Geneva-based writer, Renu Chahil-Graf, hikes around some stunning mountain parts of eastern Switzerland, revealing surprises and extolling the charms of hiking in the rain.
Real hikers don’t use umbrellas! So proclaimed Professor Dr. Jürg Hari, our guide on a recent hike. Few would have given up a weekend of confirmed sunshine in Geneva to head all the way to Elm in eastern Switzerland (four hours by car, five by train) knowing that the weather forecast was for rain, rain and still more rain. But a commitment to the Cornell Club of Switzerland’s annual walk is a commitment. So there we were.
Those of us concerned about getting backpacks soaked, hairstyles flattened or just being wet and clammy, lined up with morose black umbrellas. Despite the rain we knew what was to come would be unique. Woven into the walk, was a visit to Lochsiten – a geological marvel in Sardona listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, a slate cavern converted into a concert hall, and some exceptional hiking!
The Swiss Tectonic Arena in Sardona, in canton Glarus, was formed by a continental collision. Older rock strata hit younger shallower rocks producing an overhanging layer of rocks that you can stand under and pass your hands over. The layers are distinguished by their colour and form. 250-million-year-old greenish reddish Verrucano rocks were thrust over 35 to 50 million year old “young” brownish-grey, mostly slate-like flysch rock. The layers are clearly discernible to the naked eye and have been repeatedly studied by scientists. So exceptional was this find, that the American Museum of Natural History in New York reproduced its structure and now displays it. In addition, UNESCO added it to their list of World Heritage sites.
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What we could not see, due to thick clouds, was the razor sharp line of the entire mountain range and cliffs of Tschinglenhömer, along with a huge hole in Martinsloch mountain, formed along a the same geological fault line and set above the village of Elm.
After this mind-blowing experience we headed to the nearby village of Engi. From there a somewhat steep, thirty-minute climb brought us to the slate caverns in Plattenberg. A relatively innocent and plain entrance concealed a truly “cavernous” space. Having donned red hardhats at the entrance, we were amazed to quickly find ourselves in a huge slate concert hall, with a stage, state of the art lighting and amphi-theatre-like stone seats.
We then ventured further, avoiding lingering too long for photo ops and risking losing group and guide, taking in the stunning and sometimes scary interiors. After every twist and turn, steep narrow never-ending staircases, water pools, dramatic drops unfolded, but we had still not arrived at the summit. Then suddenly the gentle sound of Mozart could be heard wafting through the cavern, softening the stone landscape and relaxing tired calf muscles. Unbelievable! And the acoustics. Wow! Finally we were led up to what is known as the Chapel to discover the source of this wonderful music that was seeping into every crevice: a single speaker! I couldn’t stop myself thinking, only in Switzerland.
For hikers with yet more energy, a cable car goes all the way up to Weissenberge, a mountain getaway with picture post-card vistas and munching lunching cows that are happy to be stroked by those courageous enough to venture close enough. And great local fare, charming restaurant interiors and sunny terraces abound.
The last walk of the weekend was along a cliff. The panoramic highline trail from Obererbs to Ampächli. It was more or less a piece of cake, with some narrow paths. Wet? Yes it was still raining! But with unforgettable vistas of neon green plains interspersed with clouds, which come not from above but rise from below like oversized duvet stuffing, it was well worth it. The locals affectionately call these rising clouds “dragons”.
The next “only in Switzerland” moment came when we peeked through a barn window and saw six, perfectly clean, spotless, pink pigs!
Finally, on the other side of the mountain the Hotel Elmer, a Swiss family-run hotel – one of Switzerland’s endangered species, deserves special mention. Owned, managed, catered and affectionately run by René Bässler, this ideally situated hotel is an oasis with great food and unforgettable local Pinot Noir.
So with thanks to the Cornell Club President, Christophe Zimmerli and Jürg Hari, and the energetic duo behind them, Maria and Sonja, we look forward to more fabulous hikes – rain or shine!
By Renu Chahil-Graf
Renu is a writer, who has lived and worked in the Geneva area for twenty-something years.