Think Switzerland and, images of pristine landscapes, snow-capped mountains, lush meadows and picture-perfect hamlets conjure up in your mind. But did you know that this utterly beautiful land-locked country is also the land of Heidi, yodeling, alphorn music, wood carving and interesting pastoral traditions? With a rich heritage of farming and cheese making, Switzerland is culturally diverse given its close proximity to France, Austria, Germany and Italy. It boasts of four official languages i.e., French, German, Italian and Romansh. Within each of the twenty-six cantons in the country there are distinct dialects and several cultural nuances making it a paradise in more ways than one.
Soaking in the local culture and learning about the native crafts of a place, is always on top of my list whenever I travel. Travelling within the country, I realised that there are several places that showcase its culture, rural life and traditions. From museums to cheese farms, these places offer valuable insights into the times of the yore making it a haven for culture buffs like me. They depict life during the yesteryears and trace the evolution of charming villages into the tourist hot spots as they stand today. Here is a low down on a few such attractions in the land of Helvetia.
The chalet village of Brienz is home to the tradition of wood carving that is typically Swiss and houses the wood carving museum — the only one in the country. Some of the awe-inspiring works on display are permanent exhibits, while others are temporary theme-based exhibitions. The museum itself is the brain child of the Brienz Foundation for the collection and exhibition of wood carving that was founded in 1990 with the objective of devoting itself to the sustainable preservation and support of the wood carving industry. It is run by Ed. Jobin AG, one of the old companies of Switzerland that was founded in 1835 which produces high quality wood carvings and sculptures.
The history of wood carving in Brienz dates back to the 19th century when the local people who were talented “Schnatzers” (carvers) made brisk business by selling wood-carved artefacts to incoming tourists. After the WWI and the subsequent economic crisis, the craftsmen started manufacturing small sized wooden toys that helped boost local business. In Autumn 2012, Brienz wood carving was included in the “List of Living Traditions in Switzerland” along with other Swiss traditions. The town is also home to the only Swiss woodcarving school founded in 1884.
Arguably one of the most popular fairy tales we have heard as children is Johanna Spyri’s classic Heidi, who is the symbol of truth, homeliness and good deeds. Set in quaint Maienfeld which is located in the Landquart region in the canton of Graubünden, the Heidi trail recreates the life and adventures of the endearing mountain girl. The main trail consists of Heidi’s house, her Alpine cottage, the town hall stable, her school as well the Johanna Spyri Museum. Since the tale is based on the lifestyle of the local people during the 1880s, the entire setting gives visitors an insight into the rural life of the yesteryears. While one can witness kitchen tools, laundry equipment and children’s games of the past in Heidi’s house, the Alpine cottage gives visitors an insight into aspects like traditional heating equipment, wood cutting tools, food storage mechanisms as well as the legacy of cheese making.
The town hall stable dwells into the Swiss cultural heritage of rearing mountain goats. The lifestyle of herding boys and how they helped their parents at home during school vacations, the use of horse drawn carriages for transport as well workhorses for farms is well depicted. The school is aptly created to reflect the education system that existed in the 19th century. It was not uncommon to have close to 60 pupils of different age groups in one class who studied subjects like religion, maths, singing and writing mandatorily. It was a revelation to note that while the education was free, each family had to contribute a small amount of “school wood” to heat the school during winters and most teachers worked as farmers to sustain themselves during summers as school was closed during the season.
An ode to Swiss traditions, craft and architecture, Ballenberg is an open-air museum situated just about 3 miles from Brienz. Spread over a whopping 66 acres, the museum complex has over 100 buildings that include old farmhouses, granaries, bakehouses, drying kilns, stables, barns as well as typical rural houses. One can view the different types of raw materials like lime, wood etc that was used to build yesteryear buildings apart from various kinds of straw, shingles and tiles used to cover roofs. Filled with indigenous plants and crops, the museum also rears over 200 species of native live stock for visitors to see. The museum also has live demonstrations on dying crafts like spinning, weaving, basket weaving and forging.
The epitome of fairy tale charm and bucolic vibes, Appenzell is nestled at the foot hills of the Alpstein mountains and is steeped in rural customs like the ceremonial cattle ascent during summers and descent during autumn. Just under 7 miles from Appenzell, is the town of Stein that houses the Appenzeller Volkskunde Museum which treats visitors to a comprehensive display of traditional farming tools, knives, sickles, cheese making equipment as well decorated cow bells, classic Appenzeller belts and seals. The typical outfit of the herdsmen, replete with their embroidered jackets and breeches, is also on display Apart from this, an entire section is dedicated to native Swiss art — painted furniture and paintings by local farmers centuries ago. The latter known as Bäuerliche Naive or Bauernmalerei (farmer paintings) includes pictures of pastoral life, animals, processions to the Alps during summer and descent before the onset of winter.
Apart from the above places, the cheese-making dairies in Appenzell and Gruyères and the Matterhorn museum in Zermatt are some other places to help you discover the rich heritage of Swiss traditions and culture.
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