09 May 2011

The Berggasthaus Experience

A "berggasthaus" is a Swiss mountain inn, a place to stay on the hiking trail, a restaurant and rooming-house for the muddy-footed. We recently took a two-night, three day hike in the Appenzell mountains in the far eastern reaches of Switzerland, staying and eating at two of these establishments and loving every minute of it.
It's easy to do these kind of trips because there's so little to bring. Although many of them - including these two - are reachable only on foot, they are real havens in the wilderness. One can expect to find towels, clean sheets on the beds, water and a hot, home cooked meal. This means that it's not necessary to bring big, heavy rucksacks. We got by with light day packs, and still probably overpacked.
Above is the first place we stayed, the Berghaus Seealpsee, on lake Seealpsee (translation: "Lake-alp-lake"), high up a narrow, cliff-sided valley. It sits at a fairly easy point to reach, about one hour by foot from the lower parking lot. We took a more difficult route, but were still at the door in about an hour and a half.
It's a pleasant place, with a nice patio on which to take in the afternoon sun and drink Appenzell hard cider, called "Apfelsaft." I would probably call the water a pond, rather than a lake, but it's still extraordinary that it's here at all. The waters were crowded with duckweed and less clear than might be expected, but reflected the mountains in the glancing light and seemed full of trout. A lot of people come up here just to fish, and dinner at the inn featured a number of "forelle" preparations.
Breakfast was ample but simple - a big pot of coffee for every table, lots of bread and müsli and a general clomping of hiking shoes as people began to get ready for the trails ahead.
Our next stop was something of a mystery for us before we reached it. From the valley below, Meglisalp didn't seem possible. The map showed a berggasthaus in a spot that looked, from the lower vantage point, to be nothing but cliff. A trail marker led us onward, though, and up a tiny cleft in the rock. We scrambled up a narrow ledge and through a series of dizzying switchbacks, clutching at a cable that was anchored to the sheer mountainside and offered little comfort. At last, after climbing up nearly three hundred feet, we emerged onto a hidden plateau, bordered on three sides by steep ridges and by an unscalable drop on the fourth. Here, hidden completely in the folds of the mountains, was the hamlet of Meglisalp, the entirety of which is shown in the above picture.
Despite its remote location, the gasthaus was almost completely booked for the night. We got the last room, though there were still beds in the dormitory. Most of these inns have places in a separate building for hikers who are looking only for a bunk and a blanket. Our room was outfitted with a few washbasins and pitchers of water, and a bucket for the wastewater. The whole inn was being renovated, and our room had the gleam and smell of new softwood.
Berggasthaus Meglisalp was built in the 1890's from material carried up on the backs of the men who founded it. The current proprietors are the fifth generation of innkeepers here, and the place feels like it's been forgotten about for a century. The buildings around it are farmhouses, where herdspeople come later in the summer with their livestock.
This picture was taken from the crest of one ridge, where we hiked in the afternoon. There is still a good amount of snow in the higher pockets of these mountains, and we walked across blindingly-white snowfields in our shirtsleeves.
Back at the inn, we drank beer, Apfelsaft and Appenzellbitter - a sweet, herbaceous, local liquor - on the back lawn, surrounded by other hikers waiting for the sun to go down. It went behind the peaks quickly, but, as has been the case in Switzerland, it stayed light for hours after the sun was gone.
It doesn't stay warm, though, and the minute the sun set everyone decamped for the dining room. We ate beef and rösti (a hashbrown-like, Swiss national dish) at communal tables, while around us people told stories of wobbling legs and summits conquered.

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