FOR 700 years Switzerland has remained resolutely and happily an anomaly. The country of just 7.7 million people, landlocked and bordered by Austria, France, Italy, Germany and Liechtenstein has ploughed its implacably republican furrow while viewing the maelstrom around with superior indifference.
The Swiss swiftly spotted the Hapsburgs’ potential for making trouble and gave them and their pompously styled Holy Roman Empire the elbow in 1499.
And with some prescience: the Swiss-born family managed to keep Europe in a state of perpetual turmoil until the early 20th century. Thus, while others in Euope engaged in dynastic squabbling on every side the Swiss devoted themselves to building an economy that is the envy of its EU neighbours and did not officially become a UN member until 2002.
Avowedly non-euro, Switzerland has maintained the franc’s long-term external value. Unemployment is less than half the EU average and Switzerland is by far the largest offshore banking centre in the world, a dominance acquired through a tradition of economic, financial and political stability. The country’s bankers are justifiably famous for portfolio management and providing a wide array of services such as estate planning, wealth management, trust companies, gold numismatics, derivatives and confidential brokerage accounts – upheld by a legal system which is extremely strict about any breach of commercial confidentiality.
This confidentiality is, of course, controlled and patrolled by the wraith-like ‘gnomes of Zurich’ – the semi-mythical, ultra-secretive and immensely powerful businessmen who Harold Wilson famously blamed in the 1960s for pushing down the value of sterling through speculating.
All this eff iciency is underpinned by a transport infrastructure that would make the average central Scottish commuter weep. Basel, the gateway to Switzerland has the EuroAirport Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg just 3km beyond the city limits while the Rhine harbours in Basel represent one of the most important inland harbours in Europe. The region is also a key hub linking the French, Swiss and German railway networks. with international express trains, intercity services and regional urban routes coming together and the German, French and Swiss motorway systems link up in the city.
Here is a small example of how Swiss transport works in practice. On a visit in August, the journey from the Alpine village of Saas Fee near the Italian border to Zurich Airport took four hours. It began by post bus, and involved a change of train in Bern.
When Heidi, the extremely efficient lady who had booked the trip told me I had ten minutes to make the train transfer my disbelief was clearly evident. “It’s fine, you’ll make it,”she said confidently. The bus was on time and as the train pulled into Bern it was less than one minute late, allowing a leisurely stroll to the next platform. In fact, the only delay of the day was the 45-minute crawl along the M8 into Glasgow.
Saas Fee itself, a blossoming ski resort is the picture postcard side of Switzerland. There are 14 peaks of more than 4000m visible from the village, including the Dom, at 4545m the highest peak in in the country, towering to a slim, tapering pyramid above the hotel room balcony, where even in high summer you can watch the dramatic shift of clouds on the high Alpine snowfields.
Below, but still at 1800 metres, it’s 30 degrees in the sunshine as the Feegletscher (glacier) creeps down the valley.
Saas Fee’s introduction to the 20th century was sudden. Though the Dom Hotel threw its larchwood doors open to wealthy adventurers – most of them British – in 1890 it wasn’t until 1951 that the first paved road, precariously hugging the valley sides, snaked and looped up to the village.
Despite the evidence of much commercial development, unlike us who throw up anonymous concrete shacks, the village cleverly conforms to strict rules that dictate pitched roofs and timbered facades.
Like many other things the Swiss keep the best to themselves. The wine, for example, is a revelation and also an unsung business success. Only 1% of wine from the Valais region is exported, but with 10,000 small wine makers and 50 grape varieties there’s no shortage of choice. Look beyond the pleasant but bland Fendant to Heida, made in the little terraced vineyards between Visp and Visperterminen, the highest wineries in Europe.
It’s delicious irony that while others are rushing headlong into the bureaucratic fold of Brussels, in Switzerland, at the very heart of the continent they greet you with “salut”, thank you with “merci”, leave with “ciao” and speak German in between.
That said the country’s traditional cosmopolitan outlook is being tempered with a growing undercurrent of resentment about immigratation, which resulted in a September referendum that gave Switzerland some of the strictest asylum rules in Europe. Maybe the Swiss are not so different from the rest of us after all.
Simultaneous lightning strikes in Zurich during June this year