Almost French

The town of Morat hugs the bilingual border.
The town of Morat hugs the bilingual border. Photo: Alamy

Brian Johnston plays helpless tourist as he explores the gentle, familiar landscapes of the country's western quarter.

I've always found sitting in a cafe looking lost and lonely to be one of the more useful travel tools. And so it proves in Estavayer-le-Lac. I give the waitress my best mournful look as she brings me a pear tart, and before long she's trying to cheer me up with encouraging conversation.

"I suppose you've come to see the frogs?" she says, helpfully. "Everybody thinks they're made of porcelain or plastic, but they're quite real, I promise you."

Actually, caffeine is the only reason I've stopped in Estavayer, a mediaeval village surrounded by purple apartment blocks on Lake Neuchatel in north-west Switzerland. Thanks to my waitress, however, I discover the village's bizarre and entrancing collection of frogs. They're the legacy of a 19th-century soldier, Francois Perrier, who passed his time stuffing preserved frog skins with sand and arranging them in whimsical scenes.

I find them in the last room of the local museum. The frogs play cards and dominoes, eat a family meal of spaghetti around a table, sit on benches in an old-fashioned schoolroom. One fat frog gets a shave in a little barber's shop from a skinny frog wielding a cut-throat razor. It's weird and yet unaccountably endearing, a tableau of Jeremy Fishers and Kermits that makes me feel like a child once more.

I like these quirks and corners of culture, and I have more reasons than this to feel young again. I spent much of the first 20 years of my life in Switzerland; returning seems to have elements of travelling back in time. I'm delighted to find this display in Estavayer, something I never knew was here. It's a welcome diversion to sightseeing in a very familiar place, something that can be difficult. After all, travel is about delight in the strange and unusual, the sense of pleasure in discovery.

The French-speaking, western quarter of Switzerland is often overlooked by visitors lured by the Alps that rise almost exclusively in the country's German-speaking regions. But the Suisse romande has great beauty, a gentle landscape of rolling hills and broad valleys where villages and lakes seem made in miniature.

From Estavayer, I intend to explore Fribourg, the lushly beautiful canton that lies at the heart of French-speaking Switzerland. I drive along the southern shore of Lake Neuchatel, where dainty sailboats float at anchor in tiny harbours, farms are as tidy as railway models and the countryside is as pale and pleasant as the local sparkling wines.

Soon I'm drifting to Morat, whose town walls and guard towers are preserved intact and enclose a huddle of ancient arcades and cobblestone streets. Morat is famous in Swiss history for its crucial battle in 1476 against Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. Newfangled crossbows and pikes gave the Swiss the upper hand, which, in turn, enabled the pesky duke's French-speaking lands to be absorbed into the Swiss confederation. Morat marks the limit of old Burgundy and its culture. In German, the town is called Murten, a signal that I'm bumping against Switzerland's linguistic divide.

As I drive into the surrounding countryside, village names wobble between languages: a Witzwil here, La Sauge there. Piebald cows, knee-high in grass, seem to be French-speaking: they produce gruyere and vacherin cheeses. It might be coincidence, but the cantonal flag is black and white, too, which I like to think is an honest celebration of the region's greatest asset. Fribourg is also known for its cured hams, sausages and lamb stewed with local grapes. This is fat, fertile country where pastures alternate with clumps of fir woods, vines and cherry orchards.

The canton's eponymous capital should really be a market village where peasants haggle over piglets. Actually, Fribourg is a proud university town once the capital of a small mediaeval republic. It has a cultured and graceful air, a youthful population and a dry conservatism strangely mixed with cosmopolitan energy. Its city walls and defence towers surround a huddle of Gothic and baroque houses - and one of Europe's great Gothic cathedrals.

Anywhere else, it would be swarming with tourists. Instead, Fribourg is just quintessential small-town Switzerland. It sits on the Sarine River - or perhaps the Saane River, since Switzerland's linguistic divide runs right along its banks. Street signs are bilingual. The serious political newspaper is in German, the restaurant menus in French. It isn't just a matter of language. The witty French Swiss are more relaxed than their German counterparts, and considerably more progressive. Sober, organised, humourless and conservative, the Swiss stereotype is really a Swiss-German one.

Next morning, in the spirit of French illogic, I head to Gruyeres, just down the road, in a roundabout way. My car window is down and the sun is shining on my arm as I veer from the language border and head back into French-speaking territory.

Little towns are places to pass through rather than linger, but they present a pretty picture. As the road descends a valley towards Lucens, a turreted castle with black-and-red shutters stands out against wooded slopes, high above a cluster of gingerbread houses.

Further on in 13th-century-built Romont, pastel-coloured houses squeeze into a ring of ramparts topped by a fort. Few tourists may have heard of these places; the anonymity gives them charm. They stir memories of fairytales with their pepper-pot towers and gables and gnarly apple orchards.

Gruyeres, too, is a scene from a pop-up book by the Brothers Grimm, but its name is more famous, and the size of its car park a warning that I've arrived on the beaten track.

When I was young, Gruyeres was a destination for family excursions with relatives visiting Switzerland. Now I discover that a million visitors a year come here. Chinese tourists arrive by tour coaches, hauling walking sticks and cameras; bulky German hausfraus scribble postcards in the cafes. They surge up the cobbled main street of this fortified market town, and pose in front of fountains decked in pink geraniums.

Only the castle at the top of the village stands aloof. Tour groups don't bother with it, and backpackers hurry away at the sight of the entrance fee. It isn't much of a castle, really: chilly and dark, with a few wooden chests, high-backed chairs and Burgundian tapestries seized at the Battle of Morat.

I wander beyond Gruyeres's fortified walls and into the fields. Fat cows nod at me as I walk, clanking their cowbells. Across the meadows is one of the dairies that produces the famous cheese of (almost) the same name, gruyere. To my surprise, there's no concession here to history. White tiles gleam, and steel pipes wind from one industrial vat to another. Workers in white aprons and sterile caps press illuminated buttons on a panel.

Back in the village, waitresses are busy banging slabs of plum pie onto tabletops. Flags flutter, cowbells clank and geraniums are wanton in red. I tuck into a platter of gruyere and cold cuts with a hunk of crusty baguette, as a group of tourists shriek with the challenge of scooping up melted cheese on fondue forks.

Perhaps it's time for my lost-and-lonely act again, which, given the merry sociability of the nearby tour group, is scarcely an act. The waitress looks at me in a pitying way when she comes with the bill, and is soon chatting away.

Did I know that, just down the road at Broc, there's a Cailler chocolate factory that's open to visitors? Now that she mentions it, I ought to have known. I might even have been there long ago, on a school excursion. And at once, I resolve to go there. Even in a place that's familiar, there's pleasure in discovering things all over again.

FAST FACTS

Getting there Emirates has a fare to Geneva from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1950 low-season return, including taxes. Fly to Dubai (about 14hr), then to Geneva (7hr). See emirates.com. From Geneva, it's an hour's drive to Fribourg.

Getting around A Eurail Global Pass with either a flexible or consecutive number of travel days within a set time period (for example, any 15 days within two months) is good value. See internationalrail.com.au.

Staying there

Au Sauvage, in Fribourg's old town, blends historic charm with modern bathrooms and a good French restaurant. Rooms from 282 Swiss francs ($290); 12 Swiss francs for parking. See hotel-sauvage.ch.

Hostellerie des Chavaliers in Gruyeres has comfortable rooms, some with beautiful valley views, from 162 Swiss francs including taxes. See gruyeres-hotels.ch.

Lausanne is a convenient base. Chateaux d'Ouchy has a magnificent lakeshore location. Rooms are from 280 Swiss francs including taxes. See slh.com.

More information See myswitzerland.com.

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