Yearning for the world

Switzerland and the sea

25. September 2019
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It is said that all rivers flow to the sea. If that is the case, then Switzerland, source of the Rhine, the Rhône and many other rivers, must be one of its greatest wellsprings. And yet the country lies at a considerable distance from the world’s oceans. The sea has inspired writers and explorers, stimulated tourism and incited engineers to develop adventurous ideas.

Max Frisch and the sea

In March 1946, Max Frisch spent an hour at the Basel Minster and gazed down at the Rhine, which flowed over the German and French borders just a few hundred metres downstream. “How small our country is,” he commented in awe. The Second World War had ended a few months before, and the writer expressed sentiments which moved many in Europe at that time: “Our longing for the world, our desire for big, flat horizons, for masts and jetties, for grass-covered dunes, for reflecting canals, for clouds over an open sea; our desire for water binding us to all the coasts of this earth; our nostalgia for foreign lands.” 1

Max Frisch, who was born in Zurich in 1911, felt impelled to leave his home country early on, as a young man. In 1933, he journeyed to Prague as a journalist with the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper. His original intention had been to report on the Ice Hockey World Championship before returning home. However, Frisch carried on travelling – to Budapest, Belgrade, Sarajevo, Dubrovnik, Istanbul and Greece. “Arrived in Split after a nine-hour sea passage of staggering beauty,” he wrote to his mother. 2 Newspaper readers were treated to descriptions of impressions which overwhelmed him with their abundance and allure. “Actually, these Dalmatian days proved utterly exasperating,” he wrote in the NZZ on 27 June 1933. The reason for his despair: “that one cannot paint and is obliged to leave such extraordinary colours behind.” 3 Yet Max Frisch tried his hand at painting nonetheless. His painting “Ragusa” – as Dubrovnik was once known – shows that creative talent lay dormant in the young writer, who would embark on a study of architecture at ETH Zurich just a few years later. He incorporated his experiences in Dubrovnik literary into his first novel “Jürg Reinhart” (1934).

Max Frisch maintained an intimate relationship with the sea and with water until the end of his life. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Frisch’s most important architectonic legacy is an open-air swimming pool. His “Letzigraben outdoor pool”, which opened in 1949, features a modern sports pool nestling amongst swathes of organic parkland. Located in the middle of the city, the sparkling water continues to radiate holiday feeling. The characters in Frisch’s novels and stories also embark on sea voyages. Engineer Walter Faber, for instance, the protagonist of the novel Homo faber, travels by ship from New York to France – returning, with this, from a highly technical “New World” to an archaic, mystical Europe.

In a video interview, literary scholar Beatrice von Matt describes the significance of the sea in the life and works of Max Frisch. Private, previously unpublished film footage of the author is also shown.

A geologist on the Mediterranean

Just a few years after Max Frisch’s journey through South-East Europe, geologist Leo Wehrli began giving lectures at the adult education centre in Zurich (Volkshochschule Zürich). During the 1936/37 winter term, Wehrli, one of the college’s founders, lectured on the topic of European and North African seaports, as well as on the geological character of the seabed. Wehrli knew what he was taking about. As a pupil of Albert Heim, the renowned professor at ETH Zurich, he was a proven expert and had visited numerous places, and countries, personally. Wehrli had travelled to Argentina, Brazil and to Mediterranean destinations. He recorded his experiences in Greece and Tunisia on camera or on paper, in the form of sketches, subsequently illustrating his lectures with slides, which his wife Margrit coloured by hand. They not only showed the coastal regions’ geological profiles, but also included a series of captivating beaches. It is likely that he succeeded not only in arousing scientific curiosity, but also the longing for far-flung places in some of his listeners.

Gabès (Tunisia), breakers, coloured by hand by Margrit Wehrli-Frey
Leo Wehrli, 1923 (ETH Library Zurich, Image Archive, Dia_247-03566)
Switzerland compared in size with the Mediterranean and the Red Sea
Leo Wehrli, 1952 (ETH Library Zurich, Image Archive, Dia_247-Z-00443)

Mr and Mrs Switzerland by the sea

Today, the sea is a tourist destination par excellence for the average Swiss holidaymaker. However, this wasn’t always the case. Travelling remained the province of the nobility, pilgrims, missionaries, scholars and traders until well into the eighteenth century. It was, after all, expensive, time-consuming and fraught with danger. Holidays as we understand them today, i.e. travel serving the purposes of individual recreation and pleasure, is a relatively new phenomenon.

In the nineteenth century, the railway proved essential to the development of tourism. Switzerland began work on the expansion of its rail network around 1850 – relatively early when compared with European countries – although the areas which would play a crucial role in Swiss tourism, specifically the Alpine regions, were not developed until the end of the nineteenth century. 4 The opening of the Gotthard Railway Tunnel in 1882 constituted a breakthrough in two key ways. Not only did it encourage and facilitate trade relations with the South, it also boosted Switzerland’s tourism infrastructure.

New transport links like the Gotthard and San Bernardino tunnels meant that the Italian beaches were finally within reach. Travel operators including Zurich-based company Kuoni (founded in 1906) and national airline Swissair (founded in 1931) would also eventually ensure that holidays in more remote countries were affordable. Swiss citizens discovered the world – and the world came to Switzerland. Migrant workers from Italy settled there, and enriched the local cuisine with their dishes, with the result that some feared the “Mediterraneanisation” of Switzerland. Max Frisch also added his tuppence worth to the social debate around immigration: “A little master race feels threatened: we asked for workers. We got people instead,” was his statement from 1965, which is still cited to this day. 5 Max Frisch stood for a Switzerland which embraced democratic opening. After all, he also lived in Rome, and later in Berlin and New York as well. He never stopped scrutinizing the national symbols and myths of his homeland with a critical eye. The chanting of Swiss youth on the country’s streets in the 1980s would doubtless have met with his full approval: “Down with the Alps, give us a clear view of the Med!”

The sea in Switzerland

“To enjoy the magnificent spectacle which the sea presents, the inhabitant of Switzerland must undertake a long journey. […] The Swiss may, however, with less trouble, make himself master of ancient oceanic natural history; he resides in the midst of a vast marine bay, from which the water has flowed off and has left the land dry below it.” 6 This is an excerpt from a scientific treatise entitled “The Primaeval (sic!) World of Switzerland” dating from 1867, which was written by the palaeontologist and professor at ETH Zurich Oswald Heer. It is difficult to imagine that Switzerland was once immersed in water. Yet the sea can indeed be discovered in Switzerland, be it in the form of the sea of mist in the Alps, or at the countless bathing places in towns and in the countryside.

Max Frisch, who once strolled through the Dolderwald forest on the Zürichberg hill, caught a glimpse of “a rectangle brimming with warm Adriatic Sea, whose bright, vividly dazzling greenish blue surprised us and filled us with silent jubilation, a magical colour which lies there like the transparent radiance of a jewel” through the trees – here, he was referring to the Dolder wave pool. 7 And the dialect musician Kunz sings the praises of his native Lake Lucerne in a pop song of the same name: “Wär hed behouptet, d'Schwiiz hed kes Meer?” (“Who Said Switzerland Has No Sea?”)

Attentive walkers along Zurich’s Limmatquai are sure to notice a strange object: a bollard, usually used in large ports to moor seagoing vessels. What is this bollard doing here by the river, which is used solely by the rowing club team and the municipal Limmat boats? It was originally part of an art project initiated by the zürich-transit-maritim group. They installed a controversial, temporary port crane (2014/15) and five bollards along the Limmatquai.

The background to the project involved an analysis of a fascinating chapter in Switzerland’s commercial and technical history. In the 20th century, the “Transhelvetian Canal” had been planned to make the Swiss waterways navigable right up to the Alps, and even aspired to cross the mountains. Historian Andreas Teuscher tells the story of this adventurous scheme showcasing Swiss engineering skill in the video below. 8

Swiss companies continue to operate a deep-sea fleet flying the Swiss flag today. Founded in 1941, this was created in order to guarantee that Switzerland remained supplied with imported goods during the Second World War. The home port for Swiss ships is Basel. If plans for a Transhelvetian Canal had actually been implemented, they would be able to sail from the sea to Zurich or Geneva these days.


  1. Max Frisch: Sketchbook 1946-1949, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1977, pp. 15 f. ↩︎
  2. Max Frisch to Lina Frisch, postcard from Split, 13 July 1933, quoted in: Max Frisch: “Im übrigen bin ich immer völlig allein”. Briefwechsel mit der Mutter 1933. Eishockeyweltmeisterschaft in Prag. Reisefeuilletons, ed. Walter Obschlager, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 2000, p. 124. ↩︎
  3. Max Frisch: Tage am Meer, in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung, vol. 154, no. 1163 of 27 June 1933, p. 3. ↩︎
  4. Cf. Rüdiger Hachtmann: Tourismus-Geschichte, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht 2007, p. 73. ↩︎
  5. Max Frisch: Überfremdung I, in: Id.: Gesammelte Werke in zeitlicher Folge, eds. Hans Mayer and Walter Schmitz, vol. V, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 1967, p. 374. ↩︎
  6. Oswald Heer: The Primaeval (sic!) World of Switzerland, ed. James Heywood, vol. 1, London: Longmans, Green and Co 1876, p. 103. ↩︎
  7. Max Frisch: Vom kleinen Meer im Wald, in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung, vol. 156, no. 1130 of 28 June 1935, p. 5. ↩︎
  8. See also the study by Andreas Teuscher on this subject: Schweiz am Meer. Pläne für den «Central-Hafen» Europas inklusive Alpenüberquerung mit Schiffen im 20. Jahrhundert, Zurich: Limmat Verlag 2014. ↩︎

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