Before my trip to Switzerland, I really had no idea what I might encounter there. It had been so long since I’d been to Europe that I wasn’t really sure what to expect. My wild imagination stirred up images of farmers in lederhosen herding cows through rolling, verdant green valleys while cowbells provided a comforting, gentle background melody.
Our first stop in the country was picturesque and charming Appenzell, where I was surprised to find that stereotypical Switzerland is very much a part of the landscape. In this region of the country, farmers where traditional clothing at certain times of the year, the sound of yodeling can be heard across the hills during special occasions and many other local traditions make the destination unlike any other.
Hampi Fässler insisted he didn’t speak English well, but I understood his explanation of the local leather craft without any problems. A fifth-generation craftsman, Fässler practices leather crafts, an art that has an important place in Switzerland’s history.
His small shop is inconspicuous, just one of many quaint doorways throughout the town. Inside, the walls are crowded with leather belts and thick dog collars. Massive, heavy cowbells hang in the windows, and smaller brass bells are piled high in metal pails.
The traditional lederhosen and suspenders worn during the annual parade of cows (when the animals wear particularly large bells) are made of leather and metal, and Fässler was a master with his quick hands, shaping brass pieces and tacking the metal to the leather.
I tried my hand at the craft and put together a little leather keychain with a brass cow attached to it. Fitting, no?
Experiences are always richer when you have the chance to try the local food, and that is definitely true in Appenzell. The region’s cheese is famous the world over, and I had the chance to taste it on its home turf. The longer Appenzell cheese is stored, the more potent it becomes. To me, the dry and flavorful local cheese is best between three and six months old. By eight months, it is much too strong. Though I did get to pop a few cut up pieces in my mouth at a local cheese and meat shop, the real highlight was a bowl of Appenzell macaroni and cheese. If you get the chance, try it!
Hiking the Pre-Alps
Though not considered the Alps themselves, the hills Appenzell is situated among really are spectacular and worthy of attention. Hiking Switzerland’s mountains is not just a “tourist thing.” When I took the cable car to the top of the mountain, I shared space with several people who were clearly outfitted to wander the mountain with their families … just like any other Saturday morning.
The air in the pre-Alps is fresh, crisp and cool. I wore a sipped-up fleece and welcomed the sun on my cheeks. Winding down the mountains are strenuous trails that disappear over and around hills and past farmhouses with peeling siding.
A cross has been resurrected on top of nearly every mountain in the pre-Alps. This symbol of protection is meant to provide just a bit of help to the cows that aren’t biologically built to wander the steep mountainsides.
As I walked down the mountainside, I could hear the hollow clink of cowbells just beyond the hillsides, but very rarely did I spot these elusive animals, which graze steadily on the grass until it is time to come out of the mountains for the winter.
Leave your Justin Bieber jokes at the door—this local Appenzell pastry has true staying power. This popular Switzerland treat is a layered, soft cookie of sorts. It consists of a layer of marzipan (an almond and sugar paste) sandwiched between a gingerbread and honey dough, which is then baked for a bit.
When we made bieber, we didn’t just slap the ingredients together. Instead, we gently compressed the pieces together, and then a mold of a local Appenzell boy in lederhosen was pressed into the dough and small slices of almond were pushed into the corners for decoration. The finished product was solid and sweet … and capable of lasting for three months without refrigeration.
Learning to Yodel and Talerschwingen
Thomas Sutter, a local music teacher in Appenzell, was given the privilege (or unfortunate chore) of teaching me how to yodel. Dressed in traditional yodeling clothing—metal suspenders, leather shoes, an embroidered vest, a single earring—Thomas taught us how to sing a standard yodeling song.
Yodeling is different in various regions in Switzerland. In the Appenzell region, the songs are composed of tones instead of words, and the songs are slower in comparison to songs in other parts of the country.
The art of yodeling is used to call to the cows, and when the cattle are brought out of the mountains, farmhands that walk with the herd yodel certain songs. This tradition has been going on for hundreds of years.
As a group, we learned one song, then Thomas broke us up into four groups for different harmony parts. After practicing the song as a group with our parts (and after receiving a glance from Thomas indicating that I was severely out of tune – surprise!), we learned talerschwingen, a musical form of spinning coins to create a tone that compliments the yodeling. We spun coins in three different sized bowls, each of which created a different metallic sound.
With that skill mastered, Thomas asked for volunteers to do the talerschwingen. I volunteered immediately, hoping it would get me out of singing, but no such luck. Instead, I had to yodel and spin coins.
With this new harmony added, our teacher rounded us up and moved us outside, where we stood in one of the squares in Appenzell and performed for a crowd that stood around and cheered after we completed our performance. It feels good to know that, somewhere in this world, my poor, pathetic musical skills are appreciated, even if it was for one brief local Appenzell yodel.