From anarchy to onion heads: The Local’s A–Z guide to essential Swiss culture
From the sublime to the ridiculous and back to the sublime again, we take a tour through the wonderfully weird world of Swiss culture. Read on for more.
Anarchy might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of orderly Switzerland, so it might come as a surprise to learn the cradle of this political philosophy can be found in the watch-making valleys of French-speaking Switzerland.
In fact, the pro-workers' rights and anti-state craftsmen of the Swiss Jura Federation, led by the anarchist leader Mikhail Bakunin, were hugely important to the movement.
When the anarchists split with Karl Marx in 1872, it was the Swiss Jura Federation that called for the creation of a new anarchist organization, and the St. Imier Congress that year cemented Switzerland’s little-known place in the history of anarchism.
The aggressively-umlauted Böögg is the centrepiece of one of Switzerland’s stranger festivals: the Sechseläuten.
Held on the third Monday of April, the festival marking the traditional return to summer working hours in the city culminates in the burning of a giant snowman (yes, the Böögg) at 6pm on the dot.
How many umlauts can you get into one word? The Böögg burns. Photo: AFP
According to tradition, the quicker the Böögg’s head explodes, the better the summer’s weather will be. In 2018, his head took over 20 minutes to explode which should have meant a completely rubbish summer. Goes to show you can’t always trust a burning snowman.
Very nice, but not Swiss, as Swiss people are quick to tell you. The general theory is that they come from the Black Forest area of Southern Germany. To be fair, you will probably see plenty of carved wood in Switzerland too.
Where would the world be without the song ‘Chihuahua’ by Peter René Baumann, otherwise known as DJ Bobo? The Swiss musician may not be everyone’s cup of tea but he has sold like, literally, billions (OK – it's millions) of records and even represented Switzerland at Eurovision in 2007 with the song Vampires are Alive.
Caution: the video below is NSFW.
Yes, he was born in Germany and died in the United States but Einstein studied and worked in Switzerland (perhaps most famously at the Swiss Patent Office). He also held Swiss citizenship from 1901 until his death in 1955.
Einstein is also one of a large group of intellectuals and artists who – for spiritual, practical or political reasons – made a home in Switzerland, if only for a period. Other famous members of this group include James Joyce, Herman Hesse and even Vladimir Lenin.
Like many of its neighbours, Switzerland lets its hair down for the pre-Lent season of Carnival, although its most famous event – the Basel Carnival – is highly unusual in that it is a protestant affair. The so-called Morgestraich parade which kicks off the UNESCO-recognised festival is one of Switzerland’s truly special events.
Swiss artist H.R. Giger is best known for designing the horrific creatures in the Alien movies and there is even an Alien-themed Giger bar in the surrealist’s home town of Chur in Graubünden. He received numerous honours with the strangest being that in July 2018 a minor planet was named after him: 109712 Giger.
Heidi is perhaps the most famous Swiss literary creation, although William Tell comes a close second. The novel by the author Johanna Spyri tells the tale of the orphan Heidi who goes to live with her grumpy but lovable grandfather in the Alps in eastern Switzerland and makes friends with Peter the goatherd.
The story has been filmed (or turned into a cartoon) on many occasions, with version including a Shirley Temple star vehicle and a Japanese anime series.
Busloads of tourists now visit the ‘Heidiland’ tourist area for a dose of Alpine kitsch. The Marché Heidiland motorway restaurant is also a surprising good place to eat, as this author can testify.
Interlaken is Switzerland on steroids – an Alpine adventure playground for backpackers and amped-up adrenaline junkies. It is also spectacularly located in the Bernese Oberland with unforgettable views of the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau.
While Interlaken might not be your cup of tea, it is what many people think of when they imagine Switzerland and for this reason alone, it makes it onto our list (also, we couldn't think of anything else starting with 'I').
Renaissance man Carl Jung was a genius, if a little loopy. Taken under the wing of Sigmund Freud, the Swiss psychiatrist was seen by the Austrian as a possible successor. But the two men fell out, with Freud seeing the younger man as a threat.
Jung went on to develop hugely influential concepts including introversion and extraversion and the collective unconscious. His theories underpin a lot of dream analysis.
Swiss hair band Krokus may be a footnote in international musical terms but the band was big news for Switzerland, clocking up singles that hit the top 100 (and higher) in the UK and the US during the height of their popularity in the 1980s.
Formed in 1976, the band has by now had so many members that meeting a Swiss person who hasn’t been in the group is quite an achievement. Bandana-sporting front man Chris von Rohr – a regular on Swiss television and a walking catchphrase – has quit the band too many times to mention.
Love his work, or hate it, the designs of architect and urban planner Le Corbusier have been hugely influential in modern architecture. To give just one example, Le Corbusier, who grew up in the watch-making town of La Chaux-de-Fonds just near the French border, was a key influence on Lúcio Costa who designed the Brazilian capital Brasilia.
Singer-songwriter Mani Matter has a special place in both the history of modern Swiss music and Swiss German dialect (or Mundart, as it also known). He is sometimes called the Swiss Bob Dylan, which makes him sound somewhat derivative. But that’s not fair to the troubadour at all. He was very much his own man and remains much-loved for his clever and humorous lyrics and his distinctive take on the world.
Nyon's Paléo Festival
The massively popular Paléo Festival on the shores of Lake Geneva this year featured acts including Depeche Mode, The Killers, Gorillaz and Lenny Kravitz.
It’s one of a huge number of Swiss music festivals that take place through the summer – ranging from classical to jazz (think Montreux) and even Irish folk.
O is for oaths
Switzerland began with an oath, or so the story (now largely discounted by historians) goes. But the founding myth – which has it that the Swiss nation began in 1291 when three men representing what are now the Swiss cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden swore an oath of allegiance against the Hapsburgs on a meadow on the shores of Lake Lucerne – remains a key part of Switzerland’s conception of itself.
Read also: 20 key dates in Swiss history
In fact, the official name of Switzerland in German is the 'Schweizerische Eidgenossenschaft', which means something like the Swiss fellowship of the oath.
What could be more Swiss than a yellow post bus blowing its distinctive three-note horn as it makes its way over an alpine pass? When the state company is not busy collecting illegal subsidies, it is a cherished institution, especially by kids who learn to copy the noise horn before they can even speak (or almost).
Perhaps the most important division in Switzerland is the invisible language and culture barrier known as the Röstigraben, or Rösti Trench, which runs between the French-speaking and German-speaking part of the country.
Named after the typically Swiss German potato dish rösti, this rift symbolises the supposed deep divisions and mutual incomprehension between the two largest groups in the country.
You might also hear mention of the Polentagraben (polenta trench) which runs around the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino.
Schwingen or 'lutte Suisse' is the Swiss art of wrestling. Requiring strength and athletic ability, it is very popular with national competitions attracting thousands. The winner is called the ‘Schwingerkönig’ or the Swinger king, which is not nearly as naughty as it sounds.
Train station restaurants
While they may be a dying breed, Swiss train station restaurants offer a unique insight into the country. The best examples are deep in the provinces and the best time to visit is while you are waiting hours for the next train. There is something about the fading postcards, yawning staff and ticking clocks that is so quintessentially Swiss you are going to wish you could bottle it and take it home. Or not.
More Swiss than a day at a watch factory, the Unspunnenfest, which is held only every dozen years or so, is a showcase of traditional music and sport, with stone tossing playing an integral role.
The stone in question (if stone is the right word for something so heavy) is an 83.5 kilogram granite rock. In a great example of ‘Only in Switzerland’ theatre, the stone, which had been used since 1808, was taken hostage by an independence group from the Jura region of Switzerland back in 1984. A new stone of similar weight was found but the 1808 stone then re-emerged only to be stolen again in 2005 and it remains MIA.
A competitor prepares to toss the Unspunnen stone in 2016. Photo: AFP
If you happen to spot a large, heavy stone engraved with the 12 stars of the European Union, please return it to the Unspunnenfest organisers.
In Switzerland, you are no one if you don’t belong to a Verein (or club). Whether your thing is old tractors, medieval battle re-enactments or talking about your good old days as a ship’s captain, there is a club for you.
More seriously, Swiss clubs are a great place to meet people, make friends and forge business connections but most of all they are a great excuse to put out some trestle tables, fire up a barbecue and have a beer.
Another founding myth of Switzerland, but also one that is unlikely to be true (see ‘Oaths’ above), the story of William Tell is part of the Swiss identity.
Then there's this overture...
In the most famous version of the story – which demonstrates how the Swiss stood up to foreign powers – Tell refused to bow before a pole where the Hapsburg overlord Gessler had place his hat. Tell was then offered a choice: be executed or shoot an apple off his son’s head using his crossbow.
After pulling off the amazing shot, Tell was imprisoned. But to cut a long story short, he eventually killed Gessler. Moral of the story: the good guys always win, especially if they are Swiss.
One of the first things many foreign tourists to Switzerland hear is the bizarre snippet of yodelling on the transit train that runs from Zurich Airport terminals A to E.
While this might be the only actual yodelling most people clap ears on while they are in Switzerland, this Alpine musical form is still very popular and there are many clubs all over the country (see the entry on 'vereins' above). It is also surprisingly popular in Japan as the video below shows.
A procession of people dressed in Onion Head costumes, market stalls packed with tonnes of onions, onion quiche, onion soup…well you get the picture.
One of Switzerland’s best-known festivals is November’s Zibelemärit (or Onion Market) in Bern’s stunning Unesco World Heritage old town. An event with hundreds of years of history, it’s well worth a visit even if you-know-whats are not really your thing.