Discovering the delights of Fribourg

wpid-20150630_132123.jpg

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.

wpid-20150630_125947.jpg

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.

wpid-20150630_125553.jpg

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)

The ultimate Italian tourist trap

Pisa, July 2013
Pisa, July 2013

We know birds fly south for the winter but northern Europeans have a different migratory pattern – they drive south for the summer. Amazingly, the Mediterranean region is the world’s most popular holiday destination: it attracts some 120 million visitors from northern Europe each year, the largest international flow of tourists on the globe.

The obvious thing for a Swiss-based family to do is to join the hordes of continentals on the journey south. So imagine you are driving past the city of Pisa. You’ve never seen the famous Leaning Tower. Who knows when you will have another opportunity to do so? (OK, maybe next year but that’s a whole year away).

The temperature is a sweltering 35 degrees (95° F) and it’s the middle of the day. You’ve no GPS because you like to think there’s nothing wrong with old fashioned maps. On an impulse you take the Pisa exit, a random Pisa exit because without GPS or a map of Pisa, you don’t know which is the right one.

After a short while driving through suburbs you spot the sign for Torre Pendente – two new Italian words that can only mean one thing! You keep driving to get as close as possible, the signs disappear from time to time but you persevere and make it to within spitting distance of the tower. You know you must be close because African hawkers are waving you into a parking space in the impossibly narrow streets of the old town.

You spill out of the car and hastily cover the dazed children with lashings of sun cream. They’ve never experienced such high temperatures but are suddenly alert enough to want to buy thread bracelets from the African parking attendant.

Three bracelets later, you set off on the five minute walk to the tower. You know all about the tower, it’s old, Italian and it leans. But then you round the corner and see it for the first time and it is still a wonderful surprise. You can’t help but gasp at the sight. The 800-year-old bell tower is beautiful. Scrubbed clean, the white marble gleams like new.

You have to laugh. The huge open space is filled with every nationality under the sun, taking photos of the tower. You could fill Noah’s Ark from this crowd and repopulate the world. People are stretching out their arms in an odd leaning pose. In their photos they will appear to be supporting the tower. The atmosphere is one of delight. People are hot, a little stressed but happy.

You know you’re not going to forget the moment. You realise it’s one of those things that you have to see for yourself. Last week I wrote in slightly disparaging terms about the Jungfrau railway, the ultimate Swiss tourist trap. But I think I get it now. Some sightseeing trips are worth the effort.

Have you been anywhere interesting this summer? Got any good tourist trap anecdotes or tips to share?

The ultimate Swiss tourist trap

Luckily there's no railway to the Grand Combin glacier
Luckily there’s no railway to the Grand Combin glacier near Verbier

In the summer of 1868, three years before the Rigi railway at Lake Lucerne was completed, an English noblewoman travelling incognito made an excursion to Mount Rigi. The stout 49-year-old woman had a lot of work and family troubles on her mind as she was carried up the mountain in a sedan chair. But this lady was no ordinary tourist. She happened to be the most powerful woman in the world, with the job title Monarch of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Queen Victoria visited at the beginning of the mountain railway boom. Entrepreneurs were snapping up railway concessions all over the Alps and rushing to complete the first, the highest, the steepest railway lines to make a killing in the lucrative new tourist market.

It is a staggering fact that two thirds of Switzerland’s land surface is taken up by mountains. Small communities had always eked out an existence on the lower slopes but the great peaks were out of bounds, known only from a distance. It was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that the Alps began to be seen as an amenity, first for hikers and climbers and later for less adventurous visitors who could be transported up to dizzying heights in their Sunday best.

Not everyone agreed that laying tracks and blasting tunnels in the Alps for tourists was a worthwhile pursuit, as I discovered when researching article for swissinfo.ch about the centenary of the Jungfrau railway last year.

“We regret that so many mountain lines have already been built, which only benefit a small number of people economically, while from the ethical point of view they are not only useless but even harmful,” the Swiss League for the Defence of Natural Beauty and the Swiss Heritage Society wrote in a petition to the government calling for a more prudent granting of railway concessions.

In its first full year in operation, 1913, the Jungfraujoch station – Europe’s highest train station – on the shoulder of the Jungfrau mountain in the Bernese Oberland attracted 42,880 tourists; last year 833,000 people, myself included, made the unique rail trek to “The Top of Europe”.

The return trip from Interlaken to Jungfraujoch (3,454 metres above sea level) is about an hour and a half each way, with two train changes. If ever I had the feeling of being herded, it was on that day. I joined the multitudes of Indian, Chinese, American, European and Arab tourists being efficiently ushered from one train to the next by smartly-dressed guides. After leaving Kleine Scheidegg for the final leg of the journey there were more stops inside the tunnel at the viewing windows cut into the rock face.

I arrived at the top around lunchtime to join throngs of people wandering around through a maze of tunnels or milling about in front of the different eateries (including what must be the most expensive Indian buffet in mainland Europe). I could see the magnificent Aletsch glacier for a few minutes before everything was obscured by cloud.

Here’s the report I wrote for swissinfo.ch about the centenary.

The 200-franc day trip which is billed as the ultimate Swiss tourist experience seemed to me to be rather overpriced, overhyped and exhausting. Within minutes of boarding the return train, everyone on board promptly fell asleep, wiped out by the altitude and possibly the stress of being herded around all day.

Here’s a little secret. Switzerland is full of mountains and easy ways of getting up them and while I’m not saying they all look the same, there are spectacular views to be seen from almost anywhere, even the top of the smallest, most humble 12-franc chair lift.

It’s holiday time again. Have you got any tourist trap stories to share?

This fork sculpture at Vevey, Lake Geneva is a bit of fun
This fork sculpture at Vevey, Lake Geneva is a bit of fun