When I was just a wee one, my mom read Heidi to me. That ritual we shared is one of my fondest childhood memories, and this beloved story will comfort me forever.
You can imagine my excitement when I heard that Heidi's hut actually exists in Maienfeld, Switzerland. I made it there, finally, after my own children were grown.
Johanna Spiri, the author of Heidi, lived near Zurich in the late 1800s. Her family came often to Maienfeld on holiday, and she would take walks in the area. One day she met a little girl named Mary, who told her about her life there. Spiri based her tale on Mary's experiences, but changed Mary's name to Heidi.
Spiri's story about this robust little girl has been translated into 40 languages, and more than 40 million copies have been sold. My own adored copy is an English translation with crayon marks and missing pages. Heidi also has been made into 15-plus movies, one of which was filmed in 1968 starring Shirley Temple.
From the parking lot below Maienfeld's Heidihof hotel, a narrow trail leads through a meadow to the base of an Alp and . . . the hut. The placemat used at lunch in the hotel restaurant promises in humorous translation that visitors can "cast off the grey monotony of daily life and discover the multicoloured splendour of Heidi's World."
Anticipation is high as pilgrims approach the modest dwelling at the mountain's base. (It is an interesting aside to learn that a Swiss engineer developed the idea for Velcro in 1948 when he was hiking and burrs stuck to his socks.)
Heidi's rustic 300-year-old stone hut was lived in until 1997. It consists of a cellar, a front room, Grandfather's room, Heidi's room, and an attic, and it has been restored and outfitted with furnishings so that it appears as it did in 1880--the time during which the story takes place. I find it intriguing to contemplate what life must have been like for one family who lived here that consisted of two parents and seven children.
The tour guide is very helpful in pointing out interesting artifacts. She explains that the dark cellar, which I notice has real cobwebs covering its windows, was used to store food for winter because there were no shops in the area. I also spot a large cabbage grater just like the one my own grandmamma (sic) once used on her Oregon farm and which now has a place in my kitchen. Ancient wooden skis and snowshoes are also part of the decor.
The kitchen is equipped with a wood-burning stove, a spinning wheel, and bowls of fruit and apples. A replica Heidi and Peter sit at the table. It is a delightful feature that everything can be touched, and it is ok to take photographs. As old as I am, I sat at Heidi's kitchen table and pretended to eat the grains in her bowl. Later, I laid down in her small straw-topped bed and reminisced about laying in my own bed while my mom read to me. It was a very pleasant experience, and I had a friend take photos of me for my mom.
Grandfather's room dislays his white cotton nightshirt and a metal hot water bottle used to warm his bed. Visitors can try on any of the clothes, something that really appeals to children. Up in the attic, we see Clara's wheelchair, a model of Grandfather making some shingles, and a luxurious-for-the-times two-holer inside outhouse.
After the tour, those with time can hike a steeper trail that begins behind the hut and leads up a big green Alp to another smaller hut. Signs along the way provide appropriate excerpts from the Heidi story. The trail was opened in 2001 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Spyri's death. It takes about two hours up, and is said to be easily walkable even for small children.
My group was on a tight schedule, so I had to make do with a visit to Peter's goat pen and a quick stop-in at the gift shop—where, I regret still, I didn't buy one of the charming carved-cow souvenirs. During a short refreshment break out by the barnyard, I enjoyed watching children petting and feeding goats, chasing chickens, and frolicking beside a fountain.
The journey to Heidi's hut by train is definitely a big part of the fun. Fortunately, Swiss trains are easy to use, even for families, and a Swiss Travel System Family Card allows children up to age 16 to travel free with their parents.
Zurich makes a good starting point. It is only an hour and a half by train from Chur—one of Switzerland's oldest cities, and the largest city in the GraubŁnden canton. Located approximately 20 miles from Maienfeld, Chur makes a good base for exploring the area.
While here, you can also use your Swiss Pass to take the Glacier Express—the world's slowest express train—high into the Alps to the all-pedestrian (no cars allowed) town of Zermatt. On another day, you can take the Bernina Express to visit ritzy, ritzy St. Moritz, where the sun shines 322 days a year and where there is another Heidi hut, though it is a fake. And on another day, you can take the Heidi Express from Davos over the Bernina Pass to Tirano in Italy.
Switzerland's GraubŁnden area is also famous for good wines. Be sure to sample plenty while you're here, though, because Switzerland doesn't export much. That's because the wines are so tasty that the locals tend to drink them all.
And this is just the beginning of what there is to love about Switzerland. Think chocolate, cheese, and gorgeous cows that have the longest cow eyelashes in the world.
Heidihof hotel and restaurant
Swiss Heidi Hotel
Heidiland General information about this area includes rustic farmhouse rentals where stay where guests sleep on straw mattresses.
Swiss rail pass
More train info
“Heidi's Alp: One Family's Search for Storybook Europe,” by Christina Hardyment Out of print but available for prices that begin at just one penney on www.amazon.com.
“Traveling the Eurail Express,” by Jay Brunhouse.
Carole Terwilliger Meyers blogs at Travels With Carole. Just like Peter’s granny in Heidi, Carole’s 92-year-old mom now has difficulty seeing due to macular degeneration, so on her most recent visit she read Heidi to her.
Ms. Meyers is also the author of “Miles of Smiles: 101 Great Car Games & Activities”
copyright 2013 Carole Terwilliger Meyers