What’s the biggest Swiss secret?

January 3, 2011, 4 Comments

There’s one aspect of Swiss life that isn’t publicised, that never really makes it into the guidebooks and is generally kept rather secret. Fog. Until you live here, you don’t truly realise how big a part it plays in daily life for half the year. Of course, I’m not talking about the fog you see in Sherlock Holmes films or San Francisco photos; this is Swiss fog, which is altogether a different beast, known locally as Hochnebel, literally ‘high fog’. And winter is high season for high fog.

From mid-autumn onwards the valleys and lowlands can be smothered in it for days on end, forcing the Swiss to live beneath a blanket of damp greyness. Now as an Englishman I’m used to that, but some Swiss find it all too depressing. Luckily for them, there’s an easy way out – to go up and over the fog. In Britain our only option is to get on a plane but in Switzerland you can just climb on board a mountain train or cable car and be whisked through the murk and out into brightness. It’s a very spooky feeling to go from thick, cold cloud into warm, dazzling sunshine in a matter of minutes. One Boxing Day we did just that by taking the cable car to the top of Schilthorn, leaving behind the minus 4 Celsius of the valley and spending the day on the plus 4 degrees mountaintop.

This ability to rise above the fog means that every night the TV weather forecast tells you the upper limits of the fog, so that you know how high you have to go to reach the sun. The Hochnebel usually sits somewhere between 500 and 100om above sea level, meaning that most mountain trains will take you out of it. Even here in Bern, which sits at 540m, the dot matrix displays at the tram stops let you know if the fog is gone by 800m. That’s because Gurten, the hill at the edge of the city, is 864m tall and an easy funicular ride away.

Perhaps this is why the Swiss call it Hochnebel. It’s not usually low enough to be actual fog in the streets but has an upper limit that can be breached. In Britain we just call that being overcast or low-lying cloud, precisely because we can’t get above it. What it does mean is that once up on a mountain, you can look down on the swirling mass that fills the valleys below: the Nebelmeer, or sea of fog.

And it really does look like a wild sea, punctuated by rocky islands (actually other peaks) and crashing onto steep cliffs. It’s a beautiful sight and one which the Swiss should make more of. If San Francisco can make fog a selling-point, then surely the Swiss could too?

4 Comments on "What’s the biggest Swiss secret?"

  1. Mark Howells-Mead Monday January 3rd, 2011 at 05:22 PM · Reply

    I’m such a big fan of “up and out” that I started a Flickr group specifically for this meteorlogical phonemenon in 2006:

    • M'dame Jo Saturday January 8th, 2011 at 12:29 PM · Reply

      Love it! I joined!

  2. M'dame Jo Saturday January 8th, 2011 at 12:26 PM · Reply

    In French, we call Hochnebel “stratus” (which is apparently the same in English

    Not that it matters – we all need to go up the mountains to see the sun and it looks the same (, but now you know how we call it in west Switzerland 😉

  3. Natasha De Bernardi Thursday February 10th, 2011 at 02:43 PM · Reply

    That is why Switzerland has Ticino! One day of fog a year and we are in awe of its beauty and mystery.

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