The Swiss love folklore, tales, myths and legends, so I knew I’d like here before I arrived. A common theme is wily peasants outwitting the rich, usually Austrian authorities. William Tell is the most famous example.
Many believe that William Tell is no myth, that he really existed and that his exploits are true. If you’ve never heard of William Tell, I can guarantee you will have heard the William Tell tune. If you’re of a certain age, you’ll recognise it as the Lone Ranger theme tune, if you’re a bit younger, it’s appeared in Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, younger still? Noddy! I’d go as far as to say it’s one of the most recognizable classical tunes out there. It’s also been used in advertising, films and by sports teams.
The story I’ve read goes like this. The tyrannical Austrian Barron, Gessler, who’s a Sherif of Nottingham-type figure, sets his hat upon a pole in the centre of town. All the villagers were expected to bow to the hat whenever they walked past, as a show of deference. One day, William Tell, crossbow crackshot and all-round badass, was strutting through town with his son, Carl, and in a show of defiance did not bow to the hat.
Gessler was alerted and came rushing to the scene, eager to stamp down on any rebellious behaviour. He was keen to make a public example of Tell but also to give his cronies a good laugh.
“You’ll hang for this, Tell!” he proclaimed, as a crowd gathered, “unless, that is, you can shoot an arrow through this apple with your crossbow. What say you, Tell?”
Despite Gesslers malevolent grin, Tell agreed, eliciting mummers of the crowd,. Gessler laughed, winking at his men and he grabbed the arm of Tell’s son, pulled him to a tree a great distance away and balanced the apple on the young boy’s head.
“Go to it, Tell!” he shouted, “Let’s see what a great marksman you are!” to hooting and laughing from his men.
Tell drew two arrows and, without hesitation, shot one straight through the apple, leaving his son unharmed. The crowd cheered!
What he did with the second arrow depends on the version of the tale. According to all versions though, this was only the start of Tell’s adventures which eventually culminated in Swiss independence from Austrian rule.
As we passed Lake Como, just before we crossed the border into Switzerland, I asked Marcella if there were any monsters in the lake she said, yes.
“The beast of Lake Como”, she said.
“Oooooo…” said me and Michael together, impressed.
“He’s called Larry”.
“Oh” we said, less impressed. “Larry?”
“Si, there are sightings of Larry sometimes reported in the newspapers of Como. They say that Larry is a dinosaur called a Lariosauro”
The similarities between The Loch Ness’s Nessie and Lake Como’s Larry were clear and I decided to look up this dinosaur, the Lariosauro, the so-called “Beast of Lake Como”. The biggest fossil ever found of a Lariosauro was 60 cm long. This means that the Beast of Lake Como would be shorter than my shin bone.
We were dropped off by Marcella in Chiasso and we decided to sample a Swiss beer. As we sat down to a dark, hoppy, delightful Christmas beer, I realized some had happened, something very special that had not happened since Urumqi, China, 39 days ago.
“Hang on!” I said, spraying out some beer foam
“What is it?”
“I can’t believe it!
“We’re on schedule”
“Yes! That ride to Milan was 800 km!”
There was only one thing to do. We had only 5 days to hitchhike from Switzerland to the UK but we were on schedule so we did the only sensible thing: we pushed on our advantage and hit the road. This is what I would be saying if Michael and I weren’t halfwits. But we are halfwits, so we had another beer to celebrate. Then and only then did we hit the road. Ok, all cards on the table, we had three beers. Then we hit the road.
So feeling the giddy effects of the strong swiss beers we hit the hitchhiking trail. But 3 or 4 long hour later, we were still stranded. Chiasso is a small town and it was really difficult to find a place where we could hitchhike without it being dangerous either for us or for someone to stop. A lot of the say was wasted trying to find new a position, until eventually, in the darkening twilight, we realized we had gone full circle, arriving at our first spot, a slip road that joined the motorway.
“Okay, we’ll try one more car,” I said, aware of the dwindling time, light and temperature.
“Hang on! Someone’s pulled over”
We hopped into the car to see a man in his 60s with a wispy beard, thick glasses and a musk of expensive cigars.
“Flavio,” he said, in a smoky, Swiss-Italian accent, as we shook hands.
On our way to his home town, Bellinzona, only 55 km into Switzerland, Flavio told us he was a retired biology teacher who had hitchhiked all over Europe in his youth. It was tough for him to converse in English, but to be fair, English was his 3rd or 4th language.
he told us that it is extremely rare to see hitchhikers in Switzerland, that the place we were hitching from was illegal, and that he doubted that we would have success in his country. We’d heard such pessimist warnings in almost every country we’d been too, and we’d ignored them. This time though, we could sense he was right.
Flavio took us to the only hostel in Bellinzona and tried to call them. He turned to us, shaking his head. Because it was low season, the hostel wasn’t open. Flavio called the only available hotel in town and write down the price for us.
Neither of us needed to work out the exchange rate to know that this was too expensive for us and we started fidgeting, very much aware that we’d already obliterated our budget –mainly on coffee and cakes. Noticing our discomfort, Flavio asked us if we’d like to stay with him and his wife for the night.
A great pub quiz question would be: What do Bellinzona, Dublin and Monmouthshire (Wales) have in common? The answer: three castles. But whereas Dublin’s three castles are actually the same castle repeated three times on the city Coat of Arms, and Monmouthshire’s three castles are 10 km apart, the three castles of Bellinzona are squeezed into a town of 17,000 people.
The three Castles form a triangle around the town. The most impressive is the Castelgrande, which, sitting on a rocky plateau above the city, is illuminated by spotlights at night, giving it a somewhat divine appearance.
By far my favourite fact about the castles is with respect to the Sasso Corbaro Castle. Starkly geometrical in shape, as if it were designed on the first version of Minecraft, it was constructed by the Milanese in only 6 months. 6 months! The Duomo Cathedral took them 500 years but they can knock up a castle in 6 months.
If you’re assuming a defensive town in the Swiss Alps to be a cold, gloomy, stony place, then think again. Bellinzona has more annual sunshine hours than İstanbul and the climate is warm enough, tropical even, for palms trees and cactus to grow wild.
That night, just as my eyes were closing I saw something familiar yet also that I’d never seen “in the flesh”, so to speak. I realised I was staring into the hollow eyes of a human skull. Now that’s a story I want to hear about, I thought to myself. I then started to ponder how many villagers the tyrannical Barron, Gessler, may have instructed to a shoot an apple and missed before William Tell came along and made himself a legend. Maybe there were 1000s of sons who didn’t have badass, crack shot fathers? I snuggled down to get some sleep and just before I dropped off I had a final, unsettling thought: Maybe that’s what remains of the last hitchhiker that came to stay.