Swiss Humour Hidden in Maps

The Swiss are known for their efficiency - and bank accounts, chocolate and expensive watches. Humour? No. Unless you’re a map maker.

In the world of Swiss cartography, humour is detectable by only the most observant. They like to place 'Easter eggs' - slang for fun little secrets - on their maps, perhaps in an attempt to outsmart the bureaucrats. Over the years, the cartographers slipped in a marmot, a giant fish, a mountain climber and a naked lady. And, no doubt - yet to be spotted - many more.

The Swiss Federal Office of National Topography, Swisstopo for short, is a decidedly serious institution. Many serious things - time and money, for starters - depend on the accuracy of its maps. In the case of its mountain maps, actual lives hang in the balance. Yet in decades past, the austere institute's maps have served as the canvas for a series of in-jokes among its more fun-loving cartographers.

These mapmakers played a game of wits against their superiors, the ones whose duties included checking the maps before publication. Over the years, the cartographers managed to slip in - on maps that were supposed to contain only dry topographic facts - several unexpected graphics or clever tweaks.

Possibly (we can't be sure!) the oldest topographical Easter egg, and the current record holder for the longest-lasting one, is the Naked Lady of Künten. First appearing on the topographical map of 1954, the reclining figure wasn't discovered until 2012. Admittedly, without head, arms and feet, she is hard to spot. Her odalisque-like forms are suggested by the curvature of a stream and an elongated green patch indicating vegetation. As with all such witty inclusions, eventually someone spots the 'amendment' and it's removed from the next print run. Such a shame, but so Swiss.

For a 1997 map update, a cartographer etched the likeness of a mountaineer on the Italian side of a mountain slope near Val Müstair. Reportedly, he got tired of waiting on the data for the area (so Swiss), which his Italian counterparts were slow to provide (so Italian), so he found a creative way to plug the gap. Topography, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

In 1980, a fish was drawn at the southern end of the Lac de Remoray, a small lake just across the Franco-Swiss border - but a very big fish! However, it was 'caught' five years later, and has been left off the map since 1986.

Swisstopo's most famous map gag - or at least the most recent one to be revealed, in 2014 - is the marmot, which has been hiding in a rock near the Aletsch glacier since it was put there by a creative cartographer in 2011. The marmot is still there, and perhaps it and its fellow map oddities may be allowed to survive.

On its website, Swisstopo says that "these hidden drawings do not affect the accuracy and level of detail of our maps, nor on the safety and security of their users. They merely add a note of mystery to our nation's maps."