Rambling through Switzerland's breadbasket

La Broye and the Gros-de-Vaud have often been called Switzerland's breadbasket.

It may be off the beaten track, but the Wheat Trail offers a glimpse into one of Switzerland's richest agricultural regions.

This content was published on August 5, 2002 - 08:17

The 80 km-long path takes you from the towns of Granges-Marnand and Echallens, through the rich agricultural land which straddles the borders of canton Vaud and Fribourg.

The regions through which the trail leads - La Broye and Gros-de-Vaud - lack major transport infrastructure and you will not end up there by chance. Over the centuries, they have been left to get on with what they do best - feeding the country.

Attachment to the soil

As a result, its people are deeply attached to their soil. The Wheat Trail is just another way of maintaining that contact with nature.

"This is Switzerland's breadbasket. Everyone here has some kind of link to agriculture," says Marianne Bataillard, curator of the Wheat and Bread Museum that has helped to put Echallens on the map.

It is not only wheat that this area produces in abundance, but also tobacco, maize, potatoes and sunflowers.

There are, in fact, two trails leading from Granges-Marnand, where Switzerland's second largest mill can be found, to the museum in Echallens. Between these two monuments to the wheat industry lie some 40 villages, which even in these days of modern agricultural methods, remain at one with the surrounding farmland.

"These villages - which have between 80 and 200 inhabitants - are very well preserved. There are no buildings that spoil the landscape. They are well integrated into their surroundings," says Anne Quillet Razali, who came up with the idea for the Wheat Trail.

With the financial help of the federal government and the support of the two cantonal and 24 communal authorities concerned, the Wheat Trail came into being in 1998. It is maintained and promoted by a 240-strong association, which Razali coordinates.

Symbolic plant

And between the villages, with their ancient churches, farmhouses and chalet-style grain stores, lie the golden fields of wheat and verdant broadleaf woodland, home to a rich variety of animals and birds.

"We want to emphasise the region's agriculture, its nature and its history," says Razali. It was wheat, though, that gave her the idea in the first place.

"It is a very symbolic plant - especially when we think of breaking bread, or how it transforms the landscape as the seasons change," she says, pointing out that wheat is the mainstay of the harvest festivals that matter so much to the area. "It's something to rejoice about."

Along the well-signposted trail, there are information points where hikers can learn about the importance of the region's flora and fauna, its geology, the origins of its place names, its hedgerows or the importance of water in shaping human activities like farming and forestry.

It was important, Razali felt, that as walkers - or mountain-bikers - made their way through this charming countryside, they could better understand the factors that had shaped it.

Emotional heritage

There are a variety of guided tours on offer, including one to the historical churches of the region and another based on its archaeological treasures.

Visitors can also visit a large grain-collection centre in Granges-Marnand, where the wheat - but also the corn, rye and soya - is sorted, its quality is checked and the price fixed. A growing number of farmers are offering similar visits to their properties, and some also offer food and accommodation.

At the Bread and Wheat Museum in Echallens, visitors can also help the resident bakers and make their own distinctive plaited bread.

The museum demonstrates the importance of cereal farming throughout history and in different parts of the world. But principally, it is a celebration of canton Vaud's special relationship with wheat.

Locals will instantly recognise the farm implements and machines on display. Many will wear the traditional costumes on show - even if it is only for the harvest festival.

"These exhibits are part of our emotional heritage," says Bataillard.

by Roy Probert

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