Local pride and community spirit are fuelled by traditional folkloric customs, most of which stem from pagan or medieval Christian festivals. Most prominent of these is carnival, held around the country on or around Mardi Gras, the last day before Lent. The most exuberant celebrations, held in Luzern, Bern and Basel, feature bands, masked parades, street dancing and spontaneous partying that belie the stereotype of a placid, unadventurous Switzerland. A host of smaller events fills out the calendar and its still easily possible to stumble on a village festival devoted to, say, harvest-time or the banishment of winter that has been staged by local people for centuries past.
This sense of cultural continuity sits oddly with the fact that Switzerland has grown into one of the worlds richest countries. Its economy is small-scale but thoroughly modern: traditional industries such as watchmaking and textiles now thrive by focusing closely on the luxury end of the market and have ceded prime position to engineering, pharmaceuticals and service industries galore, including tourism, which has been a high earner since the mid-nineteenth century, when the Alps became both a fashionable destination for wealthy travellers and a prescribed retreat for sufferers from respiratory diseases needing curative sunshine and fresh mountain air. And yet the country, seized by an increasingly anachronistic national Kantonligeist, still stands alone. In the 1940s, Switzerland was surrounded by hostile Axis powers; these days, the friendly EU encircles the country. With the end of the Cold War, recent damaging revelations of Swiss collaboration with the Nazi Third Reich,! and increasingly close ties amongst Western European nations, Swiss neutrality rings ever more hollow and yet, far from embracing a wider perspective, the country has collectively taken a step into conservatism, with a new breed of extreme rightwing Eurosceptic politicians gaining ground in the 1999 elections. Commentators are noting sadly that Switzerland is only now embarking on the kind of multiethnic social integration that its neighbours began in the 1950s.
Nonetheless, having taken centuries to bolt their country together from diverse elements, the Swiss seem instinctively to return to their sense of community spirit, expressed most tangibly in the order and cleanliness youll see on show everywhere. Yet the sterility so decried by Graham Greene (who wrote Harry Limes jibe about brotherly love), if it characterizes any part of the country, applies only to the glossy, neatly packaged tourist idyll of lakes and mountains. The three great Swiss cities of Geneva, Zurich and Basel are crammed with world-class museums and galleries and, in Zurich and Genevas neighbour Lausanne, a humming arts scene and underground club culture that feeds nightlife as vibrant as anything youll find in much larger European cities. The landscapes are dominated by the Alps and their foothills, but mountains arent the only story. In the north and centre are lush, rolling grasslands epitomized by the velvety green hills of the Emmental, traditional dair! y-farming country. Vineyards rise tiered above Lake Geneva and the broad valley of the young Rhone in the southwest, and above the Rhine in the east. The fairy-tale southeast is cut through by wild, high-sided valleys, lonely, dark and thickly forested. Most surprisingly of all, bordering Italy in the south youll find subtropical Mediterranean-style flower gardens, sugarloaf hills and sunny, palm-fringed lakes. For a small, little-regarded mid-continental country with a deeply ingrained image problem, Switzerland has plenty more to offer than most visitors suspect.
WHERE TO GO AND WHEN Although Switzerland is best known for its mountain scenery, there are any number of hooks on which to hang a visit, whether you choose to stay in one city or resort, take in the hiking or cycling possibilities of a single region, or make a tour of exploration around the whole country. In the space of a short holiday and without moving far from a central base, you could easily take in a dizzying diversity of landscapes and cultures. Getting about is easy, with an unrivalled network of trains, buses and boats cutting journey times between the regions to an hour or two in most cases. Youll find places to stay and get a hearty meal wherever you end up, even in the wildest of mountain valleys. English is widely spoken, and highly organized tourist offices mean that information is readily accessible wherever you go.
Thankfully, Switzerland has no big metropolises on the scale of Paris or London. Swiss towns and cities were preserved from bombing in World War II, and all of them have at their core explorable networks of medieval alleys and old houses and churches. Geneva is positioned at the tip of the idyllic Lake Geneva in the southwest, a short distance from the graceful lakeside city of Lausanne. In the northeast, Zurich too is set on its own lake, within striking distance of the peaceful Bodensee (Lake Constance). The diminutive Swiss capital Bern has a UNESCO-protected Old Town of sandstone arcades and cobbled alleys, while equally attractive Luzern (Lucerne) lies in the centre of the country on its own, famously beautiful lake. Two much-overlooked urban centres are in the extreme north and south of the country respectively: Basel is located on the Rhine at the point where France, Germany and Switzerland meet, while sunny Lugano basks on the shores of an azure lake a few kilometres f! rom the Italian border. Any of these or smaller but no less characterful cantonal capitals such as St Gallen, Schaffhausen, Neuchatel, Chur, Fribourg, Sion or Bellinzona could serve as a base for a relaxing short break, especially during the temperate summer months (JuneSept). At other times they can get distinctly chilly, although most receive generous dumps of snow in the winter, which, combined with glittering sunshine and frozen lakes and rivers, paints the most romantic of urban pictures.
Switzerland is ideal if youre looking to get out into nature, and whether its for hiking, skiing or simply relaxation, there are almost limitless possibilities. The Alps run in a band across the centre and south of the country, with resorts big and small along with stunning scenery guaranteed wherever you head for. The two main seasons run from late May to October, and from mid-December to mid-April; between these times, mountain resorts close down altogether. The best-known Alpine region is the Bernese Oberland, focused around the tourist hub of Interlaken and boasting such famous names as Wengen and Gstaad; just to the south, in Canton Valais, sit Verbier, Crans Montana and, at the foot of the sharks-tooth Matterhorn, Zermatt. Occupying the southeast of the country is Canton Graubünden, holding Davos, Klosters and perhaps most famous of all St Moritz. Justifiably popular, all these places boast some of the best skiing in Europe but can draw stifling crowds. Although i! ts relatively easy in even the busiest centres (which are still nothing like the mega-resorts of the French and Italian Alps) to head off the beaten path and explore alone, or to aim for smaller, more manageable satellite resorts in adjacent side valleys, you may prefer to shun the big names altogether and seek peace and quiet in the less frenetic hinterlands. Two regions stand out: in the northwest, the scrubby, windswept Jura mountains hugging the French border are an ideal landscape for long lonely walks and bike rides; while in the south, the wild valleys of Alto Ticino lace the southern foothills of the Alps with little-known hiking trails, a world away from the super-chic lakeside resort of Locarno nearby.