02 August 2010
The Brits at Lonely Planet describe Ballenberg as "Disneyland-like." My only guess is that maybe the intrepid travelers haven't really visited Disneyland, opting instead to circumnavigate the small world and allow its own reputation to precede itself. Disneyland is iconic and it almost seems unfair to compare anything to Disneyland except Disneyland. It's especially hard to imagine the horrors of Disneyland's long lines in blistering heat; oversized puppets that keep reappearing throughout the day like an animated version of The Hitch-Hiker; odors of stale soda baking on asphalt; and the sweat, the grime, and fiberglass to be "like" anything at Ballenberg. But I had my doubts.
When our Swiss neighbor was asked where he would take someone who had never visited his country before, he answered without pause. Ballenberg. He made it sound like a village with some distinct architectural curiosities surrounded by beautiful mountains. I referenced the Lonely Planet and read "Disneyland-like." I had my doubts. Upon visiting, my doubts were abated. The Swiss call Ballenberg an open-air museum. In the U.S. it would be called a living history museum.
Ballenberg is located in the Bernese Oberland near the town of Brienz, just above the Brienzersee, Interlakken's eastern lake. Spread across 160 forested acres Ballenberg displays the unique, varied, and traditional architectural styles found throughout the whole of Switzerland. All of the geographical regions are represented as are most of the cantons. Buildings are grouped according to their regional styles and a stroll between the clusters makes for a vivid contrast. In a country about the same size as Elko County, Nevada, but with four official languages, the differences between building designs are distinct and even severe.
In addition to the framework of the buildings--often saved from demolition and restored only when and where necessary for the integrity and life of the structure--rooms within the structures are recreated with furnishings from the appropriate time period.
An 18th century warming oven and bedroom from a farmhouse in Heitenried, Fribourg canton:
Dining room and child's toy from a Bernese Midlands farmhouse built in Madiswil, 1709:
As the name living history suggests, Ballenberg is also a functioning farm that features agricultural staples from the various regions of the country. Fruits and vegetables, herbs and grains, tobacco, chestnuts, corn, and grapes all find a breeding ground here. Crops are grown in the vicinity of the regions appropriate to the plants.
An alpine herb garden next to a 17th century grain storehouse from the canton of Vaud:
Our visit coincided with a gathering of vendors selling various homeopathic and herbal remedies made from wild and indigenous plants harvested throughout Switzerland. A plot of medicinal herbs from the Bernese Midlands:
Riesling vines from an 18th century vineyard owner's house in the canton of Zürich:
Corn drying racks from Ticino:
There are also four eateries within the park that serve food and drink from their respective regions like the wine, cheese, and cured meat bistro from the Vaud; the 19th century guest-house from the canton of Zug; or the 19th century Alter Bären inn from Rapperswil in the canton of Bern. We chose to eat risotto and sausages and washed it down with White Merlot in the 14th century Novazzano estate from Ticino:
No living history museum is complete without a collection of artisans whose work and machinery is associated with the place and time period. Switzerland is deeply rooted in its agriculturally-based products and handicrafts and Ballenberg is a perfect venue to highlight them. Each cluster of buildings features several craftspeople who work at a regionally-specific trades that emphasize both the industry from the area as well as the natural resources available. In many cases--watch-making, for example--the craft or art was borne out of a need for supplemental income and took place from within the same barns and storehouses that saw day to day use from farming operations.
Making cheese in an 18th century alpine dairy barn:
Two types of weaving machines. The first from within a Bernese Midlands farmhouse, the second from a house from Blatten in the Valais dated 1568.
Tool tree from a 19th century Bernese Oberland blacksmith's shop:
A basket weaving bench waiting for its basket weaver in front of the Wissämmeli farmhouse, Lucerne’s Entlebuch region:
A 19th century water powered sawmill from Rafz in the canton of Zürich:
A 17th century, 2.5 ton wine press from Fläsch in the canton of Graubünden:
Alpine trades: making charcoal in proximity to a lime kiln and resin extractor:
Bee house from the canton of Bern:
We entered the museum grounds just past 10 a.m. and walked out about 4 p.m. Though the parking lot was full we never felt rushed, pushed, overwhelmed, or crowded. We strolled leisurely, stopped often, and kept our own pace. We saw no large mice. There wasn't a single strand of cotton candy. In fact, other than the restaurants and the artisans, there are only two small gift shops at each entrance where you could spend any more money than what it cost to walk through the gates and these, too, were filled mostly with similar handcrafts produced within.
I couldn't call Ballenberg a theme park and even the word 'museum' offers a slight disservice. Ballenberg is alive and minus a few modern upgrades is not much different than the twenty-six cantons of Switzerland today. The country moves and grows slowly and it seems to believe in mastering a few skills rather than succumb to the jack-of-all-trades theory of global industrialization. Cheese, filigreed textiles, animal husbandry, metal and wood works, and all things agriculture play as important a role in contemporary Switzerland as they did in 1291.
History is alive and well in Switzerland and its living traditions demonstrate a country sure of itself and its place among peers. If anything, Ballenberg illustrates just how Swiss Switzerland really is. There are no fake Matterhorns here, just keep climbing up the ridgeline and eventually you will see the real one. There are no fanciful kingdoms, flying elephants, Caribbean Pirates, or visions of places that never were. In fact, even today you could probably ramble through any number of small alpine villages and experience a singular (rather than the concentrated whole) version of the museum. That is, without its residents opening up their doors to you. What you see is what you get and what you get is Switzerland in a highly cultivated nutshell then, now, and forever.
While often I feel that Switzerland's rule-based orderliness verges on socialist oppression I take comfort in the fact that it will be as pretty and utilitarian in the next 700 years as it has for the last 700 years. For better or for worse Swiss citizens work diligently to ensure this; it is their creed, and the idea of the sanctity of the whole--the all for one, one for all spirit--defines and determines their country's path. Not surprisingly, Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno (German: Einer für alle, alle für einen; French: Un pour tous, tous pour un; Italian: Uno per tutti, tutti per uno) is the unofficial national motto. It's a small world after all, probably best to do things right the first time around.