A Swiss experience

A Swiss experience

Lush green pastures dotted with grazing cattle and quaint farmhouses, the countryside in Emmental resembles a postcard image. Gustasp & Jeroo Irani visit this blissful country, home to spectacular views, cheese factories and alphorns.

The clip-clopping of horses’ hooves and the clanging of cow bells seemed to distil in their sweet sound all the rural serenity of the Emmental region, east of Bern in Switzerland.

 This is a region often bypassed by tourists in search of Alpine heights, but it is one of the country’s best kept secrets. Indeed this is where the Swiss love to ramble amidst fragrant trekking trails that wind past pasturelands and fruit orchards.

In this rural heart of the land-locked country, we trotted along in a horse carriage (more like a covered Wild West wagon) pulled by two sturdy steeds with flying manes, past soft rounded hills and flower-spangled pastures. In the seat next to the driver sat his son, a young blade in traditional Alpine costume, and behind the carriage, scampered Ella, a Bernese mountain dog, large, black and furry with liquid eyes the colour of mud pools.

In abundance

Beyond the leafy city of Bern, the Swiss capital, is quintessential Switzerland where time ticks slowly, almost grudgingly, trailing its light fingers across hills and valleys that unfurl like a green carpet. Traditions are nurtured and burnished in this pastoral corner of the country. Cows with udders, heavy with milk, graze on the luscious grass with an air of sheer contentment. As we trotted past in the carriage, the bovines thundered up to a fence, brows knitted in puzzlement because traffic is light in these parts, and horse carriages few and far between. Indeed they forage in one of the most photogenic regions in the world, dotted with handsome farmhouses where hay lofts brim with hay and country produce, winter wood is neatly stacked and window boxes spill over with red geraniums. The aura of plenty is so palpable that you can slice it with a Swiss knife!And the green richness of the Emmental Hills and dales are dappled with a lot of cows.

Their milk goes into the making of Emmental cheese — 12 litres for a kilo of cheese! This is what we learnt at the show dairy in Affoltern where we heard about how Emmentaler cheese is made, starting from its invention in the 13th century. Traditionally pockmarked with holes or eyes, this is the workhorse of great cheeses and without it, a cheese fondue would fall flat. At the main show dairy, there are four sections showcasing cheese making from different eras, including a modern dairy where 95 kg wheels of cheese are made. The most charming was the one located in an 18th century herdsman’s cottage where a farmer with bulging biceps stirred boiling milk in huge copper vats that bubbled over an open fire and wrapped mammoth wheels of cheese in cloth for maturation.

Later, as we clip-clopped to the hamlet of Eggiwil, we heard the deep sonorous strains of the alphorn resonating across undulating valleys. We closed our eyes, letting the sounds suffuse our bodies and lift our spirits, only to discover that our wagon had stopped at a barn-like workshop where alphorns have been manufactured by hand since 1925. The villagers are used to the sound of this 14th century instrument, for Walter and Hansrudolf Bachmann often practise on and fine-tune their hand-crafted works of art. Once used in the hills and pastures to call the cows back home or by herdsmen to communicate with each other or have musical dialogues with their brethren up to 8 km away, the alphorn today echoes at country festivals. This unusually long and heavy instrument is slowly finding international acceptance in funk, blues and rock music too.

Call of the alphorns

The workshop was on the upper level and suffused in a haze of green reflected by the meadows that un-scrolled outside the windows of the barn. On the ceiling was strung an 160-year-old alphorn and instruments in different stages of manufacture were stacked on the sawdust-strewn floor while rough work benches sported drills and clamps. The duo craft the alphorns, made from a single trunk of spruce, which can be as long as 12 feet. The instrument takes 80 man hours to complete. Walter’s father and Hansrudolf’s grandfather revived the dying art in 1925, when his parents refused to buy him an alphorn. Just 13 years old then, he made one for himself and later sold it for two francs. He had discovered his passion and so crafted another which he sold for 50 francs! And then never looked back.

Today, the Bachmanns take pride in the fact that theirs is the oldest workshop in the country and they sell around 30 pieces a year. Each one costs around 3,000 francs and is a labour of love. Chipping, chiselling and sanding, each instrument which resembles a long flared tube with a cypress-wood mouth piece, the father and son say that they find it hard to part with their creations. They hold on to them for a while admiring their own workmanship, the fine decoration on the lower end, and try to improve the pitch till they are satisfied.

After a few weeks of rain, when the rain-washed landscape sports an air of fecundity, Hansrudolf says that he likes to play a romantic, often melancholic, tune. But he likes it best when he can take it up to the mountains and play near a lonely lake where dancing reflections and the deep echoes of the alphorn make for a wonderful visual and aural symphony.

The younger man invited us to try and blow on the long curved horn but after our group’s feeble blasts, we requested him to play it as though he were up in the Alps, and he did — the sound seeming to rise through the barn’s roof and floating heavenwards to the blue skies.

Just then, village church bells pealed and mingled with the man-made instrument’s call, creating a resonance in our hearts, a symphony of sound that goes back centuries.

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