Cowbells and William Tell

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By Vince Luecke

I arrived in Tell City's sister city with bells on. Actually the cows were wearing the bells. I was carrying a camera and ambitions of tracking down William Tell in this town in central Switzerland surrounded by mountains.

Altdorf, which is German for "old village" is about Tell City's size, with a population in 2002 of 8,700. It's the capital of the Swiss canton of Uri. Switzerland is made up of 26 cantons or states making its official name Confoederatio Helvetica make sense. Swiss money and license plates carry the name or the abbreviation CH.

I arrived on a Friday from Lucerne, taking the scenic trip along a meandering rail line that passed through the town of Brunnen. I switched trains there and once aboard, found myself in Altdorf in less than 20 minutes.

I was determined to reach Tell City's sister city on my first full day of vacation, camera in hand. By tradition, it's in Altdorf where William Tell, on Nov. 18, 1307, shot an apple from his son's head. A statue in the town square shows father and son standing together. The statue in the City Hall Park in Tell City is based on that famous pose.

Watch this year's Schweizer Zeitung, published just ahead of the 50th Schweizer Fest, for stories on the legendary story of William Tell, Altdorf and Tell City's statue.

Stepping off the train, I gazed all around, very much like a tourist, at the stunning, snow-tipped mountains in the distance, dark-green forests three-fourths up their slopes and expanses of green grass at their base.

It took only 15 minutes or so to hike from the train station to the town square where I easily found the familiar-looking statue. It was during my walk that I heard the cowbells. Being naive, I first judged the noise to be coming from wind chimes, but there was no wind at all that afternoon. Then I saw the cows, all of the Brown Swiss breed, mocha-colored mothers and a few calves that grazed on the green grass in a pasture on the very edge of town.

In just a few weeks, in early June I later learned, most Swiss cows are led to pastures at higher elevations, where they'll spend the summer and early fall munching on lush grass in a commons area of sorts open to all Swiss. The bells around the cows' necks, of course, help their caretakers keep track of them. Most of the cows' milk is turned into cheese, which is cured in small huts high up the alp slopes. After a summer in the clouds, the cows are brought down to lower pastures to spend the rest of the year.

In some areas of Switzerland, the journey to high pastures is the occasion for an ages-old pageant in which the lead cow is covered in garland and the cow hands dress in garb from olden days. I didn't catch that ceremony in Altdorf, or any of the other towns I'd visited, and I learned that I was lucky to see any cows at all since an early Swiss spring had sent many of them into the high hills ahead of schedule. Good for them.

Swiss farmers receive hefty payment from the government to raise their cattle since raising cows on mountain pastures probably isn't that profitable on its own. Subsidized cows keep tourists happy because many visitors come looking for cows, as well as Swiss watches and chocolates.

I sampled some Swiss-made cheese and while it was tasty, I found it similar to other cheeses in Germany. But I kept those thoughts to myself.

I took photos of the William Tell statue from just about every direction, bemusing a woman sitting nearby eating her lunch. She readily agreed to help when I asked her to take my photo standing in front of the statue. I told her I was from a city in Indiana named Tell City but I'm not sure she believed me. I should have offered her one of the wooden sesquicentennial coins I had stuffed in my traveling bag, but the thought never struck me. Maybe she'll Google "Tell City Indiana" and discover I was telling the truth.

I grabbed a couple of postcards and an ice cream in a nearby store and after visiting the nearby church of St. Martin and its cemetery - I found several graves there with the last name of Huber - I walked back to the train station. The cows continued their grazing, perhaps oblivious to the noise they were making.

Waiting for the train heading to the city of Zug and then to Zurich, I watched a ribbon of white high up in the mountains. It was a cascading stream but it was so far away, I could barely see the movement of the water. The torrent came from melting snow at the tops of the mountains, at elevations too high for trees to grow.

Leaving Altdorf, I imagined Tell - if he really lived - staring in wonder and awe at the same peaks some 600 years ago. Life was shorter and more brutal than it is today. Switzerland is an orderly nation of progressive, hard-working and affluent people, who balance work and play amid one of the world's most scenic backdrops.

The morning train from Zurich to Lucerne was filled with more bankers in suits and wingtips than visitors but even they stopped and stared at hilltops that reached into the clouds.

What would it be like to spend a summer meandering the small villages of central Switzerland, chasing after cows and making cheese from their fresh milk? It would probably be harder work than most of us imagine. I didn't have time to milk cows. I had only a few days and there were other places I wanted to visit. I had made my pilgrimage to William Tell's town. Hopefully, a little bit of his spirit, and of the area he called home, rubbed off.

Check out more photos of Altdorf and its cows in a slideshow on this Web site.