|Schwyz : the Town|
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Schwyz is best known for being the repository of the ancient documents embodying the history of the Confederation, on display in the Bundesbriefarchiv, Bahnhofstrasse 20 in the town centre (Museum of Federal Charters; May–Oct Tues–Fri 9–11.30am & 1.30–5pm, Sat & Sun 9am–5pm; Nov–April Tues–Fri 9–11.30am & 1.30–5pm, Sat & Sun 1.30–5pm; Fr.4; SMP). This small, beautifully simple 1936 building, with a garden and a cloister of attractive arches, houses a wealth of banners, flags, coins and venerable parchments recording events in Swiss history – ask for the excellent English notes at the desk. The main treasure is upstairs, in a great hall lined with huge flags and banners taken from various battlefields over the centuries. At the far end, lying alone in its own display case, is a small rectangular piece of parchment covered in close lines of text. This is the original Charter of Confederation, reputedly signed and sealed on the Rütli meadow on August 1, 1291; the wax seals of Uri and Nidwalden still dangle from it, but the seal of Schwyz was lost long ago.
The historical theme is continued in the inventive Forum of Swiss History, a branch of the Swiss National Museum, in the town centre beside the bus station (Tues–Sun 10am–5pm; Fr.5; SMP). The ground floor is devoted to investigations of how people in both the countryside and the city used environmental resources throughout history; the middle floor concentrates on social history, with assessments of power structures and relations between the church and the state; and the top floor concentrates on why and how Switzerland survived in the way that it did. Plenty of videos and interactive displays keep you interested throughout – some of the background details, like audio panels letting you hear eye-witness accounts of the great fires of Lausanne in 1219 and 1235, or the dramatization of a 1528 witch trial, are the most memorable of all.
The central Hauptplatz square is a few steps east of the museum, dominated by two great buildings, both rebuilt after a town fire in 1642: on a terrace above is the large Parish Church of St Martin, with an extraordinarily ornate interior; while the foursquare Rathaus sits on the square itself, its facade decorated with frescoes painted in 1891 to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the Rütli oath. Alleys to the northwest bring you to the Ital-Reding Haus (May–Oct Tues–Fri 2–5pm, Sat & Sun 10am–noon & 2–5pm; Fr.4; SMP), a splendid, early seventeenth-century manor house set in its own gardens and with a magnificent interior, its upper rooms bedecked with skilfully carved panelling on wall and ceiling. Across the garden – and within the same complex – is the ancient Haus Bethlehem, dating from 1287 and thus the oldest wooden house in the country. Squeezing through its minuscule rooms with their extra-low ceilings makes you feel a bit like Alice.
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