When I walked down the narrow stone steps and through the wooden door into my favourite Café du Belvédère, near Fribourg's beautiful Basse-Ville, I half-expected to well up or lose my breath. But I simply sat down on one of the dark leather lounges, surrounded by wooden shelves of pre-loved books, and mumbled out my coffee order, casually, as though it hadn't been 6 years since the last time and as though I spoke French every day. I'm trying to play it all down because I guess I'm too distracted for nostalgia and reflection - I'm on the eve of something personally monumental...
A few weeks back, the wheels were set in motion for a partnership between Fribourg Région Tourism (l'Union Fribourgeoise du Tourisme) and I. It's one of those things that you don't even dare to think of. And then when it starts to unroll, you still don't quite let yourself believe it. Because to work with any tourism board is incredible but one in Switzerland...and one of the region in which I lived? Pinch me, I must be dreaming!
Over 10th to 12th January 2018, I discovered Fribourg Région's smorgasbord of stunning scenery, adventure, relaxation, culture, culinary delights and good conversation until it all culminated in one single, last, unforgettable moment at almost 2,002 metres.
Near the summit of MOLÉSON, considered the Matterhorn of the Fribourg Région, I was filled with a deep reverence and serenity; the kind I've only known a handful of times. Because when we had reached the base of Moléson earlier, our world was coloured in every shade of grey possible and visibility was as poor as ever. Even over our fondue lunch, all we could see out the window, was white. But it was as though the universe knew how patient we had been with three days of less than optimal weather and suddenly, just as we were ready to leave, we could see slivers of the mountain and patches of blue...
We rushed out and in front of my very eyes, the seemingly impenetrable ocean of clouds steadily cleared to reveal more and more snow-covered summits. Everywhere I looked, mountains cut starkly into the bluebird sky. And at that moment, nothing else mattered. I could have stood there all day, playing hide and seek with Mother Nature. We were so happy, in the most wholesome of ways. It wasn't ecstasy or adrenalin...it was zen-like, sheer fulfilment. It was sublime and it is a memory that I will guard closely forever.
Welcome to my home Swiss home. First, you might have noticed that I referred to 'Fribourg' as well as 'Fribourg Région'. This is because Fribourg is not only the name of the town that I called home in 2011 but also the name of one of Switzerland's 26 cantons. Fribourg is one of only three cantons that are officially bilingual; French and German...and that is just the start of the many facets of this region. Here, you can time travel on winding streets through medieval towns, dive deep into centuries of art and history, stand tall on snowcapped mountains (whether you choose to ride the chairlift/train up, hike up, ski down, luge down - the list of how you can explore the outdoors here is seriously endless), indulge the tastebuds with regional specialties, simply pause and reset and much, much more...
Get ready to fall in love with Switzerland's Fribourg Région!
My base for the three days was the little traditional village of Charmey, which lies in the heart of the Gruyère region, close to the ski fields of Jaun, Moléson and Schwarzsee/Lac Noir,** the medieval kingdom of Gruyères, Switzerland's oldest chocolaterie Cailler and of course, the region's capital Fribourg.
But the village itself also has one very big drawcard; les Bains de la Gruyère. After almost three weeks on the road filled with plane, car and train travel, exceeding the daily recommended 10k steps as well as 5 days skiing, the thermal baths were exactly what my mind and body needed. When Lisa from La Gruyère Tourism first told me that the baths sell 5-hour passes, I wondered why anyone would stay there for that long…but as I was lying there in a bed of bubbles, steam floating off my hands as I weaved them through the natural mineral water, the way the clouds were streaming off Moléson in the distance...I got it.
Nestled at the bottom of the Fribourg Pre-Alps is Jaun, an intimate ski village overlooked by the Gastlosen mountain range. This mountain range is so distinctive with its sawtooth, jagged limestone peaks. We took the Gastlosen Express to the top before snaking our way down the mountain on luges. At around the midway point, we stopped to watch the sun dance around the mountains as the snow glittered all around. It was some kind of magic...but in fact, we were chasing something else.
There is a tiny hole in the mountain and if you find yourself in the perfect position with perfect conditions, you will see the light splitting and piercing through it. Local legend has it that the devil hurled his grandmother against the mountains, causing this curious little window. We weren't so lucky this time around - but how could we ever complain, it was staggeringly stunning, nonetheless.
The second time down the mountain was on skis. It'll be hard skiing in Australia after skiing in Switzerland...the wide, sweeping pistes, framed by alpine panoramas had me feeling like I was floating through a winter wonderland snow globe. It will be tough to top...
Stepping onto the cobblestoned street of the historical village of Gruyères is like stepping into a fairytale. Like so many towns and villages in Switzerland, Gruyères is full of beautiful details that I lapped up such as pretty doorways, cute window dressings and faded, coloured murals - but what makes it unique is how it stands dominatingly, high on the hill with a castle that dates back to the 13th century.
Entering le Chateau de la Gruyère, I was immediately awestruck at how this masterpiece could have been created all those years ago without the machinery and technology that we have today - even the floor was a spiralling mosaic of stones. Each room of the castle told a different story and was filled with relics and art.
There was also temporary exhibition about the ancient custom of Christmas in the Appenzellerland region of Switzerland. There are processions and choreography involving handmade masks and costumes that have been passed down for centuries. I watched snippets of interviews of the Appenzellerland menfolk speak of how important this tradition is to them... and their passion oozed through the screen. It was incredibly moving.
I left the castle with a great appreciation for the days when we used to make and sculpt directly with our hands, when we used to take the time to dedicate skill, finesse and love into what we did, just because the act of creating was celebrated. And a great appreciation for all that goes into preserving the works and the traditions for current and future generations to enjoy.
Though I didn't visit Schwarzsee as a part of my partnership with Fribourg Région, it belongs here with the rest of the region's highlights.
Up at the top of the lift from Gypsera at Riggisalp, it is as though I was in the middle of the Alps, instead of just at its foot. Within a few minutes of winter hiking, I quickly lost sight of the restaurant and chairlift and was surrounded by only mountains. The wind howled intermittently between periods of hushed silence and so although the soft winter light was casting a warm orange glow through the clouds, it was cold. It was icy, electrifying and unnerving. I love how the mountains can make you so aware of how full life is, and how fragile it is, all at the same time.
Back down, lakeside, I sat cross-legged on the deck, rugged up under layers and layers of clothing and watched the clouds roll over. Folklore has it that the 'Black Lake' got its colour from a giant who washed his feet in the waters. The lake was frozen over so I can't verify this...all I know is that it is a very special evening, to see the hues and shades change in the sky, on the mountains and in the reflections on the ice.
And finally, Fribourg, mon amour. I love this medieval town of stone and wood churches and bridges, intricate and often gilded fountains, ornate door handles, sculptures of religious figures above doors, little bas-relief sculptures inset into walls, murals and motifs, striped wooden shutters and more. The list goes endlessly on. I love waking up to the church bell tolls, hanging my coat on a hook underneath the table and sipping on a coffee with a little Villars chocolate. I love all of its local drinking holes proudly serving Swiss wines and beer (especially the locally brewed Cardinal) and regional gastronomy like fondue moitié-moitié and cuchaule, I love noticing what has changed over the last 6 years - and what hasn't - and I love watching the new collide with the old...including the new-me trying to navigate a place that was first discovered and loved by the old-me. How can I sufficiently explain what Fribourg means to me? I could never. So I'm going to leave it at that...
As I alluded to, there are plenty of local culinary delights and no visit to the Fribourg Région is complete without sampling the local food, wine and beer. Here's a list of the establishments that I very much enjoyed:
La Pièce Rouge, Hôtel Le Sapin, Charmey
Located in Hôtel Le Sapin, which was constructed in 1828 and is one of the oldest buildings in town. Offering tasty, hearty meals and a good wine list and super friendly staff!
La Brasserie de Dzo, Vuisternens-devant-Romont
This brasserie is independently run, combines modern technology and new techniques with tradition and terroir. The owner, Laurent, brims with knowledge and passion. The beers we tasted were all distinct, accompanied with anecdotes on why Laurent brewed them the way he did. Highly recommend!
La Scie, Val-de-Charmey, 20 minutes from Charmey
An old sawmill has been converted into a rustic bar and ice rink, with wooden tables with big knots and tree trunks swathed in fur as seating. Perfect for après ski.
Cafe du Belvédère, Fribourg
This is my favourite hangout in Fribourg. Whether you are cosily seated inside next to wooden shelves packed with pre-loved books and games, or outside on the terrace overlooking the red rooves of Basse-Ville, you just cannot go wrong at Belvédère.
Maison Cailler, Broc
Most tours are vanilla and dry - but not at Maison Cailler! This was, hands down, the most creative, interactive and informative tour that I've ever been on. It starts with a multimedia presentation (video, audio, models, stages, old machinery, old photos, everything!) through numerous themed rooms, exploring the history of chocolate before a audio-guide section unveiling how Cailler chocolate is made. You can smell, touch and taste all the components that go into white, milk and dark chocolate...and then of course, you are invited to taste Cailler chocolate - and LOTS of it. Way more than I think most people would even want to! A Fribourg Région must-do.
I hope this has sparked a real desire in you, to visit Switzerland's Fribourg Région.
As I finish this off, I'm back in my beloved Café du Belvédère, with only 19 hours left in this country that I love so much. There are handfuls of people scattered throughout the cafe, chatting, playing card and board games, silently immersed in a book. Again, I order a coffee and I notice that the French rolls off my tongue much easier than 10 days ago. And this time, I also order a white wine because now, with everything behind me, I finally feel its weight. I feel simultaneously light, so fulfilled to be back here and to have worked on such a significant project, and heavy, as I prepare to leave yet again. It takes everything to hold my tears in and my heart aches a little.
But there's something that stops me from feeling so sad and sorry. And it's thinking of how I was, the last time I left, compared to now. Back then, I left as just a 22-year old foreign exchange student who took it all for granted and who had no idea where to take life (and consequently, I would start to take it down the wrong path). Now, I'm a 28-year old who can live every moment fully and gratefully, doing what she loves, thanks to a magical combination of skill, hard work and luck. Between this 6-year period, I've gone from doing impact-less work that meant nothing to me, to passionate, dedicated work that can hopefully inspire others.
I still struggle to compose myself but this thought makes it easier to leave. This place affected and changed me in 2011 and in 2018, it continues to move me towards the direction I want. I can't imagine the person I will be the next time I leave...because of course it's not goodbye forever. It's never goodbye with my home Swiss home. So until next time, à la prochaine fois.
Thank you to Fribourg Région Tourism for having me.
Final note: if you are Fribourg-bound and need more ideas, have a look at dzin, which means 'people' in the local Fribourgeois dialect - it's a platform connecting travellers with local hosts offering craft, cultural and leisure activities, like photography walks, guided snowshoeing tours and wine and beer degustations. Please also don't hesitate to contact me :)