Between the cows: painting a picture of Switzerland

This was destined to be an epic journey. One of my dearest friends and travel companions for the past 19 years, Katie, was coming to visit and we had planned a train trip across the country. From Geneva we would stop in the dazzling and fabled towns of Montreux, Gruyere, Lucerne, and Appenzell before arriving at our ultimate destination: Berggasthaus Aescher, the current cover of National Geographic’s 225 Destinations of a Lifetime, perched high on a cliff near the Lichtenstein border.

Katie arrived on a Friday evening but her bag stayed on vacation in Lisbon. With only a purse in tow, we were free to take the scenic walking route home to my loft which gave us a chance to drink in a clear view of the Alps before settling down for a relaxing evening of hearty dining and swiss chocolate, filling in the gaps in each other’s lives in between bites. I have been anticipating Katie’s joy at the Saturday morning Ferney farmers market ever since my first visit, and I couldn’t wait for morning to come. From the moment we rounded the corner into the lively crowd of buyers and vendors, Katie’s reaction to everything she saw or tasted was priceless, elevating the already boisterous French “joie de vivre” atmosphere to a new level and acquiring a collection of friends and admirers along the way. We tasted our way through the ‘tour de marche’, our bags brimming with ingredients for the weekend and nourishment for the road, things like flour-covered baguettes, sharp sheep’s cheese, a bottle of fresh olive oil and bright red strawberries, to name a few. A quick stop by the local Michellin cheese store and we were headed into Geneva to enjoy a picnic by the lake.

We detoured down a path with incredible views behind WHO, then stopped to lounge among the tulips and poppies on the grassy lawn of the botanical gardens, popping strawberries into our mouths as we watched the children on the merry-go-round. Eventually we ventured down to the lakeside and found a bench looking out over the pristine water and mountains, where we took turns tearing off huge chunks of baguette and dousing them in olive oil straight from the bottle. Once we were appropriately coated with enough flour and oil to signify a good lunch, we dusted ourselves off and followed the path around the lake to Geneva’s signature flower clock, chocolate shops and stone old town, Katie’s laugh drawing in a constant stream of new friends to add to our collection. Later, listening to our feet and our stomachs, we crossed the border back into France to create a masterpiece with our market bounty. Katie’s luggage had miraculously been delivered despite my poor attempt at directions in French, and we celebrated with a feast on the patio, a fire flickering in the brick oven next to us, before packing up to hit the road on Sunday morning.

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Sunday morning began as all Sundays should…with a breakfast of champions sourced entirely from within the city limits – fresh eggs, freshly baked bread, freshly churned butter, and homemade apricot jam…et voilà! Fueled for the day, we set off to meet my fiend Susannah at the train. Our sights were set on Gruyères for the night but we were taking the scenic route via a hiking break in Montreux and Rochers de Naye about halfway through the trip. Montreux is home to the Chemin Fleuri, which is one of the most stunning locations in Switzerland with its palm trees and brilliant floral arrangements set against a backdrop of sparkling blue water fringed by the Alps. It was a beautiful day and the sun was forming diamonds on the water, illuminating the flowers lining the path and giving us our own tropical oasis. We strolled along the lake for a while until it was time to catch a GoldenPass cog train up the adjacent mountain to the Rochers Des Naye viewpoint balanced on top of the peak.

Susannah and I had read that Rochers Des Naye was the perfect spot to begin a multitude of hikes that would wind through valleys covered in white Narcissus at this time of year, and that an extra surprise awaited us at the top…Marmot Paradise! A sanctuary for all the marmots of the world, who would supposedly begin popping out of their burrows in May and allow us to frolick in their midst.  However, as the train slowly chugged along the steep tracks up the mountain the green hills gave way to rockier terrain and we gradually noticed patches of snow beginning to appear.  Maybe it was going to be a little colder than we were expecting. Our light shirts and pants suddenly seemed inadequate as the snow piled higher and higher until we finally climbed off the train to stare in disbelief at a wall of snow literally 10 feet high! Apparently this was an unpredictably cold spring. We peeked around the corner to Marmot Paradise, confirming our suspicion that the marmots were still sleepily curled up deep under the snow.  So instead we decided to have a picnic on the sunny patio and then flee to warmer climates at a lower elevation to begin our hike down. In the middle of another lovely lunch of bread, cheese, fresh tomoatoes, basil, strawberries and apricots, a huge gust of wind suddenly blew over an entire table, smashing a set of china dishes and giving us our cue that it was time to hurry up.  We took a few minutes to admire the view and the hanglider who was getting ready to  plunge off the edge, and climbed back aboard the train.

Just 10 minutes down the mountain we emerged with relief under warm sunny skies and found a trail that would take us down to Montreux in a couple hours. Taking in the immense views over the lake and city below, we hiked through tiny towns, alpine forests, fields of wildflowers, and cobbled streets filled with adorable churches, wooden and stone chalets, and ancient stone fountains. The only noises came from cowbells and a mysterious flute whose notes guided us through a portion of the trail, perhaps a bovine pied piper leading the cows from the field…it was as if someone had neatly packaged the highlights of Switzerland into a beautiful box for us to walk through.

The trees gave way to stone alleyways lined with beautiful townhouses as the trail spit us out in the old town of Montreux.  From there we made our way once more to the train station where we parted ways with Susannah and took a seat on the next leg of the GoldenPass train route for a scenic ride through the hills to Gruyères, birthplace of the world-renowned Gruyère cheese, perched high over the Saane valley. It turns out that Sunday night is the best time to arrive in Gruyères, just as all the tourists are leaving. Our hotel, Gruyères Rooms, was perfectly located mere steps inside the walls of the medieval village. At the reception window we were handed a set of keys to an immaculate attic room with 3 beds, a jacuzzi, and a view of the mountains. Eager to tour the fortified city before dark, we dropped our bags and ran back out the door. Our jaws dropped as we reached the edge of town – it was as if we were  sitting in the middle of a Swiss postcard! Atop the ancient ramparts, we looked out over the undulating green hills freckled with cows and goats, the air again humming  with the clanging of cowbells and churchbells – the soundtrack of Switzerland. The streets were nearly empty and we had the place to ourselves as we made our way towards the handsome Château de Gruyères watching over us from the edge of town.

Circling the castle, we admired the facade and lamented our inability to remember any historical facts. However, what I lack in historical knowledge I can make up for in knowledge of the local food culture, so we left the chateau behind and headed to the square for a bubbling  pot of the area’s famous moitié-moitié cheese fondue (Gruyère and Vacherin cheeses with white wine and garlic)  at Le Chalet, recommended by the Wall Street Journal’s “Best Fondue in Switzerland”. After consuming nearly a pound of cheese, we had just enough stamina to try the Gruyere double cream for dessert – a local specialty produced only in Gruyères consisting of a decadent bowl of the heavy cream that, at over 40% fat, is nearly solid but is traditionally spooned over merengue or raspberries. We wobbled home from the restaurant giving each other satisfied grins for a job well done, taking in the last of the evening light over the beautiful city walls and quiet streets before falling into the happy sleep that comes from a long and indulgant meal between old friends. Cheese was the first thing on our minds again the next morning as we toured the Gruyere cheese factory, a cooperative supplied by around 30 producers, depending on the season, where more than 6 million litres of milk is processed into Gruyère AOP. This translates to 48 wheels of cheese a day produced in four 4,800 litre vats.  Guided by the cheerful voice of Cerise (Cherry) the cow, we learned about each step in the process (she consumes 100 kg of grass and 85 L of water each day to produce 25 L of milk, but it takes 400 L of milk to make one 35 kg cheese wheel). Cherry dropped us off at the cellars, containing a whopping 7,000 wheels of cheese which were all in the process of being tenderly salted by the world’s leading cheese robot.

Bidding the cheese adieu, we headed toward Appenzell, a 4.5 hour train ride from Gruyères near the Eastern border of the country. To test the Swiss rail system, we decided to detour through Lucerne via the fastest route which involved 5 different train transfers. Only the Swiss could make this painless! In the end, Lucerne would have been worth at least 8 trains, as it is quite possibly the most beautiful city in all of Switzerland. As soon as we exited the train station the long wooden pedestrian bridge  came into view, stretching elegantly across the turquoise Lake Lucerne. We slowly walked across, gazing up at the series of paintings depicting Switzerland’s history that were staggered along the wooden roof and stopping every few feet to gape at the gorgeous clock towers, churches, and castles bordering the lake. It started to rain as we came out the other side, so in a surprisingly decisive move we quickly chose the closest cafe for lunch and ducked under a covered table by the lake to enjoy the view while we ate. This was an excellent choice both for the cuisine and the entertainment – the food was delicious, and the label on the local beer I ordered was an exact replica of the view from our table! As we ate we watched a woman crouch next to us to feed the swans with a lunchbox of bread from the cafe – our waiter came out to warn her that they’re dangerous, so she left and was immediately replaced by another woman with a startling southern drawl who started feeding the poor things dried sausage – when we told her they were dangerous she said “oh honey I know.” We decided to leave before seeing how the drama would unfold.

Our waiter pointed us towards the old town where we explored the narrow streets and open squares before returning to catch another 3 trains to Apenzell.  Outside the window the clouds cleared and the sun shone brilliantly on the hills. The scenery morphed into what can only be described as an idyllic Swiss landscape of ancient farmhouses tucked among bright green hills dotted with livestock under a blue sky with puffy white clouds. If Gruyeres was a postcard, we were now traveling through a painting.

We exited the train station in the middle of this green wonderland and continued in amazement through the adorable Appenzell town center, a collection of painted wooden chalets and shops, to our airbnb on the other side of town. “Bonjour” had changed to “Grüezi”, the Swiss German (Swiizerdutsch) greeting of the Appenzellers, who are known for their authentic Swiss traditions and culture. For example, this was the last canton in Switzerland to allow women to vote on local issues, in 1991, when Bern was so embarrassed that it ordered the men to let the women in! Not that women didn’t have a say before, as they would traditionally gather around the voting to make sure their men voted the way they were supposed to. Still today, Appenzell demonstrates direct democracy in its purest form, voting on issues in the town center by a show of swords (for men) or yellow voting cards (for women). The town center is also surrounded by a delicious array of storefront windows where many of the canton’s local delicacies are on display, such as biber cookies (resembling gingerbread filled with almond paste), beer, the famous “alpenbitters” liquer that tastes like absinthe and is also banned from the US, and of course, cheese!

Bill and Kristina, our airbnb hosts, warmly welcomed us into their home, an authentic Swiss farmhouse that lived up to its charming pictures. Katie had been wondering what old Swiss houses were like inside – how they were heated, whether the appliances were modern, etc. – and this was the answer to all her questions! The entire house was heated by a huge ceramic wood burning stove built into the wall between the living room and kitchen. The fire is lit early in the morning and the stone absorbs the heat and then lets it out slowly throughout the day. The floors, walls, and ceilings were all made of huge creaking wooden beams, but the kitchen was furnished with a modern stove and countertop.  Directly connected to the house was the barn – now used more for storage than for animals, but with a lively collection of Appenzeller chickens (a quirky local breed) running around and sending up clouds of dust as they happily bathed in the dirt. Our room was clean and cozy, with a incredible view out over the hills, mountains, and town below. We arrived just before sunset and had enough time to mozy up to the top of the hill behind the house and watched as the sun sank low, softening the bright green grass and colorful barns.  Our hosts were kind enough to offer up their kitchen, so we cooked a simple but satisfying pesto pasta dinner and then turned in for the night.

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We awoke to a breakfast of mountain climbing proportions waiting for us in the kitchen – a massive spread of fresh bread, homemade jams, local yogurts, cheeses, and cured meats, and eggs from the barn with deep yellow yokes, cooked to order. Our stomachs put on the brakes before we were ready to give up and we stared agonizingly for a while at the untouched remains in front of us before admitting defeat.  Our only plan for the day was to get to Aescher before dark, so we decided to work off our breakfast on a leisurely hike near the house first before the predicted storms hit. Kristina recommended a path through a field to some ancient hilltop ruins with a beautiful view and sent us off with instructions to follow the yellow signs.

We saw the first sign just past the spot where we had watched the sunset the night before, directing us quite literally through the middle of a field atop some flattened grass that vaguely resembled a path. Luckily, as with all Swiss trails, there were well-positioned signs all along the way, posted on barn doors, tree trunks, and cow pastures, telling us we weren’t lost.  Halfway through our hike, the path crossed through one such cow pasture surrounded by an electric fence that had been cut in the middle and a small plastic handle attached to allow hikers to cross. The only problem was that the cow it enclosed was standing directly in front of the opening and seemed determined not to let us through. We tried to go around the side but there was a cliff. We tried a staring contest with the cow, but she won. Short of turning around, our only option was to duck under the fence and then make our way across the grazing area and hope that she was a gentle creature. We found a spot with enough space to avoid electrocution, rolled under, and walked across under the watchful gaze of our friend.

Safely across, we continued through the pasturelands. We were treated to uninterupted views of a sea of hills in varying shades of green, covered with yellow flowers that gave them a luminous quality in the sun. Weathered farmhouses dotted the landscape, herds of cows and sheep lazily grazing in their fields. It was a magical world we had walked into, and the hills were alive with the sound of Katie’s laughter. Our wonder grew with each step until we finally summited the ruins, cows popping their heads out of the grass as we passed. Yes, we were definitely standing on a canvas at the tip of someone’s brush – the real world a distant memory.

The image of a hut perched on a cliff in the middle of fields like this was the only thing that enabled us to tear ourselves away from this breathtaking view. We headed back, taking more pictures of all the sights we had captured on the way up just to make sure they were real and that we would never forget them.  When we reached the farm to collect our bags it was time to decide whether to hike up to Berggasthaus Aescher or take the cable car.  Heights are not Katie’s favorite thing, and I was beginning to realize I may not have disclosed quite as much information as I should have about where we were heading, so we asked Bill and Kristina to give us a detailed rundown of the trail so that we could make an informed decision. They both said it wasn’t bad, but the Swiss are notorious for being nonchalant about death defying hikes, so we prodded for even more information. Kristina thought long and hard and ultimately came to the conclusion that “You could fall, but you probably wouldn’t die”.  This was enough for Katie to choose the cable car. An hour later, after a pit stop in town for cookies, crepes and gelato, our hair was blowing in the wind with heads out the windows of the AppenzellerBahn on our way to the town of Wasseraun where we would catch the cable car up to Ebenalp then hike 20 minutes along the edge of a cliff to Aescher. The cable car was waiting for us when we arrived and we were the only passengers. Somehow the views grew exponentially more amazing as we ascended the mountain and then we were plopped down at the top and left to gape at the shadows of the clouds moving lazily across the green carpet stretching endlessly below us.

A small sign pointed us down a path descending from the cable car towards the guesthouse. At the bottom, just around the corner was the opening to a cave. We ventured into the dark hole to find German writing projected on the walls and stacks of rocks that had entertained previous visitors.  Once on the other side of the cave, the path led through an old monk’s hut built on the side of the mountain and then further down to a bright red church set on the edge of the cliff with the pews snugly placed under a curved opening in the rock. The trail was relatively wide and there were nice metail railings along the steep edge that guided us from one magnificent structure to the next before suddenly dropping us off right in front of the picturesque Berggasthaus stuck to the side of the mountain.

Aescher is not the place to come if you are looking for luxury, although the views from the bedroom windows were stunning. There were no showers (to conserve water) and the bedrooms were hostel-style, with 4-12 mattresses laid out side by side in each one. Our room was split into one small nest of 3 mattresses, one larger nest of 6 mattresses, and  a bunk area of 3 mattresses. We were given down comforters and pillows and told that we would be sharing the large nest with another couple.  However, nobody was in the bunk nest so we quickly clambored up and claimed it, breathing a sigh of relief that we wouldn’t be snuggling with strangers for the next two nights. Feeling comfortable with the sleeping arrangements, we toured the rest of the house to admire the exposed stone walls in the bathroom and stairwell, and the same huge woodburning stove as the farmhouse we had just come from, heating the restaurant day and night. Stepping out on the terrace, the owners informed us that only two paths were clear enough to hike this early in the season, one down to the blue waters of Lake Seealpsee in the middle of the mountains, and another heading back down to Wasserauen. In the fading light we did a quick test run of both trails to gauge chances of death if one tumbled off the side, and decided that the best plan was to take the wider path down to Wasserauen in the morning and then hike up from there through the forest and fields to Seealpsee. At that point, we could decide whether to brave the more treacherous path back up to Aescher. Decision made, we settled in among the cheerful crowd in the cozy restaurant and tucked into a huge order of the house specialty – crispy, gooey cheese rosti with a fried egg on top. After dinner we said hello and goodnight to our bunkmates, turned out the lights, and read under the covers giggling like small children until it was late enough that we hoped there would be brilliant stars. Outside, the sky was a deep royal blue but the stars were few and far between so we burrowed back under the covers and went to sleep.

Around 5am I woke up to use the bathroom and peeked my head out the door to see if the weather looked nice for our hike in a couple hours. I was startled to see the beginnings of a gorgeous sunrise coming up over the mountains!  I ran upstairs to grab a camera and shake Katie awake and ran back down to catch the rest.  Witnessing a beautiful sunrise in the middle of nowhere in almost complete solitude is both an utterly calming and moving experience, and I could do nothing but stand in awe of nature and this most basic yet unbelieveable phenomenon. I watched as, like a chameleon, the sky slowly transitioned through a rainbow of colors, from dark  blue to purple to pink to orange, before settling on a clear light blue, where I hoped it would stay until we were ready to join it.

A berggausthaus provides a simple standard breakfast, consisting of bread, local cheese, jam and coffee. We finished quickly and headed down the mountain towards Wasserauen, ready for a day of adventures. It wasn’t long before we came to a beautiful green meadow and the path split. We went right, choosing another grass path made of slightly less green grass than the field. As we talked and took in our surroundings, we began to hear music drifting towards us. There was only one structure as far as the eye could see, so we followed the sound until we were close enough to see a sign advertising “Alpkasse” for sale and pointing us in the same direction.  At the end of the drive we could see an older man sitting by his barn, sipping coffee and playing the accordian.  There was nobody else around for miles, but here he was, playing for the mountains and fields of cows for his own enjoyment. We acted out a scene attempting to buy alp cheese, but it was apparently still on its way from the village below so we left empty-handed, back down the path to Wasserauen to the jolly Swiss tunes of the accordian playing behind us.

The path turned into switchbacks leading through an alpine forest before flattening out in the middle of another cow pasture at the base of the cable car station. After a quick walk through the few buildings that comprise downtown Wasserauen we found ourselves on a steep trail heading up the mountain towards Seealpsee.  We passed from meadows into a forest, following a small creek past a beautiful waterfall and out of the trees into another clearing filled with wildflowers, this time surrounded on all sides by snow-capped mountains. In the distance we could see the cable car running up to our guesthouse, sitting on a shelf high above us.

Winding through the hills, some frosted white with flowers, others dusted with blue, pink, yellow, and purple, we wandered on until we could see the distinct turquoise water of the lake up ahead. As we drew near, the sky darkened and the rain we’d been anticipating started coming down. All of a sudden we heard a sound like thunder, but as we looked around we realized it was an avalanche of snow coming down the mountain! Fascinated and frozen in place, we watched it tumble down – it was far enough away that we weren’t in danger, but close enough to heighten our senses and put us on alert. We found a bench by the water, as far from the mountains as we could get and nicely sheltered under a tree, and munched on another picnic of bread and cheese with appenzeller cookies for dessert.

Across the lake sat another wooden guesthouse that appeared to be a promising destination to sip a hot drink and wait out the storm. With our eyes on this luxurious haven, we rounded the bottom of the lake, framed in golden buttercups, and ran into our bunkmates on the other side. They had just come from the steep trail below Aescher, and assured Katie that it was nothing to be afraid of. Mulling this over, we continued on to the hut ahead and ordered two steaming mugs of Swiss hot chocolate.

This liquid courage was enough to sway Katie’s decision about the steep trail, and shortly afterwards we were on our way up! The first section mozied through the brush with a wide swath of grass alongside us but as we continued to climb, the consequences of falling intensified, so we devised a system where Katie would hold on tightly to my backpack and concentrate on it instead of the edge. The trail was definitely not meant for anyone with a fear of heights, but Katie stayed strong and before we knew it we had reached the safety of the wide, flat, railinged terrace outside the guesthouse.

Our bunkmates, a friendly couple from Atlanta, showed up again shortly after and congratulated us on our chosen path, admitting that it was a little steeper coming up than they remembered going down. To celebrate our feat, they invited us to join them for a game of euchre using a deck of Swiss cards they’d picked up inside the hut. Swiss German cards were actually designed for Jass, the “national card game” of Switzerland (similar to pinochle), and have a different set of suits (bells SchellendeutschschweizerBlatt.svgshields SchiltendeutschschweizerBlatt.svg, rosesRosendeutschschweizerBlatt.svg, and acorns EichelndeutschschweizerBlatt.svg, only 36 cards, and different values than the 52-card decks we’re used to. After a rough go at euchre where none of us could remember what anything represented, we voted to challenge ourselves to learn the rules of Jass. Between more plates of steaming rosti and shots of alpenbitters we figured out enough to carry on a heated match well into the night. When we could no longer keep out eyes open we folded, said goodnight to the owners, and climbed into bed.

A wall of fog greeted us the next morning, wrapping the guesthouse in a thick blanket and hiding any evidence of mountains. Rain started pouring down on our way to the cable car, soaking us before we could make it inside. We eagerly boarded the warm, dry train at the bottom, feeling infintately grateful for the timing of our trip as we headed to Berlin – This must be Switzerland’s way of wishing us a Bon Voyage.

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And as an ode to the trip, Katie has written a haiku for Switzerland:

A Swiss fairytale
Mountains, fondue, chocolate, hikes
All between the cows

 

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