Swiss turn bunkers into tourist $ites

Experience a WWII 'Swiss Army night'

Mention Switzerland, and most people think of stunning landscapes, Alpine skiing, and quaint wooden chalets. But dig below the surface in some parts of this famously neutral nation in the center of Western Europe, and you might find a heavily fortified bunker.

And if this cash-strapped government has its way, you'll be able to stay in, or even buy one.

Switzerland spent the equivalent of $10 billion (in current dollars) to build a string of mountain fortresses to defend itself from its marauding German neighbor during World War II.

Construction of the fortresses, dug into the Alps, began in 1940 after Nazi troops marched into Paris. Thousands of Swiss soldiers and civilians labored to create a secret "national redoubt," a chain of some 70 medium-sized citadels and more than 10,000 smaller armed and fortified bunkers and command posts.

But modern-day Switzerland finds maintaining the mountain redoubts too expensive. It has decided to sell off some, and open others to the public.

Only three gigantic fortresses - at the western and eastern ends of the country, and one built near the Gothard mountain - are still classified top secret.

The entrance to Fortress Obere Nase is built into the mountain, hidden by a screen of leaves. Drivers whipping by on the scenic road on the edge of Lake Lucerne also won't notice the fort's protective machine gun emplacement, which is concealed behind fake leaves and rock.

In some of these fortresses, more than 1,000 soldiers could be housed in quarters complete with kitchens, infirmaries, and radio rooms. Officers had their own sleeping quarters.

Enlisted men had it rougher, judging by the spartan accommodations at the Obere Nase on the shores of Lake Lucerne, a typical medium-sized bunker capable of holding around 120 men at a time. They slept on enormous wooden bunk beds, which could hold up to 20 men.

The bunker has shed the huge cannons that once loomed over the large lake.

"Our biggest danger now is not cannons but the busy road," laughs Capt. Peter Odermatt, of the fortress guards.

This bunker still is being used as a training center for naval exercises by Swiss soldiers

Swiss officials estimate that it costs at least $27 million per year to maintain the structures, which led to the decision last year to change the government's secrecy policy. The military has put out the word that it wants to sell, and has had at least one taker for a nearby bunker built into Mount Rigi, a noted tourist attraction.

Several local hotels have teamed up to purchase the former artillery fortress and are advertising "Swiss Army Nights." The idea is to experience a night as wartime soldiers did, down to the little red candles decorated with white crosses. The food may be better, however, since food must be catered.

Prices range from $20 to $250 per night, depending on what you have for dinner, and whether you bring your own sleeping bag or have a hotel provide linens. So far, the former artillery bunker has attracted a number of groups, including those who built the complexes. "It's quite an experience to live like the soldiers did," says Vitznau tourism director Christian Kiefer.

The Swiss government won't be making much of a profit off the wartime enterprise, however, if the $22,000 price tag for the artillery complex, considered one of the better located and better preserved sites, is any guide.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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