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Christmas shopping reaches new heights

Tourists have been travelling by cog railway to the Mount Pilatus summit for more than 100 years

(swissinfo.ch)

Once considered to have harboured dragons and the ghost of Pontius Pilate, Mount Pilatus has now been overcome by the Christmas spirit.

The highest Christmas market in Europe is held on its summit, more than 2,000 metres above sea level. It is also the first Christmas market of the season in Switzerland.

The dragons have long been tamed and Pilate's spirit put to rest. In their place come tens of thousands of tourists who ascend the heights each year aboard the world's steepest cog railway.

Dragon sightings are rare nowadays but the spectacular views and new attractions like the Christmas market do more than compensate.

Held over two days in mid-November, the Pilatus market is now in its fourth year. And each time, doll maker Heidi Kreis has been part of it, selling her wares from her lofty perch.

"I like the ambience here on top of the mountain," she says. "It's very Christmas-like with all the snow."

There are nearly 50 stalls crowded into the halls and rooms of the two summit hotels. The overwhelming majority are set up by local residents, selling their homemade arts and crafts.

Glass angels

There are glass angels, beeswax candles, wind-up toys and the alluring smells of gingerbread and mulled wine wafting through the rarefied air.

Moni Zeier was a pastry chef before she shifted her talent from shaping dough to working with clay. She has crafted ceramic nativity scene figurines, birds and candleholders.

Even though the market only lasts for two days, she says it takes an additional two days just to ship her goods up the mountain and back down again.

"This is the wrong business if you want to earn money," she says. "You have to like doing it."

Storytelling

The Pilatus Railways have created a children's area complete with a storytelling corner to keep the kids occupied while their parents shop.

The young ones design their own Christmas gifts or sit around hearing tales from the Brothers Grimm.

Once upon a time Christmas markets - in Switzerland anyway - were a simple affair: a collection of rough wooden stalls thrown up for a few days in the centre of town, enabling people to sell their arts and crafts.

They are now much better organised, often held throughout the whole month of December and are considered a great way of attracting out-of-town visitors.

André Zimmermann, the director of Pilatus Railways, says people are no longer willing to pay for the ride just to enjoy the views from the top.

Value for money

He believes they want added value. "The economy is not so strong at the moment and people really turn their money in their hand twice before they spend it."

"That's something we've noticed in the restaurants and on the railways," he adds. "So we have to give people an excuse to come up here, to say 'it's worth spending the money'."

But the competition at Christmas is fierce (see related story). Markets in numerous Swiss towns and villages are expanding or forever adding new attractions.

The covered market in the resort of Montreux is one of the most popular and boasts brass bands and street performers.

Basel claims its market is the longest of its kind in Switzerland - at over three kilometres; while Zurich's, located in the city's main railway station, is quite simply Switzerland's biggest indoor affair.

But Pilatus has a big advantage. Since it is held so early, no one can claim to be suffering from Christmas shopping fatigue.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel

Key facts

The Pilatus Christmas market is the highest in Europe at 2,132 metres above sea level.
It is held annually in mid-November.
The cog railway, which first opened in 1889, is the world's steepest with a 48 per cent gradient.
The summit can also be reached by cable car.
Pilatus is a popular day trip from Lucerne for tourists and locals alike.

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