February, a short month, gives me an excuse to do a personalised short introduction to Switzerland, A-Z, so let’s see how we get on…!
I could have chosen a number of things for each letter but decided to be spontaneous – and that is what came to mind first!
Appenzell, for those who don’t know Switzerland at all, is actually two of the 26 cantons, areas that in many ways are self-governing within the Swiss Confederation: the small area around the village (and capital) of Appenzell is known as Innerrhoden, and the lush green hilly area that surrounds it is called Ausserrhoden – this is not necessarily apparent at first glance, though if you look at the cars, you will perhaps notice the prefix AI or AR to the number.
You would have to know the area very well to identify other differences between the two – one is predominantly Catholic, the other Protestant, the dialects are slightly different (both mountain dialects that are relatively difficult to understand!), the traditional costumes can be vastly different and even the houses are different: more colourful in AR and more austere in AI, though the architecture is similar.
This architecture is very distinctive in the pretty undulating foothills of the Alps, farmhouses that look as if they have been tipped out of a basket, scattered over the landscape more often than clustered into villages. The oldest houses still standing date from the 15th century and the architecture hasn’t really altered much since then. Because of the harsh, snowy winters, the farmhouse and barn are usually one building, with access to the animals’ quarters through a side door from the house for ease of care. There is usually a water trough just outside the barn, so that the farmer need only clear a small area between it and the barn in order to water his stock – a few doe-eyed brown cows, some agile white goats and perhaps a pig or two. Barns are kept scrupulously clean and fresh with utensils neatly hung on the walls and beams and kept in good condition – the hilly country means that even today, much of the haycutting is done by hand… Extra hay is stored in small barns dotted over the hillside and there is commonly a large, simply-constructed haysled stored in the hayloft for the farmer to fetch supplies if the winter is long and to spread the risk of vermin or fire. No need to transport the hay far from the meadows where it is cut, though that is done by gathering it up into large squares of cloth and carrying it on the back – probably why so many Appenzell farmers are so bent! They are immediately identifiable in their everyday work garb: light blue fine-woven and patterned cotton collarless shirts worn with waist-high brown work trousers that barely reach the top of their boots. If they wear them; most Appenzellers prefer to go barefoot in the snow-free seasons and the children save their parents the expense of footwear by becoming accustomed to this from an early age. Other identifiers are the single long spoon earring to keep away evil and the pipe hanging upside down from the corner of the mouth… supposedly to keep the rain out.
On the domestic side, the Appenzell farmhouse is also easily recognised by it’s long bands of windows that let in as much light as possible. The houses are constructed to catch the most light, vital for the cottage industries that grew up around St. Gallen’s textile industry only a few miles away, weaving and embroidery. In fact, the pretty house fronts are the only inhabited side of the house – the whole back of the house was originally only one room from foundation to rafters, housing the smoky kitchen fire, and only in relatively recent years have floors been inserted to make additional “back” rooms and bathrooms. Originally, a house had a main living room and a side room downstairs, with the same arrangement upstairs and some form of “little house” toilet (Hüsli…) behind the barns – or at least just outside the back door, again for accessibility. In the living room there would always be a tiled ceramic stove, fired from the kitchen behind, and many of these still exist – they are extremely efficient heating systems. Often, a hatch above the stove gives access to the upstairs rooms via a steep ladder or at least for the warmth to rise and spread, and the niche next to the stove was always a popular place for the very young and the very old who feel the cold more. Another necessity was a simple wooden bench, both around the two or three sides of the stove and around the walls of the room, especially under that long band of windows. A table and a couple of simple chairs (Stabellen) completed the furnishings. The girls and women would sit on these benches in the light and embroider in piecework for the St. Gallen factories. Or, less picturesquely, the adults of the family would be in the cellar – you can see the shuttered “windows” to the cellar just above the foundations in many houses – trying to keep up with demand by sitting at their looms weaving the textiles the region was famous for, while the children helped by threading needles or running small errands and contributing to the meagre income as soon as they were able. All this in addition to running a self-sufficient farm, for most families.
Appenzell is well-known for it’s colourful culture – the Sunday and holiday costumes in bright red wool, yellow goatskin, black lace and silk, starched white lace caps with gold detail, heavy silver tooled jewellery and watches, tooled brass ornaments on black leather braces, heavy decorated bells to be swung by hand or fitted to the lead cows when they’re taken up to the Alpine pastures for the summer (or brought back down again), barefoot children running alongside goats and shiny black and tan dogs sporting a white bib, the stamping dances, the eerily beautiful style of yodel, nothing like that of neighbouring areas of Austria or Germany… There’s a lot to take in when you go to Appenzel on a day of festival and most striking of all, they don’t do it because you’re there, they do it because it’s their life and they want to carry on their own special culture into the future and beyond. If you are in Appenzell in March or September, there is a strong chance you will see something like this, the Alpaufzug or Alpabzug, the coming and going to and from the Alpine pastures. Mostly, there is nobody else about and you can just enjoy watching them all file past, the smartly dressed “Senn” (Alpine cowherds), the children in their Sunday clothes, the cows with their bells and flowers… and it’s a very popular subject in art. The naïve style of art that is typical to the area captures the traditional way of life for posterity, passed on in delightful children’s books – Pictures from books by Albert Manser and Lily Langenegger, perhaps the best-known contemporary Appenzell children’s book authors
So you may have heard of Appenzell cheese and its secret recipe or seen what look like kitschy tourist posters, but believe me, there’s an awful lot more to it than that!!
I could wax on much more (if not lyrically) about all sorts of special Appenzell things, but for now, I think that should give you a taste?!
Well all I can say is that I think you have missed your vocation as a tour guide and writer of travel books my dear!
Thank you so much for this lovely travelogue. For some reason we never did manage to visit this canton during all the years we travelled in Switzerland. I look forward to your next letter of the alphabet.
I think I’ll always have Appenzell in my heart – having lived there longer than almost anywhere else makes it special. Thank you for this.
What a lovely blogpost! I don’t know Switzerland (except for a school visit many years ago) and love that all the picturesque things are not just for tourists. I found the same to be true of Sweden.
Sweden is top of my wishlist… 🙂
I love this series you wrote. I read a couple but not in order and wanted to read them all at one time, hence just now getting back to my reading.
The photographs make me long to visit and there is much here that have me thinking of incorporating should I ever find the right piece of land to build on. (until then I suspect I will remain where i am). I love the idea of a room with the fire and building the enclosure into the main room to heat from that fire. I also love that everyone prefers going barefoot in the nicer weather, I do the same.
I often am asked why I don’t at least have chickens. The answer is that I know I couldn’t care for them in the winter as I wouldn’t be able to get my chair through the snow to do so. But the idea of connecting the barn to the house would work. I will have to keep this in the back of my mind for that maybe day when land comes my way.
When we went to live in a village and had a big house and garden, I think quite a lot of people expected me to have chickens but they didn’t really appeal to me! However, I do like to stop and watch the chickens with my granddaughter when I take her to her pony playgroup – we have been seeing how they disliked the cold and snow and are really happy that now the snow is gone and their field is soft again they can run round happily again without having to stand on one leg all the time!! Now they come when I cluck at them, though I have never fed them…
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