For centuries, Fribourg has remained a Catholic stronghold in Switzerland, having resisted the Reformation, while also fighting with Catholic armies in several Swiss religious wars. The history of the Catholic faith in Fribourg is too complex to summarise in a few words, but there is no question that the city, its architecture, society and culture have been heavily influenced by its religion.
The city has not only hosted the Bishopric of the Diocese of Lausanne, Geneva and Fribourg since 1613, it also has a larger than average number of monasteries and convents still active today. The Jesuits contributed a lot to the rich intellectual development and prosperity of the city, notably by establishing the Collège Saint- Michel in 1582, the basis of the University of Fribourg and its world-renowned Faculty of Theology.
The majority of feasts and celebrations have religious roots. For example, the feast day of Saint Nicholas, patron Saint of the city, in early December, the autumn Bénichon to bless the harvests (“Bénir” in French) and even the wild February Carnival held before the 40-day fasting period of Lent.
Fribourg is no longer perceived as a socially conservative or small-minded rural area. Rather, it has garnered a reputation as a lively mini-metropolis where a contemplative religious life also has a place. Young people play with the city’s religious history, for example by sporting T-shirts with religious puns. The Bishop even commissioned a brewer to create a special beer in order to connect the monastery tradition with a modern way of financing charities. Local nuns and monks have begun to diversify their revenues by baking blissful cookies, or resuscitating ancient medicinal liquor recipes.
If you’re feeling like a hike, then a walking pilgrimage to the “Lorette” can be a great excursion: the view from the chapel is stunning. The building is classic Baroque, and was erected in 1647-48. Considered one of the finest works of that era in the country, it provides a spectacular view of Fribourg including hundreds of Gothic façades, medieval ramparts and the cliffs along the river Sarine (“Saane” in German).
The chapel is one of many in the canton, and is a smaller reproduction of the Santa Casa de Loreto in Italy, believed to be the home in which the Virgin Mary conceived and raised the young Jesus. For locals, it is actually nicknamed the “lovers’ chapel”, as many couples spend evenings outside the building, enjoying cheese, bread and a bottle of wine to see the sunset from the promontory.
If you fancy a tipple, you can stop on your way at the bishopric to buy the beer brewed at the bishop’s initiative with proceeds going to local charities. Its “Urbi et Ortie” name is a pun on “ortie” (“nettle” in French, used to flavour the beer) and the “Urbi et Orbi” papal addresses from Rome.
Founded in 1255 on the banks of the Sarine, the Maigrauge Abbey was the first Cistercian nuns’ monastery in Fribourg, and remained the only one until the seventeenth century. For more than 750 years, these nuns have been welcoming visitors looking for a silent refuge where they can contemplate and pray.
On the outskirts of the city, the nuns have a plot where they cultivate organic fruits, vegetables and medicinal herbs to transform them into jams, herbal teas, or their famed elixir “Eau Verte” (“Green Water”). This homemade distillate, prepared according to an ancestral recipe, has digestive, antispasmodic and disinfectant properties. It is intended to be used in small quantities: a few drops on a sugar cube or in an infusion. All their products can be bought in the small shop open a few hours a day on weekdays.
In the past few years, there has been increasing interest in artisanal products from monasteries, and in various shops in Fribourg you can find delicious biscuits from the Carmel du Pâquier near Gruyère, mustards from the Abbaye de la Fille-Dieu in Romont or the “Eau de Mélisse” (Melissa water) from the Abbaye d’Hauterive in Posieux.
The sound of church bells are a constant in Fribourg and the St-Nicholas Cathedral, which dominates the centre of the town, is reputed to have the most beautiful bells in Switzerland. The other chapels and monasteries try to compete however the local “fonderies” (smelting works) have not cast bells in a while.
Nowadays at the Fonderie 11, young artisans combine various crafts and styles, rather than working just with iron and copper. Offices, workshops, a shop and a café coexist in this former industrial building. La Shopperie, for off-the-beaten-track fashionistas, curates mostly items from local makers: custom screen-printed T-shirts with humorous designs from Graphein and Kieed.ch; Swiss fashion from Et Pis C’est Tout; jewels and bags from Graine de Shopping; vintage and customised second-hand clothes from Koolschrank; tote bags made on the spot from recycled sails by Rondechute; and some of the popular Freitag bags made of truck tarpaulins in Zurich. To recover from your shopping frenzy, enjoy a light lunch, a juice, a craft beer or pastries during the day or a “bistronomic” dinner at Ben & Leo’s. Fribourg – a lively university town with students from all over the world – is definitely more colourful than the black and white of its flag.
Bénichon was originally a thanksgiving festival held in every village by the farmers to thank God, bless the harvest and celebrate the return to the lowlands of the herds after a summer in the mountains. Today, it has almost completely lost its religious connotation, and has become a popular folk festival with many culinary highlights.
The Bénichon is a real annual highlight for locals. With some exceptions in July, August and November, la Bénichon is mainly held on the second Sunday of September in the lowlands, and the second Sunday of October in the Prealps. But throughout the autumn, supermarkets sell the associated products and restaurants offer a version of the menu.
Typical for a full Bénichon menu (get ready!) is cuchaule (saffron-seasoned bread) served with sweet-sour Bénichon mustard. It continues with a pot-au-feu (meat stew), a lamb ragout and poires à botzi (caramelised pears), smoked ham and leg of lamb. Dessert includes bricelets (thin crisp waffles), cake with vin cuit (cooked wine, but in reality long-cooked pears or apples with mustard seeds), meringues and double cream, beignets (apple fritters) and cuquettes (flaky pastry). Drown your sorrows over the end of summer with a digestive distilled from gentian flowers.