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“You are in room nine, it’s one of our binational rooms,” the hotel manager confirmed with a smile, handing over an old-school metal key.
I could hardly contain my delight. If the prospect of showing up at a hotel not knowing which country I would be sleeping in that night was already thrilling, what about sleeping in two countries at the same time?
It had been a long drive through winding roads to get to La Cure, a tiny hamlet nested atop the thickly forested Jura mountains, which separate France and Switzerland.
Now, thanks to a little-known mid-19th century international treaty, I was about to enjoy one of the most genuinely unique hotel experiences you can get anywhere in the world.
Built in the rustic style that is so prevalent in this part of Europe, the small family-run hotel Hotel Arbez Franco-Suisse – also called L’Arbézie — has the peculiarity of sitting right on top of an international border.
This unusual setup is an unintended consequence of the 1862 Treaty of Dappes, by which France and Switzerland agreed on a small territorial swap, in order to allow full French control of a nearby strategic road.
A provision was made in the treaty for any buildings along the border to remain in place, a circumstance that a local entrepreneur used to open a shop and a bar, in order to take advantage of the cross-border trade. The hotel would follow in 1921.
The result is that roughly half the hotel is in France and the other half in Switzerland, with the international border bisecting the restaurant and several of the rooms.
I had been assigned one of those binational rooms, with the invisible international divide running right through the bathroom and the bed. It means guests sleep with their head in Switzerland and legs in France.
Visible from the window, and just a few yards away, were the two border posts, the Swiss one on the right side, the French one a bit further down on the left, with the hotel occupying a triangular plot of land wedged between the two.
This cross-border reality is embedded in the personality of the place. From World Wars to the recent Covid-19 pandemic, the hotel’s unique position has been a never-ending source of curious situations and stories. It’s also reflected in several of the decorative elements found throughout the property. Some are obvious, like the flags that adorn some of the walls, but there are also more subtle ones.
“Mirrors and windows are meant to be not just as a decorative element, but also as a symbol of connection between adjacent worlds and realities,” says Alexandre Peyron, manager of the hotel that has been run by his family for generations, on a tour of one of the suites. In this case, while the entirety of the room was in Switzerland, the wall was totally French.
A reproduction of Paul Cézanne’s famous painting “The Card Players” presides over the restaurant, hanging right at the spot where the border runs.
The scene, which depicts two men playing cards and is also found on a large mural painting on one of the hotel’s exterior walls, alludes to an incident that took place at the hotel in the 1920s, says Peyron: A Swiss customs officer fined a group of customers whom he’d caught playing cards. The offense? Not gambling, as some wrongly assumed at the time, but the fact they were using a French-made set of cards on the Swiss side of the hotel without having first paid customs duties. To this date, the hotel allows games, as long as no cards cross the border.
Offering sanctuary in World War II
The legal framework is no trivial matter when it comes to food choices.
Sitting on the French side of the restaurant? forget about ordering that portion of tomme Vaudoise. This local Swiss cheese can not be brought over to the French side due to stringent European regulations affecting unpasteurized dairy products. The same, in reverse, happens to some French specialties, such as the saucisse de Morteau, a variety of sausage whose distribution isn’t allowed in Switzerland.
It’s easier when it comes to paying the bill, since both euros and Swiss Francs are accepted. Likewise, the hotel has two phone numbers, one for each country, and rooms are fitted with two types of electricity socket, since France and Switzerland use different standards. Taxes are paid to both countries, according to a specific pro-rata formula, in agreement with the tax authorities of both countries.
When Switzerland joined the Schengen free movement area in 2008, it made things a bit simpler, but in reality it had little practical effect on the day-to-day running of the hotel, since this has always been a notably porous cross-border space.
A particularly dramatic example of this happened during World War II, says Peyron, when both the German-occupied and collaborationist Vichy-controlled zones of France converged with free Switzerland right at the spot where the hotel stands.
The Germans occupied the French half of the hotel, but since the staircase leading to the rooms was partly on Swiss territory, the upper floors remained off-limits to them, making them a relatively safe haven for refugees and on-the-run allied pilots.
In a situation reminiscent of the classic 1980s British TV comedy series “‘Allo, ‘Allo,” on occasions when the Germans were distracted, eating or drinking at the bar, the hotel owners managed to sneak the fugitives under their noses into the safety of neutral Switzerland.
Owner Max Arbez was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem Memorial in Jerusalem for his role in saving Jewish refugees. A letter of gratitude from Allied commander Marshall Montgomery is today also proudly displayed next to that “staircase of freedom.”
Venue for secret talks
This was not the last time that the hotel became entangled with high stakes international geopolitics. In the early 1960s the Hotel Arbez was also the setting of secret negotiations that led to Algeria gaining independence from France in 1962.
Fearing capture, the Algerian negotiators didn’t want to set foot on French soil, while the French authorities wished to conduct the talks discreetly within their borders. A private room at the hotel offered the ideal solution.
The hotel’s peculiar status may also have been used on occasion by people with less well-meaning intentions. In early 2002, not long after 9/11, Peyron says the hotel was visited by agents of an undisclosed security service to investigate the possibility that an Al Qaeda operative may have used his stay to cross the border undetected.
More recently, with the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, Hotel Arbez found itself again in the front lines.
Like the rest of the tourism industry, the hotel was heavily impacted, although it managed to remain open for some time, in order to provide accommodation for sanitary personnel.
Its managers, however, had to deal also with the complexity of two different and constantly evolving sets of restrictions, usually opting to implement the stricter of both, which, more often than not, tended to be those on the French side.
Although quarantines and stay-at-home orders were progressively relaxed, the border remained closed for quite a bit longer. Since it is accessible from both countries, during this time, the hotel offered a sanctuary for couples that had found themselves stranded on opposite sides of the border.
Peyron keeps sharing these while showing off his hotel and passing through a narrow open courtyard that serves as a conduit between its French and Swiss sides of the building. There sits one of the oldest and most tangible manifestations of this border: a stone marker from 1863.
On one side stands the eagle of the second French Empire (France was at the time ruled by Napoleon III), “Vaud”, is simply written on the other side.
“The State of Vaud is one of the constituent parts of the Swiss Confederation, but let’s not forget that, on the other side of this marker there is also a confederation of sorts, the European Union,” says Peyron.
Lots to ponder as I head to my room to enjoy an international sleep. Just in case, and before turning the key of the door, I checked my pocket once more, to make sure I’ve brought my passport with me.
601 Rue de la Frontière, 39220 Les Rousses, France; +33 3 84 60 02 20
61, Route de France, 1265 La Cure, Switzerland; +41 22 36 013 96