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Authors: Alan; Sillitoe

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The first problem our traveller must consider on entering Switzerland is the complication of money. In his Murray of 1838 he will perhaps already have noted that: ‘There is hardly a country in Europe which has so complicated a currency as Switzerland; almost every canton has a Coinage of its own, and those coins that are current in one canton will not pass in the next. Let the traveller, therefore, be cautious how he overloads himself with more small change than he is sure of requiring.'

One English sovereign could be exchanged for 17 Swiss francs, 4 batzen and 6 rappen. If any French cash remains in his pocket he will get 7 batzen and 8 rapps for each franc. In the German-speaking provinces a Swiss guilden will net 60 kreutzers, and a ducat 30. The Zurich florin is divided into 16 (good) batzen and 40 rapps, and again into 40 schillings of 4 rapps each. At Geneva a French 5-franc piece will fetch 3 livres, 1 sol and 9 deniers. In the Grisons canton a florin contains 15 (light) batzen and 60 kreutzers, or 70 blutgers, which is the equivalent of 1 French franc 76 centimes, or 16 English pence. In the southern or Ticino part of the country the lira contains 20 solidi, each of 4 quatrini. Perhaps the Norfolk jacket of those days had more pockets than it does today. By 1850, however, the Swiss currency was brought into conformity with that of France.

Having sorted out the above problem, if he ever did, our traveller will take out his map of the country at the first good inn he comes to, though the remarks in his Murray concerning the complexity and variation in measuring distance will not be reassuring, for they are ‘reckoned not by miles, but by
(hours' walking) or leagues. The measures of length given in the following routes have been taken from the most perfect tables that could be procured; but the Editor is aware that there must be many errors, and that an
approach to accuracy
is all that can be expected from them. The length of the stunde has been calculated at 5278 metres, or 2708 toises or 1800 Bernese feet; 21,137 of such stunden go to a degree of the Equator. To make their measurement agree with the actual pace of walking, it is necessary to advance 271 Paris feet in a minute … Since the correction of weights and measures in 1833–34, 3/10 of a metre, or 3 decimetres, or 132,988 Paris lines has been constituted the legal Swiss foot, and 16,000 Swiss feet 1 stunde.'

Folding his map with a sigh, if not in a fit of absolute vexation, our traveller will notice that on the Italian side of the Alps things are even worse. Regarding distances in Piedmont, ‘it is nowhere more strangely felt than in this route to the Val d'Aosta from Turin. With maps, post-books, descriptions of the valley, and the latest authority of the government before us, neither distances nor measures can be reconciled. Whether the miles are geographical, 60 to a degree, or of Piedmont, 40 to a degree, is not mentioned; and no measure from the scales of three of the best maps will agree with either of the quantities described in the three best works, which ought to be of authority since they are sanctioned by the government; so that the distances named can only be approximations.'

Before taking to the road it will be learned that travelling by diligence in Switzerland has greatly improved in the last twenty years but, even so: ‘On some routes, particularly in going from one canton into another, passengers are sometimes transferred into another coach, and run the chance of waiting several hours for it, being set down in a remote spot to pass the interval as they may, and this not unfrequently in the middle of the night.'

Those who wish to hire a carriage and driver will observe that: ‘Before making an engagement, it is prudent to consult the landlord of the inn or some other respectable inhabitant – (N.B. not the waiter) – to recommend a person of approved character to be employed. As there are many very roguish voituriers, ready to take advantage of the traveller on all occasions, such a recommendation will be a guarantee, to a certain extent, for good behaviour. The landlord should be referred to apart, not in the presence of the coachman, nor, indeed, with his cognizance. It is a bad plan to intrust a waiter or inferior person with the negotiation; he will most probably sell the traveller to the voiturier, and make a job for his own advantage.'

The rate of travelling was about forty miles a day, at a speed of five miles an hour, and Murray suggests that the traveller hire one set of horses for the whole tour, since it would not be easy to change them at every town he came to. He would then be free from the ‘manoeuvres of petty inn-keepers, who will often pretend that none are to be had, and will throw every impediment in the way of his departure'.

Perhaps our traveller, for reasons of economy, decides to go where he will by charabanc, the national carriage of Switzerland, which Murray describes as having the body of a gig, or being like a bench which is ‘placed sideways upon four wheels, at a very little distance from the ground. It is surrounded by leather curtains made to draw, whence it has been compared to a four-post bedstead on wheels. There is a larger kind of char, in which the benches are suspended by thongs, not springs, across a kind of long waggon, and are arranged one behind the other. The char-à-bang is a very strong and light vehicle, capable of carrying two persons, or three at a pinch, and will go on roads where no other species of carriage could venture. It is convenient, from being so low that one can jump in, or alight without stopping the horse, while it is going on; but it is a very jolting conveyance.' Many lines of railway were opened in Switzerland during the ensuing decades, though the diligence continued in use until motor buses took its place after the turn of the century.

In 1838 the country was already well provided with hotels, though Murray has much to say about them. The approach to a high-class city establishment in summer ‘exhibits rather a characteristic spectacle. The street before it is usually filled with several rows of vehicles of all sorts, from the dirty and rickety calèche of the German voiturier, to the neat chariot of the English peer, and the less elegant, but equally imposing, equipage of the Russian prince. Before the doorway is invariably grouped a crowd of loitering servants and couriers, of all nations and languages, and two or three knots of postilions and coachmen on the look-out for employment. During the height of the season, should the traveller arrive late in the evening, the chances are against his being admitted, unless he had sent or written beforehand to secure rooms.'

An already familiar system of graft is now outlined: ‘Couriers, voituriers, guides, and boatmen, are apt sometimes to sell their employers to the innkeepers for a gratuity, so that travellers should not always implicitly follow the recommendations of such persons … The innkeepers hitherto have been very much at the mercy of this class of persons, who invariably fare sumptuously, and certainly not at their own expense. It not unfrequently happens that the attendance which ought to be bestowed on the master is lavished upon his menials. Whenever a new inn is started, it is almost invariably by the lavish distribution of high gratuities to coachmen, couriers, and the like, and by pampering them with the best fare, that the landlord endeavours to fill his house, to the prejudice both of the comfort and the purse of their masters.'

However: ‘It may be laid down as a general rule, that the wants, tastes, and habits of the English are more carefully and successfully studied at the Swiss inns than even in those of Germany. Thus, at most of the large inns, there is a late table-d'hôte dinner at 4 or 5 o'clock, expressly for the English; and the luxury of tea may always be had in perfection.'

We are told that there were generally two sets of charges, one for the Swiss, or Germans, and another for the English, ‘on the principle, that the latter have both longer purses, and also more numerous wants, and are more difficult to serve. It is often remarked by the English that the Germans pay very little to the servants at inns; but they should bear in mind how much less trouble the Germans give, and how slight the attendance which they require generally speaking.'

, 1873, expands on this theme, and he clearly has the English in mind when stating that some guests are more demanding than others, and ‘give orders totally at variance with the customs of the country, and express great dissatisfaction if their wishes are not immediately complied with; others travel with a superabundance of luggage, which is often apt to embitter their enjoyment; and there is also a numerous class whose ignorance of foreign languages causes them frequent embarrassment and discomfort.'

Murray, occasionally endeavouring to be fair, tells his readers that: ‘Swiss inns have the reputation of being expensive, and the innkeepers of being extortionate. A recent journey through the greater part of the country had scarcely afforded an instance of either; but, where such cases have occurred, notice will be taken of them', a very real threat indeed.

Later in the century the traveller was reminded that the hotel-keeper, in some parts of the country, was often the only wealthy inhabitant, and might also be a local magistrate. ‘Consequently, it is sometimes difficult to obtain redress against them for an injury or act of insolence, owing either to the interest they possess with the courts, or to their being themselves the justices. As a rule, however, they are respectable men, and difficulties seldom arise.'

Perhaps it was a complaint to Murray which caused him, a few years later, to insert the following: ‘The drainage in some of the larger houses had been badly reported of within the last few years. Any cases where such complaints continue, will be noted in future editions' – another entry which, if hotelkeepers read the book (maybe a copy which some traveller had accidentally left behind), would remind them that their living could be in jeopardy if they failed to call in the plumber. Murray goes on to say, however, that cleanliness was to be met with everywhere, until one reached the Italian side of the Alps, and went into Savoy and Piedmont.

Swiss hotelkeepers were even more highly thought of by Murray when he saw them as willing caterers to the Bible-backed English travellers of the Victorian Age. Several hotelkeepers went so far as to ‘build
English chapels
as an inducement to our travellers to pass the Sunday with them; in many mountain inns an English clergyman is offered free lodging with the same object, and the guests of other nations are ejected from the public sitting-room while English service is performed'.

By the beginning of the Great War there were fifty-two English churches in the country, as well as 124 hotels where, in the season, services were held.

Joining the zig-zag peregrinations of our traveller around Switzerland and Piedmont, we can look at the merits (and sometimes demerits) of a few hotels mentioned in Murray's first edition. If our traveller is an Alpine enthusiast he will find that the hostelry on the summit of the Faulhorn (8140 feet) is ‘… totally abandoned to the wind and rain in October, but affords 3 very tolerable apartments, and one or two lofts; still it is but sorry sleeping accommodation, the désagréments of which are hardly compensated to ladies by the
beauty of the early view of the glaciers: for gentlemen the quarters are good enough.' Baedeker tells us, about the same inn thirty-five years later, that: ‘A single traveller is often required to share his room with another.'

The posthouse of the Mont Cenis, on the other hand, is a tolerable place to put up, ‘where travellers may regale on the excellent trout of the lake, and sometimes on ptarmigan, for which they will, however, pay handsomely'.

The isolated six-thousand-foot peak of the Rigi drew many travellers, but Murray describes the scene and possible disappointments in such a way as to make the potential pilgrim wonder whether the ascent would be worthwhile. During summer nights, the hotel near the top was ‘crammed to overflowing every evening; numbers are turned away from the doors, and it is difficult to procure beds, food, or even attention. The house presents a scene of the utmost confusion, servant maids hurrying in one direction, couriers and guides in another, while gentlemen with poles and knapsacks block up the passages. Most of the languages of Europe, muttered usually in terms of abuse or complaint, and the all-pervading fumes of tobacco enter largely as ingredients into this Babel of sounds and smells, and add to the discomfort of the fatigued traveller. In the evening the guests are collected at a table-d'hôte supper; after which most persons are glad to repair to rest. It takes some time, however, before the hubbub of voices and the trampling of feet subside; and, not unfrequently, a few roystering German students prolong their potations and noise far into the night.'

Let Baedeker continue the account, which in this case easily matches the style of Murray: ‘Half an hour before sunrise, the Alpine horn sounds the reveille. All is again noise, bustle, and confusion. As the sun will wait for no man, eager expectants often indulge in impromptu toilettes of the most startling description. A red Indian in his blanket would on these occasions be most appropriately dressed, and would doubtless find many imitators but for the penalty imposed on visitors borrowing so tempting a covering from the hotel. The sleepy eye soon brightens, the limb stiffened by the exertions of the preceeding day is lithe again in that exciting moment; the huge hotel is for the nonce without a tenant; and if the eager crowd are not, like the disciples of Zoroaster, ready with one accord to prostrate themselves before the great source of light and life, there are probably few whose thoughts do not turn in silent adoration towards that mighty hand which created “the great light which rules the day.”'

Murray ends with a ray-by-ray description, in the best romantic tradition, of the stunning sunrise which the guests would see, if they were lucky.

In a more remote part of the country our traveller's way leads him along the ‘savage' valley of the Romanche to the ‘miserable village of La Grave where there is a wretched inn. The author was once detained there in a storm, and the filth and misery of such a
cannot be imagined. It is rare to find bread there. Eggs, however, may be had, and good wine.' The same accommodation was still, ‘wretched, bad, and dear' more than thirty years later.

BOOK: Leading the Blind
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