Who needs the EU?

Not Switzerland, that's for sure. As other countries forge bonds, Jeremy Atiyah explores a land that likes to remain apart

I'm in Geneva, riding noiseless trams and looking at beautiful parks and expensive shops. Authoritative studies say that Switzerland is the world's best country to live in. But is it a happy place?

I'm in Geneva, riding noiseless trams and looking at beautiful parks and expensive shops. Authoritative studies say that Switzerland is the world's best country to live in. But is it a happy place?

The Swiss haven't always had it so good. They've had their wars. Two hundred years ago, their country was roughly equivalent to today's Afghanistan. No wonder Mary Shelley dreamt up Frankenstein's monster during her sojourn by Lake Geneva in the summer of 1816: the Swiss of old were not chocolatiers or bankers or clock-makers, but wild mountain warriors, fiercer than the Taliban.

Switzerland has evolved somewhat since then. Instead of belligerent mercenaries, it now has the Red Cross, the Olympic Association and much of the UN. It has top hotel-management schools and business schools. It has Fifa, Uefa and countless international sporting federations. Geneva alone has 32,000 international civil servants.

But what does this internationalism do for a country? Aren't the Swiss in danger of forgetting who they are? Switzerland deigned to become the 190th member of the UN in 2002, but it still looks down its Alpine nose at the EU. It fears economic migrants from countries such as Britain. And it has become so rigorously neutral that it seems to have lost any indigenous personality beyond a half-glimpsed memory of cows and cheese and yodelling milkmaids.

Well, that's an impression you can get. Right now, I'm in the windy old town of Geneva, where people scurry past with their collars up and their hats down. The buildings are dark and sombre. By the cathedral, I step into the Auditorium of Calvin, a cold chapel with walls of bare stone and lines of uncomfortable chairs. A grudging vase of flowers sits on the table. Geneva as a stronghold of Calvinism? That took plenty of character. This city is located approximately in France's kidney. Louis XIV later tried to kill it off. The most curious thing is that Protestant disdain for earthly riches subsequently transformed into the capitalism that filled Geneva with earthly riches. Bad luck John Calvin.

Hints that Switzerland was becoming a more cheerful place were already there in the summer of 1816, when Lord Byron turned up. He took the Villa Deodati as his lodgings - It is still one of the finest residences in Geneva, a mini-palace, commanding the leafy slopes of Cologny, with views over the lake towards Mont Blanc. All Byron and his friends lacked was some decent weather.

Meanwhile, in the present day, I ride a tram to Geneva's so-called International Quarter, to visit the Museum of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent. I spend two hours here learning about the principles of humanity, impartiality and neutrality that inspired the movement, and that have saved countless lives over the years. It is a humbling, sobering experience.

And when I later board the train to Lausanne, I am still wondering why, in our envious little hearts, we harbour such petulant feelings towards this civilised little country. Why do we prefer to make jokes about cuckoo clocks, rather than talking about the Red Cross? Why do we think we detect the foul whiff of Nazi collaboration in the fresh Alpine air? Why do we still suspect the Swiss of abetting international criminals via their secretive banking operations?

I see little justice in this, but then again, I am now being treated to an expensive lunch by a nice lady from the tourist office at the Lausanne Palace Hotel, which means tucking into perch fillets fished straight from the lake, along with a dandelion salad and a crisp white wine, while looking out over Lake Geneva's clean, blue waters stretching out mistily to the feet of the massive French Alps.

"Of course we have our own character and personality!" protests my hostess, when I politely express my reservations. And she proceeds to tell me that the Canton de Vaud (of which Lausanne is the capital) is a land not just for international sports federations, but also for people who eat sausage with leeks and potato mash, and speak a rustic French that makes Parisians giggle.

And don't I know what invariably happens to people the first time they arrive here by train from grey Zurich. (Never mind drab London or dreary Paris.) Yes! They emerge through the tunnel on the hills above Vevey, and at the first sight of the luminous green vineyards that surround them, and of Lake Geneva sparkling in the sunshine, and of the romantic castles and villages dotting its shores, they instantly throw their return tickets out of the window! "Isn't it the best of all worlds here?" she says, sweetly. "The corner of Europe that combines northern efficiency with southern vitality? We don't need to join the EU! We are the most European country there is!"

I have a funny feeling that she is right. If Switzerland didn't exist, Europe would have to invent it, as a theme park; a miniature (harmless) model of the continent; a blank space on the map on which to project our ideals; somewhere for our enemies to reside, in five-star hotels, without obliging us to make war on anyone.

Switzerland has never baulked at receiving Europe's most pestiferous travellers, albeit on the condition that they be wealthy and/or industrious individuals. French Huguenots were the first to arrive, escaping from Catholic France in the 16th century. During the 19th century, when the Alps began to take off as a recreational area, private railways arrived, followed in short order by British tourists in moustaches and plus fours. Political refugees have continued to arrive, ranging from Russians fleeing the Bolshevik takeover, right through to Greeks quitting Egyptian Alexandria after Suez.

Later, I stroll round the Lausanne Palace Hotel, looking for ghosts of tourists past. These giant hotels by the shores of Lake Geneva were the prototypes of five-star hotels the world over, designed for the benefit of those who had been evicted from their own palaces. I see giant chandeliers and decorated ceilings as high as the sky. I pass the dimly lit Bar du Palais, resembling the House of Lords, with its leather sofas and red baize walls. Later, in La Table du Palais, the Michelin-starred restaurant with its soaring windows and views over the city to the lake, I find two bejewelled ladies chatting. Each has her ornamental lapdog.

The curious European custom of living in grand Swiss hotels may have become outmoded as a result of the stock market crash of 1929 (not to mention that other unpleasantness, the Second World War), but it is by no means dead and buried. If our own Queen were overthrown, I would urge her to take rooms at the Beau Rivage: located in the lakeside suburb of Ouchy, it is right by the pier for boats from France (perfect for dignified royal arrivals). Ouchy, furthermore, has excellent British credentials. Lord Byron spent time here, in the neighbouring Hotel d'Angleterre. And the houses hereabouts belong only to the richest of the rich.

When I visit the Beau Rivage, its splendid gardens and terraces are almost empty. But this has been one of the world's top hotels for more than 130 years. In the rooms, I find original carpets, paintings and giant walk-in wardrobes. At least 10 families still live here on a permanent basis. And down in the garden, in a discreet flowerbed, is a poignant collection of headstones - for the pets of the hotel's residents. Here lies Toots (1889-1903); here lie Tosca, Binkie, Lumpi, Beppo, Billy.... Later I drop in on the hotel's Ball Room, with its dome and stained-glass windows and gilt friezes and cherubs. The dances here, I fear, are not what they were.

Next door to all this lounges the Olympic Museum, another mandatory stop for tourists to the lake, with its admirable anti-war message of internationalism and neutrality. But on the grounds that it says nothing to me of autochthonous Swiss culture, I decide to go to a chocolate shop instead.

This is more like it. The chocolatier is a man called Dan Durig who, oddly, comes from Cheshire. "The Swiss are the best people in the world to make chocolate for," he tells me, with a delighted look on his face. "They eat more per head than anybody else. They are the top of the market. They know what they are eating."

He shows me Madagascan and Ethiopian chocolates as he might show Merlots and Chardonnays. He produces bars of every degree of strength, ranging from pure milk to pure chocolate. We swill them round in the mouth, discussing the after-taste and the implications for health. (Cocoa butter, apparently, is good for cholesterol.) What could be more indigenous than this?

On the last morning, I take the train 20 minutes up the track to Montreux. It is a cold, quiet, misty day, with snowy peaks soaring straight up from the shores of the lake. If you care to buy an apartment here, you may need to learn the French word époustouflant (flabbergasting) before discussing the panoramas with your estate agent. The celebrities who have bought these views over the past 50 years include Charlie Chaplin, Vladimir Nabokov and Freddie Mercury.

I'm more interested, though, in jolly Lord Byron, who, with impeccable taste, beat them all to it by more than a century. His particular interest was in the Chateau de Chillon, down the road from Montreux. There it still is, guarding the pass between the mountains and the lake, rising from the water, a bizarre jumble of crumbling towers, turrets, freezing baronial halls and ancient vaulted dungeons.

As the first to arrive today, I take my chance to rush round alone, before the tour groups arrive. The waters lapping on the mossy walls of the keep are dark under black skies, but as clean and cold as the day of creation. I repress a Byronesque desire to leap into them.

On a column in the dungeon, I see Byron's name where he carved it 190 years ago. Through the open slits in the walls, I hear the cold wind blowing and the waters of the lake slapping on the buttresses. Even in the 21st century, it is hard not to follow Byron in taking the romantic view, and using the imagination (rather than facts) to construct this strange and beautiful country.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Return flights from London Heathrow to Geneva with Swiss (0845-601 0956; www.swiss.com) are from £75. British Airways (0870-850 9850; www.ba.com) also has return flights from Heathrow from £75. EasyJet (0871 7500 100; www.easyjet.com) offers return fares from London Gatwick from £50 and also flies from East Midlands, Liverpool and Luton.

Where to stay

The Hotel Beau Rivage, 13 Quai du Mont-Blanc (00 41 22 716 66 66; www.beau-rivage.ch) offers double rooms from about £205 per night with breakfast costing an extra £7.50.

For more information

Switzerland Tourism (00800 100 200 30; www.myswitzerland.com).

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
glastonbury
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Shock of the news: Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Nightcrawler’
filmReview: Gyllenhaal, in one of his finest performances, is funny, engaging and sinister all at once
Arts and Entertainment
Shelley Duvall stars in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining
filmCritic Kaleem Aftab picks his favourites for Halloween
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington has been given a huge pay rise to extend his contract as Jon Snow in Game of Thrones
tv
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
Taste the difference: Nell Frizzell tucks into a fry-up in Jesse's cafe in east London
food + drinkHow a bike accident left one woman living in a distorted world in which spices smell of old socks and muesli tastes like pork fat
Sport
Luke Shaw’s performance in the derby will be key to how his Manchester United side get on
footballBeating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Life and Style
Google's doodle celebrating Halloween 2014
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
filmThis Halloween, we ask what makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?
News
peopleFarage challenges 'liberally biased' comedians to 'call him a narcissist'
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales Manager - Commercial Cable & Wire - UK

    £60,000 - £75,000: Recruitment Genius: As a top tier supplier to the major Aer...

    ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

    Junior Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    Day In a Page

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes