From Burning a Snowman to a Cheese & Chocolate Overdose…Festivals in Switzerland are a Real Fiesta!

One of the best ways to connect with a country’s culture and traditions is by going to it’s festivals. When we lived in Washington and California, we always tried to attend some of the festivals whenever possible, from the Bite of Seattle to the Puerto Rican Festival in San Jose. My favorite part is always the food (of course); followed by the entertainment. Now that we live in Switzerland, we plan to do the same.  We’ve talked about some of the festivals, not only in Switzerland, but in Europe that we would like to go: such as the Fallas in Valencia (Valencia, Spain), Oktoberfest (Munich, Germany) and Carnevale Venezia (Venice, Italy).

Burning the Böögg

We recently witnessed of one of the biggest festivals here in Zurich, the Sechseläuten. It’s pronunciation almost sounds as saying something like “SEXY-LOYD-en” and I chuckle each time I say it. Sechseläuten is a Swiss German world that literally translates into “The six o’clock ringing of the bells”. During this festival, Zurich says goodbye to the long winter. The roots of the festival go back to medieval times when the first day of summer working hours was celebrated in the guild halls across the city. Back then, city ordinances strictly regulated the length of the working day. During winter the workday lasted as long as there was daylight, but on the summer semester (ie starting on the Monday following vernal equinox) the law proclaimed that work must cease when the church bells rang at six o’clock.

The main celebration currently happens on a Monday, but the festivities begin the day before with the children’s parade. The children’s parade has been around since 1862, and is very similar to what happens the following Monday with horses, flowers, music bands, and participants of the parade throwing candy, apples and bread to the spectators. A key difference between the two parades, is that the kid’s parade is open to EVERY child.

In contrast, the main parade on Monday, is reserved exclusively to members of the 26 guilds united in the Central Committee of the guilds of Zurich [Central Comittee of Zurich’s Guilds]. Traditionally the guilds accepted only males as members. While some of the old guilds seem to keep up this tradition, most of the new district guilds are evidently open to women, too.

A special Women’s Guild, the society woman Münster was founded in 1988 and fights for its recognition by the central committee -. thus far without success. In my opinion, Monday’s parade was a pageant of elitism, prestige, and a bit of arrogance. I believe the children’s parade was much nicer and more enjoyable. With more music and festive air.

Despite of what I may think, if you happen to be in the area during the time on the festival, this is a spectacle you do not want to miss. You will see thousands of participants and three times more the spectators; alongside horses, bands, goats, and even camels. Besides the water from the fountains, it is one of the few things you’ll enjoy for free in Zurich. So better take advantage of the opportunity while you can.

I received flowers
And wine too!
And another flower 🙂

The highlight of the festival is at 18 o’clock (6 o’clock) When a 10ft high snowman-like figure called Böögg representing winter is burned. Böögg is made from straw and cotton wool; and is charged with explosives in the head. It stands on top of a huge bonfire. The burning of the Böögg symbolizes putting and end to the winter. When the head explodes then winter is officially over. How good the upcoming summer is going to be depend on how long the head takes to explode. If it takes too long, then summer will be short and cold. This is similar to the Groundhog Day in the US and other weather lore. The Böögg was stolen in 2006 and since then the organizers of the activity keep several replicas in an undisclosed location, you know, just in case.

Burn, baby, burn!
Even far away, one can feel the heat from the blaze

After the parade, the members of the guilds that participated in the parade gather around the Böögg, in a enclosed area which the spectators can not access. Once the spectacle ends and the Böögg is reduced to a pile of ashes, the walls protecting the area is open to the public and people can cook sausages in the ashes. This year it was raining heavily and cold. Alexis and I were out since 2:45 pm until 6:30 pm. When our toes and fingers were not able to resist the cold anymore we headed home with our uncooked sausages in our backpack. Turns out the area where the cooking happens is not open until 8:00 pm.

In the name of Cheese

Another festival we attended this weekend was the Cheese Festival in Gruyères. We decided to rent a car because driving is two hours faster than taking train (round trip). This was the first time Alexis has driven in Switzerland, he was a bit nervous. He went to bed late studying all the traffic symbols and driving laws. We invited two friends and by 8:30 am we were on the road.

Alexis driving for the first time in Switzerland

The drive was beautiful. The views were amazing, exactly how I’ve seen them in postcards. It was quite interesting to see the street signs changed from German to French as we entered the French canton of Freebour. Our friends Julien and Linda joined us and we had a great time with them. We arrived in the town around 11:30 am and stopped at the Moléson cheesemaking factory first. We hopped to catch the cheese making demonstration. Unfortunately, because of the festival, they were not offering demonstrations. However, the employees were kind enough to let us into the area where they make the cheese! So we got a glimpse of how the process works and the place looks.

Happy Cows, the heart of Gruyères cheese and chocolate industries
Cows With Their cow bells in Gruyeres
Goat cheese

Next, we headed to the main town, where the festival took place. The view of the castle, the cows wearing bells and the stone walls took my breath away. We tasted several kind of cheeses, made from milk from several animals: goat, sheep and cow. All of them very tasty! We had creamy, crumbly, smooth, flaky, spreadable, and even stinky cheeses. There were cheeses for any taste and preference.

Delicious Swiss cheese
Château de Gruyères

We wanted to have lunch at Le Chalet, since it had been recommended to us. But when we got there it was full and they did not have a spot until 2 hours later. So we put our names on the list and patiently waited. In the mean time, we bought cheese, bread and hot chocolate and improvised a picnic in front of the HR Giger Museum. HR Giger won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects for the film “Alien” and he is Swiss. This museum contains the biggest collection of the existing works of him, including paintings, sculptures, film sets, etc. After our picnic, we went up to the Château de Gruyères and walked around the premises. By the time we finished walking around it, two hours had flew by and we did not have time to enter the castle. On our way back, we had a drink at the HR Giger museum’s bar. This place is decorated as the insides of an alien, inspired in the movie Alien. It it a pretty cool site to see.

Inside the HR Giger bar, notice the bones making up all the decoration in the roof, chairs and tables.

Finally at Le Chalet, we ordered a Raclette, a Swiss dish based on heating the cheese and scraping off (racler) the melted part. Like the fondue, this dish is meant to be shared. It is served with vegetables and potatoes, and bread –of course. The experience was great and we left satisfied.

Raclette and other cheese dish

During the festival we enjoyed yodeling singing and my favorite, the alphorn players and flag twirling. It was an opportunity to experience unique Swiss traditions.

Flag twirling is one of the oldest national sports of Switzerland
The alphorn has long been a tool used by shepherds. It was used to call the cows from the pastures and into the barn at milking time.

Since we had time to hit one more place before heading back to Zurich, we visited Cailler chocolate factory for our own scrumdiddlyumptious Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory experience. The factory is open until 6pm 7-7, the last tour is one hour before closing time. We made it by 4:52, so we were in the last group. The entrance costs 10 CHF per person. You get a tour which tells you about the history of chocolate and then at the end you see the assembling lines making the chocolate. The best is saved for last, when you are able to sample countless varieties of chocolate. I literally had nearly an overdose of chocolate, and do not expect to eat any more until further notice. — Who am I kidding? 🙂 —

about to go into sugar coma

Check out this video from the chocolate-making process at Cailler’s:

If all festivals in Switzerland are like the two we just experienced, I anticipate we’ll have a very busy schedule. Can not wait for the next one. For a list of events in Switzerland, visit My Switzerland.com.

Vieux Pont at Broc Gruyères, Switzerland

Tchüss!

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