Castles, churches and cheese: 5 cultural routes to discover across Switzerland
It’s easy to characterise Switzerland as little more than a land of chocolate-box villages, snow-dusted peaks and chic mountain towns, but doing so overlooks the country’s complex and fascinating history. Gorgeous natural landscapes abound. So too do imposing castles, once-powerful abbeys and scenic, lakeside vineyards. For those in search of trips that blend hiking, biking and enjoying the great outdoors with days spent tracing pilgrimage routes or exploring little-known museums, there’s nowhere better to choose for a trip. Numerous cultural routes criss-cross Switzerland, tracing ancient roads and connecting historical sights. Here, we’ve picked five contrasting itineraries, each showing a different side to the country and offering an unusual vista into its past.
1. The Huguenots and Waldensian Trail
Fleeing persecution after Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, the Huguenots and Waldesians were forced into exile. Leaving France, they first travelled to Geneva and then on Germany, leaving behind a trail of influence on communities across the region. Geneva is the natural point to begin tracing their history, starting with a day at the excellent International Museum of the Reformation. Its collections cover not just the Huguenots’ time in Switzerland, but the origins of the movement and the 16th-century teachings of Martin Luther and John Calvin.
Further signs of the Huguenots’ journey can be seen on the other side of the country. There’s a small collection of Huguenot crafts in Lenzburg’s Museum Burghalde, while the clifftop Lenzburg Castle is a must-visit, with magnificent panoramas over the surrounding region. One of the most beautiful stops on the route is an hour’s drive northeast: the quaint town of Schaffhausen, where some 9,000 Huguenot and Waldensian exiles were once offered refuge. Its guildhouses and Gothic, Baroque and Rococo architecture are worth at least a half day’s exploration, while the thundering Rhine Falls are just outside town.
2. Via Francigena
Thanks to the diary kept by Sigeric, Archbishop of Canterbury, when he travelled to Rome in 990 AD, we can accurately map his journey across Europe. Now known as the Via Francigena, this 1,800-kilometre pilgrim route is just as poignant today as it was for those who walked it some thousand years ago, often en-route to Santiago de Compostela. It connects churches and religious monuments, but also passes through some of Europe’s most magnificent countryside.
Around 215 kilometres of the route lies within Swiss borders, but it’s easy to spend a few days just tackling a small portion. Wine-lovers should plump for the easy 30-kilometre stretch passing through the UNESCO-listed Lavaux vineyards (and their tasting rooms) on the banks of Lake Geneva. For those in search of more isolation, hiking trails along the route in the canton of Vaud may be more appealing, perhaps with a side trip to tackle the via ferrata climbing routes or to taste the local cheese, Gruyère, in Gruyère Pays-d’Enhaut Regional Nature Park.
3. Cluniac Sites in Europe
The Cluniac Sites in Europe were inscribed as a cultural route in 2005. They mark the widespread religious and political influence of Cluny Abbey, a Benedictine community founded by William the Pious, Duke of Aquitaine, at the start of the 10th century. Of the 1800 sites on the route there are only a few in Switzerland, but the country’s leg of the Cluny Way hiking trail remains interesting to follow, running a short distance from Bassins to Rougemont across the border.
The stand-out destination by far is Romainmôtier Priory, a former Cluniac abbey built between 990 and 1030 after the site was gifted to Cluny by Adelaide, the wife of Richard II, Duke of Burgundy. It later became a key stop on the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela during the Middle Ages. Book ahead for guided tours of the Priory House, added in 1280 by Pierre Aymon de Playsie.
4. Via Habsburg
The legacy of the House of Habsburg’s influential rule from 996 to 1815 is in evidence across Switzerland. The dynasty was one of the most significant to shape Europe and left their mark in an enormous network of palaces, castles, cathedrals and monasteries.
Unsurprisingly, Habsburg Castle in the Canton of Aargau is one of the best places to start exploring Switzerland’s Habsburg heritage. Built around 1020, and now partially in ruins, it’s brought to life through audio tours which delve into the early years of Habsburg rule. Combine a morning exploring its fortifications with an afternoon at the nearby Königsfelden Monastery, founded some hundred years later in 1308 by Queen Elisabeth, widow of King Albrecht I of Habsburg. Its stained-glass windows are the finest late medieval designs in Europe.
Other sites of note with Habsburg connections can be found across the country, including the nearby Wildegg Castle, built in the early 13th century, and the grave of Anna Gertrud von Habsburg in Basel’s red sandstone cathedral.
5. European Route of Cistercian Abbeys
Founded in 1098, the Cistercian Order quickly grew its influence in Europe, their ideals formed in response to the power and wealth flaunted by Cluny Abbey. The movement began at the first reformed Benedictine abbey in Cîteaux and went on to spread far beyond Burgundy’s borders. Cistercian monks lived life simply according to the Rule of St. Benedict, both dedicating themselves to prayer and running large farms and vineyards, developing techniques that went on to shape agriculture across Europe.
In Switzerland, two abbeys are particularly of interest for those tracing the European Route of Cistercian Abbeys. The Romanesque Hauterive Abbey, just to the southwest of Fribourg, is notable not just for its history but as it remains a working monastery and part of the Order of Cîteaux today. Further southwest, to the north of Lausanne, Montheron Abbey makes an interesting contrast. Founded early 1100s, it’s been much altered and expanded over the years. In the restaurant occupying the former cloister visitors can still try wines from a vineyard that was first farmed by the monks of Montheron in the early 1500s.
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