It’s autumn here in the Gruyère region of Switzerland, but the mountains are still green with color. Flower boxes adorn the window sills along the cobble-stone streets, and the air is crisp and cool.
It’s a time of celebration in Gruyère, for fall is the season of Désalpe, the most popular of all Swiss mountain festivals.
Across Switzerland, towns and villages celebrate this beloved festival, which honors the return of the herds from the high mountain pastures. The celebrations vary in length and timing, running between the end of August and end of September, but they all pay tribute to the herdsmen who care for the cattle in the high country.
During the festival, a procession of cattle crowned with flowers and wearing huge bells proceeds through the streets, accompanied by the armaillis (herdsmen) in traditional bredzons and ladies in dzaquillons.
After the cattle’s arrival, the party continues with music, folk dancing, handicraft markets, country meals and other activities to celebrate the season. In the French-speaking region of Gruyère, the main Désalpes of the region take place in Semsales, Charmey, Schwarzsee and Albeuve.
There’s a reason that the cattle and dariy industry are so highly revered here in Switzerland. They represent a traditional industry that has brought stability –and wealth — to the region.
Here in Switzerland, gold was found not in the hills and rivers, but in the cattle that grow fat and happy dining on thick green grass and mountain herbs like thyme, caraway and wild orchid. Their rich milk has a unique creamy flavor, which enterprising folks soon turned into cheese and other products, as my friends and I found on a recent trip to the region.
Since 1115 AD, Gruyère cheese has been produced in western Switzerland. This famous cheese was first produced in and around the small town of Gruyères, but was soon transported across Europe. Eventually, it made it to the New World and a worldwide reputation was born.
Curious about this cheese, as well as the communities that call this region home, two friends and I spent a week traveling in this beautiful part of Switzerland.
After a gorgeous train trip through the Alps, we reached our base, the Hostellerie Les Chevaliers, a traditional alpine lodge in the tiny medieval village of Gruyères.
The village can trace its roots to 400 AD. It sits high atop a hill overlooking a lush valley in the foothills of the Alps. With its towering walls and cobble-stone streets, the village still looks like the medieval village it once was.
Anchoring the hilltop community is the imposing Castle of Gruyères. For more than 800 years, the stone-walled castle, locally known as the Château de Gruyères, has been the center of life here. The castle is easily seen from the valley below, and today it remains as beautiful as ever, a fixture of everyday life.
Château de Gruyères is now a museum. Accompanied by my friends, Melanie and Esther, I spent hours wandering through the massive rooms, imagining life back then. The castle has an entertaining 18-minute video which explains the local history.
From there, we explored the shops and restaurant along the cobblestone street of the village, which didn’t take long. Then we drove down into the valley to visit La Maison du Gruyère, the cheese factory where the world-famous cheese is made.
Evidently, we weren’t the only curious ones. We encountered visitors from all over the world at La Maison du Gruyère. After watching an excellent film on the cheese making process, we toured the factory. Tours are given daily and cost 7 CHF per person.
We watched as strong cheese makers stirred the huge kettles of developing cheese, and then pressed it into massive cheese molds.
Finally, we got to sample the famous Le Gruyère AOC cheese at different ages. The taste grows bolder as it ages, and I liked it at every age.
The region’s milk is also used to make some of the chocolate that we have grown up with. The nearby village of Broc is home to the Maison Cailler Swiss chocolate factory.
The famous chocolate company was founded in 1796 by François-Louis Cailler. The brand became part of Nestle Group in 1926, and continues to make its sweet chocolates to this day.
We enjoyed the well-done tour, which was available in English, but the chocolate tasting room was the highlight. Every kind of chocolate produced at the factory was available for sampling.
We tried piece after piece, delighting in the unlimited opportunity to sample. But after about the 10th piece, I had to stop. You can only eat so much chocolate.
Fortunately, they had a large showroom right outside where we could purchase chocolate to take home.
Two favorite local dishes here reflect the community’s dairy richness – Gruyère double cream and fondue. We enjoyed both that evening at the Swiss chalet, Le Chalet de Gruyères, which is located at the foot of the castle.
Double cream, made from local milk, is as thick and creamy as ice cream. It’s often served with coffee, atop strawberries and fruits and as meringue. We had it with a mix of berries and it was like eating candy.
No visit to Switzerland would be complete without a fondue dinner. The local version of fondue is called moitié-moitié, and involves melting two local cheeses – Le Gruyère AOC and Le Vacherin fribourgeois AOC – along with a little white wine and Kirsch in a large pot.
The cheeses are so strong that it gives off a unique smell. The melted cheese is served in a fondue pot with chunks of potato, bread and small pearl onions. A dish of pickles comes on the side for additional flavour.
Full and happy, we returned back to the Hostellerie Les Chevaliers for the night. The air in our rooms was warm, so we opened the big windows. I pulled a chair up to the window ledge, and sat down to soak in the view.
The sun was just beginning to go down, and waning shadows slowly crept across the hills. Just a few hundred yards from the hotel, a herd of deer munched happily on the green grass, unconcerned about visitors who might be watching them.
From my window, I watched as a lone musician carrying a large cello case made his way up the path from the village below, past the Hostellerie Les Chevaliers and up toward the castle. Wondering if there was a concert in the making, I left my window perch and hurried down the carpeted hallways and out of the hotel.
Seeing no one, I walked up the cobble-stoned street, my footsteps ringing with each step. It was now dusk and the village of Gruyères was completely deserted. The shopkeepers had closed up their shops, the museum staff had gone home, and the musician had disappeared.
All alone, I hopped up onto a waist-high stone wall, and watched the valley below grow darker. Beside me, the Castle of Gruyères stood as it had for centuries, strong and powerful, overlooking the valley. I wondered how many generations of others had treasured this same view.
I was just glad to be one of them.
If You Go
La Gruyere Tourism