The Altdorf Of William Tell
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Let it be said at once that, altho the name of Altdorf is indissolubly linked with that of William Tell, the place arouses an interest which does not at all depend upon its associations with the famous archer. From the very first it gives one the impression of possessing a distinct personality, of ringing, as it were, to a note never heard before, and thus challenging attention to its peculiarities.
As you approach Altdorf from Fluelen, on the Lake of Lucerne, by the long white road, the first houses you reach are large structures of the conventional village type, plain, but evidently the homes of well-to-do people, and some even adorned with family coats-of-arms. In fact, this street is dedicated to the aristocracy, and formerly went by the name of the Herrengasse, the "Lane of the Lords." Beyond these fashionable houses is an open square, upon which faces a cosy inn-named, of course, after William Tell; and off on one side the large parish church, built in cheap baroco style, but containing a few objects of interest.
There is a good deal of sight-seeing to be done in Altdorf, for so small a place. In the town hall are shown the tattered flags carried by the warriors of Uri in the early battles of the Confederation, the mace and sword of state which are borne by the beadles to the Landsgemeinde. In a somewhat inaccessible corner, a few houses off, the beginnings of a museum have been made. Here is another portrait of interest—that of the giant Puntener, a mercenary whose valor made him the terror of the enemy in the battle of Marignano, in 1515; so that when he was finally killed, they avenged themselves, according to a writing beneath the picture, by using his fat to smear their weapons, and by feeding their horses with oats from his carcass. Just outside the village stands the arsenal, whence, they say, old armor was taken and turned into shovels, when the St. Gothard Railroad was building, so poor and ignorant were the people.
If you are of the sterner sex, you can also penetrate into the Capuchin Monastery, and enter the gardens, where the terraces that rise behind the buildings are almost Italian in appearance, festooned with vines and radiant with roses. Not that the fame of this institution rests on such trivial matters, however. The brothers boast of two things : theirs is the oldest branch of the order in Switzerland, dating from 1581, and they carry on in it the somewhat unappetizing industry of cultivating snails for the gourmands of foreign countries. Above the Capuchins is the famous Bannwald, mentioned by Schiller—a tract of forest on the mountain-slope, in which no one is allowed to fell trees, because it protects the village from avalanches and rolling stones.
Nothing could be fairer than the outskirts of Altdorf on a May morning. The valley of the Reuss lies bathed from end to end in a flood of golden light, shining through an atmosphere of crystal purity. Daisies, cowslips, and buttercups, the flowers of rural wellbeing, show through the rising grass of the fields; along the hedges and crumbling walls of the lanes peep timid prim-roses and violets, and in wilder spots the Alpine gentian, intensely blue. High up, upon the mountains, glows the indescribable velvet of the slopes, while, higher still, ragged and vanishing patches of snow proclaim the rapid approach of summer.
After all, the best part of Altdorf, to make an Irish bull, lies outside of the village. No adequate idea of this strange little community can be given without referring to the Almend, or village common. Indeed, as time goes on, one learns to regard this Almend as the complete expression and final summing up of all that is best in Altdorf, the reconciliation of all its inconsistencies.
How fine that great pasture beside the River Reus, with its short, juicy, Alpine grass, in sight of the snow-capped Bristenstock, at one end of the valley, and of the waters of Lake Lucerne at the other ! In May, the fullgrown cattle have already departed for the higher summer pastures, leaving only the feeble young behind, who are to follow as soon as they have grown strong enough to bear the fatigues of the journey. At this time, therefore, the Almend becomes a sort of vision of youth—of calves, lambs, and foals, guarded by little boys, all gamboling in the exuberance of early life.