Located in Switzerland’s most traditional region, Appenzell offers endless rolling hills and a quaint culture, writes Shuib Taib
I’M standing outside a smoking lounge at Zurich airport, having just touched down and waiting to meet the local representative. Meantime, I can’t help but admire what is probably the best looking smoking lounge in the world, for its smokeless atmosphere.
Meantime, Zurich airport is not just an airport. It is also a shopping mall, a bus and tram terminal and a railway station, where I’m heading to. With all the modern facilities, it is the kind of airport you don’t mind getting lost in. There are plenty of things to do.
Soon I’m joined by Sandy Guy, an Australian freelance journalist who has just landed.
Our conversation turns serious when we both learn that we are in Switzerland for the same event. Organising a trip for 140 media folks from 33 countries is by no means a simple feat. For one, how do you ensure these journalists arrive at about the same time?
But that is exactly what happens. The journalists invited for this trip descended at Zurich airport at about the same time although we departed from different parts of the world — Japan, Indonesia, Australia, Thailand, USA, Singapore, Spain, Austria, Russia, France, China, Czech Republic, etc.
But somehow, organisers Swiss Tourism and Appenzell Tourism have worked our travel schedule in such a way that we all arrive on time ... like a typical Swiss watch.
What is it that makes Switzerland and its people tick? Indeed, the mere mention of Switzerland can conjure a host of things and people. There is Swiss chocolate, Swiss cheese, Swiss Alps, Swiss army knife and Swiss watches. And oh, it would be a sin if we were to leave out one of the most popular Swiss brand, Roger Federer.
In a country where the Red Cross was born, Switzerland has more to her as we are about to discover as we board the train from Zurich airport to Appenzell, a quaint town in north-eastern Switzerland.
THE HILLS ARE ALIVE .... IN APPENZELL
Our 75-minute train ride to Appenzell is marked by the sight of glittering, mirror-like lakes and crystal clear springs.
Speechless at times, we can’t help feeling excited to see little cottages on vast rolling greens and gorgeous valleys which seem to go on forever. These serene, picturesque villagesmake us forget our jet-lag. As we alight from the train, the air wakes us. It is not too cold, just ideal.
Appenzell is known as the most typical of all Swiss cantons and waiting to welcome us at the train station is a young woman clad in traditional attire. Since most parts of the town is car-restricted, we follow her on foot from the train station, cutting through its picturesque main street.
It is just the start of our trip and we are already impressed by the sheer beauty of farmhouses lining its streets. With a population of about 15,000 people, mostly retirees, the pace in the town is slow.
Since it is a small town, we are to be housed in different hotels. As I wait for my shuttle to take me to Hotel Hof Weissbad, I watch a man cycling past and parking by the roadside, leaving his two-wheeler unlocked. I guess it’s safe to do so in Appenzell.
At seeing how leisurely Appenzell seems, a journalist from Thailand says: “Wonder what Sunday is like?”
Then again, perhaps the residents have not fully woken up as it is not yet 10am.
The first gathering of media folks is at an altitude of 1,791m above sea level, in the hiking region of Hoher Kasten, between the cantons of Appenzell Innerrhoden and St. Gallen, overlooking the Rhine in eastern Switzerland. It is famous for its revolving restaurant and panoramic vistas.
The best thing about sitting in the revolving restaurant is that the rolling hills are actually below our feet. Normally, the view is superb but today, thick fog blocks much of the view.
Still, the cable car trip to the highest peak allows us a bird’s eye view of Appenzell’s beautiful rolling greens.
DREAMY APPENZELLER LAND
My short walk from the hotel takes me through small alleys, paths and a little bridge across a crystal clear stream.
Houses are adorned with pretty gardens and window boxes with plants in bloom. The houses, scattered all over, look almost like from a fairytale.
While outside the town, it’s all green, Appenzell is a burst of colours. The main streets are lined with stores, boutiques, gift shops and colourfully houses.
A fine example is the Lowen Pharmacy. The brown-red farm house is adorned with beautiful paintings on its facade. This architectural gem is owned by Johannes Hugentobler, believed to be the first man to cleverly paint pictures of medicinal herbs on the round-arched panels covering the shutters. Beauty with a purpose indeed.
The distinctive signs known as tafeen (which comes from the word tavern) hung outside many shops, inns and restaurants are also a visual treat.
To see more of the signs, head for Hauptgasse (main street) in the heart of Appenzell. Neither noisy nor over-crowded, Appenzeller is most definitely a peaceful, quaint and beautiful little town.
PEACEFUL YET FESTIVE
As the main town in Switzerland’s smallest canton, Appenzell is also a tourist attraction. Yes, it is known for its cheese and exceptional restaurants, but Appenzell is steeped in culture and tradition.
In other words, if you want to have a sample of Swiss living traditions, this is the place to be. Our trip coincides with the ceremonial descent of cattle from alpine pastures, marking the start of winter.
As we gather for dinner and cocktails in the village, the sound of cow bells and yodeling suddenly permeates the air, prompting everyone to rush out to see what the commotion is all about.
We see an alpine herdsman in traditional festive costume leading cows, calves, goats and sheep, creating a carnival-like atmosphere. The three bells around the necks of the cattle are probably the only instruments in the world played by cows! Even the slight drizzle fails to dampen the spirits. And never mind that the animals leave droppings as they walk through the streets — the mood is unmistakably festive. The cattle will stay at the foot of the hills until mid-May to June.
Residents of Appenzell are passionate not only about their culture and tradition but also their handicraft. We run into alpine saddler Roger Dorig who runs a small but typical atelier selling traditional handicrafts such as brass belts, leather work for cow bells and souvenirs like key-rings.
He also labours for hours in his cute little workshop to produce decorations made of goat leather, braces, exclusive ornaments and straps for the belts.
This may sound tedious to some but for a tradition to survive, it has to be practised. The bell saddler thinks nothing of spending most of his time at his workshop doing things not many locals would.
Asked the difference between a manufactured cow bell and one that is hand-made, Dorig explains that handmade bells sound deeper and more voluminous but are more expensive.
Dorig, who took over his grandfather’s business in 1994, is among three or four locals who are continuing the trade. He started at 6 by helping out his grandfather for extra pocket money. His late grandfather, who died in 2001, taught Dorig about design.
IT’S THE MOUNTAINS!
If tradition is the soul of a country, then Appenzell is the heart of Swiss living.
Indeed, if everyday Swiss life is steeped in tradition, then Appenzell is a fine example. That it is not in the tourism path definitely works to its advantage because it has managed to preserve its authenticity.
So if you find Swiss people a little extra warm or wierd, I suspect it has very much to do with the mountains!
In a world where global trends tend to dominate the streets in most cities, this type of “living traditions” is a perfect counter-trend to globalisation.
Imagine being surrounded by majestic scenery and beautiful landscapes the whole year round. Eventually the landscapes will influence and shape your being.
Traditions is very much alive and kicking and because the country is mountainous, it has a lot to do with that too.
Note: Next week the writer takes the train to Yuerdon–les–Bains, in western Switzerland.