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Gimmelwald, a Traditional Swiss Village

Gimmelwald, Switzerland

Visiting a village high in the Swiss Alps, we observe farmers making hay, see the volunteer fire-department drill, meet the town’s teacher, and go to school.

Complete Video Script

Part of the fun — and much of the expense — of enjoying the Alps is riding the various lifts. Whether you're riding cogwheel trains, steep funiculars, or gondolas, the views are breathtaking. This gondola [cable car] drops us in the traffic-free village of Gimmelwald.

This tiny intersection is the heart of downtown. On a sunny day, you understand why people say, "If Heaven isn't what it's cracked up to be, send me back to Gimmelwald."

The village — established in the Middle Ages, incredibly on the edge of this cliff — was one of the poorest places in Switzerland. Its traditional economy was stuck in the hay. Its farmers make ends meet only with help from Swiss government subsidies — and by working the ski lifts in the winter. Modern tourism has perked up the local economy as well.

The village operates like a big family. In fact, most of the 120 residents have the same last name: von Allmen. Collecting grass to get their cows through the winter in this rugged terrain is labor-intensive. Each hardworking family harvests only enough to feed 15 or 20 cows. Life can be tough, but they'd have it no other way.

A generation ago, developers wanted to turn Gimmelwald into a big resort town. The villagers thwarted those plans by getting the entire town declared an avalanche zone.

From that point on, no one could get permission to build anything bigger than a house or a barn. Unlike neighboring resort towns, Gimmelwald remains a vital community of families — locally owned and proud of it.

Most of the buildings house two families and are divided vertically right down the middle. The writing on the post office building is a folksy blessing: "Summer brings green, winter brings snow. The sun greets the day, the stars greet the night. This house will keep you warm. May God give us His blessings."

The oldest building in town dates from 1658. Study the log-cabin construction. Many are built without nails. Gimmelwald has a strict building code. For instance, shutters can only be natural, green, or white. The stones on the huts are there to keep the shingles from blowing off during strong winter storms.

Farmers hang big ceremonial cowbells under their eaves, waiting for that festive day in the spring when the cows move from their barns up to the high meadows.

Gimmelwald's accommodations are rustic — a couple of simple pensions, B&Bs, a hostel, and even a barn that hikers sleep in when the cows are in the high meadow. If you want a fancy bed, you're better off in a nearby resort.

It's fun to buy produce directly from Gimmelwald's entrepreneurial farmers — like Esther.

Rick: Guten Tag.
Esther: Guten Tag.
Rick: Do you speak English?
Esther: Yes, a little bit. Can I help?
Rick: What do you have for sale here?
Esther: We have Alp cheese, mountain cheese. We have, from our cows, beef jerky — salami sausage — but we make not here in the house. The cow goes to Interlaken, and the sausage and the dried meat come back. The sausage is 28 percent pork. But all is organic. We have an organic farm.
Rick: OK. So, how much is the beef jerky?
Esther: It's five francs. It's 100 grams slice.
Rick: Beautiful, I'll have that.
Esther: Thank you very much.
Rick: Danke schön.
Esther: Bye, have a nice day.

The village's biggest building is the schoolhouse. And the teacher, Olle Eggimann, is giving us a look at alpine education.

Olle: OK, Rick, come in. This is our classroom here. Here we have 17 children we teach — from seven to 16 years old. So we teach them all together in one classroom. My wife and I share the only teaching position in town.

Each day starts with singing. Then the students settle into their respective studies. It's little Nicole's first week, so she's getting some extra attention.

Nicole: …drüü, vier, füüf, sächs, sibe, acht, nüün, zää!

Olle: Well, you know it's somehow like a family where we have children that are seven year old and sixteen years old. If we go skiing or hiking, the older kids, without even that I ask for it, they will carry the heavy luggage for them. So it’s really, they take care of each other.

Olle and his wife Maria are enthusiastic about the modern world — and they also respect the deep-seated local traditions. The students enjoy the best of both worlds.

Olle: You know, education should prepare children for their life. And what is important? Here, it's important that they know to use the facilities we have, like computers. But more important, they have to learn how to write, how to read, to understand what they see. They have to learn several languages — at least English, French, German. And these are the basics of an education, and this will never change.

Villagers are expected to serve as firefighters, and every few months — rain or shine — they suit up and have a drill. With the fierce Alp winds, many of these all-wood towns have burnt entirely to the ground. These remote villages have no option but to provide their own firefighters. And since many of the men are out in the fields, stay-at-home-moms play a key role.

Gimmelwald has never had a major fire. I was told that the villagers, well aware of the proficiency of their firefighting team… are especially careful with fires.