Swiss secrets

Our roving connoisseur uncovers the truth about the dragons of Mount Pilatus and the original Swiss Army knife.


Burt Wolf
February 9, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

Modern package tourism got started in 1893 when Thomas Cook
organized a group trip from England to Switzerland. That first
tour and much of Swiss tourism since has been based on the beauty
of the Alps and everyone's desire to see what's
happening on their peaks.

Mountains have always fascinated people. The ancient Greeks
believed that their gods lived on Mount Olympus and most of the
Greek city-states built their temples on mountains, as did
ancient cultures in Asia and South America. Mountains were also a
good spot for meteorological and geological observations, and to
check out your neighbors.

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A 20-minute paddle-boat trip along the lake from the Swiss city of
Lucerne will put you in the town of Kriens at the foot of Mount
Pilatus, one of Switzerland's most-visited mountains. The
steepest rack railway in the world will take you to the top,
which is 7,000 feet above sea level.

Pilatus is a major tourist attraction, but that has not always
been the case. For centuries local residents believed that
Pilatus was inhabited by dragons and that if disturbed, they
would send down storms and great floods. Visits to the top were
forbidden. Fireballs and flame-throwing dragons made regular
appearances on Pilatus and were described in great detail by
leading physicians and scientists -- which gives you some idea of
what medicine was like at the time.

Even shepherds were placed under oath not to approach the dark
waters of the lake that sits just below the peak. There were
rumors that the Roman governor Pontius Pilate was buried in the
lake and his tormented spirit would surface every year on Good
Friday, in a vain attempt to wash Christ's blood from his hands.

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But not everything that came from the dragons was evil. A stone
called Draconite was believed to be formed in a dragon's brain
and to pop out of its mouth during flight. There were nine types
of dragon stones, ranging from the Draconites carbunculus, about
the size of a peanut, to the Draconius lapis lucenenis, which was
as big as a goose egg. Drawings from the 1600s indicate that
these were all extremely heavy for their size, with gold-colored
flecks interconnected with filigreed veins. Dragon stones were
thought to have the power to protect against plague, revive tired
blood and under certain conditions, inspire individuals much like
Viagra.

The dragons themselves also appear to have had a hospitable
side -- witness the following account:

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One autumn, a cooper (barrel-maker) was foraging on Pilatus for
tree branches, to make hoops for his barrels. He stumbled and
fell headlong into a deep cave, coming to rest between two female
dragons, who were pleased by his arrival and offered him a dragon
stone. He soon became hungry. Observing how the dragons
repeatedly licked at a particular boulder in the cave, he did
likewise and so nourished himself throughout the winter. When
spring arrived, one dragon flew away from her winter lair. The
other circled cajolingly around the cooper, as if to persuade him
that it was time to depart. She crept to the mouth of the cave
and hoisted the cooper out by the tip of her tail. Thus rescued,
the cooper returned home to his family.

He showed his gratitude by having the story of his rescue
embroidered onto a cloth -- which to this day remains in St.
Leodegar's Church in Lucerne.

Sigmund Freud would have loved that story, and you've got to hand
it to the cooper for one of the all-time great excuses for not
coming home on time.

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In 1585 a parish priest from Lucerne and a courageous group of
parishioners ascended Pilatus and challenged every pond and cave
where the dragons were thought to dwell. They threw rocks into
the lake, and churned its surface with a cross. The expected
counter-offensive by the dragons failed to materialize. The
priest and the courageous citizens returned to Lucerne and
announced that the spell had been broken, the spirits were at
peace and tourist trips to the peak (at a modest fee) could
begin. The dragons were Swiss and knew a good business when they
saw one.

Pilatus can be reached year-round from the town of Kriens by
panoramic gondolas and an aerial tramway. The cogwheel railway
runs from May through mid-December. For additional information,
visit the Pilatus
Web site.

The Swiss Path

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A 30-minute drive south from the base of Mount Pilatus is the town
of Brunnen, which is the starting point for the Swiss Path, a
hiking trail that was built to celebrate the 700th anniversary of
the founding of Switzerland.

Each of the 26 states that make up modern Switzerland was given
part of the 23-mile path. The length of each stretch was set in
proportion to the number of people who lived in that state during
1991. In fact, every Swiss person was represented by 5
millimeters. Switzerland is a very precise democracy.

The path is also divided into six sections, each beginning and
ending in a small town. Boats connect each of the towns and
Lucerne and run throughout the day. When you are tired, you can
stop and get on a paddle steamboat, which will bring you back to
your starting point. The path forms a continuous symbolic chain
linking the states with each other, and the past with the future.
It's a wonderful walk.

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The original Swiss Army knife

Slightly off the Swiss Path is the town of Ibach. Which may not
mean much -- until you find out that this is the home of the
company that makes the Swiss Army knife. Ibach is also home to
the only shop in the world that carries every model of the knife.

The founder of the company, Charles Elsener, was born in 1860 and
studied in both France and Germany until he became a master
knife-maker, specializing in razor edges and surgical
instruments. When he returned to Switzerland, he opened a small
workroom in his hometown and sold his knives in his mother's hat
shop.

When he was 30, he organized the Association of Swiss Master
Cutlers, with the prime objective of cooperating in the
development of a pocketknife for the Swiss military. The army
already had knives, but they were being purchased in Germany. In
1891 the first Swiss-made knives were delivered to the Swiss
Army. The original version had a blade, a screwdriver, a reamer
for punching holes and a can opener. That was it.

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Elsener's descendants are still delivering Swiss Army knives to
the Swiss Army. However, a regulation issue Swiss Army knife is
not that little red number that has become world famous.
Regulation Swiss Army knives are made of a dull silver
lightweight aluminum alloy; they have one large blade, a reamer
for punching holes, a can opener with a small screwdriver (it
will work with a Phillips screw), a cap lifter, a big screwdriver
and a wire stripper.

What everyone who is not in the Swiss Army calls a Swiss Army
knife (the shiny red version with a Swiss Cross imbedded in the
handle) is actually the Swiss Army officer's knife.

Elsener developed the early version of this knife in 1897, but
the Swiss Army never accepted it. Maybe the corkscrew and the
nail cleaner were too much. Nevertheless, it was immediately
accepted by the troops, both officers and enlisted men, who
purchased them with their own money, and still do.

When Charles' mother, Victoria, died, he changed the name of the
company to honor her. Victoria knives soon became famous for
their quality. When stainless steel was developed in 1921, it was
called INOX. The Elseners added that word to the company name, to
become what it still is today: Victorinox.

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From the beginning, Elsener was developing pocketknives for
different groups. During the 1890s he introduced the schoolboy
model, a farmer's knife and a cadet knife; specialty
knives are still being added. Today the company produces more
than 400 versions of the Swiss Army officer's knife, including
the soon to be introduced inline skater's knife and the cyber
knife. During my visit, I heard unconfirmed rumors about a
"Clinton Blade" that would contain a cigar cutter, stain-remover
stick, magnifying glass and an extended selection of
screwdrivers.


Burt Wolf

Burt Wolf's TV show, "Travels & Traditions II," appears on almost 300 public-television stations weekly. His column appears every Wednesday in Salon. For more columns, visit his archive. He also writes regularly about food and cooking equipment for Burt Wolf.com.

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