Authentic, welcoming and adorable: three words that best describe the charm of the medieval town of Gruyeres.
Cars aren’t allowed within its walls. The air is pure and the surrounding mountains provide a dream-like natural decor. Visitors come from around the world to have a feel of what medieval times were like when the Earls of Gruyere watched over the green valley.
Located at the heart of this magical site, in the midst of serene and gorgeous natural landscapes, the Saint-George Inn and the Hôtel de Gruyères have kept up the tradition of warmth and hospitality.
And of course, with the art of hospitality also comes fine dining. The excellent cuisine from Gruyere contributes to the renown of our establishments. You may taste their famous regional half-half fondue but also delicious game in the fall or an excellent regional cuisine.
The medieval town of Gruyeres
A stone jewel in the heart of the green Gruyere valley, the castle of the medieval town of Gruyeres (with an “s” at the end unlike its region or cheese that are named after it) is the second most visited castle in Switzerland after the Chillon castle. A popular touristic attraction, Gruyeres is since 1961 a protected site. In a recent article, the newspaper Le Monde wrote: “In the Canton of Fribourg, it exists a region that is so peaceful and beautiful that one must wonder by what kind of miracle such a jewel has been able to remain so authentic.”
Located 33km from Fribourg and 5km from Bulle, the town of Gruyeres (1800 inhabitants) gave its name to the famous alpine cheese. Perched at 830m at the foot of Mount Moléson (2002m), the panoramic view is exceptional. Cars and buses aren’t allowed in town and must park in a reserved lot at the entrance.
Once occupied by the Romans, then by the Merovingians during the High-Middle-Ages, the Gruyere region was for two and a half centuries a subjected county of the Kingdom of Burgundy. It became part of the canton of Fribourg in 1554 when the last Earl of Gruyere fell into debt to Fribourg and Bern. Banned from his lands, he saw his county be seized by the canton of Fribourg.
It is at the top of a hill overlooking the superior valley of the Sarine River and at the foot of the castle that the town developed. City of markets and fairs (up to six per year), the farmers of the region came to sell their cheese, grains, small and large cattle. Until 1767, the High-Gruyere road brought prosperity to the town. Then a new road in the plain running through the town of Epagny was built and decline followed.
Gruyere counted several mills and sawmills as well as a powder factory. The town was composed of the castle and its dependencies. The buildings were built along one central street, protected by its walls, most of which are still visible today (battlements, doors, towers). The most ancient parts were built at the beginning of the 13th century and more were built after the 1493 fire.
The time of the bailiffs from the patrician families of Fribourg followed the times of the earls and noblemen of the Gruyeres Castle. Their Excellences of Fribourg challenged the feisty spirit of the people of Gruyere who had a hard time to forget the sweet times of independence. In 1781, Pierre-Nicolas Chenaux led an insurrection. Born to a wealthy farming family, this revolutionary leader was supported by the local population and together they fought the Fribourg oligarchic government. Their main complaints were the imposed religious holidays and the new taxes.
The uprising failed at the doors of the city of Fribourg. The belligerents fell back to the woods and Chenaux was challenged by one of his own, who had been promised a substantial reward. When Chenaux died in the duel, his body was brought to Fribourg, beheaded and dismembered on the public square. The conflict only ended in 1783 when the belligerents were forced into exile. They then served into the French Revolution of 1789 and came back to Gruyere in 1798. It would only be in 1848 that the regime recognized Chenaux as the “defender of people’s freedoms.”
In 1849, the state of Fribourg sold the castle to the Bovys. This Geneva family was known for its coinage and medal production and for its passion for culture. They purchased the castle for CHF 7,000! Their youngest son, Daniel Bovy, was appointed to restore it.
After studying arts at the Ingres studio in Paris, he fell ill while crossing the Simplon Pass and had to renounce his brilliant career as a painter. The refection and decoration of the castle then became his life-long project. A historical study written by Anita Petrovski and Raoul Blanchard states: “During his summer stays in Gruyeres, Daniel Bovy was frequently in the company of his family as well as famous artists.” To his request, painter Jean-Baptiste also known as Camille Corot created four landscapes in the living room. In the knights’ room, Daniel Bovy revived the glorious past of the earls.
In 1861, the accumulated cost of the castle compelled the Bovys to entrust the castle to relatives, the Ballands – a watch-making family. The latter continued to restore the site and specifically the landscaping and the splendid garden à la française.
In 1938, the State of Fribourg once again bought the castle and this time for CHF 155,000. They created the current museum. The Gottfried Keller Foundation purchased several objects from the Bovy and Balland collections, which are the main pieces of the permanent exhibit. In 1993 the Foundation was entrusted the conservation, restoration, organization and development of the collection by the State of Fribourg.
In 1998 the HR Giger museum was inaugurated in the Castle. Known as the “father of Alien” since he was awarded an Oscar in Hollywood, the artist from the canton of Grison and his museum invite visitors to enter a magical, enchanted and erotic universe.
The Crane Emblem
From 1080 to 1554, Gruyere saw no less then 20 earls from 17 generations. Historically, the earls were mentioned in the books for the first time at the end of the 11th century. Their family tree was created by the Fribourg Institute of Heraldry and Genealogy and is presented on the 1st floor of the castle.
As the centuries went by, the Gruyere family sought alliances with other illustrious families of neighboring regions: from Grandson, Blonay, Aubonne, Billens, Oron, etc. Strategic marriages enabled to extend the family’s territories, as did the marriage of Pierre III, Earl of Gruyere from 1307 to 1342, with Catherine de Weissenbourg, which brought an expansion of the lands to the High-Simmental. Around 1500, the then earl of Gruyere enjoyed the Golden Age, as attested by numerous marriages with foreign noble families of Savoie, Bugey (between Lyon and Geneva), to the Aosta Valley, the Piedmont, Franche-Comté, Burgundy and Valence (Drome).
Beginning in the 13th century, it became customary for Noble families to have a coat of arms. The earl family of Gruyere chose the crane, symbol of longevity and fidelity. The genealogy painting in the castle depicted that the earls’ siblings were oftentimes sent out to convents and the Religious Orders: sisters of Lausanne (known as “chanoines”), abbot of Hauterive, priors of Bellevaux, Rougemont or Broc.
The last century of the earls’ reign was a time of happiness and harmony. The people loved their earls who mingled with them, in good and hard times alike, so much so that they were knick-named “king-preachers”. They would visit the shepherds in the alpine prairies in the summer, bringing them news from the valley. Once back down, the shepherds would eat, laugh and joke with the earls at the castle. As one anecdote goes, Rodolphe supposedly joined a “coraule”, a traditional danse involving 700 people that would begin in the neighboring village of Enney on a Sunday and finish on a Tuesday in Château-d’Oex!
The first town council took place under the reign of François 1st, a respected earl who was popular for the relative freedom he granted to his subjects. After him, Louis took power and made allies with the Swiss to fight off Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. He would be one of the leaders of the Murten Battle in 1476, which enabled him to bring back beautiful objects, such as embroidered capes with the Burgundy coat of arms, stolen from the Duke. He would also restore the Saint-John Chapel resulting in the Pope granting a special indulgence to those who visited it during certain Holidays.
Michel was the last Earl of Gruyere from 1539 to 1554. He inherited heavy debts and had to declare bankruptcy and leave the castle. The main creditors then split the land among themselves: Bern took the Highlands and the Gessenay and Fribourg went with the territory spreading from the Tine’s canyon to Tour-de-Trême.