Switzerland's Heidimania

Vines and spectacular mountains near the village of Jenins, in the Bundner Herrschaft wine region.
Photo of Gemma Nisbet

There are plenty of grown-up attractions in and around the village of Maienfeld, in Switzerland's east. But it's the area's association with classic children's tale Heidi that draws fans from around the globe. 

"Every girl in Graubunden is Heidi — we are homesick whenever we go abroad." So says Petra Fausch, our host from Graubunden Tourism. And indeed Heidi, the classic Swiss children’s tale about a little orphaned girl living in the mountains with her grandfather, was inspired by this rugged, mountainous canton in eastern Switzerland. 

Today, this association with Johanna Spyri’s much-loved book is a major tourism draw in and around the village of Maienfeld. Ober Rofels, the hamlet that incorporates the so-called Heidihaus (“Heidi’s house”) has been re-christened Heididorf. There’s a nearby Heidihof hotel and restaurant, while the surrounding area is known in tourism-speak as Heidiland. Not long after my visit, Heididorf welcomes its one millionth visitor.

It would be easy to be sniffy about this Heidimania — my guidebook certainly is. You might say it’s a Swiss cliche or a slice of kitsch, or dismiss it as childish. Certainly there are more grown-up diversions in this area, not least the historic Bundner Herrschaft vineyards, where more than 50 different wines are produced. We’ve just sampled some of them over lunch on the sunny terrace overlooking the vines at Restaurant Alter Torkel in the nearby village of Jenins.

But I have a real affection for Heidi, having grown up reading about her life with her grandpa and her adventures in the mountains with her shepherd friend Peter. Her simple, natural world is a beguiling one — her hayloft bed, her mugs of goat’s milk, her kindly grandfather and her days spent picking wildflowers and befriending the goats. 

I’m not the only one who feels this way. Some 50 million copies of the book (which was originally published in two parts) have been printed in 50 languages. Scores of Heidi movies, TV series, musicals and other adaptations have been produced, including a 1937 Hollywood film with Shirley Temple as Heidi, and a new film version is due to be released later this year. The story is particularly popular in Japan, off the back of a 70s anime adaptation. There’s even a Heidi Village near Tokyo and, tellingly, that millionth visitor to Heididorf was Japanese. 

Certainly, when we arrive at the carpark near Heididorf, there are visitors from around the world. The village itself is much less touristy than I might have feared. There’s a souvenir shop stocked with all manner of Heidi ephemera but it’s all rather charming and low key, with chickens clucking and goats sticking their heads through their pens’ railing, hustling for treats offered by small hands. 

In fact, besides the camera-toting tourists, it looks every bit the kind of peaceful rural idyll that might have inspired Spyri to write Heidi. And though it might be a stretch to suggest, as the Heididorf website does, that “Heidi lived in this village” — she’s fictional, after all — Spyri did spend time in the area both as a child and in adulthood. And, as our Heididorf guide" tells us, there may have been some autobiographical elements to the Heidi tale: Spyri experienced ill health and depression while living in Zurich with her lawyer husband, just as Heidi does during her time in Frankfurt, where she is companion to a disabled girl called Clara.

The main attraction at Heididorf is Heidihaus, a historic chalet that recreates how Heidi and her grandfather might have lived in the late 1800s. According to our guide, it shows how they would’ve lived during winter, when — along with the goats that grazed at higher altitudes during the warmer months — they would have returned to the fictional hamlet of Dorfli from their hut higher up the mountain. 

We see the cellar where bread and goat cheese would have been stored. Upstairs, rooms are simply furnished. I recognise some things from the book — a wheelchair like the one Clara would have used, and a straw hat like the one Heidi wore.

There are also some fairly disconcerting mannequins depicting Grandfather, Peter and Heidi, the former occupied with woodwork and the children sitting at the dining table, practising reading. 

By now, the house is busy with visitors and a little too crowded, so I retreat outside. From here, I can look out over the meadows dotted with flowers and the mountains in the distance.

I imagine the breeze ruffling the warm air could be the gentler cousin of the wind Heidi would hear whistling through the branches of the fir trees by her grandfather’s mountain hut. 

Behind me, a path beckons up to the so-called Heidialp. It’s a 90-minute walk up and I don’t have time but I’m tempted. I think of Heidi, sitting in the mountains with Peter, gazing “so intently at the mountain peaks that soon they seemed to her to have faces and to be looking at her like old friends”, as Spyri wrote. 

Heidi might not be real but the appeal of this place — which so inspired her creator — certainly is. 

Gemma Nisbet was a guest of Switzerland Tourism.

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