Experiencing local life is often the moment that makes travelling in another country even more memorable. In Swiss terms that might be watching cheese being made or living it up at a village festival, but it could also be something much more political. After all, Switzerland is one of the world’s oldest democracies, where the people can have their say all the time at every level.
Thanks to this unique system of direct democracy, politics is an integral part of Swiss life, so seeing it in action is a very Swiss experience. We’ve chosen three spots where you can do exactly that, but also enjoy the lovely places themselves: pretty little Appenzell, famous for its cheese and outdoor cantonal parliament; historic Bern, home to the country’s federal government; and lakeside Geneva, centre of international relations.
The cantonal parliament
Appenzell is one of those Swiss towns that is almost too cute to be true. Its handsome wooden buildings are painted all shades of the russet rainbow, from mustard through raspberry and burgundy to chocolate. And since it’s not a very big town, despite being the capital of the canton, rolling green hills surround the whole place with comforting cow-filled pastures. This might sound like Disney-Switzerland but it is actually real.
There’s never a bad time to visit Appenzell, especially if you are a turophile as the local cheese is one of the best in Switzerland (try the Appenzeller Extra for a real burst of tangy flavour). But the most interesting date in the calendar is the last Sunday in April when the Landsgemeinde, or open-air cantonal parliament, takes place. This is direct democracy in its purest form, with the canton’s 3,000 voters assembling in the main square to debate and decide the issues of the day.
Men are still allowed to carry their family sword as proof of citizenship but women, who only got the right to vote at this assembly in 1991, have a slightly more mundane ballot card. Every voter has the right to speak on any issue being debated, and votes are taken by a show of hands. It’s all very low-tech.
Anyone can come and watch but get there early for a good spot as this has become strangely popular. The proceedings start at midday with a procession of dignitaries and flags, and can last up to three hours, depending on what is being debated and voted on that day.
After all the voting is over, the fun begins; this is as much a social event as a political one. It’s the one time each year when everyone gets together for a chat over a grilled sausage, maybe even a dance. This isn’t something put on for tourists; this is Swiss life as it is lived. Even if you can’t understand the debate, it’s an exercise in politics and local life that is definitely worth seeing. www.myswitzerland.com/appenzell
Only one other canton still holds its outdoor parliament and that is Glarus, in central Switzerland. Its takes place a week later, on the first Sunday in May, giving you two bites at the Swiss political apple. www.myswitzerland.com/glarus
The federal city
Politics at a national level is a lot more low-key in Switzerland than in other countries, mainly thanks to a federal political system based on direct democracy. In fact, although Switzerland has been around for over 700 years, it only got its federal constitution, and the government and parliament that went with it, in 1848.
It was also then that the beautiful city of Bern was designated the federal city – note that Bern is officially never called a capital city as Switzerland has no capital – and the impressive Federal Parliament was built. The imposing sandstone building that dominates the centre of the city was designed by Hans Auer and opened in 1902 as the embodiment of Switzerland in one edifice. Auer used 38 Swiss artists, 173 Swiss companies and stone from 13 cantons to create his masterpiece, ensuring that every statue and painting shows something from Swiss history. The whole ensemble is crowned by a dome topped by a gilded Swiss cross.
Bern © Jan Geerk/Swiss-Image.ch
Visiting the building is relatively easy; this isn’t the US Congress of British House of Commons. When parliament is not sitting, there are free guided tours in four languages, but each hour-long tour only has 40 places, so it’s advisable to book in advance by phone or email. English tours are on Saturday at 2pm, which is perfect timing as it means you can enjoy the colourful market that fills the Bundesplatz, or parliament square, every Saturday morning. Piles of plump fruit and vegetables, mountains of cheese (with and without holes), crusty breads and pretty flowers fill the stalls set up by local farmers. It’s the ideal appetiser for the afternoon.
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Even if parliament is in session, you can still go and watch the proceedings from the public gallery as there are 25 seats available there every day. For any visit, you must bring a photo ID with you and pass through airport-style security. www.parlament.ch
The international forum
Palais des Nations, Geneva
If you also have a taste for politics on an international scale, then a trip to Geneva is a must. Not because the city is home to over 250 international organisations and NGOs, but simply because it is the seat of the United Nations in Europe. This is politics on a grand scale, both in terms of the subject matters and the building itself.
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The elegant Palais des Nations was originally built as the headquarters of the UN’s predecessor, the ill-fated League of Nations. A competition was launched in 1926 to find the right design, but no winner could be chosen; even the famous Swiss architect Le Corbusier didn’t get the go-ahead. Instead, the design was a collaboration between five architects from four different countries, which is rather fitting for a place that was the first home of international collaboration.
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That the Palais was built in the 1930s is instantly clear from its Art Deco style and clean lines. It has of course been extended since its opening in 1936 so that the whole complex is now 600 metres long and has 2,800 offices. Luckily, the guided tours don’t visit each room and every corridor, but instead give you a chance to see the stage of so many international debates and behind the scenes at the UN itself. And the park setting near Lake Geneva is beautiful in itself.
Public tours take place all year round, though times and days differ depending on the season. You cannot book in advance so it’s just a matter of turning up and waiting to join the next available tour. It does get very busy in summer, so arrive early. And, as always, you need a photo ID with you. www.unog.ch