En route for Emmental
I'd not been in Switzerland 24 hours when I realised how much the Swiss entertain a near adoration for their cheese. It's all about their love of fondue; it also gets smothered over a popular dish called rosti, a bit like a plate-sized hash brown.
There are a dozen nationally produced cheeses to be savoured here, but the king of the species is so inextricably linked with the country that most of us know it simply as Swiss cheese.
The cheese with the holes is Emmental, named after the region where it's produced, a 20-minute train ride from the capital Berne. While the Swiss are mad for cheese, they also love nothing more than getting among the great outdoors. And like most of Switzerland, the Emmental region has altitude along with quite a few challenging hills.
Now there's a new app, the Emmental Cheese Route, which steers cyclists up and over emerald hills while explaining the sights and history with audio, text, video and photos. The best part is that the app is used in conjunction with Flyer e-bikes, another Swiss invention. Within no time, I'm hooked. You still have to pedal, of course, but when a hill looms you simply engage the right gear and the motor kicks in.
Launched in April, the Emmental Cheese Route app can be used over a day (covering a distance of 35 kilometres) or two days (78 kilometres), with visits to 21 attractions, including three dairies. But as it's a freewheeling holiday, cyclists can do as they please, cut a few corners or leave out sights, and pop into a restaurant or cafe along the way.
We begin in Burgdorf, a 13th-century town and the largest in the Emmental region with a population of 16,000. We collect our Flyers from a rental shop at the railway station, download the app using free Wi-Fi and strap iPhones (and Androids) to handlebars with a plastic strap gadget you can buy at the shop. Within no time we encounter the Emme River, after which the region is named (and tal means valley in German) and take a path in the shadow of 11th century Burgdorf Castle, built on the highest point of the town.
It doesn't take long to be among the green hills and valleys and A-frame farmhouses, with window boxes bursting with colourful blooms. Farmhouses are large, attesting to the wealth of the area. Some 20,000 tons of Emmental cheese are exported annually, far more than any other type.
To produce a kilogram of cheese takes 12 litres of unpasteurised milk. No additives are used and during the maturation period (four to 12 months depending on variety) carbon dioxide is released, which turns into bubbles - this is what produces the holes. Interestingly, the holes are called eyes and just for the record, a Swiss-made cheese that doesn't have holes is referred to as a blind cheese.
Several of the old farmhouses, such as the 300-year-old Mathy's farm, now cater for travellers and here you can bed down on "fragrant" straw, which is a bit of a craze in Switzerland. In fact there's a website devoted to places where you can sleep on straw in a barn, or schlaf im stroch.
We take a breather and photos at Lowen Heimiswil, a country inn, dating from 1340 and the oldest in Switzerland. In the 19th century inns held cheese auctions; nowadays if you're there at the right time you can attend a full moon fondue night. From here we tackle the hill to the Lueg Monument, a memorial to Swiss cavalrymen, and the highest point of the region at 890 metres for expansive views across to the Bernese Alps.
Then it's downhill to the Emmental Show Dairy in the town of Affoltern to watch cheese-making through the ages. The complex has an original thatched 18th-century farmhouse where a costume-clad farmer stirs a huge oak vat of milk over a hearth, a 21st-century facility that is all high tech and stainless steel, and a shop offering samples and selling a huge array of cheese.
Everything you'll ever need to know about the region and the holey product is on the app. Just remember to recharge the phone battery - and the bike's - at the end of the day if you don't want to sweat the hills or get lost!
The writer travelled courtesy of Switzerland Tourism.
Various carriers fly to Bangkok to connect with Swiss International flights to Zurich. Flights also depart from Hong Kong and Singapore.
From Zurich, it's a one-hour train ride to Bern, and then 20 minutes to Burgdorf. Swiss Travel Systems passes allow unlimited travel on trains, buses and boats and entry to museums, plus discounts on cable cars. They start at A$300 ($319) for four days.
The Emmental Cheese Route (Kaeseroute in German) is best explored from April to October, when the e-bikes are available for hire and the weather is pleasant. The app is free; bike hire is CHF50 ($67) a day. See kaeseroute.ch.
Accommodation ranges from farm houses to hotels. B&B tariffs start at CHF55 ($74) a person a night. Mathy's Farm, near Burgdorf, has B&B and "sleeping on straw" options, the latter for CHF25 ($34) a person a night. See bauernhof-baettwil.ch; emmental.ch; schlaf-im-stroh.ch.
Sydney Morning Herald