Fribourg : the town
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Aerial panoramic view of Fribourg : Click to enlarge picture
The old city
© Jacques Kuenlin

Just south of the train station, the grassy, open Grands-Places marks an entry into the commercial heart of the city, overlooked both by department stores galore and the intensely ugly Golden Tulip hotel skyscraper – shown to be even uglier by its proximity to a beautiful shuttered medieval house on the square, now a café. The ensemble is mocked by one of Jean Tinguely’s famous fountains, a spouting, spitting affair installed in 1984 and described by one critic as “a firework in iron and water”.

Shopping streets lead east to the busy Place Python, at the centre of the modern city. From here, three routes lead you into the Old Town. To the south, the trafficky Route des Alpes is supported on pillars above Neuveville, but its valley-side railings offer wonderful views of the river and of Fribourg’s rustic location. The central Rue de Lausanne, a picturesque cobbled thoroughfare of pavement cafés and bookshops, heads directly downhill from Place Python. It’s worth, though, cutting north from Python on the narrow, steeply rising Ruelle de Lycée up to the atmospheric medieval Collège St-Michel, for most of its history a Jesuit seminary and now part of Fribourg University; the shaded grounds of the academy are utterly peaceful, and there’s a terrace from where you can look out over the city. Ancient covered steps, the Escaliers du Collège, lead down from the terrace to join the lower end of Rue de Lausanne.

The Bourg
All routes from the new town converge in the Old Town’s most historically important and prestigious district, known as the Bourg, home to churches, the cathedral, the town hall and an array of mansions and patrician townhouses. The Bourg’s central square is a small space actually comprising four separate areas. At the foot of Rue de Lausanne is Place de Nova-Friburgo with, opposite it, Place de l’Hôtel de Ville; next to it is a tree-lined square known either as Place des Ormeaux (Square of the Elm Trees) or Place de Tilleul (Square of the Lime Tree); and next to that is Place de Notre-Dame. Just to confuse matters, the indeterminate, 50m-long Rue du Pont-Muré connects them all.

An impressive presence to one side is the late-Gothic Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall), a highly photogenic building dating from 1501–22, whose double exterior staircase was added in 1663. St George spears the dragon on a fountain statue dating from 1525 in the square in front of the building. A regular Saturday morning market spills over into the streets around, one of which, Rue des Épouses (Street of Spouses), is spanned by a decorative old sign attesting to the fidelity of the couples who once lived there. The dourly impressive Grand’Rue heads off down the hill, a virtually intact example of a seventeenth-to-eighteenth century street, complete with Baroque, Regency, Rococo and Louis-XVI facades jostling for position all the way down.

Fribourg’s highlight is the towering, High Gothic Cathédrale St-Nicolas, just off Place Notre-Dame. Take a moment to absorb the breathtaking, soaring, buttressed tower, exposed to view for its entire 73m height clear to the ring of feathery spires on top. Built over a church dating from the city’s foundation in 1157, the present building was begun in 1283, and took two centuries to complete. Traffic swishes past the elaborate main portal, featuring a tympanum with the Last Judgement. The vast interior (Mon–Sat 7.30am–7pm, Sun 8.30am–9.30pm) is immediately impressive, its mustiness and gloominess redolent with old incense. The pulpit (1516) and, opposite it, the octagonal font (1499) are both particularly ornate and beautiful, and the tracery choir screen (1466) is dazzlingly intricate. Virtually all the stained glass in the cathedral is modern Art Nouveau. Don’t miss the tiny Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre, to the left of the door as you head out, beside a plaque commemorating the mass celebrated here by Pope John Paul II in 1984: inside you’ll find a group of 13 figures, sculpted from sandstone in about 1430. Christ is being laid in the tomb by Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea; behind, Mary is supported by John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene, two other women and two angels, while in front are three sleeping soldiers. The life-sized ensemble, drenched in a blueish submarine light from modern stained-glass windows, is extraordinarily moving, every stony figure conveying an intense emotion that effortlessly spans the six centuries it has stood here.

About fifty metres north of the cathedral is the porticoed Basilique Notre-Dame, under renovation at the time of writing, with white-and-gold stucco work dating from the late eighteenth century adorning the spacious, airy interior. Samson prises apart the lion’s jaws on a fountain statue in front (1547), copied from a design by Dürer. Adjacent on Rue de Morat is the Espace Jean Tinguely museum, with beside it the Franciscan Église des Cordeliers. Originally part of a friary founded in 1256, the church was renovated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but retains its impressive medieval decor, including a vast altar painting (1480) showing the crucifixion and, on the opened wings, the adoration. High Gothic oak choir stalls (1300), the oldest in Switzerland, and a larger-than-life 1438 statue of Christ at the whipping post also stand out.

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