Mountain High, Yodel Low

Published in PRIMOLife Magazine November 2014

Read the whole magazine.

"Cheese is centre stage in the spectacular Alpine country of Switzerland, a land dedicated to retaining ancient traditions"

Before August of this year I’d never knowingly tasted a drop of Swiss wine, and I haven’t tasted one since. It’s not that I wouldn’t like to, it’s just that Switzerland only exports 1% of its yearly production so it’s not terribly easy to come by.

That’s Switzerland in a nutshell: full of interesting treasures which it is happy to share, but which you will have to go there to enjoy. Luckily, I got a whole week to explore some of this small but remarkable country.

After an easy transfer from Lausanne, feeling smug about travelling first-class by rail through Europe, I almost missed one of the scenic train views of which Switzerland is so proud. Comfortable in my seat and staring out the window at a vine-riddled valley wall for a while, it occurred to me to see what the other side of the train had to offer, and was greeted with an astonishing panoramic view of Lake Léman, which we were whizzing by. Unseasonal weather had gathered low clouds among the ridges and over the dark blue water, but far from gloomy, the view was warm and grand and gave me the first true jitters that always accompany the beginning of a travel adventure.

Travelling through Switzerland sometimes feels like being inside a great big scrunched up piece of paper, so dramatic and steep are the mountain ranges. Coming from a country of ancient landscapes long worn down to gently rolling plains, the shearing edges of Switzerland feel brand new, like some great hand had reached down and crumpled up flat pastures not five minutes earlier. We passed chalets, small vegetable gardens and grazing cows as we climbed, each one evidence of a civilization that had gradually crept further and further up the mountain.

My train delivered me to the resort town of Zermatt, at the foot of the mighty Matterhorn, its distinctive hooked peak considered by many to be the symbol of Switzerland. When Lord Francis Douglas of England was killed in the first successful ascent of 1865, a mourning Queen Victoria tried to make mountain climbing an illegal sport, and Zermatt a forbidden zone. Predictably, this led every Tom, Dick and Harry to don his crampons and throw a rope over his shoulders, and Alpinism was born. Although these days the town really booms in winter when the population jumps with thousands of snow bunnies and adrenalin junkies, it also thrives in summer when the stunning views, mountain biking and sheer ascents attract visitors searching for a piece of the glory that first put the town on the map.

Having never climbed anything higher than Bluff Knoll in Australia’s southwest, I can only imagine what it must feel like to stagger to the top of a mountain fresh with sweat and achievement and be rewarded with an uninterrupted view of the Matterhorn lording over the horizon. I’ll have to experience that another time, because I cheated and took a cable car to enjoy a cheeky drink on the terrace of the Sunnegger Restaurant. Clouds moved dramatically across the sky and the famous peak itself as the sun went down, to the music of four traditional alp horn players. I was well and truly in Heidi country.

After the grandiose evening of mountain views and traditional music I’d had, it was somewhat a relief to be crammed inside a tiny, no-frills alpine hut the next day.

Cheese production in the Swiss Alps is one of the most unique processes I’ve ever encountered. The Täschalp hut up in the mountains behind the small village of Täsch is capable of producing Alp cheese for approximately four months in summer from the milk of exactly 45 cows. Had I not been in the building as the cheese was being created, the odds are good that I would never have tasted it in my life. Each of the cows has an owner, and at the end of the season the owner is given an allotment of cheese according to exactly how much milk said cow produced. The very little that is leftover goes to friends or family, with only a tiny fraction finding its way down to the village itself for sale. No one really makes much money out of this enterprise, but it is considered essential by the local community as a way of maintaining a storied tradition, the quality of the mountain pastures and employment for those that are dedicated to keeping the industry active.

 A simple lunch was being prepared to my right as we were ushered into the hut, and two aproned men were busily stoking at a blasting wood fire below an enormous copper cauldron. Anticipation was in the air, and I was correct to assume that we had walked in at a critical moment: cheese master Artur and his one man team were about to start the second round of production for the day, Swiss Alps ricotta. After the first batch of curd which is destined to become hard cheese is extracted, all is not finished. Using large scoops, the two men shoveled out piles of white, steaming ricotta from the enormous cauldron into waiting molds. The hut quickly filled up with steam and the unmistakable smell of hot milk, obscuring the men to the point that their faces and rapidly moving hands were only just visible through the cloud. Once the containers were filled and capped, we took a moment to relax and chatted over local white wine and slices of matured hard cheese.

Cheese master for eight consecutive years now, Artur spends the rest of the year in his native Poland, driving a truck. As a child he saw a picture of the Matterhorn in a school textbook, fell in love with it and decided to one day live in Switzerland. This boyhood ambition drove him to adopt the Spartan lifestyle that tradition demands. Working from daybreak to sundown seven days a week for the season, the cows the two men herd, milk and feed are sometimes their only other companions. While this style of production may sound outdated and quaint, it is not likely to disappear any time soon. There are currently more than 2,000 alp huts in Switzerland, each producing its own distinct cheese, under the careful eye of cheese masters just like Artur.

The good news is that Switzerland is not short on mountains, and even its notoriously shy cheese has managed to earn itself some fame in the shape of Gruyère, proud icon of the medieval town of Gruyères. We based ourselves within its charming walls and spent the next few days exploring the surrounding area, which falls into the Fribourg canton, or state. Perched on a hill, lush green fields fall away in every direction, giving the town unparalleled views of the surrounding mountain ranges. As evening fell I walked slowly around the ramparts, imagining I was a lookout for the city, keeping my eyes peeled for the tell-tale signs of an invading army. I didn’t see any armies but I did spot a native squirrel dancing nimbly along the branches of an apple tree. I determined that he did not pose a great threat and let him continue to forage undisturbed.

One thing that you just have to accept when you visit Switzerland is that you are going to eat a lot of cheese. Possibly more than you are really comfortable with. The French may have a greater number of varieties, but no-one can top the Swiss when it comes to creative ways to eat it. I refer of course, to the famous fondue. Moitié-moitié fondue happens to be a specialty of the Fribourg region, made with equal parts Gruyère and Vacherin Fribourgeois cheese, simmered gently over a portable stove. At a restaurant at the top of Mount Molèson I gamely made my way through a large portion of the national dish, but to be frank, after a few days of a lactose-heavy diet, I was looking forward to a healthful, post-lunch walk through the fresh air.

Enter Cyril. A local mountain guide and life-long inhabitant of the region, we met at the foot of the mountain. His explanation of the history of the area quickly gave way to a much more interesting discussion as his training and passion in life was revealed. An expert on all things mountainous, he is also a story teller and medicine man. Trained by his father, who trained his father before him and so forth, Cyril possesses a veritable encyclopedia of botanical and medical knowledge. Mid-sentence he broke off to examine a tiny white bloom growing next to the trail we were taking. Digging through his rucksack to come out with a thumb-sized magnifying glass, he invited me to hold the flower up to my eyes. As it suddenly came into focus I gasped at its beauty and complexity, unseen to the naked eye. No plant escaped his attention, and I learned the properties of everything from the tiniest berry to the stinging nettle growing all around us. As we rambled down the mountain side, the ubiquitous din of cow bells ringing between the valley walls around us, I began to look around me with new eyes, wondering how many dozens of natural remedies and healing plants I was blindly trampling on. I know my Aspirin from my betadine and can read dosage instructions when I have a head cold but it was sobering to realize that I would be utterly helpless if truly left alone in the wilderness.

At least this small patch of the world is in safe hands, as Cyril is committed to sharing his knowledge, chatting to anyone who is interested, and training one of his own daughters to continue the family tradition. He also treats himself and locals from his garden pharmacopeia, home to an estimated fifty different plants but says he would never take payment for his skills, which he considers to be a gift from Mother Nature herself.

It seemed fitting that my final day in Switzerland would be spent wandering amongst grapes just like those I had spotted from my first train ride. I was eager to try some of this elusive Swiss wine, and Vully was calling. While the Geneva wine region is perhaps better known, over 150 hectares of vineyards spread out on the slopes of Mont Vully, overlooking the Lake Murten, turning out principally Chasselas and Pinot Noir.  The vineyards here are often small family run affairs, and  dropping by you are likely to get a tour from the son of the winemaker himself, as I did at the charming cellar of Le Petit Château. Stéphane, a second generation vigneron guided us through tastings and described the line of wines he and his brother are developing as we munched on the delicious regional specialty, Vully Pie, warm and fresh from his mother’s kitchen. There is little risk that Vully wine will flood the global market, but the locals seem to prefer it that way, sticking to tradition and enjoying the fruits of their labour themselves.

Switzerland has chosen “get natural” for its tourism motto, and there is no doubt that the mountains, blue skies and clear lakes beckon, but after a week of pushing past the Saint-Bernard dogs, yodeling mountain men and enormous piles of fried potato rösti to see the lesser known sides of the country, I’ve come up with a motto of my own: “Switzerland. Look closer”.

Rail Europe

I really dislike flying. Not because I am scared of plunging into the ocean or being victim of a hijacking attempt (well, a little bit), but because of the hours lost getting to the airport, queueing, security checks, crammed planes and the overpriced food. If I can go by rail, I do and thanks to Rail Europe, getting around the continent is a dream.  I positively wallowed in the opportunity to make my entire journey from France to Switzerland and within by rail. I took the high-speed TGV Lyria first class from central Paris directly to Lausanne, finishing my coffee and stepping into the carriage exactly 5 minutes before departure. A quick smile to my neighbour who was already busily tapping away on his laptop and I stretched out and started to read as the train pulled away from the station. No pesky metal detectors or miserable airport security in sight. The train apparently reached speeds of up to 300kmph but it’s a very smooth ride, and I was free to roam around, work on my laptop or simply stare out the window and watch the landscape rush by.

Once inside Switzerland, I made full and gleeful use of my Swiss Pass. A simple concept, Swiss Pass gives the bearer unlimited and full access to the entire rail, bus and boat transport system of Switzerland as well as free access to hundreds of museums and exhibitions. Children under 16 travel for free with their parents, and it makes for an incredibly easy way to get around and visit the country without a lot of forward planning.

Anna travelled to Switzerland from Paris and back courtesy of Rail Europe, and explored the country with a First Class 8-Day Swiss Pass.