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Amongst “the Highlanders, the grim Swiss”

Sir John Evelyn crossing Mount Sampion in the 1640-ies

Sir John Evelyn was born to an English gentry family in 1620. At the tender age of 22 he set out for France and Italy, driven by his wide cultural interests. His journey encompassed illustrious places such as Paris, Avignon, Perigieux, Florence, Rome, or Bologna, to name but a few. Overcoming distances in that far-away age, without airtravel, motorcars, trains, even without bicycles, differs fundamentally from traveling in our times. Travelers used to go either on foot or on horseback, and Sir John also hired the occasional mule, as many others who could afford it used to do. Moreover, he was accompanied by another gentleman and a dog to protect them from any dangers lurking on the road. And traveling from England to the south of Europe meant overcoming the Alps, their altitudes, near pathlessness, and thin population being always full of surprises. Wisely enough, Evelyn chose the plain fields of France eventually to arrive in Italy.

However, when returning to England he seems to have changed his mind, instead choosing the route from Milan to the north over Mount Sampion leading into adjacent Swiss territory. From afar, he admires the prospect of the snow-covered Alps and of the “obscure villages”, though he blames the “wretched lodgings” he found there. The area is, in his own words, full of “strange, horrid, and fearful crags and tracts … inhabited by bears, wild goats, and wolves, who have sometimes assaulted travelers”, and the local population speaks “that barbarous language, being a mixture of corrupt High German, French, and Italian.” His company crosses highly dangerous narrow bridges, made of hewn trees loosely placed athwart from the one craggy mountain side to the other.

Having spent the night on top of Mount Sampion in an unbearable cold, their descent into the Swiss Valais bordering on Italy proved truly ill-starred! They were suddenly stopped by a young lad reproaching their dog for having killed a farmer’s goat. Meaning to ride away, the company were instantly surrounded by a multitude of locals, running out of the church screaming, it being a Sunday morning. They were beaten off their saddles by them all and taken into custody, there remaining prisoners till mass had ended. Thereupon returned “half a score grim Swiss”, demanding an exorbitant sum of money for – allegedly, in Sir John’s view – killing a goat and also for trying to run away thereafter. Or else their heads would be cut off – “as we were told afterward, for that among these rude people a very small misdemeanor does often meet that sentence”, thus commenting Sir John. Though the proceedings seemed unjust, Evelyn paid the ransom, most willy-nilly, just to avert disaster.

“This was cold entertainment”, Evelyn was pondering gently while riding down towards “a town called Briga in the Valteline”. And there he beheld a strange sight: Nailed on the outside of every door, „a bear’s, wolf’s, or fox’s head, and divers of them, all three; a savage kind of sight, but, as the Alps are full of the beasts...“. Luckily then, both the mayor of St. Maurice and later of Martigny apologized for the sorry incident in the Alps, suggesting “the whole rabble should be severely punished; German manner”. Thus Sir Evelyn was given satisfaction, and was reconciled with the “Highlanders, the grim Swiss”.

More fascinating episodes like this covering a whole geographical range of Europe can be read in Sir John Evelyn’s rich travel diary.



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