks, intriguing shops, and brightly painted whimsical fountains. However, my favorite attraction in Bern is the clock tower, which until the 13th century served as the west gate of the city. Be in the square at four minutes before the hour when the “show” begins: as the bell peals, a succession of figures parade across the clock including the most popular of all-darling little bear cubs.
One place you must not miss during your exploration of Berne is its 15th-century church, Münster of Saint Vincent. It should be on your must see list, if for no other reason than to take a look at its stunning statues, wood carvings, and handcrafted stonework. There are over 232 statues alone of the Last Judgment. You can’t help but notice the gorgeous stained-glass windows. For a breath-taking view, climb the 270 steps on the spiral staircase to the bell tower (the highest in all of Switzerland).
Solothurn: Leaving Bern, take the A1 north in the direction of Basel. After 45 kilometers turn off to Solothurn, one of the oldest Roman settlements in Switzerland. From the expressway, follow signs to the center of town. Although a modern industrial area has grown up in the outskirts of Solothurn, once you enter through the gates into the old town, you are magically transported back hundreds of years to a beautiful, Baroque walled city on the banks of the Aare River. It is fascinating to walk through the streets that exude the aura of bygone years with colorfully painted fountains, charming small squares, whimsical clock towers, and 16th-century houses with brightly painted shutters. There are two churches you must not miss. The first to see is the beautiful Saint Ursen Cathedral that faces onto a small plaza leading down to Marktplatz. The interior is ornamented by elaborate stucco work and features a spectacular Baroque pulpit. Another church is the Jesuit Church-a real beauty enhanced by splendid frescoes and elaborate stucco designs. Solothurn also has several museums including the Arsenal Museum which displays weapons, suits of armor, and military uniforms going back to the Middle Ages. Another choice is the Kunstmuseum featuring paintings from Swiss and French masters.
Basel: From Bern, return to the A1 and continue north to Basel, a distance of about 100 kilometers. Because Basel has such a strategic location (on the banks of the Rhine River where the borders of Germany, France, and Switzerland join), it has flourished as a city of commerce since the medieval ages. The Rhine acts as the gateway to the North Sea, so Basel is also a very busy port.
The periphery of Basel is not particularly scenic, but when you arrive at the heart of the old town, you find a wonderful medieval city dotted with enchanting squares, marvelously preserved historic buildings, stunning cathedrals, bridges, brightly painted fountains and an endless assortment of museums. Be sure to visit the 12th-century cathedral and the market square (Marktplatz) which is host every morning to a flower and vegetable market. The town hall (Rathaus) dates from the 16th century and is beautifully decorated with frescos. There is an excellent Museum of Fine Arts (Kunstmuseum) displaying works of art from the 15th and 16th centuries. The Museum of Antique Art (Antikenmuseum) features sculptures and paintings dating from pre-Hellenic times. You can walk everywhere and should do so. This is the best way to capture the ambiance of this colorful city. Meander the heart of the old town, stopping for a bite to eat at one of the outdoor cafés before going on to one of the city’s more than 30 museums.
Begin your sightseeing at the Mittlere Brücke, the colorful bridge in the historic heart of town. Its origins date back to the 13th century, at which time it was a simple wooden bridge, but one of great importance since it was the only way to cross the river anywhere in the region. In days of yore, criminals were tossed off the bridge; but in 1634, it was decreed that beheading was more efficient.
From the Mittlere Brücke it is just a short walk to the Basel’s Marktplatz, a large, picturesque, market square dominated by a magnificently embellished town hall. It is also the starting point for five different, self-guided walking tours, each of which begins and ends at the Markplatz. Color-coded signs direct your way, each depicting a different historic figure. There is the Hans Holbein Walk (green-on-blue signs, about an hour-and-a-half walk), the Paracelsus Walk (green-on-blue signs, about an hour walk), Tomas Platter Walk (yellow-on-blue signs, about a 45-minute walk), the Jakob Bruckherdt Walk (light-blue-on-blue, about a 45-minute walk), and the Erasmus Walk (red-on-blue signs, about a half-an-hour walk).
For another Basel highlight, in summer it is possible to take boat trips along the Rhine, always a fun outing on a sunny day. These excursions offer a leisurely view of the city. This method of sightseeing is especially interesting because from the river you can view many of the marvelous old buildings and also cross under some of the bridges that span the Rhine River so colorfully.
When you leave Basel, go east on the A3 for about 16 kilometers and take the Stein exit. Go into Stein and cross over the bridge into Germany, then continue east on the road that traces the Rhine. The Rhine forms the border between Germany and Switzerland. At this part of the itinerary, the German side of the river is more picturesque than the Swiss side.
Continue along the scenic river route for 27 kilometers to Waldshut, then cross the bridge back into Switzerland, and take road 7 east. Just beyond the town of Glattfelden, turn left on 27 toward Schaffhausen. The road crosses the Rhine again at Eglisau, a sweet picturesque town where you might want to stop and take a photo.
Rheinfall: From Eglisau continue on toward Schaffhausen. About 4 kilometers before you arrive in Schaffhausen, you arrive in Neuhausen where you follow signs for the Rheinfall (Rhine Falls), the most dramatic waterfall in Europe. In days of yore, boat traffic was stalled at the waterfall as merchants had to unload their river cargo and carry it around the falls before continuing their journey.
When you arrive at the Rheinfall, park your car in one of the designated areas and follow the path to the bottom of the falls. There is an awesome view of the falls from the shoreline, but it is much more fun (although perhaps a tad damp) to buy a ticket and board one of the small excursion boats that maneuver to the middle of the river and slide up under the plunging masses of water. If you are so inclined, you can climb to the top of the rock, in the middle of the waterfall.
Rheinau: If you want to add another stunning picture to your Swiss photo album, visit the Island of Rheinau that sits on a loop of the Rhine, 6 kilometers south of the Rheinfall. What makes this island so exceptionally picturesque is its stunning Benedictine Monastery (highlighted by with twin bell towers). Because of its two fine organs, concerts are frequently hosted here. (Open April, May and October, Tuesday through Saturday, 2 pm to 4 pm; Sunday and holidays 1:30 pm to 5 pm. Open June through September, Tuesday through Saturday, 10 am to noon and 1 pm to 5 pm; Sundays and holidays, 10:30 am to noon and 1 pm to 6 pm.)
Schaffhausen: After visiting the Rheinfall and the island of Rheinau, continue north for just a short distance to Schaffhausen, a quaint medieval city that grew up along the banks of the Rhine just above the point where the river plummets to a lower level, forming the Rheinfall. It is fun to walk through the city’s maze of alleys and discover hidden plazas, clock towers, statues, and painted houses. Its name originates from the “ship houses” where cargo was stored when ships had to be unloaded for their goods to be carried past the Rheinfall. Towering over the town is a handsome castle, the Munot Fortress. Ferryboats pull up to the dock in Schaffhausen where you can hop on board for a short river tour, or if time allows, a trip to Stein am Rhein, the next stop on this itinerary.
Stein am Rhein: From Schaffhausen, continue east for 20 kilometers to Stein am Rhein, a walled medieval town built along the banks of the Rhine. Busloads of tourist flock in for the day, but they can’t spoil the cozy ambiance of one of Switzerland’s most enchanting towns. After entering the main gates, you find yourself in a fairy-tale village with each building almost totally covered with fanciful paintings. The town is very small so it will not take long to explore. Settle under an umbrella at one of the riverside restaurants, or park on a bench with a refreshing apfelsaft, bratwurst, und brot and enjoy the constant passage of boats that ply the river. Stein am Rhein, with its streets winding up from the river to the heart of the old town, is charming to explore on foot. Hauptstrasse and the Town Hall Square are extremely picturesque with their fountains and flower-decked houses. There is a boat dock where you can board excursion boats that ply the river.
Leaving Stein am Rhein follow road #13 east for a few kilometers. When you arrive at Eschenz, turn onto a small road heading south and follow signs to Frauenfeld. After about 18 kilometers, take the A7, which soon joins with the A1 and continues on into the center of the Zürich. If you have time to extend your holiday, the next itinerary Swiss Highlights-The Best of the Best, originates in Zürich and joins seamlessly with this one.
Note: Should you want to squeeze in one more jewel before this itinerary ends, visit the tiny hamlet of Regensberg, one of the most charming medieval walled towns in Switzerland. If you want to include Regensberg, bypass Zürich and continue west toward Basel. On the outskirts of Zürich, one of the first exits is Weiningen. Leave the expressway here and follow signs to Dielsdorf. When you come to the outskirts of town, watch for a road going to the left to Regensberg. This picturesque walled village crowns a small hill laced with vineyards. You might want stop for lunch or a cup of tea here. Or, should you prefer to stay in the countryside instead of the city, consider using Regensberg, (which has an outstanding small hotel, the Rote Rose) as your base of operation instead of Zürich.