Secrets behind the Walls

An edited version of this article was published on Newlyswissed two years ago entitled “So we peeked inside a military bunker in Switzerland”. And with this week’s forecast of bad weather, I thought, it may be drab, but at least I’m not stuck inside a mountain! (Sharing some more photos from our visit to this bunker)

Ever seen that 007 film where James Bond discovers the underground base of Dr. No? Science fiction? Well, when I first heard about the secret fortresses hidden everywhere in the Swiss mountains, that’s what I thought of.

But any true Swiss person would probably just nod in indifference. Why wouldn’t there be bunkers in the mountains? After so long, I’ve gotten used to dealing with such Swiss quirks. Whatever it is, if no one else has ever thought of it, naturally the Swiss have. And they’ve probably even gone the extra-mile, just because.

on our way to the breathtaking lakeside rock face in Stansstad

Swiss Fortifications

Though the Swiss actually started building military fortifications throughout the country already in the 15th Century, it wasn’t until the last century during the height of the 2nd World War, when a total of 20,000 bunkers, anti-tank obstacles, and other fortresses were installed underground and into the mountain walls as a defense against National Socialism. And for such a small country, 20,000 “secret” military installments would mean there’s probably one within a few kilometers from where you are sitting (if you are sitting somewhere in Switzerland) and you just don’t know it!

And indeed, somewhere in the walls of a Swiss mountain on the shores of the beautiful Lake of Luzern in the Canton of Nidwalden, sits a museum which once was the artillery bunker A 2255: the Fürigen Fortress (Festungsmuseum Fürigen).

Knock on the rock face and maybe someone would knock back?

behind the rock wall on the right, is a secret hideaway

Surrounded by the lake with such a beautiful view, and residential areas across the waters and further down the road, it’s hard to imagine this place once housed men in fatigues hiding behind the mountain walls, bustling about and handling their weapons and radios, and watching the skies and shoreline for any signs of “the enemy”. But of course, the Swiss thought of that. In this region alone, more than ten forts were built as a part of an intricate defense system integrated into the mountains surrounding the Swiss Alps. With all of the civilians in the vicinity, who would have believed that the army was indeed sitting so close by, keeping watch behind the walls?

Along with other complexes surrounding the mountains, these fortresses served to protect the passes and the all the important transportation systems in the country’s train lines and tunnels that pass under the Swiss Alps dividing Germany from Italy, geographically. As a last defense line, the mountains were to serve as a safe refuge for a retreating army if the frontline defenses were to collapse.

a view of the lake from the rock face

Exploring the Bunker

It wasn’t until recently when we finally made our way to this particular museum to take a peek behind its walls. Before entering Festung Fürigen, every visitor is warned about the cold damp climate within. Old military trench coats from the 70’s are offered for use. As if the damp clammy air of 10-12C wasn’t enough to transport you to the past, when heating was a constant problem, wrapping yourself with an oversized olive green trench coat could give the finishing touches to that 70’s 007 film set.

An entrance that looks like an old shed gives way to a secret underground passage, a 200-meter long tunnel system, poorly lit with incandescent lamps and seeping walls.

But no matter which declassified fortification you visit, even if you’re the biggest 007 in the world, you won’t feel too well if you’re claustrophobic. No matter how much sun is shining outside, these bunkers don’t let any of it in.

Although the air is regulated by a circulation system to keep it breathable, the air is never quite as fresh as the lake breeze just on the other side of the 3-meter thick rock wall, separating you from the rest of the world. There is a constant odor crossed with a cloaking humidity that accompanies you throughout the visit. And the reality of this spy film is overwhelming enough that you’ll instantly be transported in time as soon as you step through one of the blast proof doors.

At first, the dark endless tunnel seems to lead nowhere but in fact secret bunkers left and right are installed, housing the fortress guns, a kitchen and canteen (that may also be rented out for private gatherings), storage rooms, a first aid station, and soldiers’ quarters.

The weapons that were once in place are now on display accompanied by masked dummies in uniforms too, to simulate what could have been, if push had come to shove, in those years of the war. Pictured here: one of the two fortification guns from 1939 located behind the rock face, strategically oriented to protect one of the mountain passes across the lake, 10km away.

A company of a little over 100 men would have been assigned here during the years it was still “active”, sharing all the cramped up space, the stuffy air, and their beds too. Because of the necessary guard shifts that the soldiers would have had to take during their time there, the soldiers’ quarters had only enough bunks to sleep a mere third of the company’s troops!

And what a nice surprise: this mess hall does look like a normal, boring one, not at all like a cave’s secret housing for men in battledress. Wooden tables and benches, photos hanging on the walls, well-lit and quite comfortable in fact, surely that small hint of normalcy was more than welcome for those troops who had to live here during their duty.

After an hour of exploring the fortress, it was a relief to step out into the fresh air. Though the visit was quite awe-inspiring, it was also eerie in many ways. I could only imagine the collective tension among the soldiers who held their military service here during those years.

Fortunately, those days are over. But it wasn’t until the end of the Cold War when these fortifications were declassified. Of those 20,000 installments, 13,000 have been declassified in the late 80s to early 90s, just like this one. They’ve been mostly sold off and though not all have been turned into museums like Festung Fürigen, many others have been revamped for other functions. Some can still be seen today, sitting quietly in the forests, disguised as typical Swiss Chalets. A few have been converted into data centers, similar to bunkers elsewhere in Europe, where confidential data or even genetic material can be kept safe for…forever really, even in the case of a nuclear black out! And yet a select few have been transformed into hotels, one in particular is a fancy 4-star hotel sitting right under the Gotthard. How about that for a weekend getaway?

Be on the a Lookout!

Knowing what may lie within the forests and rock walls of the Swiss mountains may start making a conspiracy theorist out of every tourist! Now even I’m always on the lookout. Whenever I look at a cliff wall, I start to scan it for signs of possible “fake” rocks or hidden doors. Sometimes when I see a lonesome house sitting in the forest in the distance, I wonder, “Could that be one?”

So, the next time you take a walk around the country, look closely and keep your eyes open, there’s a big chance you’ll come across a bunker or barricade of some sort that was once classified but no longer in use today. If the mountains don’t impress you, maybe just maybe, the secrets within would.

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