Travel: Hills alive with the sound of cow bells

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The Independent Travel
AT THE height of the holiday season, when the Mediterranean is scorching, when charter flights are overflowing, and midges rule in Scotland and Scandinavia, some of Switzerland's small car-free resorts can be wonderfully quiet.

We have twice been to Braunwald in August and have not regretted it. A scattered village on a mountainside (altitude 1,295m), it enjoys panoramic views of the Glarner Alps. It is reached only by an ancient funicular built in 1907 that trundles sedately through the trees from Linthal, up a branch line from Ziegelbrucke, which is 40 minutes by train from Zurich.

The great thing about the place is that there is virtually nothing to do except to walk, look at flowers, sip drinks on the terraces of mountain restaurants, and maybe swim in the pool.

The walks start around the village, on smooth paths liberally sprinkled with benches from which to gaze at the views. The going becomes gradually rougher as one ascends, eventually demanding serious mountain walking, with climbing beyond that.

A newish cable-car rises a few hundred feet to a self-service restaurant above the village. An ancient chairlift floats slowly across the lower meadows and then up a cliff to a higher restaurant, from where paragliders climb still higher before launching themselves upon the long flight to the valley. On many walks there is refreshment at the end or at some point along the way, but the human race is not much in evidence. Solitude is easy to find.

Once, approaching a high farm, we met a man lugging one of those giant alpenhorns, about 20ft long, that I thought had been relegated to folklore shows for tourists. Motioning us to stand about 100 yards away for the full effect, he unshouldered the beast and put on a recital for us alone. We stood spellbound as the long, slow notes floated through the high air.

Another day we walked to a lake at the foot of scree and glaciers where horses and cattle roamed loose. A few walkers were picnicking, some swimming, but the space and quiet were stunning.

Later, not wanting to retrace the same path, we were guided by the map to a cable car down to the valley. Accustomed to the high-speed monsters of the big ski resorts, we were shaken to find a sort of open wooden box dangling from a thin wire. There was no one about, but a sign said this conveyance was authorised to carry six people, so we climbed in and waited. After a while four more people arrived, then another, who squeezed himself in to stand among our legs.

An ancient loudspeaker crackled into life and eventually the wire twitched and our overloaded box moved gently off, swaying above the treetops towards the edge of a cliff. Peering nervously over the side, I saw the ground vanish beneath us and the flimsy wire stretch away into nothingness. Only my residual faith in Swiss engineering averted heart failure.

We floated through outer space until slowly, very slowly, the earth rose to meet us, and suddenly we were stepping out into the ordinary world of cars and houses. A short train journey took us back to the Braunwald funicular.

There are about eight hotels in Braunwald. On our visits, we have happily made the half- hour climb (luggage sent by electric cart) to the Rubschen, perched among meadows above a farm. It has breathtaking views, and the green hill behind belongs in The Sound of Music. A small, friendly place, rated two stars, it is expertly run by Rosli and Horst Pfannenmuller. Horst does the cooking and deservedly wins an entry in a gourmet guide for his multi-course dinners.

Peace and quiet are total, except when the cows from the farm clang their bells beneath the windows. After a few days at the Rubschen, the rest of life slides gently away into proper perspective, even in August.

Getting there: Flights to Zurich Super Apex: pounds 192 midweek or pounds 207 weekend in August. Cheaper charter and discount flights from around pounds 100. Train: Zurich- Braunwald via Ziegelbrucke and Linthal, pounds 29.50 return. Or take the picturesque trip by slow boat the length of Lake Zurich to join the train at Rapperswil (train tickets are accepted on the boat). The only package tours are by Kuoni to hotels Alpina, Alpenblick and Bellevue: pounds 315- pounds 526 for seven days. The Rubschen is pounds 30- pounds 47 half-board per person per night.

Further information: Swiss Tourist Office, Swiss Centre, Leicester Square, London W1V 8EE (071-734 1921).

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