Where Heidi Lived

Did you know that there’s such a place as Heidiland?

dsc03061Obviously I had to go there. It’s wayyyyy over in eastern Switzerland, which meant a long drive from where I’m staying near the French border, but it was worth the early start and the aching back as soon as I left the car and started skipping along a worn mountain path to Heidi’s house.

Well, OK, not Heidi’s actual house, Heidi being a fictional character and everything. But it’s the house of Johanna Spyri, the author, who lived there when she created Heidi’s beloved mountain world, and based it all on her own surroundings. It is the closest I have ever come to actually stepping right into a storybook and seeing it come to life.

There’s a little “village”, which consists of a couple of houses, a hen coop, a fountain, even some goats with bells around their necks! I walked around, enchanted, picturing Heidi and Peter chasing the goats up the mountain path, and Clara in her wheelchair looking out over the vast hillsides with their bright flowers and long grass. “So the mountain just… healed her?” asked Riho dubiously as we picked our way along the path to the village and I paused for breath in my telling of the classic children’s story. He is an unbeliever. I, on the other hand, have no difficulty whatsoever in imagining that a weak and sickly little city girl could be brought to these gorgeous Swiss mountains in her wheelchair and be running around in no time thanks to a combination of simple, hearty food, fresh, mountain air, views that bring tears to the eyes, and the magical company of Heidi.

Heidi House

Heidi House

Tulips at the back door

Tulips at the back door

“Riiiiiight,” said Riho.

I left him looking for his imagination, and went to explore the Heidi House – which is admittedly a little tacky, but I cared not one jot. They’ve made an effort to give you an “experience”, to make you feel as if Heidi really does live there, and while they may have gone a little bit OTT by placing lifesize figures of the book’s characters in some rooms, their hearts are in the right place. They clearly want Heidi fans to have a lovely experience as we wander from room to room – and they have been successful.

Heidi's Room

Heidi's Room

A nice touch is that you buy your ticket (well, it’s not all about being nice, I suppose!) at the nearby giftshop, and use it to operate a turnstile entrance to the house. This means that there are no security guards or – as was the case when I was there – anybody at all in the house. I tiptoed from room to room, ducking through low doorways and under beams, with a delighted intake of breath when I saw a simple wooden sled in the hallway or a milk pail in the pantry or a cloak hanging on a peg. Once I’d recovered from my near heart attack upon turning around to see Heidi and Peter sitting at a table staring lifelessly at me, I loved every moment of it – particularly when I looked uncertainly at a set of loft stairs, decided to clamber up just in case there was something there, and found my head poking out into Heidi’s bedroom.

“Cute” is a word I’ve found myself using far too much lately. But in describing Heidiland, there is no other appropriate adjective… other than “sweet”, perhaps!

Those Childish Things

Those Childish Things

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Get the picture?

I don’t think I’ve ever done as much exploring as I have in the past few weeks, but really, it’s just far too beautiful here not to get out and about every day!

The problematic thing about this is that I’m finding it very difficult to keep track of everything I’ve done and all the places I’ve visited, in order to write blog posts about them. I have been in pretty little lakeside towns, in vineyards, up mountains, at markets, in forests and all over the place. I have about a million photos to sort through, and I am exhausted, so for now I’m just going to tell you about the events currently fresh in my memory, namely those of this afternoon.

Riho and I took a short trip to Montreux (which is just a bit round the lake from where I’m staying), having driven through it the other day and spotted what appeared to be a lifesize Freddie Mercury statue looking out over the lake. Upon closer inspection, we found that it was indeed a lifesize Freddie Mercury statue looking out over the lake. This was great. Even better was the fact that I managed to get some photos of him in his trademark pose before the swarms of tourists descended upon him and stood adoringly around him in a 12-deep crowd, no doubt queueing to get their pictures taken with him. I also took a photo of said adoring mob, just for my own amusement.

Wandering further along the path, we were treated to the sight of what I can only describe as a group of giant Wombles crafted out of straw and leaves, standing around a metal cauldron as they evidently performed some kind of sacrifice or cooked dinner or something. After waiting quite some time for the latest batch of tourists to stop posing around the cauldron/amongst the Wombles, I snapped a few shots of the scene. It turned out that there were more of these bizarre creatures the whole way along the lake path – so I took lots of photos of them, because I don’t know how to describe them. I have no idea what they are or what purpose they serve, but at least I got to take lots of pictures of them, so that I don’t have to try.

Oh, and there were all the tulips, all bright and colourful and beautiful and plentiful. I took photos of those, too. And then I discovered that my camera has a cool panoramic function, so I attempted a few panoramic shots of the lake and the Alps and the coastline.

So, you see, this made for a great blog post, full of nice photos of interesting things. Freddie Mercury, adoring fans, scary Womble creatures, pretty flowers, panoramic lake view…which is why I was deeply annoyed to discover just now that my camera’s memory card was not properly inserted, and that it completely failed to make any kind of record of my day’s photography. Sort of the equivalent of taking photos without having put any film in the camera, in days gone by.

Words fail me.

Still, here’s a nice picture from Wikipedia of Freddie standing by the lake. And despite my photograph woes, I am still on something of a high from having trounced Riho at minigolf while we were there. An utter thrashing! It was quite spectacular. He has since tried to spoil my victory by declaring himself to be the actual winner, but that’s men for you. Sore losers. And it’s a tiny bit pathetic when you consider the epic proportions of this trouncing: I mean, come on.

My score was more than double his.

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Freddie Mercury statue in Montreux - Wikipedia photo

Forgotten Hero

Charlie Chaplin is buried near here, in a lakeside town called Vevey.

I can’t say I’m a fan of Chaplin. I don’t have anything against him, particularly – I’ve just never exactly been inspired or entertained by any of his work. And, while I can respect him for having brought laughter and comic relief to the world throughout two World Wars, and will probably go in search of his grave while I’m in the area, the knowledge that good ol’ Charlie breathed his last in Vevey doesn’t get me terribly excited.

Unlike the large group of tourists who were there when I was busily trying to take a photograph of a large fork in Lac Léman. That’s right. a fork. As in a piece of cutlery, not a split in the path. Weirdest thing – it was just there, not doing anything other than simply being a giant, oversized fork, sticking out of the water. No signs to explain its presence or purpose, if any – I checked. A lot. But I digress.

All these tourists simultaneously spotted a statue of Charlie by the side of the lake. Nothing special about it – it wasn’t like a waxwork or anything – but they all absolutely had to get their photo taken with it. I really don’t understand this. Vevey is a quiet little town, and it’s not like it’s the height of the tourist season. Why not just wander further along the lake, see the town, and call back later to get your photo taken with the statue? Obviously there is something fundamentally wrong with this idea, which is why these people were queueing up eagerly as if Charlie were a rollercoaster at a theme park.

Meeting Charlie

Meeting Charlie

Wandering a few metres along the path, I saw another statue, but this one was standing all alone. His name was Mihai Eminescu, a late Romantic poet from Romania. A Romanian icon, in fact: his picture is on Romanian banknotes, his birthday is celebrated across the nation, there are statues of him everywhere, and kids study his works in school. And yet here was his statue, standing forlorn and unnoticed while people flocked adoringly around Chaplin!

No, I’d never heard of him, either.

However, a friend of mine once told me that when she attends a buffet-style party or social gathering, particularly one where each guest has prepared and brought a dish for the table, she feels sorry for the ones that nobody seems to be eating. I suppose she probably feels sorry for the person who brought it rather than for the food itself, but that’s beside the point: the point is, she ends up piling her own plate with food from all the untouched dishes. There was probably a reason for it having been previously untouched, and I’m not sure how often the poor girl actually enjoys these buffet meals, but I do find it very endearing, and completely understandable. Particularly as one of those dishes was mine once.

Anyway, I thought of her when I saw this statue of Mr. Eminescu. Glancing back at all the tourists and their Charlie, I marched decisively up to poor Mihai, and put on my best touristy smile.

Mihai + Tourist

Mihai + Tourist

Let it not be said that I am afraid to go against the crowds. I made my point, whatever it was. No one noticed.

Raven About Stones

I have developed a sudden and unexpected interest in big rocks sitting around in fields.

This is a little disturbing, as it means that I am becoming even more of a nerd than I was before, but really, it is fascinating. No, really.

I come from a country that apparently has one of the highest densities of standing stones and dolmens and other such oddities in the entire world, and yet I have never before been to see them. Until now, they were just big stones. Old ones, certainly, but still just big stones.

Riho, on the other hand, has been to visit many of these sites, and the other day he discovered that there was one in Clendy, a small town on the shore of Lac de Neuchâtel. Slightly unenthusiastically, I drove us there. Nothing could make me understand what was even vaguely interesting about stones in a field.

Well, firstly, those stones were put there about 5000 years ago. And secondly, they’re all arranged in an obviously meaningful and significant way – most theories suggest that they served a ritualistic religious purpose, although no one knows what it was. But for them all to be standing there, ancient and symbolic, since 3000BC, is pretty amazing in itself. Add to that the mystery surrounding them, and the precision of how they’re positioned, and… well, I must confess, I’m intrigued.

Clendy Menhirs

Clendy Menhirs

The ones at Clendy are arranged in straight lines, one running along the middle of the area, others at the sides. Why? No one knows.

Here’s the thing. I can’t cope with “no one knows” as an answer. I can’t. I want to know why, I need to know why! And I can’t, and so these things have me both hooked and exasperated. According to Riho, groups like this one have been found hundreds of miles apart, and yet they can be joined together by a perfectly straight line. Which now adds a How?! to my frustration. The people would not have known each other, would not have had any means of communication, and yet they arranged their menhirs in perfect harmony with each other, as if they were all connected. How? And Why? No one knows. ARRRRGHHHH! This will probably drive me mad.

And so, having become irritated by “we just don’t know” articles on sensible archaeological websites, I have resorted to digging up all sorts of weird and wonderful legends and myths attempting to explain them. Even an utterly bizarre explanation is better than none at all, if you ask me. My favourite so far concerns the Clendy alignment. Just to add to the amusingness of it all, I could only find it in German, which I can’t read, so I had to use Google Translate. That always makes things funny even if they weren’t originally.

So, as far as I can understand, there once was a tribe of Neolithic fishermen, hunters and the like, living quietly in Clendy, inventing tools or whatever. A young girl from the tribe found an unfortunate raven with an injured wing, and being a kind-hearted soul, she took him home with her. The raven turned out to be some sort of, erm, much feared raven-god, and he appeared to her that night in a dream, asking that she nurse him back to health, and promising to show her his gratitude if she did.

A raven’s gratitude is something to be desired, so the girl did as he asked, until one day he spread his wings and soared off into the distance. But he did not forget the girl’s deed, and the villagers were overwhelmed when he brought all the other raven-gods there to stay. A sign of great favour! Plus they’d always be protected by the raven-gods now, what with them being neighbours and all, so that was a bonus. And so, as a sign of gratitude to the raven, the tribe built a memorial of standing stones arranged in the shape of a raven. Everyone knows that that’s how you thank a raven.

The stones have all kinds of symbolic meanings and protective powers, and the site was a deeply important and significant meeting place for the tribe. And according to Google Translate’s version of the already slightly wacky German article I got this from: “Then pointed to a merry laugh, you are washed, drew water from the lake and wetted a menhir, which is the big friendly Ravens should vote.”

It all makes perfect sense now.

In search of the cheese tower

Aosta was a lovely first introduction to Italy for me.

You can see and feel the difference as soon as you emerge from the tunnel through to the Italian side of the Alps: the sweeping fields and neat hillsides dotted with tiny, red-roofed Swiss chalets, cows, goats etc. suddenly become ancient villages and sleepy towns, filled with stone houses with slate roofs and colourful flowers and creeping vines. The modern, smooth, diligently-marked roads become uneven mountain paths complete with alarming potholes and clouds of dust surrounding local drivers in their beaten-up vehicles. All the houses have little balconies over which are draped drying clothes or rugs or old women watching the world go by. It feels very different from the other side of the mountains, but no less beautiful.

Aosta Gates

Aosta Gates

The Roman town of Aosta was created by Caeser Augustus in 25BC. Take a moment to think about how old that is. There’s something incredibly weird and surreal about walking through somewhere you know started out as a military base to stop swarms of barbarian troops sweeping over the mountains and taking over the Roman Empire. It’s like being in a history textbook. You even enter the original Roman city through the mighty stone archways that are part of the almost completely preserved walls.

Ruins

Ruins

The ruins are as awe-inspiring as the breathtaking view of the Alps that accompanies you as you drive to Aosta from Switzerland. Just parts of walls, and ancient towers, and foundations, and crumbled stones… and yet the knowledge that right here where you’re standing, an Ancient Roman community went about its daily life. They kept prisoners in the towers, they guarded the gates in their funny armour and helmets, they had names all ending in “-us” and put on plays in the still intact amphitheatre.

Roman Ampitheatre

Roman Amphitheatre

I closed my eyes as I stood there, and could almost hear the roar of the audience full of soldiers and noblemen and suchlike, with their goblets of wine, waving the bones of whichever unfortunate animal they were gnawing on. I’m a bit dreamy like that.

And then there’s the Tour Fromage. I could find no description or explanation of this before we set off for Aosta; it was just listed as an attraction to see. The Tour Fromage. Is it a tower made of cheese? I wondered excitedly, and – I must be honest – hopefully. A tower of cheese would indeed be a magnificent attraction. Would it be constructed from a variety of different cheeses, perhaps, or devoted entirely to one kind?

 

Standing in ampitheatre with Tour Fromage in the background

It’s probably just where the Romans stored their cheese, you know, warned Riho as I looked around expectantly for a magical tower made of cheese.

The tower proved to be something of a letdown, unfortunately, when we spotted it. It was a rather ordinary – even boring – grey building. Not particularly tall, either, so I don’t know how they can call it a tower. Somewhat miffed, I read the plaque to find out if it at least had an interesting history of cheese storage or even as the offices for the society of Roman admirers of cheese. But no.

It belonged to a family called Fromage. That is all.

Bah.

I know a nice little place…

“Let’s go and get pizza for lunch today,” suggested Riho, who is visiting me for a couple of weeks.

I agreed cheerfully. Pizza is pizza, after all, even if it does cost a fortune in this country (like everything else, incidentally). I asked whether he had anywhere in mind, and he nodded, looking up from his computer screen.

“Aosta,” he replied in a very bad Italian accent.

“Where’s that?” I queried, hoping it might be down by the lakeside in the village.

“Erm, Italy,” said Riho.

I think I’m at a stage in my life now where I’m just so used to going with the flow that my natural reaction to the idea of driving to Italy for a pizza is more “OK, what the hell!” than the “Are you mad?!” of days gone by. And so off we went to Italy. Clearly I have conquered my fear of driving in Europe/a Mercedes.

We had to go up, and then right through, some Alps, which was a slightly surreal experience. They’ve got a big tunnel going right through the Alps somewhere near Mont Blanc. It’s very long, and the border is at the halfway point, so when you emerge, blinking, into the strong sunlight and dazzling white snow on the other side, you’re in Italy!

Italian drivers appear to have none of the strict adherence to the law that Swiss drivers display. Nor are the roads in and around Aosta in a condition that one might reasonably describe as modern. Still, almost by accident I found myself driving into a parking space right on the edge of the Old Town, and we had our pizza in the most quaint and properly Italian-looking place we could see.

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dsc027121

Apparently Aosta has not really been properly discovered by tourists yet, which might explain why we caused so much excitement amongst the staff of the pizzeria. “Excuse me, one question!” said the waitress finally, approaching us apologetically as the nominated spokesperson. “You are American? English?”

“Irish,” we said with cheerful Irish smiles. She looked incredibly excited about this, and backed away thanking us. We could hear her telling everyone where we were from. Everyone was bowled over, and they were queuing up to say goodbye to us as we left. It was quite nice to have some recognition at last. I realised that this must be what it would be like to be a famous author, perhaps, recognised by the restaurant staff as I tried to have a quiet lunch. I pictured myself flinging my hands in the air and crying “I just want to have a normal life!”. It was most pleasing.

So anyway, I had a pretty amazing, authentic Italian pizza. Asparagus. It looked mad but was fantastic, particularly because I’d come to Italy to get it.

dsc027141Oh, and after lunch, we strolled around some Roman ruins, including an ampitheatre and the “Tour Fromage”, but that story will have to wait for another day…

Fine Wine Vines

I really didn’t know that wine was such a big deal in Switzerland.

The House Owner looked at me in some surprise as we drove to the airport for her departure the other week and I asked what “all those things growing in the fields” were. Those are vineyards, dear, she told me in a voice that suggested I should really have known that.

Vineyard

Vineyard in the Aigle region

And really, had I done any research at all before coming here, I would have realised that I was coming to live right in the heart of Switzerland’s wine-growing area. The region is called The Lavaux, and it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The hillsides are covered in vast, sprawling vineyards, separated by low stone walls and narrow, winding roads – the further up you go, the narrower and steeper those so-called roads become!

Long Way Up

Can you spot the train making its way up through the vineyards?! (click to make bigger)

According to Wikipedia’s page on Swiss wine, the reason that I’d never really associated Switzerland with wine (nor indeed even heard of or tasted a Swiss wine) is that they pretty much drink it all by themselves, the greedy sods. “Nearly all the national production is drunk within the national boundaries; less than 2% of the wine is exported (mainly to Germany).”

I have not yet sampled this Swiss wine, but I have now ventured into the vineyards after driving around and past and amongst them on such a regular basis. And let me tell you, they’re mighty impressive. Particularly when there’s the odd chateau or two randomly plonked in the middle of them.

Chateau d'Aigle

Chateau d'Aigle

It certainly makes for a pleasant afternoon stroll in the sunshine, anyway!