Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

Switzerland: The hills are alive with ...

Jamie Morton gets to grips with picturesque Switzerland's double act of charming culture and flashy style.

The traditional and the futuristic often sit side-by-side in Switzerland, a famously wealthy and scenically blessed alpine paradise of a nation.
The traditional and the futuristic often sit side-by-side in Switzerland, a famously wealthy and scenically blessed alpine paradise of a nation.

Something is odd in the living postcard of Appenzell.

Down a typical Swiss lane, tucked between typically flag-adorned Swiss chalets, tourists carefully duck around a few splotches of fresh green muck.

A cow appears to have left a calling card while passing through the 1000-year-old town in the German-speaking north-east pocket of Switzerland, but it's nothing to worry about.

As if on schedule, a street-sweeping truck turns up and steam-blasts the lane back to its chocolate-box Swiss standard.

The scene's also a common juxtaposition between the traditional and futuristic in Switzerland, something which says so much about this famously wealthy and scenically blessed alpine paradise of a nation.

In agricultural Appenzell, there are about as many cows - 15,500 - as there are people but, on any given afternoon, the jangling of cowbells around the mountain slopes may be drowned out briefly by the roar of a Swiss Air Force fighter jet overhead.

Audi SUVs and open-top Porsches weave through alleyways beneath the spire of de Moritz, a Catholic church built in 1071, two centuries before the founding of Switzerland.

It's here that I start my journey, taking in a charming village atmosphere of beer gardens and chalets where centuries-old crafts - saddlers, coopers, goldsmiths and embroiderers - still thrive, aided by a bustling tourist trade that keeps around 13 per cent of the population employed.

In a basement workshop, filled with pieces of leather, gold, trinkets and tools of every kind, leatherworker Roger Duric is decorating a lederhosen strap with shiny brass cuttings showing a farmer and his cow. A fourth-generation leatherworker, he was taught the craft as a small boy by his grandfather, and if not banging out souvenir keyrings for tourists, he might be applying the finishing touches to grand cowbells, each weighing about 14kg.

"For me, it's like the farmers," he says. "It's not only a job, it's a lifestyle."

Besides its preservative-free cheese - among the spiciest and stinkiest in Switzerland - Appenzell is also celebrated for its famous century-old tonic, Appenzeller Alpenbitter.

On a tour of the distillery, I'm told its 42 herbs, seeds and flowers are combined and bottled to make a beverage so healthy that locals sip it religiously after meals to assist digestion. The exact recipe remains a closely guarded family secret - only two people know it, and the official list of ingredients is kept in a village safe - and the taste is fabulously unique.

I'm deservedly scowled at when I sample some and compare it with Jägermeister.

In Appenzell, so a joke goes, the Swiss are even more Swiss: tradition is so firmly entrenched that it remains one of the few places where voting still takes place in the town square, locals signalling their vote among the masses to exercise their unique role in Switzerland's canton-by-canton democratic system.

As the summer sun sets over this dramatic natural amphitheatre of a settlement, I hear a herdsman call out a Betruf, a traditional evening prayer, before I make my way back down to the village from the 1751m panoramic peak of Hoher Kasten in a cable car.

Over a supper of Appenzeller fare, I'm serenaded with the dulcet harmony of a men's choir, and later, an arrangement adorably performed by four young village girls: an honour few visitors are treated to.

From Appenzell, a brief train ride brings me to lakeside Lucerne, the country's cradle and geographic heart, where we stop by the Glasi Hergiswil, the most traditional glass factory in Switzerland.

After absorbing the near 200-year back story of this Lucerne institution in an interactive walk-through museum, a viewing platform allows you to look down to the factory floor and see glassmakers hard at work - or even blow some yourself.

Lucerne also boasts its own self-proclaimed "wild west" in Entlebuch, although its lush green meadows and high wooded valleys speak more of home than any notion of cacti and cowboys.

In its 400sq km of unspoiled countryside 17,000 residents, 974 farms, 100 mires (wetlands), 19 yodelling clubs dwell in a Unesco-designated biosphere.

"Bio" meaning "life" and "sphere" meaning "space", this picture-perfect pocket provides a summer playground for the outdoorsy (concession packages are available), while offering a bounty of pastas, cheeses and other delights, mostly made from locally sourced materials.

Our guide drives us to one of Entlebuch's cherished mires, where all is silent save for the sound of cowbells clanging beneath mountain mists.

We're shown how charcoal is made the traditional way - a large mound made of tightly packed pieces of timber serves as a giant oven, burning from the centre for 14 days - and try hot coffee with schnapps. This peculiar mixture is perfect when the drinker can see the bottom of the glass through the liquid's tea-brown appearance.

Locals here are also big fans of hornussen - an indigenous hybrid of golf, baseball and, er, fishing. An adept player swaggers up to a mounted puck (or hornuss) and with a long, rod-like club, swats it downfield at a blistering speed of 300km/h, the opposing team's job being to intercept it before it meets the ground.

In the fabulously diverse fabric of Switzerland, Geneva - or Genève to its Swiss-French-speaking inhabitants - steps radically away from the rural heritage of the country I've so far experienced.

Vineyards and steeple-topped villages blanket slopes that slide down into Lake Geneva as the rail journey first takes me through Lausanne, where young lovers at the station appear to be competing in a kissing contest, and then into the brick and glass world of Geneva itself.

Trams bustle by as I make my way through the old city, past cigar stores, wine shops and grand bank buildings, across the Pont du Mont-Blanc, Geneva's only road traffic bridge, and into the leafy Jardin Anglais park.

On the nearby tourist-packed Promenade du Lac, I admire the towering Jet d'Eau, one of the world's highest fountains, while nursing a Biere Panache ou Grenadine, a popular summer beverage that the average Kiwi might merely consider a fancily named shandy.

It had to be done, so dinner back in the Jardin Anglais is cheese fondue and croutons, washed down with Ramseier cider, al fresco in the golden twilight at La Potiniere Restaurant.

Strolling back through Genevan side streets, the air is thick with the smell of French food as affluent diners finish their day at upmarket restaurants, while at scrappy kebab shops and dim little bars, Saturday night is just beginning for the city's bright and young.

Geneva shouldn't be tasted without comparison with Switzerland's largest city and moneyed financial centre, Zurich.

My colourful first impression is the regular market in the historic hauptbahnhof (main train station), where travellers can take their pick between wurst, beer, crepes, myriad cheeses and meats, and nearly everything else before hopping on a train or tram.

A day-long walking tour of this beautiful old city first introduces me to the wonders of the ancient part of town. Elderly men hurl petanque balls and move chess pieces in the Lindenhof, an airy little park which, in the fourth century, served as a fort for occupying Roman forces.

Most of its narrow, cobblestoned lanes tend to slope down to the Limmat or Sihl rivers, overlooked by the twin-towered, 900-year-old Romanesque-style Fraumünster church, or the tower of St Peterskirche, its huge, 8.7m-diameter clock face the largest in Europe.

For all of historic Zurich's old-world, stone and stained-glass charm, it does have cute quirks: just visit a barenklinik if your teddy bear needs his eye sewn back on.

And there is much that is young and modern about Zurich, and not necessarily in the high-end fashion stores in the Bahnhofstrasse shopping avenue.

Zurich's once industrial western sector is a newfound home for the hip.

In Kreis 5, apartment buildings filled with young workers and students are neighbours to graceful old rail viaducts, galleries and, here, music clubs thrive.

A store selling recycled wares built from steel containers, looms above hundreds of 20-somethings ordering their first rounds in the open-air buzz of Frau Gerolds Garten below.

Sitting back and resting my tired feet, I happen to hear one of the punters discussing Switzerland's newly crowned king of Schwingen, the Swiss brand of wrestling that is surrounded by the kind of hype you see on ESPN, yet dates from medieval times and awards its champion no less a prize than a bull.

Again, I can't help seeing that double-act between ancient tradition and modern style - a combination that would simply seem bizarre in most places.

But then, as the Swiss know only too well, most places aren't Switzerland.

Why would Mickey Mouse be perched outside a Swiss chalet?

In central Switzerland, and increasingly in other parts of the country, cut-outs of children's characters and other such signs posted outside a home indicate a new addition to the family.

An old tradition recently revived, families with newborn babies receive Geburtstafel - gifts from their friends in celebration.

It's typical to prop up a large tree in front of the home - eventually to be cut down when the child reaches a certain age and the family invites their friends around for a barbecue. The signs invariably bear the name of the baby.

And, being Swiss, the custom also comes with a practical element - neighbours know to keep it down at sleeping time or, in turn, why the home might be a little noisier than it used to be.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Several airlines run stop-over flights from Auckland to Zurich. Once there, rail is the ideal way to see the country and the handy Swiss Pass offered by the Swiss Travel System provides unlimited access to trains, buses, trams and boats. Free admission to more than 400 museums is also part of the deal.

Further information: See myswitzerland.com.

Jamie Morton travelled as a guest of Switzerland Tourism.

- NZ Herald

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