Helvetia on her travels
I met Helvetia on an early morning walk on my second day in the Swiss city of Basel. I didn’t know who she was then, but the more I learned about her, the more I liked her. My eye was drawn by her pensive pose, as she perched high on a wall above the left bank of the Rhine. The sunlight made the windows of the building behind her glow, and I walked closer for a better look at this intriguing figure.
Climbing the stairs to the Middle Rhine Bridge (Mittlere Brücke) , to put myself on her level, I soon saw she was a fellow traveller. Behind her, hidden by the wall on which she sat, was a suitcase. She had also laid down her shield and spear, and her bronze body was wrapped in a flowing robe.
My admiration was immediate, and I wanted to know more about this wonderful sculpture. Later I found out that it is “Helvetia on her travels” (“Helvetia auf Reisen”), by artist Bettina Eichin. Created around 1979/1980, Eichin’s Helvetia has a new slant on the figure so often seen on Switzerland’s stamps and coins. I remembered her from my young days as an avid stamp collector, but this depiction makes her seem much more human.
Helvetia is the female national personification of Switzerland, officially Confœderatio Helvetica (the Swiss Confederation; which also explains the ch suffix on Swiss websites and email addresses). She is usually depicted in a flowing gown, with braided hair crowned by a wreath symbolising confederation. She carries a spear and a shield branded with the Swiss flag. Her name comes from Helvetii, the name of the Gaulish tribe which lived on the Swiss Plateau, between the Alps and the Jura Mountains, before the Roman conquest in the 2nd century BC. Helvetia was roughly the western part of modern Switzerland.
Eichin’s Helvetia has gone on a trip around Switzerland in the final decades of the 20th century. Arriving in Basel, she rests, putting down her shield and spear and holding her wreath in her hands as she contemplates the Rhine.
What does she see? At this time of day, it is peaceful. A trio of young women – out early or on their way home after a night out – wave for my camera as they head across the bridge to Kleinbasel (little Basel), on the right bank. Ducks skim the water. Later, the trams will begin to rattle over the bridge, and swimmers will cast themselves in to the swift current to float past her, barely giving her a glance. Boats will start to move up and down the powerful waterway, and the people of Basel – and the many tourists exploring this lovely city – will be out in force.
But I’m glad I met Helvetia right now, when it is quiet and calm, and I have time to admire her, photograph her, and wonder what she would have thought of what she observes. Reluctantly, I take my leave. The rest of Basel, and Switzerland, awaits.
A Glass Half Full travelled to Switzerland as a guest of Swiss Historic Hotels and Switzerland Tourism
8 Responses to “Helvetia on her travels”
Reblogged this on traveladdictblogdotcomdotcom and commented:
Lovely to read about the first lady of Suisse – she’s quite a charmer.
Thanks Bev – she certainly is!
What a great story. I love how you got up close and personal with the statue and showed us the suitcase, shield and spear.
Thank you Carol! It was so interesting to find out the history behind it. I asked a few people in Switzerland, but no-one seemed to know so I had to do my own research!
Beautifully told! I love Helvetia and admire sculptor Bettina Eichin. So happy you enjoyed our beautiful traveler, ever on her perch overlooking the Rhine.
Thanks so much! I had not heard of Bettina Eichin before, but I love this work! Just in the right spot too…
hello, I stumbled upon your photos of Helvetia as I went down the old Googling rabbit hole. I went to Basel this year to stand on that particular bridge and contemplate my grandfather’s suicide. He jumped into the icy Rhine back in 1963. While I did a lot of public crying on that bridge, I later thought it was no weirder than visiting a grave. Which I have never done btw.
It was icy cold and I felt devastated. His actions reverberated through my life, due to my mother’s guilt over the loss of her dear father. My family are an old Basel family.
Anyway, as I turned and walked away I also found Helvetia and she looked as I felt. I live in australia and i was far from home alone. My head felt heavy and I too had watched to water go by. Noticed, as you did and as she does every day, the laughing young people, the boats and the busyness. I just love the acknowledgement that the head that wears the crown does get weary, and all that standing to attention is exhausting. Thanks for the excellent photos. I only had my crummy old phone. Oh , and someone had spribkeld a cup of birdseed behind her briefcase so pigeons could have breakfast untroubled. It warmed my heart. Happy travels ! I hope you are still traveling x
Hello Danielle, thanks for sharing your own Helvetia story with me. I’m so sorry such a beautiful place has such sad connections for you. I’m about to start travelling again, but probably not as far as Switzerland – at least not yet! Take care.