Hear the fascinating stories behind some of Switzerland's most intriguing sights – from The Matterhorn, the Swiss Alps, and Europe's largest lake in Lake Geneva to the chocolates of Zurich, Bear Pits of Bern, and the Lion Monument of Lucerne. Below are some of the stories you will discover for yourself while on an Switzerland Vacation.
The Swiss Alps: Switzerland is small in area, about a third the size of New England, but it is grand in stature, the tallest country in Europe. Sixty percent of the land is mountainous.
The Swiss Alps sweep across the country from the eastern borders of Germany, Austria and Liechtenstein and Italy in the south, to the hills above Provence in southern France, in an imposing meringue of stiff peaks formed of rock, ice and snow, perched like a scoop of ice cream on the cone of northern Italy. Du Four Peak is the highest mountain in Switzerland (4,634 metres or 15,203 feet), just a bit shorter than Mont Blanc (4,810 metres or 15,781 feet), which rests along the French, Italian and Swiss borders. The watershed flows west from the run off of St. Gotthard Massif Alpine Range in the west central area of Switzerland, becoming the source of both the mighty Rhine and Rhone Rivers.
The Alps may be high and imposing, but they are also porous. For thousands of years they’ved allowed travellers, traders, armies, and in Hannibal’s case, elephants, passage through central Europe. Today there is even a 14-day ski excursion that hundreds engage in every year, crossing the Alps from France all the way to St. Moritz and Zermatt near the eastern border of Austria.
The Alps are the defining image of Switzerland and are spectacularly awe-inspiring. They can be frightening close up, depending on weather, but heartbreakingly beautiful when admired at a distance from alpine meadows, villages, towns, cities and on the roads or rails through this magnificent country, the roof of Europe.
The Matterhorn: Although it is not Switzerland’s tallest mountain (4,478 metres or 14,692, the Du Four Peak 4,634 metres or 15,203 feet), it is its most famous. Dominating the ski Mecca of Zermatt, the Matterhorn has been drawing vacationers and mountaineers to this pedestrian only town since the mid1800s. Located on the Italian border in the German-speaking zone, this is where the country’s tallest mountains soar over Europe.
None is more majestic than this twisting rock and snow encrusted monument, jutting its angry cobra head into the blue Alpine air. The four faces of the mountain are so steep that snow does not accumulate and avalanches are so common they have formed glaciers at the base.
When first seen it is an unforgettable moment that stays with you for life, like turning into the entrance of Yosemite Valley at half dome or arriving at the brink of the Grand Canyon and getting your first view of the cavernous expanse. Climbers had been testing the Matterhorn since the mid 1850s, but the first successful ascent was in 1865, headed by Edward Whymper. Seven men reached the top but unfortunately only three survived the descent. Death is a yearly part of the climbing ritual.
Thousands have scaled its four faces in all seasons since the first assault. In winter the streets are full of climbers with ropes and axes attached to their belts, heading towards the mountain. Unfortunately almost every year some don’t make it back alive. The North face is the one that is most attacked. The south face looking towards Italy is considered the most dangerous.
There are climbing schools and guides who regularly take groups up, but be warned, this is for experts only. You are risking your life in every tricky ascent. The streets are also full of souvenir shops with almost every imaginable item emblazoned with a rendering of the Matterhorn, from pocketknives to handbags and plates. There are also quite a number of sports shops, most specializing in climbing gear rather than skiing equipment. Zermatt may be a skiing Mecca, but the Matterhorn rules this village.
Lake Geneva, Europe's largest and one of its most beautiful lakes: Stretching along Switzerland's southern border with France, Lake Geneva (also called Lac Leman by the Swiss) is the largest lake in Europe. It's pristine shores support a strong fresh water fishing industry. Some would argue that it offers the most beautiful views of any waterway. They are jaw-droppingly amazing; especially the snow capped Jura Alps across the lake from Montreux and Vevey. The temperatures are moderate along the lake in winter; most of the weather takes place in the mountains.
In summer numerous music festivals and artistic events are held in towns along the lake, especially Lausanne, the third most popular city for travelers in Switzerland, next to Zurich and Geneva. It is a sophisticated artist’s haven and the city where T.S. Eliot lived when he wrote "The Wasteland."
Steep vineyards cascade down the hills above the villages of Vevey, Chexbres and throughout the Lavaux region. The grape of choice is Chasselas, a delicious white wine similar to a dry Riesling. Almost no Swiss wine is imported into the United States; it’s consumed at home. In winter, Gluehwein, mulled, spiced wine, is a daily tradition to warm the heart and spirits of the Swiss, whether shopping or skiing.
Lake Geneva's magnificent alpine lake waters merge with the Rhone River in Geneva, spectacularly punctuated by the world’s largest waterspout, Jet d'eau, which sprays 140 meters into the air. This is the country's most cosmopolitan city, poking its nose into France, which surrounds it on three sides. Home to the Red Cross, United Nations, World Health Organization and World Trade Commission, 40 percent of the 180,000 population is foreign. The city is built around the lake, which is the visual focus and community center of Geneva. There is a reason they share the same name.
The Swiss Rhone Valley: Running through the belly of Switzerland, near the Italian border in the region of Valais, the Rhone River has its origins in the Swiss Alps runoff above the Gletsch Glacier. Picking up water as it flows east from Brig, through a glacier valley draining the highest mountains in Switzerland, it moves from a mountain stream to an important riverway.
Its silty torrent carves its way through some of Switzerland's finest ski areas, including Crans-Montana and Zermatt, and its highest chalet towns and mountain villages. In summer, a boat ride on the Rhone offers grand views of the Swiss countryside. As it nears the French border city of Martigny, the Rhone veers northwest towards Lake Geneva. Here if forms the banks of some of Switzerland's best vineyards, before hooking up with the flow from Lake Geneva and the Arve River where it enters eastern France. It then runs southeast through Lyon and some of France's greatest vineyards before emptying in the Mediterranean near Montpellier.
The Glacier Express
The Glacier Express: Operating year round, the Glacier Express is one of the world’s most scenic mountain railroad lines. The trip from the southern Swiss Italian border town of Zermatt to St. Moritz in the east takes seven and a half hours and covers about 250 miles. And it is some of the most glorious time you will ever spend with your camera.
Originally a winter conveyance between the two legendary ski areas, it is now most popular with sightseers. Crossing 291 bridges and entering 91 tunnels, it is a masterpiece of railroad engineering. Running past the lakes and pasturelands of central Switzerland, the highlight is the crossing of the Oberalp Pass at 2,044 metres or 6,706 feet. Large windows can open to smell the fresh mountain air or get an unencumbered view of the meadows, valleys and picturesque villages.
Switzerland's intellectual History: Despite Harry Lime's assertion in Graham Greene's "The Third Man" that Switzerland's contribution to world culture is the cuckoo clock, there is a long tradition of artistic achievement in this tiny country of six million. In fact it is a country that so loves their artists that their profiles grace Swiss Francs rather than those of politicians. Many creative souls have produced some of their greatest masterpieces here and thrived on one of the world’s most beautiful and inspiring canvases.
T.S. Eliot wrote "The Wasteland" while living in Lausanne. Herman Hesse lived in the hills above Lugano for over 25 year. Other notable residents included James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Henry James, Voltaire, Dickens, Stravinsky, Vladimir Nabokov and Charlie Chaplin. Peter Ustinov lived in a hotel in Montreux and currently singers Tina Turner, Shania Twain, and Phil Collins call Switzerland home. It is a country with over 400 museums. In Zurich Kronenhalle restaurant was a famous haunt of expatriate writers and artists and the walls are full of work traded for meals. James Joyce regularly got the corner table and Giacometti, Chagall, Picasso and Miro are among the artists represented on the walls. In 2005 the Paul Klee Center opened in Bern to celebrate the work of the country’s greatest home-grown artist.
The cities of Vevey, Montreux and Lavaux, which lie next to each other along the banks of Lake Geneva, have published "The Poet’s Ramble," a guide to famous artists who have lived in the area. Over 40 of the world’s greatest thinkers, artists and writers were inspired by the beauty of this land including Dostoyevsky, Rousseau, Hugo and Hemingway. The book is available through Switzerland Tourism.
Chateau de Chillon: One of Switzerland’s most visited landmarks, Chateau de Chillon (Chillon Castle) has a checkered history due to its most famous "guest." Located just south of Montreux, it is easily reachable on the number one bus, which runs every ten minutes, or it is a leisurely 45-minute walk along the lakefront down to the castle.
Magnificently situated jutting out over Lake Geneva, you cross a wooden bridge above the shore waters to enter the round towered fortress. It faces the snow-capped French Alps which rise above the far side of the lake presenting an amazing view, even to a man chained to a pillar for six years. Built in the 13th Century by the House of Savoy, the castle offers a glimpse into the life of the time with period furniture, artwork and stately rooms and passageways. I particularly liked the toilet throne, with its window view and direct deposit drop into the lake.
It is best known as the prison sight for Francois Bonivard, tethered in the dungeon and chained to a pillar from 1530-1536, because he supported the Protestant Reformation. While living in Montreux, Lord Byron heard the story and it led to his 1816 poem, "The Prisoner of Chillon," which became a symbol for the Romantic Movement. Mary Shelly, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Alexandre Dumas also wrote about it, painters William Turner and Gustave Courbet captured its walls in oils. Supposedly Byron went so far as to carve his initials into the pillar that chained Bonivard and it is preserved to this day behind a plaque. This may be true or it may be a marketing ploy, it's hard to verify initials.
Mark Twain wasn't so easily moved as the Romantics. Looking across the lake and at the surrounding castle he remarked that Bonivard "didn't have it half bad." In the summer it can be painful to visit the Castle with the long lines of visitors filing one by one through the entrails. Try to go on off hours before the tour buses pull up, and be sure to buy a bottle of the estate wine. It's delicious, reasonably priced and proceeds go to the upkeep of the Castle.
Chocolate Academy of Zurich: In January 2008 there was sadness in the Swiss chocolate world. Rudolf Sprungli, former head of Lindt & Sprungli chocolate company passed away. His chocolate company created its addictive bars and candies along the banks of Lake Zurich, at the second stop on the ferryboat ride. It is a favorite place for chocolate lovers to debark and take their sweet time on the factory tour. During the day, when the winds are blowing off the water in the right direction, the scent of chocolate reaches into town and enrobes the city. The Swiss love chocolate and eat about 25 pounds apiece yearly. The only country to eat more than Switzerland is the dentist's favorite, England.
Chocolate is a multi-billion dollar industry in Zurich. The other big chocolate mogul in town is Barry Callebaut, who is a sourcer and buyer of beans from around the world and producer of industrial chocolate for sale to Nestle, Hershey and Cadbury, among others. In his office building in Zurich, one of the floors is the Chocolate Academy, where pastry chefs and bakers are trained in the use of chocolate.
He's just opened a new chocolate factory and academy in China where they aim to introduce the products seductive charms. All eight of his chocolate factories around the world have Chocolate Academies attached to educate and share new knowledge and techniques with chocolate artisans. He's sort of the Johnny Appleseed of Chocolate.
Bear Pits of Bern
Bear Pits of Bern (Barengraben): The European brown bear is the beloved symbol of Bern. You find it on everything from the city flag to clock tower faces, tourist collectables of all types from plates to scarves, they’re image is even found shaped into chocolates and gingerbread.
The word Bern comes form the German name for bear and is featured on the oldest city seal, dating to 1224. Legend has it that when the town was formed by Berthold V, Duke of Zahringen, in the horseshoe bend of the Aare river in 1191, the first animal killed on a hunting trip in the outskirts of town was a bear, and so the name. Bears have been kept in the Barengraben (Bear Pits) at the expense of the city since 1513. They are located below the beautiful city rose gardens, at the middle of the bend in the river. The rose gardens lie on top of a steep hill and afford one of the most beautiful views of the entire city.
"The Lion of Lucerne"
Lion Monument: "The Lion of Lucerne" (Lowendenkmal) is a compelling statue in the north section of Old Town dedicated to the 42 members of the Swiss Guard who were assigned to protect Louis the XVI, Maria Antoinette and their family at the Royal Palace. When the Tuileries was stormed on August 10, 1792 by rioting Parisians at the start of the French Revolution, the king ordered the soldiers to lay down their arms. They were subsequently slaughtered by the crowd and the royal family was captured. Louis had made a big mistake.
In 1821 Danish sculpture Berthel Thorwaldsen finished the sculpture, a 30-foot likeness of a wounded and dying lion with a broken lance in its heart and his paw resting atop the fleur-de-lys shield of the Bourbon king. The Latin inscription translated "To the bravery and fidelity of the Swiss." When Mark Twain saw the sculpture he called it the "the saddest and most moving piece of rock in the world."
The Swiss Guard has a long history of protecting European royal families, dating back to the 15th century. Today they are ceremonial figures at the Vatican. The Papal Swiss Guard protects the Pope.
Yodelfest in Lucerne
Biggest Hoot of Summer Festivals: In June art festivals of all sorts blossom like spring flowers across Switzerland in almost every one of the 26 Cantons, from Art Basel in the north, a gigantic week-long art market that attracts 50,000 collectors and buyers, to the Montreux Jazz Festival in the south, one of the world's greatest music venues.
But they all pale in comparison to the favorite festival of the Swiss...Yodelfest, It's the World Cup of yodeling and it's a hoot! Held every three years, it actually draws more attendees than any other festival. In 2008 it will be in Lucerne over the last week of June. Ten thousand yodelers and 500 alphorn enthusiasts from all over the world will converge on the city and over 200,000 will attend the festival. The President of Switzerland will lead a parade of Cantons and nations through the streets of Lucerne, all marching in their native costumes and entertaining the crowds with melodious group yodeling. Teams from as far away as America, Canada, New Zealand and Australia will compete.
Throughout the town the streets will "be alive with the sound of music" with impromptu singing and the playing of 10-foot alphorns. Joyous choruses of modulating tones will swell as enthusiasts toot and yodel their hearts away while ingesting huge quantities of roasted sausages and cold Swiss beer. What a festival, and it's free!
Yodeling and alphorn playing were originally a means of communication across the Alps. They still have a big voice in everyday Swiss entertainment, but It is seldom done by individuals, as in western yodeling, it is generally choral singing intertwining base to soprano voices of men and women.