Switzerland and bucolic musings: Exploring the country’s cultural and traditional multiplicity through its small towns

  • Perched on the shores of Lake Geneva with the snow-capped Alps forming a perfect backdrop, the quaint town of Montreux is known for its stunning lake promenade, vineyards, a historic castle and bustling music scene.

  • One of the best-preserved medieval towns in Europe, Stein am Rhein has the unique distinction of having the most beautiful historic quarter in the entire country.

  • One of the highest cities in the country and therefore the recipient of copious amounts of snowfall, St Gallen shares its borders with four countries.

The very mention of the utterly beautiful Switzerland recalls images, almost instantaneously, of picture-perfect scenery with snow-capped mountains, lush green landscapes and panoramic train journeys. While this is true, it’s also interesting to note that this relatively small, landlocked country is home to an enormous amount of cultural diversity, reflected in its customs and traditions. It is little wonder then that this country boasts four national languages and innumerable dialects.

A great way to soak in all of this would be to visit some of the idyllic small towns that dot this Alpine paradise. With beauty seemingly materialising straight out of the pages of a fairy tale, a visit to these towns offers a window into the culture, art, cuisine and traditions of Switzerland.

 Switzerland and bucolic musings: Exploring the country’s cultural and traditional multiplicity through its small towns

Montreux Promenade. All photos courtesy the author.

Montreux

Perched on the shores of Lake Geneva with the snow-capped Alps forming a perfect backdrop, the quaint town of Montreux is known for its stunning lake promenade, vineyards, a historic castle and bustling music scene. Replete with archaic frescoes and Gothic dungeons, the Chillon castle is one of the most photographed monuments of the country and a must-visit.

A stroll along the Riviera Promenade is an ideal way to not only enjoy the pristine view but also marvel at the beauty of numerous parks that are home to several unique topiaries (living sculptures made from plants). British musician Freddie Mercury, whose statue is prominently erected in the centre of the promenade, is arguably one of the most famous residents of Montreux parks. There are also other musical giants like the Queen of Jazz Ella Fitzgerald and American singer-songwriter Aretha Franklin.

The Montreux Jazz Festival, a grand annual music festival held each summer, as well as the Lavaux vineyards which are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are some of the other highlights of this eclectic town.

Living sculptures in Mon

Living sculptures in Montreux.

Stein am Rhein

One of the best-preserved medieval towns in Europe, Stein am Rhein has the unique distinction of having the most beautiful historic quarter in the entire country. Located in the canton of Schaffhausen in Switzerland, this picturesque town is situated at the confluence of Lake Constance and the river Rhine. Most famous for its well-preserved timbered medieval houses, Stein am Rhein was originally a quaint fishing village. The ancient city wall, the Lindwurm Museum, and St George's Abbey are some of the sites that reflect the rich history of the town.

Inarguably, the best part of the town is the painted facades of historic buildings which speak volumes about the art and culture prevalent centuries ago. The bright red Rathausplatz city square, the intricately adorned water fountains, and the detailed carvings on the oriel windows are just some of the other noteworthy aspects of Stein am Rhein. A perfect day trip from Zurich, Stein am Rhein is located in close proximity to the Rhine Falls, another spectacular sight.

Stein am Rhein, old town.

Stein am Rhein, old town.

Appenzell

An alpine town that in simple terms is endearingly cute, Appenzell is located in the region where the Swiss culture is preserved at its best. A land of lush green rolling hills dotted by cows grazing to their heart’s content, Appenzell is synonymous with the Appenzeller cheese, a hard cow's milk cheese with a distinctly salty taste. You can get your 'fill' of the history, process and special features of this cheese, which is the strongest in Switzerland, at the cheese dairy or Appenzeller Schaukaserei.

Adjacent to the cheese dairy is the Appenzell Folklore museum that is a treasure house of artefacts, photographs and life-size models that depict the traditional lifestyle of Swiss farmers. The town has unique customs like the "Alpine ascent" and "Alpine descent" which are followed by the herdsmen. It refers to the ceremonial procession of farmers as they tether richly decorated cattle towards the mountains during the summer where they can graze on the luscious grass. The onset of winters signals the movement of the cattle back to the plains. This ceremony is accompanied by melodious folk music and a display of traditional attire by farmers and their families.

The centre of the town, also a hiker’s paradise, is equally charming and filled with heritage buildings bearing intricately designed signboards. It is also one of the best places to pick up souvenirs that are 'authentically' Swiss, including traditional leather belts and cowbells.

Cow bells at the Appenzell folklore museum.

Cow bells at the Appenzell folklore museum.

Gruyères

Another blissful town in the canton of Fribourg, Gruyères, which is known for its eponymous variety of cheese, offers a unique trip around not only Swiss culture but also gastronomy. The cheese dairy and its adjoining restaurant are the ideal places to start exploring the old town of Gruyères which, being hoisted on winding cobbled streets, is the epitome of unspoilt beauty. The cheese called Gruyère AOP has a distinctive flavour native to the region and its inimitable taste gets more palatable with age. Have a meal at the dairy to sample this delectable cheese.

The museum of Oscar-wining artist HR Giger, a one of its kind Tibet museum as well as a 13th-century castle are some of the unusual sights in the town. Traditional homes, restaurants designed like chalets and pretty storefronts add to the rustic charm of the town. Located very close to the town is the La Maison Cailler Chocolate Factory in Broc. Cailler is a part of the Nestle group, and one of the oldest chocolate manufacturers in Switzerland. A visit to the Cailler factory provides good insight into the history and evolution of chocolate making.

Gruyeres cheese.

Gruyeres' cheese.

St Gallen

One of the highest cities in the country and therefore the recipient of copious amounts of snowfall, St Gallen shares its borders with four countries.

Nestled amongst the pre-Alpine hills, the Abbey of St Gallen is the soul of the town. A stupendous structure that has visitors awestruck, the Abbey cathedral and library are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. With elaborate stuccowork, frescoes and sculptures, the cathedral, built in the baroque style, was the fulcrum around which the town grew during the 8th century. The library has books that date back to the 9th century.

St Gallen.

St Gallen.

St Gallen was the centre of the textile and embroidery industry that flourished till the 20th century in North East Switzerland. The textile museum in the town centre, as well as the highly embellished oriels of the textile merchants, are symbols of this craft that once prospered here. The town is also a major seat of education, housing the internationally renowned University of St Gallen.

Updated Date: Jun 24, 2019 07:53:08 IST