Do you have ancestors from Switzerland? Are you dying to go there? DO IT! Here are some tips to get you started on making a meaningful vacation out of following in your ancestors’ footsteps. There are the typical touristy things to do, and they are wonderful, but these are some of the must-do activities for getting to know your ancestors and the Switzerland they knew.
Language in Switzerland
You’re probably wondering if you’ll be able to understand anyone when you go to Switzerland. There are a lot of English-speaking Swiss citizens, especially the younger generations. In centers of tourism, you are very likely to find those who can understand and speak English very well. If you venture out into the villages, you may have a harder time finding someone, so make sure you know what the local language is, and go prepared. For German speakers, High German is widely known amongst most of the locals, but in remote areas, you may find yourself striving to pick out familiar words and patterns in Swiss German.
In French-speaking Switzerland, the locals are often less willing to speak English with you unless you attempt some French first, so break out your favorite language-learning app and learn a few phrases. Be sure to include a compliment to break the ice. Something like “What a lovely hotel!” or “Thank you for your patience.” When they see you trying, they may be more willing to help you in English or at least make a greater effort to communicate with you on a more basic level. It would be frustrating to be constantly bombarded by foreigners who expect you to speak their language in your home, so do your best to show them you are trying.
Visit Your Swiss Ancestor’s Church
Whether or not you are religious, your ancestor’s church is probably the reason you know they existed. Prior to 1876 in Switzerland, the churches were the primary organization to record christenings, marriages, and burials. Depending on the time period, birth and death information was also included in those records. While land, tax, and court records were also kept, it is possible that your ancestor’s name will only ever appear in a church record. So, learn about the institution and the people who made it possible for you to find your ancestors.
Check out the church’s history to see if the same structure was standing when you ancestors lived there. For Swiss Reformed Churches, the website Kirchenvisite.ch is an excellent source for the history of the building. It may not include everything there is to know about each church building, but it is certainly a good starting point. Is the structure in place today the same one that your ancestors would have attended? Was there a fire that instigated a remodel? Which parts are still original? Were they able to preserve the font or organ? While you might not find all of these answers online, you may be able to find more upon your arrival. Some churches have pamphlets of information or a knowledgeable secretary.
Most of the churches are open to walk through all day long, but you may want to send an email to the church’s secretary to be sure of the hours before heading out. If you like to sing, prepare a haunting melody to echo through the open chamber. Imagine your ancestors worshiping, marrying, being baptized, and burying their loved ones in this place. You are walking where they walked during some of the most emotional parts of their lives, the ones that allowed you to find and connect with them.
Find their Swiss Houses
While not all of the houses in Switzerland are as old as your ancestors, some are. Take a trip to the local archive, and see if you can dig up a house number. Is there a building standing today that corresponds with that place? Take a drive through the town and see if you can find it. Some towns will even have a local historical society where you may be able to learn more of the town’s history. House hunting is not for the faint of heart and can take a lot of work, so you might have to settle for a general area using an antique map overlaid with a modern one. The archive should be able to help you with finding an old map. Even if you do not find the exact place, drive through the town and look at all of the old houses to get a feel for the place your ancestors would have lived.
Ballenberg Swiss Open-Air Museum
Ballenberg is a true treasure! This open-air Museum is akin to Plimoth Plantation, Strawberry Banke, and other historical experiences that are common in the Eastern United States. Walk through traditional Swiss homes, taverns, and workshops from across Switzerland and see the old crafts performed today! Ballenberg has so much to offer. Professional tradespeople come to make cheese, carve, mill lumber, forge tools, sew, weave, and much more.
You will even be able to participate in some of the crafts yourself! Always wanted to use an old-fashioned sewing machine? Do it! Have young kids? Use old-fashioned tools to make toys starting with just tree branches! Check the daily schedule to see what is available. There is even a hands-on forging workshop that you can to sign up for ahead of time. At Ballenberg, the opportunities are endless!
It is organized by canton (comparable to a US state), so start in the section representing your ancestors’ homeland and go on from there. Switzerland is a small place (only about half the area of the state of Maine), so your ancestors probably saw more than just their hometown.
Of Course, You Have to See the Swiss Mountains
Mountains dominate the Swiss landscape and are a breathtaking sight. There are the famous mountains: Eiger, Jungfrau, Monch, and Matterhorn, but in Switzerland, it is hard to go wrong. Switzerland is covered in hiking trails, so find the closest one and skip the crowds. A word to the wise: hiking times are given at the speed of a Swiss, and trails may take longer for your average human being. If you go in the summer, watch the cows grazing in the high mountain meadows. Cows were very important to Switzerland, since cheese was one of the few foods that could be preserved to survive the snowy winter. Some farmers will let you watch the daily milking, which is performed by machines now. There are a few places to watch the cheese-making process, and this too will help you get a feel for the life your ancestors lived.
What About Water in Switzerland?
Water is always a big concern for me when traveling in Europe. In the US, you can usually get water for free, but in many European countries, even the locals are constantly buying bottled water. Switzerland believes in free potable water! It has been mandated that any water tap dispensing water must have drinkable water, unless otherwise noted. Yes, that even means public fountains and cow troughs up in the mountains, so don’t worry about getting dehydrated in Switzerland. They’ve got your back!
Well, get your bags ready and book your tickets!
The expert researchers at Lineages are happy to help you learn about your Swiss ancestors and find where they came from.