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The insider guide to Switzerland: all about the land of cheese and chocolate!

Published December 6th, 2013

What do you known about Switzerland? Swiss watches, Swiss army knives, Swiss bank accounts, Heidi, Toblerone and yodelling on the Swiss Alps? Former Brissie girl now expat living in Switzerland (via a UK working holiday), Melissa Madeira, describes her new home as the 'land of cheese and chocolate'. But, despite breathtaking scenery and an international rep as a safe country, Switzerland still has some curious quirks. Melissa gives us the lowdown on what makes Switzerland tick.

 

Melissa on the slopes

 

Where do you live?
I live in a little village called Saint-Sulpice,  which is located very close to Lausanne  - our closest big city. Geneva is about 40 minutes' away. Vaud is the 'Canton' that St-Sulpice falls under, there are 26 Cantons in Switzerland.

 

How long have you lived in Switzerland? 
I have lived in Switzerland for 3 years now!

 

Welcome to Saint-Sulpice in Switzerland!

 

What were your initial impressions of the country? 
At first, I wasn’t sure if I was going to like it. It is a very quiet place, a complete contrast from London where we were living. I also struggled with the language at first and contrary to what people told me, not everybody speaks English. Saying that though, I quickly fell in love with the place and I’ve totally embraced the tranquility and calm!

 

You say you live in the 'land of cheese and chocolate' - what else do you love about Switzerland? 
It is a common belief that Switzerland is safe and clean and it really is! It has the lowest crime rate in the world and you really do feel secure. Most places are very clean and everything runs on time. Switzerland is truly beautiful and I love the outdoor lifestyle - you are never more than 16 kilometres from a lake! I also love how France, Germany and Italy are only a short trip (or ferry ride) away. I have made a lot of friends here, the people are really friendly and unlike other places (France!), the Swiss are quite patient with us expats!

 

Tulip Festival in Saint-Sulpice

 

Is there a difference between the French- and German-speaking areas of Switzerland?
There is a big difference between the French and German parts of Switzerland. I live in a French-speaking part, which helps as I had some knowledge from school. Even though they learn some Swiss German at school, I wouldn't say residents here are bilingual, if anything I think they know more English. Most websites (or call centres) in Switzerland offer 4 languages - French, German, English and Italian. If we were to move to the German part it would be a huge transition for us.  It's actually hard to believe it's the same country!

 

Picture-perfect Saint-Sulpice

 

What are some things about Switzerland that only a local would know?
Unfurnished apartments really are that, you will not find any light fittings, curtains and sometimes not even toilet seats! A lot of restaurants and shops are closed in August as people usually take 4 to 5 weeks' holiday during this time. Most homes have bunkers as a result of the Cold War concerns and in fact, Switzerland has enough nuclear fallout shelters to accommodate its entire population. If you live in a small community like I do,  you will also be asked to serve in the fire service, and  if you don’t you will need to pay a yearly 'fire service tax'. Many celebrities have lived and died in Switzerland and in fact, Audrey Hepburn and Coco Chanel are buried just 5 minutes' away from me!

 

What are some of the popular foods?
Fondue, of course, is very popular as is le chasse or game meat. No one would have batted an eyelid over the horsemeat scandal here! As Switzerland borders France and Italy, you will always find pasta and pizza on every menu as well as French dishes.

 

And drinks? 
Rivella is a very popular Swiss soft drink that is lactose-based and definitely an acquired taste! White wine is also very popular with vineyards covering the Swiss countryside. It is nice to try wine made in your Canton or to savour those from neighbouring villages.

 

What do Swiss people do in their downtime?
Just like in Australia, you will find people going to pubs and clubs on the weekends or after work. Switzerland, however, is quite a sporty country and people love to be outdoors. You will find that people spend a lot of their free time exercising such as running or cycling and of course, as soon as the snow falls everyone hits the slopes!

 

View from Le Deck in Chexbres

 

Where do you take visitors?
We always take visitors to a restaurant called Le Deck in Chexbres as it has absolutely breathtaking views of the countryside, lake and mountains. Another favourite is the Maison Cailler Swiss chocolate factory in Broc, Gruyère, which is named after the famous cheese it produces. Also in the Gruyère region is the very cool Giger-Bar in the city of Chur, which is designed by the famous Swiss artist H.R. Giger. The interior of the bar reflects his bio-mechanical artistic style as seen in the 'Alien' films.

 

The burning effigy from Fete du Printemps

What's some unusual things about Switzerland?
The main and practically only fast food chain here is McDonald's.  KFC left Switzerland in 2004 and Subway is only found in the major cities like Geneva and Zurich. Other quirky things include movies still having an intermission, and it’s illegal to flush your toilet after 10pm at night and mow your lawn on a Sunday! Some villages, including ours, hold a festival in spring to signify the end of winter and the beginning of summer called Fete du Printemps (Spring Festival). They have a parade and then burn a papier mâché effigy - it is believed that the length of summer can be predicted by how quickly the figure burns. It is a bit like Swiss Groundhog Day!

 

Switzerland has a reputation for being expensive, is this true, or can you  travel around on a budget?
There is no getting away from the fact that Switzerland is expensive, but savings can be made! Have a look at hostel dorms for cheap accommodation and avoid eating out at restaurants. Groceries are cheap in local supermarkets and if you do want to go out for a meal, stick with bars or cafes. The best way to get around is by purchasing a Swiss Pass. This is an all-in-one ticket that lets you travel by rail, road and water throughout Switzerland. Check out www.myswitzerland.com for more information.

 

Cassandra Laffey

Consumed with unrequited wanderlust, I get my fix in 24/7 cities and hippie retreats. I'm still looking for the ultimate combo of secluded beach and major metropolis, and my happy place is a 5-star hotel room all to myself - sigh.