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LIVING IN SWITZERLAND

Hotel Arbez: Inside the historic hotel straddling the Swiss and French borders

The Hotel Arbez, which is located both in Switzerland and France, has a colourful history - including playing a lifesaving role against the Nazis in the Second World War.

Hotel Arbez: Inside the historic hotel straddling the Swiss and French borders
The Hotel Arbez Franco-Suisse. Photo: BRUNO FERRANDEZ / AFP

For most of its history, the tiny village of La Cure was situated completely in France.

However when the borders were redrawn in the middle of the 18th century, the village took on important strategic value – as did some of its buildings. 

Towards the start of the 19th century the building was converted into a hotel. Known as the Hotel Arbez Franco-Suisse or simply the Hotel Franco-Suisse, the hotel remains situated on the border to this day. 

Over the years the hotel has served as a means of beating tax, smuggling – and saving lives during the Second World War. 

More recently, it became important for people to see their families when borders were closed during the Covid pandemic. 

How did the hotel come about? 

While the location is of course a quirk of history, geopolitics and fate, it’s also a consequence of an opportunistic businessman who saw the value in a building that would sit on the border between two wealthy and powerful nations. 

A Frenchman named Pontus owned the block of land in the tiny town of La Cure. While the vacant block previously had little value, Pontus saw his opportunity when Switzerland and France decided to sign a treaty to resolve a dispute about the location of the border. 

Specifically, the dispute related to the Vallee des Dappes, which was deemed to have significant military value by the French. As a result, the French and Swiss agreed to share the disputed region – which is where Pontus came in. 

According to City Monitor magazine, luck was also a major factor. 

“The French were very keen on getting hold of the Vallee des Dappes, which provided a military route to nearby Savoy, and which they’d briefly held during the Napoleonic wars, until they’d been forced to give it up at the Congress of Vienna. In the half century since, those awkward Swiss had proved a bit bloody minded about giving it back. So, in 1862, they came up with a plan. The French would get their valley back; in return, the Swiss would get a similarly sized patch nearby. That included a chunk of La Cure.”

When Pontus became aware that his block of land would straddle the borders of the countries, he realised that it would be subject to a law designed to preserve existing buildings along the border. 

Thinking quickly – and taking advantage of some predictable delays from Swiss parliament – Pontus built a three-story structure on his block of land that would eventually come to straddle the border. 

Austria’s Der Standard newspaper reports that the builders were able to finish the roof just in time before the border treaty came into effect in 1863 – meaning that his new construction was protected by the law. 

When the building was finished, two thirds of it were in France with the remaining third in Switzerland. 

Pontus got to work immediately, building a grocery store in the Swiss side and a pub in the French side, in order to “skilfully exploit the tax advantages” of a building which was simultaneously in two nations. 

The Hotel Arbez Franco-Suisse. Photo: BRUNO FERRANDEZ / AFP

Became a hotel in 1921 – and a way to save lives during the Second World War

While the site was lucrative, Pontus’ descendants fell on hard times and needed to sell the building. 

It was bought by the family Arbez, who converted it into a hotel. 

While the site may have been built as a rather cynical exploitation of international affairs and local laws, it’s multi-country location would serve a humanitarian purpose during the Second World War. 

Despite France being occupied by Nazi Germany, the Swiss parts of the hotel were still off limits to Nazi forces – as by entering these parts of the hotel, they would technically be invading neutral Switzerland. 

As a result, the Arbez family were able to use their central location to smuggle hundreds of Jewish families across the border in both directions to avoid capture, or to hide them in their hotel. 

According to Traveller magazine, “the entire upstairs became a safe haven for fugitives and members of the French Resistance”.

The hotel was the inspiration for the French-British WW2 film La Grande Vadrouille, which came out in 1962. 

The location again became important during the negotiations to end the Algerian War, when Algerian freedom fighters stayed upstairs (in Switzerland) as the Evian Accords were being negotiated with the French to end the war. 

The hotel then took on strategic value once more during the first wave of the Covid pandemic in 2020, when borders were closed to most people. 

According to Der Standard, a handful of local residents used the hotel to cross the border and visit their loved ones. 

The Hotel Arbez Franco-Suisse. Photo: BRUNO FERRANDEZ / AFP

What is it like today? 

While the pandemic is ongoing, borders have largely returned to their previous status – which means that the location’s main function is again as a hotel. 

If you really want to experience sleeping in two countries at the same time, you’ll need to ask to stay in rooms six, nine or 12 – all of which are in two countries.

In room 12 the bathroom is in France while the rest is in Switzerland – which as Austria’s Der Standard newspaper puts it, allows you to brush your teeth in one country before going to bed in another.

The dining room of the hotel as well as the kitchen, the hallway and the stairs are also built directly along the border.

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For members

LEARNING FRENCH

How to talk email, websites, social media and phone numbers in Swiss French

It's a very common experience to have to give out your phone number or email address in Switzerland, or take down the address of a website, so here's how to do this if you're in the French-speaking part of the country.

How to talk email, websites, social media and phone numbers in Swiss French

The correct names for punctuation marks used to be fairly low down on any French-learner’s list, but these days they are vital whenever you need to explain an email address, website or social media account.

Likewise if you want to talk about websites, or social media posts, there are some things that you need to know. 

Punctuation

Obviously punctuation points have their own names, and making sure you get the periods, dashes and underscores correct is vital to giving out account details. 

Full stop/period . point. Pronounced pwan, this is most commonly heard for Swiss websites or email addresses which end in. ch (pronounced pwan ce ash).

If you have a site that ends in .com you say ‘com’ as a word just as you would in English – pwan com.

At symbol @ Arobase – so for example the email address [email protected] would be jean pwan dupont arobas bluewin pwan ce ash.

Ampersand/and symbol & esperluette

Dash – tiret

Underscore _ tiret bas 

Forward slash / barre oblique

Upper case/capital lettersMajuscule (or lettre majuscule)

Lower caseminiscule

The following punctuation points are less common in email or web addresses, but worth knowing anyway:

Comma , virgule. In French a decimal point is indicated with a comma so two and a half would be 2,5 (deux virgule cinq)

Exclamation mark ! point d’exclamation – when you are writing in French you always leave a space between the final letter of the word and the exclamation mark – comme ça !

Question mark ? point d’interrogation – likewise, leave a space between the final character and a question mark 

Brackets/parentheses ( ) parenthèse

Quotation marks « » guillemets 

Numbers

If you need to give your phone number out, the key thing to know is that Swiss-French people pair the numbers in a phone number when speaking.

So say your number is 079 345 6780, in French you would say zero septante-neuf, trois-cents quarante-cinq, soixante-sept, huitante (zero seventy-nine, three hundred forty-five, sixty-seven, eighty ).

Mobile numbers in Switzerland  begin with 079 or 078 (zero septante-neuf or zero septante-huit).

Social media

If you want to give out your Twitter or Instagram handle, the chances are you might need to know some punctuation terms as described above.

Otherwise the good news is that a lot of English-language social media terms are used in Switzerland too.

Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have the same names in Switzerland and have entered the language in other ways too, for example you might describe your dinner as très instagrammable – ie it’s photogenic and would look good on Instagram.

On Twitter you can suivre (follow), aimer (like) or retweet (take a wild guess). You’ll often hear the English words for these terms too, though pronounced with a French accent.

There is a French translation for hashtag – it’s dièse mot, but in reality hashtag is also very widely used.

Tech is one of those areas where new concepts come along so quickly that the English terms often get embedded into everyday use before the French-speakers can think up an alternative.

READ MORE: French-speaking Switzerland: Seven life hacks that will make you feel like a local

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