Frontier stories

All along the frontier there are places that are interesting for historical or geographical reasons, or because the boundary follows an unusual path. My thanks to my friend François Chastellain who wrote almost all of the following texts.

1. Dreiländereck in Basle . . . and the others

We all remember the monument put up in Basle on the Swiss bank of the Rhine. It represents the frontier point common to 3 countries: Switzerland, France and Germany (although the real triple point lies 150 m away in the middle of the river).

The 5 other triple points are less well known and for some of them less accessible:

  • The Mont Dolent. The frontier between Switzerland, Italy and France is not at the summit but 71 m lower down where the north and west ridges meet.
  • In the Lower Engadine, on the north slope of Piz Lad, 628 m below the summit (Switzerland/Italy/Austria).
  • Two triple points between Austria, Switzerland and Liechtenstein, one on the Naafkopf, the other in the middle of the bed of the Rhine.
  • The last one, between Austria, Germany and Switzerland, is in the middle of Lake Constance, but there is no international treaty which fixes it.

To learn more:

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1a. Benkenspitz or Bänggenspitz

The municipal boundary in the forest northwest of Biel-Benken forms a wedge between the French municipalities Neuwiller and Leymen. I suspect this strip of land was formerly an aristocratic hunting reserve. Biel-Benken was sold in 1526 by the Schaler knights (Schalberg Castle, Pfeffingen) to the city of Basle. This strange border geometry in Benkenspitz was documented in 1620 by means of a map drawn by the Basle painter Hans Bock the Elder (1550-1624), commissioned by the Basle government. The frontier was surveyed in 1746 and the markers completed. The Basle bishop’s staff symbol was added to the boundary stones on the Biel-Benken side. Another survey was carried out 1816.

The “entrance” to Benkenspitz – “Between the Holzmatten” – is about 62 meters wide, and is the narrowest part of Switzerland! (69 meters between boundary stones 126 and 109.)

To learn more:

Photo 1: Hans Bock’ map
Photo 2: Boundary stone at the top end of Benkenspitz

Rodersdorf Buche

1b. The largest beech tree in north-western Switzerland

Northwest of Rodersdorf, a municipality in the canton Solothurn, there is a huge beech tree, about 5 metres inside the Swiss border. The tree stands at an altitude of about 455 metres in the middle of a forest, between the boundary stones 61 and 62.

Compared to a normal beech tree logged for timber, this impressive beech has three times the trunk diameter and ten times more timber volume. It is about 40 m high and has an estimated trunk volume of about 35 m3. The long branchless trunk is also very unusual in that it divides into three equal forks only at the height of 17 metres.

This beech saw “active service” the 1st and the 2nd World Wars as a Swiss Army observation post and nearly lost its life because of this. During the 2nd World War the Rodersdorf inhabitants defended the beech to prevent it being cut down by the German Wehrmacht.

To learn more: (see notice board no. 47)

2. The right bank of the Doubs

As opposed to other frontier rivers (the Rhine, the Rhone downstream from La Plaine, the Inn downstream from Martinsbruck), the frontier along the Doubs between the Lac des Brenets and the point where the river enters Switzerland upstream from Soubey does not run in the middle of the Doubs but along its right bank. The Doubs is therefore entirely French in this section, including the bridge at Goumois!
Photo on the left: The (French!) bridge at Goumois.

This peculiarity has a historical explanation: Louis XVI and the prince-bishop of Basle reached an agreement in 1780. By giving up his rights to the left bank of the Doubs, the prince-bishop obtained Boncourt, Bure and other territories on the right bank in exchange.

To learn more :

3. The slippage of the Vraconnaz peat bog

Below the first boundary stone Vaud / France coming from the canton of Neuchâtel, near the Col des Etroits, is the magnificent peat bog, or “Mouille”, of Vraconnaz (pronounced: Vraconne) which slopes downhill slightly.

Nearly 30 years ago, during the night of September 26th 1987, the upper layer made of peat broke off and slipped for 300 metres towards the Sécha hill.  From a smooth landscape covered with sphagnum moss and bog bilberry, the bog became a collection of shapeless heaps.  Time has done its work since then and the signs of the slippage are no longer as spectacular as in 1987.  Worthy of protection, the peat bog became the first nature reserve in Switzerland in 1911.  It is now owned by Pro Natura, and enjoys protection since the 1990s by virtue of its status as a raised bog and a marshy site of national importance.

To learn more:

Vieilles bornes VD
4. The boundary stones on the border between Vaud and France
There are no less than 309 boundary stones, not including intermediate markers between the Swiss Canton of Vaud and France. Some of them date back to the sixteenth century, well before the surveyors!
Jean-François Robert, forest engineer and former head of the Vaud cantonal forestry department did useful work by drawing up an inventory of these boundary stones (see reference below). In this brochure, illustrated by the author, we learn almost everything about the dates and symbols carved on the ancient stones. We also learn that when the boundary stone was put in place, a volume equivalent to 1 dm3 of charcoal was placed underneath it as well as two “witnesses” made by breaking a brick in half, which could be authenticated by fitting the two halves together. Why? Mystery!

To learn more:

  • Vieilles bornes en pays de Vaud, J.-F. Robert, édition «L’industriel sur bois », 1980, 30 pages (the brochure is available at the museum of the Aubonne Arboretum).
  • Histoire de bornes, O. Cavaleri, éditions Slatkine, 2011-2014 (4 brochures on the boundary stones between France and Switzerland)
Traité vallée Dappes

5. The Treaty of the Dappes Valley

There have not been many corrections to the Swiss border since the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The Treaty of the Dappes Valley is a notable exception.

Signed in December 1862, the Treaty of Dappes ended a long-standing French claim. After much discussion and exchange of territory, the treaty signed between the Swiss Federal Council, and “His Majesty the Emperor of the French” precisely defines the exchange of territory (about 750 hectares).

Article 3 of the Treaty states: “The original inhabitants of that part of the Dappes Valley being returned to France under this Treaty remain French, unless they declare, within a year, to opt for Swiss citizenship, in which case they may maintain their home and business in the Empire’s territory”. An equivalent paragraph deals with the fate of those French who found themselves in Switzerland.

To learn more:

St-Gingolph 1944

6. The fire in St-Gingolph

On the morning of Sunday, July 23rd, 1944, German soldiers set fire to the border village of St-Gingolph in retaliation for an attack by Savoyard resistance fighters the previous day. A huge fire, clearly visible from the Swiss side of the lake opposite, destroyed more than 80 mostly wooden houses. More than 300 inhabitants of the French part of the village took refuge in the Swiss part.

The church shared by the two communities would be saved thanks to the intervention of the Swiss Colonel Brigadier J. Schwarz who negotiated with the Germans. Also worthy of mention is the gesture of the German soldier Hartmann who, despite orders, crosses the border, seizes a fire hose and sprays the church that was threatened by the flames in order to protect it.

To learn more :

See also:

La Montagne et ses Noms

7. Cervin or Servin ?

In his book “The mountain and its names” Jules Guex, well-known toponymist and eminent patois speaker, devoted a whole chapter to the French name of the Matterhorn, a subject of heated debate among linguists of the past century.

The author first remarks that whereas well used cols or passes were given names in the Middle Ages, this was not the case for the surrounding mountains, which did not interest travellers before the age of mountaineering. The Theodul Pass bore different names in the past including Silvius Mons (mons in Latin may also mean col). The origin of silvius must be sought in silva “where there are forests.” Subsequently, the name of the col was attributed to the mountain as Mount Servin until Horace Bénédict de Saussure renames it – perhaps as a result of a spelling error – Mont Cervin.

Jules Guex concludes with these words: “If the Federal Office of Topography wants to respect the historical and linguistic truth as attested by the most ancient documents, they should in the future write Matterhorn / Monte Servino /Mont Servin on our maps”. Jules Guex was not heard!

To learn more:

La montagne et ses noms, Jules Guex, ed. Rouge 1946, 2nd  ed. Pillet Martigny 1976

Gondo 2000

8. The disaster at Gondo

We all remember the tragedy of the frontier village of Gondo on October 14th, 2000. A landslide caused by torrential rains had washed away part of the village, tearing apart the Stockalper tower and killing 13 people, about 10 % of the population.

This tragedy generated a wave of solidarity never seen before as 700,000 Swiss made a donation for the reconstruction of the village.

The Stockalper tower, built by the powerful family of Upper Valais traders was repaired and reopened in 2007. Next to the hotel, one can visit a small museum dedicated to the gold mines that the Stockalper family had operated from the 17th century. The few vrenelis that still exist made from Gondo gold have become very valuable (up to CHF 68’000. – !).

To learn more: (video 8 min)

Simplon porte

9. Directly above the Simplon tunnel

On the ridge between the Punta Terrarossa (or Wasenhorn) and the Punta d’Aurona (or Furggubäumhorn) there is a marker at 2815 m, located directly above the Simplon tunnel which crosses the mountain almost 2100 meters lower down, and 100 meters from an intermediate summit called Tunnelspitz.

The construction of the first tunnel between 1898 and 1905 was heroic – more than 45°C inside the tunnel! – because the drilling machines were still rudimentary. One can see such a drill, as well as the iron gate intended to stop the water from entering the construction site, at the Palais de Rumine in Lausanne (in a cave at the end of the wing to the left of the monumental entrance stairs).

The opening of the tunnel in 1906 knocked 13 hours off the journey Lausanne-Milan!

To learn more :


10. The Gries Glacier, and what remains of it …

The Gries Glacier, which runs along the Italian border, lends itself well to an illustration of global warming. In the 1970s the head of the glacier calved into the water reservoir created by the construction of the dam in 1965. One could even see some icebergs (of very modest size) floating in the lake located below the frontier col of Gries.

40 years later, no more ice in the lake … What remains of the glacier has withdrawn into the mountains.

In the lower picture one can see the wind turbine installed in 2011 by SwissWinds. This pilot project at 2465 m altitude is the highest in Europe.

To learn more: :


11. The baths of Craveggia

In the upper part of the untamed Onsernone valley, just across the border in Italian territory, are the ruins of the baths of Craveggia.  This valley head is quite special because the road along it leads into Switzerland and only a few steep paths enable one to reach Craveggia in the Centovalli.

Water at 28°C – sodium sulphate type with low mineralisation (

A Locarnese National Park centred on the densely wooded Valle Onsernone is being planned.

To learn more :[tt_news]=74&cHash=732b467e79beb62dab2ed39cf2aa941c

12. The isolation of Indemini

The border between Ticino and Italy is sometimes erratic. Indemini is at the far end of the Italian Val Veddasca, 500m beyond the border. Until 1918 the only access to the village was the valley road but an audacious Swiss road was built over the Alpe di Neggia at 1395m to allow national access to the inhabitants of Indemini.

A post bus connects the village to Magadino by a twisty road : no less than 132 turns and 38 hairpin bends! But the isolation of Indemini has perhaps allowed it to remain an authentic and homogeneous Ticino village whose houses are constructed of local gneiss, covered with granite and adorned with beautiful wooden balconies .

To learn more :

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12a. Boundary stones dated 1559

We came across an old boundary stone north of Stabio, in the Mendrisiotto, Ticino: no. 123, with the inscriptions “LIGA HELVETICA” and 1559 on one side and “STATUS MEDIOLANI” and 1559 on the other, in a very good state of preservation. There are other similar stones dating back to 1559 in Ticino; they are the oldest in the canton.

The Mendrisiotto was annexed by the Switzerland of the XIII cantons in 1512 and the possession was confirmed by the Treaty of Fribourg (also called the treaty of “perpetual peace”) signed on November 29, 1516, after the defeat of the Swiss at Marignano in September 1515 by the French King Francis 1st. After several wars between the kings of France and Spain, the Spanish control of the Duchy of Milan (Mediolanum in Latin) was recognised in 1559 by the peace of Cateau-Cambrésis.

To learn more:

Better photos:

13. The Monte Generoso railway

Monte Generoso (1701.3 m) is well known to families in Ticino. The 360° view is exceptional and one can see – on clear days – from Milan to the Gran Paradiso and from Monte Rosa to the Bernina. Since 1890, a cog-wheel train takes visitors effortlessly from Capolago to the summit.

The line is now electrified but a steam train (with an 1890 locomotive!) provides the service on special occasions. In 1941, the founder of Migros, Gottlieb Duttweiler, bought the rail facilities that were then adrift and transformed Monte Generoso into tourist site of national importance.

Because of construction work on Monte Generoso, rail traffic is temporarily suspended. Reopening in 2016.

Picture on the left: Proposed terminal station of Monte Generoso by Mario Botta (opening in 2016).

To learn more:

14. The enclave of Campione d’Italia

Campione d’Italia, entirely surrounded by Ticino, is primarily the Municipal Casino. The striking edifice of Mario Botta built in 2007 has the merit being seen from Lugano, day and night … It is true that with a surface area of 55’000 m2 it is difficult to go unnoticed!

Campione d’Italia is a tax haven where citizens pay half the taxes levied on other Italians.  The border with Switzerland exists only on maps, because in reality many details remind one of Ticino: car license plates, health insurance, not to mention that the Swiss franc is widely used.

To learn more:

15. The Swiss Customs Museum at Cantine di Gandria

The neat-looking Swiss Customs Museum is a gem that deserves a visit. To get there, the best is to take the boat to Lugano (frequent shuttles in summer). Highly recommended: land at Caprino and follow the path along the lake to the museum (about 40 min.) For the return, the boat crosses the lake to Gandria and continues to Lugano. But one can choose to return to Lugano by walking the olive tree path that has interesting information panels along it.

From Cantine de Gandria, customs officers monitored the smuggling operation (given the isolated location, only unmarried customs officers there were stationed there after 1921!). The smugglers were trying to smuggle cigarettes but also first necessity goods such as sugar, coffee, rice and salt. Although small, the museum has a modern technology and captivating exhibitions.

To learn more:

16. The formidable Splügen

Unlike some Alpine passes like the Simplon, where road improvements have made the crossing easy, the 65 km long Splügen pass forces respect. Just drive from Chiavenna to Splügen in bad weather, and you will remember it for a long time! The pass marks the Swiss-Italian border since the return in 1797 of the Valtelline to the Cisalpine Republic by Napoleon Bonaparte.

Before the construction of the great Alpine tunnels the Splügen (2113 m) was a busy passage with a large volume of goods (2000 mules per month). This intense activity generated a thriving economy. For benumbed travellers who had crossed the pass safely, the descent to Thusis by the Via Mala represented a new trial …

To learn more:

Lac de Lei

17. Lei valley and lake

The Lei valley, Italian territory since 1863, was uninhabited and therefore well suited for a hydroelectric facility. The dam built in 1962 required a formal agreement between Italy and Switzerland. Since the lake represented a danger for the Swiss valleys below in the event of a rupture, the Confederation requested to keep the dam under its authority. By way of compensation, some territory downstream from the dam was transferred to Italy.

Such cross-border agreements related to the operation of dams are not uncommon. A good example is the Emosson dam located entirely in Swiss territory but collecting waters from the Mont Blanc massif. The power station is located in France at Châtelard. Another example is the lake of Livigno near the Ofenpass.

To learn more :

18. The Badile of Riccardo Cassin

The Bregaglia range consists of magnificent granite, much younger than those of the Grimsel and of Mont Blanc that were formed before the birth of the Alps. This coarse-grained granite has been a delight for climbers since the 1930ies.

In 1937, Riccardo Cassin and his climbing partners were the first to conquer the north-east face of Piz Badile that was a terrifying mountain face at the time. Cassin played a decisive role in the development of materials adapted to the extreme conditions of mountain climbing (such as climbing shoes, for example). He died in his bed at the age of 100 years and 7 months which for a man who took so many risks his life is a real achievement!

To learn more:

19. Between the Rhine and the Old Rhine

Between the Rhine opposite Altstätten and Lake Constance there is a difference in altitude of about twenty meters for a stretch of about 18 km. The river did not flow due north but passed to the east of Diepoldsau before making a pronounced bend to the west at St. Margrethen. Due to the low declivity alluvium transported by the Alpine Rhine was deposited and raised the riverbed. To end the catastrophic floods of the nineteenth century, a correction of the river course was undertaken in the years 1896 to 1923 by channelling the river between dykes leading straight to the lake, thus increasing the gradient. When the work was completed, the border remaining unchanged along the old Rhine (Alter Rhein) Diepoldsau had moved from the west to the east of the river!

Major projects are under way to give the Alpine Rhine upstream from Lake Constance a more pronounced natural character.

To learn more: :

20. The Rhine Delta and the “boundary stone” seventy-three

The triangle between the canalised Rhine, the Old Rhine and Lake Constance forms the freshwater delta of the Rhine (to be distinguished from the Great Sea Delta in the Netherlands). A nature reserve of more than 2000 hectares was created in 1976 after years of negotiations. The reserve serves as a refuge for more than 330 bird species, making it a site of international importance.

At the mouth of the Old Rhine in Lake Constance the Swiss national map shows a point labelled 73. As this point is in the water it cannot be a boundary stone. In fact it is a point calculated from markers lying further back to the left and right of the Rhine. The axis of the Rhine is defined from a whole set of these markers.

At the mouth of the Old Rhine in Lake Constance there was a frontier marker (number 73), shown on the older Swiss national maps up to 2013, in the lake some way from the shore. This was not a physical marker but a point calculated from other markers which are located on either side of the Rhine. The axis of the Rhine is defined from a whole set of such markers.

To learn more :

21. The uncertain crossings of MF Romanshorn

MF Romanshorn and MF Euregia (MF: MotorFähre – car ferry) are the two ferries that connect Romanshorn to Friedrichshafen across Lake Constance several times a day. The ferry line, opened in 1929, was also used to transport railroad cars until 1976.

When MF Romanshorn leaves port, its status becomes uncertain as it enters a kind of legal no man’s land. Indeed, the border between Switzerland and Germany has never been defined in a treaty. In fact, the state boundaries have not been clear since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 and the (de jure) recognition of the independence of the Swiss Confederation. This uncertainty does not seem to bother anybody except for some professors of international law …

To learn more:


Illumination from the Codex Egberti (Library of the city of Trier)

22. Reichenau Abbey

The island of Reichenau, linked to the mainland by a causeway since 1838, is located a few hundred metres from the border. The island with its abbey, founded in 724 by St. Pirmin, is listed since 2000 as a World Heritage site by UNESCO. In the early eleventh century, Reichenau is a renowned manuscript school that produces the finest illuminated manuscripts, such as the Codex Egberti.

Opposite the island, on the Swiss bank, there is Salenstein and Arenenberg castle where Prince Louis Napoleon, the future Napoleon III, lived. The huge 13-hectare park, abandoned for a long time, is being restored.

To learn more :

Schaffhouse 1944

23. The bombing of Schaffhausen

The canton of Schaffhausen, almost entirely on the right bank of the Rhine, has a “meandering” border of more than 150 km with Germany. In many places the route even defies all logic!

On Saturday, April 1st, 1944 at the time of the market US squadrons dropped hundreds of incendiary and explosive bombs on the city of Schaffhausen, killing dozens of people and causing great deal of damage. Navigational error or retaliatory action?  It will probably never be known. Following the apology of President Franklin Roosevelt, the US government in 1949 paid Switzerland over 62 million francs in compensation for the loss of life and destruction suffered in 1944, following the bombing of Schaffhausen, Zurich and Basle.

To learn more :,0,schaffhausen-bombardiert-,index,0.html[backPid]=217&tx_ttnews[list]=349%2C1376%2C631%2C273%2C1525%2C1523%2C1524%2C233%2C1522%2C1561%2C1379&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=349 (vidéo Ciné-journal suisse 5’12 ‘’)

24. The Rhine Falls

Situated 1 km from the border, the Rhine Falls are impressive, especially in times of high water. The stages of their genesis about 17,000 to 14,000 years ago (very recently, geologically speaking) are well established. It is the direct result of successive glaciations. The waterfall is where a hard Jurassic limestone bed (upstream) gives way to a bed of softer sedimentary rocks (downstream).

Fifty km below the Falls, the river Aare, the main tributary of the Rhine in Switzerland, brings much more water than the Rhine itself. The Rhine has different flow rates between summer and winter (in Basle: 1500 m3/s in June compared with 700 m3/s in January). But exceptional years are not uncommon: in 1858 the flow in Basle was only 202 m3/s, about 50 m3 more than the Rhône in Geneva. Difficult to navigate under these conditions!

To learn more:


24a. Laufenburg – interesting history and special geological situation

Historical aspects

Laufenburg, on both sides of the Rhine, had been part of the Habsburg territories since the 12th century – later referred to as Anterior Austria – until the Treaty of Lunéville in February 1801. Napoleon then decided that the Rhine should be the border of the Helvetic Republic. Laufenburg was divided in two, the southern part became part of the canton Fricktal and after the Act of Mediation in 1803 was attached to the canton of Aargau. The northern part became part of the Grand Duchy of Baden, today the German state of Baden-Württemberg.

Geographical aspects

The Rhine carved a passage through the crystalline rocks (red gneiss) of the Black Forest, which resulted in a gorge, only 12 metres wide, with rapids (a descent of 10 metres in one kilometre). The word Laufen meant rapids or waterfall in old German. For a long time floaters (Laufenknechte) steered the boats through the Laufen rapids, while the goods were transported in carts by land, which represented an important source of revenue for the town. Log rafts had to be disassembled before the rapids, then tied together again below them.

With the construction of the dam for the Laufenburg power plant – incidentally the first one on the Rhine and the largest at the time – between 1909 and 1914, the rapids were submerged. The floater profession became obsolete. The current bridge was built in 1910.

To learn more: (in French)

Augusta 1  

The bridge crossed the Rhine at this very point

25. The bridge at Augusta Raurica

Castrum Rauracense, which succeeded Augusta Raurica whose heyday declined in the third century AD under the pressure of peoples living to the north, was a stronghold at the end of the bridge over the Rhine. Already at that time, therefore, the river played the role of a frontier. When one sees the Rhine today, very wide at this point, one wonders how the Romans could even have built bridge piers in a strong current and a depth one can imagine to be of several meters…

The site of Augusta Raurica is currently landscaped with explanatory panels in several languages. The museum, very small, presents objects discovered during the excavations, including the famous treasure consisting of 270 silver coins. We see many coins of incredible quality (they have never been used) and magnificent ceremonial objects including the superb Achilles platter.

To learn more :