High in Switzerland's Appenzell
|The mountain hut at Ebenalp clings to a cliff and traditional ways high in Switzerland's Appenzell region.|
By Rick Steves
I'm high in the Swiss Alps in a tiny mountain hut called Ebenalp. A spry grandpa with a sweater as worn as his face pulls a wide-eyed child onto his lap and teaches him to drum with the old wooden spoons. The old-timer next to him pumps on his squeeze box. Tall sloppy mugs of beer stoke the commotion. I'm immersed in the conviviality, but eventually climb upstairs to my lofty bunk.
Hours later, unable to sleep, I poke my head out the tiny window and look wearily down on the raging party. Finally, the gang packs up their rucksacks and hikes out, disappearing over the ledge and into the moonlit forest. When their singing voices finally fade, it's quiet and I sleep, marveling at how the Swiss make mountains fun.
I'm in Appenzell, a region with none of the famous mountains but the best cow culture. Appenzell is Switzerland's most traditional region...and long the butt of jokes because of it. They say you should set your watch back ten years when you cross the cantonal border. Entire villages meet in town squares to vote. Until 1989, the women of Appenzell couldn't vote on local issues. But lately, the region has become more progressive. Locals brag that in 2000 its schools were the first in Switzerland to make English — rather than French — mandatory.
A gentle beauty blankets this region of green, rolling hills, watched over by the 8,200-foot Mount Säntis. As you travel, you'll enjoy an ever-changing parade of finely carved chalets, traditional villages and cows moaning, "Milk me." While farmers' bikini-clad daughters make hay, old ladies with scythes walk the steep roads, looking as if they just pushed the Grim Reaper down the hill. When locals are asked about Appenzell cheese, they clench their fists as they answer, "It's the best." (It is, without any doubt, the smelliest.)
If you're here in late August or early September, there's a good chance you'll get in on (or at least have your road blocked by) the ceremonial procession of flower-bedecked cows and whistling herders in formal, traditional costumes. The festive march down from the high pastures is a spontaneous move by the herding families, and when they finally do burst into town (a slow-motion Swiss Pamplona), locals young and old become children again, running joyously into the streets.
In Appenzell's towns kids play "barn" instead of "house," while Mom and Dad watch yodeling on TV. The dairy heritage is a point of local pride. Folk museums feature old-fashioned cheese-making demonstrations, peasant houses, fascinating embroidering machinery, cow art and folk-craft demonstrations.
Appenzell's highlight is a quaint and rustic old hut built into a cliff at about 5,000 feet just below a peak called Ebenalp. By chance it's more accessible than it should be — just a short hike down from the top of the Wasserauen cable car (five miles south of Appenzell town).
From the summit where the lift leaves, you savor the 360-degree Alpine view. Then head downhill. The trail leads through a prehistoric cave (slippery and dimly lit — hold the railing, and you'll soon return to daylight) and the 400-year-old Wildkirchli cave church (hermit monks lived and worshipped here from 1658 to 1853), to a 170-year-old guest house built precariously into the cliff. Originally a hut housing farmers, goats and cows, it evolved into a guest house for pilgrims coming to the monks for spiritual guidance. Today, the hermit monks are long gone and Berggasthaus Aescher welcomes tourists communing with nature. It offers cheap dorm beds and hot, hearty plates of Rösti — Switzerland's addictive cheesy hashbrowns.
From Ebenalp's sunny cliffside perch, you can almost hear the cows munching on the far side of the valley. Only the paragliders, like neon jellyfish, tag your world as 21st-century. In the distance, nestled below Säntis peak, is the isolated Seealpsee lake.
Berggasthaus Aescher has only rainwater and no shower. Weekends often come with live music and rowdy parties going into the wee hours. The hut is literally built into the cliff; its back wall is the rock itself. From the toilet, you can study both alpine geology and architecture. Sip your coffee on the deck, sheltered from drips by the gnarly overhang 100 feet above. The guest book goes back to 1940, there's a fun drawer filled with an alpine percussion section, and the piano in the comfortable dining/living room was brought in by helicopter. The mountain guesthouse (www.aescher-ai.ch) is run by Claudia and Beny Knechtle-Wyss and their five children — Bernhardt, Reto, Lukas, Lilian and Dominik — plus thirty-five sheep, twenty rabbits, three pigs, three donkeys and two dogs.
This article appeared earlier in Rick's syndicated nationwide column. If you'd like to get your travel tips fresh, contact your local newspaper and ask them to start running the "Rick Steves' Europe" column weekly (distributed by Tribune Media Services). For more information on these topics and destinations, see the Plan Your Trip section of our website.