More Than Just Cheese: The Surreal Flavours of Gruyères

When a Swiss town known for its hard cheese pulls a few surprises.
Lit up after dark, Château de Gruyères gleams like a lantern in the inky darkness of the night. Photo: Swiss-Image.CH/Roland Gerth
Lit up after dark, Château de Gruyères gleams like a lantern in the inky darkness of the night. Photo: Swiss-Image.CH/Roland Gerth

I am in the midst of a torrid affair. Two days ago, it was a hunk of young Brie in the park, yesterday, a deliciously mature Cheddar captivated my attention after dinner, and this afternoon at lunch, I was reduced to a blubbering mess when I encountered gooey raclette. So when my friend Irma Delacombaz suggests we spend my last day in Switzerland exploring the town of Gruyères, famous for its namesake cheese, all I could summon was a soft sigh.

Three days later, Irma and I are walking through the La Maison du Gruyère cheese factory, nibbling on sticks of cheese, and straining to hear the audio tour, narrated by a cow named Cerise. “Me and my girlfriends have three stomachs,” she says chirpily, mooing every now and then, “which is just one of the reasons we’re superior to humans.” I roll my eyes at Irma, but despite the cheesy narration, the walkabout is actually quite interesting. Through large panes of glass, we see uniformed cheesemakers turning vats of creamy milk into hunks of sweet, slightly salty Gruyère.

Cheese Gruyere Switzerland

At once sweet and salty, Gruyere cheese is named after the village of Gruyères in the lap of the Pre-Alps in Switzerland. Visitors can watch the cheese being made at La Maison du Gruyere and tuck into “Alpenmakkaroni” (macaroni with onion, cheese, and cream) at the factory café. Photo: Roman Babakin/Shutterstock

At an installation nearby, we sniff the scents of Alpine wild flowers, their floral notes conjuring images of grassy mountainsides, despite the fact that we are in a sterile factory. Meanwhile, a giggly Cerise explains that cheese made in summer is sweeter because the cows eat wild flowers every day. Alter the diet, and the flavour and richness of the milk changes. Cheesemaking, I realise, is a craft that takes generations to master.

With a bag full of cheese and little tubs of double cream (another local speciality), Irma and I set off to explore the rest of Gruyères. The medieval town, set within the Swiss district of Gruyère, is perched on a hill at the foot of Moléson mountain. There is only one main street, and it is car-free, paved with cobblestones, and lined with traditional Swiss chalets that are now cafés serving pots of fondue. Every time we walk past an open door, we are hit by the rich fragrance of molten cheese.

I presume we’re going to the medieval castle, but a 20-minute walk later, the castle still looms in the distance. Instead, we halt outside what appears to be a modest museum, near a sculpture of a very naked, very emaciated, and incredibly bizarre looking lady alien. A discreet signboard to her right welcomes us to the Museum HR Giger.

Round off exploring Gruyères with a pint or boozy hot chocolate at the Alien-themed bar opposite the Museum HR Giger. Its surreal decor is inspired by the movie that shot H.R. Giger to fame. Photo: Fat Jackey/Shutterstock

Round off exploring Gruyères with a pint or boozy hot chocolate at the Alien-themed bar opposite the Museum HR Giger. Its surreal decor is inspired by the movie that shot H.R. Giger to fame. Photo: Fat Jackey/Shutterstock

Gruyères’ more outlandish tourist draws include artworks of extraterrestrial creatures designed by Swiss artist H.R. Giger, including those for the film "Alien". They are on display at Museum HR Giger. Photo: Abrice Coffrini/Staff/AFP/Getty Images

Gruyères’ more outlandish tourist draws include artworks of extraterrestrial creatures designed by Swiss artist H.R. Giger, including those for the film “Alien”. They are on display at Museum HR Giger. Photo: Abrice Coffrini/Staff/AFP/Getty Images

At this point it occurs to me that I haven’t so much as googled Gruyères before getting into Irma’s nifty little car. I imagined we’d visit the cheese factory, load up on wedges of Gruyère to take home, and maybe have a small picnic before I caught a train back to Zurich. I hadn’t considered that Gruyères might have more to offer. Artisanal garden gnomes, perhaps—the Swiss are besotted with garden gnomes—but an entire museum dedicated to the fantastic artworks of H.R. Giger?

Famous for creating the extraterrestrials for the movie Alien (1979), the Swiss artist is also worshipped in the sci-fi world for his surreal art which features creatures that are part-human, part-machine, and entirely unsettling. This museum is the largest repository of his works in the world. We walk through a charcoal-coloured room, dimly lit and lined with canvases, acclimatising ourselves to the dark, menacing womb of Giger’s imagination.

From the walls, hermaphrodite beings with spiralling horns and metallic tentacles seem to examine us. We see a row of disfigured babies that appear to be melting, and a painting of a magnificent battle sequence between extraterrestrial tanks and armoured soldiers. Most figures have the disproportionately oblong skulls we’ve come to associate with alien life forms, thanks to Giger and Hollywood.

The artworks are explicit and deeply sexual in nature, but they’re also mesmerising. In another room with blood-red walls, I see paintings of female warriors being inseminated in ways that make my thighs clench. Giger’s depiction of the feminine seems particularly twisted, yet these beings do not seem subordinate, but fierce and powerful; willing participants in their subjugation. It makes me question my understanding of pleasure and pain, my opinions of right and wrong, and the thin line between fascination and revulsion. Irma wiggles her eyebrows at me and laughs: This is more than I ever expected of Gruyères.

Tibet Museum Gruyere Switzerland

Gruyères’s Tibet Museum has Buddhist thangkas and sculptures from the Indian subcontinent. The modest selection is housed in a former Christian chapel, complete with stained glass panels of Christ, Mary, and Joseph. Photo: Irma Delacombaz

When we exit the museum, the sun seems too bright, the chalets too perfect. A silly part of me wants to shake the obliviously happy tourists by their shoulders, so they know how rattled I feel. It’s the same urge I have when I finish a gut-wrenching book, and look up to see the world is still the same. “After that,” Irma says patting me on the back, “I think you need something a little calming, no?” She hands me a piece of chocolate.

Sharing a boundary wall with the museum is another of Gruyères’ better-kept secrets: the Tibet Museum, which houses over 300 Buddhist artefacts. Most of the pieces belong to a gentleman named Alain Bordier, a voracious traveller who acquired them in Tibet, Nepal, Myanmar, Kashmir, and northeast India. Like a really exquisite souvenir collection, I think. Some of us bring back turquoise pendants from Ladakh, and some, priceless 15th-century thangka paintings.

The corridors are filled with forest sounds and piped music. Glass cases on either side contain bronze and brass sculptures of demons, yoginis, and avatars of the Buddha. Some are small enough to fit in the palm of my hand; others, larger than life. It takes me back to Leh, Spiti, Sikkim, Bir, Bylakuppe: all the Buddhist colonies I have visited back home in India. A familiar glimmer of Buddhist sanctity reverberates through this space.

As if a building dedicated to Buddha weren’t odd enough in an Alpine town, the Tibet Museum is located in the renovated Christian chapel of St. Joseph. The main chamber is particularly breathtaking, with its gleaming wooden floors, deep purple walls, and magnificent stained-glass panels of Jesus and Mary. Instead of church pews, there are tantric Buddhist figurines wrapped around each other, rich thangka paintings, and meditating Buddhas, deep in contemplation. Examining the thangkas, I’m suddenly overcome with fondness for Gruyères. It looks like a cookie-cutter Swiss settlement, with its perfectly trimmed flower hedges and fondue chalets, but it’s actually a rather feisty and odd little town.

By the time we leave the museum it’s nearly sundown, so we skip the tour of the medieval castle of Château de Gruyères, and take a leisurely walk instead. The tourist crowds have thinned, the temperature has dropped, and all I can hear is the crunch of snow underfoot and the occasional chirrup of birds. Irma finds a quiet spot near the Tibet Museum with a view of a church, a charming old cemetery, and the mountains. There we finally have the picnic of my imagination. With a spread of cheese, Swiss chocolate, and double cream, Irma and I spend the rest of the evening dissecting Giger, Guru Padmasambhava, and the flavours that make Gruyères so addictive.

Appeared in the October 2016 issue as “The Surreal Flavours of Gruyères”.

The cobblestone streets of Gruyères are lined with Swiss chalets, many of which serve pots of fondue featuring the town’s famous cheese. Photo: Glenn Van Der Knijff/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

The Guide

Gruyères is a small town in the district of Gruyère in western Switzerland. Nestled at the foot of the Pre-Alps, it has forest views, medieval castles, and exquisite cheese. It is about 180km/2 hr by road from Zurich, and 122 km/1.5 hr from Geneva. Both cities are connected to Gruyères by rail routes, but require changing trains along the way (adults CHF76/₹5,227, children up to 16 yrs CHF38/₹2,634, 3 hr from Zurich; adults CHF45/₹3,095, children up to 16 yrs CHF22.5/₹1,550, 2 hr from Geneva).

LA MAISON DU GRUYÈRE Visitors can tour the factory and attend cheesemaking sessions that are held three to four times a day depending on the season. These take place between 9-11 a.m. and 1-2.30 p.m. Open daily 9 a.m-7 p.m. from Jun-Sep and 9 a.m.-6 p.m. in Oct-May. Entry Adults CHF7/₹485; family of four CHF12/₹830 (www.lamaisondugruyere.ch).

CHÂTEAU DE GRUYÈRES The well-maintained medieval Gruyères Castle has lovely Alpine views. Guided tours in English are available on request. Open daily 9 a.m.-6 p.m. from Apr-Oct and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. from Nov-Mar Entry Adults CHF12/₹830; children from six to 16 years CHF4/₹277 (Rue du Château 8).

MUSEUM HR GIGER Be warned. The exhibits here are bold, graphic, and deeply sexual in nature, though the alien-themed bar across the road can be enjoyed by all. Guided museum tours in English, are available on request. Open daily 10 a.m-6 p.m from Apr-Oct, Wed-Fri 1-5 p.m., Sat-Sun 10 a.m.-6 p.m. from Nov-Mar, closed Mon-Tue. Entry Adults CHF12.50/₹866; children CHF4/₹277 (www.hrgigermuseum.com).

TIBET MUSEUM The main hall has Buddhas and thangkas of all sizes housed in the altar of an old Christian church. Guided tours in English are available on request. Open daily 11 a.m.-6 p.m. from Easter-Oct, and Tue-Fri 1-5 p.m., Sat-Sun 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Nov-Easter, Mondays closed. Entry Adults CHF10/₹690; children up to 16 years CHF5/₹345.

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    Neha Sumitran is Nat Geo Traveller India's perpetually hungry Web Editor. She loves exploring food markets or better still, foraging for new kitchen ingredients. She hopes to have a farm near the mountains someday. She tweets and instagrams as @nehasumitran.

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