The first class compartment on this small, village-to-village commuter train is separated by a mechanical sliding glass door, which when it is in the closed position, creates a surprisingly quiet seal from the outside cars, as well as from the passing Swiss country outside of the train. This is the first small town-hopper that I've ridden inside; it is carrying me and C from the Lausanne station to Palezieux, where we are then quickly shuffled from that station to another by bus, as the only other rail in operation is undergoing maintenance; the little European dump trucks, unmanned in the wide, deep trough, are baking in the Sunday morning sun.
We are riding to Gruyere, the namesake of the tangy, melty Swiss cheese essential to all traditional fondues, and next-level cheese boards at all holiday parties in the US.
The day is bright, sunny, and even; a breeze flosses in and amongst the high, green meadows. Our train heaves upward and gently floats back down again; passing through crevices of stacked white stones, and then emerging once more onto a new vista: a golden wheat field, a dozing cow farm on a timberwood's edge, a square hectare of corn growing against a two lane road, with one lane under construction.
We pull into the last main town before Gruyere in the middle of the hinterland; it’s a quaint village with white streetlights, a squeaky clean city square, and a modern new train station called Bulle. After an hour of silence riding in the compartment alone, C and I are joined by a middle-aged Russian mother and her two teenage children. The mom has lip injections and noticeable botox, looking a confusingly synthetic 25 to her younger counterparts of about 14 and 16. She has this season’s designer handbag, white jeans and Kardashian sunglasses that she does not remove, and proceeds to speak extremely loudly for being only one of five people inside a compact train car. I bristle.
About a minute later, and just before the train sounds its last whistle and pulls away from the station, a single father and his two children board. The man essentially announces to the car that he is both American, and has no idea where Gruyere is, which is where he and his kids intend to go. I play dumb and watch the entire scene unfold: the young son is downloading apps onto his father’s phone; the daughter briefly looks up from her games at her father’s insistence, to flatly proclaim, “Oh my God, The Alps”; the father, head on a swivel, is desperately trying to see any and all passing road signs or geographical markers to give him the assurance that they, in fact, have boarded the correct train. As we do indeed pull into Gruyere, his daughter, without looking up from her phone, states in nothing short of a bored tone of voice, “I want to go home.”
Across the street from the station is Le Gruyere Cheese Factory, which we opt to visit a bit later upon seeing our first class counterparts all entering in one loud clump. Instead, we turn toward the steep, grassy slope, and set off in the direction of the main historic old town on the plateau further up. The light gravel pathway snakes upward and around the slope; we weave in and out of passing gaggles of descenders before finally arriving at the crest of the hill, and the old town of Gruyere.
It’s beautiful with the slight breeze; C and I have arrived right around lunch, and most have found their seats at one of the several restaurant terraces lined up on either side of the wide promenade. A little souvenir shop is tucked away on a corner; C and I both watch as a man picks up a small cylinder, flips it, and is embarrassed to hear a loud, obnoxious cow noise spring forth from the meshed plastic surface of the opposite side. I look away to silently collect myself before bursting out laughing, while the man sets off as fast as he possibly can. We venture still onward up the path, through a high archway I derive to be the medieval gate to the inner keep of this very old city, passing a painted public piano in the middle of a grassy common area next to the main road. We reach the main gate to Gruyere Castle further ahead; the chateau’s spires rise infinitely, a profile on a postcard, against the cloudless azure sky.
Now having visited a few medieval locales in Switzerland and France, I am perpetually excited to experience the same ghostly sense of days so long past, yet still feel them playing out before me as if life had never ceased there. The kitchens of Chateau Gruyere feature a stately wood-burning oven; one that would make any home-baked bread or pizza aficionado’s mouth immediately begin to water. The hearths as well; tall enough for me to stand inside with no problem, a few dozen feet wide, and embossed with the seal of the house in power at the time of construction, would easily cost upwards of $30,000 today, if you even had the space.
In an interior sitting area of the castle, we find a perfectly preserved, early 1700s-era fortepiano displayed underneath a crystal chandelier. It is out of reach and locked, but it’s the first ever instrument I’ve wanted to hop a velvet rope to play.
The next room, like a scene straight from a Jane Austen novel, is ostentatiously embellished with hand-painted murals of noblewomen, nature, and elements of swiss culture over 300 years ago. Surrounding these murals are trimmings in gold on all of the walls and ceiling tiles. It is the truest definition of a ‘stately room’ that I’ve ever seen. It just screams poofy dresses, fine tea and wine, high society, pride, and prejudice.
The next room, however, is more in line with C’s tastes. Yet another absolutely majestic artistic feat, it features wall-sized murals of the noblemen of yore in (fabricated) times of war, heroically defeating those that would come to encroach upon the peaceful free will of the townsfolk of Gruyere, which in French translates to, “The Land of the Cranes”. In the middle of this grand hall is a priceless wooden table, centuries old and dutifully kept in perfect shine. You can practically see the long-ago rulers of this land, each sitting in his own intricately hand-carved wooden chair, determining the governances of Gruyere over wine and fresh, wood oven-fired bread.
In the back courtyard of the castle, C and I stroll amongst the hedges and the lovingly tended flowerbeds, commenting on how nice it would be to keep our own bees one day (I’m imagining the taste of that Alpine honey), and I look upwards to the two mighty peaks that make up the skyline of this sector of Switzerland. Something dawns on me.
“Hey, aren’t’ those the two identical peaks we saw side by side from our hotel room in Vevey?”
They are. Just two months earlier, we had been staring together out across the surrounding Alpine mountains high in the hills of Vevey (on our honeymoon) on a brilliantly clear morning in May. We wondered what lied past two faint, far-off mountaintops, poking up like taser prongs above the rest of the range. Now, we knew.
Having descended back down from the castle, passing through the inner gate via a small side door to the left (C exclaims, “they were all so SMALL!”), we come upon the painted piano once more. C lets go of my hand and takes a seat somewhere behind me, as I can’t resist just giving it a little try, there on such a perfectly peaceful Sunday. My fingers find notes, and a small melody plays, which is followed by more flourishes in the uncomplicated key of C major, and all goes hazy from there. A minute or so after I began, I hear the same melody I began with finding its way into my chords once more, and I gingerly navigate to an easy landing. Once my hands leave the keys, to my shock, I hear applause break out from all sides of the piano. I look up to see a small smattering has formed in passing; they are politely applauding my effort, to my great pleasure. I could’ve melted like hot ice cream onto the keyboard. I look back at C, my eyes beaming. I am practically leaping into the next building over, which is the H.R. Giger museum.
Oh, the H.R. Giger museum. As soon as we reach the front steps, we are accosted by a shiny, metallic gray statue of a naked female torso with taut, alien facial features, and long, hooked nipples that spike out angrily from her chest, which are likely to take someone’s eye out.
Giger is known worldwide for his Oscar-winning design of the titular alien of the Alien movie franchise, and was so prolific in his lifetime that his collected works span multiple levels of a labyrinthian museum in Gruyere, housed in the Château St. Germain. I must confess, as C and I comb through the cold, black halls (in sharp contrast to the bright, lively medieval castle we were just in moments ago), I feel scandalized by the overly sexual nature of his work, and the consciously inhuman portrayal of man’s union with, and subsequent domination by, machine. C, as French as he could be, has absolutely no frame of reference to what I am feeling; which is possibly being offended, or even just strongly affected, by one singular artist’s work. I understand and admire his unmoving sense of self, and that aspect of the French as a whole: to witness art for what it is, and be slow to draw any further conclusions.
Back out into the sun once again, C locates the best-rated place on the main square, and we sit down warily to a steaming pot of hot fondue, worried it might be far too rich for a summer afternoon. We are therefore surprised to discover that the Swiss seem to have different recipes for fondue in summer and in winter; because this one, while still featuring the stringy, tangy, melty Gruyere cheese, somehow tastes infinitely lighter than any others we have had previously. Not weighed down in the slightest, we pay and walk back again through the old town, towards the trail leading back to the modern city center below.
We at first only hear loud, random clangs echoing through the meadow, but then come face to face with the grazing cows, out to take in the afternoon sun. Swatting away flies with their ears and tails, they each whip their heads, knocking their bells. Each low thunk makes me smile at the cuteness of these big, docile creatures; chewing their cud, unphased by the crowds of passing tourists. Just walking along the path down the hill, we are met with dozens of dairy cows just standing by the fence, as if bored and wanting to see a safari of people parade past them for a change. And It seems only fair.
When we finally arrive at Le Gruyere Factory, we are handed two complimentary packs of cheese (to which C gives me a silent, “please keep those away from me” face), and we continue up the stairs, listening to little plastic phones that are handed out as guided tours to the stations of the factory. C grows impatient with the affable dairy cow narrating our journey, and begins to speed up the process, skipping stations. Unfortunately, on a Sunday, not much is going on in cheesemaking, other than a few wheels resting in saline baths on the main factory floor, and the automated machine spellbindingly flipping the aging cheese wheels, seen through a display window. Rounding a corner, we are met with the welcome desk once more, having flown through the course without the guided narration to slow us down. Before catching the train home, we pass through the gift shop to buy a bottle of water, and one of the cow noisemakers that C grabs next to the register because it makes me laugh.
On the train, the cheese lunch is a satisfying block of melatonin now settling in my stomach; I find it increasingly difficult to keep my eyes open in the warm, empty train compartment with C. My head on his shoulder, I doze off for about five minutes before C takes it upon himself to turn the moo cylinder over in my face, causing me to wake up laughing. He does this twice.
As we lie on the couch at the end of a long day trip to Gruyere, I feel thankful to have now had my first of hopefully many small excursions across this small, beautiful country, to see what lies just past our nearest mountains.
A thunderstorm approaches Lausanne and lightning scratches across the sky. C rents Alien from an online streaming site. When it ends and the credits roll, I ask C to wait for H.R. Giger’s name before we turn it off.