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The Discovery of the Bregenzerwald

The Discovery of the Bregenzerwald

The Discovery of the Bregenzerwald

Like a foreign tribe deep in the Amazon, the tobacco-chewing people of the Bregenzerwald once seemed to German visitors like a foreign ethnic group with idiosyncratic customs. The travellers passing through noted that there was much strife between neighbouring communities and that the women were much more sophisticated than the men.

Ethnotourism is totally in vogue: take a trip to visit “authentic” cultures living in harmony with themselves and nature in picture-book landscapes. Such journeys apparently act as an antidote to temporarily civilisation-weary visitors. The first travellers who “discovered” the Bregenzerwald in the 19th century and wrote about it for audiences at home were interested in more than just the mountains. The local people, aka indigenous population, were also the source of fascination. As early as 1827, the Swabian scholar and poet Gustav Schwab attested to the region’s “ample wit, ease in retaining conceived ideas, and conversational aptitude.” […] Not to mention the people’s “great sense of propriety and noble frankness” as well as “blameless roguishness.”

On the other hand, however, those living at the foothills of the Bregenzerwald are said to have a ‘propensity for drunkenness.’ Meanwhile, Karl Wilhelm Vogt, who hiked through the valley in 1840, was impressed by the “self-confidence” and “noble pride” of the people of the Bregenzerwald. In 1859, Andreas Oppermann similarly remarked: “What shall I say of these people? They are simple and good-natured, but they also possess a bright, quick-witted mind and a grace of spirit.” In 1878, only Ludwig Steub found the people of the Bregenzerwald to be “closed minded,” saying of them: “They seldom remember to first greet the stranger on the street or in the inn, or to give him the first word. But if you show them the respect they deserve, greet them first, initiate the conversation, flatter them that the outside world has taken note of them several times in recent years and that they are now the centre of attention, then witness as the ice melts around that proud Bregenzerwald heart, notice how they become quite lively and talkative.” In summary, there are two sides of the coin perhaps? Some things to admire as well as a few things worthy of critique. In addition to the widespread chewing of tobacco, which caused “bumps in the mouth and on the cheek,” even holidaymakers could not fail to note that solidarity rarely extended beyond the village boundaries. “Even the people of the Bregenzerwald admit that charitable undertakings and improvements cannot be carried out, because the communities are too malicious and spiteful towards each other.” (Ludwig Steub)

The writers, most of whom travelled alone, paid particular attention to the Bregenzerwald’s women. According to Andreas Oppermann: “It is the women who grant the Bregenzerwald its peculiar charm, which cannot fail to pleasantly surprise every foreign visitor.” In addition, “they are extremely impartial in their behaviour,” “chat much and with extraordinary joy, though unfortunately they are somewhat harder to understand than the men, as they let the dialect prevail far more unreservedly.” “In the Bregenzerwald, I encountered two types of women in the main: tall stately but somewhat ascetic figures – light blondes – as well as small, round, vivacious figures – dark brunettes. There is something aristocratic about the former, their posture is straight, serious and dignified. Only when they speak are they moved by great grace, the cut of their faces is fine and noble, their figures are even, but more inclined to be lean.” The latter type was “small and full.” A “lust for life and roguishness” was communicated by their “large black eyes.” However, like their blond counterparts “they are completely lacking in one thing: the breast. […] This may be due in part to the fact that mothers strap plate-like pieces of wood onto their daughters, who could distinguish themselves from other girls by what they otherwise lack, and thus forcibly hinder the development of one of the most beautiful ornaments of womanhood.” This disturbing practice continued to be documented in medical literature half a century later.

In 1875, August Wilhelm Grube said that the women of the Bregenzerwald had more “dexterity and grace” than their men, “who, as it seems, also in some other matters, willingly pass the scepter of power to their more beautiful halves.” The “rule of women” in the Bregenzerwald is also the theme of Franz Michael Felder’s novel “Reich und Arm (Rich and Poor).” Since that time, this has more or less become a standard theme in literature. The writers who travelled the region made many observations. Whether one could rightly make such sweeping generalisations at all within a few days, even if one was on foot, is for others to judge. In any case, the locals readily put up with the generally flattering attempts of travelling intellectuals who tried to make sense of the prevailing regional mentality. Some of these noticed traits were probably adopted either consciously or unconsciously.

Author: Alois Niederstätter
Issue: Bregenzerwald Travel Magazine – Summer 2022