If you want to find the real Swiss, I was told, there is a place near the corner where Switzerland, Austria and Germany meet, where the old ways have been preserved. That place is two half-cantons – Appenzell Ausserrhoden and Appenzell Innerrhoden – a rural pocket inhabited by famously traditional folk with quaint customs.
As these were the only (half-) cantons I had never visited, and I wanted to leave no stone unturned, I decided to make the trip this month. The timing turned out to be good, as this weekend the annual farmers market was being held in the village of Urnäsch, the highlight being the ceremonial descent of the herds from the summer pastures in the mountains (Alpabzug).
There is no better place or day to get immersed in the traditional rural Swiss life of Appenzellerland (the tourist name for both cantons combined).
Politically, the cantons are known for two things. Appenzell Innerrhoden (the Protestant one) was infamously the last Swiss canton to grant women the vote on a cantonal level, holding out until 1991 when forced to do so by the Federal Court. Today, the same half-canton is one of only two Swiss cantons where the annual voting assembly (Landesgemeinde) of the canton is held in the open air, with votes taken by a show of hands.
But this was not a day for politics. This was a day to celebrate the end of another summer season of hard work. Listen out for the men singing in this clip. The strange falsetto harmony is quite unearthly.
To complete the experience, I bought Alp cheese from the Brunner family at their stand. Made by the Mr Brunner from this summer’s milk in the chalet where he spent the past few months looking after his cows.
Next stop was Appenzell, the capital of Appenzell Innerrhoden and the home of Appenzeller beer.
I had a little wander around and an expensive coffee. Next time I’ll come back for longer and do some hiking, another thing for which Appenzellerland is famous.
I’ve been dwelling a lot lately on what I’m missing out on by not living in Ireland anymore so in the interests of positive energy I’ve put together a list of 10 wonderful things Switzerland has to offer.
1. The Alps: They take up almost two-thirds of the country’s landmass and play a big part in national consciousness and history. Whether you are sailing up in a chairlift over green meadows in a warm summer’s breeze, hiking over a glacier or swooping through a pine forest on skis, any visit to the Alps brings breath-taking moments where you just can’t get over the sheer beauty of it all.
2. Languages: For a language nut like myself, Switzerland is a fascinating mini Tower of Babel. I’ve enjoyed the challenge of cracking Swiss German, completely impenetrable the first time you hear it, even to Germans. Living in a town on the French-German language divide, there’s a lively mix of both cultures; people in my neighbourhood switch between the two languages effortlessly. How do you say hello in Switzerland’s fourth language, Romansh? Allegra!
3. Public Transport: Switzerland demonstrates what public transport should be. The service is frequent, reliable and synchronised, and can take you anywhere. Amazing that the Swiss still feel the need to have five million cars for eight million inhabitants.
4. Location, location, location: Imagine living in a place where in a couple of hours you could visit Germany, France, Italy or Austria. That place is Switzerland. Coming from an island on the edge of Europe, I still get a thrill when I stand in Zurich station and see destinations like Milan, Vienna, Warsaw and Prague on the timetable display.
5. Egalité: Go to an ice hockey match and you’ll see how strongly the Swiss feel about their local identity. People are very attached to their canton and recognise each other’s regional accents straight away. On the other hand there is no such thing as class-related accent and children of all backgrounds are educated side by side in state schools.
6. Built to last: Here’s something that amazes me. There are farmhouses in Switzerland still standing that were built in the 13th century. Not forts or castles but simple farmhouses. This surely is a sign of a great country. For more on that subject here’s a story I did about Switzerland’s oldest house in canton Schwyz: http://bit.ly/ddypTP
7. Traditions: With a huge variety of traditional celebrations and rituals still thriving, Switzerland is all about continuity. Carnival is massive, people spend half the year preparing their costumes and rehearsing with bands. The things people celebrate here feel authentic. Instead of Santa Claus, children wait excitedly for a visit from St Nicholas in early December, a man dressed as a bishop who goes from house to house giving out nuts and chocolate.
8. Waterways: For many people water is about boating and fishing – for me it’s swimming. Switzerland has a wealth of beautiful clean, accessible lakes and rivers. The water warms up by mid-summer and you can walk in without getting a heart attack. The beaches are well kept and there are numerous public pools built on the lake and river shores. So far I’ve swum in a dozen different Swiss lakes, each experience unforgettable – dozens more to go!
9. Cheese: I’m completely hooked on the national cheese dishes raclette and fondue. These melted cheese meals are an institution here, part of the weekly menu all through the winter. I can’t decide which one I like the most so I just have to keep eating them both until I make up my mind.
10. People: One in five Swiss marries someone from outside the country. Like many foreigners in Switzerland, you may start off loving one Swiss person but for those of us who stay and make the effort, the rewards are great. The Swiss I now count as friends are fun-loving, kind and generous. They make me feel at home.
It’s been a good exercise for me to count my Swiss blessings. Have you ever done the same for your adopted home?