In Swiss utopia, the devil dwelled

Canton Uri, the birthplace of modern Switzerland, has the fog seas, glacial lakes and snow-capped mountains of Alpine fantasies – but hardly anyone knows about it.

Uri is one of Switzerland’s most scenic cantons – yet it remains one of the country’s least visited. A jagged wall of 2,000m-tall Urner Alps blocks it from neighbouring member states, and few tourists know what lies on the other side: a paradise of inky and rare Alpine orchids, swimmable cobalt alpsees (Alpine lakes) and unfettered views of alpenglühen (the pink glow that illuminates the mountain tops in morning and evening). Not to mention the snow-capped peaks, bell-clad cows and open-air cable cars of Swiss fantasies.

It is unsurprising, perhaps, that in many ways this is the birthplace of Switzerland. Swiss-German speaking Uri was one of three original “forest cantons” that broke away from the Hapsburg Dynasty, establishing what many consider to be the world’s first democracy, and it is here in Uri’s Rütli-Meadow that Switzerland’s founding Confœderatio Helvetica oath was sworn in 1291.

Having hiked Uri several times in the last four years, my favourite season for a trek remains late spring – when the flora are so bright and the scenery so silent it almost feels like snorkelling. Be aware, however, that to the Swiss, a “hike” is no mere nature excursion; instead, it is a quick-paced four- to eight-hour trek that requires mountain boots, handkerchiefs, swim trunks and nourishment like chocolate and landjäger (sticks of smoked beef and pork). Stopping to smell the flowers? Subordinate. On my first time out, I spied gorgeously mottled Alpine orchids, buttery globe-flowers and cobalt gentian – but while taking pictures, I quickly fell behind my Swiss friends.

For Uri’s most scenic trails, start on the eastern side of Lake Uri at the open-air gondola, which travels to the Ober-Axen trailhead. The car is self-operating, so use the wall-mounted phone to ring the mountain station before boarding, then pay the 13 Swiss franc round-trip fare as you exit. The seven-minute ride brings you to the three-hour, 5km Eggberge trail, where you’ll encounter hermetic farmers, mossy fairy tale forests, fragrant pinewoods and sloping meadows with plenty of room for frolicking. The first 800m are an intense vertical climb through Alpine meadow, but the trail levels out at an altitude of 1,500m and the rarefied views of Lake Uri are worth the sweat. In autumn, this is ground zero for watching the mysterious nebelmeer (fog seas that fill the valleys); spring brings warm, dry föhn winds, said by locals to cause madness.

My local friend Hansruedi Herger has guided me on most of my hikes, many of which finished at his home in Bürglen, just 4km away, over ländlermusik (traditional Swiss folk music) and plates of his mother’s deliciously gooey älplermagronen, a regional macaroni-and-cheese served with speck and applesauce. If an invitation from locals is hard to snag, take the five-minute Sittlisalp cable car (runs every 30 minutes; 10 francs return), located 12m east of Bürglen in Unterschächen, to the Sittlisalp Alpkäserei, an easy and relatively flat 3km gravel-covered loop that leads to a hydroelectric-powered cheese, dairy and shepherd’s cooperative of nine family farms. The young cheese-maker working there when I visited taught me the basics of Alpkäse, a cheese made with milk from cows grazing above 1,100m that tastes like wildflowers, is rich in Omega-3 fatty acids and has been given the label of Appellation d’Origine con Controlee (a controlled designation of origin). I sampled several kinds before purchasing a hunk of creamy, Camembert-like mutschli nature, along with a tub of herb butter, yogurt, and a whey drink called molke. Alpkäse is popular with tourists and locals, but the more astringent Alpine-butter, also sold at the farm, is an acquired taste.

While the Golzernsee hike does not end with edibles, it does lead to a 6km hike over chalet-strewn meadows, where the clanging bells of grazing cows echo across valleys. To access it, head to Bristen’s cable-car station in the valley of Maderanertal. There, the Golzernseilbahn cable car (13 francs return) ascends over green pasture and steep brushy trenches before arriving at the Golzernsee trailhead. The trail is lined with honour-system huts hawking locally quarried quartz and crystals with prices as low as five francs. Golzernsee itself is a small alpine lake in a glacial trough, perfect for summer swims and picnics. Within yodelling distance is the cosy Golzernsee Restaurant and Gasthouse (with rooms from 52 francs, including breakfast), a weathered inn with red-checked curtains and wood walls, run by local Walti Jauch and his 10 sisters. Its rooms lack televisions, but the wild blueberry sundaes, intense alpenglühen and glittery night skies make up for it.

Uri’s southern tip is home to the mighty Gotthard Massif mountain range and the historic trans-alpine St Gotthard Pass, used by Celts for centuries, ignored by Romans and discovered again by Lombards around 569AD. This is also the meeting-point of Switzerland's four linguistic regions, and the source of the Rivers Rhine and Rhône. Here, the landscape is rockier, lonelier and veined with extensive tunnels and caves. To put it in Tolkien terms, it’s the Moria Mines to Urnersee’s Rivendell.

Hikes take an especially sinister turn on the 1km Schöllenen Gorge circular trail, which overlooks a waterfall-laced canyon said to be created by the devil. The waterfall is crossed by the Teufelsbrücke (Devil’s Bridge), technically three generations of bridges built atop one another in different centuries – the ruined 1232 bridge, the 1820 bridge (now a footpath) and the currently used 1958 bridge. “The devil created the bridge for the people under the condition that the first soul to cross became his property. But the locals sent a goat instead,” Herger told me as we crossed the bridge, which has been painted by Turner and written about by Goethe. “This angered the devil so much he threw a giant boulder into the valley, creating the impassable gorge.” Swiss ingenuity got the last laugh, however, as the 220-ton Devil’s Stone was removed in 1977 to make way for a new road. This loop also passes through the Sasso San Gottardo, a demilitarised tunnel that is part of a network of clandestine Swiss Army caves and tunnels built into the mountain and used as bunkers during WWII and the Cold War. Many are now open to hikers and make for a fascinating, if dank, subterranean tour of a world rarely seen.

Despite Uri’s tranquillity, the trails are relatively easy to access from Zürich. Follow Route 4 south for 62km; the historic Axenstrasse winds gloriously for 13km around the turquoise Lake Uri. Just across the water, and reachable by steamship, is Rütli-Meadow, site of the Confœderatio Helvetica oath.

But don’t expect this part of Switzerland to stay crowd-free forever. Uri’s Gotthard Base Tunnel, the world’s longest tunnel at 57km and connecting the Swiss towns of Erstfeld and Bodio, has already been dug and should open to train passengers in 2016, the same year that a new high-speed rail service to Italy should also finish. Meanwhile, the 1.8 billion franc Andermatt project, financed by Egyptian property developer Samih Sawiris, has transformed Andermatt, a former military town in Canton Uri’s southern end, into a mega-resort with six new hotels, including the plush Chedi Hotel, which debuted in December 2013 with onsen-style thermal baths and a fireside ski bar. The resort is expected to open new golf courses, ski-lifts, restaurants and residential units – and of course, draw new tourists – in 2014. It’s a welcome addition to the region, but Uri’s best assets will always be its peace and quiet – and to experience that, the time is now.