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LIVING IN SWITZERLAND

Myth-busters: Five things about Switzerland you should not believe

From dodgy bankers to cuckoo clocks, William Tell to Swiss soldiers, Switzerland is a country where myths and stereotypes abound. We separate the facts from the fiction.

Myth-busters: Five things about Switzerland you should not believe
Nope, not 'made in Switzerland'. Image by Regina Basaran from Pixabay

When you think of Switzerland, you probably conjure up images of cheese, chocolate, Alps, cows, and watches. Add to this image the yodelling and Alphorn playing, and this somewhat idealised (but nevertheless true) picture of Switzerland is complete.

But at the same time, some common beliefs related to Switzerland are as full of holes as… Emmental cheese.

William Tell

Many people firmly believe that this folk hero and expert crossbow marksman who shot an apple off his son’s head, was a real figure who lived in Uri in the early 1500s.

Though he embodies the struggle for freedom and independence — principles that the Swiss hold dear to this day — there is no evidence that Tell actually existed.

Historians investigating the Tell legend didn’t find any evidence that such a person ever lived, or proof that anyone shot an apple off a boy’s head.

Among the arguments against Tell’s existence is that crossbows were not commonly used in the 14th century.

According to one history fact-checking site, “it seems that the origin of the story was in a myth that was popular in Europe, and which was adopted by the people of the Alpine Valleys. It later was used as a foundation myth, by successive Swiss governments, to explain the development of the Swiss Federation”.

Neutrality

Some people take it for granted that Switzerland has been a neutral nation, which didn’t get involved in other countries’ armed conflicts, since its official creation on August 1st, 1291.

However, in the Middle Ages, the country was a military power and its soldiers could be hired for money, fighting on the side of those who paid them the most.

That was long before the Swiss army knife was invented, and the soldiers went to the battlefields with a pike — a long thrusting spear that could inflict a lot of damage on the enemy. 

It wasn’t until 1815 that Switzerland’s “perpetual neutrality” was declared. Great powers of Europe decided that Switzerland would provide a convenient geographical buffer between quarrelling France and Austria, and its neutrality would be a stabilising  factor in an unstable region.

Just over 200 years later, in 1920, the newly created — appropriately enough, in Geneva — League of Nations, officially recognised Swiss neutrality.

READ MORE : Swiss history: When Switzerland was a nation of warriors

Wealth

A common belief is that Switzerland has always been a rich and prosperous country it is today.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

In centuries past, Switzerland was a pauper nation, where a large portion of the population in this landlocked, mountainous country with no natural resources, struggled to survive. Some people even ended up emigrating to South and North America to escape a life of poverty.

Many of those who did not go abroad moved from rural areas to the cities, where they continued to live in precarious conditions.

According to an official government document, “anyone who was not a citizen of a commune was homeless and lived on the margins of the community or was left to wander the country as a vagrant”.

Not exactly the image we have of Switzerland today.

READ MORE: Swiss history: The country was once so poor, people had to go abroad to survive

Banks

In many people’s minds, Switzerland’s financial institutions are synonymous with dirty money and illicit dealings.

As The Local previously reported, “such images are often perpetuated by Hollywood films,  in which shady characters invariably have a banker in Zurich — an equally shady individual with a thin moustache and a dark suit — who quietly stashes illegally begotten money in secret accounts”.

In reality, Swiss banks don’t quite live up to this notoriety. For instance,  there is no such thing these days as ‘anonymous’ accounts.

To open an account, you must have a valid ID like a passport, verification of your address, and a document to prove the money you are depositing comes from legitimate (i.e. non-criminal) sources.

In terms of banking secrecy, there is some truth to it:  in principle the banks can’t reveal your financial information to a third party.

However, there are some exceptions, as in order to prevent tax evasion, Switzerland has signed agreements with a number of countries to cooperate in exchange of financial information of their respective citizens.

So if you are a foreign national, the government of your country can request Switzerland to release your account(s) information and banks must comply.

READ MORE : Gold, secrecy and wealth: Six Swiss bank myths that need to be busted

Cuckoo clocks and lederhosen

A number of foreign tourists in Switzerland are looking to buy ‘Swiss’ cuckoo clocks, not realising that these clocks originally came from the Black Forest in Germany.

Now, however, many are manufactured in Asia; either way, very few, if any, are hatched in Switzerland.

By the same token, many foreigners associate lederhosen — short or knee-length leather breeches — with Switzerland.

Wrong again.

Maybe it’s because they confuse Switzerland with Austria and Germany (the three countries do look alike, especially in the dark), but whatever the reason, lederhosen is not a Swiss garb.

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DISCOVER SWITZERLAND

How to keep safe and avoid problems when hiking in the Swiss Alps

Switzerland is a perfect place to go hiking with its thousands of marked trails. However, hundreds of people get into accidents while trekking every year, and some die. Here is what you need to know to be safe.

How to keep safe and avoid problems when hiking in the Swiss Alps

The Swiss mountains are one of the country’s most notable and most visited sites. There are activities to enjoy during all seasons and hiking the Swiss Alps is something that people of all ages enjoy in the winter or summer months.

However, mountain rescuers are called every year to help people in emergencies. Last year, there were 1,525 cases of hikers in distress – a number higher than in any other type of sport. In 2021, there were only 500 emergency calls from skiers and 342 made by mountain bikers.

READ ALSO: Why getting rescued in the Swiss Alps could cost you thousands

Bruno Hasler, who is responsible for mountain emergency statistics at the Swiss Alpine Club SAC, says that many people overestimate themselves and that is dangerous. “The hikers need to be better informed. The authorities must inform people as well as possible about the dangers of mountain hiking”, he told public broadcaster SRF.

What are the main recommendations when hiking?

The first recommendation is to make a realistic self-assessment. Mountain hiking is an endurance sport and people planning on doing a trek should avoid time pressure and choose their trails and times well.

In that sense, it is essential to make careful route planning and evaluate the length, altitude, difficulty and current conditions (including weather forecast) of the trek. Thunderstorms, snow, wind and cold significantly increase the risk of accidents.

Don’t forget to plan alternative routes and keep emergency rescue numbers on hand (REGA 1414 and the european emergency number 112).

READ ALSO : Should you buy supplemental health insurance in Switzerland?

Take practical equipment for your hiking conditions and the proper footwear too. In a backpack, take as little as possible but as much as necessary, aiming to keep it light but full of valuable things such as sun protection, a first aid kit, rescue blanket, water and a mobile phone.

The most common cause of accidents is falling because of slipping or tripping, so be sure to walk on marked paths (reducing the risk of getting lost) and keep a sure foot and safe pace.

Don’t forget to take regular breaks not only for eating and drinking (necessary to maintain performance and concentration) but also to enjoy the landscape.

Be responsible for the children in the group, treks that require long-lasting concentration are not suitable for children and in passages with risk of falling, and one adult can only look after one child, according to the Swiss Alpine Club. Small groups are the best for hiking because they ensure mutual assistance and flexibility at the same time.

Rega on a rescue mission in the Swiss Alps. Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

The PACE checklist

The so-called PACE checklist helps hikers keep track of the most important things. PACE means plan, assess, consider, and evaluate, Swiss Alpine Club SAC says.

READ ALSO: Five beautiful Swiss villages located near Alpine lakes

Plan your route and duration and give yourself extra time and alternatives. Inform someone else about your trip. Assess if the hike is suitable for you, and do not undertake challenging trips yourself. Consider if you have what you need for the walk, like sturdy hiking shoes, protection against harsh weather and food and water supplies.

Finally, evaluate while hiking. See if you are too tired, keep eating, drinking and resting regularly and pay attention to the time you need and any changes in the weather. Do not leave the marked trail and turn back in time if necessary.

What to do in case of an accident?

If there are accidents during your hike, you should first provide life-saving help to anyone seriously injured and then call emergency services. Do not leave the wounded alone and do not put yourself at risk.

Mark the accident area clearly and give signals. The international emergency call sign consists of giving a sign (such as a flashing light or waving a cloth) six times a minute and then repeating it after one minute.

READ ALSO: Rega: What you need to know about Switzerland’s air rescue service

For helicopters, holding both your arms up (making a V shape) signals that you need help, while keeping one arm up and another down (forming a diagonal line with your arms) means you do not need help.

If you see animals, keep your distance and do not disturb them. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

What do I do if I see animals on my hike?

It’s common to find animals while hiking in the Swiss alps, especially cows in the pastures. A cow will protect their calves, so keep your distance. Do not touch the animals, and keep dogs on a leash.

Slowly and carefully move around at a distance and continue your trek.

You may occasionally find herds that dogs protect. It’s possible to inform yourself online in advance to find out where these herds are and avoid them. Still, remember that packs and their guardian dogs should be disturbed as little as possible. So stay calm and keep your distance – avoid any brisk movements.

If you are hiking with your dog, put it on a leash and slowly and calmly detour around the livestock.

If a guard dog barks and runs in your direction, try to stay calm and give the dog time to assess the situation. Stay far from the herd, don’t run or make sudden movements. You can use a stick to keep the dog at a distance by stretching them out, but don’t raise it or wave it around.

Once the dogs have accepted your presence and stopped barking, continue at a slow pace on your way.

Don’t forget: the Swiss rescue number is 1414 or you can also reach them using the European emergency number 112.

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