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Switzerland, it is often said, lies at the heart of Europe. A small country nestled amidst the Jura Mountains and the Alps, situated between Germany, Austria, Italy, France, and Liechtenstein, it combines elements of the climates and geography from all of its neighbors to form a patchwork of towering glaciers, crystalline lakes, rolling hills, fertile river valleys, and a broad central plateau. It is the nexus of the main trade and transit routes linking northern and southern Europe, the point at which international highways converge, threading through the mountains like arteries, running smoothly through tunnels burrowed deep underground.
Swiss culture bears the hallmarks of a country at a crossroads as well. There are four official languages in Switzerland—German, French, Italian, and Romansch—and in the roughly four hours it takes to drive across the country, you can easily hear them all. Its culture is characterized by its diversity, with the different linguistic communities and cantons remaining attached to their regional traditions while simultaneously taking part in the greater Swiss national identity, in which Alpine symbolism plays an essential role.
Despite its central location, Switzerland was one of the last countries to join the United Nations and remains one of the only countries in Western Europe to decline entry into the European Union, a legacy of its centuries-old policy of neutrality. Among the oldest democracies in existence, it is officially known as the Swiss Confederation (or Confoederatio Helvetica), and is made up of 26 independent states, or cantons. Switzerland’s federal government is unique for its system of direct democracy, in which large enough groups of citizens can call referendums to challenge laws passed by Parliament, and propose constitutional initiatives that allow them to put proposed amendments to their constitution to a national vote.
Switzerland is home to numerous multinational corporations, and its economy is one of the strongest in the world. Traditionally known for producing luxury goods such as fine watches and chocolates, in modern times its focus has broadened to include the electronic, chemical, and the pharmaceutical industries. The people of Switzerland are known for their pride, discreetness, and efficiency, and the iconic white cross and red field of the Swiss flag has become an internationally recognized symbol for quality.