A wit once proclaimed that if Switzerland were ironed, it would be quite a large country. Yet in spite of being relatively small (16,000 square miles), Switzerland is so famous for its mountains, predominantly in the southern half of the country, that there are “Little Switzerlands” all over the world: from North Carolina and the Drakensbergs of South Africa to Luxembourg and even Folkestone, Kent! The iconic Matterhorn too has “lookalikes” in many mountain ranges. Although Switzerland has 26 cantons (or districts) the most mountainous is Valais, including many of the most famous Swiss ski resorts. Berne and Graubünden also have some of the highest peaks in the Swiss Alps.
As recently as the 1700s, many Swiss farmers, in common with their counterparts elsewhere in the Alps, actually feared the mountains and were reluctant to get any closer to the summits than necessary. Apart from the dangers of falling over precipitous footpaths, some imagined the uppermost peaks to be inhabited by demons, dragons, witches and trolls. Some visiting travellers had similar fears. So it was in no small way thanks to the British and their love affair with the Alps, that this kind of superstition began to die out, and ironically it was often the Swiss mountain farmers – no longer afraid of supernatural forces - who ended up being mountain guides. The British Alpinist Arnold Lunn once said: “We may fairly claim that we inspired the Swiss not only to climb their own mountains but also to race down them on the ski.”
Indeed, British mountaineers and skiers have long had a special relationship with Switzerland. The British climber Edward Whymper was the first to climb Zermatt’s Matterhorn. Wengen and Mürren all played important roles in early British ski racing. The first world ski championships were held in Mürren in 1931 and St. Moritz in 1934. St Moritz also hosted the Winter Olympics in 1934 (before alpine events had been included) and again in 1948.
Flying into either Geneva or Zurich opens up a railway network to a galaxy of Swiss resorts - the efficiency and comfort of the Swiss railway system is second to none. Along with Crans-Montana, Verbier (with its ‘4 Vallées’), St Moritz (home of the bobsleigh), Davos and Klosters, and the Jungfrau resorts of Grindelwald, Wengen and Mürren (famous for the magnificent Eiger) these resorts are all well-known to British visitors.
Valais alone is home to 41 ski resorts, including Zermatt, Verbier, Saas-Fee (with the highest mountain entirely in Switzerland, the Dom), and a handful of resorts in the vast Portes du Soleil region. Four languages are spoken: Swiss German (the main language) plus French (the country’s second most widely spoken language) followed by Italian and a much smaller pocket of Romansch speakers. Most inhabitants speak at least one other Swiss language apart from their own, and many also speak English.
This diverse cultural background influences Swiss cuisine – there is even a joke that when you travel from French-speaking Swiss ski resorts to German-speaking areas, you will cross an imaginary “rösti” (hash browns) border. Switzerland is famous for its dairy products and dishes such as fondue and raclette are very much cheese-based: Gruyère and Emmental are classic Swiss products. So too are Pirmin Zurbriggen and Didier Cuche - among the most successful Swiss skiers!