Fribourg Stories and Tips

Wandering through Fribourg

The Samson Fountain Photo, Fribourg, Switzerland

Our ten-day sojourn in Switzerland was from a base at Lausanne, where we stayed with relatives. Some research into towns, cities and other interesting places in close proximity to Lausanne revealed Fribourg (pronounced somewhat like `free-boorg’ if you’re speaking French, but ‘fry-buhrg’ if you’re speaking German; the equivalent spelling in German is Freiburg). Fribourg/Freiburg forms the bridge between French-speaking Switzerland and German-speaking Switzerland, a sort of Helvetian Alsace, with street names and monuments, labels and instructions spelt out in both languages.

Two train trips between Lausanne and Bern showed us just how easy it was to get to Fribourg: every Lausanne-Bern train stops at this town, which is approximately halfway between Lausanne and Bern. So, on our second day in Bern—a very brief trip, since all we’d gone to see was the Kunstmuseum—we stopped by at Fribourg on our way back. Right next to the railway station is the Tourist Information Office, so we nipped in for a map of the city, and then we were off.

Fribourg lies in a bend of the River Sarine and was founded by Berchtold IV of Zähringen in 1157 (Berchtold’s son and successor, Berchtold V, was the founder of Bern). The city’s name was derived from the German ‘frei’ (free) and ‘burg’ (fort), though its status as a Free Imperial City came about only over three centuries later, in 1478. Till then, Freiburg was controlled by a succession of different powers, ranging from the house of Zähringen to the Hapsburgs, the Bernese, and the Savoyards. In 1481, the city finally became a part of the Swiss Confederation.

From the Place de la Gare, we headed off down Rue de Romont, which leads to the Old Town of Fribourg—built, as so many of Switzerland’s medieval towns are—on a hill. This one, dominated by the Cathédrale St Nicholas, nestles in the curve of a sort of J formed by the Sarine. As the crow flies, the Old Town isn’t very far from the railway station; it’s just that from the Place de la Gare to the Old Town, it’s uphill for much of the way. But it’s picturesque too, all cobbled streets and lovely old buildings, so we didn’t complain—and there were occasional fountains and statues (Fribourg, according to our guide book, has twelve fountains; not as well-known or as spectacular as Bern’s, but worth looking for anyway).

We, intent as we were on finding the cathedral, missed seeing what is perhaps Fribourg’s most famous statue, that of Swiss artist Jean Tinguely. A short walk down Rue Pierre Kaelin would have brought us to the Fontaine Jean-Tinguely, but we overlooked this and plodded on, past Place Georges Python (Georges Python was a local businessman, best known for having founded Fribourg University in 1889), and on to Rue de Lausanne.

Rue de Lausanne is a good old-fashioned Swiss street: cobbled, lined with picturesque houses, and steep enough to get someone as unfit as me hot, bothered and out of breath. The fact that it was afternoon on an especially hot day didn’t help much—but there was salvation round the corner: not just does the Rue de Lausanne eventually dip down into the Place de Nova Friburgo, the spot is also marked by a very good gelateria! For CHF4 for a generous scoop (with a wide variety of awesome flavours available, including melon, which I chose), this is good value for money. Not surprisingly, just about everybody we passed was slurping at a gelato.

A leisurely saunter across Place de Nova Friburgo, on to the Place d’ Hôtel de Ville, and we reached the first of the sights on our tour: the Hôtel de Ville, or the Rathaus. This is one of those stately stone buildings that look like they were made for grand processions: the double staircase, two flights of steps leading up to meet in a landing in the middle, is very similar in basic style to the Rathaus in Bern. Tourists aren’t allowed in, but even standing outside and admiring the edifice was enough for us. The little square in front is home to one of Fribourg’s many fountains, this one being that of St George and the Dragon. The saint’s on horseback, and all three—St George, the horse and the dragon—are of marble. The statue was the work of a Hans Geiler, but the rest of the fountain (the limestone basin, and the twisted column topped by a complicated capital, both of stone from Neuchâtel) are the works of other craftsmen. The Fontaine de St-Georges, or the Brunnen des hl. Georg, as it’s known, dates back to 1525. The Rathaus itself had been completed in 1522.

Walking on, we soon found another of Fribourg’s famed fountains: the Fontaine de Samson or the Simson-Brunnen, the Fountain of Samson, dating back to 1547. This one’s of deep golden Jura stone and stands atop a gilded column: Samson, looking thoroughly nonchalant as he pulls the jaws of a complacent-looking lion apart. With pretty blue flowers blooming all around the periphery of the fountain, the Simson-Brunnen somehow lacked the majesty of St George.

Beyond the Simson-Brunnen, we came to the first of a trio of great churches. This was the Cathédrale St Nicholas, all carved stone, soaring tower, impressive paintings and superb stained glass. Beyond it was the relatively disappointing Basilique Nôtre Dame, which was a let-down, since most of the dimly-lit interior was shrouded in tarpaulins awaiting restoration. The third church, the airy and beautiful l’Eglise des Cordeliers, restored our faith in Fribourg’s churches, though: it was very pretty on the inside.

So we had a surfeit of churches (and we hadn’t included the Convent of the Visitation, the Capuchin Convent, the Capuchin Monastery, the Augustinian Monastery, the Church and Headquarters of the Knights St John Hospitaller and sundry other churches, monasteries and religious establishments simply because we only had this one afternoon in Fribourg and didn’t have the time to go too far afield). But, just in case we still hadn’t had our fill of religious art, the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire next to l’Eglise des Cordeliers provided a substantial glimpse of religious sculpture and painting from Fribourg, beginning at about the 12th century. The museum’s a good one, with an especially fine collection of stained glass (and a ghoulish relic labelled St Prosper—a skeleton draped in gold and silver laces, buttons and tinsel, lying on its side). Personally, I would’ve traded St Prosper for the time and the opportunity to visit some of Fribourg’s other museums, such as the Swiss Sewing Machine Museum (Musée Suisse de la Machine à Coudre) or, what sounded even more interesting, the Swiss Museum of Puppets (Musée Suisse de la Marionette). Tarun, of course, would probably have voted for the Cardinal Beer Museum (Musée de la Bière Cardinal).

But we were short on time, and so had to wend our way back, past the cathedral. We walked up the interesting little alley called the Street of the Faithful Wife and the Model Husband (a metal arch, topped with painted metal cutouts of this exemplary couple, stretches across the alley), and past the Hôtel de Ville. Ten minutes later, we were at the railway station, ready to board our train back to Lausanne.

The next time I’m in the vicinity, Fribourg’s going to merit more than just a day trip. I have to see all those churches. And the museums, and convents, and monasteries. And did I mention the gates and towers that form part of old Fribourg’s fortifications, across the Sarine? Those too—and the bridges. And the rest of the fountains and statues. Including Jean Tinguely’s.

Don’t let Fribourg’s diminutive size fool you. This city has much more to offer than just a couple of hours’ loitering, as we discovered to our regret.

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