The Fields of Verdun (Where They Had A Giant Battle In The War To End All Wars)

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The Battle of Verdun was one of World War I Western Front‘s first major battles.  For 11 months in 1916, the German and French armies fought it out on the  hilly terrain north of the city of Verdun-sur-Meuse (unsurprisingly located in north-eastern France, near the Champagne region).

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I knew the area was a historical battleground for France and Germany, but driving from Alsace to Verdun, I was shocked by the sheer number of military monuments I saw from the highway.  When Charlemagne‘s empire was divided under the Treaty of Verdun (843 A.D.) the town became part of the Holy Roman Empire.  Later, the Peace of Westphalia (1648 A.D.) awarded Verdun to France.  France and Germany continued to butt heads.  Verdun was part of the defensive line that was built after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

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There were even more monuments when I got off the highway.  I had a little bit of driving time because I got off at the wrong exit.  I couldn’t believe that I just happened upon places like this in the countryside 20 miles (32K) from the battlefield.

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The Germans hoped a decisive strike and victory would demoralize their opponent, forcing a quick surrender.  Hey, it worked pretty well in the Franco-Prussian War.  Verdun seemed like a logical point of attack; it was almost surrounded.  The Germans failed capture the city of Verdun and to inflict a much higher body count on the other side.  The Battle of Verdun ended as a French tactical victory.  Unfortunately, it came at an extremely high cost to both sides, there were about  800,000 casualties!  Cemeteries surround the museum and contain 15,000 tombstones.

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L’Ossuaire de Douaumont, an ossuary next to the cemetery.  It is the final resting place for 130,000 French and Germans who died in muddy trenches. The tower is shaped like an artillery shell.

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Armies (British, French, American, and German) fired approximately 720 million shells and mortar bombs on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918.  Even today, entire areas remain cordoned off and live bombs are turned up by farmers plowing their fields.  Notice the trees are relatively young.  Artillery shelling demolished the existing forests.  It also created craters that are still visible (see the photos below).

DSC_0955DSC_0950The shelling destroyed villages of Cumières and Chattancourt.  Believe it or not, there used to be a town where the chapel now stands!

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The museum is amazing.  I was stunned by how low tech some of it was.  There were carts that had been pulled by horses (they had an ancient looking car too) and a hot air balloon.

DSC_0918DSC_0936They still had enough technology, machine guns, flamethrowers, poisonous gas, etc., to be very, very deadly.
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The museum has photos and a recreation of the trenches.  It’s hard to imagine the conditions the soldiers endured.

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After mobilization of the German Army during World War I, the government identified notable artists to be withdrawn from combat to protect them.  Franz Marc (one of my favorites) was on the list, but before orders for reassignment could reach him, he was struck in the head and killed instantly in 1916 by a shell splinter.

By the way, November 11, is Armistice Day.  On November 11, 1918, fighting ceased in “The Great War” when an armistice, a temporary cessation of hostilities, between the Allied nations and Germany went into effect.  It started on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, but the “war to end all wars” officially ended when the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, in the Palace of Versailles outside the town of Versailles, France.

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The Malgre Nous, Forced To Fight Against Their Country Of Birth During WWII

Malgré-Nous is a French phrase  (at the bottom of the above monument) that means “despite us” or “in spite of us.”  It refers to inhabitants of the Alsace and Moselle (part of Lorraine) areas of France who were conscripted into the German armed forces during the WWII.   We first noticed it on monuments and memorials when we visited Alsace (Belgians and Luxembourouise were also conscripted).

France and Germany repeatedly fought over the territory.  In 1639, the French conquered Alsace to keep it from the Habsburgs.  In 1871, Alsace (and Lorraine) fell under German control when France lost the Franco-Prussian War.  With Germany’s defeat in the First World War, the area became French once again and Germans who had settled in Alsace were expelled.  When Germany invaded and annexed the area on October 18, 1940, the departments fell under German control.  By 1942, service had become compulsory and French inhabitants became part of the Wehrmacht (the German army), the Luftwaffe (the air force),  the Kriegsmarine (the German Navy) or the SS.   Others were sent to the Eastern Front to fight Stalin, many ended up in interned in Axis Soviet prison camps (like the one in Tambow, Russia). Others fought in more local battles in Normandy such as Das Reich in the Falaise pocket.

Others deserted.  They were shocked when the U.S. military treated them as deserters, not as the liberators of France wanting to fight for their homeland they believed themselves to be.  Many were sent to camps in the west of France, alongside German prisoners who didn’t look too kindly on people they viewed as traitors.  Those who defected to the Soviets were also seen as deserters or spies and shot.  Still others deserted to join the Resistance or fled to Switzerland, but their families were deported to labor or concentration camps.   This policy effectively forced conscripts to remain in the German Army.

Malgré-Nous who survived the war were considered by some as traitors or Nazi sympathizers after its end.   An amnesty law enacted on February 20, 1953, forgave crimes committed by Malgré-Nous.   Of the 130,000 men who were conscripted Third Reich in the Second World War, 32,000 were killed, 30,000 wounded and 10,500 missing and presumed dead.

The last phrase of the plaque above says “Alsace is the region of France who paid the heaviest price for the madness of Nazisme.”

Don’t Let The Cows Out!

In the US, we have a strong tradition of property rights.  In theory, every man (and woman) is the king (or queen) of his castle (or trailer) and can do what they want with their land, including barring others from trespassing.  Other countries, like Switzerland, have a different take.  There, landowners are regarded more as stewards of the people’s land.  As a result, Switzerland’s hiking trails (known as WanderwegTourisme Pédestre, and Sentiero Escursionistic in German, French and Italian respectively), cross through people’s property.  With around 60,000 km/37,282 miles of in such a small country, how could they not?

Yellow diamonds mark hiking routes (some cultural trails, old pilgrims’ roads, etc. have brown signposts).  When we first arrived in Switzerland, we weren’t sure whether we would get in trouble for following the trails.  They lead through people’s pastures, woods and yards.  We even followed one right through the middle of someone’s barn!

I know, for an American who grows up with “get off my land,” this is a hard concept to wrap your head around. Farmers receive significant benefits from the government so they don’t seem to mind to much.  If the Swiss government made me a steward of the land and defrayed the cost of my insanely beautiful mountain views, I wouldn’t mind hikers either… as long as they didn’t let my cows loose.

We’ve never seen so many types of cow barriers – and he grew up on a farm!  Amazed by the variety, I started taking pictures of them.  Who knew there were so many different ways to keep cows in?

Note the little ladder for people to walk over on the right side in the photo above. Genius.  Not that it couldn’t be improved by a railing.  Solar powered cow fences like the one below are pretty common.  Now I’ve seen everything.

Some fences are a little more old school.  I like how they wrote “please close the door” in Sharpie (in German) on the gate post.

Whatever you do, be careful, when taking pictures.  Don’t back up into one of these bad boys or you are in for a nasty shock.   Take my word for it.

You see some good old-fashioned American-style barbed wire too.  It’s not good to back up into either.  You’d think I’d learn, but with views like these, it’s easy to be distracted.

The turnstiles are pretty cool, kind of like getting on the subway.   You see, in Switzerland, they take their cows pretty seriously.  If you have tasted their dairy, you know why.  In fact, it was just in the news last week that dairy farmers in Switzerland are field-testing a new device that allows cows to send texts to show they are, um, feeling frisky.  Yep.  You read that correctly.   Some Swiss cows are have sensors that gauge their readiness to mate and sends their owner a text message when they’re in heat.

Whatever you do, just be sure to close the gate and don’t let the cows out!  Who knows what kind of trouble they could get up to?

Natzweiler-Struthof, The French Concentration Camp

He was surprised to see signs for a concentration camp when we were in Alsace.  Hidden away in the Vosges Mountains, the Natzweiler-Struthof is the only concentration camp established by the Nazis in what is now France.   I went to see it.  Like the Holocaust Exhibit at the British War Museum, other concentration camps or pretty much any other sign of such horror, I found myself disassociating myself from what I was seeing so that I could continue to view the disturbing exhibits.

A camp for political prisoners, including those involved in the resistance movement.  Nevertheless, the death rate was 40% due to the strenuous work (Prisoners worked in nearby granite quarries and in construction projects) medical experimentation, poor nutrition and mistreatment by the SS guards.

As the industrial production requirements of the was increased, Natzweiler developed a system of  up to 50 adjacent sub camps (shown on the map above).  The death rate at these camps was 80%.  I was surprised to learn that one such camp was Neckarelz.  There, they converted an existing gypsum mine into an intricate tunnel system that housed a relocated Daimler-Benz Aircraft engine plant!

Many “Night and Fog” (Nacht und Nebel, a German effort to subdue a growing anti-German resistance) prisoners were detained there.  Suspected resistance fighters just disappeared in night, the Germans held many of them at Natzweiler-Struthof.

The camp holds also a crematorium and a jury rigged gas chamber outside the main camp.   Natzweiler-Struthof gassed more than 80 Jewish prisoners and sent their bodies to the Strasbourg University Institute of Anatomy where anatomist Dr. August Hirt amassed a large collection of Jewish skeletons used in his quest for anthropological evidence Jewish “racial inferiority.”  He was attempting to create a museum in which (in his words) “sub-humans, in which proofs of the degeneracy and the animality of the Jews would be collected.”

Strasbourg University faculty member, Professor Otto Bickenbach, used the gas chamber in pseudoscientific medical experiments involving mustard gas and other vesicants .  Many victims of these experiments were Roma (Gypsies) who were transferred from Auschwitz for use as guinea pigs.  Doctor Eugen Haagen,  the chair for hygiene and bacteriology at Strasbourg University was in charge of medical experiments on the camp.  He conducted experiments on prisoners involving typhus and yellow fever.  The operating room below was the site of many of these “experiments.”

With the Allies closing in, Nazis evacuated the camp sending prisoners on a “death march” in September 1944.  On November 23, 1944, it became the first concentration camp in Western Europe liberated by the Allies.

One of the most unusual and surprising things I saw was art.  Several talented artists (Henri Gayot, Jacques Barrau, Ernest Gillen, Rudolf Naess) were held and the camp and some of their art survived.

Shockingly, neo-Nazis burned the camp museum in 1976.  It was subsequently rebuilt, but important artifacts and buildings were destroyed in the fire.

As disturbing as it was, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to step behind the formerly electrified fences and learn about what happened there.

We Rocked The Boat – The Second Part Of Our Trip Up The Rhine 2

Castle Pfalz (Die Pfalz or Pfalzgrafenstein) sits on the island of Falkenau in the middle of the Rhine.  Not surprisingly, it was a toll castle built for the sole purpose of generating revenue.  The Baron would raise and lower chains across the river controlling traffic.  It worked in concert with Gutenfels Castle (Burg Gutenfels) and the fortified town of Kaub on the other side of the river.  They kept those who refused to pay in the dungeon, a wooden float in the well, until they were paid.

Apparently it has an impressive view from which you can watch ships travel on both sides (take the ferry from Kaub).  As it was never conquered, destroyed, it is in good shape even though it doesn’t have electricity or a privy.  The little extension was the outhouse; it uses gravity and rainwater.

Kaub is known as the spot where Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher  crossed the Rhine with the Prussian and Russian armies, on New Years eve 1813-1814, in pursuit of Napoleon.  During the war against the French, Blücher moved 50,000 troops across a Russian-built pontoon bridge. It was an extraordinary achievement.  It was also an important step toward the final defeat of Napoleon…well, until Waterloo.

Oberwesel is a pictoresque town.  He thought that it’s church, the  Gothic Church of Our Lady (Pfarrkirche Liebfrauen), looked like a larger version of the church built by German immigrants in his hometown.  The Günderrode House is famous in Germany because it featured in TV Series “Heimat.”

Schönburg, also known as Schloss Schönburg (beautiful fortress in German), is another impressive castle.

The Loreley Bend, before modern navigation systems many ships sank here.  Immediately around the bend sits Loreley Rock, a infamous, steep rock 132 meters high.  Legend has it that a pretty, naked blond woman sat on the rock singing and brushing her hair.  She distracted the boatmen from their work and caused ships to crash (described in a well-known folk song).  Today, a statue of a woman sits on top of the rock.

If you look hard, you can see the statue in front of the red train car.

A likelier explanation for the large number of accidents is the narrowness of the riverbed and many rocks around a sharp curve in the river. Even with modern navigation systems, that section of the remains dangerous.   When the water level is low, treacherous reefs appear here (if you believe the fable, they are seven hard-hearted virgins who were turned into rocks).

When we told some Germans where we were headed, they said “oh, the dangerous section.”  Just last year a ship transporting sulfhuric acid overturned there.  Luckily they were able to right it and get it under control before it leaked.  Unfortunately, two crew members were swept overboard and drowned.

Founded in the 6th century, the village of St. Goar is the former capital of the area and the most heavily fortified town on the Rhine.  It is a vibrant town in a picturesque setting, which isn’t surprising given their economies are based on tourism and wine.

In Rheinfels Castle’s heyday, it was the most powerful fortress in the area.   The Baron who built it arbitrarily increased the duties and 27 towns formed an alliance (with 1000 knights and 50 ships) to stop him.  The fortress withstood the siege and they gave up after about 16 months.

The scene of numerous bloody sieges, it has a storied history filled with violent changes of ownership. Napoleon took unchallenged control of the castle in 1796 and promptly blew a good chunk of it up.   Today, it’s only a fraction of its original size.  It’s still one of the coolest of the Rhine castles to tour.

Burg Katz, across the river from St. Goar above the town of St. Goarshausen, was bombarded in 1806 by Napoleon and rebuilt in the late 19th century.  Don’t think about hiking up there.  Some rich guy (or gal) owns it and it’s not open to the public.

Streaking Through Strasbourg

I’m a huge fan of stopping by to see something while en route somewhere else.  On our way from Colmar to Bad Kreuznach, we stopped by Strasbourg.  While we only had an hour to walk around the town, we managed to catch some of the touristic highlights.

Strasbourg is known for its river.  As we walked along the water, we studied the canals.  Le Barrage Vauban (Vauban Dam) was built in 1681.  The flood gates could be closed and the southern edge of the city flooded, in the event of an attack.  They do boat tours that looked pretty cool.  When we found the landing, a tour bus full of people moving none too quickly was boarding the boat.  We didn’t wait around for the next one.

Le Petite France is an appealing neighborhood situated on islands.  The half-timbered houses date from the 16th and 17th centuries.  It was impossible to miss the flavor of German culture that permeated the area.  This area gets decked out during the holidays for the annual Christmas Market.

Strasbourg’s gigantic gothic cathedral, Notre-Dame-de-Strasbourg, was built in the 11th and 12th centuries (although the 142 meter high spire was not finished until 1439).  It is the sixth-tallest church in the world!  I felt ant-sized next to it.

It is impressive.  Describing the exterior as ornate is an understatement.  The stone is so elaborate that it is almost lace-like.  Its stained glass windows (the Rose window in particular) are considered showstoppers.  Aficionados of churches are impressed by the giant organ, Gothic pulpit and astronomical clock.  We didn’t have time to climb the steps to the top of the bell tower to enjoy the view.  Zut Alors!

Strasbourg has long been a capital of the region.  It was bitterly fought over and changed hands between France and Germany five times between 1870 and 1945.  The Council of Europe is also located here.  For these reasons and its convenient central location) it was chosen as the location for the European Parliament.   This is as close as we got.  Again, sorry.

Getting Our History On At Fort L’Ecluse

On our first hike in the  Jura Mountains went through the Rhône Valley by Fort l’Écluse (or Fort de l’Écluse), near Leaz, France in the Pays de Gex.  The site has a view of the strategic route between the Jura Mountains and the Alps and has had fortifications since Roman times.

The Romans built defenses around 58 BC to protect them from the Helvetii (the nearby Swiss tribe). In the Middle Ages, the stronghold protected the Jura and was a center for goods (which the cyicist in me interprets to mean used to collect tolls or taxes).  Expanded, in the 17th century, the French used the fort to prevent French Protestants from fleeing France to Protestant Geneva after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (which permitted secularism and tolerance).

There are actually two forts on the site, the lower (inférieure in French) and upper (supérieure in French).  The Duke of Savoy and the Marquis de Vauban (during the reign of Louis XIV) built the lower fort.  When the Austrians destroyed the fort in 1815, the Savoy rebuilt it bigger and stronger.

The tower dovetails into the rock.

We got lucky, they were having a historical reenactment when we visited.  It got us admission and we saw solders living as they did in the 19th century.  Some of them were cooking.  I asked what they were making.  The “soldiers” jokingly said “nothing good.” They explained that soldier’s food wasn’t good and they were being historically accurate.  We spied a couple of bottles of wine tucked away behind some plants (also historically accurate?), so I think they had a good time anyway.

Built into the stone, the fort was surprisingly cool (which was good for them in their wool uniforms).  The reenactors were really nice and totally into it.  When I asked to take a picture with them they gladly agreed and, to my astonishment, passed me the musket.  It weighed 5 kilos (10.2 pounds)!

The upper fort (200 metres/660 feet above the lower one), was built in the 1830’s-40’s to protect the lower fort provide additional space and better views from which to control the valley.  It has a subterranean stairway with 1165 steps through the rock that connecting it to the lower fort.

Unfortunately, the upper fort is closed because it is unsafe for visitors.  They are doing restoration work on the lower fort.  We hope that when they finish, they start on the upper fort because it is an amazing site and filled with history.

We took a steep trail uphill for a half an hour to reach the upper fort.  I shouldn’t have bothered to ask the extremely portly gentleman we encountered in the lower parking lot for directions.  I’m pretty sure he hadn’t done much walking, let alone hiking, over the past 30 years.  The gentleman said the upper fort was closed, there was no reason to go up there and looked at me like I was crazy when I told him we were hiking.   We are glad we went anyway.  We were still able to see the ramparts.  Even better, they had exceptional views of  the Rhône, Saleve and the Alps, including Mont Blanc.

Fort l’Ecluse wasn’t just a customs station and border control in the 20th century.  It served as a military training center during World War I.   In the 1930’s, the fort was incorporated into French border fortifications (as part of the enormously inefficient Mangiot Line) that were intended to prevent a German invasion from Switzerland.  We all know how that worked out.

I was astounded to learn that it actually saw action during WWII.  It is so close to Geneva, I can only imagine the anxiety that Genevans must have felt.  The Defensive Sector of the Rhône, a French military organization controlled the French border with Switzerland around Geneva, controlled the fort.  In June 1940, German forces (the 3rd and 4th Panzer Divisions and the 13th Motorized Infantry Division) advanced from the north along the Rhône valley.  From June 22nd to 25th, the French force held the back the German forces advancing toward Albertville.   When France surrendered on June 25, the fort didn’t.  It held tight until directly ordered to let the Germans advance and surrender by General Charles Huntziger of the Vichy Regime.

Chur, We Can’t Pronounce It But We Liked It

Chur, the capital of the Graubünden canton (state/province), is Switzerland’s oldest city.  It has been continuously inhabited since Roman times, but archaeological evidence has turned up evidence of inhabitation in the bronze and iron ages (over 11,000 years ago).

Like many european towns, Chur’s old town is car-free.  This helps give it a great atmosphere.  In 1464, much of Chur burned in a massive fire.  It was rebuilt by German artisans who left their mark. The old town is rich with great architecture that looks a bit more German than the nearby Heidiland.

It is one the largest city with the most amenities between Zurich and Milan.  Better yet, it has hiking trails and ski lifts that leave from the city itself!  About 50% of the area around the city is forests.  In a matter of minutes, you can walk from the old town to mountain forests.  Love it!

Chur has the highest average temperature of all Swiss cities.  Its location in a protected valley at foot of important Alpine passes gives it the “Föhn”, (a warm wind from the Swiss mountains). and wins with his vineyards a special picture.  Graubünden, is famous for its fine wines.  Some of the more famous ones,  Gravedona, Menaggio, Dongo, are the names of nearby towns.

Wine isn’t the only thing to drink in Chur.  Mineral quality water flows from the city’s taps and fountains.  We tasted it.  They weren’t lying.  It’s pretty darn good.  The water comes from the springs in the nearby Rabiosa Gorge (4 km/2.5 miles from Chur).

Although we had a wonderful meal filled with local specialities, Chur is cosmopolitan enough to boast over 130 divers restaurants that include French, Italian, Spanish, Thai, Japanese, Greek, Portuguese, Indonesian and Chinese.  That’s not bad for a little town in Heidiland.

We visited Chur in eastern Switzerland because it was the starting point for the Bernina Express, one of Switzerland’s epic train journeys.  After a visit, we’ve deemed it worthy of a return trip.  It’s a cute town and a great starting point for outdoor activities.  It is also a convenient place from which to travel to the more expensive St. Moritz, Davos and Klosters.

Chur is not pronounced like you might expect.  To complicate matters, it is pronounced differently in Swiss German, French and Italian.  In French (don’t quote me not this) it is pronounced like “Coire.”  In Swiss German, it sounds like “Kur.”  When in doubt, just point to it on a map, smile and pull our your best “bitte,” “mercy,” or “prego”.

Fancy A Turbosieste? Powernap National Day in Switzerland

I have been remiss. I let a Swiss holiday pass without so much as a word.  My apologies. In my defense, until a few days ago, I wasn’t even aware that Turbosieste National Day existed.  For those of you who don’s speak French, it means “National Powernap Day”.   What a holiday!

How do you celebrate Turbosieste ( aka Turboschlaf in German and Turbosieste in Italian) National Day?  Powernapping in public places.

Powernapping in private is also a common and acceptable (and common) means of celebrating.  On March 14, 2012 from 2:00 – 2:15 p.m. everyone in Switzerland was asked to stop what they were doing for a 15 minute nap!

Driving can be dangerous and is even more so on the steep and windy roads that cut through Switzerland’s mountains.  Driver fatigue is the cause of 10-20% of the accidents here. To prevent driver fatigue and avoid accidents, the Swiss launched a public service campaign.  It encourages pulling off to the side of the road to nap when tired.

I’m not sure that people would feel safe sleeping roadside or at a rest area in the US.  Michael Jordan‘s father was famously murdered while napping at a rest area in the US.  However, Switzerland is quite safe and there isn’t much danger of being robbed or killed roadside.  It is the number one country for the powernap (yet another reason to come visit).

Click here  for a short video about the Turbosieste on YouTube.

 

Fribourg, Freiburg, A Charming Town And Lots Of Fun In Any Language

Founded in 1157, Fribourg was a sovereign republic until it joined the Swiss Confederation in 1481. Fribourg sits in a valley between lakes and mountains with the Saane river (Sarine in French) flowing through it. It is a gorgeous setting, but this is Switzerland, where picturesque settings abound.  We’ve gotten accustomed to the incredible beauty and now almost expect it.  Fribourg did not disappoint.

Fribourg isn’t large (population 40,000), but is charming.  It is home to the University of Fribourg.  This gives the city a slightly more cosmopolitan atmosphere and the vibrancy of a university town.   It’s medieval neighborhoods are well-preserved and charming.  The buildings show a blend of French and German Swiss culture.

Fribourg is known for its beautiful Gothic buildings.  Its old patrician townhouses combine German baroque and French classicism.  They have tons of detail, from stone carvings to ornate doors, to places to scrape your shoes.  Architectural buffs and home decor enthusiasts will love them.

Wander the small, steep streets and medieval staircases.  If you get tired, you can easily stop at a cafe in one of its many cobblestoned squares adorned with fountains.  Fribourg also has a funicular for those less enthusiastic about urban hiking.

Walk across Fribourg’s beautiful bridges.  The Pont de Berne, is a well-preserved covered wooden bridge dating from 1580.  The solid, yet elegant, Central Bridge links the old town with opposing cliffs.

Crossing the river and climbing the hill on the opposite side yields stunning views of Fribourg’s Old Town.  The St. Nicholas‘s Cathedral  lofty 15th-century Gothic bell tower is also easily visible on the skyline.

The city hall’s (Hôtel de Ville) gothic clock tower dates from 1546 (the blue pointy thing).  On Wednesdays, the square in front of city hall houses a market.  The nearby Rue de Lausanne is a car-free pedestrian zone.

Fribourg is not just the name of the city.  It is also the name of the canton (like the state).  The canton of Fribourg is bilingual with the Saane river (Sarine in French) forming the language boundary. On one side, they speak French, on the other, Swiss  German. All road signs in the Canton are bilingual!

Fribourg is the French speaking of the city.  Freiburg is the German spelling, but is not commonly used to avoid confusion with the German town of Freiburg.

It is worth taking at least an afternoon to wander Fribourg’s streets.  We plan on returning to spend an evening there.