Memory Lanes: The Route Suisse
By Roger Boylan
National Highway 1 spans Switzerland from the French border near Geneva to St. Margrethen on the Austrian border, a distance of some 350 kms (220 mi.). Known in the French-speaking regions as La Route Suisse, the Swiss Road, and as Schweizerstrasse in German-speaking parts, it departs from Bardonnex, in Geneva’s southern suburbs, snakes along the north shore of Lake Geneva to Lausanne and Bern and thence through the heartland of the Bernese Oberland and Aarau and on toward the Austrian Alps and the neo-Ruritanian principality of Liechtenstein.
Along the way the road offers some of the most magnificent views in the world, of vineyards, and lakes, and snow-capped mountains, and ancient castles, as well as some of the most mundane, of precision-machinery factories and fruit canneries and software plants and all the industrial muscle of modern Switzerland.
The N1 has historically been the nation’s most important road. It links the two largest cities, Zurich and Geneva, via the federal capital, Bern, and thereby binds together the French- and German-speaking regions. Its strategic significance has long been acknowledged: a road ran along roughly the same itinerary in Roman times, affording the Helvetii an escape route from Caesar’s invading legions, and an avenue of pursuit for those same legions. And in the Napoleonic wars, Swiss Road 1, running west to east through the central Swiss lowlands, and therefore lacking difficult mountain passes, was a crucial military transport route between France and its fractious empire. Indeed, when Napoleon’s troops set off from their barracks in western Switzerland, they marched past the chateau in Coppet of Germaine de Staël, staunch republican, whom Napoleon called “the most dangerous woman in Europe” (and yet left alone to preside over the most glittering salons of the day).
The Route Suisse lost its preeminence in 1964, when the A1 Geneva-Lausanne autoroute (expressway) was built on a parallel trajectory along Lake Geneva to accommodate the anticipated heavy traffic of visitors to the National Exposition (Expo 64) in Lausanne. I and my parents were on the autoroute the day it opened, and again several times, in the family Renault, back and forth in the summer of ’64; I loved the new autoroute. It was great for junior car-spotters, and the views of Lake Geneva, on one side, and the Chassolas vineyards, on the other, were (and are) unbeatable.
And Expo 64 is one of my fondest memories. It was a Swiss National Fair that, because Switzerland is a kind of miniature world in itself, was also a kind of miniature World’s Fair, with monorails (then much in vogue) and cable cars and art displays and hands-on science exhibits; but, being run by the Swiss, it was as charming and lovely and well-maintained as Switzerland itself. The fair’s big draw was the Mésoscaphe, a passenger submarine built by the great Swiss diver and explorer Jacques Piccard (who died recently at age 82) in which I and my parents, and some 33,000 others over the six months of the fair, were transported 66 meters (about 220 feet) into the murky depths of Lake Geneva, on the world’s first commercial submarine ride.
It was a great thrill, although all I can recall seeing was the lake’s muddy bottom and a few fish and a shard of this, a lump of that. Never mind; I was and am an ardent admirer of Hergé’s Tintin, and Piccard’s Mésoscaphe was an invention straight out of Tintin, worthy of Professor Calculus (who was in fact based on Piccard’s father Auguste, an acquaintance of Hergé’s in Brussels). The Mésoscaphe, showing its age, now sits in dry dock at the Swiss Transport Museum in Lucerne. Cleaning off the rust is said to have taken years.
The Geneva-Lausanne autoroute is also showing its age. It is nearly permanently congested, like the two cities it connects (which are coalescing into a one vast Alpine megalopolis bounded by Lyon and Turin), and will soon be expanded to six to eight lanes in both directions. It links a vast network of transcontinental expressways, from Scandinavia to Sicily, that didn’t exist in my day. But nostalgia has a name, now as then: the old Route Suisse, meandering along Lake Geneva and into the ideal landscapes of Switzerland–and the past.
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