Dinosaur fossils, palm trees, and glaciers--would you believe you could find them all nestled in the small country of Switzerland? With an area of 15,940 square miles, it is about twice the size of New Jersey. But this relatively small land is covered with mountains ripe for adventure.
Switzerland can be broken down into three geographic regions, the first being the Alpine region, home to the Alps, the largest mountain system in Europe. These high-altitude mountains and glaciers cover 60 percent of the country. Alpine glaciers are a major source of water for many of the country's lakes, streams, and rivers. The water that flows from the mountains generates one of the country's most important resources: hydroelectric power. Because Switzerland is dependent on glacial water, it is of great concern that the glaciers are rapidly melting.
It is trees, not glaciers, that can be found in abundance in the Jura region of Switzerland. The smallest of the country's three regions, this mountainous land covers 10 percent of the country along its western edge. The heavily forested Jura Mountains are much lower in elevation than the Alps and get their name from the Jurassic Period that ended 145 million years ago. Thousands of dinosaur fossils and footprints have been found in the region.
Fossil hunting takes a backseat to farming in Switzerland's third region, the Swiss Plateau (also called the Mittelland). Located between the Alps and the Jura Mountains, this land of valleys, hills, and meadows covers 30 percent of the country. It is home to two-thirds of the population and is one of the most densely populated areas in all of Europe. It is also where most of the country's industry, farmland, and large towns and cities are concentrated.
The many people living on the Swiss Plateau experience summers that are warm and rainy and winters that are moderately cold and snowy. Winter temperatures in the country vary with elevation, and the high peaks of the Alps are so cold that they are covered with snow throughout the year. Surprisingly, the climate south of the Alps is warm enough for palm trees to grow.
Tourists from around the world flock to Switzerland no matter what the season. They come to ski, hike, and explore the beautiful landscape. The tourism industry contributes billions of dollars annually to the economy. The textile, machinery, chemical, banking, watchmaking, pharmaceutical, and dairy industries are also major economic contributors.
The Romans, under the rule of Julius Caesar, ruled modern-day Switzerland for almost 400 years. They arrived around 58 B.C., long after the country was first inhabited. Original settlements can be traced back more than 50,000 years to the Stone Age people who lived in mountain caves. Tribes of people began to move into the area after the Ice Age ended, but they had no ruler until the Roman occupation. The Romans established a government, formed a legal system, improved farming techniques and commerce, and built roads and buildings before leaving in A.D. 400 to protect their homeland from invaders.
After the Romans left, a wave of settlers came from countries such as France and Germany. These people brought with them new languages and traditions. During this time, noble families increased their power. In the ensuing centuries, power struggles between emperors, kings, dukes, and noble families took place. Law and order was lost, taxes were high, and rulers were harsh. In 1291, three Swiss cantons (similar to states) formed an alliance to protect their freedom and established the Swiss Confederacy. Over the next several hundred years, they fought many battles against Austrian and French armies and admitted more cantons to the confederation. They defeated armies that far outnumbered them and earned a reputation as fierce fighters. In 1648, other European countries finally recognized them as an independent nation.
Their independence was threatened in the late 1700s when the French occupied their country during the French Revolution. They were forced to accept a treaty of alliance with the French--this violated the Swiss policy of neutrality that was established in the 1500s. (Neutrality meant that they did not get involved in the disputes of other countries, and this was the only time that the pledge was broken.)
In 1848, long after the French had been defeated in their attempt to control Europe, Switzerland adopted its first constitution. It united self-governed cantons under a centralized government and gave the federal government control of national issues such as foreign policy. Cantons retained a great deal of autonomy and power, as they have today.
The people living in Switzerland's 26 cantons take pride in their country's rich history and embrace its diversity. Most would agree that they live in one of the most beautiful countries in the world.
The soil in Switzerland is not well suited for growing crops, and a majority of the food must be imported. Most of the grassy land in the country is used for grazing the cattle that produce milk used to make cheese and other dairy products.
The Easter bunny leaves treats for children in many countries. However, in some parts of Switzerland, it is the Easter Cuckoo who delivers eggs.
Christine Graf is a frequent contributor to FACES.
Graf, Christine. "A glimpse of Switzerland." Faces: People, Places, and Cultures Oct. 2008: 8+. Popular Magazines. Web. 11 Nov. 2009.
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