Clowns, elephants, acrobats and jugglers, they were all something from Hollywood films or Enid Blyton novels. Before I moved to Switzerland, there was one thing I never associated with the land of Heidi – the circus. Little did I know that there is a Swiss National Circus that tours the country every summer. Now I realise that sounds a bit like Soviet Union in the Seventies, but it’s true. Switzerland has the Circus Knie as its national circus, as well as a host of other smaller ones. As soon as the snow melts, the circus season begins (and runs all summer until November), so I went to see what has been captivating Swiss audiences for the last two centuries.
Given that my only recent experience of a circus was the hip-and-modern Cirque du Soleil, my expectations of what a traditional one would be like were all based on stereotypes. Luckily, it didn’t disappoint: Big Top, check. Candy floss stands, check. Faint smell of camel dung, check. Ring full of sawdust, check. Lots of exited adults, check. The biggest surprise was that so many animals were involved in the show. In my foreign ignorance, I thought that circuses and animals were a bit like Charles and Di, a relationship that died in the late Eighties. Perhaps there are still performing elephants and dancing horses delighting crowds in Blackpool or Atlantic City, but I have a feeling that such things are no longer politically correct in the English-speaking world. So I found the jumping llamas and acrobatic cats a little uncomfortable to watch, even though all the animals seemed well cared for.
Far more enjoyable were the human acts of contortionists, gymnasts and trapeze artists (though I did, rather worryingly, keep thinking of Burt Lancaster). They all seemed to have necks made of steel when balancing on each other, and bodies made of rubber. The clowns were bearable, though I’m glad we weren’t sitting near the front – only do that if you want to be involved; like many Swiss, Gregor has been to the circus before so knew what to expect and chose seats in about row 10. My favourite was the man who went up and down stairs on his hands, with a Jack Russell Terrier sitting on his feet. All jolly fun.
As for the animals, I’m still not convinced that a circus is a place for zebras and camels, let alone big elephants. The show can be just as fun and exciting without animals, so why still have them? But at least they are looked after. STS, the Swiss animal protection group, apparently checks all the circuses for their treatment of animals so I guess they pass the test (despite occasional stories of mishandling), including Circus Knie, which got gold stars last year.
Circus Knie has just left Zurich on its 2011 national tour (347 shows over 218 days in 42 locations), so is sure to be coming to a town near you sometime soon. So why not go to the circus for a real Swiss experience? It’s up there with grilling sausages on a stick and walking for hours in the mountains as an essential part of summer in Switzerland: an enjoyable and memorable Swiss event.