8.  Advent Calendar City

At this point I have to state upfront that even if I knew the name of the hotel where I stayed for the next two nights I probably wouldn’t record it here: as a hotel it was just fine, and not terribly expensive (and again I paid cash for the room, with no paperwork—TWICE in Switzerland? what’s up with that?), and it was listed as a cheap option in the Rough Guide, but it was above a somewhat unfortunate restaurant run by the same crew (possibly family) and I’d prefer to give a positive review of the one without mentioning that the other was affiliated (as with my comments on my Music pages, I’m all about celebration, not criticism). Honesty however compels me to state the reality (especially as I’ll be making some observations that will definitely identify the place one way or another), and the fact that I never did learn the name of either will thus be a gracious drawing of the veil.

Website of Fribourg Canton

As in Thun, there was a map of the city posted immediately outside Fribourg’s train station, and I consulted it just enough to establish which direction to walk to the various hotel addresses the Rough Guide had given me as initial options. (Love those maps!) Down a series of nicely-aged main streets of a now-pedestrian-only nature along a gentle slope, I kept an eye out for the cross-street uphill to my left that would lead to the first hotel on my list. What caught my eye first however was an impressive old stone stairway cascading snakily down to street level to my left, labelled the “Escalier du Collège,” roofed apparently for its full length except at its discreet foot. Just beyond that I found the street I was looking for, found the hotel much nearer than I’d expected, got a room but couldn’t pay yet because there was apparently a problem with the credit-card-processing machine, and dropped my bags—all of this in a matter of minutes.

My room was on the second-and-top floor (second, by European terminology, of course; in the U.S. it would be the third floor), above an inelegant-looking Portuguese restaurant, and it was larger than any other room I had on this trip (it cost a little more too, as it had WC and shower en suite, but I’d saved so much in Thun and was doing well cost-wise overall so I decided to just enjoy the convienience for a change). From the south-facing window I looked onto an impressively narrow and crooked street, the ruelle des Maçons, and although all the windows of the hotel and the apartments across the street faced each other very closely, there was an attractive oddity above the entrance of the building directly opposite: a stone statuette of some pope or bishop, likely a saint, holding a book. You just don’t see that kind of thing much in U.S., partly because of our more secular history and partly because the U.S’s ubiquitous vandals wouldn’t let such a thing go untagged by spray-paint if they even let it remain there.

With my bags stowed and the likely dining option clearly identified on the ground floor, I set out for a stroll around Fribourg (“FREE-boorh,” to francophones, “FRY-berg” to German-speakers, pop. ~31,000). It was earlier in the day than I’d expected it would be, with many hours of daylight still to come, and I wandered happily and freely. Very freely: down to the St Nicolas cathedral, which the Rough Guide had suggested was of some interest (but I wanted to wait until the next day and full daylight for that), down along the upper fringe of the oldest part of town, then down to the surprisingly unattractive yet nicely winding river Sarine and across to the German-language-dominant eastern side of town…and beyond. I was having such a lovely time walking, with no reason to curtail the excursion, that I kept going, enjoying everything I found. (The photos shown here were taken at these crossings, not by me, about 30 years ago, but the view is essentially unchanged.)

If it seems like I’m heading downhill a lot in that description, it’s because I was: one of the first things I noticed about Fribourg overall was that the whole city feels like it’s sliding down a succession of angled slopes, more than it seems possible there could be. Some of the streets are like wild plunging rivulets of a rocky waterfall. The altitude of the train station became remarkable only in retrospect, as for example when I looked back up the slopes to the mass of buildings near my hotel, while looking the other direction I was still up high enough that I was looking down a significant distance to a game of soccer being played on a field below (and the river was a little further down than that!).

Along the riverside road on the eastern bank, I passed through a major arched-and-turreted gateway which apparently was still closed at certain times (presumably not every night…it couldn’t be practical on such a major autoroute) and which had a flanking stairway on its further side, climbing abruptly up a hillside of grassy patches of land. Following an autoroute can only appeal for so long, and interesting side-trips are generally trumps, so I climbed the stairway. Along the way to the as-yet-unknown top I found a mini-pasture of six goats grazing, and yes they had bells on too. That Switzerland had goats in such prevalence was becoming clear to me, but how had I missed that information before now? Perhaps I should have considered the fact that the Rough Guide’s cover features one.

At the top of that initial climb was a major local road which continued to climb at an irresistably gentle rate, with surrounding steeper slopes along what seemed to be a former river’s valley which zigzagged temptingly out of sight. Crossing that valley was a solid bridge of recent construction which somehow didn’t clash horribly with the abundantly natural setting as I would have expected. There was an intriguing little white tower on a small spur of rock at the south end of the bridge, and, expecting it was some historical site, I climbed through wet grass and mud and up log-edged, slug-rich earthen stairs to it, only to find to my complete surprise that there was in fact a modern doorbell at the door at its base. This was an occupied, private dwelling, this quirky oddity?? I walked around it (as far as I could, anyway—the tower may only have been maybe 15 feet square but it didn’t have contiguously navigable ground all the way around it) and found on its south wall scratched graffiti dating back to at least the 1870s.

What possesses me to go for the long walks I do when travelling, I truly cannot say. Maybe it’s just that I’m so tired of the city I live in that when I get some free time outside of town I feel compelled to wander as if it’s my last chance before being wheeled into a nursing home. Whatever the reason, I certainly have done a few doozies as a non-pro walker—the one in Manchester, New Hampshire, which took me halfway to Concord and left me limping back into town ready to check into the first hotel I encountered even though I already had a room in a hotel on the opposite side of town, comes to mind. This one wasn’t very long, but its circumstance was odd: to set off on a mid-afternoon ramble is one thing, but to follow every whimsical inclination leading out of a city you’ve only dropped your bags in is perhaps not advisable.

Not that this hike ended in disaster or even that it wasn’t great: probably the season and the abundance of daylit hours contributed to it being simply a lovely excursion. And in fact leaving town as I did added to my enjoyment of Fribourg by giving me a gorgeous view of the town from the other side of the river gorge. Having wandered through an uphill suburb, I finally curtailed my wandering at Römerswil (at the turnoff to Tafers & St Ursen) and returned to Fribourg by way of the Chappelle de Lorette’s fine scenic outlook, where I took off my shoes and rested my weary feet as my still-hungry eyes took in the impressive sight of Fribourg just before dusk…a visual treat indeed, with medieval and medieval-looking buildings of consistent build stair-stepping down a meandering slope in a bend of a river. Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” was anachronistically foremost among my impressions. (There are modern buildings nearby, notably the university complex on the city’s north side, but the center is the focus and still looks great.)

Judging from the time spent, I later estimated I’d walked around six miles by this point, maybe a little less, with another one or two remaining before I was done for the day. That may not sound like a lot to a serious walker, but in my case it was an unusual use of afternoon hours I could have been using to focus more on the town I was newly visiting instead of splitting and roaming so far afield. But I’d say the results justified the move. And on my way back down to town from the Chappelle de Lorette I passed another field of belled goats—33 this time—at the little hillside Chapelle St-Jost.

Back in town, when I finally reached the hotel by yet another circuitous route (this one ending with the surprise discovery that the narrow street beside the hotel was an offshoot from the Escalier du Collège), things were a little different from how I’d first seen them. The streets were mostly empty and the town seemingly quite dead. I had decided upon checking in that I’d dine at the little Portuguese restaurant on the ground floor, both to support such a tiny establishment and to get a taste of Portuguese cooking (which I know of but have/had never actually eaten), so the idea of wandering around in search of a place to eat was eased from my agenda. Sorta.

I didn’t happen to make note of the name of this restaurant, and in hindsight that was probably a subconscious choice. Upon finding that half of the meager fare on their menu was hamburger/hot-dog level (seriously), I chose one of the only Portuguese-looking dish names (Francesinha, rustically described as a sausage-with-cheese sandwich) and ordered that and a bottle of the one Portuguese beer they had (Sagres). What I got, aside from the beer, was a sandwich of (in stacking order) a slice of ham, an outside-cooked-only Mystery Meat (pork, apparently, but at the time I was unsure), a couple of generic hot-dog wieners split in half lengthwise, some extremely generic white bread enclosing the above, and a fried egg on top—and all of this served in a mildly spicy bowl of broth. IN it. With French fries on the side and ketchup and fast-food-format mayonnaise at hand, in generic-diner plastic bottles. Once the food was delivered, the waiter (who I would’ve pegged as Korean, not Portuguese, and who insisted on speaking English) returned to his meal and conversation at the table with the others who ran the restaurant, and I ceased to exist. I got a second beer only when someone at the owner/family table got up for some reason and I caught their attention. (I apologize for my ignorance of Portuguese food and of Francesinhas in particular, but even having read up on these after my trip I’d have to say this particular presentation was pretty bad.)

The next day I spent more properly exploring Fribourg and its history, although what I got was still only glimpses even when they were substantial glimpses. A good example of this would be the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, which the Rough Guide rightly recommended (if you somehow see nothing else, the bizarre posed-and-decorated skeleton of St Felix justifies the admission price on its own): it has extensive examples of archaeological artifacts, wooden sculpture from the 1600s, furnishings from the 1800s, modern paintings, etc., but all are presented with only a fleeting sense of chronology or other organization. Most of it was interesting, but I never had an inkling as to what epoch or genre awaited around the next corner. On the other hand, it featured originals and studies for some of the old fountain statuary I’d noticed around town, among them a Samson that suggests that the sculptor knew a model with particularly sculptable nether regions; another fountain’s statue elements on display here included a bas-relief skull (in profile) with some reptilian tail winding through its mouth and out the base (and I’d remarked on that one on my first afternoon in town when I saw it just east of the cathédrale St-Nicolas).

The day was intermittently rainy—thankfully: I love rain, and rainy days encourage one to duck into nearby buildings when a downpour arrives, and that’s a nice way to explore a town. The Musée Gutenberg had all kinds of fascinating goodies for a graphic designer/bookworm to consider, but their “bookstore” (which consisted of a few racks) was surprisingly skimpy. The cathédrale St-Nicolas however had such sumptuous Art-Nouveau stained-glass windows that I returned to check them out again at the end of that day; I’m not especially avid about Art Nouveau, but when it’s that richly and beautifully colored I can spend hours gazing at it. Unfortunately I found no books about these windows, neither at local bookshops nor online later!

And somehow the day came to an end and it was suddenly nighttime. I dined, at an Italian restaurant (Bindella), on ricotta-and-parsley-stuffed ravioli with an oil-based garlic sauce (with the garlic strained out, which made for a nice presentation) and a demi of an Antinori wine: a lovely place, but no fireworks. But in looking for an appealing restaurant (and getting concerned by the relative lack of evident options) I discovered what a day and a half of wandering had failed to impress on me: that I’d only seen the old part of town (and the eastern environs, of course), whereas just west and south of the train station is a substantial and modern retail core. So the next time I’m near Fribourg I may have to revisit the town to get a bigger-picture impression of it.

The impression I did come away with was that of walking around in a life-sized Advent calendar: doorways and entries I looked into or passed through led further up (or down) and meandered, with new stories behind every corner and through every window I glimpsed. I may have seen a handful of days of this calendar, but from what little I saw I got a sense of fascinating depth and richness. It’s not quite a “lively” town, except for the presence of its university’s constituency, but then this is Switzerland…. All in all a charming little place.

But I knew it was time to move on and specifically to head back to France, because Switzerland doesn’t have laundromats and I was out of clothes.

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