The Largest Lake in Europe
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.
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The legend of William Tell, the Swiss answer to Robin Hood, is retold throughout
Switzerland, but it receives its most spectacular airing at Interlaken, the beautifully
situated travel hub of the Alps.
In an open-air theater outside the town, surrounded by lush forests and mountain
scenery, the play William Tell by Friedrich Schiller has been performed every summer
since 1912, with 180 actors, 20 live horses, and a herd of cows on stage to provide
rustic flavor. It's the ideal setting to enjoy a story that dates back to the Middle
Ages, when Switzerland was ruled by arrogant Austrian invaders.
According to the legend, in the town of Altdorf, a ruthless sheriff named Hermann
Gessler put his hat on a pole in the main square and insisted that all Swiss should
bow before it when they passed. William Tell, a freedom-loving farmer who was famous
as a marksman with a crossbow, refused. Gessler ordered Tell to shoot an apple from
his son's head. If he succeeded, both would go free, but if he missed, both he and
his son would be executed. Tell, of course, safely split the apple, but Gessler
asked him why he had a second crossbow bolt in his quiver. "Had I injured my son,"
Tell said proudly, "this second shaft would not have missed your heart." The marksman
was promptly arrested, but he escaped on the way to prison. Evading Austrian troops,
Tell made his way back to Altdorf and shot Gessler dead, inspiring a widespread
rebellion that led to the formation of the Swiss Confederacy in 1353, the basis
of the modern country.
Over the centuries, William Tell has become a Swiss symbol of resistance to oppression,
and his story has inspired dozens of retellings by European authors, with the 1804
Schiller play the most popular. Modern historians have questioned whether Tell was
a real figure or a poetic invention, but under the stars in Interlaken, it hardly
seems to matter—Tell's adventures are as gripping now as they were six centuries
The Matterhorn's Fatal Attraction
Few mountains have exerted such a magnetic attraction as the Matterhorn, the 14,690-foot-high
crag that is as much a symbol of Switzerland as the Eiffel Tower is of France. But
as any visitor to the "Climber's Cemetery" in Zermatt can attest, the mountain's
allure can have deadly consequences.
Over 500 alpinists have lost their lives on the Matterhorn in the last 150 years.
The peak first began to mesmerize climbers in the 1850s, when the English were pioneering
the sport of mountaineering. In 1861, a 20-year-old magazine illustrator named Edward
Whymper started trying to tackle the Matterhorn's southwestern face, attempting
eight times without success. In 1865, Whymper changed tactics, deciding to try the
mountain's famous eastern face, which looks like a sheer cliff to the naked eye.
On July 13, he set off with a team of seven, including three English friends and
three guides. After a punishing climb, the group made it to the summit on the morning
of the 14th, beating a rival Italian group by a few days. But then disaster struck.
On the descent, one of the safety ropes broke and four men plunged to their deaths.
Only Whymper and two Swiss guides. The Times of London denounced all mountaineers
as "dilettantes of suicide," and Queen Victoria considered banning British citizens
Later in life, Whymper went on to many other famous climbing successes, from South
America to Greenland, but he was forever haunted by the deadly Matterhorn. Today,
despite the danger, hundreds of climbers every year try to emulate Whymper's 1865
success by conquering the astonishing peak.
Home Of Dadaism
Zürich today is such an efficient, orderly, and civilized city that it comes as
a surprise to learn that it was the birthplace of history's most anarchic artistic
movement: Dada. In 1916, artists flocked to neutral Switzerland to escape the horrors
of World War I. A group of expats started the Cabaret Voltaire (named after the
18th-century thinker whose book Candide mocked the idiocy of society).
Located in the back room of a tavern, the club featured wild, atonal music, comical
dancing, and absurd satirical songs that stood as "anti-art"—a form of controlled
madness that reflected the general insanity of the world at war. Among the pioneers
were Hugo Bell, a German writer and theater director; his lover, dancer Emmy Hennings;
Romanian poet Tristan Tzara; and French artist Hans Arp. (The radical expat community
in Zürich at the time also included Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, who lived
around the corner from the tavern, and famed Irish writer James Joyce, who was working
on his masterpiece, Ulysses).
The name for the movement was selected by stabbing a knife at random into a French
dictionary, coming up with dada (hobby-horse), which evokes a child's first stumbling
words. The movement's works included absurd visual collages where men's heads might
be exchanged for anvils or Mona Lisa given a clown's red nose, gibberish plays,
and Marcel Duchamp's provocative Fountain sculpture, a porcelain urinal, which caused
a scandal when it was submitted to an arts competition signed R. Mutt.
Dada's chaos reflected the growing disillusion of Europeans at the war's meaningless
slaughter, and it gained huge underground popularity for its ability to shatter
any rules or preconceived ideas about art. Its members attacked everyone, even themselves:
"Dada is anti-Dada," they often declared. Many of the original participants moved
from Zürich to Paris in the early 1920s, leading to the birth of Surrealism and
the work of Salvador Dali. As late as the 1970s, Dada's principles influenced punk
Today, the memory of Cabaret Voltaire lingers in Zürich. The tavern where Dada was
born was saved from demolition in the 1990s and renovated as a trendy arts center,
now called the Spiegelgasse, where exhibitions of paintings and avant-garde theatrical
works can still be seen.
Fondue is far more than a popular treat for tourists in Switzerland—it's a serious
business, with every step of the dish's consumption enveloped in ritual and tradition.
The classic version of the national dish is, of course, cheese fondue, which originated
in the French-speaking countryside around Geneva in the 1700s. It is prepared in
an earthenware pot, called a caquelon, whose interior is rubbed with a clove of
garlic. Heated on a small paraffin burner, cheeses are melted and blended in the
caquelon. Each region of Switzerland uses a different mix of cheese—Gruyère, Emmenthal,
and raclette are most popular—flavored with an alcoholic beverage (most commonly,
white wine or kirsch, although some use beer). Into this bubbling, semi-liquid mass,
diners dip an array of tasty objects on long forks. Cubes of bread are traditional,
but many use chunks of boiled potato or vegetables, garnished with chives, fresh
pepper, diced garlic, or raw mushrooms.
Naturally, there are strict rules of behavior. There is no "double-dipping." And
if the bread falls off your fork into the pot, a penalty must be paid. Men must
buy a bottle of wine for the table, and women must kiss the man on their left (one
reason, perhaps, for fondue's ongoing popularity). But however the meal unfolds,
every bite is mouth-watering.
In the 1950s, Swiss chefs began to experiment with radical variations. Today, there
is meat fondue (fondue borguignonne), where diners dip red meat into boiling oil
to sear the exterior to delicious effect. For dessert, there's chocolate fondue,
where pieces of fruit, often marinated in Cointreau, are enveloped in melted chocolate
(strawberry is lethally good). But cheese fondue remains most common in restaurants.
For the Swiss, the final ritual is to peel up the layer of hardened cheese at the
bottom of the pot, which has become like a rich cracker. Known as la religieuse
(French for "the nun"), it's a delicious end to a high-cholesterol feast.
Why the famous "Hollywood" sign should consider a vacation
home in Switzerland.
The unearthly mountain scenery of the Alps has long attracted film-makers. One of
the most visually stunning Swiss settings is in the 1969 James Bond film On Her
Majesty’s Secret Service, where Bond (played by George Lazenbee) travels undercover
to the mountaintop lair of the villain Blofeld (Telly Savalas), arriving by helicopter
at a sparkling, silver-and-glass structure that looks like a flying saucer perched
high on an ice-covered peak. The scene was shot at the actual summit of the Schilthorn,
where the revolving restaurant called the Piz Gloria has stunning 360 degree vistas
of Europe’s highest mountains. Permission to film was granted on condition the producers
refurbished the restaurant’s interior and build a helipad, which they did for the
then-impressive sum of £60,000 (about US$1.2 million in modern terms). Today, the
peak can be reached by cable-car from Mürren, and the space-age restaurant offers
Bond-themed meals and excerpts from the movie in the downstairs cinema. The Alps
also had starring roles in the adventure film The Eiger Sanction (1975), the historical
drama Chaplin (1992), where several scenes were shot in Charlie Chaplin’s actual
estate in Vevey, and kitsch comedies such as The Revenge of the Pink Panther (1975),
partly shot in the exclusive ski resort of Gstaad. But perhaps the most imaginative
use of Alpine scenery was Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, where Switzerland
doubled for the Wookie planet of Kashyyyk. In some ways, it was a logical choice:
Anyone today taking a cable car or cog railway to the highest reaches of the Alps
feels they have been transported to another world. (One Hollywood footnote: the
famous 1937 version of Heidi, starring Shirley Temple, was actually shot in the
San Bernadino Mountains in California – but its success inspired thousands to visit
the Swiss Alps anyway).
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