Sunday, April 25, 2004

Who needs the EU?

Not Switzerland, that's for sure. As other countries forge bonds, Jeremy Atiyah explores a land that likes to remain apart

Published: 25 April 2004

I'm in Geneva, riding noiseless trams and looking at beautiful parks and expensive shops. Authoritative studies say that Switzerland is the world's best country to live in. But is it a happy place?

The Swiss haven't always had it so good. They've had their wars. Two hundred years ago, their country was roughly equivalent to today's Afghanistan. No wonder Mary Shelley dreamt up Frankenstein's monster during her sojourn by Lake Geneva in the summer of 1816: the Swiss of old were not chocolatiers or bankers or clock-makers, but wild mountain warriors, fiercer than the Taliban.

Switzerland has evolved somewhat since then. Instead of belligerent mercenaries, it now has the Red Cross, the Olympic Association and much of the UN. It has top hotel-management schools and business schools. It has Fifa, Uefa and countless international sporting federations. Geneva alone has 32,000 international civil servants.

But what does this internationalism do for a country? Aren't the Swiss in danger of forgetting who they are? Switzerland deigned to become the 190th member of the UN in 2002, but it still looks down its Alpine nose at the EU. It fears economic migrants from countries such as Britain. And it has become so rigorously neutral that it seems to have lost any indigenous personality beyond a half-glimpsed memory of cows and cheese and yodelling milkmaids.

Well, that's an impression you can get. Right now, I'm in the windy old town of Geneva, where people scurry past with their collars up and their hats down. The buildings are dark and sombre. By the cathedral, I step into the Auditorium of Calvin, a cold chapel with walls of bare stone and lines of uncomfortable chairs. A grudging vase of flowers sits on the table. Geneva as a stronghold of Calvinism? That took plenty of character. This city is located approximately in France's kidney. Louis XIV later tried to kill it off. The most curious thing is that Protestant disdain for earthly riches subsequently transformed into the capitalism that filled Geneva with earthly riches. Bad luck John Calvin.

Hints that Switzerland was becoming a more cheerful place were already there in the summer of 1816, when Lord Byron turned up. He took the Villa Deodati as his lodgings - It is still one of the finest residences in Geneva, a mini-palace, commanding the leafy slopes of Cologny, with views over the lake towards Mont Blanc. All Byron and his friends lacked was some decent weather.

Meanwhile, in the present day, I ride a tram to Geneva's so-called International Quarter, to visit the Museum of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent. I spend two hours here learning about the principles of humanity, impartiality and neutrality that inspired the movement, and that have saved countless lives over the years. It is a humbling, sobering experience.

And when I later board the train to Lausanne, I am still wondering why, in our envious little hearts, we harbour such petulant feelings towards this civilised little country. Why do we prefer to make jokes about cuckoo clocks, rather than talking about the Red Cross? Why do we think we detect the foul whiff of Nazi collaboration in the fresh Alpine air? Why do we still suspect the Swiss of abetting international criminals via their secretive banking operations?

I see little justice in this, but then again, I am now being treated to an expensive lunch by a nice lady from the tourist office at the Lausanne Palace Hotel, which means tucking into perch fillets fished straight from the lake, along with a dandelion salad and a crisp white wine, while looking out over Lake Geneva's clean, blue waters stretching out mistily to the feet of the massive French Alps.

"Of course we have our own character and personality!" protests my hostess, when I politely express my reservations. And she proceeds to tell me that the Canton de Vaud (of which Lausanne is the capital) is a land not just for international sports federations, but also for people who eat sausage with leeks and potato mash, and speak a rustic French that makes Parisians giggle.

And don't I know what invariably happens to people the first time they arrive here by train from grey Zurich. (Never mind drab London or dreary Paris.) Yes! They emerge through the tunnel on the hills above Vevey, and at the first sight of the luminous green vineyards that surround them, and of Lake Geneva sparkling in the sunshine, and of the romantic castles and villages dotting its shores, they instantly throw their return tickets out of the window! "Isn't it the best of all worlds here?" she says, sweetly. "The corner of Europe that combines northern efficiency with southern vitality? We don't need to join the EU! We are the most European country there is!"

I have a funny feeling that she is right. If Switzerland didn't exist, Europe would have to invent it, as a theme park; a miniature (harmless) model of the continent; a blank space on the map on which to project our ideals; somewhere for our enemies to reside, in five-star hotels, without obliging us to make war on anyone.

Switzerland has never baulked at receiving Europe's most pestiferous travellers, albeit on the condition that they be wealthy and/or industrious individuals. French Huguenots were the first to arrive, escaping from Catholic France in the 16th century. During the 19th century, when the Alps began to take off as a recreational area, private railways arrived, followed in short order by British tourists in moustaches and plus fours. Political refugees have continued to arrive, ranging from Russians fleeing the Bolshevik takeover, right through to Greeks quitting Egyptian Alexandria after Suez.

Later, I stroll round the Lausanne Palace Hotel, looking for ghosts of tourists past. These giant hotels by the shores of Lake Geneva were the prototypes of five-star hotels the world over, designed for the benefit of those who had been evicted from their own palaces. I see giant chandeliers and decorated ceilings as high as the sky. I pass the dimly lit Bar du Palais, resembling the House of Lords, with its leather sofas and red baize walls. Later, in La Table du Palais, the Michelin-starred restaurant with its soaring windows and views over the city to the lake, I find two bejewelled ladies chatting. Each has her ornamental lapdog.

The curious European custom of living in grand Swiss hotels may have become outmoded as a result of the stock market crash of 1929 (not to mention that other unpleasantness, the Second World War), but it is by no means dead and buried. If our own Queen were overthrown, I would urge her to take rooms at the Beau Rivage: located in the lakeside suburb of Ouchy, it is right by the pier for boats from France (perfect for dignified royal arrivals). Ouchy, furthermore, has excellent British credentials. Lord Byron spent time here, in the neighbouring Hotel d'Angleterre. And the houses hereabouts belong only to the richest of the rich.

When I visit the Beau Rivage, its splendid gardens and terraces are almost empty. But this has been one of the world's top hotels for more than 130 years. In the rooms, I find original carpets, paintings and giant walk-in wardrobes. At least 10 families still live here on a permanent basis. And down in the garden, in a discreet flowerbed, is a poignant collection of headstones - for the pets of the hotel's residents. Here lies Toots (1889-1903); here lie Tosca, Binkie, Lumpi, Beppo, Billy.... Later I drop in on the hotel's Ball Room, with its dome and stained-glass windows and gilt friezes and cherubs. The dances here, I fear, are not what they were.

Next door to all this lounges the Olympic Museum, another mandatory stop for tourists to the lake, with its admirable anti-war message of internationalism and neutrality. But on the grounds that it says nothing to me of autochthonous Swiss culture, I decide to go to a chocolate shop instead.

This is more like it. The chocolatier is a man called Dan Durig who, oddly, comes from Cheshire. "The Swiss are the best people in the world to make chocolate for," he tells me, with a delighted look on his face. "They eat more per head than anybody else. They are the top of the market. They know what they are eating."

He shows me Madagascan and Ethiopian chocolates as he might show Merlots and Chardonnays. He produces bars of every degree of strength, ranging from pure milk to pure chocolate. We swill them round in the mouth, discussing the after-taste and the implications for health. (Cocoa butter, apparently, is good for cholesterol.) What could be more indigenous than this?

On the last morning, I take the train 20 minutes up the track to Montreux. It is a cold, quiet, misty day, with snowy peaks soaring straight up from the shores of the lake. If you care to buy an apartment here, you may need to learn the French word époustouflant (flabbergasting) before discussing the panoramas with your estate agent. The celebrities who have bought these views over the past 50 years include Charlie Chaplin, Vladimir Nabokov and Freddie Mercury.

I'm more interested, though, in jolly Lord Byron, who, with impeccable taste, beat them all to it by more than a century. His particular interest was in the Chateau de Chillon, down the road from Montreux. There it still is, guarding the pass between the mountains and the lake, rising from the water, a bizarre jumble of crumbling towers, turrets, freezing baronial halls and ancient vaulted dungeons.

As the first to arrive today, I take my chance to rush round alone, before the tour groups arrive. The waters lapping on the mossy walls of the keep are dark under black skies, but as clean and cold as the day of creation. I repress a Byronesque desire to leap into them.

On a column in the dungeon, I see Byron's name where he carved it 190 years ago. Through the open slits in the walls, I hear the cold wind blowing and the waters of the lake slapping on the buttresses. Even in the 21st century, it is hard not to follow Byron in taking the romantic view, and using the imagination (rather than facts) to construct this strange and beautiful country.


How to get there
Return flights from London Heathrow to Geneva with Swiss (0845-601 0956; are from £75. British Airways (0870-850 9850; also has return flights from Heathrow from £75. EasyJet (0871 7500 100; offers return fares from London Gatwick from £50 and also flies from East Midlands, Liverpool and Luton.

Where to stay
The Hotel Beau Rivage, 13 Quai du Mont-Blanc (00 41 22 716 66 66; offers double rooms from about £205 per night with breakfast costing an extra £7.50.

For more information
Switzerland Tourism (00800 100 200 30;

Sunday, April 4, 2004

So is this place for real?

So is this place for real?

Jeremy Atiyah sees behind the mask of Singapore

Published: 04 April 2004

I'm in Singapore to find out if the whole country isn't one big PR stunt, something dreamt up by the ministry of tourism.

Because on the face of it, this place is just too good to be true. It must be the result of government spin. It will vanish as soon as my back is turned. The charming façades of those "heritage" quarters will be removed to reveal ugly concrete blocks and piles of garbage. The lovely canopies of rain-trees embracing the highways will be replaced by hoardings of naked women. The quiet couples slurping noodles after dark on verandas will become rioting, spitting, drug-taking delinquents. The very history of this island state will be unwritten.

Either that or I'm envious. My analyst would suggest the latter. Perhaps, deep down, I just can't bear to accept that the old patriarch Lee Kuan Yew had the foresight decades ago to train his people in civic virtues, and to plant all these trees, and to place conservation orders on the quaintest areas of local housing.

Anyway, this is what my mission boils down to: has Singapore been designed as a pleasure park for tourists? Or is it a real country, with needs and interests of its own?

I'm starting my investigation with breakfast in a place called the Lau Pa Sat Hawker Centre, which is an outdoor market sheltered by a 100-year-old roof constructed of iron lacework from Glasgow.

How can there possibly be anything fake about this? I see vast numbers of food stalls and communal seating for everyone. Hundreds of fans are swishing overhead. In all directions, real Singaporeans are slurping, sucking and chewing on fish balls, duck rice, dim sum, curry and sushi. Most meals cost a pound or two. This cooling breeze, these strips of bitter gourd filled with fish paste, this ice-cold soy milk - they are real all right. This has got to be the best restaurant in the world.

I must say that if Singapore is a stunt, it is turning out a pretty clever one. When we climb into a taxi, I notice our driver drinking tea out of a plastic bag, hung from the ceiling of his car. "That's great!" I say. "Authentic!" "It is convenient and hygienic," says the driver.

A few traffic-free minutes later we are standing outside a beautiful old yellow palace, said to have belonged to the family of the local sultan. (It was the sultan who permitted Stamford Raffles to establish his colony of Singapore in the first place.) We are in the middle of a place called the Arab Quarter. It's a nice spot all right, with mango trees dotted about the garden. Muslims from Java and elsewhere, my guide tells me, used to gather here to prepare for the haj.

There is only one thing that looks fishy: that the palace, right now, is in the process of being converted into a heritage centre. So there aren't any real live Arabs in the Arab Quarter any more, I ask my guide. She promptly leads me round a corner to find a crowd in skullcaps scoffing noodles and drinking milky tea under a nearby colonnade. In fact they are Malay Muslims, but I suppose that'll do, especially given that we are now at the corner of Muscat Street and Kandahar Street, opposite what is undeniably a mosque. This Muslim food looks jolly good too: I can see piles of barbecued lamb and spicy aubergine, all being served on banana-leaf plates.

In true Singapore style, everything round here has been renovated to perfection. Picturesque palm trees line the streets. The fronts of the two-storey houses are still Chinese baroque, all half-moon tiles, bamboo roof-ridges, Malaysian swing-doors and Corinthian columns. Old saloon doors have not been torn down; ornate lattice vents, once used by women for peering out at strangers, are still visible.

We stroll about the local shops looking at brocaded fabrics and silks, carpets and jewels. Some of these traders claim to have been here since the 1820s. Shop signs betray their origins: "Abdul Aziz and Co" is next door to "Hui Leong Textiles". It is hard to find any genuinely crumbling plaster, but I do come across a genuine Arab food shop, Café Le Caire, where I can get hummus, kebab and a hubbly-bubbly to smoke.

Who cares about authenticity when things are as gaily multicultural as this? Not me. Not really. Just round the corner from the Arab Quarter is its subcontinental counterpart, Little India. Until the 1930s, cattle roamed this area; now it too contains a heritage centre, explaining its curiosities to us tourists.

I don't know how the locals feel about being exhibits, but they do look indisputably Indian. In the local food arcade crowds of short, dark people are tucking into masala dosa and eggs and milky tea. In the shops I see bangles and marigold wreaths. Shops are decorated with Hindu altars. Men are queuing up at the barber to have their eyebrows trimmed. A fortune-teller with yellow turmeric smudges on her face is talking about her customers to a green parrot.

We knock back a cup of cardamom tea in a posh vegetarian restaurant. Gandhi's exhortations are printed on the walls; jewel-encrusted ladies in silk saris are carrying plastic trays. On the wall outside is a facility for selecting and paying for our order by credit card. I would not describe this as a particularly authentic touch, but the air conditioning is excellent.

And next up on our tour of this touristic heaven is Chinatown itself. On the way there, my guide feeds me shocking details of the "four evils" that recently plagued this area, namely prostitution, gambling, opium and drink. She tells me about the "death houses", where lonely old people went to spend their last days (for a fee). And she generally paints me a picture of a hubbub of fish-sellers, food-hawkers, barrow-pushers, drink-pedlars, fortune-tellers and opera-singers packing the streets.

I would like to exclude the possibility that this is a fantasy, dreamt up to provide material for another of Singapore's heritage centres. But funnily enough, the first thing we see in Chinatown is another heritage centre, the excellent Chinatown museum, showing the original Chinese immigrants as the boat people of their day, arriving en masse, fleeing hunger in China. The journey by junk from Hong Kong, I now learn, took about a week, and many perished en route. Most came with the intention of returning, though few did.

The highlight of the museum is the re-creation of the shop-houses of the 1950s, showing how entire families lived in narrow rooms separated from their neighbours by thin partitions open at the ceiling. Today, we tourists can peer in to see their hard wooden beds, their reed matting, their thermoses, their pots, bowls, sewing machines and other knick-knackery. We can even hear the sound effects, on tape, of cooking and quarrelling - safe in the knowledge that today's Chinatown contains nothing but food stalls, trendy restaurants and boutique hotels.

Wandering later through the same quarter, I'll choose a bowl of noodles with huge and delicious shrimps costing only slightly more than nothing. I'll drink from a fresh coconut. And I'll sit there and watch acrobats prance in the street while listening to snippets of Chinese opera and watching otherwise rational people burning incense sticks and paper money for the spirits of their ancestors. Isn't this authentically Chinese all right?

After my three-hour potted tour of Asia, it's time for a burst of Europe. Singapore, you see, has it all. My guide suggests that we drop in at Raffles Hotel, which, when we get there, does indeed turn out to be an intensely charming place, with modestly proportioned courtyards and palm trees and tiffin and turbaned porters. The famous Long Bar may have lost something with the advent of air conditioning and of recorded pop music. (Would Somerset Maugham have listened to Abba?) But if Raffles had been in Hong Kong, I muse, it would now be 40 storeys tall and have helicopters landing on its roof.

Which is not to say that Singapore can't do modernity. Of course it can. When I've finished looking at Singapore's past, my next task is to visit its future. This means a visit to the Esplanade Theatres right in the middle of town.

These two world-class concert halls may have cost more than £200m, but Singaporeans do not seem
to be complaining. For one thing, they look great. In fact they resemble two monstrous prickly durians. Big international orchestras have already played here; operatic megastars such as Jose Carreras have given it their blessing. And, as everyone knows, Singapore will not be a proper city unless it has a proper concert hall.

Night falls, suddenly, and it's time for dinner. My guide proposes an ex-convent called Chijmes. Why not, I say, gazing over a lovely complex of shops, bars and restaurants amid green lawns and frangipani trees. Over there I even see a chapel with stained-glass windows and a gothic tower. This place, it turns out, was run as a school by French nuns until the 1980s. But that must have seemed like a waste of a good heritage site, which is why the school has now moved out, and we lucky tourists have moved in.

After dinner, my guide surprises me yet again, announcing that a huge outdoor party called Zoukout is being held on reclaimed land not far from the city centre. Lots of trendy musicians and DJs will be in attendance, and we are going to join them. Getting into Zoukout is a bit like getting into the Pentagon. Only after many police checks do we finally step into an enclosed grassy field to meet a PR called Harry Ng, who is perhaps the only man in Singapore wearing a woolly hat. "Yeah, people are really gonna be freakin' out and enjoying themselves all night long," shouts Harry. He is probably right. Mild-mannered young people are queuing up outside. Skyscrapers glitter to one side. The weather is perfect. Does Singapore have an existence independent of its desire to please visitors? I am beginning to think it does.


How to get there
The writer traveller as a guest of Singapore Tourism. Return fares to Singapore on Singapore Airlines (0870- 608 8886; start from £560.

Where to find out more
Call Singapore Tourism on 020-7437 0033.