The holiday season in most cultures is a time of festivities, tradition and reflection. I can’t think of better way to celebrate Christmas and New Year with my family than trekking deep into the heart of the folklore-rich eastern Swiss alpine region of Appenzell Ausserrhoden.
Our destination on this day is the tradition-rich village of Stein, Appenzell. We start out on foot from the bus stop “Schlössli” in Haggen, St. Gallen (which you can reach from the main train station in St. Gallen via Bus 4 or 8; or, as we did, drive and park in the parking lot across from the Schlössli Restaurant) and head east, crossing the “Ganggelibrugg,” or pedestrian bridge, which spans a 580-meter gorge carved by the Sitter River, dividing the canton of St. Gallen from the canton of Appenzell Ausserrhoden. The views along the gorge and over the sylvan hills, so typical of Appenzell, are spectacular. If you encounter snow, don’t worry – the paths are maintained and are therefore passable and quite enjoyable as long as you and your children are bundled up. If you have children or teens, bring along the sleds! The return path is an exciting sledding way.
The Show Dairy and the Folklore Museum
It is an easy hike/walk up and down the hills to the small traditional village of Stein with its unique architecture. It is just a few meters more to the Schaukäserei (“Show Cheese Dairy”) and the Appenzeller Volkskunde Museum (Appenzell Folklore Museum). Both can be viewed in the same day and I would suggest you plan to have lunch in the show dairy which houses a restaurant serving – yes, you guessed it – traditional dishes made with a variety of Appenzeller cheeses, a marvelous local cheese produced in Stein.
Even young children are fascinated watching Käsers, or cheese producers, running their cheese harps through the vast vats of curdling liquids, and I am always impressed to view the wooden stacks of over 10,000 ripening wheels of Appenzeller cheese coated in the famous secret seasoning mix. There is a small cinema that runs informative videos about the dairy tradition in Appenzell in English and many other languages. There is also a lovely gift shop.
Information for the Schaukäserei of Stein: If you plan your trip in accordance with the Schaukäserei calendar, you can catch one of the various groups playing Streichmusik – traditional folk music and yodeling. First Sunday of every month: live Appenzeller music in the Appenzeller Show Cheese Dairy from 11 am to 5 pm. This December 6th, the group is Echo vom Säntis.
In the afternoon we visited the Appenzell Folklore Museum. The museum is dedicated to showcasing the Sennen or alpine dairymen culture of Appenzell as well as the history of the local textile industry, which has a prominent place in the culture.
We particularly enjoyed viewing the Sennenstreifen, or paintings on wood of the finely dressed alpine herdsmen and their cows adorned with flowers and bells. The museum has examples from the 18th and 19th centuries. Also noteworthy and a treat for children is the amazing collection of bells for goats and cows on display, and my personal favorite, the traditional folk costumes of the region. My children find the spoon-shaped earrings worn by the herdsmen particularly interesting. During our visit we were able to watch a live weaving demonstration using the Plattstichwebstuhl or specialized satin-stitch weaving technique on the loom. The woman operating the loom was not only skilled but also happy to answer all of our questions, even in English.
Museum opening hours are Tuesday – Sunday: 10:00-17:00 (closed Mondays).
Entrance fee: Adults SFr. 7 and 3.50 for students and apprentices; young children are free.
There is a lovely gift shop which sells handmade wooden, ceramic and woven articles and toys, as well as the usual t-shirts and books. You can even purchase a home cheese-making kit, which could be a fun activity to experience with your children.
There are guided tours about weaving and embroidering as well as the cheese-making process the herdsmen perform in alpine huts every Saturday and Sunday afternoon, during the winter season, from November 1st – March 31st.
The Fascinating Silvesterchläuse/Silvesterclauses
If you understand German or Swiss German then I would suggest you take a special tour with Gret Zellwegen. She is a well-known Appenzeller artist/artisan who leads a three-hour tour called Die Chläuse hautnah erleben – auf den Spuren der Steiner Silvesterchläuse (“Experience the Clauses up Close – On the Trail of the Silvesterclauses from Stein”).
This one-time event is on Thursday, December 31st, 2015, starting promptly at 9:45.
The tour consists of a viewing of Gret’s Silvesterclauses (or “New Year’s Clauses,” alternative spelling Silvesterklaus), known in Swiss German as the Silvesterchläuse, in the museum followed by a walk through the village of Stein to visit at least two Chläuse-Schuppel, or groups of spirit singers, who go around from farm to farm dressed in handmade costumes as either Wüeschte, the ugly Clauses wearing frightening costumes; Schö-Wüeschte, whose nature costumes consist of moss, pine bark or lichen or Schöne, the beautiful Clauses dressed as lovely lace-clad ladies. The headdresses are spectacular and must be seen to be appreciated. The Clauses begin singing at 5:00 in the morning, with the goal of singing the good spirits to the farms in the New Year. This is celebrated traditionally at the modern New Year (December 31st) and also again in accordance with the ancient Julian calendar, on January 13th. The event is followed by an Apéro function at the museum. You should sign up ahead of time for this because space is limited. Telephone 071/368-5056 or write to email@example.com. If your German is limited, you can still see Gret’s special exhibit at the museum on the Silvesterchläuse throughout the winter months.
Getting to Stein: in case you wish to go directly to Stein and leave the hike for warmer weather, by public transportation, you can use the PubliCar Appenzell dial-a-ride service to get from the Appenzell main train station to the Schaukäserei in Stein, AR. Simply book (phone number 0848-55-30-60) and wait for your minibus. Further information can be found on the PubliCar website.
By Dr. Teresa Bingham Müller
Teresa is an earth scientist and instructor by education and an avid traveler and adventurer by nature. She has three sons ages 32, 19 and 16.