6 Ways to Explore Switzerland’s Celtic Heritage

In Europe, Celtic culture extends far beyond the British Isles.

6 Ways to Explore Switzerland’s Celtic Heritage

Switzerland’s Celtic roots live on in such towns as Thun.

Photo by othree/Flickr

Mention the word Celtic and most people instantly think of the British Isles. However, fewer folks know that the numerous Celtic clans that occupied Europe north of the Roman Empire’s borders likely originated in Austria’s Hallstatt area. An even lesser-known fact? Most historians agree that the golden age of the Celts actually took place in modern-day Switzerland, in the Lac de Neuchâtel region, where a wine-guzzling, gold-designing, poly/bisexual, naked-warrior-battling culture called La Tène became the epicenter of the Celtic world from 450 BCE to 58 BCE.

This scruffy cultural center maintained no written language—a far cry from the literate, neutral, and sanitized Switzerland we know today—and abruptly came to a close when Julius Caesar invaded during the Gallic Wars in 58 BCE, thus ending the party and subjugating Celts to Roman rule. Although some historians contest his math, Caesar counted 28 Celtic oppida (hill forts) and over 400 Celtic villages in the vicinity of Lac de Neuchâtel, many of which were burned down as Celts fled west along the Rhône River against his advances.

The largest of the 11 Celtic tribes in Switzerland were called Helvetians, a term that was incorporated within the country’s original name, Confoederatio Helvetica, and which is still used today, abbreviated to CHF to denote Swiss currency and to CH for aviation and postal codes, along with web domains. But otherwise, the Celtic culture in Switzerland has seemingly vanished . . . unless you know just where to look. With that in mind, here are six ways to channel your inner Helvetian and tap into the mysterious, lost Celtic culture of Switzerland.

1. Visit Museum Archaeological Collections
Located on Lac de Neuchâtel, the Laténium archaeology museum’s uber-mod timber architecture contains a vast collection of Celtic objects, part of the 2,500 pieces unearthed near a dig site where the lake-perched museum sits today. These include finely wrought gold torques, engraved swords, intricate glass and stone jewelry, and a Gallo-Roman ship. There are also ongoing lectures, exhibits, and family workshops where you can create your own Celtic spiral design using stencils.

In Zurich, the new concrete wing of the Landesmuseum showcases Celtic figurative representations, goldsmith masterpieces, ancient coins, and hunting tools made of stone, wood, and bone.

Not to be outdone, Bern’s Historical Museum has a massive collection of 500,000 objects, including several bronze Celtic figures that include an intricately engraved figurine of the Roman-Gallo bear goddess, Artio.

2. Set Out on Archeologically Themed Walks
There’s no shortage of archeological walks in palimpsestic Switzerland, where you cannot cross a valley without encountering stelae, oppida, ritual sites, votive sanctuaries, and Neolithic ruins, all dating from varying eras thousands of years apart. During the 1st century BCE, Switzerland—not yet a country—was densely populated by Celts, as reflected by the Celtic-origin names of many of today’s Swiss cities, including Solothurn, Thun, and Winterthur.

The Enge peninsula, just north of Bern, was one of the largest Helvetian settlements, which can be toured with guides from Pro Brenodor. Basel launched Archaeo Tour, an app to help visitors explore the city’s 3,000-year-old archaeological history with special attention paid to Murus Gallicus, a Celtic wall from 80 BCE.

You can also seek out one of the 20 assumed oppida in Switzerland, of which 12 have been definitively confirmed, including at Lausanne, Avenches, and Mont Vully (home to the quarterly Vully Celtic gatherings). In Zurich, you’ll find the Celtic oppida of Uetliberg and Lindenhof (the latter has been continuously occupied since at least 50 BCE). Or, built around the remains of a Celtic temple discovered in 1976, the Fondation Pierre Gianadda in Martigny is home to a sculpture garden with pieces by Alexander Calder, Jean Arp, and Joan Miró, along with famous Celtic bronze bullheads discovered in 1883; the site is part of the Martigny-la-Romagne archaeological walk, an ancient oppidum known as Octodure.

3. Embark on “Glacial Archaeology” Hikes
As of 2014, all 88 of Switzerland’s glaciers are melting. That may be bad news for denizens of planet Earth, but some archaeologists can’t contain their excitement. As glaciers melt, traces of long-lost history emerge from their icy grip and shed light on not just the Celtic era, but ancient climate patterns and prehistoric natural history, too. In 2003, a Swiss hiker on the Schnidejoch Pass stumbled upon 5,000-year-old hunting gear and goat-leather leggings. The discovery provided new evidence of formerly unknown Neolithic trading routes across the Alps, while the leather came from a breed of goat previously believed to have come from eastern Asia. Swiss archaeologist Leandra Reitmaier-Naef started a new project called kAltes Eis, which identifies hot spots for glacial archaeology and asks hikers to be on the lookout in melt zones.

4. Drink Swiss Wine
In the 1990s, a Celtic tomb was unearthed near Verbier that contained an engraved ceramic wine bottle, thus confirming the Celtic love of a tipple. While the traditional theory is that Romans introduced wine to Switzerland, some oenophiles and archaeologists now question whether Switzerland’s 40 varietals are actually pre-Roman. Ancient grape seeds discovered in settlements around Neuchâtel have been dated to 3,000 BCE, but it remains unclear if they were imported or not.

The Italy-bordering canton of Valais, Switzerland’s sunniest region, is home to wild grapes, but also noteworthy varietals worth seeking out, like amigne, arvine, cornalin, humagne, and rèze. The canton of Vaud’s Plant Robert grape, known for its trademark notes of cherry and peony, is also an heirloom varietal.

Those who want to ensure their imbibing is historically correct can instead sip mead at the Celtic Festival, held during the summer solstice in the small town of Corbeyrier, near Montreux.

5. Soak in History

Soaking in thermal waters is one of the few unifying aspects of quadrilingual Switzerland and a pastime that dates back to the nude-loving Celts, a quirk that very much lives on in most of the country. Try the sulfur baths in Yverdon-les-Bains, located in Vaud, on the edge of Lac de Neuchâtel. The Romans were fond of and are often credited with introducing bathing, but many local historians believe this town’s baths, still very much in use, were first used by Celts. Today’s Centre Thermal remains beloved for its sulfur- and magnesium-rich waters. After a soak, explore the city’s 13-foot-high Clendy Menhirs, erected stone stelae that date back 6,000 years to the Neolithic era.

6. Plunge Into Lakes

To literally immerse yourself in the past, plunge into one of Switzerland’s cold and clear alpsees (alpine lakes) with a guide from the Society of Swiss Underwater Archaeology, which offers training courses and workshops on how to spot, age, and identify historical underwater heritage. You may even stumble upon something dating back further than the Celts, since Switzerland was home to several Neolithic agrarian settlements dating to 5,000 BCE. Their remains, called palafittes (lakeside dwellings or pilings), can be found on lakeshores across the Alps. Today, 466 palafitte sites have been identified across Switzerland and are one of 11 Swiss heritage sites inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.

>> Next: 15 Gorgeous Old Photos of Archaeological Sites

Adam H. Graham is an American journalist and travel writer based in Zürich. He has written for a variety of publications, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, National Geographic Traveler, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, BBC and more. Assignments have taken him to over 100 countries to report on travel, sustainability, food, architecture, design, and nature.
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