Think of Geneva and you’ll most likely picture mountains and chocolate (or even mountains of chocolate). A trip to the country at the heart of Europe, though not actually in the European Union, will most likely affirm every cliché you already have of Heidi’s homeland: the landscape is spectacular, the chocolate is delicious, the trains do run on time and, yes, the Swiss are a little reserved.
There are a few basic rules to remember when visiting Switzerland. Nothing too serious – you aren’t expected to know how to yodel – but simply some local tips that will help you discover that there’s more to Switzerland than banks and skis, francs and cheese.
Geneva has only been part of Switzerland for 200 years. Before that it was an independent city-state for centuries, so the locals are understandably proud of that heritage. You are just as likely to see the Geneva flag flying as the Swiss one.
The first language of Geneva is French but English can be heard all over the city. That’s not only because Geneva is home to 250 international organisations, such as the UN and Red Cross, but also because 40% of the population are not Swiss themselves.
Place Des Nations © Geneve Tourisme - Michel Frossard
3. Other languages
Switzerland has four national languages but very few people speak all four. German is the most common, spoken mainly in the central and eastern parts, then French in the west, and Italian in the south. The fourth language, Romansh, is the mother tongue for just a few thousand people in the mountains.
4. Cuckoo clocks
Cuckoo clocks are not Swiss. They might be in every souvenir shop but they are in fact German in origin. So while the Swiss are happy to sell them to willing tourists, canny shoppers buy something truly Swiss instead, like a hand-carved wooden cow or a penknife with 72 functions.
Punctuality is a way of life, especially when it comes to train timetables. If a train is due to leave at 13:04, then it will leave at 13:04. Connections across the whole transport network, including buses and cable cars, are usually planned down to the last second so don’t make the mistake of being late.
There is no Q in Switzerland. The Swiss are polite in almost every situation but simply can’t form an orderly queue unless forced to. At tram stops and ski lifts, it’s every man, woman and child for themselves. Sharpen your elbows to survive the crush.
© Geneva Tourism
Fondue is the Swiss gift to the culinary world but it has to be eaten the right way. This is a social meal for two or more so there are rules to be followed. The fork should not touch your lips, teeth or tongue as it has to go back into the pot. And the crispy bit that’s left at the bottom is for sharing, not just for the fastest fork in the room.
Sundays still exist in Switzerland. Forget about going shopping as the shops are closed (except in the train stations) and don’t expect town centres to be lively. A Swiss Sunday feels like being in England in about 1980, except that the trains run a perfect service just like any other day. If you want to have a true Swiss Sunday, then go for a walk, bearing in mind that in Switzerland it usually involves a steep slope at some point.
City streets Geneva © Geneve Tourisme
Never worry about paying for something small with a large note. Cash is king in the Alpine Republic and so Swiss shops always have change, even for a 1000-franc note (and they do exist!), though you might not get much back as prices can be quite high. There are still a few places that don’t accept credit cards even in 2015, so make sure you have some cash in hand.
10. Eating times
Lunchtime begins promptly at 12 noon, when building sites fall silent, children go home from school and offices are empty. Try to get a table at 12.15 in most restaurants and you’ll be out of luck; come at 13.30 and very often the kitchen will have stopped serving hot food. Many shops outside the busy city centres still close for two hours from 12 so that workers can enjoy their lunch break in peace.
Diccon Bewes is an Englishman and chocolate lover who has lived in Switzerland for ten years. Both his books - Swiss Watching and Slow Train to Switzerland - became international bestsellers.