Eastman Colour may have faded and climate change may have kicked in, but the heart-teasing backdrops of Jungfrau and Interlaken look just as they did behind the animated limbs of Shammi Kapoor or, in later decades, Shah Rukh Khan. Switzerland, Bollywood’s ambassador Yash Chopra observed astutely, doesn’t wrinkle. His beloved lake in Alpenrausch, the Swiss will have you know with a straight face, answers these days to Lake Chopra. Guided by signs in Hindi on Mount Titlis, you won’t feel foreign at all. Invited to visit Switzerland this summer, I prepared for a surfeit of Bollywood pastiche but a week in Appenzell returned me happily mistaken.
At Gossau, northeast of Zürich, we changed from the swift SBB train to the Appenzeller Bahnen, lugged by a smaller made-for-mountains locomotive. As it pressed uphill, the overbuilt vistas of concrete, glass and steel gave way to pastoral views.
Orchards of ripening apple and cherry trees with branches neatly akimbo like enraptured concertgoers. Cows that wouldn’t be distracted from their interminable lunch. Endless lawns of eye-soothing green, peppered with black-faced sheep, folded into dark woodlands tucked into elephant-grey crags nestled in woolly hillsides, yielding to leafy groves of walnut and plane, juniper and spruce. All stippled with impossibly dainty gabled chalets, their windowsills exploding with variegated geraniums. Then fairy-tale church steeples and barns with bales of hay ripening and fermenting into winter cow-chow. Chimneys and chicken runs, shaggy-maned ponies, loping mastiffs. Military-green tractors, Peugeots racing on curvy highways, chrome bumpers glinting. Glass-eyed cats gazing hypnotically at the grass…
Then we alighted and slipped into a town so unlike any dream sequence of clichés.
The greeting in Swiss German (distinct from Swiss Standard German) is unfamiliar even to true Germans visiting from the north. Each canton enriches the dialect with unique flavour, so it’s best to throw out your phrasebook and keep your ear to the ground.
Appenzell, the Swiss affirm, is their country at its remotest. As remote as the affluent First World can get, perhaps, for even the unheated mountain inns have coin-operated showers. It is remote enough though for the Swiss to be surprised at themselves. To regard their own people with ethnographic curiosity. Here in Ostschweiz — Eastern Switzerland, with its seven cantons including Appenzell Ausserrhoden and Appenzell Innerrhoden — tradition is kept alive and warm and given an occasional lick of paint. Cheesemaking and needlework, wrestling and yodelling, together with crafts as curious as jewellery from human hair, are proudly curated in the six-storey Museum Appenzell, where a daytrip treats you to a veritable diorama of local tradition ‘more Swiss than you think’.
The canton gets its name from the Latin for ‘estate of the Abbot’. Until 1403, when Appenzell fought free of the influence of the Abbey of St Gall, the abbot was the feudal lord. In 1597, following the Swiss Reformation, it was split into the Roman Catholic Appenzell Innerrhoden and the Protestant Appenzell Ausserrhoden.
There are striking buildings in the town centre — the painted façade of the Rathaus (Town Hall), a diminutive but charming chapel called Heiligkreuzkapelle, the beautiful Löwen pharmacy, and an enclosed building — the Castle. No nuns remain at the Convent of Maria der Engel, dating back to the 1680s, but a visit to its tabernacle, infirmary and cloister winds back the clock. Behind the monumental Catholic Church of St Maurice, with its imposing bell tower that announces the time every fifteen minutes, carved wooden doors, exquisitely detailed stained glass windows and breathtaking ceiling murals, is a churchyard so beautiful it might have inspired Thomas Gray to pen a cheerier Elegy.
Tafeens — unique signs like family coats-of-arms — dangle over shopfronts in the Hauptgasse, the main street, beyond which lies the Landsgeimendeplatz, the quadrangle where townspeople assemble every year on the last Sunday of April to elect their leaders by a public show of hands. Democracy, dating back to the 1400s, is an ancient institution in Switzerland but only in 1991 did Appenzell allow women to vote.
Across the Rhine, which curls at the foot of the Alpstein massif that separates Appenzell from the historic canton of St Gallen that encircles it, lie Austria and Liechtenstein, a hazy alpine panorama viewed from the summit of its highest peak.
Säntis (2,502m), named after a giant in a local fable, watches over the scattered houses in the vales of Appenzellerland. The giant took a fancy to the pretty gabled houses, scooped them up and flung them into his sack. One plucky farmer cut his way out with a scythe. As Säntis swung the sack, houses scattered across the meadow. The giant first turned back in rage and was then calmed by the prettiness of his handiwork, which remains so to this day.
At Hotel Hecht, where I was lodged, the staff had left a present on my pillow — a bite-sized Appenzeller Bärli-Biber. A honeyed gingerbread with almond paste stuffing, it makes for a sumptuous snack. Eating the palm-sized variant, I was told, is something of a sport among children, who are rewarded with a franc if they finish it in under a minute.
The hard, odoriferous and utterly delectable Appenzeller cheese is a staple with breakfasts of eggs, muesli (a Swiss invention) bathed in creamy yoghurt, bread and croissants (which, despite their very French name, originated in neighbouring Austria, where they are called kipferl). Don’t bother asking how the spiced cheese is made, though, because besides being an official secret, it’s also a joke — and Appenzellers are adept at enjoying a good-natured laugh at your expense. A popular commercial for the product stars three whiskered seniors seated on a bench, puffing on pipes and maintaining a stoic silence as they are implored, even bribed, for the secret of the flavoursome cheese. Nothing doing. All we are allowed to know is that it’s some kind of ‘brine’ flavoured with ‘mountain herbs’.
Cheese tempts at lunch, too, in rösti with bratwurst, or as an accompaniment to siedwurst, boiled veal sausage eaten with a delicious sauce of stewed apples. Swiss beef is superlative, and for saying so in public I’ve invited the wrath of my cow-worshipping kith and kin. Arguably, the Swiss love their cows more than we do. To the extent that besides milking them, racing them, cuddling them and fighting them, they also eat them.
Cows form the crux of Appenzell tradition in so many ways besides the obvious. At summer’s end, Appenzell celebrates a spectacular tradition, the Alpine Descent. Preceded by children leading goats, the golden-fawn bovines are led down the mountains by alpine herdsmen in traditional attire — yellow-painted leather breeches, white knitted knee-length socks and a red, collarless jacket over a white shirt. Men and boys wear a typical snake-shaped golden earring with a tiny cream ladle or Schüefli. The owner, with his faithful and industrious Bläss, an Appenzeller mountain dog, brings up the rear. Three cows at the head of the herd bear heavy, harmonized cowbells, while the herdsmen, yodelling in unison, keep the herd together. Naturjodel or wordless yodelling, which must have started as a rustic form of signalling across the Alps, has evolved into an art form the people of Appenzell Innerrhoden call Rugguusseli. Men and women perform a capella and often with accompanists on dulcimers, accordions and strings. A performance of Talerschwingen, expertly rolling a coin around the inside of a heavy glazed bowl, is often accompanied by yodelling.
Yodels also inspired the warm tones of the alphorn, the ‘mobile phone of the Alps’. Traditionally, these enormous instruments were carved from the trunks of pines that grew on hillsides. They are now designed with blocks of wood and fitted with a wooden mouthpiece.
Appenzell Innerrhoden is devoutly Roman Catholic, though younger people may be less observant. The Corpus Christi procession, which takes place on the second Thursday after Whitsunday, sees women emerge in fine traditional jewellery and costumes — elaborate headdresses of lace, finely pleated skirts and velvet bodices with intricate embroidery.
Thirsty, I crave more than mineral water. Beside the Sitter River, the Brauerei Locher brews excellent Appenzeller Beer and distils signature single malts that can get the Scots scratching their beards. The invigorating Appenzeller Alpenbitter, a potent alcoholic digestif with 42 herbs, is another regional speciality. Non-tipplers can enjoy Flauder, a sparkling sweet beverage flavoured with eiderflower, which I saw bloom in the alpine garden at Hoher Kasten, a revolving restaurant reached by a thrilling cable car ride from Brülisau, a short bus ride from Appenzell.
In clear weather, Hoher Kasten offers panoramic views of the surrounding countryside, including an overlook into Lake Constance and the wilderness of Graubünden.
Hiking trails abound, but the one most recommended is led by an expert geologist who explains the Alpstein’s intriguing limestone rock system of anticlines and synclines. The complete trail covers 15.7km in about six hours of brisk walking, but we took the equally enjoyable abridged version covering about 8km under four hours.
Unexpected rain had turned the limestone tracks slippery but we fought our way breathlessly through beds of edelweiss and primrose. Along the way, my binoculars slipped from my hands and hop-skip-jumped down the alp. Our guide René limbered after them helpfully. When he returned minutes later, sweating but empty-handed, he only said, “Hope it doesn’t kill any sheep.”
Past the blue lake of Sämtisersee, we broke for coffee at the bucolic Staubern Mountain Inn (1,751m) on the eastern ridge of the Alpstein overlooking the Rhine Valley. Sunlight trickled from the cruddy sky as we arrived spattered with dung and mud at the Bollenwees Mountain Inn, our halt for the night. After a delicious dinner of rösti and cheese dumplings soaked in vegetable soup, we hurried in the gloaming to the Furgglenalp pasture to listen to wizened dairyman Albert Räss ‘sing’ the Betruf, the traditional evening prayer call, through a broad wooden funnel. With his grown sons and wife Paula, Albert makes cheese at his modest little mountain home as he has done for half a century.
Morning revealed the enchanting Fählensee, a picturesque alpine lake at the foot of the inn, skirted by crags and high meadows from which the tinkle of cowbells floated in the chill mountain air. After breakfast (more cheese), we hiked to the opposite end of the lake to the Fählenalp, where cheesemaker Hans Koller-Grob was worrying over his sick cow.
Marmots yelped in the pastures and golden eagles soared on broad wings. We stopped for a well-earned lunch at Plattenbödeli mountain inn where the owner was handing out cider and wine to herdsmen leading alpine descents amid plenty of full-throated yodelling. The sun shone down on the valley as we returned to Brülisau to take a bus, then a train, to Appenzell.
Early next morning, we hovered over Appenzell in a hot air balloon. Up at 5,000 feet it was cold and quiet but for the rustle of wind and the hiss of the propane jets. Beneath us, sleepy Appenzell fanned out like a Legoland tableau. Sunrise gilded the flank of Säntis.
I thought I heard the giant yodel.
Swiss International Airlines (swiss.com) has daily direct flights to Zürich from Mumbai (economy return fares from approx Rs 50,500) and Delhi (economy return fares from approx Rs 50,500).
From Zürich International Airport, board a train for St Gallen and disembark at Gossau (50min, approx. CHF 12). Change platforms and take the red narrow-gauge Appenzeller Bahnen to Appenzell (42min, approx. CHF 7). Walk to the town centre (5min; sbb.ch).
The convenient Swiss Pass (from CHF 210) is valid for travel by train, bus and boat and offers entry to over 470 museums with discounts at selected hotels (swisstravelsystem.com).
The drive from Zürich to Appenzell (98km) takes a little over an hour.
A Schengen visa (approx Rs 5,100) is a prerequisite for entering Switzerland (vfs-ch-in.com).
At the airport, change money to Swiss Francs (£1 = CHF 1.23; $1 = CHF 0.91). The Euro is accepted, but change may be returned in Swiss Francs.
Where to stay
In Appenzell, Hotel Hecht, opposite St Maurice church, has clean rooms with toilet, radio, telephone, TV, minibar, safe, and WiFi (from CHF 110; Hauptgasse 9-9050 Appenzell; +41-71-788-2222, hecht-appenzell.ch).Romantik-Hotel Säntis overlooks the historic village square (from CHF 160; Landsgemeindeplatz 3 CH-9050 Appenzell; +41-71-788-1110, saentis-appenzell.ch). Hotel Adler, beside the Sitter River, is easily identifiable for its alfresco dining restaurant in summer (from CHF 100; Adlerplatz CH-9050 Appenzell; +41-71-787-1389, adlerhotel.ch).
Mountain Inn Staubern overlooks the Rhine Valley from the Alpstein ridge and is best reached by cable car from Frümsen (from CHF 60; 9467 Frümsen; open May-Nov; +41-81-757-2424, staubern.ch). Mountain Inn Bollenwees is ideal for hiking in the Alpstein and offers great views of the limpid Fählensee (rooms from CHF 64, dorms from CHF 42; 9057 Brülisau; open Apr-Oct; +41-71-799-1170, bollenwees.ch). Mountain Inn Plattenbödeli enjoys an idyllic location near hiking trails around Sämtisersee (rooms from CHF 124, dorms from CHF 42; 9058 Brülisau; open May-Nov; summer: +41-71-799-1152, winter: +41-71-799-1115,plattenboedeli.ch). For more options, see appenzellerland.ch/en/regionen-unterkuenfte.
What to do
Take in the views of the Alpstein massif on a cable car ride to Hoher Kasten revolving restaurant (9058 Brülisau; +41-71-799-1322; hoherkasten.ch). Hikers can choose from a number of easy to demanding trails in the Alpstein (alpstein.ch). Visit Museum Appenzell for a comprehensive immersion into Innerrhoden culture, traditions and music (museum.ai.ch). Slake your thirst with Appenzeller Beer at the Brauerei Locher (9050 Appenzell; +41-71-788-0140, appenzellerbier.ch). Visitors who spend more than three nights in the same accommodation are entitled to a gift of an Appenzell Card, with a bundle of attractive discounts and offers (firstname.lastname@example.org). Explore more holiday ideas at appenzell.ch.