“So you’re from India? That’s from where the film stars come here to shoot,” was the common refrain of just about everyone we met in Switzerland. Our film industry and its quirks are the subject of radio talk shows and newspaper reports in The Land of the Cuckoo Clock. But we hadn’t gone there to discover where Kajol and company had gone to shoot the latest blockbuster. We were there to see the sights, avoiding, if possible, the tourist treadmill. Thanks to our hosts the Kollikers, we did just that.
Flowers are what I’ll always associate with the country. Every house – town houses, quaint farmhouses in the country and upland chalets all have one thing in common – a profusion of bright blossoms in their window boxes. It’s something of an art form in Switzerland. Our temporary home in the small town of Langenthal, in the canton of Bern, had them too. We’d inspect them carefully and water them lovingly every morning before setting off across the country on sight-seeing trails. The first gift we were presented by our hosts at the airport was an enormous sunflower in a pot. And the best decorated – and busiest – shops invariably were the florists. Huge sprays of impossibly exotic blossoms, garden accessories, even candles and tea-towels had flowers as their motif. The second most popular motif was, not unsurprisingly, cheese.
Going to Switzerland and not seeing a cheese dairy is something like traveling to Agra and not visiting the Taj Mahal. Or staying away from the beaches at Goa. Cheese – particularly Emmenthal, the most easily identifiable of the lot – is more than just a commodity that is exported to just about country in the developed world. On it depends tens of thousands of farmers, cows, cheese-makers, traders and manufacturers of a gamut of goods from fortified animal drink for cows (yes, there really is such a thing) to agricultural machinery.
Cheese is the end product, the top of the food chain as it were, that extends from a carefully thought out Government policy of encouraging miles of rolling grasslands. Dairy farming is a natural corollary, so is ecological protection. And the movie moguls of the Indian film industry have a wealth of locations to shoot in!
Emmenthal is a district in the canton of Bern. Golden light, low rolling hills, placid cows and country houses with a typical curved overhang distinguish it from every other region across the country’s 30 cantons. Affoltern is just one village in the district, but it’s better known than the rest because it contains the best-known show-dairy in the country. As we drove by, our hosts were reluctant to go in at first. “It’s so crowded,” they said, eyeing the 30 cars parked outside with dismay. When we pointed out that in Delhi 300 cars outside a similar place would be considered virtually empty, they capitulated.
A 4,000 litre vat – normal by Swiss dairy standards – was heating that morning’s milk and the previous evening’s. The cheese-maker explained that that particular combination was the secret for the famous eyes of Emmenthal cheese. Rennet, the curdling agent, was added, and the mixture mechanically stirred by giant harps. When the resultant curds were a certain size, the vat was switched off and the mixture strained. The whey went to feed farm animals and the curds were put in moulds to set, and then ripen after being washed in brine. With minor variations, it was about the same technique we saw elsewhere. What makes the cheese taste different is the quality of milk, which is, in turn, influenced by the feed of the cattle and the length of ripening time.
The essence of the country is in the villages we saw on our innumerable trips. Rolling fields and lush evergreen forests that lay on either side of the road gave on to clusters of charming all-wood houses. “No, they’re not chalets,” our hosts would tell us. A chalet refers to a particular type of architecture in the uplands. The best chalets we saw were in the charming lake-side town of Brienze. The town has another claim to fame: it has the only ayurvedic center we saw in Switzerland! Picture postcard chalets, complete with blindingly bright window boxes, also clamber up the steep hillsides in Grindelwald, halfway up to Kleiner Scheidegg.
The train-ride to Kleiner Scheidegg in the shadow of Mount Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau (I found the never-endings valleys surrounding them more spectacular) was the only touristy trip our hosts allowed us to make. “No, we are not going to Interlaken,” they stated firmly, against our piteous pleas that it was on the must-see list of our countrymen. “It’s nothing besides overpriced hotels and shops,” they insisted. They won. After all, they were driving us around. Kleiner Scheidegg had a preponderance of Japanese tourists and the only other somewhat tourist-filled city we visited – Lucerne – was crammed with our countrymen bargaining for watches, but during the rest of our travels, the Kollikers steered us firmly in the direction of unsung villages, where the only tourists were Swiss senior citizens.
One fallout of the famously high standard of living in Switzerland is that the elderly are on a roll thanks to their handsome pensions. Groups of twittering old biddies shared our modest hostelry in Reckingen, canton of Valais/Wallis. The impossibly picturesque village boasted a total population of four hundred souls. Most of them appeared to have left, anyway – the bright lights of the city beckon the younger generation, just as it does all over the world. I’d be more than happy to live the rest of my life in a century-old wooden house, complete with creaking floorboards, listening to the sound of the dreamily musical cow-bells in the nearby fields. Joopi Hotel, where we stayed, was the local adda for a few geriatric souls who congregated here evening. The sight of an Indian couple dining with a Swiss couple appeared irresistible to them.
A short drive away, through some of the most picturesque scenery you’ll find in Switzerland, is another village. Ernen is, if anything, more rustic than Reckingen, and we were amazed to discover a New Age store selling health foods and wind-chimes. The tightly-knit commune of eight young people who run it, as well as a nearby farm, are something of a spectacle in ultra-conservative Switzerland. Pia, the only one who knew any English at all, said that the group of friends grew organic vegetables and herbs and made their own cheese. Most of the produce was sent by the super-efficient Swiss post to speciality shops in Zurich .
If there was a prize for the best graveyard in Switzerland, it would probably go to the one in Ernen. Outside a spectacular church, overlooking a lush valley was the prettiest cemetery in the country. Like all graveyards we saw, this one too had neat rows of grave-stones and tiny patches, the size of an individual grave, planted with flowers. The Japanese may have their bonsai, but the Swiss have their own version, lovingly tended by family members of the deceased.
The Swiss are constantly amazed by the Japanese who whiz in and out of the country in two days flat, smug in the knowledge that they have seen Switzerland. We saw too little in the most hectic fortnight of our lives. There’s lots left for next time: the canton of Appenzell, St. Moritz, Gstaad, Zermatt, Ticino, Lausanne. And for the time after next too…