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A symbol of Swiss unity given new lease on life

Pictures of Gilberte and her uniformed admirers can be seen again at the hotel in Courgenay Keystone

Gilberte Montavon was a legend in her own lifetime. As a young woman, she was confidante to hundreds of thousands of Swiss-German speaking soldiers during the First World War, and remembered most of their names. The hotel where she worked has now been reopened.

Georges Zaugg, who heads the “Fondation de la Petite Gilberte” responsible for restoring the previously dilapidated Hotel de la Gare in the French-speaking village of Courgenay near the border with France, said the purpose of bringing the place back to life was not only to toast the memory of the wartime heroine, but to preserve a sense of Swiss solidarity.

The view was reinforced by Gilberte’s niece, Eliane Chytil, who said that not only is it hoped that the inn, renamed the Hotel de la Petite Gilberte, will attract more tourists, but that it will encourage the French and German communities of Switzerland to learn to speak each other’s languages.

Gilberte Montavon, whose photograph adorns the doors of the restored hotel, was a waitress at the establishment, which was owned by her parents. She not only was a confidante to the lonely soldiers, being the only person there who could speak their language, but also a typist and seamstress for them.

Immortalised by song

She was still a teenager when the war began, and was immortalised by a song written during the war years by the Swiss-German bard and lute player, Hans Inn der Gand.

All of the verses of “La Petite Gilberte de Courgenay” are therefore in Swiss-German, except for the refrain: “Trois cent mille soldats et tous les officiers”.

This is a reference to the 300,000 soldiers that Gilberte said she had known during the war, when Hans asked her about them.

The hotel’s Belle Époque building still stands alongside the small railway station of Courgenay. The careful restoration was able to save its façade, and the famous painting of the vivacious teenager with dark hair, surrounded by a group of soldiers hangs proudly for all to see.

The refurbishment was also funded by a series of private donations, mainly from Swiss-German areas of the country.

Soldiers in period costume

Among the festivities for the inauguration of the restored hotel were Swiss folklore music concerts, and soldiers dressed in period uniforms.

The noisiest of the revellers, as the evening progressed, were the “Compagnie des Vieux Grenadiers de Genéve” – resplendent in their Napoleonic uniforms of red, blue, and white with high black boots. They added the kind of colour to a chilly evening that one would attribute to peacocks, with their tails fanning out on a rainy day.

As the celebrations went on into the night, one got a sense of what it may have been like during the First World War, when the hall was regularly packed with soldiers.

Despite the renovations to the hotel, the original parquet floors and the walls of the main dining hall have been retained. The only new additions are a series of photographs on the walls of Gilberte at the various times of her life.

Authentic coal stove

In a corner of the dining area sits the authentic coal stove, decorated with floral designs, which was used by Gilberte’s mother to turn out endless meals for the lonely soldiers. Now, the staff in the newly refurbished kitchen churns out warm, country fare.

The bedrooms – situated above the dining hall-foyer of the hotel – all have modern fittings and sumptuous bateau-lit style beds. The only reminders of the past are small reproductions of family photographs on the walls.

The simplicity and friendly atmosphere of the little inn by the station belie the importance of the contributions “la Petite Gilberte” made to Swiss unity.

by MaryAnn Mathew

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR