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Switzerland has a rich history characterized by one word: independence. The peaceful land known today for its avoidance of foreign policy has been fiercely independent since its modern history began in the 1200s. Prior to that time, numerous people groups staked a claim to the land that is now Switzerland.
Celtic tribes were the first inhabitants of the region, with the Helvetii and Rhaetians being the most prominent. In 58 BC, Julius Caesar and his Roman army invaded the land and set up Aventicum as the capital. The Romans ruled until 400 AD, when the Germanic Alemanni tribes drove them out. The Burgundians joined the Alemanni, and together they controlled the land until the sixth century, when the Franks took over. The Frankish rule was short-lived, as Charlemagne’s empire was split in 870.
It was not until the rise of the Holy Roman Empire in 1032 that Switzerland was once again reunited. While technically under Roman rule, this period was a time when local noblemen had most of the power. The historic Swiss castles began dotting the land during this time as ruling families built their lavish estates. This lasted until 1273, when Habsburg’s Rudolph I became the Holy Roman Emperor. His requirements for heavy taxes led to resentment from the Swiss people, who were accustomed to being left alone. When Rudolph died in 1291, the local Swiss leaders pushed for independence.
According to tradition, the communities of Nidwalden, Uri and Schwyz met on the first of August in 1291 to sign a pact stating that they would not recognize any foreign ruler of the country. This is seen as the founding action for the Swiss Confederation, known at the time as Confoederatio Helvetica. It is from this Latin name that the CH abbreviation for Switzerland came to be.
This growing sense of nationalism was not popular among the rulers of the time, and in 1315 Duke Leopold took a stand against it by sending his Austrian army to Switzerland. To his surprise, the Swiss decidedly defeated his troops, which caused other communities in the area to join the Swiss union. Over the next 200 years, a serious of successful military wins and land grabs allows Switzerland to grow, eventually gaining independence when Maximilian I was the Holy Roman Emperor in 1499.
The Swiss continued to push for more and more land until in 1515, they lost to the French and Venetian forces after pushing their boundaries as far as Milan. This was when the country’s legendary policy of neutrality was established.
Neutrality served the Swiss people well when the Thirty Years’ War struck Europe in the 1500s. The Swiss were a blend of Protestant and Catholic people, and since they could not decide on a side to take in the war, they stayed out if it. In 1798 the French tried to invade the country and establish the Helvetic Republic, but they were met with much hostility and forced to retreat under Napoleon. In 1815, the Congress of Vienna’s peace treaty officially guaranteed independence and neutrality for Switzerland. They established a federal constitution in 1848, which was revised in 1874.
Throughout the 1900s, Switzerland was left relatively untouched by the various wars in Europe. Their neutral position allowed them to stay out of both World Wars, although they did help with Red Cross endeavors. As the modern world becomes increasingly violent, only time will tell how long this policy of peace and neutrality will remain in tact.
While Switzerland is one of the world’s wealthiest countries, outward manifestations of wealth are less common in Swiss culture. People tend to hide excessive wealth, choosing to live a middle-class lifestyle in public to remain discreet.
The Swiss people have a high level of respect for discretion and privacy, and this is seen in their interactions with others. Strangers do not typically speak to one another beyond a friendly greeting without an introduction from a mutual friend.
Switzerland is split into four linguistic regions that speak German, French, Italian and Romansh respectively. All four are national languages, although German, French and Italian are more prominent in the government. A majority of 64 percent of the people are native German speakers, with Swiss Standard German as the official written language.
Water is very prevalent in Switzerland. In fact, you are never more than 13 miles from a lake or river that is safe to swim in anywhere in the country. It is also home to Europe’s highest waterfall, the 2,450-foot long Murrenbachfall.
Switzerland is home to the longest glacier in the Alps mountain range, the Aletesch Glacier. It measures over 14 miles in length and is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Swiss people are the largest consumers of chocolate in the world, with the average individual eating 22 pounds of it each year.
- The Swiss Alps – Take a hike through one of Europe’s most famous mountain ranges. Consider taking a trip to see the Matterhorn, the country’s most famous peak.
- Chateau de Chillon – The most popular attraction in Montreux, the Chateau de Chillon is a picturesque 12th century castle set on the water and open for tours. The view alone is well worth a trip here.
- Rheinfall – Take some time to explore Rheinfall to experience a cruise on the Rhine or hike to the continent’s largest waterfall. The restaurants in Schloss Laufen are some of the country’s best.
- Lausanne – Lausanne is home to the Art Brut gallery and the Olympic museum, both of which make it an excellent spot to visit while in Switzerland.
- Zurich – Home to the best clubbing in the country, Zurich is not to be missed. While you are there, be sure to shop for some Swiss chocolate, and plan to spend a day on the lake.
- Geneva – Explore Swiss and European history in Geneva. The art galleries here are well worth the trip, and the city’s lakeside location provides natural attractions as well. While exploring Lake Geneva, stop by the Lavaux vineyards to sample some Swiss wine.
- Castles of Bellinzona –This group of three castles around the town of Bellinzona is rich in history and provide stunning views of the valley below.
- Lucerne – This historic old world town features picturesque bridges and a lake lined with mountains that is perfect for a cruise.
- Basel – Here history and modern art and architecture meet, with work by Herzog, de Meuron and Frank Gehry being prevalent.
- Bern – Travel to Einstein’s house, swim in the Aare or visit the bear pits all while visiting the community of Bern.
How to Get Cash
- ATMs are prevalent throughout the country, as Switzerland primarily relies on cash for money transactions. Most of the ATMs in Switzerland accept foreign cards, but they will issue the Swiss Franc.
- Credit cards are not widely accepted, but they may be accepted at hotels and upscale restaurants.
- If you travel to Switzerland from another European country, you will want to visit a bank or currency exchange to have your Euros transferred into Swiss Francs. While some businesses in major cities will accept the Euro, local vendors may not, so having Swiss Francs is essential. Also, if you do pay in Euros, your change will be in Francs based on the day’s current rate of exchange. Having Francs makes everything easier.
- Most major towns have a Western Union receiving agency. The charges for this service are based on the amount sent. They will be more expensive than the ATM, but they work great for an emergency.
- Switzerland welcomes all major traveler’s checks, preferring Visa, American Express or Thomas Cook.