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A Swiss
Cable Car Safari

Switzerland’s cable cars are as characterful as the remote alpine communities they serve. Sail up into the sky on one of over two thousand tiny rope trains, and you’ll discover the heady pleasures—lush meadows, panoramic views and delicious cheeses—of higher pastures. Words by Adam Graham. Photography by Constantin Mirbach.

Living in Switzerland requires vertical thinking. So too does traveling here. When visiting many of the dairy farms and summer communities located atop the Alps, the question becomes not how far they are by road and rail but how high up they are. Fortunately, Switzerland’s constitution mandates that every village across the country’s four linguistic areas must be connected by road, rail, waterway or, in the trickiest locations, cable car.

While much is written about Switzerland’s excellent network of punctual red trains, iconic cog railways and funiculars, it’s the humble, underappreciated cable car—called luftseilbahn in Swiss German—that truly connects the remote alpine com-munities to rest of the country. Word for word, the translation of luftseilbahn is “air rope train.” They’re called téléphérique in French-speaking Switzerland, funivia in Italian-speaking Svizzera, and pendiculara in Romansh, Switzerland’s ancient and endangered fourth language spoken in small alpine pockets.

There are 2,433 federally approved luftseilbahn in Switzerland. Many are privately owned by farmers but open to hikers, and can carry around four to six people at a time. Hikers can use the phone at the bottom station to alert the operator at the top to activate the lift, and voilà, an off-track alpine area that you won’t read about in travel guidebooks is all yours.

The Swiss-German-speaking central cantons of Uri, Nidwalden, Obwalden and Schwyz are home to the nation’s largest concentration of luftseilbahn. The rides here are also some of Switzerland’s most rewarding. Hikers can be whisked up the Alp—a term used locally to indicate mountain pastures where livestock are raised in summer—for a small fee, usually 7 to 18CHF ($7 to $18) and paid at the top afterward. Once at the top, they can access networks of hiking trails often running on ancient nomadic farming routes still used today. Expect to see wildflower-strewn alpine meadows, swimmable alpsee (alpine lakes), rustic stubli taverns serving up gooey melted cheese dishes, and schaukäseri (cooperative cheese dairies) hawking wheels of cheese, milk, butter, yogurt and molke, a whey-based drink popular with farmers.

More often than not, the hiking paths lead to other luftseil bahn that can be taken back downhill so that you can walk a circuit instead of doubling back. Some cable car routes only run in summer; others operate all year. Most are listed on Google Maps, so users can create their own itineraries.

One such network is the Buiräbähnli in Canton Nidwalden. The twelve-hour, multiday hike brings you up and down several luftseilbahn, and takes you past the deep blue waters of the Bannalpsee reservoir and rustic overnight guesthouses.

One of the most traditional guesthouses is Alp Oberfeld—the summer home of sustainable cheesemakers Rita and Josef Waser-Späni. The couple collects thirty-two gallons (120 L) of organic milk every day at their farm and sells goods directly to consumers (they also serve samples and snacks). Inside, cop-per kettles hang over an open woodfire, bubbling with milk from heritage peacock mountain goats and Rhaetian Grey cattle that will be turned into cheese. Many cheese farmers can identify which Alp a cheese comes from, and even isolate the flavors of individual wildflowers that the cows grazed on.

“The Buiräbähnli is just one of many luftseilbahn hikes possible in central Switzerland,” says Hansruedi “Joe” Herger, a tour guide and founder of The Alps by Joe, a slow-travel trekking service specializing in hiking excursions for all skill levels.

Oberaxen, located in Flüelen, just an hour on the train from Zürich, offers another luftseilbahn line to explore. Nestled above the eastern shore of Urnersee, the southern finger of Lake Lucerne, is a station with blue, wooden crate–shaped cable cars. The turquoise lake and chapel steeples come into focus as you rise above the scenic Axenstrasse—a seven-mile (11 km) cliff-hugging motorway below. At the top station, hikers can set out on one of thirteen trails, including the three-hour Eggberge trail, which begins with a vertical scramble up a green pasture before leveling out in mossy woodlands at 4,900 feet (1,494 m).

Elsewhere, Sittlisalp’s apple red cable cars glide over a wide valley filled with enzian and magenta orchids before dropping passengers at the start of an easy two-mile (3 km) loop that passes Alpkäserei Sittlisalp—a shepherd’s cooperative of nine family farms that run on hydropower and create nutty alpkäse.

Herger offers full moon hikes so that guests can witness the surrounding peaks bathed in moonlight, and a timed hike to see alpenglühen, when the snowy mountain caps sparkle and glow pink during sunrise and sunset. A highlight for many of his guests is the alpsegen, the Blessing of the Alp, an event where farmers cast protecting spells with horns over the high pastures.

“It’s a haunting and beautiful tradition that’s been carried out in these lands for centuries, harkening back to pagan times,” says Herger. “And it’s a reminder of the precious transit links to these vulnerable and ancient mountains.”

This story is from Kinfolk Travel

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This story is from Kinfolk Travel

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