While in Geneva recently, my husband and I decided to take a day trip outside of the city in order to see a bit more of Switzerland. I found a tour to Gruyère that mentioned not only cheese but chocolate as well! And to make things even better, the tour also included a scenic train ride. These are all some of my favorite things, so I figured we really couldn’t go wrong here.
The tour was offered through Key Tours, though I booked through Viator, which is always my go-to source for finding tours when I travel. We met at 8:00 am at the bus station in Geneva, which was only about a 10-minute walk from our hotel. Our group was prompt and we boarded our minibus to head out for Lausanne, where we picked up a few more passengers.
Lausanne is about an hour’s drive from Geneva, and we couldn’t believe that we were traveling along the same lake for the entire trip. Lake Geneva, or Lac Léman as it’s actually called, is huge! The scenery between the two cities was just lovely, and Lausanne also looked like it would be a beautiful place to visit if you have some extra time in Switzerland.
Once we had the rest of our passengers on board, we started to work our way up the hills and mountains to the region of Gruyère, where would start our day. Our tour guide, Yolanda, was fantastic. She is from Geneva, and you could tell that she loves Geneva and Switzerland and that she enjoys teaching tourists like us about her city and country. For starters, she taught us that Gruyère is actually a region of Switzerland, and if you add an “s” at the end, you get the “village” of Gruyères instead. On this tour, we got to visit both the region AND the village!
Our first stop of the day was at a chocolate factory called Maison Cailler, which has been producing chocolate since the early 1800s (and which is now part of the global Nestlé organization). Prior to arriving, Yolanda explained that the reason chocolate and cheese in Switzerland is so delicious is actually because of the milk. And the milk is delicious because the cows are all grass-fed and get to roam through the mountains (probably singing “The Hills Are Alive” while doing so. Yes, I know, different country, but still!) Also, Swiss chocolate is almost always milk chocolate, specifically because they can combine cocoa with their delicious milk to yield a superior final product. And we were going to get to sample some of their famous milk chocolate ourselves to see whether it was, in fact, superior. (Swoon!)
The Cailler factory clearly gets a bit of traffic, and they had a whole timed-ticket system to usher through tour groups. The first part of our visit was an interactive tour, which included some history about the origin of chocolate, as well as the history of the Cailler factory itself. The tour was a little silly and dramatic at times, but its interactive nature made it far more interesting than simply reading placards throughout the factory.
Once you’re through the explanatory portion of the tour, you then get to see some of the current factory operations. The day we were there, they were making little chocolate treats that were the shape of Tootsie Rolls. We got to watch the chocolate go into the machine and get turned into long logs. Next, they were cut into individual sized pieces, coated with more chocolate and nuts, and then cooled and packaged. You can watch this all happening behind glass as you walk down a long hallway. And at the end, you get to sample one of the freshly packaged treats as well!
Next, you get a piece of chocolate and are guided through how to properly taste and appreciate chocolate’s qualities, including looking at whether it has a nice glossy sheen to it and listening to the sound it makes when you break it in half. The point of this is to prepare you for the UNLIMITED tasting at the end of the tour (thank you, Jesus!)
And they’re not kidding about the unlimited part. They had about a dozen different types of chocolate to sample, and we tried them all (some more than once, you know, just to make sure we could really form an appropriate opinion). By the end of our visit, I’m fairly certain we had eaten a couple thousand calories worth of chocolate, but everyone was happy and declared that Swiss chocolate was indeed some of the best chocolate, if not THE best chocolate, any of us had ever tasted. On our way out of the factory, we also got to watch a cooking class, where they were teaching people how to make chocolate treats at home. Sadly, we didn’t have time to participate, but it looked really fun!
The next stop of the day was to visit the Maison du Gruyère cheese factory. So, anytime you get Gruyère cheese, it’s coming from the region of Gruyère in Switzerland, as they were granted AOC status in 2001, making Gruyère officially a Swiss cheese. AOC means appellation d’origine contrôlée or as it’s now called, appellation d’origine protégée, which basically just means that any product labeled as AOP or AOC is all coming from one specific region. So, when you buy Gruyère cheese, you will know that it has come from Gruyère, Switzerland and nowhere else.
At the Maison du Gruyère, we were given headsets to listen to as we wandered around the cheese factory and learned about how the cheese is made. We were also given three different pieces of their cheese to sample, each a different age: 6 months, 8 months, and 10 months. The 6-months variety is the mildest, whereas the 10-months variety was saltier and stronger. Personally, I preferred the kick of the 10-months variety myself!
After we learned about Gruyère cheese, it was then time to work our way up the mountain a bit more to see where the cows go to graze in the summertime. Yolanda explained to us that in the spring, the farmers will all take their cows up the mountain so that they can enjoy cooler temperatures in the higher altitudes and find yummy grass and clover and all kinds of other fun stuff to eat.
It’s apparently quite the spectacle when they take their cows up the mountain. They all get big bells to wear around their necks and many even have flower crowns placed upon their heads for the journey uphill. Yolanda mentioned that if they do this tour in the spring or fall on the day they bring the cows up or down the mountain, the tour bus isn’t able to make the drive up the hill since the road is jam-packed with cows! And since the decision when to move the cows is based on the weather, they never know from one year to the next which day exactly the cows will be moved.
Fortunately for us, though, we were able to drive up the hill to an artisanal cheese-maker, the Fromagerie d’Alpage, which is in a 17th-century chalet. The view from this place is just gorgeous, and there are hiking trails, a funicular, go-karts, and a little roller coaster, as well as apartments and cottages for rent. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to try out any of the other activities up there because we had a busy schedule and we needed to get on to our next tasting: Swiss fondue!
We learned that fondue is traditionally made by the man of the house on Sundays in order to give the lady of the house a little break from cooking, so Yolanda picked a few gentlemen from our group to be the guest chefs for the day. Before the fondue, though, we had a little appetizer of dried meat…and cheese. Because when you’re about to eat cheese fondue, it’s necessary to have even more cheese beforehand…
After we finished our appetizer, our chefs got started. First, wine goes into the pot and once it starts boiling, you toss in a bit garlic. Then, they give you a startling amount of shredded cheese which you throw into the pot as well. Yolanda instructed our guest chefs that once the cheese was in the pot, they were only allowed to stir in a circle or a figure eight pattern and no other stirring direction was permitted. As we were getting close to dipping time, Yolanda told us to tear up our bread into smaller pieces and to pierce it through the crust side so that it would stay on the fondue skewer. When we all had our first piece of bread ready, it was time to dip in! And yummmmmm….so good! It truly was the best fondue I’ve ever had, and by the time we were done, we were all so full. But…our day wasn’t even close to being over!
Village of Gruyères
We all waddled back to the bus, full from our 5,000-calorie day of endless chocolate and cheese, and we started the drive to the village of Gruyères, which is a lovely little medieval village, complete with a castle built in the 13th century. Yolanda dropped us off and gave us an hour or so to wander.
We walked up to and around the castle but didn’t go in, as it was crowded and we didn’t have very much time. Instead, we moseyed back to visit the bar associated with the H.R. Giger museum in town. I didn’t know who H.R. Giger was, but Mike did. And you will know who he is, too, in a second when I tell you that he is the man behind the creepy design work in the movie, Alien, for which he received an Academy Award. He is also Swiss, so the location isn’t as random as it initially seemed to us. You can visit the museum to see his paintings and sculptures, or you can do what we did and have a beer in the bar, which is most certainly unlike any bar you’ll ever visit in your life.
Scenic Train Ride
And once we finished our beer it was already time to move on to the final activity on our trip, which was a short ride on the Golden Pass Panoramic Train. In the tour description, it wasn’t entirely clear where the train ride would take us, but as it turned out, we were treated to a 50-minute ride that first went up and then back down a mountain, passing through several tunnels along the way.
I have never been on a train that went up or down any hills as steep as this, so it was quite a treat! Also, the views of the lake and the mountains were just breathtaking. At the end of the ride, we arrived in the gorgeous lakefront town of Montreux, famous for its jazz festival and for being the place that inspired Deep Purple’s song “Smoke on the Water” after a casino caught fire there in the early ‘70s. Freddie Mercury also lived in Montreux and recorded his last album with Queen there.
Our bus driver met us at the train station in Montreux and soon after we were on our way back to Lausanne and then Geneva, exhausted and stuffed after our long day of touring and eating! We all took a bit of a nap on the way home, but I can say that this was one of the best day-tours that I’ve ever taken in all my travels. Though I wish we had more time at some of the stops, we didn’t feel like we stayed anywhere too long, which often seems to happen on these full-day tours. If you’re looking to do a lot in one day and enjoy stuffing your face in the process, check out this tour!
Have you already been to Gruyère yourself? If so, I’d love to hear if you’ve had a chance to visit any of the places mentioned above and whether you enjoyed the chocolate and cheese as much as we did!
In my next post, I’ll wrap up our Geneva trip with a list of my Top 5 Things to Do in Geneva. Stay tuned!