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Our final excursion before we left Europe for North America was a working holiday. It was work for my spouse and a holiday for me. It was a conference and institutional gathering for outgoing and incoming professors involved with the Centre for Transnational Legal Studies in London. The gathering was hosted by the professors at the University of Fribourg. Fortunately for yours truly, this ancient Swiss town is picturesque, photogenic and almost everyone speaks French. The food is good and the weather was fine while we were there. The only drawback was the indomitable Swiss Franc, the gold standard of currency.

For some reason, I was unable to book into the hotel where most of the other participants were staying. So, we booked into a hotel that was a twenty minute walk from the town center. The only reason this mattered is because of the outrageous taxi fares. The day after we arrived, I purchased a bus pass, learned how it worked and used it frequently. Busses are not quite as timely as Swiss trains, but they are comfortable and reasonably priced. Our most interesting ride in Fribourg was in a unique funicular which is run on sewer water, believe it or not. Needless to say, a certain amount of odor is part of the ambience.

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Like Bern, its sister city, Fribourg has preserved its medieval origins. It is located on a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by the Sarine river. The architecture of the old section dates from the Gothic period; much of it built before the 16th century. The houses are built of the stone. The old town is rich in fountains and churches and bridges dating from the 12th century until the 17th century. The Cathedral of St Nicholas was built between 1283 and 1490. It is 76 meters (249 ft) tall, luring unsuspecting pilgrims into climbing 365 steps to reach the top of its tower.

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The fortifications of Fribourg form the most important medieval military architecture in all Switzerland. There are two kilometers (1.2 mi) of ramparts, 14 towers and one bulwark. For a town of only 35,000 people, Fribourg presents itself as a dense and rich community, full of surprising vistas. During the three days we were there, I wandered around with only a vague sense of direction, staggering up steps, strolling across vertiginous bridges, and threading my way through its many museums. Plopping down in the middle of the day for a coffee to keep me going. I paid hommage to the native son of Fribourg, artist Jean Tinguely and his wife, Niki de Saint Phalle. I caught up with my wife in the evenings.

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One of those evenings was at the Restaurant Hotel de Ville, where we enjoyed one of the best repasts I have ever enjoyed. It is impossible to convey in words or in photos the precipitous topography of Fribourg. The balcony of the restaurant looked out over the Sarine river, a silver thread far below. The oldest part lies along the banks of the river, surrounded on three sides by towering cliffs. Most of the town is now located on the plateau overlooking the fast moving, shallow river. Since it is a steep walk from the old part to the plateau, many tourists take advantage of a motorized miniature train that offers tours of the town.

On our last day, the host had prepared an outing into the countryside. Our first visit was to one of the first of the Swiss chocolate houses to be gobbled up by Nestle, followed by a cheese fondu lunch in the village of Gruyeres. The castle towers above the medieval town. Gruerius, the legendary founder of Gruyères, captured a crane (in French: “grue”) and chose it as his heraldic animal. Despite the importance of the House of Gruyères, its beginnings remain mysterious.

Nineteen counts held the castle between the 11th and 16th centuries. The last of them, Michel, was in financial trouble almost all his life and his tenure ended in bankruptcy in 1554. His creditors, the cantons of Fribourg and Bern, shared his earldom between them. From 1555 to 1798 the castle became residence to the bailiffs and then to the prefects sent by Fribourg. In 1849 the castle was put up for sale and sold to the Bovy and Balland families, who stayed at the castle during the summertime and restored it with the help of their painter friends. The castle was then bought back by the canton of Fribourg in 1938, made into a museum and opened to the public.

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We returned to England exhilarated and exhausted by the quick trip. We were not quite ready to head back “home” to Nova Scotia, but our tickets were booked and we were back to suitcase living. Fribourg is a fine Swiss town thick with historical interest, apparently thriving with modern commerce. Just far enough off the well worn tourist track to feel like a discovery.

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