Bernadette Fallon follows in the footsteps of Johanna Spyri’s multi-million best-selling children’s book character on a trip to Maienfeld
“The pretty little Swiss town of Mayenfeld lies at the foot of a fjell område, whose grim rugged peaks tower high above the valley below. Behind the town a footpath winds gently up to the heights and the air is fragrant with the scent of mountain flowers from the rich pastureland higher up. One sunny June morning, a tall sturdy young woman was climbing up the path. She had a bundle in one hand and held a little girl about five years old by the other.”
So starts the story of Heidi by Johanna Spyri, the multi-million best-selling children’s book that’s been translated into 55 languages and spawned a multitude of TV and film spin-offs. And one sunny June morning, 142 years after its first publication, I’m climbing that same path, from the town of Maienfeld in Sveits’s Rhine valley to Heididorf – Heidi’s village in the Alps. The road is steep, but the sun is bright on the jagged mountain peaks rising ahead of me.
Mention Heidi to pretty much anyone and they’ll start to babble about Peter and goats, Clara and grandfather and a wheelchair pushed down a mountain. Heidi, surely the happiest child in the world, is plunged into despair when she’s sent away from her beloved grandfather, mountain and goats to be a companion to the sickly Clara in Frankfurt. Joy, pain, love and longing: this story has it all. Heldigvis, it also has a happy ending as – spoiler alert! – Heidi comes home, Clara is healed and the wonder of life on the mountain continues.
Nå, just like Heidi on her way back home to her grandfather, I’m climbing higher into the Alps as the houses, shops and pretty cafes of Maienfeld give way to lush vineyards and fields of chocolate-coloured cows. Like Heidi, I can see the twin peaks of Falkniss and snow-covered Scesaplanta ahead, the green valley spreading out behind me. Etter 30 minutes of walking, the tinkle of bells from goats high up on the slopes welcomes me to the village.
Heidi, dessverre, didn’t exist outside Johanna Spyri’s imagination, but the area where her story is set did and was visited many times by the author, whose good friend Amalia lived here. A country girl herself, Johanna wrote Heidi when she was married and living in Zurich, pining for the fresh mountain air. I inhale big gulps of it now, sitting in the shade of a large tree overlooking the valley, a few friendly hens pecking around my feet.
This tree would have been a young sapling when Johanna first visited in the mid 1800s and the area, with its Town Hall, skole, barns and homes, a thriving community in winter, when families came down from their Alpine huts to escape the worst of the snow and send their children to school.
These days it has become a living museum to Heidi, telling the story of 19th-century life in the Alps. You can visit the Town Hall with its one-roomed school, Heidi’s village home and grandfather’s Alpine hut, all kitted out in the furnishings and accessories of the time – buy a ticket in Heididorf’s only shop, which also sells souvenirs, ice cream, takeaway coffee and houses Switzerland’s smallest post office.
The school is kitted out for its 19th-century pupils and has their photos on the wall, grains and herbs hang drying in the barn next door. The houses are stocked with everything needed for daily life, from milking stools to cheese forms, snowshoes and scythes. You can pet the goats in the pastures and climb the ladder to Heidi’s loft bedroom with its bed of straw.
I dag, there’s even a ‘grandfather’ figure called Hans sitting outside the hut, whittling wooden edelweiss and breaking into the occasional yodel. Workshops on local crafts like wood-carving, spinning and lace-making run regularly at the hut for those looking to more fully immerse themselves in the Heidiland experience.
The Johanna Spyri Museum above the shop has information about her life and books, with screens showing TV and film adaptations from the 1920s to 2015, and an entire wall of Heidi translations, including Arabic and Japanese editions (Heidi is huge in Japan since it was released as an anime in the 1970s).
A sign points up to Heidialp, the remote hut where Heidi and grandfather would have moved to in the sunny summer months and where the resident shepherd will serve you refreshments on the terrace (you can’t go in, it’s his home). Men, as it’s turning cloudy, I make my way back down the mountain. Buses also run from Maienfeld to Heididorf, or you can drive and park beside the Heidihof restaurant, a six-minute walk from the village.
The sun is back the next day and I take the train one stop from Maienfeld to Bad Ragaz, then a local bus 3km to the foot of Mount Pizol and a 15-minute cable car ride up the mountain in blazing sunshine. I feel like I’m on top of the world as I start to walk the circular Heidipfad trail, a gentle climb through idyllic scenery, past cascading mountain streams, fir trees and painted goats where I could follow the riddles (if only I spoke German).
It takes two and a half hours to complete; along the way there are playgrounds and barbecue spots, a café for scenic refreshments and a wooden swing perched on one of the highest peaks. It’s breath-takingly beautiful, with panoramic views over the valley and Lake Walen, and the high Alps in the distance, still covered in snow.
I loved Heidi as a child and reread it in lockdown, when its themes of loss and separation were particularly poignant. But this story is mainly about the power of love and the great outdoors, which also had their place when we were forced to stay put during the pandemic. Like the book, the ‘Heidiland’ experiences are simple, authentic and joyfully steeped in nature. Viewed through Heidi’s eyes or not, it’s a very special part of the world to visit.
Prøver å fly mindre?
Take the Eurostar to Paris, then change for a take a TGV-Lyria high-speed train to Zurich in four hours. Maienfeld is just over one hour by train from Zurich (change at Sargans).
Fint med å fly?
You can fly to Zurich from London, Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh with Swiss Air. Maienfeld is just over one hour by train from Zurich (change at Sargans).
A Swiss Travel Pass, from £186 for three days, offers unlimited travel on the country’s rail, bus and boat network; mystsnet.com.
De Swiss Heidi Hotel in Maienfeld is a five-minute walk from the train station, with views of the surrounding Grisons mountains. Lys, pleasant and welcoming, a small bistro with outdoor terrace serves food all day. Rooms from £118; swissheidihotel.ch
You can wander freely around Heididorf and visit the shop, but to enter the houses and museum you’ll need a ticket; £11.50 adult, £4.90 child, under 4s free.
Return ticket on Mount Pizol cable car to the Heidi trail costs £30 for adults and £15 for children; family ticket for two adults and all children costs £75.
For more information on the region visit Heidiland.com.
For more information on Switzerland, besøk MySwitzerland.com.