Kandersteg in the Alps has 350 miles of hiking trails that take in aquamarine lakes, waterfalls and glaciers. (Pete Seaward)
From the first footsteps on Swiss soil you notice it – in the wheels of the airport luggage carts, in the baggage carousels, in the tailoring of the porters’ jackets, and in the movement of the wrist-watches advertised all around. Precision. It is everywhere.
From the first footsteps on Swiss soil you notice it - in the wheels of the airport luggage carts, in the baggage carousels, in the tailoring of the porters' jackets, and in the movement of the wrist-watches advertised all around. Precision. It is everywhere.
At the travel office in Zurich Airport's arrivals zone, a neatly dressed clerk invites me forward with a smile. Slim with small green eyes, he has three clocks on his desk. I ask about getting to the small town of Appenzell, in the heart of alpine country. "There is a train leaving in three minutes, 45 seconds," the clerk says without blinking. "Well, er, I'll never make that," I say. His green eyes narrowing, he mutters, "Of course you will, this is Switzerland."
Two minutes later, I board a train so silent that, when it leaves the station, I can only tell it is actually moving by looking out the window. It doesn't grate along the tracks so much as glide. Perhaps it is to be expected in the country that invented high-altitude rail travel. With its elaborate system of narrow passes, viaducts and rock-hewn tunnels, the Swiss rail network has set the standard for more than a century, since its engineers first laid tracks up and down the steepest slopes and seemingly defied the impossible.
Lulled by the silence of the carriage and the prospect of alpine rail travel, I fall into a deep, childlike sleep. When I awake, hillsides roll like waves outside the train. Overlaid with fields, their grass is the colour of crushed emeralds. There are mountains, too, grey crags looming down like broken teeth, some tinged with snow.
Alighting at Appenzell, I find myself in the backdrop for an Alpen commercial. Nudged up in the northeast of Switzerland, walled by mountains, the town and the surrounding hamlets abound with prim chalets, their window boxes overflowing in riotous reds and pinks. There are exquisitely painted stone buildings, cuckoo clocks, cow bells and perfectly squared stacks of firewood awaiting the winter freeze. With the smallest population of any canton (a touch over 15,000), its people are outnumbered by cows.
In the dazzling light of late afternoon, in the nearby village of Weissbad, a smiling farmer named Johan shows me his herd. Johan's grin never leaves his lips, and he's not the only one who is happy. His wife is happy and, as for his cows, they are simply beaming with delight.
If the village surroundings are out of an Alpen commercial, the cows are from a Milka ad. They are spotless, pale brown, pretty, and have oversized bells fastened on leather collars around their necks. As they roam the lush pastures ruminating, they make a delicious music of their own.
Johan tells me that happy cows make lots of good milk, and that good milk makes great cheese. He says he thought hard before naming them, and that they are his girls. "This one is Lisa," he says, lovingly cupping a huge bovine head in his arms as she licks him. "And this is Carmen. She can be quite naughty sometimes."
After much talk of cows, we share a bottle of the local weissbier, drops of condensation running down the side of the glass. With an edge of sweetness, it tastes of ripe malted barley, and is made with water so pure it shines.
Johan thumps down his beer and says he has something to show me. His eyes wide and excited, he leads me through into the barn. Hanging there, waist-high on a wall, are a clutch of trophies and wreathes, all won for scything grass. It turns out that Johan is a champion. When I praise this little-appreciated Swiss skill, the farmer grins until his cheeks dimple. He mumbles modesties, then, as a way of changing the subject, shows me to my room.
In fact it is not so much a room as a barn. Instead of beds there are stalls filled high with fresh straw. Johan demonstrates how Grinning, he slips out to check on the girls before turning in himself.