Expo 02 reflects Swiss luxury and qualities

Aerial view of Solothum ... strong French flavour.

By Salvador Almeida

Switzerland has had two major developments in recent weeks - the launch of the new national airline SWISS at the beginning of the year's second quarter and the start on May 15 of Expo 02, the five-month national exhibition.

The new airline lost no time in projecting itself as a carrier to Expo 02, which celebrates the youth, vitality and creativeness of the Swiss people and is the sixth such event since 1883 (Zurich) and the first since 1964 (Lausanne).

Both the airline and the Expo have been created to reflect what the Swiss people call the attributes of Switzerland - luxury, quality, reliability and prestige.

SWISS is the offspring of Swissair and the regional European carrier Crossair, and it took a tremendous joint effort among the country's political and financial leaders to bring about a re-capitalisation package of $2.3 billion to launch the new national carrier.

SWISS officials are now determined to make the best of the funds and reach breakeven point in 2004. They have on their side fine aviation pedigree and the irresistible pull of their land. The combination and sound management should see the airline soaring high.

The national carrier is working hand in hand with Switzerland Tourism, which, after the September 11 attacks in the US, swiftly put together and launched a winter campaign in Europe that minimised the potentially massive losses.

The result was a drop of only one per cent in bookings.

Even as SWISS flies in the vacationers, European travellers drive in or enter via the European rail network. The Swiss national railway service offers connections to every corner of the country and every destination worth visiting.

Swiss trains have served up the mountains as if on a plate, installing on some routes panoramic carriages that grant maximum enjoyment of the peaks. Popular routes include the Mont Blanc Express (Martigny to Chatelard to Frontiere and on to Chamonix in France), the Bernina Express and the Heidi Express that cross the Alps from north to south, offering breathtaking vistas from first- and second-class panorama cars, and the St Bernard Express (Martigny-Orsieres-Grand St Bernard).

Throw in the bigger cities of Zurich and Geneva, the International Olympic Committe headquarters town of Lausanne and scores of other towns and hamlets including Lucerne, Davos, Basel and the capital Bern, and you have a hard time deciding where to go.

Now Bern is looking beyond the beaten paths and has been beckoning vacationers to rediscover small historical towns such as cobblestoned Solothurn in the west of the country, a 90-minute train ride from Zurich.

Solothurn has a strong French flavour and a yen for clocks. At the Roter Turm Hotel, the breakfast hall displays a dozen clocks of various shapes and sizes timed to chime every now and then. Outside the hotel is a large decorative clock that has become a landmark, telling both the time and the phases of the moon.

As picturesque as you would expect a medieval European town to be, Solothurn's streets are narrow with buildings seemingly unchanged from the time they were built in the 16th or 17th centuries.

Prominent among them are the Cathedral of St Ours, the Gateway and the residence of French dignitaries who represented their monarchs and were instrumental in promoting French culture and influence. Solothurn is also in the vicinity of the Expo 02 sites in the towns of Biel, Murten-Morat, Neuchatel and Yverdon-les-Bains in the Three Lakes Region.

One of the Expo attractions is the so-called artificial cloud designed by Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio and installed over a lake in Yverdon-les-Bains. The cloud effect is produced with 30,000 nozzles spraying droplets.

Another Expo icon is the "organic" complex designed by the Multipack Group and comprising three 'UFOs', two bridges and one platform in the lake at Neuchatel. The complex is linked to an artificial reedbed. The UFO-like objects have the shape of pebbles found on lake shores.

An unforgettable sight for most visitors is the Monolith made of rusting steel, anchored in the lake at Morat with 28 steel cables and with sides 34 metres long. Morat was the scene of a historic 1476 battle, which saw the Swiss Confederates routing the mighty Burgundian army led by Charles the Bold. The concept for the gigantic cube came from Jean Nouvel Paris, and the monument is meant to symbolise courage, strength and serenity.

The high-tech $1.4 billion Expo 02 extravaganza, which drew partners and sponsors from the public and private sectors, is aimed at forging stronger ties between citizens speaking French, German, Italian and Romansh while examining issues in contemporary Swiss life.

Some 38 separate exhibitions are being staged, and a total of 1,500 events are scheduled to take place with five million visitors expected at the venues before the curtain falls on October 20.