When in Gruyères, Say (Swiss) Cheese

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The New York Sun

In Switzerland, the region of Gruyère, situated a mere two hours from Geneva, gives the delicious, ancestral cheese its now world-famous name. While the region and the cheese share a designation, it is also the name (albeit with a slightly different spelling) of the miniature town that dominates the region. And just as the cheese will fortify, the town of Gruyères with its high walls and soaring spires is sure to amaze.

Legend has it that the Roman emperor Antonin the Pious died from indigestion in 161, common era, after overindulging in the Swiss cheese. But the place’s appeal extends beyond food to its lovely pastures and towering pre-Alpine peaks. It’s easy to see why this medieval hill town has played such an important role in the region’s history: The impressive views suggest it must have been nearly impossible for the enemy to make a surprise approach. On a clear day, the entire area opens up, from the man-made Gruyère lake in the south to the northern Moléson peak, where authentic armaillis, or artisanal cheese-makers, summer with their cows, churning their specialty in antique copper cauldrons set on open fires.

The Château de Gruyères is a romantic castle-turned-museum dating to 1270, situated above the town. Its beauty lies in its clear-cut ramparts and pencil-thin turrets; a darkened wooden balcony looks down on vibrant French-style gardens. Inside, a rich assortment of historical artifacts and art, including stunning landscapes painted on the castle walls by the 19th-century French artist Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, serves as a record of the many counts who reigned there, and later the noble families who prepared meals in the medieval kitchen or hosted a piano recital in the Renaissance salon.

A more modern and admittedly offbeat experience awaits visitors who take a downhill stroll from the castle to the HR Giger Museum (Château Saint-Germain, 1663 Gruyères, +41 26 921 22 00). Here, works by the Swiss surrealist artist for whom the museum is named are on view. Mr. Giger’s frequently macabre collection even features a curtained room that is restricted to adults. (He won an Academy Award for conceiving the terrifying monster in the title role of “Alien.”). Relief of a kind may be had at the Giger Bar, where the extraordinary biomechanical décor recalls the inside of a whale.

In search of solid nourishment, you could stop at Restaurant Le Chalet de Gruyères (Rue du Bourg 1663 Gruyères, +41 26 921 34 34), situated just at the foot of Château de Gruyères. The restaurant’s cook, Georgette Waeber, has prepared fondue there for 35 years. Throughout that time, she said, she has eaten it “twice or three times a week, in summer or winter.” Choose the local moitié-moitié, a dreamy blend of vacherin fribourgeois cheese and, of course, Gruyère. For dessert, do as the regulars do and lavish the local double crème onto crackling meringues or giant raspberries.

Twice a day, more than 30 farmers bring their milk to the nearby demonstration dairy, La Maison du Gruyère (663 Pringy-Gruyères, +4126 921 84 00), for the benefit of visitors. An informative and interactive exhibit there engages the five senses and offers much of interest to foodies. The facility can produce as many as 48 wheels of Gruyère a day, all behind a floor-to-ceiling wall of glass. The cheeses are then stored in an automated cellar where row after row are kept for as long as a year and a half before being made available for sale to the public.

A pleasant way to unwind after a visit to the dairy is a drive to nearby Charmey for a rejuvenating open-air bath in the new Bains de la Gruyère (Gros Plan 30 1637 Charmey, +41 26 927 67 67). Two spacious pools plus a succession of cascades and jets provide visitors — from older mountaineers toyoung couples and children — a respite where one can savor the wide vista of mountains and chalets. A spa complete with hammam (the traditional Arab bathhouse), sauna, and a magical water park for children ensures an enjoyable time for the entire family.

Following my nose, I set forth to trace the origins of a cheese and instead found a town surrounded by regal Alpine views and a region ripe for discovery. Next stop, Roquefort?

The New York Sun

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