Mountain village converts to a princedom

Peter Martin Wettler, the new Prince of Belfort, poses with a specially-made orb, symbol of the village's unity Keystone

A village in normally democratic Switzerland has taken the rather unusual step of appointing a prince in the hope of reviving its fortunes.

This content was published on March 20, 2007 - 12:51

On Tuesday, the authorities in Alvaneu, near the resort of Davos, announced that the title – which was advertised in the press - had been awarded to canton Zurich resident and media expert Peter Martin Wettler.

The "Prince of Belfort" as he will be known – named after a local castle and hotel - will rule over his subjects for at least a year.

Alvaneu is a quiet, rural village of 440 people, set against a glorious mountain and forest backdrop.

Perhaps not the first place you would think of for a monarch, especially in highly democratic Switzerland. So does it really want to hark back to feudal times? Not really, says Alvaneu's mayor Thomas Kollegger.

"We currently live in a time where mountain regions have to work out how to survive," said Kollegger.

"It makes sense to see what our potential is and somebody who doesn't live here is of course much more open and can help us develop our future," he told swissinfo ahead of the announcement.

The prince is expected to bring along a strong network [of contacts] and new ideas for bringing back some sparkle into the depressed region, which is losing its young people to the cities. In return, the prince will have a strong "executive and representational capacity", but he won't be paid.

Lots of publicity

The publicity surrounding the village's unusual move is also giving the tourism area a very welcome public relations boost.

"We hope that through the appointment new impulses will be given to our hotel and the region," admits Markus Beer, who with his wife runs the local Hotel Belfort – which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.

Beer has prepared a special room for the prince, complete with coat of arms on the door and magnificent view of the mountains. A special series of events is planned to welcome the village's new royal member, who of course gets free lodgings whenever he is in town.

Kollegger and Beer have created a foundation to support the prince and his work, as well as to mark the hotel's anniversary. The foundation was responsible for the advert looking for a royal that appeared in the Swiss media earlier this year.

Eight applications from across Switzerland came in but none was from the truly blue blooded. "We had only enquiries from that side but afterwards they didn't apply," explained Kollegger.

Wettler was chosen for the one-year post because he was, as Beer puts it, an "unconventional thinker".

Loyal subjects

It seems as if his highness may be able to count on his subjects being loyal. Both men say they have not had any complaints from the local population.

In fact, when a radio station asked the good burghers of Alvaneu who would be the best ruler, the most popular answers were former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and current Swiss President Micheline Calmy-Rey.

A quick tour of Alvaneu, which has a doctor, a supermarket, a post office as well as several tourism establishments, including a spa, would seem to confirm this.

"There are always people for and against the idea but for the most part people are behind it," says one man.

Of course, the region has already had its fair share of nobility. There were barons until the 12th century, including the much-loved hero Baron Donatus von Vaz, who owned the nearby Belfort castle.

And the current prince may be in for a long reign if he proves a success.

"We gave him a mandate for a year and we will see if we can extend it. Or it could be that next year there'll be another prince. There's a lot to do," said Kollegger.

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Alvaneu, Graubünden

In brief

Alvaneu, in canton Graubünden, is divided into Alvaneu Dorf (village) and Alvaneu Bad (baths).

Around 30% of the population speak the Latin-based minority language Romansh.

The economy is based on tourism, agriculture and forestry, as well as local industry such as carpentry and forging.

Bad Alvaneu houses a spa complex, based on natural springs.

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