When imagining Switzerland, most people might picture snow-covered mountains, rolling green pastures, cows, cheese, dairy-maids, and ginger-bread looking houses. Now while many may assume that these are just stereotypes, I can assure you they are not. Of course, the country has far more to offer with large modern, international cities, including Zurich, Genève, and Bern: some of the top-rated for quality of life, in the world. However, the Swiss people also pride themselves in keeping their majestic landscape and cute culture just as it has been for hundreds of years. And one of the very best ways to experience the stunning surroundings is with your own two feet. Venture atop stony cliffs or along the blue water’s edge; romp around in a soft sheep pasture or amongst row upon row of grape vines. Switzerland’s numerous and well-marked hiking paths, or Wanderwegs, extend to every nook of the country and assure you safe, challenging, and of course incredibly beautiful experiences.
I first became interested in hiking when I was living out in the country in northwestern Germany. I have three dogs and so naturally I am required to do a lot of walking. Setting out into the neon green farmers’ fields near my house soon changed from leisurely dog-walks to long distance hikes. Seeing the land spread so far out in front of me, carved by narrow dirt roads leading into dark forests and mysterious old farms, enticed me to explore. There is no better way to discover the gems of your neighborhood than to walk all around it. So many wonderful places, in both Germany and Switzerland, are down roads that would never catch your attention, many not even accessible by car. On hikes in Germany, I discovered incredible castles, whimsical bridges over little streams, and lively biergartens hidden far from any roads. I became hooked on hiking and am convinced it is the only real way to see a land. So you could imagine, when I moved to Switzerland, just how excited I was to once again set out with the dogs to discover all the new hidden delights. Switzerland is a hiker’s paradise.
I first started noticing the yellow diamond signs when I would hike along the edge of Lake Zurich in my new town of Rapperswil. It wasn’t until I then moved, once again out to the country in the vineyard region of Wilen, that I really took interest in the yellow Wanderweg signs. From my balcony I could see the top of Mount Etzel. Everyday I wondered if it would be possible to get up there. I started looking online, at maps, to see if there was a pathway that would lead up there, and how long it would take. I then came across a website that explained Switzerland’s hiking system and Wanderweg signs, www.wanderland.com. I found all the many routes across Switzerland designated for hikers, including a way up to Mount Etzel. My Jack Russel mix, Willy Wonka, and I set out just to take a look at the conditions of the route, to practice following the signs, to see if we could really do it. We discovered (after a couple times of turning back unsure) that yes you do walk right through people’s farms along the way. Signs indicate that cows are used to maintain property and so, when you unhook the fence and enter the pasture, just hook it back up, pass through, and leave the cows alone. I couldn’t believe it was true, but there I was, walking right through a hillside cow pasture, feeling very Swiss and very cool. After a few trial runs and some training, the day came for Willy and I to set out on the 2.5 hour hike up to the top of Mount Etzel. I had worked-in my new hiking boots, eaten a big dinner the night before, and packed some good snacks (trail mix of course) and lots of water for along the way.
I am not going to say it was totally enjoyable. Walking up hill isn’t easy and a few times I thought I was not going to make it. One then only needs though to look over at the 80 year old farmer raking hay by hand on the hillside, or all the white-haired folks along the trail, to push on through. Thankfully, life-saving red benches dot the trail in just about every spot you could need one. Benches appear beside adorable shutter-adorned farmhouses, tucked into aromatic apple orchards, and under lone trees in the middle of farm land- and always after a long hard incline. Dying for breath I took a seat on many of the red benches. Each time I would then look down to the blue lake, down to where I had started, each time seeing my progress. The higher I got the more intense the rush became. Eventually, at the point when I reached the clouds and the air got cooler, the rush was tear jerking. My breath would return, my heart would become calm amongst the quiet of the altitude, and I knew in those moments that I was going to make it to the top. And we did, Willy and I; it was euphoric.
I thought I was hooked on hiking before, but now I am really obsessed. I am on wanderweg.com numerous times a day, imagining my next route. I think I will make it a weekly adventure. Next time however, I am going to be sure to bring my wallet; I can’t wait to buy some of that milk and cheese from the dairymaids along the trail.