As I peel off a jacket and then a sweater on my hike up from Maienfeld village towards Heididorf, I am reminded of an initial scene from the book. Heidi is clambering up the Alps behind her aunt Dete, and as it gets warmer and warmer, off comes one layer of clothing after another. I must have read the book nearly three decades ago, yet I remember that scene vividly. And I remember rooting for the impish, rebellious little orphan that moment on.
Me, I am not rebelling; I am just not clad for the warm weather. The last few days had been unseasonably wet and cold for August, and I had fully expected more of the same.
The signs for Heididorf – Heidi’s village where her home has been recreated for her fans – start as soon as you get off at Maienfeld’s railway station. And why not? It is one of the region’s star attractions, drawing visitors from as far as Japan. But more on that later.
Heididorf is an easy hour’s walk from the station, through the pretty village of Maienfeld and up hilly roads lined with vineyards. A dozen photo stops, a bit of huffing and a lot of puffing later, I pull up at tiny Heididorf.
So, here’s the thing. In Heidiland, it is easy to forget that Heidi is a fictional character. There is a museum dedicated to her life; to author Johanna Spyri really, and the innumerable Heidi adaptations. It comes with a souvenir shop that sells, yes, Heidi-themed things from chocolates to fridge magnets, school bags and water bottles. Close to it is a model of Heidi’s home, the one she would have shared with her grumpy grandpa.
I am ambivalent about this experience, when I overhear someone say in a breathless voice, “This is a dream come true for me.” When I mention this later to Tabhitha Forrer from Heidiland Tourism, she says this is a common sentiment expressed by Heididorf visitors.
What makes Heidi, written in 1880 by an unknown Swiss, so popular even today? It remains one of the largest selling books in the world, translated into over 50 languages. There are five known movie versions, including a blockbuster with Shirley Temple, of golden locks and puppy eyes fame. Spyri, in her book, of course, describes Heidi as having short, black curly hair, but that’s Hollywood for you.
And it has been televised in several languages, from Arabic to Japanese. And friends tell me that Heidi is still as fascinating as Doraemon (or is it Pokemon – forgive my ignorance) is to young viewers of animated television. According to Tabitha, Swiss children who had stopped reading – as did children of successive video game and iPad generations all over the world – rediscovered Heidi with these translated animation series.
Japanese men and women (especially the latter, I suspect) of a certain age, who grew up watching the 1974 anime Heidi, Girl of the Alps make up a large proportion of visitors of Heididorf. Every year, half a dozen Japanese couples make their way to the village to get married. Surely enough, there is a Japanese wedding planning website called Heidiwedding.com and this is what I can make out from Google’s quirky translation: Take your wedding vows in the Heidi Alps, in a world you have dreamed of as a child.
I have to admit, even without the Heidi motif, it is a beautiful spot to get hitched in. The lulling sound of cowbells. The crisp mountain air. The uninterrupted views of distant mountain peaks.
Later at lunch, I meet Hitsch Möhr, ex-Mayor of Maienfeld. His claim to fame in my eyes is that he featured in a local production of the movie in 1953. It is initially difficult to imagine this charming, bald man as a ten-year-old on the sets. Then he grins as he talks about going for auditions just to get a day off from school, and the years fall away. Hobnobbing with a film star (almost) over some melt-in-the-mouth nusstorte, the region’s special nut pastry, is the ideal end to my Heidi morning.
That afternoon, I am let into a Swiss secret, and it has nothing to do with bank accounts. In the neighbouring village of Malans, I meet fifth generation wine-maker Martin Donatsch, who has trained in Australia, South Africa, France and Spain. Martin – whose mother’s name is Heidi – has been winning awards for his Pinot Noir. But what wins me over during the tasting session, is the intense Completer, a grape unique to Switzerland.
And then I wonder what other secrets the Swiss hold close to their hearts.
Things to do
Maienfeld in the Graubünden Canton in Eastern Switzerland is a two-hour train ride from Zurich. While in Graubünden, hike and ski in Flumserberg and Pizol, or indulge in a thermal spa treatment at Bad Ragaz. Also go sightseeing at Chur, Switzerland’s oldest town, which also calls itself The Alpine City.
This story, based on a recent Switzerland trip, was published in Mumbai Mirror on November 10, 2013 as Rooting for Heidi…