Biggest trip ever for 21st century Heidi

Heidi has become this year's ambassador for Eastern Switzerland. MyHeidi

This year, Heidi fans will be able to follow the orphan's trail far beyond her grandfather's farm in the Swiss Alps and her trip to Frankfurt.

This content was published on April 2, 2001 - 16:13

A newly expanded route has been set up in commemoration of the centenary of the death of Heidi's creator, author Johanna Spyri.

Everyone knows the story of the orphaned Swiss girl, who was sent to live with her reclusive grandfather on his alp, her stay in Frankfurt and her triumphant homecoming.

Now fans are able to accompany Peter taking his goats into the Alps, to eat "Heidi bread" (made with goat's milk), to sleep in the straw as the orphan did at her grandfather's mountain hut, or take the "Heidi Express" train journey - not to Frankfurt, as Heidi did, but to the sunny southern side of the Alps, which she might have done had she not been so poor.

The novel, first published in 1880 by Johanna Spyri as "Heidi's years of Apprenticeship and Travel", has sold about 50 million copies worldwide, and is arguably more popular in Japan than anywhere else in the world, including Switzerland.

Heidi pilgrims are expected to flock to Switzerland in even greater numbers this year because of the 100th anniversary of Spyri's death. They will also have more to do and see.

There will be interpretive Heidi trails to follow around Maienfeld and Bad Ragaz - the picturesque places in eastern Switzerland where Spyri set the story - as well as walks in the Engadine valley where most Heidi films were shot, including the latest version, which was released in Switzerland last month.

About a dozen organisations have come together this year to cash in on the anniversary. "In marketing terms Heidi is a brand - not just a local or regional brand, but a worldwide one," says Gieri Spescha of canton Graubünden's tourist office, which is coordinating the events.

The organisations have produced a guide to this year's special sites and events, including a map of Heidi's Switzerland, covering the entire eastern half of the country.

Until this year, Heidi tourism had centred on Maienfeld and Bad Ragaz in the region already known as "Heidiland".

Hans-Jörg Müntener, who heads the tourist office representing the villages, including Maienfeld which inspired Spyri's novel, says he agrees there's more to gain through cooperation, but was "astonished" when he first learned that so many other places wanted to jump on the Heidi bandwagon.

This year, about 100,000 Heidi devotees are expected to descend on Switzerland - about twice as many as in any other year. It's proof of Heidi's immense marketing potential and her ever-lasting appeal.

"Heidi, as a person, has qualities that are important for every society in every period," explains Walter Leimgruber, a folklore expert from Zurich university.

"She can bring people together, she can open hearts, like that of her grandfather, for example. She unites the poor and rich, as well as the countryside and city, girls and boys, women and men. Many people dream of living in the type of world described in the novel."

Leimgruber, who is responsible for a travelling exhibition on the Heidi myth, says Spyri wasn't the only 19th century writer who looked at society through the eyes of a young orphan. Heidi joined Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Charles Dicken's Oliver Twist and Astrid Lindgren's Pipi Longstocking in winning over a large public.

"In the 19th century, many people weren't comfortable with the lifestyle that came with industrialisation; of discipline, of schools. But an orphan is in some ways free," Leimgruber says.

"Not only are orphans without parents, but they are free from the pressures of civilisation. Orphans represent nature, they can express themselves freely, do whatever they want. They can choose their own path."

The Swiss organisations promoting Heidi this year believe visitors to eastern Switzerland will discover a world which, at least on the surface, has changed little since Heidi's day.

And Spescha is convinced the original character will survive all the attention.

"Many people have done many things with Heidi over the years but nobody really managed to change the heart of the story. It's a strong story, and I think that's what keeps her alive."

by Dale Bechtel

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