Heidi is exploited to build tourism Switzerland: She's fictional, but Alpine villages in the area where the book is set compete to lure visitors to Heidi's "real" house or hillsides.

Sun Journal

September 16, 1998|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

MAIENFELD, Switzerland -- Until last year, a simple fountain in the town square here served as the only monument to Johanna Spryi's 1879 novel about a little girl named Heidi who lived on a mountainside in an Alpine hut and melted cheese over a fire with her aged grandfather.

Maienfeld and its vineyards have been in eastern Switzerland's Rhine River valley since 831, and their claim to be Heidi's home is stated in the story's opening words, in which Heidi climbs to her grandfather's hut "above the pleasant village of Maienfeld."

But promoters in the neighboring canton of St. Gallen across the river are trying to appropriate Heidi. They are taking her out of her mountain village and using her to sell skiing and hiking and the resort scenery surrounding several small towns ballyhooed collectively as "Heidiland Disneyland."

"Heidi is the best ambassador for Switzerland," says Urs Kamber, who heads the Heidiland effort. For tourists, he says, "Switzerland is chocolate, cows and Heidi." And Kamber is perfectly happy to include Maienfeld in the designated "Heidiland" region.

But Maienfeld does not want to be part of Heidiland. It wants to be known as the real place where Heidi's story was set. It has launched a marketing initiative, complete with tourist shop, hotel and its own "Heidihouse," on a hill overlooking the village.

Carmen Schmitz, who sells toy goats, postcards and T-shirts at the new Heidi house, dubbed "Heidi Original," has a quick answer for her Heidiland competitors: "Theirs is only for marketing," she says with disgust. "It is not real."

The dispute has come to an uneasy truce: Officials envisioning Heidiland acknowledge Maienfeld as the Heidi "original" and have stopped calling their hut the "Heidihut." In return, Maienfeld villagers agreed to become part of the Heidiland marketing campaign.

Both sides say they have stopped squabbling. "There is no fight," Kamber says.

Adds his Maienfeld counterpart, Hansjoerg Muentener, "We talk on the phone every day."

But there clearly is some discomfort on both sides of the valley, where rich mountain pastures are dotted by small red-roofed villages and covered with perfectly aligned rows of dark blue grapes.

Kamber almost drools as he talks of Heidi as an untapped magnet to draw in double-decked tour buses like those that wind through mountain passes in better-known Swiss regions. He has produced pamphlets in several languages, posters, advertisements and his own mountainside Heidi retreat, where an elderly bearded man poses as Heidi's grandfather.

Muentener, in response, protests, "Heidi was not big business." But, he says, Maienfeld has to protect its rightful claim as Heidi's home. "Now people come from foreign lands and ask where the real Heidi is. They cannot deny the Heidi home is here."

Of course, there is no real Heidihut, Heidialp or Heidi. Spryi's story, which has sold 20 million copies in 40 languages, is fiction, based on her experiences while visiting the region to recover from illness in the healthful mountain air.

But Maienfeld's three-story stone "original Heidihouse" -- bought from its owner this year -- appears in an early sketch in one of Spryi's books. It is regarded as a house typical of Heidi's time.

Inside, a plaque says a "voice of love speaks to us from Heidi, and we shouldn't close our eyes to it. A child inspires the world, has the power to positively transform people -- isn't there an educational message behind all this?"

A 30-minute walk up a mountain and through a flowery meadow leads to the tiny Heidi hut, also matched to an early sketch found in the book.

Hundreds of tourists come to Maienfeld each day to visit. Bettina Joos of nearby Chur brought her mother-in-law, who had read the book in Spanish as a child in Central America.

Joos says she came to Maienfeld because "it is real." She says the marketers of Heidiland have their own inspirational story about a boy who gets lost searching for a cow bell.

"They are just trying to make money," Joos says of Heidiland. "I think it is ridiculous. They have their own beautiful story and they should highlight that."

Muentener sells five-franc tickets (about $3) to tour the Heidi winter home, which displays life-size dolls of the main characters in the story: Heidi, Peter, Klara and the grandfather. In the three months the house has been open, 15,000 people have come through.

Muentener has expanded to a Heidi Hotel and added a small petting zoo full of goats. A shop in the heart of Maienfeld offers more trinkets and displays a wooden wheelchair that the proprietor says was used by the disabled Klara.

The brochure proclaims: "Heidi's House, the original. Visit the genuine." It adds, "Visit the original house where Heidi lived." You can send a postcard stamped "Heidi Village" or "Try for yourself the bed where Heidi slept."

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