Wood chips, river rocks and plain old mud: these are just some of the materials I was challenged with when I recently completed the Appenzell barefoot trail.
Switzerland’s eastern region with its rolling hills is not usually top of mind for tourists. But in my opinion, it should be. Because among those rolling hills, cute towns with wooden farmhouses and flower gardens sprinkle the way.
Here, in the canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden, the world is still alright. Whenever I visit, I find the countryside and village life to be most authentic – and the locals are not even trying.
The Appenzell barefoot trail is an awakening for the senses
Between the villages of Gontenbad and Jakobsbad on a stretch of roughly five kilometers, there is a hiking trail that will literally knock your socks off: the Appenzell barefoot trail.
At first, I am hesitant to bear the occasional pinches that naturally result from walking barefoot. But a few minutes into the hike, I get used to it and really start to embrace the feeling.
The first part of the barefoot trail traces a golf course. (I had no idea they have perfectly manicured golf courses in this rural part of Switzerland...) As I walk across pebbles and freshly cut fields, those typical yellow signposts show me the way: “Barfussweg.”
As a testament to the fact that I follow directions to the “T”, I even wade through a muddy ditch… But guess what? It feels satisfying to sink into the soft turf of these moorlands!
Turns out, barefoot hiking is a rather stealthy activity.
Most of the trail is padded with fresh grass or soft soil. So, at one point, not even a couple of farmers’ cats realize that I am approaching. They remain napping in the middle of the path, prompting me to make a big step...
Then, as I pass the outskirts of the town of Gonten, I hear the sound of bells. Lots of bells. I decide to make a turn towards the main street to see what the action is all about. Lucky me: I stumble across an alpine cow homecoming!
For the occasion of returning their white goats and Brown Swiss from the alpine pastures, farmers are dressed in traditional outfits. They have put on yellow leather pants and red vests. (Also: knee-high socks! No barefoot hiking here...)
The cows are decorated with their most festive bells, rattling them in an almost hypnotic rhythm. Here at Gontnerstrasse, I find myself in the middle of a group of kindergarteners who are lining the street to watch the spectacle!
Back on the barefoot trail, I reflect on this ultimate Swiss encounter.
This cow parade is the exact reason why I adore the Appenzellerland – and Switzerland as a whole, for that reason. Despite this being a weekday morning with the only spectators being local kids, age-old traditions are upheld.
Without a doubt, the Swiss tend to be an unpretentious people. They are not living these traditions for others, but rather for themselves. I see a parallel with my Mondaine wristwatch with its simple yet functional design. It is serving me a great purpose on a daily basis, but I am not wearing it to show off.
After about two hours, I arrive at the Jakobsbad train station. This is the end of the barefoot trail, and I am ready to hop onto the bi-hourly train to my dinner location: Wasserauen. I am a few minutes ahead of schedule, so I take my sweet old time putting on the socks.
Quite literally a minute before my train is supposed to pull in, I notice a button: "Halt auf Verlangen! Request for the train to stop!"
I hit the button three times in a row, and the train stops. Phew...
Dinner at the Loki pop-up restaurant in Wasserauen
A 25-minute train ride later, I arrive at the terminal station of the train line. Wasserauen at the foot of Mt. Säntis is where the cable car to Ebenalp takes off. It is also a popular gathering spot for the paragliding community.
Inside a decommissioned train wagon of the Trogenerbahn, some innovative restauranteurs have opened a pop-up restaurant. The Loki serves a delicious white Flammkuchen pizza, as well as local soda beverages by Goba: Flauder, Grapefruit or Goba Cola. (I opt for the latter, which tastes just like regular Coke but with half the amount of sugar.)
Jeanine is running the restaurant tonight and we start chatting about globetrotting. On a daily basis, she and her sister (who manages "Loki") encounter tourists from all corners of the world. A local of the Appenzell region, Jeanine has traveled extensively herself.
I am curious about what brought her back to the roots, though. Jeanine: "It was the mountains and the countryside, as well as the calmness they provide." And when asked about a highlight in Appenzell, her instinctive response is: "The drive to Wasserauen is spectacular. The further you go into the valley, the more a new world is opening up."
I can understand what Jeanine is saying, because I would have never imagined to find such a hip place in the back of a valley in eastern Switzerland.
You will not be able to miss the orange colored "Loki" – unless you wait too long: the pop-up restaurant will close its doors at the end of the season in 2020. Until then, it is opened most days except during really bad weather.
(This story was made possible in collaboration with Mondaine Watches. They have kindly arranged the hike along the barefoot trail for me.)