‘Mountains, lakes, quality, precision, punctuality, research, chocolate and cheese’ are the standard clichés applied to Switzerland. However, observers from outside the country can are fascinated by many other unique features which characterise the charm of the Swiss cantons. For example, the Swiss people’s somewhat meticulous love of order. Paper and cardboard are not just carelessly thrown into containers in Switzerland, but are carefully bundled and tied up in little packages. Or there is their propensity to remain neutral, which our colleagues experienced first-hand again while conducting research for this article. When questioned about events and night-life, the answer was, ‘Each canton has different programmes. It wouldn’t be appropriate to give preference to any individual cantons.’
While we are on the topic of cantons, Switzerland has 26 of them. The capital is not a major economic centre like Zurich, Basel or the internationally famous City of Geneva, as you might suppose, but the City of Bern. It is also a very different story when it comes to the capital. Strictly speaking, it is not the main city or capital, but the ‘Federal City’ and was chosen by the nationally elected representatives and the upper chamber, the Council of States (representatives of the cantons) in 1848. It is a compromise in response to the question of whether the country should have a capital at all. Before the modern state was founded in 1848, Switzerland consisted of a loose alliance of independent cantons.
Four cantons are officially multilingual nowadays – and that is a typical element in Switzerland too. In addition to the four national languages of German, French, Italian and Rhaeto-Romanic, there are about 30 dialects and languages that have arrived in the country as a result of immigration. This comes as no surprise as the proportion of people with a migration background was about 38 per cent of the population living there aged 15 and over in 2020. As a result, the number of people speaking French and non-national languages has increased during the last few decades, while the proportion of German, Italian and Rhaeto-Romanic has declined.
Switzerland’s pronounced federalism is also unique to the country, in which about 8.6 million people live. This is demonstrated both by the strong degree of autonomy in the cantons and local communities and by people’s direct involvement in taking political decisions. Switzerland is, for example, famous for its large number of referendums, in which those entitled to vote are regularly asked about issues ranging from nursing care or justice initiatives to marriage for all (including same-sex marriages) and bans on animal experiments and even support for the media. Strange referendums such as the ‘horned cow initiative’ have also been recognised as evidence that direct democracy works. Or something quite odd for many non-Swiss people: 66.5 per cent of voters rejected an extra week of holidays in 2012. The final political decision is reserved for the majority of those voting in each case. As a result, the Federal President, who is newly appointed every year, is not officially the most important Swiss person, but the President of the National Council or lower house of Parliament.
By the way: ‘Röstigraben’ is a term that has been often used to describe the different voting and polling results between the different regions since the 1970s. It is actually a valley that forms the linguistic boundary between the German-speaking and French-speaking parts of Switzerland. However, some Swiss people take this quite literally. They say there should not be any ‘Röstigraben’ (fried grated potato ditch), but still regularly and gladly serve the typical Swiss dish on both sides of the ‘ditch’.
Are you spending some time in Switzerland and are looking for a break from everyday life? Then you have found just the right place. Our Swiss colleagues have revealed their top three destinations for excursions, among the many that are available.
Position 1: The Matterhorn
The triangular jagged rock majestically soars above the panorama of the Alps in the Canton of Valais between Zermatt in Switzerland and Breuil-Cervinia in Italy. The Matterhorn, which is 4,478 metres high, is one of the highest mountains in the Alps and attracts several thousand mountaineers every year. The northern, eastern and western faces are located in Switzerland. The Briton, Edward Whymper, was the first man to climb the mountain in 1865 after several unsuccessful attempts. One of the most popular climbs is the Hörnligrat. By the way: the Matterhorn does not have a cable car system, so the only way up involves using your own muscle power.
Position 2: The Rhine Falls near Schaffhausen
There is a thunderous roar when the huge amounts of water plunge down the rocks across an area that is 150 metres wide. As many as 600,000 litres of water per second descend the 23 metres of the falls, which are 15,000 years old. The Rhine Falls in Schaffhausen, near the German border in northern Switzerland, are a real natural spectacle. Various boat trips enable people to cross the River Rhine, reach a rock where they can walk around or take a round trip. A footpath also leads people from Laufen Castle to the Fischetz platform. The Rhyfall Express tourist train takes you from the historic centre of Schaffhausen, one of the best-preserved medieval towns with numerous bay windows, directly to the Rhine Falls. It is also possible to cycle, hike and take a boat trip in the surrounding area. The Rhine Falls are illuminated by the colourful lights of a free fireworks display on 31 July.
Position 3: Lake Lucerne
There are about 1,500 lakes and river courses in Switzerland. Many Swiss lakes, including Lake Lucerne, were formed by glaciers during the last Ice Age. The rugged shore area, which reminds you of a fjord, provides the variety of Switzerland’s fourth-largest lake. The lake is clean enough to be drinking water and has a pleasant bathing temperature of 22 degrees Celsius in summer. People can then enjoy the refreshing water at the Strandbad Lido, the Seebad Luzern or the Ufschötti, for example. It is also possible to discover the lake without getting your feet wet – on one of the historic paddle steamers or saloon motor vessels. You are sure to experience that holiday feeling surrounded by the mountains in the Alpine foothills.
If all that is too serene for you, then we suggest you attend the Eidgenössische Schwing- und Älplerfest (ESAF) (the Swiss Wrestling and Alpine Festival). It will take place again in 2022 because the festival is only held once every three years – at various locations. The motto of the largest sports and cultural event in Switzerland to be held in Pratteln near Basel on 26 – 28 August this year is ‘Together with momentum and passion’. Competitions take place in traditional Swiss sports such as ‘Hornussen’, ‘Steinstossen’ and naturally ‘Schwingen’.
While ‘Hornussen’ involves striking a rubber projectile as far as possible, ‘Schwingen’ is a variant of free-style wrestling. ‘Steinstossen’ involves throwing heavy stones, as its name suggests. The ESAF games are so popular with Swiss people that they were recently honoured with a specially designed tram. The ‘Schwingerkönig’ (wrestling champion) tram has been travelling around Basel since November 2021 in homage to the Alpine festival. This is an honour that has only been shared by veritable legends such as tennis star Roger Federer.
There is also plenty of sport going on at Wavegarden Alaïa Bay. The surfing centre in Sion in the Canton of Valais, which was opened in the spring of 2021, produces as many as 1,000 artificial waves per hour. The size, shape, power and frequency of the waves can be controlled by the press of a button so that beginners and experienced surfers all get their money’s worth to the same degree. A surfing school also offers courses. About 80 surfers can ride the perfect wave at the Wavegarden at the same time.
Switzerland is an expensive place to live – at least for everybody who is not Swiss. Despite this, visitors should still treat themselves to this selection of national culinary delights.
Cailler, Frey, Toblerone, Lindt and many others: the best chocolate comes from Switzerland – naturally. Swiss chocolate is a byword for the tender melting of milk, cream and aromatic cocoa flavours. A Swiss penknife made of chocolate is an ideal souvenir that will fit into any carry-on bag.
This sweet cake is somewhat smaller than a French macaroon, but tastes just as light: chocolat absolu, champagne rosé, caramel fleur de sel or raspberry deluxe. But be careful: it is easy to get addicted to Luxemburgerlis!
Why have cola? Swiss people drink Rivella! Admittedly, the taste of this cold drink mixed with whey is – well – special for most non-Swiss people to say the least! For locals, on the other hand, the beverage is an apparent manifestation of the taste of the mountains. The herbal soft drink comes in a small bottle and is available in red, refresh, blue, green tea and grapefruit.
The gingerbread-like speciality from Basel, which was created in the 17th century, is not only available for enjoyment at Christmas. The spice biscuits, which are cut into rectangles, are made of flour, honey, candied fruit, spices and nuts, among other things, and are glazed with sugar. You can buy them at the craft production centre or online shop of Jakob’s Basler – Leckerly, for example.
A classic dish in Swiss cuisine. If you are visiting Swiss people at their home, you can very likely look forward to enjoying this gently melting cheese delicacy on at least one occasion – the probability borders on certainty. Whether it is Vacherin, Gruyère, Appenzeller, Tilsiter or raclette cheese – there are few restrictions on the variety of regional concoctions.
One Swiss man has also left his mark on the country’s breakfast culture. The original Birchermüsli stems from the Aargau doctor, Oskar Bircher-Benner. His aim was to create a wholesome diet with fresh fruit. Oats were soaked in water and mixed with lemon juice, condensed milk and grated apples as well as hazelnuts or almonds in the original recipe.
Could you have imagined it? He is the most successful Swiss music export, having sold more than 15 million sound recording media: born in the Canton of Aargau, René Baumann, also known as DJ Bobo, conquered the world’s stages with his eurodance style during the 1990s. Derided and celebrated at the same time, he even appeared with Michael Jackson in the supporting programme on his History Tour. Would you like to listen to some Swiss music? Then use our playlist.
Swiss people believe that goods should be transported by rail. Many countries regard the Swiss railway network with more than a touch of envy and it is one of the most frequently used in the world. The proportion of goods transported by rail was 37 per cent in 2020. Switzerland is extremely important as a transit country for north-south traffic in Europe. Major investments in the infrastructure are one of the main reasons for the strong railway network. According to Statista, the country spent EUR 440 per resident on railway infrastructure in 2021 – Luxembourg was the only country in Europe to beat this.
The transport routes crossing the Alps are particularly important. The Gotthard Base Tunnel, which was opened in the summer of 2016, is currently the longest railway tunnel in the world at 57 kilometres. It crosses the central Swiss Alps in a north-south direction. About 260 goods trains and 65 passenger trains can pass through the Saint Gotthard Massif every day.
Logistics and supply chain management are also very important and increasingly so. The dynamism and relevance of the logistics market are not only due to the increasing division of labour and globalised markets, but also the growing reduction in trade restrictions. Thanks to its special geographical location at the heart of Europe and Switzerland’s strong emphasis on foreign trade, the Basel region is crucially important as the gateway to Switzerland for foreign trade.
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