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).

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