Chasing Cowbells in Switzerland

hiking trail and house in Swiss Alps

german sign in the swiss alpsForty people pour out of the cable car and into the station on Ebenalp. I step outside, instantly chilled by the fresh air, eager to begin hiking in the legendary Swiss Alps (or, as they are known here in the Appenzell region of Switzerland, the Pre Alps). I zip my fleece and adjust my backpack, my camera still in my hands as I take in the surroundings.

Ebenalp isn’t the highest peak in this area, but from here I can see dips as the cliffs drop to alpine lakes and snow-covered tops on mountains just a few hundred feet taller than this one. Farmhouses dot the landscape; I know from a morning bike ride that the siding on them is probably faded and peeling but the window boxes are overflowing with pink and yellow flowers. Somewhere in the distance, I can hear the hollow, tinny sounds of brass cowbells.

At the top of Ebenalp stands a single cross, which is common in this area. Cows are not anatomically built to handle the steep mountainsides of the Alps, and these crosses are resurrected in order to protect them from falling as they graze along the hills.

I snap a few pictures, trying to capture a landscape that can only ever be remembered—everything looks too flat in a photograph—then I tuck my camera into my backpack and begin the walk down the steep slope. The path is wide and well-marked but covered in loose rock, and I have to concentrate to keep from slipping. Around me, the locals are walking REI stores with name brand gear from North Face and Columbia. Even the toddlers who waddle down the mountain with their parents have hiking boots and miniature poles.

Along the path I stop to take a picture of a single sign that welcomes visitors to a guesthouse with a barn set among the hills. In addition to a bed, guests will find frischkäse, joghurt and milch. I hear the clink of cowbells coming from somewhere beyond the homestead.

Again, I think about how the essence of the Alps can’t truly be captured on film, so I stash my camera and continue my hike down into the valley. That cowbell I hear might be right around the bend.

My trip to Switzerland was compensated by the Switzerland Tourism Board, but all opinions are my own.

6 Responses to “Chasing Cowbells in Switzerland”

  1. Suzy

    So incredibly true about Switzerland in pictures! I was there this summer and drove this gorgeous mountain pass. There were all of these locals on the side of the road selling cheese and signings telling you to be careful of cows. I tried to capture those scenes in photographs, but you are right. Everything looks far too flat. It’s best to just enjoy the view from memory.

    • JoAnna

      It was so amazing to me how much Appenzell felt like a fairy tale.

  2. pam

    I was a expat in the Austrian alps, and sometimes, when I look back at my pictures, I can’t believe the green. Your photos have it too, that insane, fully saturated green that’s so bright you think it can’t possibly be real.

    • JoAnna

      I don’t think my pictures from Switzerland look real at all. It was so hard to capture the essence of the hills.

  3. Jessie

    “the locals are walking REI stores…” I love this quote, and it’s so true! It seemed as though every Swiss person my friend and I passed on an easy hike up San Salvatore felt the need to say something about me hiking in Toms before sinking their hiking poles into the ground and continuing onwards.

    • JoAnna

      I wonder what they would say about my husband, who likes to hike barefoot!


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