I am in the midst of a torrid affair. Two days ago, it was a hunk of young Brie in the park, yesterday, a deliciously mature Cheddar captivated my attention after dinner, and this afternoon at lunch, I was reduced to a blubbering mess when I encountered gooey raclette. So when my friend Irma Delacombaz suggests we spend my last day in Switzerland exploring the town of Gruyeres, famous for its namesake cheese, all I could summon was a soft sigh.
Three days later, Irma and I are walking through the La Maison du Gruyere cheese factory, nibbling on sticks of cheese, and straining to hear the audio tour, narrated by a cow named Cerise. “Me and my girlfriends have three stomachs,” she says chirpily, mooing every now and then, “which is just one of the reasons we’re superior to humans.” I roll my eyes at Irma, but despite the cheesy narration, the walkabout is actually quite interesting. Through large panes of glass, we see uniformed cheesemakers turning vats of creamy milk into hunks of sweet, slightly salty Gruyere. At an installation nearby, we sniff the scents of Alpine wild flowers, their floral notes conjuring images of grassy mountainsides, despite the fact that we are in a sterile factory. Meanwhile, a giggly Cerise explains that cheese made in summer is sweeter because the cows eat wild flowers every day. Alter the diet, and the flavour and richness of the milk changes. Cheesemaking, I realise, is a craft that takes generations to master.
With a bag full of cheese and little tubs of double cream (another local speciality), Irma and I set off to explore the rest of Gruyeres. The medieval town, set within the Swiss district of Gruyere, is perched on a hill at the foot of Moleson mountain. There is only one main street, and it is car-free, paved with cobblestones, and lined with traditional Swiss chalets that are now cafes serving pots of fondue. Every time we walk past an open door, we are hit by the rich fragrance of molten cheese. I presume we’re going to the medieval castle, but a 20-minute walk later, the castle still looms in the distance. Instead, we halt outside what appears to be a modest museum, near a sculpture of a very naked, very emaciated, and incredibly bizarre-looking lady alien. A discreet signboard to her right welcomes us to the Museum HR Giger.
At this point it occurs to me that I haven’t so much as googled Gruyeres before getting into Irma’s nifty little car. I imagined we’d visit the cheese factory, load up on wedges of Gruyere to take home, and maybe have a small picnic before I caught a train back to Zurich. I hadn’t considered that Gruyeres might have more to offer. Artisanal garden gnomes, perhaps—the Swiss are besotted with garden gnomes—but an entire museum dedicated to the fantastic artworks of H.R. Giger? Famous for creating the extraterrestrials for the movie Alien (1979), the Swiss artist is also worshipped in the sci-fi world for his surreal art which features creatures that are part-human, part-machine, and entirely unsettling. This museum is the largest repository of his works in the world. We walk through a charcoal-coloured room, dimly lit and lined with canvases, acclimatising ourselves to the dark, menacing womb of Giger’s imagination.
From the walls, hermaphrodite beings with spiralling horns and metallic tentacles seem to examine us. We see a row of disfigured babies that appear to be melting, and a painting of a magnificent battle sequence between extraterrestrial tanks and armoured soldiers. Most figures have the disproportionately oblong skulls we’ve come to associate with alien life forms, thanks to Giger and Hollywood. The artworks are explicit and deeply sexual in nature, but they’re also mesmerising. In another room with blood-red walls, I see paintings of female warriors being inseminated in ways that make my thighs clench. Giger’s depiction of the feminine seems particularly twisted, yet these beings do not seem subordinate, but fierce and powerful; willing participants in their subjugation. It makes me question my understanding of pleasure and pain, my opinions of right and wrong, and the thin line between fascination and revulsion. Irma wiggles her eyebrows at me and laughs: This is more than I ever expected of Gruyeres.
When we exit the museum, the sun seems too bright, the chalets too perfect A silly part of me wants to shake the obliviously happy tourists by their shoulders, so they know how rattled I feel. It’s the same urge I have when I finish a gut-wrenching book, and look up to see the world is still the same. “After that,” Irma says patting me on the back, “I think you need something a little calming, no?” She hands me apiece of chocolate. Sharing a boundary wall with the museum is another of Gruyeres’ better-kept secrets: the Tibet Museum, which houses over 300 Buddhist artefacts. Most of the pieces belong to a gentleman named Alain Bordier, a voracious traveller who acquired them in Tibet, Nepal, Myanmar, Kashmir, and northeast India Like a really exquisite souvenir collection, I think. Some of us bring back turquoise pendants from Ladakh, and some, priceless 15th-century thangka paintings.
The corridors are filled with forest sounds and piped music. Glass cases on either side contain bronze and brass sculptures of demons, yoginis, and avatars of the Buddha. Some are small enough to fit in the palm of my hand; others, larger than life. It takes me back to Leh, Spiti, Sikkim, Bir, Bylakuppe: all the Buddhist colonies I have visited back home in India. A familiar glimmer of Buddhist sanctity reverberates through this space. As if a building dedicated to Buddha weren’t odd enough in an Alpine town, the Tibet Museum is located in the renovated Christian chapel of St. Joseph.
The main chamber is particularly breathtaking, with its gleaming wooden floors, deep purple walls, and magnificent stained-glass panels of Jesus and Mary. Instead of church pews, there are tantric Buddhist figurines wrapped around each other, rich thangka paintings, and meditating Buddhas, deep in contemplation. Examining the thangkas, I’m suddenly overcome with fondness for Gruyeres. It looks like a cookie-cutter Swiss settlement, with its perfectly trimmed flower hedges and fondue chalets, but it’s actually a rather feisty and odd little town.
By the time we leave the museum it’s nearly sundown, so we skip the tour of the medieval castle of Chateau de Gruyeres, and take a leisurely walk instead. The tourist crowds have thinned, the temperature has dropped, and all I can hear is the crunch of snow underfoot and the occasional chirrup of birds. Irma finds a quiet spot near the Tibet Museum with a view of a church, a charming old cemetery, and the mountains. There we finally have the picnic of my imagination. With a spread of cheese, Swiss chocolate, and double cream, Irma and I spend the rest of the evening dissecting Giger, Guru Padmasambhava, and the flavours that make Gruyeres so addictive.