After an absence of more than a century, a legendary dragon has returned to Lake Thun in canton Bern. It may seem the stuff of fairytales, but this summer the region is home to not one but simply hundreds of the fire-breathing beasts.
All over the region, shops, museums and transport companies have been gripped by dragon fever. It was the local tourist office that decided to turn the area into a living legend by launching the dragon concept.
There are 40 different dragon attractions including a giant dragon boat ferrying passengers across Lake Thun and an unpredictable dragon called Ponzo hiding high up in the Beatus Caves.
Costly dragon makeover
The green and yellow boat with the red and purple tail cost SFr300,000 to refit and posed a big challenge to the ship company's maintenance workers, who created the beast in a matter of months.
"This is the first dragon to circulate on one of Europe's lakes, so it's really unique to Lake Thun," says Beat Anneler, the director of Thun's tourist office. "It's become really well known in Switzerland and is always crowded when the weather is good."
Looking around at the smiling faces and excited children on board it is easy to see why he is satisfied with the novelty boat, which can carry up to 900 passengers.
The dragon shares the lake with other ferries including a restored paddle steamer, which sails daily on the topaz waters of Lake Thun. The beast turns heads wherever it docks and surprisingly, the bizarre creature looks very much at home against the alpine backdrop.
Anneler is quick to point out that the boat is one feature of many aimed at turning Thun into a magical holiday region but that it is not meant to detract from the area's natural beauty.
"The whole of Switzerland is very attractive and every place is worth a trip, as well as the region around Lake Thun, which offers everything," he emphasises. "We have marvellous castles, people can take a refreshing dip in the lake or visit our museums. The concept of a fairy tale holiday region is to make it more attractive and to draw more visitors."
The dragon boat makes 11 stops during its lake crossing, pulling into idyllic lakeshore towns and villages, many of which have their own dragon touches.
In Gunten there is a fire-breathing beast on a hotel lawn and in Beatenbucht, giant lizard footprints guide the way to a magical funicular railway. In nearby Steffisburg, the mythical creature has hidden some of its eggs in the middle of maize maze.
One of the most popular stops for would-be dragon hunters are the Saint Beatus Caves, where a 20 minute hike uphill brings you deep within a dragon's lair.
Here, high above Lake Thun, a fierce dragon was banished from its cave by a pilgrim called Beatus who travelled to the region from Ireland in the sixth century.
According to the legend, Beatus came to the area to preach Christianity and quickly discovered that the locals lived in fear of a dragon, which lived above them. Wanting to convince them of the Christian faith, he took it upon himself to rid them of the creature.
Face-to-face with creature
He bravely climbed up to the caves believing that God would help him in his mission. When he finally came face-to-face with the fearsome creature, he simply uttered a few religious words and showed the animal his cross and the beast flew away, never to return.
"The dragon has a special significance, it's the symbol of all that is bad," says Marie Blanche-Schwaller, a guide at the caves explaining why so many religious heroes killed or banished dragons. "So when people preach Christianity they say that the devil looks like a dragon, so when people see a dragon it something bad, not good."
Beatus, who was later canonised, lived in the grotto as a hermit and preached Christianity until he was 90. When he died the people of the lake buried him in front of the caves and the site became an important place of pilgrimage during the Middle Ages.
Nowadays the pilgrims have been replaced by tourists eager to see if they can spot a dragon of their own.
by Sally Mules