Day 7: Rest Day – Brunnen and eine Urnersee Rundfahrt

Ok, we are really tired and the feet, knees, well everything can use a good rest. We went to bed early and tried to sleep in, but can’t sit idle the entire day…so after a late breakfast we are off on a one day mini-pilgrimage, circumnavigating the Urnersee to visit four sites central to the founding myths of Switzerland.

First a lake boat crosses us to the opposite shore, and then a short climb up to the Rütli Meadow, celebrated as the physical, geographic center and foundation of Switzerland. It was here in August 1291 that people of the cantons of Schwyz, Unterwalden and Uri met and swore an oath of mutual support and resistance to Hapsburg domination. The pact they signed (the Rütli Oath or Schur) became the founding document of the Swiss Confederation.

Though not quite historically exact, this founding myth has been used over the centuries as an existential justification for the Confederation and as a call to arms, most famously by General Henri Guisan to rally his army to resist the seemingly eminent invasion by Nazi Germany in 1940. In an address to his officers on the Rütli Meadow he said: “I decided to reunite you in this historic place, the symbolic ground of our independence, to explain the urgency of the situation, and to speak to you as a soldier to soldiers. We are at a turning point of our history. The survival of Switzerland is at stake.”

For anyone interested in a very good, but rather long look into the significance of the Rütli Meadow to the Swiss (this might be you, Tyson), take a look at this: Rütli – An Idyllic Meadow Full Of Drama.

After the meadow, we re-board a lake boat and continue down to the southern end of the lake to the port of Fluelen.

We travel from Rütli to Flüelen on one of the steamships, which are simply marvelous to see. The workings of the ship are visible and incredible to watch, unfortunately this clip does poor service to the real experience – the engineer in some of us could watch this for hours.

A short bus ride brings us to our second stop, the village of Altdorf, site of the showdown between William Tell and the Apple. In the town square a monument commemorates the epic event.

The story, most famously told by Friedrich Schiller in 1803, is a cornerstone of Swiss identity. But as is so often the case with tradition and mythology, the past is murky and true history hard to come by. If you want to go deep check out this article from the Smithsonian Magazine: In Search of William Tell

One can also climb the Turm to see the view from above (Reid did, Mark chose to save himself for tomorrow) and it was great.

Catching another bus southeast for a mile or so (this is a rest day, remember?) we come to stop number three, the village of William Tell’s birth, Bürglen. There a chapel stands on the site of his home, and nearby we find the Tell Museum, which we Guggenheim.

Now we admit that our interest in coming up to Bürglen goes beyond William Tell. Yesterday in Schwyz we noticed something a bit strange in the church: skeletons dressed in finery, laid out in glass cases.

What the?? Then we heard that there was an excellent example of a skeleton dressed up in full armor over the alter of the parish church in Bürglen, so of course we went looking. We hoped to find the jewel encrusted skeleton of St. Maximus, but no luck. These photos from the internet will have to serve.

There is a huge story around how he came to be here, but the fifteen second Mark and Reid version is this. For much of its history the Catholic Church was very big on relics and other memorabilia of the saints. When the Reformation swept through this part of Europe, however, Zwingli, Calvin and their followers discarded or destroyed vast numbers of these items. Years later the tide turned with the Counter Reformation, bringing with it a renewed taste for saintly relics, but now they were in very short supply! Nature abhors a vacuum, and fortunately, in 1578 enormous 1st century catacombs were discovered near Rome. Relic scarcity solved! After being certified by the Vatican a  great many of these old guys made their way north, gaining amazing coverings of gold and jewels in the process. The Smithsonian Magazine goes into all the detail for anyone interested: Bejeweled Skeletons of Catholicism

Well, that’s the story of the Catacomb Saints, but of St. Maximus here in Bürglen there is a little more. Remember back in St. Gallen and Einsiedeln our observations about saints and their animals? Well here we go again! Legend has is that after it first arrived in 1682, the skeleton began to secrete a weird, yellow, sweet-smelling liquid. Soon after, locals started to see a big white cat hiding in the altar with the saint’s bones. Then the cat started visiting the homes of poor people, so whenever the cat showed up people believed they’d get some unexpected money. Well, OK. That was then, but this is now!

That was exciting, but it is finally time to get back to the landing in Fluelen for our return to Brunnen. In the harbor, we again see an example of how the Swiss have misspelled Reid’s name.

In fact, there is a street and an entire town named after him, but they just did not get the spelling correct (but the pronuncation is right).

As our boat cruised up the eastern shore we passed the last of today’s Tell sightings: The Tellplatte, the rock ledge onto which William made his daring escape from the dastardly Hapsburgs, and the Tellskapelle, the chapel built there in his honor.

Finally back in Brunnen we enjoy a well deserved sit-down and dinner. This was a rest day…wasn’t it? Early to bed!

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