Switzerland’s roads less travelled

My old high school doesn’t exactly catch the eye. It’s a long squat block, simple and practical. But one thing it did have was big windows and good views. Each day I’d walk down long corridors or sit in class and look out towards the Blauen, a ridge of forested hills that walls off Basel from the rest of Switzerland.

One particular hill, visible from Biology and the walk to Standard Maths, has a clear gap in its tree-line. It caught my eye almost every time I looked out the window, a missing tooth in an otherwise uniform smile.

There are three pine trees that stand proud in that gap, separate and distinct from the woods on either side; two closer together and one a bit further to the right. Each trunk is tall and naked save for a bristle at the top. The three amigos, standing motionless on their hilltop, marked the edge of my day to day life.

When I was back home over the Christmas break, I bought a camera and decided to test it out on the other side of the amigos, deeper into the canton of Baselland. Basel’s countryside - Baselbiet, as it’s sometimes called - isn’t renowned for any particular natural attraction. It just quietly gets by in the shadow of the more dramatic and crowded Alps.

I follow a few local photographers on Instagram and decided to head for their most tagged spot, a village called Langenbruck. It’s found somewhere west of the motorway down to Bern, nestled in a valley like rolls of green dough.

The first stop was my favourite café, on a clifftop looking back out over Basel’s suburbs. I stood at the cliff edge to take a photo as some mountain bikers rode past. The weather wasn’t in my favour. A wall of rain was starting to grey out the view and the wind rushing up the rock face spat droplets on the lens. After a blustery few minutes I gave up and got back in the car, keen to press on.

Taken from the Gempenturm cafe.

One of the best parts of driving through Baselland is the sheer number of backroads, basically just paved walking trails, that weave through fields and take what must be ancient routes between villages. Google Maps took me on one of these as I left the café. “At the next intersection, turn right,” it said. The turn was between a farmhouse and a dairy shed.

The road ran across some paddocks and into woodland before weaving down through more properties towards Liestal, where I hopped on the motorway for a spell before turning off again. The rain had faded and the sun speckled off little riverlets running down the hillsides and under the road. I drove on, below castles sleeping on crags, and arrived in Langenbruck much faster than I thought I would. That’s the trouble with driving.

The route from the cafe to Liestal.
The road seemed to run through private property.

It was only the early afternoon so I decided that I’d get home a different way. I’d follow the old paths west as far as I could, avoiding any road that looked like it was actually built for cars, and see what happened.

The first sign that I was driving on a sufficiently out-of-the-way path came just outside Langenbruck, when I stopped the car for a dogwalker to pass with her collie. She stared at me vigorously.

I pressed on, past wooden huts and between more sheds and farmhouses, until I came to a crest in the forested hills between Langenbruck and Mümliswil. This was the view I’d been looking for; a valley dappled in soft spots of shifting sunlight.

Probably my favourite photo from the day.

I pulled over to take photos, playing with the camera’s settings and swapping lenses. A second car stopped near me. An older man was at the wheel. He stared at me for a time, as if I was an intruder in his daily routine, then looked out at the view. We watched the same spots of light move from one distant hill to the next.

I turned off that path and followed another on a whim. It ran on the edge of a hill and arrived at another farmhouse. Maybe it was actually a driveway? I slowed the car and checked my phone. Google assured me it was a road.

A farmer stepped out of his house and stared at me as I idled near his barn. His dog came out and joined in. The three of us paused there for a minute as I wondered whether it would be weirder to reverse the car for three whole kilometres or just drive through his farm as if I knew where I was going.

Taken not far from the farmer and his dog.

I took the second option. I could see him staring in my rear-view mirror, but Google was right - this was a road. It skirted the hill for a while longer before dropping down into Mümliswil, where I was met with equally vigorous stares from the locals.

Staring is a curious habit of the Swiss. I used to think it was something about me, but I’ve since realised they just love to stare at everyone. I was in a car with local license plates, so there was nothing different to look at – just another Volvo. I mean, these places only have a few hundred people each. Do they stare at each other? Do they stare at their own friends? And how do they stare in one direction and walk in the other at the same time?

The sun was falling now so I kept to regular roads that wound me over the steep terrain, through tunnels and more villages with signs for ‘Weinachtsbaumverkauf’ – places to buy Christmas trees. One village had a mossy green waterwheel and a restaurant that said ‘open’ but did its absolute best to pretend otherwise. I imagined what would’ve happened if I walked in and ordered something. I could almost hear the owner groaning.

Same valley, other side.
Entering a different valley.
An old waterwheel.

The hills rose suddenly after that and became cliffs that hemmed the road in, evidently cut apart by a river running alongside, until those dropped just as suddenly into broad, flat land. I drove for a while longer, squinting as the sun came through the windshield, until I came to a roundabout. Something caught my eye as I turned right. I leaned forward and looked up – three trees, two closer together and one a bit further to the left. I’d arrived behind the amigos.

I was tempted to park and hike up to get a closer look - something I’ve been meaning to do for a decade now - but the sun was dropping too fast. I settled on a final glance to make sure they weren’t going anywhere, then headed for home.


journalism & travel writing