Travel

September 15, 2012

Swiss Alpkultur: Discovering Hidden Authenticity

View from the Stockhorn Mountain looking North

F

or many years the standard tourist trip to Switzerland included group tours to the major Swiss cities such as Zurich, Basel, Bern and Geneva which today grow even more delightful and visitor friendly. Furthermore, there was usually a boat trip organized on a pristine Alpine lake and possibly a cable car or funicular ride up an awe-inspiring Swiss Alp for the view of a lifetime. Perhaps in the evening there was a Swiss Folkloric show organized in one of the large medieval halls in a city or perhaps the group was fortunate enough to be in a place during a Swiss local festival which offered a multitude of traditional cultural entertainment, crafts, regional cuisine and local wines and spirits. Certainly, this experience provides happy memories for the visitors which they will always remember. I know that it did for me the first time I came to Switzerland. I don’t think anyone forgets their first trip to Switzerland. These group movements still exist and are appropriate as well as a great deal of fun for certain types of visitors and groups of families and friends.

Evolution of Swiss tourism

Swiss Alphorn performance Bulle
Photo by Dominique Schreckling

As the tourism industry evolves and the tourists become more individualistic and now travel more independently, they oftentimes tend to avoid the top things to see and do and search for experiences that are not on the standard tourist program. As with all attractive destinations, Switzerland has also developed with the small towns getting larger. However, nearly all Swiss cities still have very well preserved medieval city centers of unlimited charm and architectural wonder. But there are more tourists arriving these days which can make a popular spot during high season a bit crowded in certain areas, especially during the many city and regional festivals.

Plethora of Swiss Festivals

Cow Bell Ringing Competition in Bulle
Photo by Dominique Schreckling

Switzerland has more festivals per capita than any other country in Europe and the number of festivals is increasing each year. This is particularly true in the growing number of high quality music festivals in recent years such as the Zermatt Unplugged held in some spectacularly beautiful venues. Most of the other traditional Swiss festivals usually take place every year and are well established with some of them having been celebrated for centuries.

The Swiss have managed to organize a festival for just about every aspect of their Alpine lives and in just about every village, town and city. Everything is celebrated in Switzerland from Carnival (or the Fasnacht) where in the village of Evolène Straw-stuffed masked men parade through the center scaring the population to Cow Bell Ringing by competitive teams from all over Switzerland. Even the end of winter is celebrated by having a bonfire to burn a giant costumed Bonhomme Hiver (The Winter man).

Specialty Swiss Festivals

Entire festivals are sometimes based on only one activity such as yodeling, alphorn performances with flag throwing, specific music such jazz and pop, hip-hop, classical and Guggen with accordionists here and there. Regional Swiss food naturally draws large crowds and the theme could solely be just one type of culinary delight such as cheese, chocolate, wines and even onions.

More athletic type festivals include the Unspunnenfest (stone throwing) and the fascinating traditional Swiss form of wrestling. Even the animals get into the party with the Combat de reines, a cow head pushing competition where no animals are injured. My favorite is the annual celebrations all over Switzerland when the cows are ascending the mountains to arrive at summer Alpine pastures. Even more festive is when they return at the end of summer with their floral crowned headdresses and prized bells passing through all the villages having festivals just for them. The herdsmen and their families also return walking with their cows or riding in antique horse drawn carriages back to the lowlands with their summer’s worth of handmade Swiss Alpine cheese. When they reach their villages and farms it’s a great celebration to be with all the friends who haven’t seen each other all summer long.


Beautiful Swiss Cows Ascend the Alps – Alp Auffahrt

Discovery of the Alpkultur Tag

Home on the Main Street of Erlenbach

While the summer masses of tourists are heading for Interlaken or Grindelwald and the extraordinary pleasures of nature and Swiss culture that await them, get off the train at the small town of Spiez, This is a charming little town on gorgeous Lake Thun where you take another train up the Simmental (Simmen Valley), direction Lenk and get off at Erlenbach for the Alpkultur Tag usually held in July. Other delightful villages further along on the lovely route are Boltigen. Oberwil, Weissenburg-Därstetten Zweisimmen St-Stephan and Lenk. This map should help orient you in this somewhat remote area of the famous Berner Oberland Alpine region.

No offense to the Erlenbach Im Simmental Tourist office and citizens but having been living in French-speaking Lausanne for a number of years, I had never heard of Erlenbach.I found out later that Jakob Ammann, a famous Anabaptist leader was born here in 1644. He was the namesake and founder of the Amish religious movement. Now if I wasn’t from the Pacfic Coast of the U.S., I might have known that from history at school had I paid more attention.

My Berner Switzerdeutsch (Bern’s Swiss-German, one of 55 dialects) speaking American friend, a real attention getter, loves Swiss regional folkloric culture. She found out about this event and she was determined that this festival, amongst hundreds to choose from, was going to be the choice for the day.

Erlenbach Arrival

Antique Wooden Chalets on Erlenbach Main Street

We arrived at the small station in Erlenbach just minutes before the official opening time of the festival at 10:00. No one got off the train with us. There was a simple wooden building with a waiting area and automated ticket kiosk but no lockers. The station was deserted and there was no Swiss décor to indicate that the village was having a festival except for a small sign. Many Swiss train stations are highly decorated during a festival so we were actually wondering if we got the day right and were in the right Erlenbach. As is often the case in Switzerland there is more than one town with the same name. We wanted Erlenbach Im Simmental and that’s useful to know when buying your train ticket because there is another Erlenbach up North on Lake Zurich and even another one not so far away in Germany!

The area around the train station was residential (chalets with Geraniums everywhere) and no one was around. We were hoping they were all at the festival and that we were at the right place. Since we had to return to Spiez after the festival to take a train to our lodgings in yet another valley, we had a weeks’ worth of gear to carry uphill looking for some evidence of activity and a hotel that might hold our backpacks and bags for the day.

On the hike up we passed signs indicating the Simmental regional trail that passes by ancient Swiss wooden chalets in the valley, some dating back to the 1500s. Along the village road winding uphill there was a mix of old and newly constructed wooden chalets but still no people.

Erlenbach Village Center

Then we went around a bend and reached what we determined to be the village center of Erlenbach. First mentioned in 1180 as Arlunbach and now with a population of 1’704, there is a magnificent little church which has covered wooden stairs at the entrance and medieval frescos inside. There is also a valley museum of interest, and many magnificent antique wooden chalets all at the foot of the Stockhorn Mountain rising 2’190 meters (7,190 ft).

Downtown Erlenbach

We saw a bank, a veterinarian’s office, an antique wooden furniture store and some other small businesses all discretely established in ornamented wooden chalets. Modern urban planning has fortunately not reached Erlenbach.

We looked for a hotel to leave the baggage but there is no hotel in Erlenbach. There’s the Krone café bar but no hotel. Herr Pulfer lets out rooms in his Chalet Stockhorn but there is no hotel in Erlenbach. I believe that this is the least touristy village that I’ve ever visited that actually has a tourist office. I’m sure that it’s not possible to find a fairy-tale village that is more authentically Swiss than Erlenbach. We were definitely off the beaten track and it also felt we went back a century or two in time. It was wonderful. A rare and appreciated experience/escape

Erlenbach Grocer to the Rescue

Mini Volg Grocery Store Bakery in Erlenbach

In the center of Erlenbach by the village fountain there was a chalet (of course) with a grocery store, a Mini Vogl which also included the village bakery. While we explained our baggage dilemma to the grocer local cars pulling milk trailers were arriving and emptying by hose their morning milking results into a milk deposit receptacle built into the grocery store building.

The delightful owner of the Mini Vogl escorted us to his private garage behind the store, showed us where he hides the garage door opener and told us we could leave our things and come and go as we please. Now this is the Swiss hospitality that you’ve heard about. Dankeschön to our new friends at Mini Vogl.

Alpkultur Tag begins

Being about 20 minutes late we could already hear angelic voices of yodeling and singing by the JodlerKlub Erlenbach that echoed melodiously around the peaceful Simmental valley. Rushing uphill on the main Chalet bordered street to the open area in front of the cable car for the Stockhorn Mountain, we encountered the village festival and practically the entirety of the village population plus regional residents. They were all gathered in the spirit of a close community to celebrate their ancient artisanal, agricultural and musical skills still passed down from generation to generation.

JodlerKlub Erlenbach Alpkultur Tag

Heads turned as we hurried up the hill through the Alpkultur Tag entrance banner to hear the rest of the JodlerKlub Erlenbach’s brilliant performance. At first we didn’t’ realize it but in fact, we were sure that we were the only tourists at the festival. Some others may have wandered over on their way up to the Stockhorn Mountain on the cable car across the street which was their destination in the first place but they were few. We were amongst cattle herders, farmers, loggers, cheese makers, regional food producers, tourist officials and small business persons with their families as well as young local couples and senior retirees … but no tourists. And everyone was smiling…all day. By the end of the day, everyone in the Erlenbach village knew the 2 Americans; one speaking French and one speaking Berner Switzerdeutsch.

Erlenbach Alpkultur Tag All Day Activities

Artisanal Bakery stand Erlenbach Alpkultur

Throughout the entire day there were various ongoing traditional Alpine attractions such as the market stalls that were set up with the regional delicacies and handy-work of the locals such as sewing items and scissor-cut art. Stands with dozens of types of local cheeses, breads, honey, Alpine herbs, and various beverage syrups including Swiss herbal syrup were on display. There were even milkshakes (in German that’s Milchshakes) and ice cream all served in an enormous stand in the shape of a Swiss milk can. As a result my friend and I had even more to pack out when we left but then we had a week of savoring the flavors of Erlenbach during our holiday.

Ongoing ancient Alpine working skill demonstrations fascinated the young and the two American tourists. There was a forge with the antique tools that was heated by coals fired up with a rotating handle, handmade shingle production, woodcarvings of small items as well as furniture and saddle making. These Swiss Alpine skills are still handed down within the families of the region. Most of the demonstrators were young people.

Farming equipment on display Alpkultur Tag

Other displays of the region included antique agricultural machinery such tractors and hay balers. Never to be left out of a Alpine culture festival is the obligatory petting zoo for the children (and for the two Americans) as well as an exhibition of clover cows.

To complete a sense of civil participation, there was a stand with information on the local economy of Erlenbach and the region where the unemployment rate is 2.35%.

Lenk-Simmental Tourism in the Bernese Oberland

Lenk-Simmental Tourism Eric Berset, The Trip Chicks, Ernst Roth

The Lenk-Simmental Tourist Office Director, Eric Berset and the Erlenbach tourist office staff had a stand with brochures, books and a hearty welcome to all. Many questions were answered and explanations given for the festival activities as well as the joys of visiting the Simmental region. Ernst Roth was there autographing his guide book with Beat Shaubhaar, Z’Bärg Im Frutigland (In the Mountains of Frutigland-in the region) where he offers information on hiking, sightseeing and eating cheeses from the 130 different Alpine cheese-makers. My friend from The Trip Chicks of Atlanta (who can actually read the book) was one of the first to get Ernst’s personalized autograph.

Erlenbach Alpkultur Tag Scheduled Activities

Mystical Alpine percussionist Magdalena Schatzmann

As mentioned the opening festivities featured the outstanding JodlerKlub Erlenbach performing several times throughout the morning. In the big tent with the long tables and benches there were a large stage covered with perhaps 100s of different bells (including cow bells of course), chimes, and a gong. We were privileged to become mesmerized by the performance of local percussionist Magdalena Schatzmann who is also the school teacher. She explained that normally she takes these percussion instruments to play in the Alps where she is more at one with the spiritual nature of these incredible mountains.

Martin Jutzeler auctioning off the cheese for charity

Every year there is a large round of locally made donated cheese to be auctioned off for the benefit of the community. Martin Jutzeler was the auctioneer for the cheese worth about Swiss Francs 200. It was finally sold after a lot of fun for Swiss Francs 240 (they were disappointed). The gallant buyer to the rescue was Nicole Künz.

After the auction everyone in the festival was invited for tasting several different kinds of regional cheeses with freshly baked bread along with wine or apple cider. In the afternoon, there was a demonstration of Swiss Alpine pasture made cheese.

Erlenbach Alpkultur Tag Afternoon Activities

Erlenbach syrups made from Swiss Alpine Herbs

There was no lack of things to do after filling up on the local Erlenbach cuisine. Horse-drawn antique coach rides were ongoing and there was a full musical afternoon with Swiss folklore music performed by the group Simmental Buebe. Typical instruments in Swiss folklore music include accordions, base, sometimes guitars, wooden spoons and other small percussion instruments. The stands with regional delights were still open with welcoming locals explaining their products.

Stockhorn Cable Car to the highest point

My friend The Trip Chick and I took the mid-day break to ride up the cable cars (one intermediary station) to the top of the Stockhorn Mountain. The entrance to the first cable car at the base in Erlenbach is a charming wooden building in which a very high tech Stockhorn cable car operates. The cable car stops to let off hikers, picnicking families and fishing enthusiasts going to the two picturesque lakes at the base of the Stockhorn Mountain. The rest of us changed to a bigger and steeper cable car going up to the top of the Stockhorn.

Top of the Stockhorn Mountain

There are nice hiking trails in this area but the direct ascent and descent of Stockhorn itself is quite steep and not recommended – at least not directly under the cable car lines.

View from the Stockhorn Mountain looking North

The second leg of the ascent is literally breathtaking and very steep. Once on top there is a 360 degree view of more than 200 Alpine peaks including a very long distance view of the highest mountain in central Europe, Mont Blanc in the French Alps. We were so fortunate to be there on an exceptionally clear day and remained enraptured by the views from every vantage point of the top of the mountain during the entire time we were there. Although there is a large restaurant where we had our obligatory hot Swiss chocolate, we were much too excited about the view to eat.

If you plan to go up this gorgeous mountain, you can check the Stockhorn Webcam (GMT + 1) which is directed towards Lake Thun to see the conditions from the top.

We were hesitant to leave this valley with these ingenuous friendly residents and their purely authentic celebration of their Swiss Alpine ways of life. If you’ve already seen the highlights of Switzerland, you may want to discover this valley. You can connect with the Lenk-Simmental Tourist Office for festivals, activities, and accommodations for the most authentically Swiss summer or winter holiday.

Unless otherwise noted, photographs are by the author.

Article by Sonja Holverson.

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