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A perfectly preserved old castle-village, isolated on its crag but within easy reach of Lake Geneva, GRUYÈRES is one of Switzerland’s most photogenic sights and attracts hordes of daytrippers throughout the summer season, come to stroll on the village’s only street and explore the impressive château. By 10am in season, the village can get uncomfortably crowded, and can stay so until late afternoon. Cars are banned, but you’ll find several large parking areas on the hillside just below.
The château was formerly the regional seat of power, occupied from 1080 to 1554 by the nineteen counts of Gruyères, but was decimated by a fire in 1493 which destroyed virtually everything but the dungeons. The last occupants reconstructed the living quarters in a lavish Savoyard style; Michael, the final Count of Gruyères, ran up huge debts doing this and then fled, leaving his creditors – the governments of Fribourg and Bern – to divide up his lands between them. A rich Geneva dynasty, the Bovy and Balland families, bought the castle in 1848 and supported a number of artists in residence, including the French landscape painter Corot, before the cantonal government of Fribourg took over maintenance of the castle in 1938. To approach it, you must walk the length of Gruyères’s dipping, picturesque main street with its central fountain and quaint old houses on either side bedecked with hanging signs. A huge gate at the end affords entry to the castle grounds (June–Sept daily 9am–7pm; March–May & Oct daily 9am–noon & 1–5pm; Nov–Feb Mon–Fri 9.30am–noon & 1.30–4pm, Sat & Sun 10.30am–noon & 1.30–5pm; Fr.5; SMP). Highlights include Flemish tapestries decorating the count’s bedchamber, Corot’s room with landscapes painted by him, and other rooms throughout the castle with grand fireplaces, heraldic stained glass, often featuring the dynastic symbol of a crane (grue in French), and booty from the Battle of Murten where Louis II, Count of Gruyère, fought on the Swiss side. The wood-panelled Knights’ Hall is impressive, as is the small formal garden at the very back, on the tip of the hill. Beside the castle, Gruyères’s church is in an exceptionally beautiful location, backed by valley vistas.
In a couple of extremely odd counterpoints to the grandeur of the castle, you’ll find at the gate of the castle and covered by the same entrance fee and opening hours, the Centre International de l’Art Fantastique, a small gallery devoted to modern fantasy art – which is fine if you like that kind of thing but has no connection whatsoever with the cobbled quaintness all around. This, though, is as nothing compared with the truly nasty H.R. Giger Museum adjacent (Tues–Sun 10am–6.30pm; Fr.8; SMP; www.hrgiger.com). Giger is a graphic artist, born in Chur, who is most famous for designing the special effects for the movie Alien – for which he won an Oscar – as well as Poltergeist II, Alien 3 and others. Flushed with success he took a shine to Gruyères, bought one of the old houses, and has turned it into a showcase for his unique brand of grotesque art, sexualized surrealist visions of machine-like humanoids, nightmarish cityscapes and fantasy-porn gynaecological obsessions crowding over three dark and unpleasant floors. “Giger,” enthused Timothy Leary, 1960s acid-guru, after the success of Alien, “you razor-shave sections of my brain and plaster them still pulsing across your canvas; [you] give us courage to say hello to our insectoid selves.” Giger’s now planning an Alien-style bar in the castle grounds as well as a Castle Train Ride. Heaven help Gruyères.
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