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Five Swiss folk festivals you just have to visit this summer

If you live in Switzerland it’s essential to get to know its culture and customs – and visiting one of its fabulously entertaining folk festivals is a great way to do that. Here we pick out five of the best traditional Swiss events taking place this summer. Alphorns at the ready...

Five Swiss folk festivals you just have to visit this summer
Photo: Christof Sonderegger/Swiss Tourism
National Yodelling Festival, Brig, June 22nd-25th
 
Photo: Jodlerfest
 
Where can you see 15,000 yodellers in one place this summer? In Brig-Glis, that’s where. Held in a different place every year, the Jodlerfest returns to the Valais town 30 years after it hosted the festival’s very first edition. Expect crowds of up to 150,000 to descend on the festival ground to see not only yodelling (though there is plenty) but also flag-throwing, alphorn playing and traditional costumes, essential elements of any Swiss folk festival worth its salt. One highlight is the parade on the Sunday.
 
Valais Alphorn Festival, Nendaz, July 21st-23rd
 
Photo: Alphorn Festival
 
A celebration of the alphorn – a kind of Swiss didgeridoo dating from the 16th century – this festival brings together alphorn players from all over the country and elsewhere in the Alps to play to spectators and compete in an official competition. There’s also flag-waving, Swiss wrestling, parades and other traditional entertainment over the course of one weekend.
 
 
Photo: CIME
 
Held every two years, this local festival in the Valais village of Evolène is a celebration of mountain culture that aims to both safeguard local traditions and promote cultural exchange with others. Expect lots of colourful costumes, parades, dance and music performances from both locals and invited guests from other mountain cultures around the world — previous groups have come from India and Uzbekistan, for example.
 
But there's plenty of Swissness too. This year's event is preceded by the Cantonal Costume Festival on August 9th, where 1,000 people from 40 Valais societies will show off their traditional outfits in a parade.
 
Folklore Festival, Zermatt, August 13th 
 
Photo: Zermatt Tourism
 
The centrepiece of this free event is a large parade down Zermatt’s main street featuring dancers and musicians in traditional dress. Start the day with a yodel in the village church at 10.30am before enjoying the food, drink and entertainment in the streets. 
 
Unspunnen, Interlaken, Aug 26th-Sep 3rd 
 
Photo: Unspunnen Festival
 
This year’s unmissable event is this quintessentially Swiss festival held only once every 12 years. Dating back to 1805, it’s now believed to be the world’s largest folklore gathering, attracting some 150,000 spectators to the Höhematte meadow to see events including Schwingen (Swiss wrestling), alpine folk music, flag-throwing, Hornussen and stone-throwing. 
 
The namesake Unspunnen stone is an 83kg boulder traditionally used in the festival’s stone- throwing competition, but its whereabouts are currently unknown after it was stolen (for the second time) in 2005 from an exhibition in an Interlaken hotel. Jura separatists, who stole it the first time back in 1984, are believed to be responsible again.
 
However there doesn’t seem to be any bad blood. “The ‘perpetrators’ are also assured a warm welcome to Interlaken,” say festival organizers. “If you happen to drop by with the stone before the event starts, the president of the organizing committee will open a bottle of good wine so that you can both toast to a successful festival.”
 
Now in its tenth edition, it is being held across two weekends for the first time in its long history.
 
 

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CULTURE

Why is everything in Switzerland closed on Sundays – and what can you do instead?

Sunday is a traditional day of rest in Switzerland and much of the country pretty much shuts down. This is why, and what you can do instead.

Why is everything in Switzerland closed on Sundays - and what can you do instead?

If you come from a country with a 24/7 retail culture — the United States, the UK, and Australia, to mention just a few —  then Switzerland’s limited shopping hours will come as a shock and disappointment.

Logic would have it that if people have a day off work on Sunday, they might want to use it to shop — either to stock up on groceries and other basic necessities for the whole week, or just indulge in some relaxing ‘retail therapy’.

If this is your thing, then Switzerland is definitely not for you.

Swiss businesses — including shops — can open from Monday to Friday between 6am and 9pm, and on Saturdays until 6pm.  However, even within these parameters, it is rare to find a store that stays open until 9pm.

Why is this?

Historically, the reason in this Christian country was that Sunday should be a day of worship, not work.

With time, however, the religious aspect has diminished, as has church attendance: studies show that the number of people who belong to the Catholic and Swiss Reformed churches has continued to fall in Switzerland.

Also, trade unions have stepped up their campaign against Sunday shop openings on the grounds that they prevent retail personnel from enjoying a day of rest spent with their families.

For instance, Switzerland’s largest labour group, the Swiss Federation of Trade Unions (UNIA), argues that “it is not acceptable to subject humans to the pursuit of profit by forcing them to work 7 days a week in sectors where it is not essential”.

READ MORE: Everything foreigners need to know about trade unions in Switzerland

The work-life balance for retail workers has had a strong support of most Swiss consumers as well. Time and again the issue of Sunday shop openings is brought to the ballot box in various cantons and municipalities, and rejected by voters.

For this very same reason, Switzerland’s employment law generally prohibits the employment of staff on Sundays, with a few exceptions (see below).

A number of readers of The Local had weighed in on this issue as well:

Your views: ‘No Sunday shopping is one of the best things about Zurich’

Is everything closed on Sundays? What if I have to buy a loaf of bread or an unusually large amount of cheese?

Don’t worry, you won’t have to starve.

The law allows certain retailers to stay open on Sundays — for instance, small ‘convenience’ shops at petrol and train stations. Stores are also open at airports (even though there are only three in Switzerland) and in some tourist spots in the mountains.

Keep in mind that these are likely to be more expensive than Swiss supermarkets, so plan ahead and only buy items which are absolutely essential. 

Cost of living: How to save on groceries in Switzerland

Some larger stores will also be allowed to open in the run up to Christmas. 

If you find your cupboards are bare on a Sunday, you can still eat out. 

Many bakeries are open on Sunday mornings, are as coffee shops, tea rooms and restaurants.

So while it seems that life in Switzerland comes to a standstill on Sundays, it doesn’t completely. 

There are, however, limits to what you can (and can’t) do

As The Local has reported on several occasions, Sundays are special days in Switzerland, and not just because of the no-shopping rule.

In Switzerland, Sundays are considered rest days, so your neighbours’ peace and quiet should not be disrupted by any loud sound — such as  a lawn mower, hedge cutter, nail being hammered into a wall, or even the sound of glass bottles being tossed into a communal recycling bin.

Also, you cannot hang your laundry out to dry, as the sight of your undies may be offensive to your neighbours on a Sunday.

And you thought shop closures were your biggest problem. 

READ MORE: Nine ways you might be annoying your neighbours (and not realising it) in Switzerland

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