After finally deciding to go to Gruyères for the night, we had to hurry to catch the last train that would take us up to the mountains. We took a train, and then a bus (because the train wasn't running between a couple of stops), and then a mini-train (only 2 cars long!) to Gruyères. From there, we took another 20-minute bus ride up the steep curving slopes around the mountain to Moléson-sur-Gruyères, located about 1,000 meters above sea level. The air was crisp and clean - that sounds trite but it was so true. Being so high up, and so far from the hustle and bustle and dirty turmoil of modern life, everything just felt fresher and more beautiful. The sweet clean air was rejuvenating with every deep inhalation.
Moléson is an adorable tiny (and I mean TINY) little town. There are a few chalets climbing up the slopes, a mini village square (complete with tourism office!), and, of course, a cheese shop, with signs directing you the whole way (you know, in case you get lost).
Before I go any further, I have to pause. This post has a soundtrack. While pictures of verdant mountainsides and misty sunset peaks might be evocative, to get the whole experience you have to hear the faint jingle of the cow bells, too.
The cows that give the milk to make gruyere cheese were ubiquitous on the slopes, and their bells jingled as they grazed on the sweet summer Alpage that will produce the best cheese. The postcard-perfect surroundings, the crisp air, and the gentle tinkle of the bells made this a magical place, so far removed from daily routine that it hardly seemed real. And we hadn't even reached our destination yet!
From Moléson, we still had a funiculaire and then a télépherique to ride - a funiculaire is an inclined railway with small cars riding up a steep slope, and a télépherique is a small car drawn up the mountainside on a cable. Here we are, half-way up, after getting off the funiculaire and before getting on the télépherique. The flat surface in the lower left is the roof of the building at the top of the funiculaire. You can see our destination poking out above the slope in the middle of the picture below:
Justine had visited this Observatoire (observatory) on top of the mountain earlier in the summer during a freak June snowstorm. We came tonight for a meteor shower, as the observatoire offered an unparalleled view of the stars. But before heading up, we paused to take in our surroundings. We had a stunning view of the surrounding countryside:
The houses in the valley are the village of Gruyères. You can see the track for the first funiculaire curving along the mountainside on the right. Here's a closer view:
After our quick photo break, we continued up the second funiculaire to the observatoire. The observatoire is a small building perched atop a peak about 2,100 meters above sea level. The ground floor is a restaurant; on the second floor there are a couple of large dorm rooms with bunk beds and a couple of bathrooms. Finally, a third floor is a small loft roofed with windows that affords a great view of the sky and surrounding area. We set our things on a couple of the beds right by the window in the dorm room, and then went out to explore our surroundings a little.
It was around 7:00 pm when we set out to start hiking. As we hiked along the crests between a few of the peaks, the clouds rolled over the mountains and enveloped us in their cool mists, and the sun began to sink lower towards the Western horizon. When the clouds cleared away a little, the view over the surrounding valleys and mountains was unbelievable.
I still can hardly believe I was really there.
The observatory is currently under construction; they are in the process of adding on to the existing structure. I think the cables that reached out across the vistas were there to secure equipment or the new structure.
And just in case you doubted me...
...here we are!
Between the peaks, there are thin paths etched into the crest. Sometimes, there are thin guardrails or fences, but most of the time it's just you and the mountainside. It's a long way down; but my oh my is it beautiful. Maybe that's what Justine was thinking about here:
We spent a couple of hours hiking along these paths; or, rather, a couple of hours out on the paths, though we weren't hiking the whole time - there were too many photos that needed to be taken!
In the image below, see the house built into the middle of the mountainside down there? I can hardly imagine living in such an isolated spot! And see those black dots in the lower right? Those are a herd of cattle, which provided the necessary quota of cowbell. Click on the picture for a larger view:
As the sun finally began to slip down to sleep amid the distant misty peaks, it kissed the skies goodnight and painted them in pale pastel watercolors, shrouding the lush valleys and serrated summits in an iridescent luminosity.
"Magical" doesn't seem adequate to describe the stunning, peaceful beauty of the evening. It was unlike anything I have ever experienced, before or after. What an evening!
And the only thing that could make it better was to share it with Justine. Without hyperbole, it was perfect.
Finally, maybe around 8:30, we decided it was time to head back to the observatory for some dinner. You can see the observatory on the left, and Justine waiting for me on the path as I dawdled my way back.
I may or may not have started singing The Hills are Alive on the way back. And the hills may or may not have sung with me, with songs they have sung for a thousand years. I felt like I had stepped into final scene of the Sound of the Music, when the von Trapp family climbs over the mountains from Austria to Switzerland, and in a way, making my own way through these Swiss Alpine peaks, maybe I had. My heart wanted to sing every song that it heard.
As we headed back, clouds began to descend upon the valley, veiling the sunset in their cool depths.
Okay fine, we really have to go back and have some dinner, but how can you walk away from this before drinking in every last drop???
After a couple of hours of hiking along the peaks, we were ready for a serious meal, and the observatoire did not disappoint. Our dinner was included in the price of staying for the night, and they offered a succulent buffet of barbecued meats: beef, veal, chicken, at least three kinds of sausage - one fat and white, one fat and brown, and one thinner brown sausage that tasted a little like an American breakfast sausage. The beef and veal were fantastic - they were prepared simply on the grill, and the fantastic quality of the beef was delicious. The sausages were all wonderful, too - perfect hearty mountain food. There was also bread and many salads and slaws - a green salad, a fennel slaw, a vinegary cucumber dish, a carrot slaw, and so many others. We drank a glass of pinot noir with dinner which was a little too astringent for my taste.
And what's a dinner without dessert? They had a cart of desserts that they rolled around that guests could choose from. Justine selected for us: a mousse au chocolat, a "tiramisu," and two meringues served with crème Chantilly.
The tiramisu seemed to be flavored with Grand Marnier rather than a coffee liqueur; it was a little strange. The mousse was rich and chocolatey. But the real star of dessert was the meringue. You see meringues for sale in small plastic sacks all over Switzerland and Eastern France. They are pleasingly crunchy on the outside, but airy and sweet on the inside. The cream was whipped but not sweetened and surprisingly light, with just a hint of dairy flavor. It provided a nice balance to the eggy sweetness of the meringue.
After dinner, at about 9:30, we went up to the dorm room to take a 30-minute nap before getting up to watch the meteor shower. We finally woke up again around midnight, and went up to the observation loft. Unfortunately, the clouds that were rolling in during our hike had settled in for the night around the mountaintops and blocked most of our view, but we did see a few shooting stars as we sat and talked till nearly 3:00 am, when we finally stumbled back down to bed and fell right to sleep.
We woke up around 8:30, and went downstairs for breakfast - a simple tartine, also included in the price of staying at the observatory for the night. I'm glad we took the opportunity to hike around the peaks the day before; today, the cloud cover was thicker and blocked much of the view of the surrounding countryside. I did manage to snap a few shots when it cleared up a little, though.
Finally around 11 am, we grabbed our bags and headed back down the télépherique and funiculaire. From the top of the mountain, we could see beyond some of the clouds into the valley below:
However, as we descended in the télépherique, we entered the clouds and were blanketed in a blinding misty whiteness. Here is a view of the cables that take the car up the mountain from the lower télépherique stop:
Since we didn't have anything to see from here today, we continued onto the funiculaire without stopping to admire anything the way we had the day before. We paused briefly to have a look in the cheese shop in Moléson, and then caught the bus back down to Gruyères to explore the village a little and get some lunch... But that is a story for another day.
All I can say is... if I could, I would go to the hills when my heart is lonely, and my heart would be blessed with the sound of cowbells, and I would sing once more. (Please excuse my propensity to quote lyrics from musicals at length; sometimes, you just can't say it any better than they already have!)
Coming soon: Gruyères and all the great things that come with it - that is to say, cattle and fondue.