Fribourg was founded in 1157 on a peninsula of the Sarine river by the Duke of Zähringen. Because of its location, many bridges have been built over the centuries, and just as bridges embody much of the Fribourg landscape, the city itself also symbolically connects Latin and Germanic cultures; French and German dialects.
Since World War I, the word used to describe the divide between the two dominant cultures has been “Röstigraben”, literally, the “grated-potato ditch”. This expression is used whenever differences arise between the French and German side of Switzerland, for instance with voting results. If the origin of the fried hashed potato pancake rösti is attributed to Bern, in reality röstis are a much-loved dish throughout the country. The small point of difference is that people in French-speaking Switzerland grate the potatoes raw, while the Swiss Germans boil them first. Traditionally a peasant dish, this classic but simple recipe has been adapted and reinvented thanks to the creativity of a new generation of young chefs. But it serves as a reminder that Switzerland and cantons such as Fribourg were not always as prosperous as they are today. Now, the term is also used to talk about a national aspiration for “unity through plurality”.
The actual Röstigraben is the Sarine river, which runs through Fribourg, putting the city ‘on the border’ between the two cultures. If both sides eat different food, think and vote differently sometimes, they do at least share a common fondue pot and a long tradition of cohabitation, which is embodied by Fribourg.
Le Belvédère is known as “Le Belved” among locals, especially students and young professionals, who can easily spend hours in the cosy retro café, playing table football, reading comics on the leather sofas while stroking Shogun the house cat, or surfing the net while sat at wooden tables. This is one of the oldest houses in town, and used to be home to the commanding officers assigned to guarding the doors of the medieval city.
It was transformed into a café in the nineteenth century, and today, it boasts one of the most beautiful terraces in Switzerland, with views of the wooden and stone bridges over the Sarine. Sit under the centuries-old chestnut trees to sip a craft-roasted coffee, one of many handmade syrups or a beer brewed just down the hill. If you get peckish, try some local charcuterie and cheese with bread from the neighbourhood bakery. Under the café is a club, Le Mouton Noir, one of the few underground places in this modest town. Dancing to techno in a medieval building is hard to beat.
Water has always been a vital element for the city: a natural rampart from enemies, a communication route for trading leather, wool and cheese as far as Alsace, and lately a source of electricity with the hydroelectric power plant and first European dam built with concrete (1870-1872).
Two waterway trails leave from the city centre for an 8km or 11km tour, circling Lac de Pérolles or along the three rivers (the Sarine, Glâne and Gérine). 28 stops dotted along each route provide information on the historical landmarks, indigenous flora and fauna, and geological and hydrological features. As you pass under or over one of the many bridges, learn about Fribourg in the ice age, or take another route through the wild Gottéron gorges, where a dragon was once said to live that terrified even the knights of old. Nowadays the dragon is the mascot and nickname of the local icehockey team. At the entry of the gorges, stop at the centuries-old fish farm to catch your own trout, have it prepared to roast at a picnic spot or get it cooked for you at two nearby restaurants.
The “Basse Ville,” meaning “Low Town”, is Fribourg’s historic district. Strolling through its old medieval streets, you encounter numerous reminders of the guilds that used to work in the area. Street names, such as Rue d’Or (gold), Rue des Forgerons (“smiths”) are evidence of this, as is the fountain of Saint Anne, the patron saint of the Fribourg guild of tanners. Today, a new batch of craftspeople has replaced the corporations in the Basse Ville – an artisan brewer and a chocolatier, for example.
Established in 1993, the Fri-Mousse brewery is open every Saturday. Try the hoppy blonde La Dzodzet, its name is the sobriquet given to the inhabitants of Fribourg. It comes from “Joseph”, pronounced “Dzosè” in the local patois, since every respectable family had to give this name to one son. For even more local patois, over the centuries the Basse Ville has developed its own micro-culture and language, a mix of German and French that is unique in Switzerland. This so-called “Bolze” culture is notably celebrated during the weeklong Carnival in February.
Next door to the brewery you’ll find a cheerful artisanal chocolatier, John Lehmann, who works with prime-quality raw material to create exquisite classic chocolate pieces such as truffles, filled amarettis and other specialities.
After hearing about the Rösti divide, you need to taste this nourishing grated potato dish. Traditionally it was eaten at breakfast, so head for brunch at L’Auberge des 4 Vents on the outskirts of town, or once a month at Café Le Tunnel in the old town, where a cultural “über rösti” programme celebrates linguistic diversity throughout the year with music, poetry and theatre.
At brunch, don’t fret about the rösti calories. Instead, add another typical Swiss breakfast item beloved throughout the country: the healthy birchermuesli. There are different iterations of this dish including rolled oats, grains, fresh or dried fruits and seeds and nuts. Developed around 1900 by the doctor Maximilian Bircher-Benner (1867-1939) for patients at his hospital near Zurich, this “mues” (“mash-up” in German), was an essential part of the therapy because he was convinced of the importance of food – and raw food in particular. This still very modern dish was adapted from a similar recipe served to the physician and his wife on a hike in the Alps.
A Swiss brunch would not be complete without a “tresse” (French) or “Zopf” (German), ‘braided’ bread made of white flour, milk, eggs, butter and yeast, similar to Jewish Challah. Twisty golden crusts can be seen every weekend on most tables across the country, Fribourg included, regardless of the language being spoken.