Capital City: Bern
Population: 8 million
Government: Multi-party federal democratic republic. Referenda are regularly used to debate changes in the constitution and even in the law. There is no single head of state, although there is a ceremonial president.
Currency: Swiss Franc (CHF)
Main Language: German, French and Italian.
Main Religions: Christian 82% (mixture of Catholic and Swiss Reformed), Islamic and Jewish minorities
Officially named the ‘Swiss Confederation,’ Switzerland is a landlocked, mountainous Central European country bordered by France, Italy, Germany, Austria and Liechtenstein. It is dominated by the Alps, with Zermattthe distinctively pointed Matterhorn mountain (4778m) being the most well-known landmark. The population of 8 million people are concentrated in and around the capital Bern, as well as the large cities of Geneva and Zurich. Switzerland operates a multi-party federal democratic republic government with a collective ‘head’ of state known as the Federal Council. Switzerland has for centuries been a neutral state, which means it cannot take part in armed conflict, unless it is attacked. Although it lies at the heart of Europe, Switzerland is not a member of the EU and Swiss-EU relations are based on a series of bilateral agreements, such as participation in the passport-free Schengen Area. It is also one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with investors and businesses using its banks as a safe haven from global financial crises.
Swiss culture can be hard to define and is largely dependent on its 26 separate ‘cantons’ (regions) and four official languages. Each canton enjoys permanent constitutional status and has a high degree of independence and powers over tax, public holidays and governance, with each having its own specific cultural norms. The diversity of Switzerland’s culture is further influenced by which side of the geographical linguistic border you happen to be on, French or German (a division known locally as ‘Röstigraben’ or ‘rösti ditch’ after the Swiss German potato dish). However, despite the rich individual cantonal culture, most people identify themselves as Swiss and are fiercely proud of their nation as a whole.
Understandably, considering the geography of the country, the Swiss are a nation of skiers and mountaineers. The most popular ski resorts are Vaud, Valais and Zermatt, the latter dominated by the Matterhorn mountain. Shooting, ice hockey and football are also hugely popular, as is Hornussen - a type of alpine baseball - which is a home-grown Swiss sport originating in the 16th century. Teams hit a ‘nouss’ (a type of puck) with a giant stick resembling a golf club called a ‘shingle’, as far as possible into the opposing team’s field. Away from the slopes and when the snow clears in the Spring, the mountains reveal a lush green landscape, often empty of the usual skiing crowd. A wide range of food, drink and joviality with German, French and Italian flavours are in constant supply in Switzerland for those who enjoy more down to earth fun.
Food and Drink
Swiss cuisine unsurprisingly comprises a blend of French, German and Italian influences. Cheese forms the base of many Swiss dishes and the country produces and exports over 100 varieties, including the ever-popular Gruyère. Traditional Swiss dishes include fondue, rustic bread dipped in cheese melted over an open flame and Papet Vadois a mash of leeks and potatoes found in the French-speaking western cantons. Polenta and braised beef, mainly found in the Italian-speaking canton Ticino, is made with cornmeal and slow cooked meat. Breakfast is usually bread and marmalade or birchermüesli, which is also eaten at lunchtime.
Being surrounded by France, Italy and Germany means that good wine is in abundance in Switzerland. However, you can find a number of excellent Swiss wines, particularly the white Fendant which is produced from the Chasselas grape variety in the Valais canton. Swiss beers such as the German-influenced Helles and the dark beer Dunkles are also immensely popular.
Switzerland has four official languages, French (spoken by 23% of the population), German (64%), Italian (8%) and Romansh (less than 1%). French is spoken almost exclusively in the west of the country, German in the east and Italian in the Ticino canton and the south of the Graubünden region. Romansch, a Latin-romance language is spoken only in Graubünden by a small minority of people. There is a popular misconception that a country with four languages means that its people are quadrilingual. In fact, most Swiss people speak the language of their own region and generally learn the other languages at school (however the cities of Bern, Fribourg, Biel and Valais are officially bilingual). English is widely spoken in Switzerland and used as lingual ‘bridge’ between the four official languages.
Accents and Dialects
With four official languages in one country, if you are fluent in one you may feel confident about your chances of understanding something! However, expats will find that the Swiss versions of each language may not be what they are used to. Many Swiss people admit to having trouble understanding people from other regions in Switzerland. For instance, Swiss German (known as schweizerdeutsch), is actually made up of a series of dialects which German people themselves have trouble understanding. However, most German-speaking Swiss also speak Hochdeutsch (‘High German’). On the other hand, Swiss French (Français de suisse) and Swiss Italian (Svizzero italiano) bear an overall resemblance to the standard French and Italian. Romansh speakers, of which there are around 50,000 to 70,000, are generally able to speak German, French or Italian (or all three).
Switzerland has an overall temperate climate which varies hugely according to region. The Alps act as the country’s ‘climate barrier’ with southern Switzerland seeing more Mediterranean weather than the glacial areas of northern Switzerland. Temperatures in winter can drop to around -10°C in more elevated areas and around -0°C in Zurich. Average summer temperatures range from 19°C to 28°C in areas closer to Italy.
Safety and Security
Switzerland is a safe country with relatively low crime rates in comparison with some European countries. However, theft and pickpocketing are a problem in larger cities, particularly in Geneva and Zurich, so it is a good idea to remain vigilant about personal belongings. Switzerland has one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the world and the Swiss are very serious about their right to own weapons. Nonetheless, the country sees very little gun-related crime and ownership is tightly regulated.