Stage 7 – Altdorf to Engelberg – Hiking the Via Alpina 1

Titlis from Surenenpass, Photo Credit: Greg Witt

Stage 7 – Altdorf to Engelberg – As we moved westward from canton Glarus into canton Uri we arrived in the historic heartland of the Swiss Confederation. In 1291 Uri was one of the three founding cantons of the Swiss Confederation and the home of William Tell. To really immerse ourselves in the spirit of William Tell, we walked the Tell interpretive trail from his home in Bürglen to the town of Altdorf, where William Tell’s heroic test played out. But first, let’s set the stage and get a quick synopsis of the events surrounding Tell.

The Legend of William Tell
Soon after the opening of the Gotthard Pass, the Hapsburg emperors sought to exert their rule over Uri and control the lucrative trans-Alpine trade routes. A new bailiff, Herman Gessler was sent to Altdorf to show the locals who’s in charge. Upon his arrival, Gessler raised a pole in the center square of Altdorf and perched his hat on top, commanding all who passed it to bow in respect. 

When William Tell walked past the hat without bowing, Gessler seized Tell and said, “You are, are you not, the most famous marksman in this area? So pray, show me your skills.” Gessler set the challenge, ordering Tell to shoot an apple off the head of his son, Walter, with his crossbow. If Tell was successful, he would be released. But if he failed or refused, both he and his son would die.

Blackenalp Church, Photo Credit: Greg Witt

Walter’s hands were tied. Tell put one arrow in his quiver and another in his crossbow. Tell took aim and split the apple clean off his son’s head. Gessler was impressed but infuriated, and asked Tell what the second arrow was for. Tell replied that had the first arrow struck the child, the second arrow would have been for Gessler. Gessler was incensed and ordered that Tell be sentenced to life in prison in the dungeon of Gessler’s castle in Küssnacht, near Luzern. During the boat journey to Küssnacht, a violent storm arose on the lake. The oarsmen, who were unfamiliar with the lake, begged Gessler to unbind Tell so he could steer them to safety. Gessler agreed, and Tell steered the boat close to the shore and suddenly leaped to the shore while pushing the boat back into the stormy waters.

Tell ran ahead to Küssnacht, and as Gessler approached, Tell shot the arrow through Gessler’s heart. Word of Tell’s act of bravery and defiance spread quickly and inspired the citizenry to throw off the yolk of Hapsburg oppression and remain strong, independent, and free—national characteristics which are still valued in Switzerland today.

Statue of William Tell in Altdorf, Photo Credit: Greg Witt

William Tell. Myth or history?
The earliest written accounts first appeared in 1474—over 160 years after the event. By the early 16th century songs, plays, and locals sites venerating Tell began to appear. Historians agree that there is no evidence for Tell as a historical individual, let alone for the apple-shot story. Some researchers have proposed that the Tell legend was based on a Danish saga with a similar motif. But while Tell’s historicity may be dubious, his powerful position as a national hero and identification figure is unquestioned, and the Tell “brand” remains strong as ever.

Purple Gentian, Photo Credit: Greg Witt

Wildflower: Purple Gentian (Gentiana purpurea) stands head and shoulders above most other alpine wildflowers on meadows above 1600 meters. Easy to spot, and easily identifiable, you’ll find it in bloom from July through September.

Food Tips: Today’s culinary highlight was the Birchermuesli at the Hotel Krone in Attinghausen. It was filled with plump blackberries, raspberries, and slices of banana—indeed, more fruit than yogurt and oats. It stuck with me up and over the Surenenpass. This stage also offers several small mountain restaurants to provide rest and refreshment along the way.

Join us on the Via Alpina next summer on either of two exciting tours, the Via Alpina or Bernese Oberland Traverse.

Next: Via Alpina Stage 8 – Engelberg to Engstlenalp

Greg Witt
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