Rail route of the month: cheese, chocolate and a magical ride to the Swiss town of Gruyères

Rail route of the month: cheese, chocolate and a magical ride to the Swiss town of Gruyères

It was a handpainted sign on a wooden barn that piqued my interest in Gruyères. I was travelling from Emmental to Montreux last year, following the wonderful Golden Pass rail route. Our train paused at Montbovon, the start of a steep climb up to the line’s final dramatic mountain pass. There was the prospect of stunning views of Lake Geneva ahead. To the right of the railway, I spotted the bold sign: “La Gruyère vous salue” (the cheese lacks the village’s final “s”).

Swiss map, Montreux and around

With time to spare earlier this month, I returned to Montbovon to explore the branch railway that runs from there down the Sarine valley to Gruyères and beyond. This time I arrive on one of the new Golden Pass trains which now run through from Montreux to Interlaken, relying on some technical magic to slip from narrow-gauge to standard-gauge tracks along the way. The tourists in the posh prestige class are tucking into platters of charcuterie accompanied by Swiss wine. The climb up from Montreux is as magical as ever, twisting and turning up into the hills with Lake Geneva far below. Forty minutes out from Montreux, the train makes its first scheduled stop. This is Montbovon, a village that my old Baedeker guide advises is “noted for good cherry brandy”. I am the sole passenger alighting from the train, which after a brief stop is on its way again, now following the Sarine valley upstream towards Gstaad.

Montreux is the perfect starting point for our slow travel train journey exploring the hills in Fribourg Canton above Lac Léman. Photograph: Michal Ludwiczak/Alamy

Valley of La Sarine

On a side platform, another train awaits. It is a humble local service, with none of the flair of the Golden Pass train, which can be heard tooting its horn as it climbs up the ravine carved by the Sarine River. The local train is signed for Palézieux via Gruyères. Soon we are on our way and within a minute rattling right down the main street of Montbovon, passing the dairy and the baker to our left.

The local train to Palézieux waits to depart from Montbovon. Photograph: Hidden Europe

So perhaps this isn’t a train at all! Is it really a tram that masquerades as a train while waiting by platform 3 at Montbovon station? It is in fact a hybrid, sometimes running alongside roads, but elsewhere looping through forests and skirting chasms and gorges. These hills are the Prealps, a series of folded ranges that give real character to Switzerland’s Fribourg Canton. Not quite the real deal, you may think, but very special in their own way. The journey of 27 miles from Montbovon to Palézieux skirts the eastern, northern and then the western flank of Le Moléson, one of the most prominent peaks of the Fribourg Prealps. For Baedeker, Le Moléson was “the Rigi of western Switzerland,” an allusion to the mountain by Lake Lucerne that achieves no great height but affords stunning views of many Alpine ranges. You don’t need to climb to the summit of Le Moléson to appreciate the scenery. Even from the train there are remarkable views of distant, snow-covered peaks.

“People come for the landscape, but also for the cheese,” says a woman on the train who tells me she is travelling to visit a friend in hospital in Riaz. “But not on days like this,” she adds, alluding to the vagaries of weather on this early March day that has seen threatening clouds and hail showers.

The Sarine valley in the Fribourg Prealps. Photograph: Alex Schleif/Alamy

Dams control the river flow down the Sarine valley and we cruise along the edge of a reservoir with turquoise-blue waters. We pass the hydroelectric dam at Lessoc then pause at Albeuve where the pink station building has bright green shutters. Our train slips by meadows with plenty of cows and beehives. Then comes the announcement: “Prochain arrêt: Gruyères”.

Cheese and chocolate

I take the cue and alight from the train to discover that we are actually not in Gruyères at all, but in a community called Pringy. But the station name Gruyères pulls the crowds, even though very few of the cheese lovers who flock to Pringy ever visit Gruyères village itself, which is on a hilltop about a 20-minute walk away to the east.

La maison du Gruyère, just by the station in Pringy, has plastic cows on the roof while inside there are cheese-themed tours and tastings. For real devotees of all things Swiss, it’s even possible to buy a special Gruyère edition of Toblerone chocolate.

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A plastic cow welcomes visitors to La Maison du Gruyère, which offers cheese-themed tours and tastings. Photograph: David Taljat/Alamy

Back on the train towards Palézieux, the scenery gets better and better as we skirt the northern flank of Le Moléson, its steep, forested slopes rising up to the left of the railway. Now there are snow fences alongside more exposed sections of the track as the train traverses high pastures with old farmsteads dotted here and there across the landscape. The heavy clouds are clearing to give late afternoon sun, so I break my journey at the highest station on the line in the village of Semsales where a sign on the wooden station building proclaims that we are now at 858.1 metres above sea level.

With a couple of hours in Semsales, I hike up into the hills, gaining sufficient altitude to gaze across to the distant French Alps on the far side of Lac Léman away to the south. Closer to hand is the craggy summit of Le Moléson, its northern slopes still holding the last of the winter snow. I am chased down by gathering dusk, making haste back to the village to catch a train before night falls. From Semsales, it is just 20 minutes down to Palézieux, where our train arrives not in the main railway station but on a platform by the street outside. This being Switzerland, there is a fleet of waiting buses offering connections to surrounding villages. But I walk to the station and catch the local train down to Lausanne.

There are many wooden railway stations on this route. Semsales is the highest station on the line. Photograph: Hidden Europe

I loved this journey, and I would happily do the same again. It makes a perfect round trip for anyone staying in Lausanne or along the Montreux Riviera, travelling out from Montreux via Montbovon and then returning via Palézieux. Serene, pastoral landscapes with superb views of mountains make a winning combination.

The journey from Montbovon to Palézieux takes just 80 minutes. The full circuit from Lausanne or Montreux, out via Montbovon and back via Palézieux, takes three hours, but do allow time to stop off once or twice along the way. Trains run at least hourly on the entire circuit, with a half-hourly service on weekdays between Gruyères and Palézieux. The cheapest one-way fare from Montbovon to Palézieux is 17.40 Swiss francs (£15.75). Buy tickets at Montbovon before boarding. This ticket is valid for three hours, giving time for a short stopover along the way. A return ticket is 34.80 francs (£31.50), and is valid an entire day with unlimited stopovers, not merely on this route but on most public transport in Canton Fribourg. When exploring this line as part of a wider itinerary, an Interrail pass is often the best deal. Adult passes valid only in Switzerland are €165 for three days’ travel within a month, while a global passes valid for 33 countries is €283 for four travel days within a month.

Nicky Gardner lives in Berlin. She is co-author of Europe by Rail: the Definitive Guide (Hidden Europe, £18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy of the 17th edition from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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