MAIENFELD, SWITZERLAND — The alpine meadows. The soaring mountains. The cute little goats with bells around their necks, chiming away in the shadow of a picture-perfect hillside chalet.
These are the images that became embedded in the mind of millions of readers when the Heidi books first appeared more than a century ago.
An hour by train from the modern metropolis of Zurich is a region known simply as Heidiland, a number of towns and villages nestled at the foot of the Alps that were the locales from the two original novels.
There are two Heidi museums, an entire village recreated to resemble Heidi’s mountain home and surroundings and even a new Swiss Heidi Hotel, where her cheerful face against an alpine backdrop is on the shower door in guestrooms.
When author Johanna Spyri came to the area to recover from an illness, she created the little orphan girl who went up the Alps to live with her grumpy grandfather and never wanted to leave.
“You say Heidi and instantly children everywhere know who that is. They can see the mountains she knew and they believe they know her life,” says local guide Hildegard Mullis, who has lived in the region her entire life.
“When I see visitors from other parts of the world come to this place, I know it’s because of Heidi. They have come all this way to see what her life was like,” Mullis says.
From the medieval town of Maienfeld, which can trace its roots back more than five centuries, a footpath up the mountain takes travellers past stone entrances to vineyards and rolling green pastures. As described by Spyri, through green and shady meadows up lofty heights where the land grows wilder is the village of Heidialp.
The village, complete with wandering baby goats, is a recreation of the mountain home where Heidi lived with her grandfather, surrounded by meadows with a view of valleys below. Inside the rustic home, fans of the books will recognize familiar scenes, such as Heidi’s bed of hay, Clara’s wheelchair and the table where the goatherd Peter learned to read.
At the newly opened Johanna Spyri museum back in Maienfeld, in the lower level gift shop, visitors can buy everything from Heidi coffee to a whole menagerie of ceramic animals that were part of the orphan girl’s life. Upstairs, dozens of Heidi books in different languages have been donated by fans. Since 1880, when the first of the two original Heidi books appeared, the stories have been translated into more than 50 languages.
Some of the most dedicated visitors are from Japan, where Heidi has been a part of childhood for two generations, following the debut of an anime series in 1974. That depiction of Heidi, barefoot and running in vibrant green fields, became the image of Switzerland for young Japanese viewers and readers.
Rumi Sakunaga with Tourism Switzerland’s Tokyo office says numbers have fallen in recent years because of the downturn in Japan’s economy. But thousands of tourists from Japan continue to travel to Switzerland every year, citing Heidi as the reason they want to visit the country.
“The series is loved even today by the Japanese even though it’s been on television for years,” says Sakunaga. “There are even more fans today because the people who have discovered Spirited Away are coming back to Heidi.” Spirited Away, the cult favourite and the first Japanese anime film to win an Academy Award, was directed by the now legendary Hayao Miyazaki who decades earlier created the Heidi anime series.
The Japanese rendition of Heidi could hardly have been imagined by author Spyri, who lived in Zurich but frequently came to the eastern part of Switzerland due to her ill health.
Today, Bad Ragaz, the neighbouring town to Maienfeld, has the same reputation as a spa resort that it did more than a century ago when Spyri was here. She spent time at and wrote about the “big hotel” where Heidi’s aunt Dete worked and where Clara was sent from Frankfurt to recover from the accident that left her in a wheelchair.
During Spyri’s era in the mid to late 1800s, the Old Baths in Bad Pfafers were a favourite destination for visitors and those seeking to recover from chronic health problems in the thermal waters.
The Old Baths in the Tamina Ravine up the mountain from Bad Ragaz was Switzerland’s oldest baroque bathing house and underneath its caverns, water rushed in through the gorge to create natural hot spring healing spas. The bathing house and the Benedictine abbey nearby have been turned into a museum and restaurant.
The healing hot springs still attract visitors and are piped through to a new spa in the town of Bad Ragaz, a 20-minute bus ride from the original spot. The Bad Ragaz Tamina thermal bath in the recently restored spa house is a series of pools, both indoor and out, of varying temperatures ranging from hot to icy cold.
After a hike up the Alps where Heidi would have roamed, a soak in the thermal baths is ideal. What better way to end a journey that began following the footsteps of the girl who made the mountains of Switzerland a place where millions wanted to visit?
Just the Facts
ARRIVING: Air Canada flies direct from Toronto to Zurich.
STAYING: The Swiss Heidi Hotel is located a two minute walk from the train station. Rooms start at $112 Cdn a night www.swissheidihotel.ch/
The Heidihof Hotel is just a few walking minutes from Heidi’s Village and the original Heidi House. Rooms start at $154 a night www.heidihof.ch/