Switzerland: At the cutting edge of retail therapy

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The Independent Travel

In a country that has still not yet succumbed to the evils - or pleasures - of Sunday shopping, it might seem odd that the church can be held responsible for the development of Switzerland's retail industry.

In a country that has still not yet succumbed to the evils - or pleasures - of Sunday shopping, it might seem odd that the church can be held responsible for the development of Switzerland's retail industry. In the middle of the 16th century, the religious reformer, Jean Calvin, banned the wearing of jewels; as a result the country's goldsmiths and jewellers, forced to adapt and find a new craft, began making watches, first in Geneva, where Calvin was based, and later in the Jura mountains.

Watchmaking is now one of the country's most important industries, and stores selling watches abound on streets in every town and city in the country. From Audemars Piguet to Zenith, with Baume and Mercier, Rado and Swatch in between, there is plenty of choice for visitors wanting to take home a lasting souvenir, and a good place to buy them is at Bucherer, a discreet chain which makes its own timepieces and also sells the watches and jewellery of others. The flagship store is in Lucerne, at Schwanenplatz 5 (00 41 41 369 77 00; www.bucherer.com). It opens 8am-9pm on Mondays, 8.30am-9pm from Tuesday to Saturday, 9am-noon on Sundays; hours are shorter out of season.

Once you have found a watch you like - and among the more reasonably-priced is a range of Swatch watches only available in Switzerland - go up to the top floor to look at some of the other Swiss souvenirs. It is tempting to sneer at the idea of buying a cuckoo clock, but those made by Loetscher, the only genuinely Swiss brand, are real works of art, with the most ornate selling at around SFr2,500 (£1,100). A more modest version is available at SFr160 (£71). The clocks are carved out of linden wood, which is left to dry naturally for three years, in the village of Brienz, near Interlaken, before being assembled at a plant near Zurich. It's impossible not to admire the craftsmanship that has gone into them.

Another famous export is, of course, the Swiss army knife. Made by Victorinox, it was created more than 100 years ago by Carl Elsener, who began making knives as a way of providing employment in his home town of Schwyz. He produced a light-weight soldier's knife, which quickly became popular, and the range has gradually expanded to include more than a hundred models. The price for a basic knife is around SFr13 (£5.75). Victorinox is still family-run, and has a shop attached to its production facility at Schmiedgasse 57 in Schwyz (00 41 41 81 81 211; www.victorinox.ch) which stocks the full range. It opens 7.30am-midday and 1.15pm-6pm from Monday to Friday, and 8am-3pm on Saturdays. It is worth bearing in mind that knives are no longer sold at airports because of security concerns, and any that you do buy will need to be in taken home in checked baggage.

Despite this, shopping at Geneva or Zurich airports on your way home offers plenty of retail opportunities, and they are among few places open for shopping on Sundays. Others include a number of railway stations, all of which tend to be better equipped with shops than the average British version. Basel, Berne, Geneva, Lausanne, Lucerne, Winterthur and Zurich all have a Rail City ( www.railcity.ch) beneath their main concourse, whose shops remain open until 9pm daily. Expect to find a supermarket, with fresh as well as dried goods, clothing stores and electrical shops.

Shopping malls are not something the Swiss find attractive, although the Fox Town outlets ( www.foxtown.ch) have proved popular. Located in Zurich (open 9am-8pm from Monday to Friday, 8am-7pm on Saturdays), Villeneuve (open 11am-7pm from Monday to Friday, 10am-6pm on Saturdays) and Mendrisio on the Italian border (open 11am-7pm daily), each contains a good selection of factory stores, with brands that include Versace, Calvin Klein, Polo Ralph Lauren and Diesel. In 2008, the Westside Mall, designed by German architect Daniel Liebeskind, is scheduled to open just outside Berne, but for the moment shopping in the capital remains a combination of modern and medieval. The old centre of Berne consists of several kilometres of covered arcades. The main department store, Loeb (00 41 31 320 71 11; www.loeb.ch) is at Spitalgasse 47-57. It is open 9am-6.30pm from Monday to Friday, until 9pm on Thursdays, and 8am-4pm on Saturdays), and it is a good hunting ground for watches, Swiss army knives and chocolate.

However, if you are looking for foodstuffs in any city, the best place to search is in the nearest branch of Migros, Switzerland's largest supermarket chain. Products worth buying to take home include packets of fondue mix and slices of raclette cheese; mountain honey; sausages and cured meats from the Ticino.

Swiss wine is also a good buy at any supermarket, although if you want a real choice, try a specialist such as Münsterkellerei at Kramgasse 45 (00 41 31 312 17 17; www.muensterkellerei.ch) in Berne, which has wines from all over the world, including an extensive choice of wines and spirits from Switzerland, starting at SFr8.50 (£3.75) a bottle.

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