Rupert Parker braves the rain at the tenth edition of the Unspunnen – the Swiss Wrestling, National Costume and Alpine Herdsmen’s Festival, held in Interlaken.
Situated between Lakes Thun and Brienz, Interlaken is normally a beautiful spot, but today there’s heavy rain and the mountains are shrouded in mist. The festival has a tradition of attracting inclement conditions and the last one, scheduled to be held in 2005, had to be postponed until 2006 because of floods. The showground is a series of tents, large and small, surrounded by fast food restaurants, with a large open air arena in the centre.
Despite the weather there’s a good turnout with the majority of people dressed in Swiss traditional costume. Apparently there are more than 700 different designs with each of the 26 Cantons having its own. The men stick to trousers or breeches with a dark long sleeved jacket and felt hat whilst the women wear “Dirndls,” long skirts with black embroidered bodices over a low cut white blouses. I’m of course, the odd one out, not carrying an alp horn or accordion, and certainly not bursting into fits of yodelling. I’ve also left my Lederhosen at home
Unspunnenfest started in 1805, designed to unite town and country, with competitions of singing, shooting, wrestling, alp horn blowing and boulder throwing. A second was held in 1808 but it was almost 100 years before the third. It was only after WW2 that the festival, now known as the Swiss Traditional Costume and Cowherd’s Festival, began to be held every 12 years.
I’ve missed the wrestling, but the morning is dedicated to the boulder tossing competition. It probably dates back to the time when they were clearing the fields for pasture and they’ve now turned it into a sport. The first festival had its very own special 83kg stone but, by the time of the second, they’d lost it. There was nothing of comparable size so they settled for one weighing 76kg. This was also used for the centenary festival of 1905, and in subsequent events.
In 1984, the stone was stolen by Jura separatists and held as hostage. A new stone was found, this one weighing 83.5 kg, similar to the 1808 stone, and has been used in all competitions since. Mysteriously the original stone turned up in Brussels in 1999, and was brought back to Interlaken, before being stolen again. This year, everyone is hoping that the stone will be returned but they’re going to be disappointed.
Instead beefy men queue to pick up the replacement. They hoist it in the air with two hands, skip a few yards and clumsily let it go. The stone is so heavy that it’s impossible to throw, rather you just stop holding it and it’s carried by its own momentum. For beginners, the only problem is remembering to let it go, or you’ll topple into the sand with the stone. The record is 4.11m.
Bang up to date, Swiss air force jets screech overhead as they give aerobatic displays whilst there’s traditional dancing in the arena. Plastic macs protect the elaborate costumes from getting wet and it’s a triumph of Swiss will. Around the site I find Hurdy-gurdy performances, a massed orchestra of Alpine horn blowers from all over Switzerland, cheese making and of an assortment of yodellers.
In the evening, it’s still raining but I’m fortunate to be inside the main tent where there’s a folk music gala. Groups include Oeschs die Dritten, Jodlerclub Wiesenberg, Nicolas Senn, Barbara Klossner, Schösu and the Swiss Ländler Gamblers, all new to me. As I tuck into traditional Swiss fare, washed down with local wine, I begin to get into the swing of things. There’s even a famous comedian, doing imitations of local accents, which has the audience in stitches. Who said the Swiss don’t have a sense of humour?
Next day the rain has mercifully ceased and the sun is out. It’s fortunate as there’s a huge parade down the main street. 60 groups, from all 26 cantons take part, and the spectators are just as colourful as those in the procession. The jets are out again, and in doorways, folk music groups entertain the crowds. Later there’s a grand finale in the arena and then suddenly it’s all over. The next one will happen in twelve years’ time but I’ll make sure I get my yodel fix before then.
Tell me more about Unspunnen in Interlaken
The next Unspunnen will take place in August/September 2029.
The 4* Metropole Hotel is just a few paces away from the festival site.
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