Avoiding the Jester in Bremgarten

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In Bremgarten, Switzerland

It’s not often that history geeks like me get to indulge their geekiness, and it’s really not often that we get to experience the past in a way that feels almost authentic.  Every year in the northern Swiss town of Bremgarten, people who are trained in the crafting skills of the Middle Ages come together to demonstrate their skills to the general public.  We get a glimpse into the medieval world for one weekend, and we get to do it in a town which feels like it has come out of a Grimm fairytale.

Despite not being listed in either of my guide books (boo – hiss) Bremgarten is a charming town which is well worth exploring, even if it’s only when they have their Easter, Medieval or Christmas fairs.  It is well regarded within Switzerland, with the old town listed as a heritage site of national significance, and even a quick browse round shows why.  Even though many of the buildings are from the 1500/1600s, there are patches which feel completely, authentically, excitingly medieval, which is why seeing people dressed up in costumes, demonstrating the crafts, felt so extraordinarily like we’d travelled back in time.

Bremgarten is attractively placed on the Reuss river, with the town on the east bank being deceptively hilly.  The day’s events spread from near the main train station (up on the hill), down across the covered wooden bridge, through to the (flat) banks on the other side.  It’s easily walkable, and even with the crowds becoming dense in the afternoon, it was easy to navigate and manoeuvre through the streets.

There are basically four markets to visit.  First, there is the “Historisches Handwerk” – historical crafts, with 70-odd stands demonstrating medieval craftsmanship; second, there is the “Mittlealter”, the Middle Ages market, where chaps sell medieval-stylee goods, but where the aim is also to create a medieval atmosphere, complete with musicians and jugglers and beggars.

The third market is a traditional modern craft market with over 200 stalls along the charming Marktgasse; the fourth is filled with some rather striking (and often expensive) antiques.

“Historisches Handwerk” – Historical Crafts Market

The main draw for me was the historical crafts section.  Historically, Bremgarten never had a dominating craft which brought in their money, so it seems apt that they all shared equal space at a modern event.  And gosh, there are some super-talented people out there: ladies weaving gorgeously coloured fabrics; lacemakers showing off their patience while effortlessly flicking about the bobbins; sculptors chiselling away at stone with quick movements; and a turner looking picturesque as he cast off foaming curls of wood.

One of the most riveting crafters to watch was making stained glass.  I have seen this being done before, with bits of coloured glass being welded together, but I’ve not seen anyone scratch away at paint on the surface of the glass with a quill before.  She was working so quickly and so neatly it was fascinating to watch the pattern swiftly emerge.

Following the streets downwards – while absorbing some of charming atmosphere – there are more stalls and fewer demonstrations.  The streets are narrow, and the bustle can make you miss what’s going on, but stick with it if you can, and keep going with the crowds.  You will end up on a street called Am Bogen.

Marktgasse Market

At Am Bogen.  From here you can go down towards the bridge, or you can turn left down Marktgasse, where the modern market weaves up and down the street.  There is a one way system in this market, so you can loop back round to Am Bogen, and then wend your way bridge-wards.

The Reussbrücke, as the covered wooden bridge is called, was first built in the late 13th century, but sadly the current construction is only from 1953-57.  It still makes an interesting reminder of how functional the bridges of the Middle Ages were and certainly on a day when there are stalls set up it’s easy to imagine the traders of the past doing brisk business under those cosy eaves.

On the other side of the bridge, there were more food stalls and along the road by the river, Badstrasse, there were a few antique stalls which had spilled out of the Casino, where the main assembly of antique sellers was.  Casino, you say, images of Monte Carlo flashing through your mind.  Glamorous, you think.  Nah.  It felt like a church hall.

The Mittlealter (Middle Ages) market

The Middle Ages market, with perky white tents all set up within Casinoplatz and its environs, looks just like a medieval manuscript drawing of a temporary settlement.  It’s filled with stalls which sell a variety of medieval-style goods, like leather bags and jewellery, but there are also items which would make a modern goth very happy.  There was an open space around a fire-pit where people could eat and loll about on logs, and there was an unexpectedly soldiers’-camp type vibe going on.

One warning though; throughout the day, wherever you may wander, wherever you may be, you may suddenly hear a tinkling of bells and find yourself coming face to face with that medieval person of nightmares: the jester.  To me, the jester is basically a ye-old-timey clown – someone who is intrinsically terrifying.  Actually, having never come close to a jester before, I discovered that they are genuinely unbelievably scary, whereas clowns, I now realise, are just mildly creepy.  The woman who was painted up and dressed in the hideously joyful outfit of jester did a truly fabulous job – I had great admiration for her – it’s just that I’ve seen Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and every time I caught a glimpse of her I was sure I was going to see Death too, and then I’d have to play chess, which I really don’t want to do, and then there’d be some deeply disturbing dance on a hillside and everything would be cold and dark and depressing.

But I digress.

The Backstreets of Bremgarten

The last point I want to add is that the backstreets of Bremgarten are also worth strolling through.  They are remarkably tranquil in comparison to the main streets, and they further strengthened my impression of the town as being a setting for fairy tales – both magical and a tad creepy.

St Nicholas’ Church

The main church, St Nicholas, is very sweet, with a surprisingly pretty interior. Much of the church, including the choir and the tower, were destroyed by a fire in 1984 – as seems to happen so often, this occurred during restoration work.  This restoration had exposed the frescoes of Paul Widerkehr, dating from 1630, from under the whitewashed walls.  Sadly these were largely destroyed in the fire, but on a positive note the next restoration exposed earlier paintings from the 1500s, so the whole thing about God shutting doors, but opening windows seems right.

Happily, Widerkehr’s work wasn’t completely wiped out by the fire in the nave and could be restored, which is why you have the strange patchiness of fresco throughout the church.  A service was just about to start when we visited, so I didn’t prowl around as much as I’d have liked.  Next time!

To Sum Up

I hope I’ve given an idea of what the day involves, but it really has to be experienced to be understood.  The point is that if you like the Middle Ages, or if you like events that are a bit different, or you like going to markets, Bremgarten will give you a thoroughly bizarre, but highly enjoyable day.  If you are interested in that period of history, the events and the town of Bremgarten itself combine to create a rather vivid idea of what life was like some six hundred-odd years ago.  The combination of sights and smells that made it so authentic is not something you can describe easily – you just have to experience it.

Practical Information

In 2017, the event was on the 21st & 22nd October, and every year it is on the fourth weekend of that month.  It starts at 10am and goes on till 6pm and you really could spend the whole day there.  There are plenty of places to eat all kinds of food, from stews to fondues, and the same goes for places to drink.  If you have a head for alcohol, you can easily wander through the markets sampling the various types of traditional beer, or flavoured wines.

May I recommend you find a chap selling pancakes near the town-hall.  I had a pancake with a fantastic name that involved invoking the gods, which I have since forgotten.  Anyway, it was topped with a generous amount of flaked almonds, honey and lemon.  Not only was it tasty, filling and extremely easy to eat, it also felt like something they would have rustled up in the Middle Ages, so I convinced myself that it was an educational experience too.

There are also loads of events aimed at children – too many, in my view – what happened to the idea of adults getting to have a go?  They can make their own bows, have a bash at chiselling stone, wash laundry (yes, that was a popular activity), make cider (well, apple juice), grind flour… basically if you’re a child, you can try your hand at everything.  And you can help use a battering ram against the enemy’s gates.  And you can slay dragons.  Seriously, how cool is it to be a child?

The event has its own websites (in German) which describes what will happen on the day and shows you pictures from years past.  www. markt-der-vielfalt.ch & www.historisches-handwerk.ch 

How to Get There

Bremgarten can be reached by well synchronised trains.  It’s a hop and a skip from Zurich, but the www.sbb.ch site will guide you there from anywhere in Switzerland.






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