The spoils of neutrality


At the National Museum in Zürich is a display of Swiss cultural icons. The obvious are included: Swiss cheese, Swiss chocolate, and Swiss watches. Also cowbells, alphorns, and a model of the Matterhorn.

Surprisingly, there are no Swiss army knives. Heidi, however, was not forgotten.

The novel Heidi is about a young girl and her grandfather living in the Alps. Published in 1881 by Johanna Spyri, it is one of the best-selling books ever written.

And then there is the story of Swiss folk-hero William Tell who, like Robin Hood, may never have existed.

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Thin air

Muottas Muragl
Water-drop sculpture at Muottas Muragl

Only fourteen percent of the Alps are within Switzerland, yet sixty-five percent of Switzerland is within the Alps. And nowhere but Switzerland are a nation’s culture and the Alps so intertwined.

By Alpine standards, a mountain is high if it crests four thousand meters, just over 2½ miles. Most of the highest and most famous are in Switzerland.

Due to their massiveness, the Alps have long been an attraction. Stone-Agers left behind artifacts. Hannibal crossed with a herd of elephants. The Romans established settlements.

The “golden age” of mountaineering in the 19th century raised awareness of the Alps around the world. Train lines and hotels were built and tourists flocked. Still, residents of the Alpine areas of Switzerland retain a strong cultural identity, based upon mountaineering, hiking, skiing, farming, woodworking, cheesemaking, and, yes, yodeling.

I sampled four of the ranges within Switzerland—the Appenzell, Bernina, Bernese, and Pennine. (To read about the Appenzell Alps, please see a previous post, “More cowbell!”)

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Four countries in one


While traveling in Italy, I stayed in three towns with names beginning with the letter V—Varenna, Vernazza, and Volterra. I was constantly referring to one as the other.

Now, in Switzerland, I confuse the L cities—Luzern (pronounced loot SAIRN), Lugano (loo GAH no), and Lausanne (loh ZAHN). The Swiss often tried to correct me. When I said, “Lausanne,” they would say, “Oh, you mean Luzern.”

No, I meant Lausanne. It just sounded like Luzern.

Of course, the L cities could not be more different from each other. Luzern is in a German-speaking canton; Lugano, Italian, and Lausanne, French. (Cantons are like our states.) Switzerland also recognizes Romansch, a language left over from the Romans.

As I crossed from canton to canton every few days, I frequently mixed up my bonjours, buongiornos, and guten morgens. Cédric, a merchant I spoke with in Pontresina, shrugged, “Switzerland is a mini-Europe.”

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More cowbell!

"Ugly One"
New Year’s mask

“People make fun of us,” said Madeleine, owner of the lodge where I was staying in northeastern Switzerland.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because we hold on to our traditions, our costumes, our celebrations.”

She thought for a minute. “Because we are stubborn.”

She was talking about the citizens of the Appenzell region, specifically Innerrhoden, known for its exotic holiday festivals, show-of-hands’ elections, and cow parades.

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