All of life on a Swiss boulevard

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Every town is a collection of businesses at different stages of their life cycle – fledgling, midlife, waning, and shuttered for good.

The town I live in, Fribourg in Switzerland, was founded in 1157. Many generations have made their living here. It is built in and around a gorge, which also happens to be the geographical line separating the French-speaking Swiss from the German-speaking Swiss. It’s got history and medieval architecture in spades. For a guided walk around the most interesting parts of the town, see this blog post

Fribourg was first settled around the river bank, growing upwards on steep slopes, century by century. When the Swiss constitution was created in 1848, the area of Pérolles was just fields. But when the trainline came to Fribourg, it brought new energy to the periphery, and by the turn of the century the new Boulevard de Pérolles, and its side streets, was the happening part of town.

The boulevard is about a kilometre long, starting at the train station and ending at a bunch of new university buildings. There’s a cinema on Pérolles, a church with a declining congregation, a newspaper with a declining circulation, a bank, a secondary school, various bars and restaurants, clothes shops, hairdressers, a small shopping centre and lots of apartments. The dentists and doctors of Fribourg have their surgeries on the upper floors of this street. The strangest business is a shop that offers ‘acqua-ness’, cycling in tank of water in your own private cabin.  

But despite all this activity, Pérolles does not have the feel of a thriving street. Shops change hands too often and many businesses appear to be hanging on by a thread. The longest shopfront on the street is FriCash, a store that offers cash for jewellery and household goods. This lack of vitality is probably to do with the fact that the street is bordered by a gorge on one side and not leading anywhere in particular. The rest of the town, situated to the north and west of Pérolles forms a better-connected core.

Yet many things have happened on Pérolles in my 15 years in Fribourg. I had 30 anti-allergy injections on 30 separate visits (that didn’t work) on Pérolles. I had my Swiss citizenship interview in an office on Pérolles. I learned to speak German in the adult education centre off Pérolles. And I found out I was pregnant with twins at a gynaecologist on Pérolles. I’ve had fillings filled at the dentist on this street, I’ve had my hair cut here many times, I’ve celebrated birthdays and anniversaries on this street, and now I rent office space in an old chocolate factory just a few yards from the boulevard.

Two awful things have happened on Pérolles in my time living here. One day, a man stabbed his toddler in the toilets of the shopping centre. The mother ran with the injured child to a clinic just off the boulevard but they could not save him. Desperately sad.

A few years later, a tailor whose shop was next door to a café, flew into a murderous rage. He was having a long-running row with the café owner about the café’s street tables infringing on his shop front. One day, he grabbed a scissors, stormed into the café and stabbed his neighbour in the heart.

Miraculously, the injured man survived. I read a newspaper article about him some years later, written after the trial. Although he had recovered physically, he could not get over the crime because his attacker did not receive a custodial sentence – just a suspended sentence and a fine. The lack of punishment tormented the victim so much. But that is the Swiss justice system. You can deliberately stab someone in the heart in anger and not go to jail. Suspended sentences are the norm as jail is mainly reserved for those at risk of reoffending.

You can park on Pérolles, one franc per half hour. Two bus routes also carry people up and down the street and into the suburbs. And if you look closely, you will see that all of life is there.  

Beer and the great outdoors

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Switzerland has such an abundance of hiking trails that searching for a new route can send you down a rabbit hole of maps and websites. To make things easier, and more refreshing, hiking guide Monika Saxer has compiled a list of 59 hikes, each of which ends at a brewery or bar where you can quench your thirst with a local craft beer.

Beer Hiking Switzerland is published in English, German and French by Helvetiq, the same publisher that will publish the translations of The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths in the new year. As I am partial to hiking and beer, I didn’t need any persuading to try out one of Saxer’s trails. I once went too far for my own good when I walked my old work commute from Fribourg to Bern (an adventure you can read about here), therefore expert advice is gratefully received.

For this hike, I press-ganged my family to join in and we chose the 11-kilometre Gottéron route on page 94. It starts in the German-speaking village of St Antoni in canton Fribourg, passes by the edge of Tafers and ends up following the wooded Gottéron valley all the way to the Old Town of Fribourg.

I already knew the Gottéron part of the walk well, a narrow other-worldly trail that winds along by the Gottéron river through steep sandstone gorges and dense forest. As with any walk on Swiss hiking trails, there are places set up for grilling and picnicking, as well as signposts to reassure you that you’re on the right track.

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From St Antoni, after a dip and a short climb, most of the route was gradually descending which is the kind of hike I like best. I also like quiet walks. We did not meet any other walkers on the St Antoni to Tafers part, although it was a Saturday afternoon. But we did spot some ostriches, llama and these unusual highland-type cattle.

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The arrival into Fribourg is one of the most romantic approaches to the town, across the Pont de Berne and into Place Petit Saint Jean. Confession alert: we did the walk in two parts over two weekends. As recommended, we made our way to l’Auberge du Soleil Blanc to order a Fri-mousse beer which is brewed a few doors up on the rue de la Samaritaine. The perfect way to enjoy one of these Indian summer days.

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I’m always interested to see what other ideas people come up with to write about Switzerland. The sky’s the limit. The important thing is to write about something you are passionate about. Monika explains in her book that this book grew from her interest in microbreweries. She starting selecting hikes that ended near breweries, and writing up those routes on the website of the Women’s Alpine Club of Zurich, now called CAS Section Baldern. After she was featured in a Migros Magazine article about women and beer, Monika was approached by Helvetiq to write this book.

If you were to write a book about the country you live in, what approach would you take? I’d love to hear (but not steal) your ideas.

Discovering the delights of Fribourg

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Fribourg is a charming medieval town situated between Bern and Lausanne on the main Zurich to Geneva rail line, often overlooked as a tourist stop. Though I’ve lived here for the past thirteen years, I’m still discovering hidden gems.

It’s that time of year when people are on the move. Some of you will be exploring Switzerland and if you can possibly make room for Fribourg on your itinerary, here are some suggestions on how to spend the day. If you don’t have the time or the means to get to Fribourg, let me show you around.

Fribourg is a small enough town to get to know on foot. For anyone who doesn’t have the energy for the hills and cobblestones, there is the option to take the little tourist train, which leaves every day at 2pm, 3pm and 4pm from Place Jean Tingeuly, five minutes’ walk from the train station. This one-hour guided tour with a couple of stops will help you get your bearings and see the different styles of architecture stretching back 800 years.

Miséricorde campus, built in the 1930s
Miséricorde campus, built in the 1930s

Walkers can start by asking directions to Collège St Michel. If you take the back route by the main post office, you will pass by the main university building Miséricorde with its distinctive Le Corbusier style architecture, which is worth a look. Carry on along rue Joseph Piller towards the collège and you can break for your first coffee opposite the cantonal library in Marcello’s.

Marcello's is on the edge of the charming Quartier d'Alt
Marcello’s is on the edge of the charming Quartier d’Alt

Afterwards you can go up the steps of the college and wander around the grounds of what used to be a Jesuit seminary and is now a pre-university college, taking in a visit to the church of St Michel.

The college is at one of the highest points of the town, which descends, quite steeply in places, to the Sarine River. There is a wonderful view of Fribourg from the terrace at the back of the college. From there you can take the old covered steps, Escaliers du Collège, down to the narrow shopping street rue de Lausanne.

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Rue de Lausanne with its quirky boutiques and townhouses leads down to the Bourg area. Don’t forget to look up to see the stone carvings and decorative windows at first floor level.

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Now you arrive at the Hotel de Ville and cantonal court around the large open space of Place de L’Hotel de Ville where, if it’s a Saturday morning, the weekly market will be taking place. Grand Rue comes next, a narrow 17th to 18th century street which is completely unchanged, and used to be the town’s best address in its heyday.

Here you are faced with a couple of choices. You can loop around by the cathedral and back to the cafe des Arcades for more refreshments before visiting the mini gallery quarter which includes the Tinguely museum, the Museum of Art and History (lovely garden) and the small Gutenberg printing press museum. Two more heavy duty churches – the Basilique Notre Dame and the Église des Cordeliers – provide shade and tranquility on this part of the tour.

The garden of the Museum of Art and History
The garden of the Museum of Art and History

Or you can do down to the river. On this walk you’ve been gradually descending through the centuries and altitude towards the legendary Old Town – Basse Ville or Unterstadt. From this Hotel de Ville level there are at least three ways to get down – by taking the fairytale-like Stalden steps which begin at the end of Grand Rue, the more workaday steps from the Pont de Zaehringen (check out the view of the new Poya bridge) which gives you an opportunity to cross the Sarine River at the foot of the steps and enter the walled part of the Old Town through the impressive Bern gate.

Pont de Berne, close to the Bern gate and city walls
Pont de Berne, close to the Bern gate and city walls

Fribourg is a little confusing and the river doesn’t help for orientation because it keeps changing sides. That’s because the town is built on a sharp turn in the river which creates a river peninsula. The third way to reach the Old Town is from the other side of the Hotel de Ville, towards the rue de la Grande Fontaine where you will find more pretty steps.

What makes these routes even more interesting is that all these streets are lived in and many of the houses have been kept in excellent condition. You will see people bringing their shopping home, tending to their balcony plants or sitting on their front steps.

There is a bus that carries passengers up from the Old Town to the train station – the number 4. An alternative to the bus or the climb is the funicular railway which starts at the bottom of rue de la Grande Fontaine and leads to Place Python, which is also where the Wednesday farmers market takes place.

If you like what you’ve seen on this walking tour, here are some suggestions of other places to see from Fribourg Tourism, where you will also find information on the festivals and events on this summer.Wishing you all safe and happy travels.

(all photos taken 30.06.2015 © Clare O’Dea)

Walking past the point of no return

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I walked all day, more than I ever have before or ever will again. Up steep forest paths, along by babbling brooks, across fields of barley, through farmyards and back and forth over a railway line, I walked and walked as far as my legs could carry me. And then I stopped, defeated.

I had reached the outskirts of Bern and I had two pressing problems – my feet. You see, the walk didn’t exactly go according to plan. The plan was that I would walk from my home in Fribourg to my old place of work in Bern – a distance of 40 kilometres – over two days.

The first half of the walk would take me Schwarzenburg, covering part of St Jakob’s Weg, the pilgrimage route that leads from Konstanz across Switzerland and France to Santiago de Compostela. I left home at 9.30 in the morning, having delayed as long as I possibly could when I was hit by last minute nerves.

Five hours and eighteen kilometres later I was sitting in a bar in Schwarzenburg, sipping a beer and studying the map. I felt well, the pains in my legs and feet were tolerable, and it was clearly too soon to stop. But could I do the same distance again to reach my final destination? I had to give it a shot.

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Walking alone over a long distance is a great way of being present in the moment. The senses take over, the awareness of your own body going about its quiet work of being alive. You look at the ground, you look at everything alive and growing, you look at the horizon. The landscape is gracious, letting you pass – at times opening up far and wide, all rolling hills, woods and meadows; at times closing in to usher you through corridors of stone or dark tunnels of green.

It was a windy day, an east wind with a cold bite known as the ‘bise’ in this part of the world. I ate my lunch in a sheltered spot at the edge of a wood near Heitenried and watched the wild wind rushing across fields of barley. I was thankful for the sun which kept up a regular appearance all day.

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An hour and a half after Schwarzenburg, I stopped for a break at an old restaurant beside the bridge and railway station of Schwarzwasserbrücke. According to the hiking signs that I had come to depend on, I had two and a half hours to go. When I stood up my legs were so stiff and sore I half-waddled, half-hobbled out of the place. I felt a pain on the sole of my foot that made me unwilling to take my boot off. The ankle on the other side was already a problem area. I pressed on and the aches faded for a while.

Over the next two hours I crossed some of the loveliest country, farmed in peace for generations. That is the ultimate prize every country should be so fortunate to have.

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I had my route printed out on ten sheets of A4 paper. On map eight I was still enjoying the view but by map nine I didn’t want to look up anymore to see how painfully slowly I was approaching the next village. The turning point was Niederscherli.

There’s a wonderful approach to the village across a wide area of pasturage called Rifishalte. That part I appreciated. Also the two sweet boys on skateboards who helped me get on the right road out of Niederscherli towards Gasel. But that interruption cost me. A small eternity of twenty minutes later, I limped past Gasel and set my sights on Schliern, every step a trial. I will not forget these places.

There was no possibility of me walking another hour or more across the city of Bern to get to my original destination of Ostring. In Schliern I saw a smartly-dressed old woman going in to a restaurant, every inch the widow. I longed to follow her. It was seven o’clock on Saturday night and I had walked well over thirty kilometres since morning. I turned a corner and saw a bus, a Bern city bus sitting at its terminus, a most welcome sight.

That’s where my walk ended. The bus was due to leave in three minutes. I bought a ticket from the machine, the best two francs I’ve ever spent, and allowed myself to be carried in total luxury four stops to Köniz. All that was left to do was to call my trusty driver to come and get me, and sit content and patient in the last of the sun. I was ready to go home.

I’m going to walk my commute

The road less travelled © Clare O'Dea
The road less travelled © Clare O’Dea

It’s almost exactly 40 kilometres, or 25 miles if you prefer, and I’ve decided I’m going to walk it. I should say I’m not much of a walker. And yet I love it every time I go walking.

Yesterday evening I took a walk to the next village. It took just under an hour. Not a big deal, except it was the first time I had covered that short distance on foot. I probably do that five-minute drive to the local shopping centre three times a week, always in a rush. Never did I expect to become so car dependent.

This time I took the lanes that you don’t see from the road, the natural pathways from farm to farm, through woodland and meadows, fields of rapeseed in bloom. In was delightful, in the true sense of the word. That perfect fifty-minute stroll along country lanes with the sun going down over my right shoulder gave me an idea. Or it reawakened an old idea.

I’m going to walk my commute. It’s not my commute any more but it was for the best part of ten years until two months ago. I worked at the international news service of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation. The office is in Ostring, on the far side of Bern from Fribourg, where I live. Because it takes twice as long to get there by public transport, I drove to work, most of the way along the highway at 120km per hour. I got to know that route so well but I don’t know the country at all.

A lot of my life is governed by routine. That’s a good thing with children but it’s important too to have days out of the ordinary. My first proper self-employed project is starting next month. Meanwhile I’m getting tantalizing crumbs of hope for my first novel from submissions to agents, but I’d rather not sit around waiting for emails.

A walk like this will be good for body and mind; this specific walk even more so. I’d like to be able to say I walked it once, that I really know the way. Technically you could do it in a day but I think I’ll give myself two days. There’s no time like the present so let’s say I have until the end of this month to start and finish the challenge. I’m using the word challenge loosely here because it’s a beautiful time of year and, although the view has been a bit of a blur until now, a beautiful route too.

This blog has a small following, mostly self-employed people or writers who probably don’t have a commute. But I’m still hoping one of you might have a yearning to do something similar and join me in spirit. Any takers? If you do embark on a special walk, why not send me a photo at the address on the Contact page and I’ll include a mention in my next blog post.

Let me know if you have done something similar, or would consider it, or just like the idea. I’m off to buy hiking boots!