In the wooded hills of the Bernese Oberland it is quite possible for the modern visitor to go back in time. Not because life in rural Switzerland hasn’t quite reached the 21st century, though it might feel that way sometimes, but all thanks to a superb living museum of Swiss country life.
A farmhouse typical of the Bernese Midlands, photo courtesy of Ballenberg Swiss Open-Air Museum
The Swiss Open-Air Museum at Ballenberg, near Brienz, is wonderful in every way. Banish all thoughts of losing the will to live after walking round for an hour inspecting dusty exhibits in glass cases. This is a museum where you don’t simply get to see history but also smell it, taste it and feel it. A place where the past comes alive in the shape of real buildings, people and professions.
Thatched roof farmhouses from Aargau
Swiss rural life through the centuries forms the focal point of Ballenberg. Over 100 buildings from all across the country, most due to be torn down and destroyed, have been rescued, restored and painstakingly rebuilt here. You can go inside nearly all of them, giving you a first-hand view of a thatched farmhouse from Aargau or a vast half-timbered inn from Canton Bern. Standing in a dimly-lit and sparsely-furnished wooden room immediately brings home the simplicity of past times far better than any book could.
The beauty of Ballenberg isn’t only the lovingly restored buildings but also all the activities going on in and around them. Every day the rich cultural heritage of rural life is in action, from spinning silk and carving wood to baking bread and making cheese (this is Switzerland after all). What a way to experience how hands-on life used to be. All of the crafts and activities are carried out by skilled experts in costume, adding another layer to the authenticity of the place.
Piglets are always popular with the youngest visitors
Not only that but you get a fascinating glimpse into the normal lives of ordinary people in an era before modern comforts – and in a country that was once one of the poorest in Europe. Once you’ve watched women here do the laundry the back-breaking old-fashioned way, you’ll never again complain about your washing machine. And after seeing the lack of facilities, you’ll probably want to kiss your (indoor flushing) toilet next time you see it. Then again, maybe not.
Hens are just some of the farmyard animals at the museum
Alongside the buildings and activities are the gardens, always an integral part of working life in rural areas a long way from market towns. Fruit and vegetables are grown here, just as in days gone by, but also herbs and medicinal plants for the historical pharmacy. As for animals, well there are plenty of those. How else would you get the typical countryside smell?
Last but not least are the special events, which reflect the many festivals that still exist across the seasons and regions. Time your visit for one of these and you could witness a Swiss wrestling match or a rooster crowing contest, or even a day of a traditional dance in costume. The website has details of all such events.
A ploughing demonstration
Ballenberg began in 1978 with 16 rescued buildings and has since grown to cover 66 hectares of idyllic countryside. The buildings are clustered into 13 regional groups linked by paths, which means there is lots to see spread out over a wide area, so be prepared for quite a bit of walking – and don’t come on a very wet day. This isn’t an indoor museum!
Farmhouse from Villard-Bramard
If you visit only one cultural site in Switzerland this summer, make it this one. It is perfect for those days when the weather isn’t good enough for hiking in the mountains but also isn’t bad enough for shopping in the cities. Swiss summers often have quite a few such days so why not use one of them to delve into Switzerland’s history a little deeper. You’ll love every minute you spend in the past.