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Birth of the Swiss Nation
In 58 B.C. the Helvetii who inhabited the country were conquered by the Romans. Invaded in the 5th century A.D. by the Alemanni and by the Burgundii, the area passed to the Franks in the 6th cent. Divided during the 9th century between Swabia and Transjurane Burgundy, it was united in 1033 under the Holy Roman Empire. The expanding feudal houses, notably Zähringen and Kyburg, were supplanted during the 13th century by the houses of Hapsburg and of Savoy. Hapsburg encroachments on the privileges of the three mountainous localities of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden resulted in the conclusion (1291) of a defensive league among them. The legendary hero of this event is William Tell. The league triumphed at Morgarten (1315) and, joined by Lucerne, Zürich, Zug, Glarus, and Bern, decisively defeated the Hapsburgs at Sempach (1386) and Näfels (1388).
In the 15th century the Swiss league rose to the first rank as a military power. The conquest of Aargau, Thurgau, and the valleys of Ticino, which were ruled as subject territories until 1798, was followed by Swiss victories over Charles the Bold of Burgundy (1476-77) and over Emperor Maximilian I, who in 1499 granted Switzerland virtual independence. By 1513, the admission to the confederation of Fribourg, Solothurn, Basel, Schaffhausen, and Appenzell had raised the number of cantons to 13, and this number was maintained until 1798. The conquest by Bern of Vaud from Savoy (1536), and close alliances with the Grisons, Geneva, St. Gall, and other towns and regions, further increased the Swiss orbit, but Switzerland's importance as a European power was broken in 1515 when the French defeated the Swiss at Marignano.
A perpetual alliance with France (1516) and neutrality became the basis of Swiss policy. Swiss mercenaries, however, continued to serve abroad for three centuries. The cantons, loosely bound by a federal diet and by individual treaties and often torn by internal feuds, were seriously split by the Reformation, preached by Zwingli at Zürich and by Calvin at Geneva. The Catholics, led by the Four Forest Cantons, defeated the Protestants in battle; the Treaty of Kappel (1531) preserved Catholicism in Lucerne, Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, Zug, Fribourg, and Solothurn. National unity almost disappeared for more than two centuries, but religious divisions did not prevent the Swiss (except the Grisons) from remaining neutral throughout the Thirty Years War. Switzerland was an island of prosperity when, in 1648, at the end of the war, its formal independence was recognized in the Peace of Westphalia.
In the following century and a half, government in many cantons became the exclusive business of a small oligarchy. While Switzerland became insignificant politically in the 18th cent., its wealth steadily increased, and its scientists and writers (von Haller, von Mühler, Pestalozzi, Rousseau) made it an intellectual center. The Swiss oligarchies strongly opposed the French Revolution. Invading French armies established the Helvetic Republic (1798-1803) and in 1799 clashed with Austrian and Russian forces. Napoleon's Act of Mediation (1803) partially restored the old confederation, and, at the Congress of Vienna, the Pact of Restoration (1815) substantially reestablished the old regime, except that the confirmation of nine new cantons brought the total to its present number.
By the Treaty of Paris (1815), Swiss neutrality was guaranteed for all time. A subsequent economic depression, which caused large-scale emigration to North and South America, and generally reactionary rule contributed to widely successful demands for revision of the cantonal constitutions and the rise of the Radical party, which favored greater centralization. Opposition to centralization centered in the Catholic rural cantons, which in 1845 formed the Sonderbund, a defensive alliance. After a brief and almost bloodless civil war (1847) the victorious Radicals transformed the confederation into one federal state under a new constitution adopted in 1848 (and recast in 1874). National unity grew, and much socialist legislation (such as railroad nationalization and social insurance) was enacted.