The ultimate Swiss tourist trap

Luckily there's no railway to the Grand Combin glacier
Luckily there’s no railway to the Grand Combin glacier near Verbier

In the summer of 1868, three years before the Rigi railway at Lake Lucerne was completed, an English noblewoman travelling incognito made an excursion to Mount Rigi. The stout 49-year-old woman had a lot of work and family troubles on her mind as she was carried up the mountain in a sedan chair. But this lady was no ordinary tourist. She happened to be the most powerful woman in the world, with the job title Monarch of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Queen Victoria visited at the beginning of the mountain railway boom. Entrepreneurs were snapping up railway concessions all over the Alps and rushing to complete the first, the highest, the steepest railway lines to make a killing in the lucrative new tourist market.

It is a staggering fact that two thirds of Switzerland’s land surface is taken up by mountains. Small communities had always eked out an existence on the lower slopes but the great peaks were out of bounds, known only from a distance. It was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that the Alps began to be seen as an amenity, first for hikers and climbers and later for less adventurous visitors who could be transported up to dizzying heights in their Sunday best.

Not everyone agreed that laying tracks and blasting tunnels in the Alps for tourists was a worthwhile pursuit, as I discovered when researching article for about the centenary of the Jungfrau railway last year.

“We regret that so many mountain lines have already been built, which only benefit a small number of people economically, while from the ethical point of view they are not only useless but even harmful,” the Swiss League for the Defence of Natural Beauty and the Swiss Heritage Society wrote in a petition to the government calling for a more prudent granting of railway concessions.

In its first full year in operation, 1913, the Jungfraujoch station – Europe’s highest train station – on the shoulder of the Jungfrau mountain in the Bernese Oberland attracted 42,880 tourists; last year 833,000 people, myself included, made the unique rail trek to “The Top of Europe”.

The return trip from Interlaken to Jungfraujoch (3,454 metres above sea level) is about an hour and a half each way, with two train changes. If ever I had the feeling of being herded, it was on that day. I joined the multitudes of Indian, Chinese, American, European and Arab tourists being efficiently ushered from one train to the next by smartly-dressed guides. After leaving Kleine Scheidegg for the final leg of the journey there were more stops inside the tunnel at the viewing windows cut into the rock face.

I arrived at the top around lunchtime to join throngs of people wandering around through a maze of tunnels or milling about in front of the different eateries (including what must be the most expensive Indian buffet in mainland Europe). I could see the magnificent Aletsch glacier for a few minutes before everything was obscured by cloud.

Here’s the report I wrote for about the centenary.

The 200-franc day trip which is billed as the ultimate Swiss tourist experience seemed to me to be rather overpriced, overhyped and exhausting. Within minutes of boarding the return train, everyone on board promptly fell asleep, wiped out by the altitude and possibly the stress of being herded around all day.

Here’s a little secret. Switzerland is full of mountains and easy ways of getting up them and while I’m not saying they all look the same, there are spectacular views to be seen from almost anywhere, even the top of the smallest, most humble 12-franc chair lift.

It’s holiday time again. Have you got any tourist trap stories to share?

This fork sculpture at Vevey, Lake Geneva is a bit of fun
This fork sculpture at Vevey, Lake Geneva is a bit of fun

Ten award-winning German words
‘Ugly, me?'(

After ten years in Switzerland, living right on the French/Swiss-German language border, I have gradually been won over by the charms of the German language. Like many foreigners here I started off with classes in one of the adult education centres run by the Swiss retail chain Migros. The learning curve is dragged down a bit by the huge gulf between the standard German learned in class and the dialect spoken by the locals, but hey you get there eventually.

Which brings me to my list today. One of the joys of learning a new language is finding words that express new concepts and ideas, or that describe familiar concepts in different ways. As a newcomer to a language you can also appreciate words purely for how they sound. Without further ado …

1. Ameise (ant): This is the year of the ant in our garden and with a three year old who points out every member of the animal kingdom with equal excitement, including the humble ant, Ameise is a word I hear very often. Far superior to ‘ant’, Ameise (almost rhymes with Eliza) is a great word to announce dramatically.

2. Kavaliersdelikt (peccadillo): One of those compound words that are the hallmark of German, I like the marrying of Kavalier (gentleman) – with Delikt (offence). These days Kavaliersdelikt, which has such a breezy devil-may-care ring to it, is mostly used in the context of the international tax dispute. Part of the reason Switzerland is viewed as a tax haven is because tax evasion is considered a Kavaliersdelikt in this country, i.e. no big deal.

3. Übrigens (by the way): I just enjoy this word because I learnt it early on and managed to sound like I had a bigger vocabulary by sticking it at the beginning of random sentences. Also it sounds funny to my ear – ‘oobrigens’ – as if it’s referring to something rude or silly.

4. Hebamme (midwife): There should be a reggae song written in German with the title Hebamme (sort of rhymes with Obama). It’s one of those bouncy musical words that instantly appeal to me. Might also have something to do with my HUGE respect for this line of work – the true oldest female profession, alongside farmer, market vendor, weaver, child minder, chef and healer. (Side rant: I really think we should protest every time we see prostitution referred to as “the oldest profession”. Enough already!)

5. Baubewilligung (building permission): There is a host of compound words made up with Bewilligung (w pronounced as v in German), such as residence permit, a nice long one Niederlassungsbewilligung. Bau, pronounced like the bow of a ship gives a good punch to this word.

6. Schwach (weak): You’ve got the ‘sh’, the ‘v’ and the ‘ch’ (like Scottish Loch) here. It’s a word you can really get your teeth and throat into. Although it means weak it’s a strong word. Imagine a vindictive voice shouting: ‘Du bist Schwach!’ Scary.

7. Vielfalt (variety): Pronounced feel-falt, I like the Fs and the Ls here. It’s all’s very soft and it’s another one of those words you can use early on to give the impression of an advanced vocabulary.

8. Verrückt (crazy, mad): This is another very expressive word, especially when you hear it pronounced the Swiss-German way as they have a pretty extreme ‘K’ which sounds like someone clearing their throat before spitting. It’s interesting too that the Swiss Germans use verrückt to mean angry as well, like the American double meaning of the word mad.

9. Einsamkeit (loneliness): There’s something gentle about this word. It’s romantic, poetic. You can just imagine someone writing it in a love letter 100 years ago. In general I like the –keit ending (pronounced ‘kite’), like Aufmerksamkeit (attention), Möglichkeit (possibility) and the old chestnut Ausländerfeindlichkeit (xenophobia).

10. Schildkröte (tortoise): I’ve sneaked this one in, not because I like it – I actually find it quite ugly – but because I can never remember the word and I hope to conquer it once and for all here.

I’m sure I’m not alone in enjoying foreign words. Anyone care to add to the German list or present some favourite words from other languages? I’m all ears!

10 things to love about Switzerland


I’ve been dwelling a lot lately on what I’m missing out on by not living in Ireland anymore so in the interests of positive energy I’ve put together a list of 10 wonderful things Switzerland has to offer.

1. The Alps: They take up almost two-thirds of the country’s landmass and play a big part in national consciousness and history. Whether you are sailing up in a chairlift over green meadows in a warm summer’s breeze, hiking over a glacier or swooping through a pine forest on skis, any visit to the Alps brings breath-taking moments where you just can’t get over the sheer beauty of it all.

2. Languages: For a language nut like myself, Switzerland is a fascinating mini Tower of Babel. I’ve enjoyed the challenge of cracking Swiss German, completely impenetrable the first time you hear it, even to Germans. Living in a town on the French-German language divide, there’s a lively mix of both cultures; people in my neighbourhood switch between the two languages effortlessly. How do you say hello in Switzerland’s fourth language, Romansh? Allegra!

3. Public Transport: Switzerland demonstrates what public transport should be. The service is frequent, reliable and synchronised, and can take you anywhere. Amazing that the Swiss still feel the need to have five million cars for eight million inhabitants.

4. Location, location, location: Imagine living in a place where in a couple of hours you could visit Germany, France, Italy or Austria. That place is Switzerland. Coming from an island on the edge of Europe, I still get a thrill when I stand in Zurich station and see destinations like Milan, Vienna, Warsaw and Prague on the timetable display.

5. Egalité: Go to an ice hockey match and you’ll see how strongly the Swiss feel about their local identity. People are very attached to their canton and recognise each other’s regional accents straight away. On the other hand there is no such thing as class-related accent and children of all backgrounds are educated side by side in state schools.

6. Built to last: Here’s something that amazes me. There are farmhouses in Switzerland still standing that were built in the 13th century. Not forts or castles but simple farmhouses. This surely is a sign of a great country. For more on that subject here’s a story I did about Switzerland’s oldest house in canton Schwyz:

7. Traditions: With a huge variety of traditional celebrations and rituals still thriving, Switzerland is all about continuity. Carnival is massive, people spend half the year preparing their costumes and rehearsing with bands. The things people celebrate here feel authentic. Instead of Santa Claus, children wait excitedly for a visit from St Nicholas in early December, a man dressed as a bishop who goes from house to house giving out nuts and chocolate.

8. Waterways: For many people water is about boating and fishing – for me it’s swimming. Switzerland has a wealth of beautiful clean, accessible lakes and rivers. The water warms up by mid-summer and you can walk in without getting a heart attack. The beaches are well kept and there are numerous public pools built on the lake and river shores. So far I’ve swum in a dozen different Swiss lakes, each experience unforgettable – dozens more to go!

9. Cheese: I’m completely hooked on the national cheese dishes raclette and fondue. These melted cheese meals are an institution here, part of the weekly menu all through the winter. I can’t decide which one I like the most so I just have to keep eating them both until I make up my mind.

10. People: One in five Swiss marries someone from outside the country. Like many foreigners in Switzerland, you may start off loving one Swiss person but for those of us who stay and make the effort, the rewards are great. The Swiss I now count as friends are fun-loving, kind and generous. They make me feel at home.

It’s been a good exercise for me to count my Swiss blessings. Have you ever done the same for your adopted home?

The fear of dying badly

Most journalists covering Swiss news will eventually be confronted with the issue of assisted suicide, legal in this country as long as the person helping does not benefit from the other’s death. This week assisted suicide organisations claimed that a state-funded research programme exploring the theme of death and dying was biased against their activities (a claim swiftly denied). I’ve written about this controversial subject before and it always makes me think, and wonder. Will this ever come close to home?

Last year I attended the World Right-to-Die conference in Zurich – as well as popping in to the protest counter-conference across the street, convened by a Canada-based pro-life & anti-euthanasia group. It was a long day. Around that time I also interviewed a woman who had helped her elderly mother pursue her wish to die.
You can read about that case here .

One speaker at the right-to-die conference made a strong impression on me and I grabbed a few minutes with him later in the hotel lobby. A palliative care doctor who looks after 300 terminally ill patients a year, he has more experience than most of the wishes of the dying. Up to 20 of his patients per year express the wish to avail of assisted suicide but only one or two of them actually see it through.

What makes a person who knows they will die soon want to intervene and end their own life? According to the doctor, there are two types of terminally ill people seeking assisted suicide. The first type is a strong willed, usually successful person who is used to controlling their own destiny. They reject the decline and suffering facing them and decide to end things on their own terms.

But for most people this doctor deals with, the main motivating factor is fear – fear of suffering and fear of being a burden to others. Terminally ill patients are not afraid of death, but of dying badly. They are terrified of dying in awful pain, gasping for breath – a fate that modern medicine can spare us. When this fear is taken away, by informing the patient about pain management and sedation on the one hand and reassuring them that professionals will be in place to care for them when the time comes, the suicide wish usually goes away too.

Assisted suicide now accounts for one in four Swiss suicides. Most of the people who go down this road are suffering from long-term rather than terminal illnesses. Suicide is usually carried out by taking a lethal dose of barbiturates procured with the help of an assisted suicide organisation.

As our population ages and excellent health care means people can live for much longer (but not necessarily well) with multiple illnesses, investing in the provision of good palliative care is one way to make sure assisted suicide remains a minority choice. But for those who decide they can’t take any more, there is comfort in knowing that there is a safe, humane and legal way out.