Behind the Pages,  Historical Notes

Cozy Mystery With a Bit of Swiss History

Before moving to Switzerland, all I knew about the country was: mountains, chocolate, trains, watches and banks. And perhaps a reputation for being slightly boring.

When I arrived in Switzerland, however, I discovered a vibrant place with lots of interesting customs, legends, and odd histories.

Like Anne of The Old Bookstore Mysteries, I moved to Switzerland for my husband’s job. I had dreamt of living in Europe, but didn’t think it would happen until I was retired (and even then, I had to admit to myself, it would probably remain just a dream).

But here I was in Switzerland, and it looked nothing like what I had imagined. The Switzerland we arrived to was warm, sunny, with a slightly Mediterranean flair. The towns looked Italian, the food tasted Italian and everywhere around us people spoke Italian. We had arrived in Southern Switzerland.

The pretty village of Morcote
The pretty village of Morcote with its lakeside Italianate villas

With little to do (I had quit my high-flying job on the East Coast), I devoted myself to understanding the strange land I had moved to. And the more I learned about Switzerland, the more I became enchanted with it. And the more I realized that people outside of Switzerland knew very little about this country.

The country’s relative isolation, due to the Alps, from its neighbors, has allowed it to preserve much of its traditions and way of life. There aren’t many big cities, and traveling in the countryside you are quickly transported to how life was fifty years ago. Moreover, the mountains isolated the different communities within Switzerland. This has helped preserve languages (there are four official ones), dialects, culture, traditions, and superstitions. Folklore, myths, and legends (such as the legend of William Tell) intertwine with the country’s history, creating rich fodder for a writer.

What surprised me most was to learn that Switzerland hand’t always been the affluent country that it is today. For much of its history it was plagued by poverty and hunger. It wasn’t until after the world wars that the country’s fortunes began to change.

The region where I live, the Canton of Ticino, has historically been quite poor. It’s rough, rocky terrain allowed for little else than meager pastures. Grain was extremely difficult to grow, and people subsisted on chestnuts. This legacy is still visible. The mountains are covered with forests of chestnut trees, and the hills are dotted with grey stone shepherds’ cottages, called rusticos. Children of the region were sent as chimney sweepers to Italy and many families immigrated to America. There are even Fortresses of Hunger, structures that were built as an employment scheme for the region’s poorest.

And poverty was not isolated to Ticino. The favorite children’s story, Heidi, gives some insight into the plight of many Swiss farmers.

Valle Maggia rustico stone huts and houses
Ticino’s Valle Maggia rustico stone huts and houses with blooming flowers

This lack of industry and development in Ticino, however, has ensured that much of the region is preserved and many of the villages look like they would have done two hundred years ago. And today the region is a favorite with tourists for its quaint charm and warm climate. No one who visits the region can remain unaffected by the beautiful juxtaposition of velvet green mountains, sparkling blue lakes, rustic stony cottages, and the colorful riot of blooming azaleas and wisterias. In fact, the region is now the playground for rich bankers and businessmen from the north of Switzerland who come to bask in the area’s sunshine and dolce vita.

It is in this tapestry of beautiful contrasts that I decided to set the Old Bookstore Mysteries. The cozy mystery series has allowed me to dig deeper into the history of the region I now call home.

Some interesting Swiss history explored in The Old Bookstore Mysteries series:

The Bell Epoque, artists and bohemian art colonies – Book 1

Witch hunts and witch burnings – Book 2

The renaissance physician Paracelsus, an alchemist whose understanding of medicine was centuries ahead of his time – Book 2

The three UNESCO Medieval castles of Bellinzona – Book 3

Switzerland’s contribution to paleontology – Book 4

The ancient card game of Tarocchi, a precursor of tarot and card divination, still played in Switzerland today – Book 5

Swiss Christmas traditions – Book 6

Why Swiss women didn’t get the vote until 1971 – Book 6

Swiss wines and vineyards – Book 7

The Napoleonic wars – Book 7

…And lots of other curious tidbits and oddities, sprinkled throughout the stories.

Bellinzona’s castle wall and vineyards
One of Bellinzona’s three medieval castles. This one in the middle of the city.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *