“People make fun of us,” said Madeleine, owner of the lodge where I was staying in northeastern Switzerland.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because we hold on to our traditions, our costumes, our celebrations.”
She thought for a minute. “Because we are stubborn.”
She was talking about the citizens of the Appenzell region, specifically Innerrhoden, known for its exotic holiday festivals, show-of-hands’ elections, and cow parades.
Sleepless in Seealpsee
The region of Appenzell has been divided since 1597 into two half-canons. (Swiss canons are like our states.) The southeastern, more mountainous part is called Innerrhoden and is mostly Catholic. The northwestern portion is called Ausserrhoden and is mostly Protestant. Innie and Outie, together, are Appenzell.
Just east of Zürich Airport, the views turn agricultural with fields, farm towns, and community gardens. The train rolled smoothly, as kids shrieked in the aisles. The conductor checked my rail pass. Several other trains zoomed past, coming and going like cars on the interstate. In Gossau I sipped coffee at the station while waiting for the next train. Groggy, I’ve not been able to adjust to the six-hour time difference since arriving in Switzerland.
Closer to Appenzell the hills are steeper, greener, and knobby on top. Cow country. Four- and five-story natural-wood chalets, most with adjoining barns, stair-step up the slopes. Brown Swiss graze while wearing huge bronze bells.
Occasionally the train passed ski slopes and, in Jakobsbad, a luge run. Gradually it climbed into cloud-covered limestone mountains, the Appenzell Alps, capped by Säntis at over eight-thousand-feet. Appenzell is a trekker’s paradise (and a cow’s as well).
For a break, I got off the train in the town of Appenzell. The facades of the buildings on Hauptgasse, the main street, are whimsically garish. I strolled up and down a couple of times, absorbing the bright colors. The shops were all closed, noon to 2 pm, but I found some hot tomato soup and crusty bread at a bakery.
I walked through the famous Landsgemeindeplatz, which is nothing more than a parking lot. However, on special days, it serves as the venue for perhaps the world’s most extreme example of democracy in action—Landsgemeinden. Here, citizens meet in open-air assemblies to debate issues and vote publicly on laws and expenditures. Voting takes place through a show of hands—not secret ballot.
Conservative Innerrhoden has a reputation for rejecting national referendums. In the old days, to prove citizenship before voting, men were required to present their military swords. Women were not granted the right to vote until 1990!
The rail station in Wasserauen was not much more than a trekkers’ trailhead. I asked a local man for the direction to Seealpsee. Misunderstanding, he signaled with his fingers I would have to walk there, which I already knew.
I zipped my two carry-on backpacks together. I had a steep hike ahead and the rollers on the one bag would be of no value.
I headed up the trail—straight up for over an hour. It began to drizzle and I stopped to pull on a raincoat. I passed cows and low clouds. My heart was pumping under the weight of the combined packs.
Finally I arrived at Berggasthaus Seealpsee, a lodge on a beautiful high lake. Madeleine, one of the owners, offered to dry my clothes, soaked from the rain and the exertion. Before entering, she required I remove my hiking shoes and replace them with a pair of clogs from the clog room. Later I understood this was to isolate the mud, and more particularly the cow manure, to the downstairs of the lodge.
Then the sun came out. I hiked around the lake, admiring the jagged gray ridges. Foot trails, like lines in the palm of a hand, meander uphill past herders’ huts.
Back at the lodge, I ordered homemade bärlachspätzli mit appenzellerkase uberbacken (wild-garlic noodles au gratin) for dinner. A bit of a challenge to order, as no one but Madeleine speaks English and hers is limited. Madeleine asked how to say bon appétit in English. The best I could come up with was, “Enjoy your meal.” She taught it to her staff.
In the den of the cave bears
A big continental breakfast—bread, cold cuts, local cheese, muesli, yogurt, juice, and coffee. I talked with two Swiss trekkers who stopped en route for apfelkuchen and coffee. With low clouds overhead, I walked back toward Wasserauen, then turned up the muddy trail in the direction of Ebenalp. First, through a cow pasture, steep and mined with dung pies. Several Brown Swiss munched grass and clattered their dull bells.
The iconic Swiss cowbells are used to keep tabs on cows. The bell of the lead cow has the lowest pitch; the calves the highest. I wondered if the cows learn to recognize each others’ tones. (At the lodge I was amused by Madeleine’s cowbell ringtone.)
The trail was busy with trekkers, a hardy, fit-looking bunch, trim and tan, swinging their walking sticks, all dressed to the nines in European-branded hiking gear. Once through a “kissing gate,” I climbed a steeper, rockier trail with numerous switchbacks. The way was slippery from yesterday’s rain. In the more treacherous sections, steel cables had been fastened to the rock walls to serve as handrails. Across the valley I could see a waterfall and, above it, farm buildings on a high meadow.
After an hour and a half, I emerged at the stunningly situated Berggasthaus Aescher-Wildkirchli, a lodge perched precariously on a ledge against the face of a cliff. Nearby, a shed housed two tiny ponies and a dozen large rabbits. On the outside deck beneath the overhang, I drank coffee and peered at the valley far below. Trekkers came and went.
I continued on the trail around the corner of the cliff through some shanty-shelters to Wildkirchli, a series of three caves. Cave-bear skeletons, dating to 90,000 BCE, have been discovered inside. (A scary-looking bear is the symbol of Appenzell.)
Also, traces of Neanderthals, dating from 50,000 to 30,000 BCE, have been uncovered. More recently, the caves were inhabited by hermits. I stopped to visit the hermit’s hut, now a small museum, and the church in the cave.
Although cloudy, the scenery was stunning from this eagle’s nest of a view. The rocky crags looked to be Appenzell’s backbone. While I was admiring the scenery, a red cable car emerged from the valley floor toward a destination above.
I hiked through the cave and climbed out of the other side. The knoll at the top of the ridge was open and grassy. I passed the Wasserauen-Ebenalp aerial-tramway station where the cable car had docked and continued to the top of the mountain. At the mile-high summit, I stopped in Berggasthaus Ebenalp for vegetable-barley soup. Several other hikers were taking a break as well.
I decided to ride the aerial tramway down to Wasserauen and hike back to Seealpsee rather than return on the same trail by which I had just arrived. The only other passenger was an American from California. His wife was from Elyria, Ohio, and graduated from BGSU the same year as I did. The operator told us supplies for the high-altitude lodges were transported via the tramway. The buildings on the valley floor looked like Lego blocks. The ride down to them was quick and smooth.
At the bottom I began the steep trek back to Berggasthaus Seealpsee. This time, however, it was easier due to the lighter load. A class of middle-school students from near Basil were also climbing.
Past the lake and toward the end of the valley, I explored a high waterfall and found another tramway station among the small cottages and huts. The gondola was not an enclosed cabin, but instead a small open cage. I watched someone descend in it, as if riding in a shopping cart.
Back at the lodge, I ordered chäsmaggerone, a pasta, potato, cheese, and onion dish, served with apple sauce. The server proudly said, “Enjoy your meal!,” the phrase I had taught Madeleine yesterday.
Ringing in the exotic
For two hours during the night, I listened as high winds howled and rattled the windows. Next morning, with a steady thirty mile-per-hour wind at my back, I walked down the mountain road to the train station. I bought a ticket at the machine, guessing at the German, and boarded the train for Urnäsch. There, I toured the Museum of Appenzeller Customs, a folk museum.
Part of the museum is in a four-hundred-year-old house with sloping floors and low ceilings, a fun house of sorts.
Displays include traditional household items, painted furniture, tools, handicrafts, musical instruments, and, of course, giant cowbells.
Appenzell’s new year’s celebration, called Silvesterchläusen, is other-worldly. As shown in the museum’s folk-customs’ video, it is celebrated Carnival-style twice, on December 31 (Julian calendar) and January 13 (Gregorian calendar).
All of the procession participants are men. Some portray women (“the pretty ones”), wearing China-doll masks, elaborate headdresses, and beautiful gowns. Some portray “the ugly ones,” demons with scary masks and shaggy coats. The “natural ones” look like walking trees, dressed in branches and leaves.
Most bizarre are the headdresses, which are large flat-topped decorated boxes. On top are traditional scenes, portrayed with miniature figures as in a doll house; for example, a large family seated at a festive dinner table. The headdresses glow with miniature lights.
All of the participants wear huge cowbells, which they clang in rhythm throughout the day to drive away evil spirits. The larger bells weigh over sixty pounds.
Dressed in their outlandish costumes, the mummers meet in the early morning in the town squares of each village. They wander from house to house where they form a circle, shake their bells, and yodel in harmony. They are met with handshakes and refreshments wherever they go.
Appenzeller cows and goats spend winter in the valleys and summer in the high alpine meadows. When moving between the two, the herdsmen show off their livestock in the villages. Everyone breaks out their traditional costumes for these festivals. Even the cows and goats are bedecked with flowers and sport their shiniest bells.
On the way back to the lodge, I had hoped to ride the aerial tramway up to Ebenalp, take some sunny photos at the top and hike down the trail to Seealpsee. Due to the high winds, the tramway was closed, so, one more time, I labored up the mountain road directly to Seealpsee. The wind gusted all night.
Finally, I slept through the night. Must have been the mountain air. In the morning I picked my way down the hill, attempting to balance the weight of the pack against the wind behind me and the grade in front of me. Near the bottom I stopped at a spring for a cold drink and to wash the sweat from my face and neck.
I learned at the station the train would not be coming, due to an obstruction on the track caused by the wind. However, the rail company would provide a bus to get me to the next stop.
Nearby, cows nonchalantly lifted their heads and rattled their bells.