Wood, if you stop to think of it, has been man’s best friend in the world. It held him in his cradle, went to war as the gunstock in his hand, was the frame of the bed he came to rejoicing, the log upon his hearth when he was cold, and will make him his last long home. It was the murmuring bough above his childhood play, and the roof over the first house he called his own, … the forest where he seeks sanctuary from a stony world.”â Donald Culross Peattie Along with its stellar reputation as Musikdorf − world-class musical events staged in the summer season, − the village of Ernen is best known for its unusually rich legacy of 15th to 18th century wooden houses. As one of the few Walliser towns that was spared widespread destruction by war or fire, and because the houses’ facades are typically marked with their dates of construction, Ernen’s is an insightful story about the growth and development of a cohesive alpine community.
Wrapped in white tarps and heavily scaffolded, Ernen’s lovely parish church St. Georg might easily be mistaken today for a Christo intervention, and entitled something like “Wrapped Church.” But no, not quite. For while the 16th century sanctuary was reconfigured into a neo-Gothic style church in 1860, and underwent total renovation in the mid-1960s, that “face-lift” has been its only major intervention since. Now, its roof and façade are being repaired and re-plastered, thus: the wrapped “Christo look.”
It wasn’t easy to find the doorbell. Fact is, there wasn’t a doorbell. I had called to ask if a visit was in order at all: I’d been encouraged to go, but I knew Jules and his wife Yolanda were elderly, that a call might be an intrusion. On the contrary, the couple were glad, I found, to share a little of their story.
Lars Dederscheck, chef at the Gommerstuba in Niederernen, took time off to talk about the fine establishment where his classic French cooking is king.
Yesterday, my daughter Hallie and I took the local bus up the valley to start a short hike from Binn out to Heiligkreuz, the site of a popular pilgrimage chapel, and home to a cozy Gasthaus I’d long wanted to visit. Starting out, our path out from the Binn bridge rose slowly upwards from the river, passing to the left of the elevated village church and two humble grey donkeys that were grazing beneath it.
With the forest floor covered in a thick carpet of evergreen needles, “the patter of little feet” may have been harder to hear in the Zauberwald (Magic Forest) on 16 July, but that didn’t mean that any had stayed away. On the contrary: the village of Ernen chose that day to celebrate the tenth birthday of its marvelous children’s outdoor adventure playground with a festive jubilee, and a handsome number of children and their parents came.
A year ago, Peter Clausen kindly spoke with me about his Gemeinschaftsgarten project, the Ernen village community garden that I covered in this blog (click here to read the blog of last year). This July, he invited me to see the first stages of the bee-yard (apiary) that he, members of the community, and recruits from the Swiss Army had erected some 10 minutes up into the Binntal. This was to be my first face-to-face encounter with bees and their hives, so I had to dress accordingly: long trousers and good socks at the very least. Peter also had a second hooded beekeeper’s jacket for me to wear once we started checking the hives.
Don’t you meet people under the strangest of circumstances? Last Saturday, I took part in a moonlit-walk between Ernen and Mühlebach that ended at “Amy’s Schafstube,” a delightful restaurant and terrace just this side of Mühlebach’s hanging bridge. Even late as it was, Amy herself was there to greet our group with homemade savories and sweets, and we all settled in to enjoy them over drinks at wooden picnic tables. My table neighbors included the gifted Andreas Weissen, the specialist in local legends who’d led the hike; a sociable and good-humored couple from nearby Naters; and a rather quiet woman, Paula, who was sitting alone at the far end my bench. She and I only struck up a conversation around midnight, when a fat old full moon first showed its silvery light over the opposite hill, then slowly rose in all its glory − a spectacle of the first order.
This week in mid-July marks a red-letter event in Ernen’s literary summer: the annual one-week “Biography” seminar conducted by the renowned German psychologist and author, Dr. Brigitte Boothe. This is the 6th time the seminar has been held in the village’s historic Tellenhaus, the week’s goal again being for participants to explore ways writers define personal experiences and/or crafting a narrative around their own. As in former years, the course targets both young and old, both experienced or still inexperienced attendees who want to address either their own writing or the craft of writing itself, but from a new angle: How and why can I tell the story? Where to begin, and at what point to stop? Are my recollections accurate and true-to-life? How can I find my own literary expression? These were just some among the thought-provoking questions that spurred the direction of this year’s course.
The Gorsatt family enjoys a long history in the Binn Valley (“Binntal”), and Ewald Gorsatt kindly spoke to me this week about the passionate hobby he turned into his profession. His own father, he explained, was an avid mineral spotter (“Strahler”), a hobbyist who “brought home a rucksack full of 50 kg of stones every day.” As a boy, Ewald often joined him to look for crystals, taking a liking to it from the start. Once a teenager, he also assisted the “pros” in other mineral-hunting expeditions. Fast forwarding: After a number of years in his trained profession − mechanical engineering − he turned back full time to his passion for spotting crystals. And today, his enterprise offers a host of mineral-related activities that appeal to people of all ages and with various levels of skill and alpine experience.
July 9 marked the launch of this summer’s first “Piano” festival week at the Musikdorf Ernen, and the superb French pianist Cédric Tiberghien was the evening’s featured soloist. Born in 1975, Tiberghien was once a student of the legendary music pedagogue and pianist György SebÅk (1922-1999) − the Ernen Musik Festival’s founder − so his appearance here in Ernen was a particularly meaningful one. As is usual, the concert venue was the Baroque parish church St. Georg, whose acoustics are often cited as excellent.
The seven promising young artists chosen to show work in the village-wide summer exhibition “Zur frohen Aussicht” (“To the Happy View”) came to Ernen in March earlier this year. In inclement weather, they had to be convinced that the village was more than just a sleepy alpine town. The main square was void of people, the residents hunkered down inside their wooden houses because of the rain. But each artist had come to determine what their installation would be, and where it would best be placed, so each one would look at the village with a keener eye. For together, artists Moritz Hossli, Thomas Julier, Andreas Kalbermatter, CeÌline Liebi, Celia und Nathalie Sidler and Kathrin Zurschmitten − hailing from other places in Wallis and the rest of Switzerland – had been asked to reflect Ernen’s unique pulse in new works of art.
Brilliant weather, hiking boots packed, two mountain passes ahead; the constellation bode well for my trip from the flatlands up to Ernen. Coming from the area around Baden, I travelled first in the direction of Lucerne, majestic Mount Pilatus hailing me from the distance. Farther south, my route wound up to an altitude of 1,008 meters over the Brünig Pass that connects Canton Obwalden in central Switzerland to the Bernese Oberland. The pass road seemed to give «winding» a new definition, but awarded tremendous − if fleeting − views of the surrounding verdant landscape. Among the most breathtaking at the start was that onto Lungern Lake, whose deep emerald color is so saturated that it seems to defy the rules of Nature.
The Swiss know a thing or two about moving up, down, through and around mountains, and I have to trust that their expertise includes modern bridge construction. But for 280m, a single layer of wooden planks on this painfully simple-looking, swinging, swaying contraption is all that keeps me from a 92m plunge down to the River Rhone. Every creak and groan underfoot adds weight to my regret for every solid kilogram gained from gorging on cheese fondue and fried potatoes for a week.
In Ernen, the "Bergland" is something of an institution. Most visitors to the village saunter at one time or another past the shop marked "Waren aller Art", (Wares of all Kinds) that features a host of healthy food products, cards, and beautifully crafted handmade gifts. Since it has all the charm and freshness of a pop-up store, many don’t realize that it’s at the heart of a busy farm and bio-dynamic marketing enterprise that’s almost as old as the town’s famous music festival.
The 2 August concert in the church in Ernen was a startling combination of old and new. The broad swathe of genres ranged from a shimmering Mozart to a pulsing sound landscape by contemporary Zürcher composer, Alfred Zimmerlin. The premier of his intriguing "On the Move—in a Roundabout Way" had been the talk of the town for weeks, and in his opening remarks, Festival Director Francesco Walter assured us that this would be an unforgettable evening.
While by profession, Leander Locher has been a social worker for many years; he had already begun painting − watercolor, acrylic, and mixed technique − as early as in the 1970s. Looking to achieve a more animated surface, he chose to “leave the second dimension,” and began adding more and more material to his paper and canvas surfaces: sand, chips, and small found objects. It was just that, the pursuit of the three-dimensional experience, that led him naturally to the figurative and three-dimensional expression of sculptural form. As he explains, “sculpture offers you multiple point perspective if you want more than one constant visual”. In other words, if you shift any sculpture even slightly to another angle, you can enjoy a greater number of visual experiences.
Xenia Jankovic has been what’s called a Bestandteil at the Musikdorf Ernen summer festival for many years. I hate to call her a “permanent fixture” inasmuch as her lust for life, enthusiasm, and youthful energies defy that translation of the term. But again this year as Artistic Director of the Chamber Music Plus series, July 31 − August 13, she, more than any other, determines the chamber artists’ repertoire and programming that will be performed under this year’s “Limitless” theme. She kindly consented to a short interview for this blog on the day before the chamber week’s opening concert.
Diana Pavlicek has long had a passion for historic architecture, and the stories that buildings tell of the people who once lived and worked in them. While curator of a major corporate art collection in her daily job, she has a keen eye for design, and an ability to juggle a lot of moving organizational parts. In 2013, she renovated an 18th century hay stall in a scenic Swiss canton of Graubünden, working with an architect to make a cozy holiday retreat, and learning more about the demands of historic restoration as she went. Here in Ernen, she recently began a major restoration project on a house that has been authenticated as one of the oldest dwellings in the village. Located right below the scenic parish church, “Uf dr Flüe” was built on an outcropping of granite that gives it the most solid of foundations. The house was last in the hands of Jules Carlen, an elderly “Erner” who was born and had lived in it all of his life.
The weather being as beautiful as it was, the hiking trail called again. I started out from Ernen in the early morning on the “Upper Suspension Bridge” trail, an easy eleven kilometer hike that meant I could be back in Ernen by lunchtime. Breakfast underway was at the B&B Kummer in Mühlebach, a venue with a special perk: the family’s daughter, Patrizia, was the gold medalist in snowboarding at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games. Seeing the dozens of trophies from her wins in European and international competitions was impressive, yet made me think she might have been saddened when the Mühlebach ski lift − close behind her house − shut down its operations a few years ago; that was where she’d learned to ski. Granted, the Chäserstatt hotel that reclaimed the top of the ski lift is a great new attraction (see this blog for 28 July), but I’d guess a degree of nostalgia for the venues of one’s youth never entirely abates, especially to a champion.
Travelled even in prehistoric times, the Twingi gorge runs along the length of the Binntal and gives access to the Albrun pass, which became a key alpine transit axis for trade. In the 19th century, the arrival of the English lay ground for tourism as we know it in the valley today; it was the enthusiastic mineral seekers who discovered hidden treasures in the cliffs and came to know the thrill of ascending the Ofenhorn who brought many others to the area. But it wasn’t until the 1930s that the one-time mule path up from the Goms was tarred, and only some 30 years later that a long tunnel was built to insure accessibility to the Binn valley’s villages even in snow.
What is a group of first and second graders doing with a scarecrow at the edge of an Ernen garden? The story actually begins in the city, when Ernen’s own Peter Clausen was visiting a niece in the Zurich-Wipkingen quartier. He admired the pots and large planters she had set in a compact urban garden just off her kitchen. The fledgling plants were flourishing, and she was already enjoying their small but healthy bounty.
As luck would have it this morning, I ran into pianist Charl du Plessis on the lovely Dorfplatz, the central square in Ernen that’s more or less the aorta of the village. Last evening, du Plessis and the other members of his trio − Werner Spies, stick bass, and Hugo Radyn, drums − had knocked the socks off listeners in the jazz program they brought to this year’s Musikdorf Ernen festival. Performing in the main concert venue of the village church, the three musicians came on stage in elegant tuxedos, a modern take on the chasubles and miters clerics might have worn before their Catholic parishioners earlier. Given the repertoire they broke into, however, the three musicians shone just as brightly as the gold gilt alters that stood behind them and also flanked their stage.
Returning to the beautiful town of Ernen for a fourth time this summer, I left high temperatures behind in the lowlands, happy to be getting into cooler mountain air. But it was just as refreshing to climb the last hill to the village, and see Ernen’s hallmark parish church slowly rise up above the field to my left. The church is the major venue in the Musikdorf Ernen’s fine Baroque, piano and chamber music concerts throughout a eight-week season. As such, it is a beacon that has drawn music lovers to Ernen for the last 43 years, with good reason, I might add.
Cited for the first time in the 15th century, the Trusera brought water for centuries from the Milibach in the Rappen valley to irrigate land at lower altitudes. In recent decades, the channel had fallen into a sad state of disrepair and was no longer being used. From 2006, however, in great part because the regional Landschaftspark Binntal took it on as its first major project, the water way was revived and restored, so water now rushes through it again. The system is fascinating, and well worth walking along, especially since it runs through a scenic, almost magical area on the forested flank of the mountain above Ernen.
Ada Pesch, concertmaster for the Philharmonia Zürich, is usually at work at the conductor’s left in the opera house. But for this “Baroque” week in Ernen, the American-born violinist wears the director’s hat. Baroque music is her passion, and her strength in that genre is given deserved visibility here. She also has responsibility for drawing up the roster of artists performing the Baroque repertoire, specialist colleagues who come from all over the world.