We have come to regard Switzerland as an entertainment, and not as a nation, and its inhabitants as an entertainment committee instead of a people. True, no place on earth is so traveled by tourists, or so thoroughly organized in their interests. No other country takes its visitors so seriously or finds in their presence its chief source of revenue. And yet I have always felt that, hidden away somewhere, was a Switzerland, not of the tourist, but a Switzerland of the Swiss, where the people lived a life of daily, personal events into which the traveler did not enter. And in the summer of 1911 I found the place. Think of it! A town in Switzerland with neither carriage nor omnibus at the railway station, without a guide, without a hotel that is anything more than a pension; a town where the American is still a curiosity, and where the people live in their own olden way, doing the daily tasks of existence as they have done them for centuries; a town where old customs and old traditions are still an abiding force, and the ways of the outsider are still unknown and his influence unfelt. And such is the town of Gruyeres.
By years of contact with the people of every nation, the Swiss have become the most cosmopolitan race in Europe, and it is only here and there in a few isolated villages that can now be found a life that is different, and surroundings that are in harmony with the primitive needs of that life and of the country’s past. But Gruyeres is a town of and for the people, of the peasants. There are a few Germans and some French who go there, and English people go over from Interlaken for the day, but few Americans ever find it, and the town makes no attempt to attract or entertain the traveler. It is merely the home of a few hundred Switzers, and that is all.
The village gives its name to the valley, famous everywhere for its cheese, and this valley lies in the canton of Fribourg, and about a third of the way between Montreux on Lake Geneva and Interlaken.
The scenery is not typical of the tourist’s Switzerland; no glacier lays its cold hand upon the valley to check the growth of the great trees that shade the hurrying brooks; no snow-shrouded peaks are visible. The winds are mild, the skies and the sun are bright, the pastures are vivid with lush green grass, and the far reaches of the valley are set about with farmhouses and red-roofed villages. Stately mountains frame the picture on every side, some near and some only suggested through the blue spaces of the air, but their forms are all broken into picturesque irregularity, and the peaks of some tower far above the tree line, shafts of naked granite. Over the mountains, and through scenery that is charming, rather than awe-inspiring, runs an electric railroad that, by Gruyeres and Bulle, connects Montreux with Fribourg; while a branch to the east passes through a wilder land to the lake of Thun. It is only in the last three or four years that these electric lines have been put in operation, and while a handsome diner runs on several of the trains, and a frequent service is maintained, the route and the districts traversed yet remain an undiscovered Switzerland to the vast majority of visitors. In an article on Gruyeres published abroad in 1906 the author wonders why ” this earthly Paradise ” has failed to attract more attention, and Tissot speaks of this ” picturesque little feudal town forgotten by progress,” and calls its fortress ” the most beautiful old castle in Switzerland.”
You leave the train at a little station in the green fields where there is not even the remotest sign of a town. One or two boys are lounging on the platform, and as the train departs they vanish. Not a person is visible, nor a house-you are alone in the quiet of the mountains. A white road, however, clearly leads somewhere, and you recall that half a mile back there was a brief view from the car window of a rare old town on a hill, and so, with the thrill of joy of a real explorer, you set off alone along the winding way. At last a turn brings the old walled village into view, strung along on the edge of a narrow ridge of rock and splendidly backgrounded by two great mountain peaks. The first view suggests a smaller Rothenburg, an impression that is emphasized on closer approach by the gates, and by the construction of the walls, the gallery along the latter being almost identical with that found in the German city. Here, however, the walls have been allowed to crumble away at many points, and at no place can you walk upon them. The road climbs the hill and, through a gate once fortified, enters upon the one broad, short street, more market-place than street, where centers the life of the village. Here a fountain splashes water into a great stone basin where women are washing the family linen, and crowding closely but irregularly about are ancient buildings, with far projecting eaves, upon the fronts of many appearing dates centuries old.
As at Rothenburg, many of the windows are piled deep with flowers, and vines clamber over the doorways. At one end, where the street parts to right and left and one way seeks the castle and the other the lovely valley beyond the wall, stands a shrine, a life-sized Christ raised high upon the cross with a statue of Mary and of John on either hand. Beyond this lifts an irregular pile of red roofs, and at the right opens a vista closed by the castle tower. At one side of the square is a long stone, curiously hollowed into a number of bowl-like depressions. This is the standard measure for corn and grain. The seller fills the bowl corresponding in size to the amount required by his customer, who draws the plug from the sloping, funnel-like opening at the bottom, and the grain slides into his bag below.
In the doorways girls are embroidering, the fine linen drawn tightly over a circular frame, and as they work, they laugh and gossip. Boys come in from the forest and add the fagots on their backs to the great heaps of winter fuel piled high by the side of every house. The famous cattle are missing. As the snows begin to melt in the springtime the cattle are driven to pasture. At first this is close to the village, but as the ice recedes farther and farther up the mountainside, the cattle follow after, and now, for it is August, they are up on the great heights.
A rambling old building bearing the date of 1653 answers for the inn. The ceilings are wonderfully low, and the floors creak at every step. There are dark halls and little steps that lead down or up into unexpected places. In the dining-room is a queer-looking clock built into the wall and flush with it, so that the face stares out at you most curiously. I was the only man at luncheon. Around the long table were ten ancient dames, some frankly so, some protesting by their odd blond hair. By each plate was a thick little embroidered square, like the old-fashioned ” holders ” your grandmother used to make, and this, I afterward discovered, was where you were to put your bread, which was bestowed in chunks. In front of the oldest guest of all was a huge round loaf, which presently she seized upon and divided into as many parts as there were people at table. During this ceremony we all remained standing. After the bread was distributed, most of the women took a knife and scraped out their portion, discarding the hard, brown crust. The first course was a great platter of heaped-up mashed potatoes and sausages. After this the plates were removed, but we kept our knives and forks, and green stuff followed that looked like spinach, but wasn’t. Then came fruit and something that looked like pie. And when I paid my bill the waitress refused a tip!
I think that in the old times the town had but two entrances, the principal one leading into the market-place from the road that comes up from the station, and the one that, to the right of the shrine, goes down by the church and thence along a forest path to the valley on the other side the ridge. At present, however, there is a third way out to the world, at the end of the market-place opposite the shrine an opening having been in recent years cut through the old defenses. The road by the church and the forest path leads into one of the most exquisite bits of valley I have ever seen. Great mountains form the background, not snow-capped and somber, but irregular, picturesque peaks, some wooded to the very top, and others great obelisks of naked rock. Down through the midst a little river flows. Houses from picture-books; patches of dense forest; far white churches; everywhere silence, and sunshine and air that is good to breathe.
At ease under the shade of a tree, watching the picturesque line of wall, and the castle that shows its towers through the trees, walls and castle that so distinctly bring yesterday into today, one’s mind turns instinctively to speculation as to what that yesterday was like. What happened here ” In days of old when knights were bold, and barons held their sway “°?
The history of Switzerland is difficult to comprehend. Forgotten men move through its pages, and war’s alarms sound continually along the years. A labyrinth of detail overlays and obscures the events of real importance, and to estimate correctly the relative value of the thousand battles, the conflicts of ambitions and the feuds of States, is possible only to the trained historian. When the great empire of Charlemagne broke into its component parts early in the eight hundreds, Gruyeres became a separate State, ruled independently by its Count, whose successors maintained their court in the castle in the village for centuries. The little kingdom warred at times with its brother States, with Berne and Fribourg, and again its soldiers fought side by side with men from many cantons against a common enemy. Out from the years tradition brings the memory of brave deeds, of counts gallant and others weak and spendthrift, of names and acts, of battles and sieges that are elsewhere long forgotten.
No one seems to know when the castle was built, but there is a tradition of it that harks back to the first crusade. For days, away off in that far time, the little town and the province of which it was the capital, had felt the wild contagion of the religious fervor that Peter the Hermit had kindled. William I, then ruler of Gruyeres, yielding to the common impulse of the hour, called all his knights and vassals to meet upon a day within the great hall and courtyard of the castle, there to discuss the duty of Christian knights and gentlemen toward the warfare Christendom was declaring against the infidel. Now, the women viewed with disapproval the proposal that husband and sweetheart should leave them for the distant battlefields of Palestine; so they conspired together, (and, incidentally, kept the secret) and when all the knights and all the men-atarms, the horsemen and the bowmen were within the castle, the women shut the gates and barred them fast from without. Then these early suffragettes sent an ambassador, who laid down the law to the prisoned warriors that they would be kept within the castle until such time as they pledged knightly word to refrain forever from joining the present or any future crusade. But the ungallant men simply smashed open the door, and eventually they marched away, the Count’s banner bearing the words, ” We go; let him who can return.”
These women of Gruyeres appear to have always been a resourceful lot. Once when all the men were with the cattle on the mountains, or at war with their neighbors, and only the women and children remained within the town, the hostile army of Berne sat down before the walls. But the women did not despair. When night came on they gathered together several hundred goats and, fastening flaming torches between their horns, opened the gates and drove them down upon the enemy. Now, in those days witches still dwelt in the forest and goblins yet lived in the mountains, so when the Bernese saw this army of flaming demons charging their camp, they fled incontinently, and the town was saved.
A century and more passes, and legend becomes busy with the fame of a wild young ruler of Gruyeres, Count Antoine. Standing one evening on the terrace overlooking the valley, where now the visitor waits the opening of the castle doors, he saw a long procession of youths and maids dancing down the valley to the sound of a flute of singular sweetness. As the leaping figures came nearer and the flute notes reached him more plainly, a spell was laid upon him, and as in a trance he was drawn through the village gate and down the twilight way to the dusky valley and on under the stars, as mile after mile the dancers swept him forward into the dim, remote recesses of the mountains where lies the Land of Fay. Three days later he was found half-conscious by a distant roadside. What happened he would never say, but he drooped and pined within the walls of Gruyeres until one day they found him on the terrace dead, his face toward the valley as if listening for the magic flute; and his brother, who was a hard sort, reigned in his stead and raised the kingdom to great power and place. And to this day, though whether the custom relates to the old fable I cannot tell, when the harvest is over, and St. Martin’s summer is on the bare land, and the moon shines yellow through the autumn haze, there starts from Gruyeres a strange dance of the peasant boys and girls. Out from the red-topped gate, down from the old gray walls, the long procession dances. On and on through the long, long valley, and from every hamlet other couples come, and the dance goes on and on, and sometimes night finds hundreds of tired dancers far from home. They tell a tale that once upon a time this dance began on a Sunday with but seven in the line, and ended on a Tuesday, leagues away, with seven hundred dancers.
It was in the Fifteenth Century that the little State reached its most splendid period. In the great hall of the castle, around the long table that is still there, the Count and his knights held their court, and decided issues of peace and war, and life and death. Down below were the dungeons, at one side the torture chamber. But there is an ugly tale that at times the prisoner was trussed and brought in to fry within the vast fireplace of the hall, where even oxen can be roasted whole. While the Count passed on grave matters in the hall, in another room there was another court maintained, called the Court of Folly, presided over by the Count’s pet fool, a wise man named Gerard Chalamala. Here were planned the amusements for the week, the plays and entertainments that earned for the Count’s court the title of the Little Paris. The fool’s house still stands, and within are still to be read the maxims he painted on the walls. One reads, ” The content that comes with age and which we call the fruit of wisdom, is but the first decay of mind and body.” So I say Chalamala was a wise fool.
But there came an end to the Counts of Gruyeres. The gay court and its extravagant life exhausted the resources of the family and the people. Creditors clamored at the castle door, and the condition finally raised a scandal in the confederation. In 1554, Michael I, the then Count of Gruyeres, was declared a bankrupt and ordered dethroned. In vain he appealed to his people to pay his debts and take his property, that only he might live among them. The end had come. At public sale the estate was bid in by the cantons of Berne and Fribourg, and the independence of Gruyeres ceased forever. Gradually the castle fell to ruin, and not so many years ago the cantons determined to sell it to a contractor to demolish for building material. Then, fortunately, an artist, Daniel Bovy of Geneva, bought the property. Under his skillful and artistic direction its restoration was made complete. The ancient banners, torn by Saracen spears, were hung again in the hall. The queer little brass cannon that of old guarded the ivy-grown courtyard, were once more placed in position. Much of the old furniture was rescued from decay, and now occupies its old-time place. Answering his call, his fellow artists forsook their studios in Paris, and Corot, Baron and others have painted upon the panels of the walls of one of the private apartments the history of Gruyeres, in pictures vivid and strong as the deeds they depict. So modern luxury finds a home now in the old castle, but in the town itself nothing is changed, and the traveler enters there into the past of a brave and sturdy people, and upon a scene that for picturesqueness and beauty has no equal in the land of the Alps.