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Switzerland consists of a lowland area (the Mittelland or Middle Country) between the mountain barriers of the Alps, and the Jura. Both of these arose in the Tertiary Era, 65 million years ago.

The Swiss Alps

The Alps cover three-fifths of Helvetian territory, making Switzerland the second most Alpine country in Europe after Austria. Apart from the part of the Grisons to the east of the Hinterrhein Valley—a high valley like the Engadine, which, with its extra continental climate, is more typical of central Europe —the Swiss Alps, like the French ones, belong to the western Alpine group: the steepest and most contorted chain, and therefore, the most affected by erosion.

The culmination of this world of lakes and glaciers is Mount Rosa (at the Dufour Peak: 4 634m/15 203ft), although the Sankt Gotthard Massif (Pizzo Rotondo: 3 192m/10 473ft), which may be called the “water tower“ of Europe, represents the keystone of the whole structure.

Any motorist crossing a pass like the Sankt Gotthard is made aware of the sharp contrast between the relatively gentle slopes of the north face and the sudden descent which occurs on the south.

In the longitudinal direction, the remarkable depression which slashes through the mountains from Martigny to Chur and is drained in opposite directions by the Rhône and the Vorderrhein, forms a great strategic and tourist freeway.


The Swiss Alps comprise about 2 000sq km/772sq mi of glaciers. Most typical are the valley glaciers, of which the Aletsch Glacieris the most extensive in Europe (169sq km/65sq mi).

Moving downstream, a névé ( Firn in German), or snowfield, in which snow accumulates and is compacted into ice, is succeeded by a slowly moving ice tongue ( Gletscher in German), or glacier, traversed by a close network of crevasses. Breaks or ‘steps‘ in the downward slope, which in the case of a torrent would form cascades or rapids, are marked by unstable masses of ice( séracs ).

Moraines are accumulations of rocky debris brought down by the glacier. They often soil the whiteness of its tongue of ice and sometimes mask it completely, as at the Steingletscher . Once they halt they form characteristic embankments, known as lateral moraines.

About 1 000 years ago, the predecessors of present glaciers completely filled in the depression between the Jura and the Alps, reaching gigantic proportions. The Rhône Glacier, in what is now the Valais, was at least 1 500m/5 000ft thick. As glaciers withdrew, they created the rocky bars or bolts obstructing certain valley floors, as well as tributary hanging valleys , described as scoops because of their U-shaped cross-sections. When the ice disappeared, the new river flow began to soften these contrasts. Connecting gorges then made deeper cuts through the bolts, as in the Aareschlucht, or connected valleys, as in the Trient Gorges.

Alpine torrents were not only destructive, they also built up obstacles in the form of cones of rubble . The largest example in Switzerland is the cone of lllgraben as seen from Leuk.

Alpine Vegetation

Vegetation is closely bound to climatic and soil conditions as well as altitude and the degree of exposure to prevailing winds and sun. Above the agricultural land, which extends to about 1 500m/4 921ft, is the zone dominated by coniferous forest. At 2 200m/7 218ft this makes way for mountain pasture (alpe) where sturdy, short-stemmed species, bilberry and Alpine flowers grow. At 3 000m/9 842ft, the mineral zone, moss and lichen cling to the rock faces of an otherwise desolate landscape.


These are the most familiar types of conifers in the Swiss Alps.

Norway spruce

In French: épicéa ; in German: Fichte ;in Italian: abete rosso. Found on north-facing slopes, it has a slim, pointed crest and a generally “hairy” appearance, with branches curled like a spaniel’s tail. The reddish bark becomes very wrinkled as it grows old, and it bears prickly needles.

Spruce or fir

In French: sapin ;in German: Tanne ;in Italian: abete bianco .The tree has a broad head, flat on the top, like a stork’s nest in older specimens. The bark covers various shades of gray. Cones stand up like candles and, when ripe, disintegrate on the branch, dropping their scales.


In French: mélèze ;in German: Lärche ; in Italian: larice .This is the only conifer in the Swiss Alps that sheds its needles in winter. The tree is found on sunny slopes in the high mountains, especially in the Valais and the Grisons. Cones are very small.

Arolla pine

In French: pin arolle ; in German: Arve ; in Italian: pino cembro . A characteristic feature of the many species of pine is the arrangement of their needles in tufts of two to five, held together by a scaly sheath. Their cones have hard, tough scales. The arolla pine can be recognized by the shape of its branches, which are deeply curved, like those of a candelabrum. The tree is often damaged by the wind.


The term “Alpine plants” is reserved for those which grow above the upper limits of the forests. The early flowering of these species, which are usually small and strong, reflects the brevity of the growing season (June through August). Disproportionately large blossoms, compared with the plants as a whole, and bright coloring, are directly related to the high ultraviolet content of the light at high altitude.

Protection of alpine flora

The picking of certain Alpine flowers that are particularly threatened, including cyclamen, Alpine aster, primrose, and edelweiss, is strictly prohibited.

Alpine Climate

Differences in altitude, mountain formation, and exposure create many variables. During the warm season, daily temperature variations produce winds called brises , similar to sea and land breezes elsewhere. Toward noon, the warm, expanding air rises and causes clouds to form around the mountain tops—a sign of steady, fine weather. Walkers should head for viewpoints early, since the valley breeze dies away at about 5pm, and the air suddenly turns cold, especially in the shade.

The Föhn – This relatively warm wind, most keenly felt on the north side of the Alps in the upper Aare and Reuss valleys, unleashes torrential rainstorms and causes thundering avalanches. The arrival of the Föhn first sheds its moisture on the Italian side of the Alps, then pours violently over the crest-line, finally growing warmer and becoming dry. Increased risk of disastrous forest fires prompts some communities to apply strict rules, often posted in cafés. Some go so far as to forbid smoking completely. But the Föhnalso melts the snow, enabling earlier crops and extended grazing time for animals.

The Swiss Jura

The Jura ends at the Crête de la Neige (alt 1 723m/5 653ft) in France. In Switzerland, they curve for 200km/125mi between the Dôle (alt 1 677m/5 502ft) and the Lägern (alt 859m/2 819ft above Baden). The last ridges of the massif form above the Mittelland rising to more than 1 000m/3 280ft to face the Bernese Alps and the Mont-Blanc Massif.

The Alpine chain was created in the Tertiary Era (65 million years ago). Beside this “fixed swell” of valleys and hills there are high, almost level plateaux such as the Franches Montagnes. Erosion has developed lush valleys and laid bare dramatic rock escarpments. The slashes made by erosion on the hills form the ruz . The cross-valley cuts across the hill, connecting two valleys. The coomb runs longitudinally along the top of a hill; its escarped edges are called crests .

Mittelland or Middle Country

From Lac Léman to the Bodensee, between the Alps and the Jura, stretches a gently sloping glacis . All the drainage from here feeds the Rhine through a furrow running along the foot of the last ridge of the Jura. Before the Ice Age, the Rhône itself flowed through this depression, in which a string of lakes (those of Biel and Neuchâtel) and marshy areas now lie.


Time Line

Early Helvetia

BC — Cro-Magnon man is believed to have lived about 12000 BC, an estimate reinforced by a Cro-Magnon skull discovered in the Jura.

200 BC — The Helvetii cross the Rhine. This powerful Celtic, semi-nomadic tribe settles on a territory stretching from Lake Constance to Geneva, from the Alps to the Jura.

100 BC — The Helvetii are driven out by the Germanic Alamans. Their exodus into Gaul is hindered by the Romans, led by Julius Caesar; the battle of Bibracte (Autun) takes place in 58 BC. This leads to the foundation of several settlements extending into the heart of the Alps, including those of Nyon and Augusta Raurica.

AD 1C — Helvetia becomes a province of the Roman Empire, with Vindonissa as its capital.

2C — Helvetia’s geographical location compels the Romans into large-scale construction of roads and fortifications. The golden age of Aventicum (Avenches), founded by Augustus.

3C-5C — The Burgundians , originally a northern tribe, settle in the western part of Helvetia. The Alamans occupy Aventicum and colonize central and eastern Helvetia.

6C-9C — In 530 Franks invade the country. Their supremacy over the Merovingians and Carolingians extends to western Helvetia until 888. Irish monks, led by Columba arrive, in Helvetia to preach to the population and help build several monasteries. Sankt Gallen, founded by Gallus, becomes a major seat of learning in Europe.

The Middle Ages

1032 — Death of Rudolph II. The country passes to the rulers of Germany.

11C–13C — Feudal lords and their free cities are given the power to rule over Helvetia, although they are officially accountable to the kings and subsequently the emperors of Germany.

1191 — The city of Berne is founded.

1291Rudolph of Habsburg bequeaths Helvetia to his sons, the dukes of Austria.

1 August 1291 — The three original forest cantons (Waldstätten) of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, refuse to submit to the Habsburgs and the bailiffs and conclude a pact of mutual assistance and take the Oath of the Everlasting League at Rütli. This pact is the founding document of the Helvetic Confederation (named Switzerland in 1350). The archer William Tell , who plays a highly symbolic role in this episode, becomes a national hero.

1315 — The Confederates defeat Duke Leopold at Morgarten .

1386 — The cantons (eight altogether) are victorious at Sempach , but the Romans achieve autonomy at the expense of the Comte de Savoie.

15C — The St Gotthard issue : in order to gain possession of this strategic route, the Swiss occupy part of the Ticino, Aargau, Thurgau, Sankt Gallen and Graubünden regions. Encouraged by the King of France, Louis XI, they invade the Pays de Vaud.

Burgundian wars and Italian wars

1476 — The troops placed under the command of the Duke of Burgundy , Charles the Bold, are defeated at Grandson , then at Murten .

1513 — The number of cantons is extended from eight to 13.

1515 — Allied with the Pope and the Milanese, the Swiss are defeated at Marignan by the King of France, François I , with whom they then sign a treaty of alliance.

1525 — The crushing Franco-Swiss defeat at Pavia, where the Swiss are wiped out by Charles V, marks the end of Switzerland’s political and military history outside its own borders.

Reformation to the 18C

16C — The Reformation preached by Zwingliand Calvin is spread throughout Romansh Switzerland and heavily influences the 13 cantons.

1536 — Berne regains possession of the Pays de Vaud from the Duke of Savoy.

1648 — Swiss neutrality, which avoided the Thirty Years’ War, is officially acknowledged at the Münster Conference .

18C — A united country where several languages and religions coexist, Switzerland is influenced by theories of the Age of Enlightenment , supported by such philosophers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau ;revolutionary ideas spread.

1798 — The French Republican army marches into Berne and occupies the city. A Helvetic Republic is founded.

19th century

1803 — Disputes between conservative and progressive forces lead Bonaparte to introduce a new constitution and annex Geneva and the Valais.

1804–15 Switzerland becomes a battlefield of Napoleon’s troops.

1815 — The Congress of Vienna reaffirms Switzerland’s neutrality. The number of cantons is extended to 22. Part of the French Jura is annexed to the Berne canton.

1846 — Deep religious divisions lead to a separatist League of Roman Catholic cantons, known as the Sonderbund . It is soon disbanded by the Diet, reunited in Berne. General Dufour, Commander of the Confederate Army, ends hostilities and paves the way for a general reconciliation.

1848 — A new constitution introduces centralized, secular rule.

1863Henri Dunant from Geneva founds the Red Cross.

20th century

1914-18 — Switzerland guards its frontiers and extends hospitality to those exiled by war.

1919 — Tribute is paid to Swiss neutrality by making Geneva the seat of the League of Nations .

1939-45 — During the Second World War, Swiss troops are sent to their frontiers under the command of General Guisan . In the post-war years, Geneva, site of European UN headquarters, undertakes diplomatic conferences.

1954 — The first disarmament talks bring together Eisenhower, Dulles, Eden and Faure from the West and Bulganin and Molotov from Russia.

1971 — The World Economic Forum is held for the first time in Davos, where it will become an annual summit of the world‘s political and economic leaders.

1978 — The Jura canton is created. Cantons now number 23.

1986 — 76% of the electorate votes not to become a member of the United Nations. However, the country continues to be active in UN-specialized agencies and programs.

1989 — The Swiss vote to maintain their federal army.

1991 — The voting age drops from 20 to 18.

1992 — Switzerland decides not to join the European Community but becomes a member of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

1995 — The International Trade Organization (ITO), replaces the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade). Headquarters are in Geneva.

1999 — Ruth Dreifuss becomes the first woman elected President of the Swiss Confederation.

1999 — Swiss scientist Bertrand Piccard and British co-pilot Brian Jones befome the first balloonists to circumnavigate the globe with a non-stop, non-refueled flight. It takes 19 days, 21 hours.

2007 — Lavaux Vineyard Region was named a UNSECO World Heritage Site

The New Millennium

2000 — 67% of the electorate votes for bilateral agreements to strengthen economic ties with the European Union.

2002 — 54.6% of the electorate votes to join the United Nations. Switzerland becomes the UN’s 190th member state.

2003 — Roger Federer, the tennis star, becomes Swiss of the Year.

2007 — Micheline Calmy-Rey becomes Switzerland‘s second female president of the Swiss Confederation.

2008 — UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) Championships in Berne, Basel, Geneva and Zürich.

Famous Swiss

Despite its small size, Switzerland boasts many world-famous citizens.


William Tell ; Arnold von Winkelried .

15C to 17C

St Nicholas of Flüe ,Cardinal Matthew Schiner ; Ulrich Zwingli ; Joachim vonWatt, known as Vadian ; Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, known as Paracelsus , natural scientist and alchemist; François de Bonivard ; Domenico Fontana , architect, and his student Carlo Maderno ;Kaspar Jodok von Stockalper .


Mathematicians Jakob, Johann and Daniel Bernoulli , Leonhard Euler ; painters Jean-Étienne Liotard and Salomon Gessner ; philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau ; and physicist Horace Bénédict de Saussure .


Jacques Necker , financier and statesman; Johann Caspar Lavater , philosopher; Johann David Wyss , writer; Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi , educator; General Frédéric de Laharpe , politician; Guillaume-Henri Dufour , Swiss army general; Léopold Robert , painter; Albert Bitzius, known as Jeremias Gotthelf , writer; artist Rodolphe Toepffer ;Louis Agassiz , geologist; Nikolaus Riggenbach , engineer; Jacob Burckhardt , philosopher; Gottfried Keller , poet; Henri Frédéric Amiel , writer; Conrad Ferdinand Meyer , author and poet.


Arnold Böcklin , painter; Henri Dunant , founder of the Red Cross; César Ritz , hotelier; Carl Spitteler , poet; Ferdinand Hodler , painter; Ferdinand de Saussure , linguist; Félix Vallotton , painter; Carl Gustav Jung , psychoanalyst; Charles Ferdinand Ramuz , writer; Ernest Ansermet , orchestra conductor; Frédéric Sauser, known as Blaise Cendrars , writer; Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, known as Le Corbusier , architect; Frank Martin and Arthur Honegger , musicians; Michel Simon , actor; Alberto Giacometti , painter and sculptor; Mario Botta , architect; Hans Erni , painter; Jean Tinguely , sculptor; Max Frisch , writer; Friedrich Dürrenmatt , writer.

Famous Swiss Residents

Other famous residents are foreigners, including painters Konrad Witz and Holbein the Younger; artists Paul Klee and Daniel Spoerri ; author Hermann Hesse ; film director/actor Charlie Chaplin ; writer Georges Simenon ; father of artist Commissaire Maigret; singer/composer Charles Aznavour ; actress Audrey Hepburn ;fashion designer Coco Chanel ; author Frédéric Dard ; and Albert Einstein ,who did much of his work on the Theory of Relativity while living in Berne. Currently, many famous people, such as Tina Turner , Céline Dion , and Britishactor Roger Moore make their homes in Switzerland.

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