While any mention of the beloved children’s game tic-tac-toe would be met with a blank stare in Switzerland, the similar-sounding enunciation of “Tü-ta-toe” would elicit a smile from most Swiss, young and old. It is the unmistakable call of the “Postauto,” the yellow postal bus, as it makes its way up or down a winding mountain road, warning others of its approach. As far as public transportation is concerned, the postal buses often go where no one else has gone or is likely to go: remote mountain villages huddled like hunchbacks against impossibly steep slopes. At least that is the stereotypical setting for an encounter with a postal bus. In reality, they are found in the lower-lying plains and the larger cities as well. They have always had a dual purpose: to pick up and transport the mail from post offices all over the country and at the same time serve up a few empty seats for travelers to get from points not found on the map to more civilized destinations. The original postal vehicles put into service in 1849 were horse-drawn carriages, made famous by paintings of wild-eyed horses being whipped along the treacherous mountain pass over the St. Gotthard, which separates the southern canton of Ticino from the central and northern parts of the country. Later, the stagecoaches were replaced by buses equipped with a very emblematic-sounding horn. Since many Swiss roads are narrow and snake around natural obstacles with obscured views, a horn is essential equipment on any vehicle, but particularly on the rather large buses that often take up most of the road. The famous horn melody, which, fittingly, was lifted from the overture of Rossini’s “William Tell,” first echoed from the mountains in 1923. Today, the postal buses are modern marvels of technology that have earned such a favorable reputation that they have been selected to also service several towns in France, as well as the principality of Liechtenstein, the postage-stamp-sized country wedged between Switzerland and Austria. Postal buses are an integral part of the Swiss public transportation system and are often coordinated with train schedules to allow for the best possible travel connections. Today’s postal bus is a business venture expected to turn a profit, but its three-tone horn is still a part of mountain lore and as familiar and well-loved as the clanging of cowbells in the mountain pastures.
Two audio files of the famous posthorn can be found at http://www.postauto.ch/pag-startseite/pag-ueberuns/pag-portrait/pag-posthorn.htm.
The main page for PostAuto Schweiz is found at http://www.postauto.ch.
A tongue twister dedicated to the bright-yellow postal buses.