Malcolm Ginsberg discovers the specialities of Appenzell, a beautiful German-speaking village in Switzerland
Many readers will already be pretty familiar with Switzerland. It is easy enough to fly to Basel and Geneva from the UK, or go that little bit further to Zurich. Even the tiny capital of Bern is connected to London City Airport. But when it comes to Appenzell (or Appenzellerland as it is also known), just where is it?
It was because of this unfamiliarity that Tourism Switzerland chose Appenzell, a canton entirely surrounded by another, St Gallen, for an annual tourism gathering.
One has to mention “well organised”, as it is far from easy gathering more than 100 journalists from all over the world to the north-east of the country, accommodating them in what is not really much more than a village, and making the five-day occasion really worthwhile.
Appenzell is in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, which alongside French, Italian and Romansh comprise the offical languages of the country. The area became independent of the Abbey of St Gallen in 1403 and entered a league with the Old Swiss Confederacy in 1411, becoming a full member in 1513. It has since been divided into Appenzell Innerrhoden and Appenzell Ausserrhoden, which are Catholic and Protestant respectively.
We travelled first to Zurich on Swiss Air and from there caught an intercity train to Gossau, with a simple change to the local Appenzell service. The three-day Swiss Flexi Pass entitles travellers to unlimited first class travel on railways, boats and most alpine post buses. There is a 50 percent reduction on privately-owned funicular and mountain railways and free entrance to 450 museums and attractions.
Appenzell is a delightful Swiss picture postcard mountain village with a car-free high street and a collection of specialist shops, traditional craft workshops, family-run hotels and cafés. It is sited 239m above sea level, with the mighty peak of Santis towering 2,500m above. A cable car takes you right to the top, where you can enjoy lunch at the summit restaurant and see below to Lake Constance and Liechtenstein. It was a truly remarkable view when not engulfed in cloud.
Appenzell Innerrhoden is very much an agricultural area, devoted primarily to livestock breeding and dairy farming. The cheeses from this part of Switzerland are legendary. Cow’s milk is used producing a herbal brine, sometimes incorporating wine or cider.
Appenzeller has a documented history of at least 700 years. Today, about 75 dairies produce cheese, each with a different recipe for their brine wash. Most of the recipes are trade secrets. The cheese is straw-coloured, with tiny holes and a golden rind. It has a strong smell and a nutty or fruity flavour, which can range from mild to tangy, depending on how long it is aged. The best is over six months old.
Over to Appenzell’s other specialty – the hammered dulcimer. It is a musical instrument with the strings stretched over a trapezoidal sounding board and may have originated in what is today’s Iran. It is popular in Eastern Europe and as far as India, while Appenzell and the nearby village of Herisau has become a sort of tiny manufacturing centre for the contrivance. If you want one, there is a one-year wait, a bit like the Morgan car. They make one a day. We were lucky to be treated to a recital by the Appenzell Echo Group, with cello and violin added for good measure.
Appenzell has its own tourist card, which includes free travel in the region, admission to the major museums, a one-time use of the indoor tennis court and swimming pool (there is an outdoor one in the summer), a trip on the Jakobsbad toboggan run and again one time, an electric bike ride. Golf is available, too.
If you fancy the wonderful views, there are no fewer than six aerial cableways in the region, a number of which are included in the Appenzell Pass. For those who prefer hiking, some 20 themed routes are provided, ranging from just two hours and 10km, to a full day alpine march, perhaps staying at a mountain hostelry for an overnight stay. Try the different cuisine (and of course, cheeses). There is also the Joke Trail to try with children in mind.
There is no other region in Switzerland where tradition and customs are experienced as intensely in daily life as in the Appenzellerland. The locals wear a Kranzrock (traditional skirt), cameo jewellery and Mailändertuch (Milanese scarf) to perform the Stobete, the traditional dance with a string music ensemble. All year round there seems to be one excuse after another for a party.
Appenzell is also famous for beer and now whiskey. The largest independent brewery in Switzerland, Brauerei Locher AG, dates from 1886. Its speciality beers have achieved wide acclaim, as have the company’s traditional beers. Appenzeller Säntis Malt was first distilled in 1999. In 2010, Jim Murray, said to be the world’s most renowned whiskey expert, declared Appenzeller Säntis Malt European Whiskey of the Year. The whiskey is aged in old beer barrels and distinguishes itself for its caramel and honey flavours.
In closing, I must mention the annual gathering of the Landsgemeinde (Parliament). It takes place in the open air, where citizens vote directly on major issues instead of trusting elected officials to make decisions for them. (Only men were allowed to take part in proceedings until 1991, when the Swiss Supreme Court ruled that excluding women was unconstitutional.)
Voting is done by a show of hands and it seems to work. Switzerland has a long history of armed neutrality – it has not been in a state of war internationally since 1815 – and did not join the United Nations until 2002.
Appenzell perhaps typifies this outlook, with its peaceful and restful surrounds. And it’s not too expensive to enjoy a stay there, either.
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