Difference between revisions of "Switzerland"
Revision as of 17:03, 6 November 2005
The climate is temperate, but varies with altitude. Switzerland has cold, cloudy, rainy/snowy winters and cool to warm, cloudy, humid summers with occasional showers.
Switzerland is known for its mountains (Alps in south, Jura in northwest) but it also has a central plateau of rolling hills, plains, and large lakes. The highest point is Dufourspitze at 4,634 m while Lake Maggiore is only 195 m above sea level.
Switzerland's independence and neutrality have long been honored by the major European powers and Switzerland was not involved in either of the two World Wars. The political and economic integration of Europe over the past half century, as well as Switzerland's role in many UN and international organizations has strengthened Switzerland's ties with its neighbors. However, the country did not officially become a UN member until 2002. Switzerland remains active in many UN and international organizations, but retains a strong commitment to neutrality.
France might have the real Magic Kingdom, but the true Disneyland of Europe belongs to the Swiss. Switzerland is a natural theme park showcasing three of Europe's most distinct cultures. To the north is the beer-drinking, sausage-eating stepchild of Germany; to the south-west the wine drinking and shopping spills effortlessly into France; in the south-east the sun warms cappuccino-sippers loitering in Italian-style plazas. And binding it all together is a distinct, and sometimes bizarre Swiss mentality.
Switzerland can be a glorious whirlwind trip whether you've packed your hiking boots, snowboard, or just a good book and a pair of sunglasses. A country that looks on a map like it could comfortably fit into a National Park, Switzerland packs into it a continent worth of natural wonders and a culture and history rich enough to provide five museums for every rainy day of the year.
Switzerland is a prosperous and stable modern market economy with low unemployment, a highly skilled labor force, and a per capita GDP larger than that of the big western European economies. The Swiss in recent years have brought their economic practices largely into conformity with the EU's to enhance their international competitiveness. Although the Swiss are not pursuing full EU membership in the near term, in 1999 Bern and Brussels signed agreements to further liberalize trade ties. They continue to discuss further areas for cooperation. Switzerland remains a safe haven for investors, because it has maintained a degree of bank secrecy and has kept up the franc's long-term external value. Reflecting the anemic economic conditions of Europe, GDP growth dropped in 2001 to about 0.8% and to about 0% in 2002.
No, there is no "Swiss Language" per se. Depending on where you are in the country (or what street you're on in some cities) the locals might speak Schwizerdüütsch, parler le Français, parlare Italiano, or be confusing everyone with a little-known language called Romansh, which is closely related to Latin. English and German are your best bets for general use, but with a mostly multi-lingual population, it shouldn't be hard to find someone who can talk your talk. German, French, Italian, and Romansh are the four official languages.
If you should speak some German, don't be surprised if you don't understand Schwizerdüütsch. There are a number of different Swiss German dialects, all of which are rather distinct. But don't be worried, all German Swiss speak and write standard ("High") German (with a more or less strong accent), too.
Major international airports are in Zurich, Geneva and Basel, with smaller airports in Lugano and Bern. Flying into nearby Milan (Italy), Lyon or even Paris (France) or Frankfurt (Germany) or Vienna (Austria) are other options though rather expensive and time-consuming (4h Milan-Zurich, 5h Paris-Bern) by train.
Trains arrive from all parts of Europe. Switzerland is together with Germany one of the most central-lying countries in Europe, making it a center of railways and highways to the rest of Europe. Some major routes include:
The Swiss will ruin you with fantastic transportation - swift, disturbingly punctual trains, clean buses, and a half dozen different kinds of mountain transport systems. The Swiss public transport system offers a multitude of discount options, from half fare cards to multi-day, multi-use tickets good for buses, boats, trains, and even bike rentals. In general there's at least one train or bus per hour on every route, on many routes trains and buses are running every 30 min. The bus network is an addition to the train network, there's no intercity bus network, but there are many scenic bus routes in the Alps. More information and all the timetables for Trains, Buses and Boats can be found at www.rail.ch.
Note with all trains and buses the "halbtax" option ('1/2' button on the machines) is only for people who have spent 150CHF on an annual half fare pass, or 99CHF for a month. Trains are all free of surcharge, a reservation is not required. There are two exceptions to this rule, the special trains: Bernina Express, running daily between Chur and Tirano and the Glacier Express running from St.Moritz to Zermatt.
Using the trains is quite easy, although the number of different kinds of trains can be a bit confusing unless you know that the schedules at a Swiss train station are color coded. The yellow sheet is for departures and the white sheet is for arrivals. Faster trains appear on both of these sheets in red, while the trains in black stop at more stations.
At the track, the signs indicate the destination and departure time. The small numbers and letters along the bottom show you where you can board the train. The letters indicate the zone you should stand in, and the numbers indicate the class. There are both smoking and non-smoking cars, and the class (1st or 2nd) is indicated by a "1" or "2" on the side of the car, these correspond with the numbers on the sign.
Luggage can be stowed above your seat or in between seats, or on a rack at the end of the car. During busy periods, people often stow large luggage (or skis) in the entrance area in between cars. This is usually fairly safe, but use common sense.
Information for railway freaks
In Switzerland nearly all railways run electrically. The only non-electric railway is the Brienzer Rothornbahn using steam traction. There are many interesting mountain railways of all types. In Switzerland most electric trains get their power from a single phase AC network. This network uses its own powerlines run with 66 kV and 132 kV, which have in opposite to normal powerlines a number of conductors not dividable by 3 (most powerlines for the single phase AC grid of the traction power grid have four conductors).
Driving on small mountain roads can be nerve-tearing if you come from a flat country. But beside this, swiss roads are in general safe and very well maintained.
Four tips for mountain roads:
For using the motorways you need to buy a "Vignette", a sticker costing 40.- CHF that allows you to use the motorways as much as you like for the entire year. Avoiding the motorways in order to save there 40.- is being greedy in the wrong place. These 40.- are well worth it, even if you are only on transit.
Speed limits: 120 km/h on motorways, 80 km/h on normal roads and 50 km/h inside villages. Whilst driving "a wee bit too fast" is common on motorways people tend to stick pretty closely to the other two limits. Fines are hefty and traffic rules are strictly enforced.
D.U.I.: 0.5 promille is the limit. We suggest not to drink and drive as you will lose your license for several months if you get caught. (And there will be a fine too.) Use public transportation instead.
Switzerland is a cyclists place! Veloland Schweiz has build up an extensive network of long distance cycle trails all across the country. Check their website for more details. http://www.cycling-in-switzerland.ch/ Cycling in cities is pretty safe, at least compared to other countries, and very common.
Switzerland is not part of the European Union and thus the Euro is not legal tender. However, many places - such as supermarkets and the railways - accept Euro and will give you change in Swiss Francs. Changing some money to Swiss Francs (CHF) is essential. Money can be exchanged at all train stations and most banks throughout the country. As the banking capital of the world, you can get by almost anywhere on credit cards (except for some grocery stores, even large ones) but ATMs that accept foreign cards (even Visa and Mastercard) can be a little harder to find than you'd think.
"Swiss-made": Souvenirs and Luxury Goods
Switzerland is famous for a few key goods: watches, chocolate, cheese, and Swiss Army knives.
Ski and tourist areas will sell the other kinds of touristy items - cowbells, clothing embroidered with white Edelweiss flowers, and Heidi-related stuff. Swiss people love cows in all shapes and sizes, and you can find cow-related goods everywhere, from stuffed toy cows to fake cow-hide jackets. If you have a generous souvenir budget, look for fine traditional handcrafted items such as hand-carved wooden figures in Brienz, and lace and fine linens in St. Gallen. If you have really deep pockets, or just wish you did, be sure to shop on Zürich's famed Bahnhofstrasse, one of the most exclusive shopping streets in the world.
Supermarket chains in Switzerland are not usually open on Sundays, except for stores located in or near major train stations. Some privately owned ethnic grocery stores may be open on Sundays.
For the "self catering":
As of March 2005, both cooperatives launched low-price-lines (Migros Budget and Coop Prix-Garantie). The German discounter, Aldi was also expected to start in Switzerland too.
Most tourist areas in Switzerland have a tourist office where you can call and have them book a hotel for you for a small fee. Each town usually has a comprehensive list of hotels on their web site, and it is often easiest to simply call down the list to make a reservation rather than try to book online. Many hotels will request that you fax or email them your credit card information in order to secure a reservation. In general, hotel staff are helpful and competent, and speak English quite well.
Hotel rates in Switzerland can get quite expensive, especially in popular ski resort areas.
There is also a hostel network in Switzerland for students.
In general, most Swiss localities have an official website with online booking for hotels and guesthouses of any class, within that locality. You'll find these listed in the External links section of the Wikitravel article for your destination.
If you don't know exactly in Switzerland you want to go and would just like to compare rates there are a few online booking agents which might be worth having a look at. Here are a selection.
Switzerland is not surprisingly one of the safest countries in Europe, but anywhere that attracts Rolex-wearing bankers and crowds of distracted tourists will also bring out a few pickpockets. Obviously, keep an eye on belongings, especially in the midst of summer crowds. In most cities the area around the train stations tend to be the seediest, and there is always some sort of 'red light district', though it may only be a block or two long.
Women travelling alone should have no problems, though the men in the Italian regions occasionally act a bit like, well, Italian men. The younger Swiss tend to be very open with public displays of affection - sometimes too open, and some women may find people getting too friendly especially in the wee hours of the club & bar scene. Usually the international language of brush-offs or just walking away is enough.
In mountain areas, be sure to inquire about weather conditions at the tourist information office or local train station as you head out in the morning. They should be well informed about severe weather conditions and will advise you about possible avalanche areas.
Learning the mother tongue of the area you will be staying in is a great sign of respect. English is widely spoken in Switzerland, but any attempt to speak the local language is always appreciated, even if you're replied to in English.
German, French, and Italian all have formal and informal forms of the word you, which changes the conjugation of verb you use, and sometimes phrases. For example, the informal phrase don't worry about it in French is ne t'en fais pas and the formal is ne vous en faites pas. The formal is used to show respect to someone who is older than you, who you consider to be a superior, someone who has a greater rank than you at work, or simply a stranger in the street. The informal is used with close friends, relatives, and peers.
As a general rule, you shouldn't use the informal with someone you don't know well, someone who is your superior in rank, or an elder.
Use the informal with your close friends and younger people. Peers can be a gray area, and it is advisable to use the formal at first until they ask you to use the informal.
Oh... and DON'T LITTER! It's not Singapore where you get fined for it but it's definitely seen as bad behaviour in this country.
Many of the internet cafes that have emerged in the 1990's have closed since, probably because Switzerland has one of the highest rate of high-speed internet connections in homes in the world, but almost any video rental shop and most train stations will have a few internet terminals. The tourist office should be able to direct you to the nearest one. The going rate is 5 CHF for 20 minutes. Also, you can send email, SMS (text messages to cell phones) or short text faxes from just about every public phone booth for less that 1 CHF. Some public phone booths allow you to browse the internet. There are many shopping centers and cities (Lausanne for example) that offer free wireless internet access: ask the young locals, maybe they know where to go.
If you stay for some time, it may be advisable to buy a pre-paid cell phone card that you can use in any phone that supports the GSM standard on the 900/1800 Mhz bands - they usually cost around 40 CHF and are obtainable in the shops of the mobile service providers Swisscom, Orange or Sunrise in most cities. Mobile network coverage is close to 100% by area, even in the mountainous, non-populated areas.