Switzerland is a nation measured as much by the many cultures that shape its multi-layered identity as by its steepness and elevation. Here, on the white roof of Europe, alpine splendor, shimmering lakes, and emerald valleys lead to cutting-edge cities, charming alpine towns, and lively resorts that equally embrace the past and future. Long celebrated as a destination for Europe’s jet-setting sort, it is also a haven for hikers, culture vultures, and culinary aficionados.
Given its rugged, breathtaking terrain, most Europeans once considered Switzerland too secluded and even uninhabitable. That is … until the early-19th-century Romantic Era injected the continent with a love of the great outdoors. Following in the footsteps of great poets like Byron, Shelley and Wordsworth, adventurers descended on the spectacular Alps and haven’t stopped swooning since.
“The Very Poetry of Nature”
Journeying among the Swiss Alps, you cannot help but get a sense of the infinite. Jagged peaks rise like gigantic white diamonds, carefully crafted with Mother Nature’s architectural precision. Vertical walls soar to dizzying heights, great monolithic hulks of granite shoved skyward by the epic tectonic shifts of eons past. Luminous sunlight reflects off the great sheets of snow and glaciers that spill toward narrow valleys. British Romantic writer Mary Shelley called it “the very poetry of nature.” We think you’re sure to feel inspired to write a stanza or two.
But the Alps did not always tug at the heart of poets. For centuries before Shelley, European detested the mountain range. The endless range of peaks was seen as a blister on their otherwise perfectly laid canvas of creation. They were, at worst, an ugly eyesore. At best, they were inconvenient; a roadblock that cordoned cultures off from each other and prevented free passage across the continent. Consider the legendary story of Hannibal, the Carthaginian commander who led his troops through the Alps to gain advantage over Rome. Before Hannibal could defeat the Romans, he had to consider the Alps as an equally formidable foe.
As travel for the sake of experiencing new places took hold, Europe changed its tune about Switzerland. Poets and philosophers grew rhapsodic about its infinite vistas. Many, not satisfied with merely glancing upon the mountainous glory, bravely strapped on walking boots and knapsacks so they could immerse themselves in nature’s magnificence … just because. With its staggering beauty, it seems only right that it was Switzerland that witnessed the invention of mountaineering.
The French called the long walk in the alpine wilderness le grande randonnée, or “the great wandering.” Traversing slopes and valleys and settling in to warm, inviting inns for home-cooked fare, these new sportsmen elevated outdoor trekking – once confined to flat pastures and small hills – to new heights. Tourism (and infrastructure) grew. Switzerland still attracts some of the world’s most skilled mountaineers.
Swiss Cattle: Beyond Milk and Cheese
Switzerland owes much of its geographic and cultural character to its livestock. If you’re wondering how cows and goats can help shape the terrain of a nation, consider this: For centuries, farmers have moved their livestock with the seasons, herding them to highland pastures in the summer and down into the valleys for winter so they can graze on the most fertile grounds year-round. This tradition has prevented forests from growing in the valleys while simultaneously giving birth to traditional alpine culture.
Yodeling, for instance, arose from the need for farmers and herders, often separated by vast slopes and valleys, to keep in touch with each other. The yodeler varied his pitch or pattern to communicate specific messages. His livestock, too, could identify the multi-pitched call of their owner. The first written mention of a yodel was recorded in 1545. The alphorn, too, though awkward to drag up and down mountains, was used as a signaling tool. The horn, with its long neck and wide mouth that rested on the ground, was carved from local wood and today is one of the alpine region’s most enduring symbols.
Another lasting piece of Swiss culture allowed cows to communicate to their owners. To the trained ear, the ubiquitous brass cowbell can deliver messages to the farmer from miles away and thousands of feet down a mountainside. The cadence of a healthy cow, for instance, creates an even peal in its bell. The farmer can rest easy when the tempo of his cow’s bells are steady. Should an animal get injured, its gait will shift. The resulting uneven pattern will alert the farmer that one of his cows needs attention.
One Nation, Many Cuisines
Of course, cattle are central not only to Switzerland’s farm culture, but also to its cuisine. Gruyère cheese, goat cheese, and (of course!) Swiss cheese are all staples of the diet. To sample cheese in one of the country’s most popular dishes, gather around a fondue pot burbling with the melted stuff, perfect for dipping just-baked bread. And you can be sure that other cheeses figure prominently in a culinary roster influenced by Switzerland’s French, German, and Italian cantons.
French dishes prepared in a Swiss kitchen might include a meringue made with double cream from Gruyère cheese; raclette, or potatoes covered in hot cheese; papet vaudois, a filling dish of leeks and potatoes often served with cabbage sausage; and malakoff, or fried cheese balls.
As you might expect, German cuisine in Switzerland features an array of sausages. The veal-based kalberwurst has a mild creamy flavor, often prepared with onions and gravy. Landjäger is a semi-dried sausage often enjoyed by hikers as a snack on alpine trails. Rosti resembles American hash browns and holds a beloved place as a favorite dish. In alpine regions, herdsmen invented älpermagronen, a frugal macaroni dish prepared with whatever is hand, from potatoes and bacon to cheese.
Dishes from the cantons bordering Italy tend to be more grain-based. Polenta is as common to the table here as it is in northern Italy. Risotto, too, often finds its way onto plates. And pizzoccheri, a short tagliatelle pasta, is prepared with greens and potatoes. Barley soup is beloved as a comfort food. For those with a sweet tooth, local versions of bündner nusstorte, or nut cake, are on every menu.
From its soaring majestic peaks and alpine traditions to its delicious cuisine, Switzerland offers some of the world’s richest and most memorable travel experiences, particularly when you travel with Gate 1!