Swiss army invades town

Raphael Grieder gets his bearings swissinfo.ch

It is five o'clock in the afternoon and hundreds of troops are taking up positions in the medieval fortifications overlooking the town of Thun.

This content was published on May 30, 2007 - 15:23

This is where they are given their marching orders for a most unusual task. Armed only with a card and a map, the recruits have a couple of hours to visit the city's sights.

The young men in uniform descend from the hilltop castle and spread out across Thun's cobbled streets and river and lakeside lanes.

Their duty this evening is to walk through historic squares, listen to the story of the town's photogenic covered sluices as well as to browse around a few shops and try their luck at the casino.

The town that acts as a gateway to the Bernese Alps has long been Switzerland's most important military training centre, but until recently, few of the thousands of recruits who pass through each year have seen much beyond the army base.

"There was a time when locals felt the army had too much of a presence here but nowadays we are happy to have the recruits because of their economic importance," explains Manfred Fasnacht, head of Thun's economic promotion department and driving force behind the specially-designed tours.

"We are currently defining which target groups have long-term potential as future guests or residents and the 3,000 recruits who come here each year cannot be overlooked," Fasnacht tells swissinfo.

"That means we can at least try to create an emotional bond to the town for these 3,000 young people. They spend money while they're here but they may come back some day."

Finish line

Fasnacht hopes the two-hour adventure launched last year will encourage the soldiers to return later in life. Each one of the recruits must visit the 12 stop-off points on the tour before crossing the finish line where cold beer awaits.

Accompanied by swissinfo, 22-year-old recruit and mechanic Raphael Grieder performs the task with military precision, getting his card punched at each stop.

He shows no interest in the shoes or sporting goods sold by the shops that are part of the tour, but the tall, fair-haired recruit dutifully listens to the guides he meets at other posts who are there to explain bits of local history.

At a public bathing spot on the River Aare, he hears how men and women once had separate times for taking a dip, with women restricted to the early hours of the morning and late afternoon. He also learns a little about the history and continuing importance of the 280-year-old covered sluice that regulates the lake water as it flows into the river.

Grieder takes time to find out about the Mühleplatz – the riverbank square in the heart of the old town lined with cafes and restaurants. But the older woman assigned to inform the young men about this part of town is so conscientious she tries to stop a group of recruits who want to hurry past once they have had their cards punched.

Lack of interest

Grieder puts the lack of interest down to their age. He says many of them are in Thun because they have to be and want nothing more than to complete their basic training and go home.

Fasnacht replies that feedback from the recruits who took part in the first few tours has been very positive, with most vowing to come back eventually.

It is hard to tell in the two hours if Fasnacht has got his message across that Thun is a "town where people love to live".

He says it's the biggest town in the region with the most shopping opportunities and excellent infrastructure. "And all that combined with a deep, blue lake and impressive mountain backdrop which is part of a Unesco World Heritage Site. It takes your breath away!"

A man of fewer words, Grieder sips his well-deserved beer and gets to the point: "It's very historic and beautiful with the lake and river. I like it."

He may return one day to go swimming.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Thun

Key facts

Thun has a population of 41,000. Its skyline is dominated by a four-turreted castle and its medieval centre is built around the River Aare.
Thun is Switzerland's oldest – and still one of its most important – military training centres. The first academy was founded here in 1818.
Thanks to the army's presence, Thun is also home to the "Swiss Army Museum Collection". Visits are by appointment only with a minimum of six people.

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