The legendary pact sowing the seeds of the Swiss Federation was signed, so the story goes, in 1291 at Rütli Meadow on the shores of Lake Uri — the Urnersee — a bay of Lake Lucerne.
The significance of Rütli in the Swiss psyche was further enhanced in the dark days of WWII, when, surrounded by German (two million troops in occupied France alone!) and Italian forces, General Guisan mobilised the Swiss Army, summoning his officers to the site to outline his Reduit (“redoubt”) plan.
Rütli is also the start of the 35km Weg der Schweiz (Swiss Path), opened in 1991, commemorating the 700th anniversary of the Rütli pact.
The trail has 26 sections, one for each canton, of size proportionate to their populations in 1991, with each citizen allocated 5mm of track! Well-populated Zürich gets 6.1km, while tiny Appenzell is covered in 71 exhausting metres…
NOVEMBER 30, 2010
A couple of train transfers, a couple of hours or less from home, and a stroll to the waterfront in Brunnen, the little town in Canton Schwyz where Winston Churchill spent his honeymoon. It’s cold, and early, the sun buried in the murky cloud where it will hide all day. Not a good day for boating on the lake, and only two other passengers get on the ferry with me.
We leave Brunnen behind and I brave the deck in the bracing cold:
We pass the natural obelisk-turned-monument to Friedrich Schiller, whose play Wilhelm Tell (1804), based on the idea of his friend Goethe, played a crucial role in popularising the William Tell legend…
..and are soon pulling into snow-dusted Rütli, where only one idiotic passenger braves the pitiful stares of the crew to climb ashore. Me.
I climb up to the famed meadow, a place of deep cultural and historical significance for all Swiss, and am greeted with an awe-inspiring sight: cows.
Here’s the spot where Guisan addressed his officers. Utterly deserted, carpeted in snow, it’s a solemn, silent place:
Chomping on chocolate, I climb the rim of the lake. The restaurant is locked up, but I find this cool picture of Guisan and the entire Swiss officer corps assembled near this very spot:
A last glimpse of the site 70 years on, and I take my first steps on the Weg der Schweiz…
..looking back and down to a lonesome boat on a sea of grey:
Swiss paths cross and re-cross farmland. I pass a deserted barn with a view back to Brunnen, and half an hour of stomping brings me into Seelisberg, where nary a single one of the 656 residents is stirring:
Seeli means “small lake” in Swiss-German. I join a deserted road for a while. The area proudly celebrates its association with the legend:
I buy some snacks in an almost-deserted store. Rest in a playground buried in a snowdrift, and enter a silent forest peopled with frozen angels…
Walking in a foreign land, cut off by language, culture, history, most of the time you’re “looking in”. You’re closer by far than a driver speeding by, or a train passenger gazing through the glass, but you’re still an observer. But sometimes you get a little snatch of understanding.
I watch these kids starting on a snowman as a light snow begins to fall, oddly grateful for this intimate glimpse of their private world:
Alternating between the security of hard road and waist-deep snow in the woods and fields, I descend to the lake, and the village of Bauen, dating from 1150. Wikipedia: Until 1956 the only way to reach the village was over steep footpaths from the neighboring communities. I get a taste of the old ways coming down, scaring a farm cat, entranced by glimpses of the beautiful town:
Trail markers feature the Weg der Schweiz logo, the canton represented in the next section, and the date it joined the Federation:
Leaving Bauen, I’m startled by the disconcertingly tropical colours of…beach towels. These Swiss are hardy bastards:
The trail now enters the mountains, utilising the superseded road tunnel parallelling the new one around the lake perimeter. I feel like Bilbo Baggins on his quest. Strange artwork adorns the walls, and here and there, windows and deserted picnic areas overlook the lake:
At last I leave that eerie subterranean realm behind and emerge into the chilled air of dusk. Time for a celebratory self-portrait:
Monstrous peaks loom overhead. No time for a full circuit today; I decide to call it a day at Flüelen, a few miles ahead. It’s near zero C, and I’m craving warmth for some reason.
I’ve come quite a way:
Another marker, as I leave the Fribourg section and enter Solothurn, a relative newcomer to the Federation:
Flüelen, dating from the mid-13th century, looks close — fortunately. I’m running out of light, and packed no headlamp.
It’s not as close as it looks, but I enjoy the darkness, the quiet, and the brooding presence of the guardian peaks as I aim for the train station, a can of beer and a sandwich, ready for the warmth and soothing motion of the journey home…
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote
Next post: In the shadow of William Tell…