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Going Back in Time in Switzerland’s Appenzell

By Rick Steves
Berggasthaus Aescher, Ebenalp, Switzerland
Below Appenzell's plateau of Ebenalp, you can overnight in this cliff-side guesthouse and enjoy stunning mountain scenery. (photo: Cameron Hewitt)

The memory of one of my earliest visits to Appenzell is a vivid one: I was joining the local crowd in their Saturday-evening get-together, huddled around small tables in a tiny mountain hut that hangs off a cliff at about 5,000 feet. A spry grandpa in a sweater as worn as his face pulled a wide-eyed child onto his lap to teach him to drum with old wooden spoons, while the old-timer next to them pumped out hearty melodies on his squeezebox. Tall, sloppy mugs of beer stoked the commotion. I was immersed in the conviviality, but eventually climbed upstairs to my bunk.

Hours later, unable to sleep, I poked my head out of my tiny window and looked wearily down on the raging party, which had spilled out onto the small deck. Finally, the gang packed up their rucksacks and hiked out, disappearing over the ledge and into the moonlit forest. When their singing voices finally faded, it was finally quiet, and I fell asleep marveling at how the Swiss are so good at making mountains fun.

Appenzell, in Switzerland's northeast corner, has none of the better-known or particularly high mountains, but it does have some of Europe's most bucolic landscapes, and the best cow culture in the Alps. Appenzell is Switzerland's most traditional region — and long the butt of jokes because of it. They say you should set your watch back 10 years when you cross the cantonal border. Entire villages meet in town squares to vote. Until 1990, the women of Inner Appenzell couldn't vote on local issues — and the canton remains stubbornly conservative.

The region's lush, gentle hills are dotted with wooden huts and happy cows, against a backdrop of a snowy ridge that culminates in a peak called Säntis. While farmers' daughters make hay, old ladies with scythes walk the steep roads, looking as if they'd 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 a doubt, Switzerland's smelliest.)

If you're here in late August or September, there's a 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, turning it into 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 that quaint and rustic old hut I'd overnighted in long ago, just below the ridge of the Ebenalp plateau. It's more accessible than it feels — just a short hike down from the top of the Wasserauen cable car (five miles south of Appenzell town).

From where the lift leaves you atop the Ebenalp, savor the 360-degree alpine view and then head downhill. The trail leads through a damp and dimly lit prehistoric cave (hold the railing) and the 400-year-old Wildkirchli cave church — where hermit monks lived and worshipped for two centuries, until 1853 — to Berggasthaus Aescher, the guesthouse built precariously into the cliff (its back wall is the rock itself). Originally a hut housing farmers, goats, and cows, in the mid-1800s Berggasthaus Aescher evolved into a guesthouse for pilgrims coming to the wildkirchli's monks for spiritual guidance.

From the Aescher's cliffside perch, you can almost hear the cows munching on the far side of the valley. In the distance, nestled below Säntis' peak, is the isolated lake called "Seealpsee" ("Lakealp Lake"). Sip your coffee on the deck, sheltered from cliff runoff by the gnarly overhang 100 feet above. The Berggasthaus Aescher is supplied only with rainwater (and no shower). Only the paragliders, like neon jellyfish, tag your world as 21st century.

Those hermit monks may be long gone, but I can't think of a better place to commune with nature while immersed in traditional Swiss alpine culture than in a mountain hut clinging to a cliff in Appenzell.