AS we walked down the stone pathway from the Castle Gruyeres we were treated to an impromptu concert: Cowbells of the black and white herds grazing in the surrounding meadows clanged in a gentle cacophony that was, without question, music to our ears.
Such delightfully bucolic sounds are a matter of course in the tiny, ridgetop village of Gruyeres. Cows, the same ones that supply milk for the famous Gruyere cheese, are the principal residents of the brilliantly green, flower-studded hills.
Their presence is one reason that the journey up to Gruyeres is as pleasant as the visit to the village itself. Farmland here in the primarily French-speaking canton of Fribourg is among the least spoiled and most lushly beautiful to be encountered anywhere.
A good deal of the beauty can, of course, be attributed to the typical Alpine scenery of towering mountains, rolling meadowland, and what surely must be the most contented farm animals in the world. But other aspects of this beauty are found in the region's architecture, which is typified by steep, overhanging orange tile roofs protecting tidy little stone farmhouses with planters of either pansies or geraniums in the windows.
Along the roadside leading up to Gruyeres are cans of milk deposited by local farmers to be collected by the local cheese dairy. The milk cans are a clue to what should be included in any visit to Gruyeres -- a stop at the fromagerie, or dairy, lying just below the hairpin turns to the village.
Inside the modern, immaculate cheese dairy one can take a guided tour of the cheesemaking process or pick up an explanatory leaflet and observe the operation at leisure. Huge glass windows on the floor above where the cheese is made enable visitors to peer down on the activity below.
Local farmers contribute well over 6,000 gallons of milk to the dairy each day, not an excessive amount as it requires roughly three gallons of milk to make just two pounds of Gruyere cheese. Visitors watch the milk as it goes through its journey through various filters into a huge oval copper vat where it is stirred, heated, and mixed with rennet.
After the curdled mass is broken up and separated, it is poured into large, round pressing molds which will yield cheese loaves weighing over 70 pounds each. The fresh loaves are then pressed for 20 hours before being stacked in racks and immersed in a salt bath for two days. Finally, the huge, golden rounds are placed on shelves to mature under carefully regulated conditions. It is in this stage that the Gruyere cheese develops its distinctive holes and aroma.
If one's appetite is whetted by all of this, there is not far to go to taste the final product. Across a small patio the dairy maintains a cafe where visitors can buy cheese and sample squares of it brought around by waitresses bearing wooden trays. The cafe also serves delectable meringues accompanied by strawberries and thick, yellow double cream.
Cars and buses clearly have no place in this village, which is little more than a single narrow street lined with Gothic and Renaissance houses leading up to the castle crowning its highest point. Elaborate iron trade signs hang outside several venerable inns. Of particular note is the gilt-edged wild crane that advertises the Hotel de Ville, the bird symbol used by the early Gruyeres nobility in the family crest.
In the center of the street is a charming, flower-decked fountain, a good place to stop to study the interesting variety of windows up and down the street. Some of the prettiest Gothic windows adorn the gray stone house once inhabited by Chalamala, the court jester to the counts of Gruyeres in the 14th century.
It was these medieval counts who had the most magnificent residence in town -- the turreted, tile-roofed castle itself. Built by Peter II of Savoy in the 13 th century, it was occupied by the counts of Gruyeres until the last one, Michel , went bankrupt and was stripped of his power in 1554. From that year until 1938 it became the domain of Fribourg and Bernese bailiffs.
Fortunately for visitors, it is now a public monument charging a small admission fee to wander at leisure through its stone courtyards, Gothic dungeons , and period rooms.
One of the castle's oldest and most charming features is the tiny Gothic chapel in the outer courtyard. The inner walls of the small stone edifice are decorated with yellow, burnt orange, and blue frescoes, discovered during a recent renovation.
On the ground floor, once the domain of guards and servants, are a series of stone rooms that illustrate military and domestic life during the Middle Ages. The two kitchens, one with a fireplace large enough to roast an entire ox and the other with the most advanced of 17th-century ovens, testify that the household was probably well fed.
Treasures are displayed in the rooms on the second floor, which is reached by climbing a winding set of stone steps worn over the centuries to their current state of unevenness. In one room are display cases of the splendid Burgundian capes that the counts of Gruyeres took as booty during the Battle of Morat in 1476. On a background of deep blue, emblems of the Golden Fleece are embroidered in vibrant threads of red, white, and gold.
The third floor reflects the sumptuous tastes of the bailiff families who made it their private quarters during the 18th and 19th centuries. Most noteworthy is the Knight's Room, a long banquet hall with massive stone fireplaces, carved ceiling beams, and paneling. Its chief interest lies, however , in a series of vivid wall paintings, each depicting a historical legend of Gruyeres.
After further exploration of both castle and village, visitors can bed down right within the village ramparts. The St. George, Hotel de Ville, and the Fleur de Lys are small hotels quite in keeping with the special medieval aura of Gruyeres. Besides being convenient, they are an irresistible invitation to awake to cowbells rather than to alarms.
Practical information: My particular visit to Gruyeres was part of a delightful motor-coach tour through Switzerland provided by a London-based company called Globus-Gateway. Many idyllic Alpine spots such as Gruyeres are included either in a 10-day tour of Switzerland or a 16-day tour of Austria, Switzerland, and the Italian Dolomites.
The land cost of the 10-day tour ranges from $398 to $438, and the 16-day tour $678 to $718. The cost includes two meals each day, transportation to and from the airport, guide service, tips, motor coach transportation, and accommodations in first-class hotels. Both tours are offered from early May through October. Information on all Globus-Gateway tours is available from travel agents.
If you aren't on a tour, you can get to Gruyeres quite easily by train; it's about two hours from Geneva.