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Home Sweet Home With Heidi

A family on a hiking trip detours into a land of make-believe, where the little orphan is queen.

July 22, 2001|CINDY ROSS | Cindy Ross is a freelance writer based in Pennsylvania

MAIENFELD, Switzerland — 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.

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