Thursday, October 17, 2013

Chapter 34: Lucerne by the lake

Ah, Switzerland! Where do I begin? I have wanted to visit Switzerland all of my life. When I was a child, I bought a paperback picture book of Switzerland and devoured the images. I read all about it, did a fifth grade poster project on the country and wrote a seventh grade screen play of the story of William Tell. I suppose I've outgrown some of the intensity of my youthful passion for Switzerland, but when given a chance, I think it is important to honor childhood dreams and try to take care of unfinished business. Last weekend, I finally visited Switzerland with Lawna. The friendly and beautiful country fully lived up to my expectations. Everything is ridiculously expensive there, but it was worth every Swiss franc.

boating on Lake Lucerne

Why be obsessed with Switzerland? Even as a youngster I was fascinated by the fact that the Swiss have managed to stay out of all the wasteful bloodshed that Europe has committed upon itself for the last thousand years. Switzerland is in the geographical center of Europe's historic suicidal wars, yet always manages to stay neutral and unmolested. Even Hitler found Switzerland too much trouble to attack.

Of course, its mountainous geography is of key importance. Even today, it would be difficult to take this small country. The borders are open--we sailed through without showing our passports--and long, immaculately maintained tunnels whisk you through the mountains into the center of the nation. Those tunnels make travel through an otherwise difficult terrain easy, but they can also be closed or even blown up in case of a threat. Switzerland can easily be made impenetrable. The whole country is a natural mountain fortress, and the Swiss have hundreds of years of history surviving in those mountains. They also have an armed military in which service is compulsory for every young man. The Swiss have the best roads and rail system in the world. They have made one of the most difficult terrains in the world easy to get around in and easy to close.

Also, the Swiss have the oldest democracy in the world. They have been holding elections since the thirteenth century (though women gained the right to vote only in the late twentieth century). Their long lasting, steadfast unity is particularly notable because they incorporate four distinct cultures: German, French, Italian and Romansch. Every Swiss child learns the four official languages, and most everyone in the cities speaks fluent English. Once you've been raised with four languages, what's so hard about learning one more for global banking purposes and tourism? The ancient success of Swiss multiculturalism is a good counter argument to the fear in many countries of "Balkanization" if different languages and cultures are allowed to develop in a single political system. The Swiss can be suspicious of people outside their familiar multicultural sphere, but overall, multiculturalism and multilingualism are the essences of their success.

The Lucerne Löwendenkmal (Lion monument), commemorating Swiss guards who were massacred in the French Revolution

And then there is the sheer beauty of the country. Switzerland is the home of the Alps that Byron, Goethe, Wagner and other Romantics rhapsodized about in verse and music. Germany, France, Austria and Italy contain parts of the great mountainous spine of Europe, too, but not with the same level of grandeur. Switzerland is the crown of the Alps, peaked by the mighty Jungfrau, the object of so many nineteenth century works of art! Switzerland consistently inspires everyone who visits. The English entrepreneur Thomas Cook essentially invented Swiss tourism in the nineteenth century. Parts of Switzerland had always been popular on the Grand Tours that noble families sent their sons on, but Cook opened the country's riches to ordinary folk like us. Many of Switzerland's hotels date back to Cook's century, reflecting the graceful gentility of early tourism. Today, much of Switzerland's tourism comes from China. Johanna Spyri's classic children's book Heidi, which has never gone out of print,  is still read in practically every language on the globe and draws children into a lifelong fascination with the country. Tourism and banking are the main industries and help to maintain one of the highest standards of living in the world.

So, once we had a three day weekend to devote, I suggested to Lawna that we visit Lucerne (Luzern in German). The Swiss border is a four hour drive for us, and once across, Luzern is not too far off. We left early on a thickly foggy Saturday morning and drove mostly through French farm lands to reach the border and passed through light rain, heavy gray clouds and expanses of blinding fog along the way. The weather was not looking promising. I was afraid that we would reach Switzerland and not see a single mountain.

Luck was with us. As soon as we reached Basel, which straddles the three borders of Germany, France and Switzerland, the clouds began to dissipate. The countryside, which had grown a bit monotonous in France, almost instantly became more beautiful. A tunnel took us under much of Basel, emerging in an industrial area. Once beyond Basel, the highway began to meander into the foothills of the Alps past tidy, picturesque communities. More tunnels came, one quite long, and the drive was amazingly easy. At one point, we pulled over to a roadside stop for a bathroom break, and used the cleanest roadside facilities I have ever seen. Everything about Switzerland, at least in the part we saw, is clean. Some graffiti disfigures the cities (probably unavoidable in our age of DIY public art). Mostly, Switzerland was just clean and neat.


We arrived at Luzern at about mid afternoon, checked into a small hotel in a pleasant nineteenth century block of old luxury row houses, kind of a Swiss version of New York City brownstone houses. Our second floor room overlooked a grammar school and some ornate Swiss public buildings. We had an appealing, quiet spot within easy walking distance of the old town center. We stowed our stuff, slung cameras, picked up maps from the affable desk clerk who spoke fluent English and took off to explore the environs. By this time, the weather was sunny and cool with just a few fulsome clouds scudding back toward the mountains.

Our hotel

The street where we stayed

Luzern is a vivaciously attractive city with an appealing blend of medieval storybook charm and nineteenth century grand hotel haut. A channel of clear lake water runs through the center of town, spanned attractively by walking bridges from different periods. The most famous bridges are two medieval wooden walkways, one of which, the Chapel Bridge, is adorned throughout with painted murals depicting the Totentanz, or dance of the dead. Death is not something one thinks too much of when visiting Luzern today, but back when the bridge was painted, townspeople were intimately aware of death and plagues. Some of the images are pretty ghoulish, but mostly today the bridge is loaded with tourists from all over the world, especially Asia, armed with cameras.


We crossed the wooden bridge into Altstadt (old town), found a hotel restaurant on the lake's edge and ordered lunch. This was my first experience with Swiss prices. The meal was tasty and the bill was a shock. Clearly, the Swiss francs I had withdrawn before we left were going to go fast. Fortunately, the Swiss are less resistant than Germans about accepting credit cards. After all, the Swiss are the premier bankers of the world.
Chapel bridge

Death taking a child in the Totentanz sequence.
Chapel bridge at night

 We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the old town and the started back toward our hotel to make plans for dinner. We lost our way a bit, and a tavern waiter offered us some direction and invited us to a band concert later that night. After we reached our hotel and sort of regrouped, we went for some dinner and then visited the tavern on the way back. The club was full of what appeared to be mostly Swiss people. Schweizerdeutsch has a unique lilt, quite different from the sound of Pfalzerdeutsch  in our region. The band played a mix of German songs and popular American light rock, like James Taylor covers. What they lacked in polish and English diction, they made up for in enthusiasm. The crowd was most appreciative and supportive. The club was promoting the band with free drinks and food. I guess Switzerland isn't always expensive. We stayed for awhile, not knowing how long they would play, then slipped out and returned to the hotel. We had had a long week of work, a long day of driving, and it was all catching up on us. We went to bed. The hotel beds were simple, with white sheets and a single white quilt. With the second floor window ajar, the cool night air afforded spectacular sleeping.

When we awakened the next morning to take advantage of the hotel's complimentary pĂ©tit dejeuner, we felt refreshed. We made our way back to downtown and headed toward the boat ticket office next to the train station. In the early twentieth century, steamer boats took visitors out on the lake for relaxation and fine dining. Today's boats are more modern with a second class deck at the bottom and a first class luxury deck on the second level.  I bought a pair of second class tickets, which cost plenty, and we streamed in with other tourists to claim benches on the deck. We found empty spaces across from a young Chinese woman, and settled in for our mini lake voyage.

Once the ship started off across the lake, we asked the woman across from us to take our picture. She happily agreed (the result of which appears at the beginning of this blog), and then I reciprocated by taking her picture. We struck up a conversation, discovering that she had traveled to Europe alone to see the sights. Her name was Teresa, and she had just visited Paris and scenic Grindelwald near the Jungfrau, and after two days in Luzern would be headed to Prague. To us, she seemed pretty brave to take off on her own like that. Her English was excellent, and she and Lawna continued to talk while I prowled the ship taking photos.

1848 Steamer Rigi

Today's tour boats

Teresa and Lawna

Mt Pilatus

Grand hotels on the lakeside
The boat companies offer several tours. The most popular is an excursion to Mt Pilatus, which rises majestically behind Luzern and boasts the steepest vernicular train in the world. We selected an alternate tour to Mt Riga, mainly because it afforded more time on the lake. Once we arrived at a transfer point, we boarded a red train with Teresa to chuff up the side of Mt Riga. Of course, it is an incredibly scenic ride with occasional pauses for photos. The snow covered summit is crowned by a hotel and enormous broadcast tower, which visitors are free to climb part way. Lawna and I had dressed for cold weather, but the temperature was mild and snow melted like rain off the tower. We had been been blessed with a clear day and could see for miles over the lake and mountain ranges.

Lake Luzern from above

view from Mt Riga

After spending some time hiking around the summit and taking photos, then having some lunch and buying some souvenirs, we returned to the train stop to wait for the next ride down. During this time, we lost contact with Teresa, took the train halfway down the mountain and then caught a cable ride the rest of the way down. The boat ride back was relaxed, sitting in the restaurant drinking coffee. After returning to Luzern, Lawna and I wandered the city some more until we became hungry; then we found a Swiss fondue shop and enjoyed a shared pot of savory fondue with glasses of local Swiss wine, which they do not export.

After dinner, as the sun began to sink, we were about ready to head back to the hotel when we encountered Teresa again. She was very happy to see us and asked if we could have dinner together. We had just eaten a full meal with some pretty heavy cheese, but we wanted to join her. It turned out that she wanted to try Swiss fondue also, so we found another fondue restaurant and, while she sampled fondue, we ordered dessert and coffee. She did not like her fondue, but we had another friendly visit and exchanged e-mails for future communications. 

Lawna and Teresa

Our Swiss weekend was nearly over. Traveling is exhilarating because everything is new, and friendships made on the go can be amazingly intense as you try to fit as much into the time available as possible. Even if we never see Teresa again, which is quite probable, she will always be in our hearts whenever we think about Switzerland. 

The next morning, I still had one more place that I wanted to see before we took off for home: Altdorf, the mythical home of William Tell. Historians are now quite certain that William Tell never existed. The roots of his legend have been found in old Danish sources. But, just like you can't tell some Texans that Davy Crockett died as a common prisoner in front of Santa Ana's firing squad, you can't tell some Swiss that William Tell is just a legend. He is their national hero!

Altdorf is a small village at the far end of Lake Lucerne, easily accessible by the lakeside highway that speeds you around the shore and tunnels you through the tall cliffs. The weather had grown colder and more overcast. I could sense the difference between Lucerne and Altdorf. The inhabitants of Tell's town were hard working people, and no one we met spoke English. It's closer to the real Switzerland (though still a tourist spot). I paid homage to the mythical hero of Swiss independence from Austria, and Lawna and I climbed the Altdorf tower, which today is a museum tracing the development of the William Tell legend as a Romantic icon of liberty. You can climb to the top and look out over the picturasque village.

Altdorf from atop the tower
William Tell monument in Altdorf

After exploring the town square and purchasing some pastries at the local bakery, we jumped back in the car and drove toward Uri, also associated with the Tell legend, further into the mountains. The road meandered upward, and soon we were in some high country overlooking small villages and farms. Farms also surrounded us on the mountainsides with sheep and goats grazing on remarkably steep pastures. We were amazed at the vertical plane upon which Swiss mountain people build their houses and farm their livestock. As we got out of the car to take some photos, we could hear the tinkling of Swiss cowbells. Yes, they still identify their livestock with those iconic bells. There was a chill in the air with an slight icy bite, reminding us that we were getting into higher, colder altitudes. I would have liked to keep going through the upcoming mountain pass toward the county of Glarus, but we had a long drive home ahead of us and jobs and appointments to keep in Germany. We enjoyed the Alpine quiet for a while, just the still, cold air and the echoing of bells against the mountainsides. It was truly that quiet, with the infrequent swish of a passing car on this lonely road. It was hard to break away, but after letting it sink in, we got into the car, turned it around and headed back to Germany.

Small hamlet in Uri. Click to enlarge and note the clinging farm houses and pastures to the left.

Photo Album:

Interior of Jesuitenkirche, Luzern
Jesuitenkirche at night

 view from Mt Riga

Grand Gutsch Hotel, overlooking Luzern

sharing a tune

old steamer and amusement park by the train station

the modern

Long, shaky video of our trip to Lucerne with some old music recordings by yours truly:

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