Home Sweet Home With Heidi

Cindy Ross is a freelance writer based in Pennsylvania

Grandfather carried a cutting board heaped with salt-cured slab bacon, homemade bread and freshly made cheese to the rustic wood picnic table, and the children dug in, ravenous from the two-mile climb to his cabin. He poured my husband and me little glasses of red wine from a vineyard in the valley below. The sun warmed our faces, and the Swiss Alps stretched before us in Grandfather's "front yard."

We toasted our luck at finding Grandfather at home and not tending his cows and goats in the high country. We had come a long way to visit this special place where the Grandfather of Johanna Spyri's book "Heidi" lived 130 years ago.

The man we greeted as "Grandfather" was Luis Karner, a retired postman appointed three years ago by the town to help bring the children's classic to life for the boys and girls--and their parents--who come here every spring and summer from all over the world to walk in Heidi's footsteps.

(For the uninitiated: "Heidi" is a sweet, short novel written in simple language. Heidi is perhaps 5 years old, an orphan living with her grandfather, who keeps a herd of goats high above Maienfeld. One spring she is sent to the city to live with her cousin, Clara, and a housekeeper. Heidi, homesick for the Alps, becomes ill, and Grandfather welcomes both girls home to spend a happy and healthy summer in Maienfeld.)

When my husband, Todd Gladfelter, and I were planning this trip to Switzerland, Heidi never came to mind. We're a hiking family. But then an acquaintance shamed us: "You mean you're taking the kids to Switzerland and you're not going to look for Heidi?" Our children, Bryce, 8, and Sierra, 10, had read the book and seen a movie version. Sure, they wanted to see where Heidi lived. So the spunky little girl went on our itinerary, and we were glad she did.

The Swiss tourism office in New York pointed us toward Maienfeld, "Heidi's Hometown," in the eastern canton (state) of Graubnden, and also gave us a list of farm stays, "Sleeping in the Straw."

Maienfeld is a typical Alps community, with timber-and-stone houses all decked out in window boxes filled with summer flowers.

A fountain in town honors Spyri, a novelist and lawyer's wife who spent most of her life (1829 to 1901) in Zrich and occasionally summered in Jenins, a village nearby. Spyri was afflicted with depression and believed that time in the mountains was capable of restoring health. It was a sentiment she gave to Clara, Heidi's little city cousin confined to a wheelchair.

The paintings that illustrated "Heidi," first published as two stories in 1880 and 1881, are of buildings and vistas that visitors can see today in and around Maienfeld.

After rambling the narrow cobbled streets, we followed the signs for "Heidiweg" (Heidi Way) past Heidi's friend Peter's house, then up to Rofels (population 25) and, beyond that, to Grandfather's rustic cabin.

We settled around the inviting table outside, and Grandfather Karner brought out a scrapbook from his years in this honorary position, showing us drawings, notes and postcards from families who have visited from around the world. He said he can speak six languages, which must be a happy surprise to Heidi's far-flung fans who come here. The Japanese are particularly fond of Heidi, he said, sharing recent visitors' gifts of dried seaweed and an unusual dried fish candy with our children.

After posing for pictures, we bade our farewell and started back down to Rofels, better known as Heididorf, or Heidi Town. This is the reconstructed hamlet of the book's setting, where the orphaned Heidi lived for a while with Peter's grandmother.

The two-story Heidi House, in traditional white stucco and wood, has a museum depicting rural life in the late 1800s. In the cellar we saw sausages and bacon suspended from hooks to dry; an antique backpack for carrying round Alpine cheeses hung on the wall. The rooms had period furnishings, the kitchen table was set with tin plates, potatoes were in a frying pan on the stove--it all looked as though Heidi had just left to call Grandfather to supper. Upstairs, vintage clothing hung on hooks, and near a bed was a wheelchair like the one Clara used.

Outside, our children petted playful goats while we sat on benches in the garden and looked out at the gorgeous mountains.

Todd and I agreed that Heidi won our hearts because she has some of the characteristics we hope to foster in our children--infectiously high spirits, an unaffected personality and a love of mountains and all of nature.

After trekking around Heidi's Mountain and visiting the Heidi House museum and gift shop, we proceeded to a nearby farm for the perfect ending of a Heidi day.

Switzerland has more than 250 "Sleeping in the Straw" accommodations, where tourists can get to know farm families. The farm we chose in Maienfeld gives Heidi lovers another opportunity to learn about her lifestyle.

We had booked a night with Max and Dorli Just, who have a small herd of goats. We arrived in time for supper, and even if we hadn't been ravenous from our day's exercise, we would have loved the main dish, a casserole of potatoes and macaroni topped with creamy cheese sauce.

We were ready to hit the hay early--literally. The Justs showed us to our bedroom, a loft in their barn, furnished with a big pile of fresh, clean straw and blankets. All in a line, the four of us made deep depressions in the fragrant hay and, pulling up the covers against the cool night, slept soundly.

Our eyes popped open when we heard a rooster crowing and the clicking of dozens of goat hoofs on the stone floor below us. It was milking time. Dawn was just breaking, but chores begin early on a farm.

A wood door in our hayloft swung open to reveal the milking parlor below. We poked our sleepy heads out and watched as the goats were led in groups of 10 into the milking chutes. When we scrambled down, we found the goats friendly and perfectly willing to be petted. Our kids especially delighted in the half-dozen white baby goats kept off to the side. Meanwhile, a menagerie of chickens, dogs and cats came by to check us out.

After morning chores were completed, the Justs set out a feast of a breakfast of homemade jams and baked goods, scrambled eggs and more cheeses. (Breakfast is usually included in the farm-stay rates, and other meals can be arranged at little cost; we paid about $30 for our lodging and $25 for dinner.)

With time to kill before our train, we hopped across the valley to the village of Bad Ragaz. There we rode up the steep mountainside on a funicular, which deposits visitors on a short path that leads to yet another Grandfather's cabin. Unlike the last one, this is newly constructed, and this "Grandfather" makes his own wine (with his picture on the label). Heidi sells well, we could see, but this experience is a good alternative for those who cannot make the long climb to the authentic Grandfather's house above Maienfeld.

Our next stop was Chur (pronounced koor), the regional hub, which claims to be the oldest settlement in Switzerland (5,000 years). More than 100 fountains dot the town, gushing with mountain spring water, and our kids had to splash their hands in every one.

Switzerland in general struck me as a family-friendly place. Many train stations (including the one in Chur) rent out 21-speed all-terrain bikes, so a family can get out to see the countryside. When your little ones get tired, you can leave the bikes at any station and take the train back to town.

We had booked a room in the Minotel Freieck in the center of Chur, and after dinner we were lulled to sleep by accordion players serenading patrons on the hotel patio beneath our windows.

In the morning we took a bus to Rhaezuens, a village outside Chur, and rode a chairlift up the mountain. Our goal was a new toboggan run we'd heard of, at the ski resort of Pradaschier, but the chairlift ride was almost as exciting: Only a thin metal bar held us in as we swung over the extremely steep terrain. At the top we enjoyed a lunch of cheese, bread and wine.

Then it was on to Pradaschier. Todd and I each took a child and strapped ourselves into the metal sleds for the two-mile run down the chute. There were signs at every curve advising when to brake, but it is up to the driver to decide how fast to go. Bryce and I went fast enough for me, but Todd and Sierra flew down, their happy screams echoing from the mountain walls.

From Chur we boarded the "Heidi Express" on the Rhaetian Railway, which carried us over mountains and through enchanted gorges and deposited us in the resort city of St. Moritz, in the sunny Engadine Valley.

The scenery in the Engadine is tremendous--many Heidi films were done here, with the Alps' glaciers as a backdrop--but we were drawn by the superb hiking.

St. Moritz is where the rich and famous come to play; the top suite in the most elite hotel in ski season can cost $5,000 a night. Our hotel, the Waldhaus, was on a lake and had reasonable summer-time rates for families.

A short bus ride from St. Moritz took us up to the exquisite town of Pontresina, which has two beautiful glaciers. We took a funicular from town to the Hohenweg, a 11/2-mile, mostly level path that affords tremendous views of the Upper Engadine Valley, with its lakes, majestic mountains and glaciers. It also brings you to a convenient trailside restaurant, the Roseggletscher, for refreshment. There is little to compare with sipping a fine burgundy while gazing out at crystal white-covered peaks. The funicular ride back down to Pontresina, with its views of the Upper Engadine Alps and the ice-covered peaks of the Bernina Range, is a close second.

Our favorite stop outside Heidi country turned out to be our last: Zernez, 20 miles up the valley from St. Moritz. This is one of the most attractive of the Engadine villages, thanks to the folk art decorating most of the homes' exteriors.

We had booked an apartment at the Bettini Hotel for a couple of days to wrap up our week of tramping around. Three bedrooms, living room, kitchen, dining room, excellent dinners prepared by the host--it was like visiting an elegant home, the perfect counterpoint to a week that started in Heidi's hayloft.


Guidebook: Heidi's Home

* Getting there: Swissair flies nonstop from L.A. to Zrich. Connecting service (change of plane) is available on Delta, American, Continental, Air France, KLM, British and Lufthansa. Restricted round-trip summer fares begin at $1,217.

For Swiss train information: Rail Europe, telephone (800) 438-7245, Internet http://www.rail europe.com. An eight-day Swiss Pass, good for trains, lake steamers and buses, is $330 for first class, $220 for second class. Children under 16 go free on a Swiss Rail Family Card.

* Where to stay: Minotel Freieck, Chur; tel. 011-41-81-252-1792, fax 011-41-81-253-3419, e-mail freieck@churtourismus.ch . Doubles $90 to $113 with breakfast.

Hotel Waldhaus am See, St. Moritz; tel. 011-41-81-833-7676, fax 011-41-81-833-8877, e-mail waldhaus.am.see@bluewin.ch . Rooms start at $77 per person per night, but must be reserved two weeks ahead in summer and winter high seasons.

Hotel Bettini, Zernez; tel. 011-41-81-856-1135, fax 011-41-81-856-1510, e-mail hotel.bettini@engadin.net . Per person, $42 to $50 with breakfast.

* Where to eat: We often ate lunches on the trail and light suppers at our hotel. One memorable restaurant was the Roseggletscher, on a trail above the Upper Engadine Valley resort of Pontresina. Lunch was about $15 per person. Local tel. 842-6445.

* For more information: Switzerland Tourism, 608 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10020; tel. (877) 794-8037, http://www.MySwitzerland.com.

Engadine/Graubnden Tourism, http://www.graubuenden.ch.

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