Hiking the Via Sbrinz, a Swiss Cheese‑Trade Route

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Walking this slice of alpine Switzerland takes you back to a time when cheese was currency.

We cobble together the remains of our lunch. “I’ve got an apple.” I turn to my husband. “How about you?” He pulls out a softly melting Toblerone bar.

After hiking for 10 hours from Grindelwald to Guttanen in the Swiss Alps on this warm August day, we are down to our last bites of energy and the dregs of our water bottles. Our destination, the tiny village of Handegg, is still an hour’s walk away. It’s close to dinnertime and the sun is moving lower in the sky, creating shadow twins of our bodies that lean out over the Aare River valley.

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In planning our hike along the Via Sbrinz route from central Switzerland to Val Formazza in Italy, I severely underestimated the distance we had to cover on this second day of a five‑day trek that covers more than 70 kilometres through alpine valleys and high mountain passes. I fear we’ve exhausted our energy and enthusiasm and that we’ll struggle to recover to finish the hike, which I’d chosen to do in celebration of my 50th birthday. But perhaps that’s just the hunger talking.

August 20, 2021
An arial shot of green hills and mountains in Switzerland with houses dotted along the lower slopes
Switzerland   Photo: Julian Villella

Contemplating our next move, I think about the mules that used to walk this very trail, a centuries‑old trading route named after sbrinz, a hard cheese that can be grated, rolled or flaked and is similar in consistency to Italian Parmesan. Sbrinz was once a major Swiss export, carried over the impressive Grimsel and Gries passes to the markets of Domodossola in northern Italy. The cheese was traded for wine, cornmeal, rice and spices, which were brought back using the same heavily travelled route. What I wouldn’t give for some sbrinz and a glass of wine right now.

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The completion of the Gotthard Tunnel in 1882 marked the end of the mule‑driven trade, and today the trail is used by hikers keen to follow in the footsteps of history and appreciate the Alpine scenery. The Swiss PostBus offers an easy and scenic way to travel a version of the Sbrinz route, and when we spot one coming around a mountain turn, it saves the day – if not the whole trip. We hail a ride and go bumping along into Handegg, where a well‑earned glass of Swiss gamay and wedge of cheese await us at the inn.