[ SUNDAY TRAVEL ]
[3 DAYS IN LUCERNE AND THE SWISS ALPS]
Climb every mountainwitzerland is the perfect vacation playground, with spectacular mountains and villages offering the best of nature and culture. The cute little towns almost look contrived, like a Disney version of Heidi's hometown, but this is the real thing. You will discover cobblestone pedestrian lanes winding past ancient buildings containing modern shops with well-organized shelves. This is the land of efficiency and charm, with very friendly people.
Lucerne, a charming town on a
picturesque lake, surrounded by
mountains, is a traveler's favorite
By Dennis Callan
Special to the Star-Bulletin
Where to go? The traveler's dilemma is challenging in Switzerland, but I can offer one answer: Lucerne, a town on a picturesque lake, surrounded by majestic mountains. Lucerne is the most popular destination in Switzerland, famous for its well-preserved Old Town and its outdoor "art gallery" -- many blocks of medieval buildings decorated with murals depicting ancient village life -- along the shores of Lake Lucerne and the River Reuss.
Lucerne is usually the favorite place of Hawaii tour groups. Three days is plenty of time to enjoy the city, using it as your home base for travels by train and boat to nearby sights.
The city sits at an elevation of only 1,300 feet. Temperatures are comfortable, even in the winter. The best times to visit are between April and October. Many restaurants and cafes have outdoor seating in fair weather, some of them on the beautiful banks of the Reuss River which flows through town.
Explore the town
The town's historic section -- about six blocks long and four blocks wide -- will keep you busy all day. This pedestrian zone is filled with shops, restaurants and ancient buildings. Steep gabled rooftops, covered with strong wooden shingles to ward off winter snow, complete the picturesque scenario.
The shopping is fun, with many items that are purely Swiss in character, like music boxes, chocolates, watches, cuckoo clocks, cowbells, beer steins, costumed dolls, cheese, knives, embroidery, linens, music and clothing. The two main watch shops are Bucherer, a multistory extravaganza, and Gubelin, facing each other lakefront at Schwanenplatz.
The pedestrian zone is filled with delivery trucks until about 9:30 a.m. Linger over coffee and the buffet breakfast that most hotels offer. Try the dark breads, made fresh each morning.
Touring Switzerland is like visiting all of Europe in one small country. This country offers a fascinating linguistic mix of French in the west, a German dialect in the east, Italian in the south and Romansch, spoken by only 2 percent of the population, in a small southeast section. Most residents also speak English.
These language zones have been in place for thousands of years, and the nation is further divided by geography, with high mountain ridges separating isolated valleys. There is also a generation gap and rural-urban divisions that are preventing Switzerland from joining the European Union. The young professionals want to join; the conservative rural people have been able to block it. But the conservative trend has contributed to preservation of villages in the distinctive Swiss chalet style.
The Old Town is surrounded on one side by the river and lake, and on the other by a hillside and ancient fortified wall.
There are excursions out of town, with two half-day trips and a couple of all-day journeys. A $10 guided walking tour is offered at 9:45 a.m. daily from the Tourist Information Office, but you can easily do it on your own.
>> Two covered bridges: In the heart of Lucerne is its major landmark, the 560-foot-long Chapel Bridge, or Kapellbrucke, the oldest covered bridge in Europe, first built in 1333. This icon was destroyed by fire in 1993, only to be rebuilt in the original style by the townspeople. The heroic rise from ashes symbolizes Swiss pride in their past and their ability to get things done. Adjacent to the bridge is the 110-foot high Water Tower, nearly 700 years old, the most photographed image in town.
The Mill Bridge is a smaller covered bridge 200 yards south, built around 1408. The Swiss have again harnessed the water power that gave this bridge its name, and created a modern electricity-generating turbine, under water and invisible. Even so, it's best noted for its series of paintings, "The Dance of Death," featuring skeletons representing the Black Death.
The old fortification wall, built between 1350 and 1408, also survives from the Middle Ages. Called the Musegg Wall, it has nine towers, three of them open free to the public. You can walk along a section of the wall for the most spectacular view above town.
>> Lion monument: The huge Lion Monument was carved into the sandstone cliff to commemorate the 1792 death of 786 Swiss mercenary soldiers who were trying to defend King Louis XVI in Paris. Completed in 1821, it depicts a noble lion dying from a spear thrust in its ribs. Mark Twain called this "the saddest and most moving piece of rock in the world."
Adjacent to the lion is the Glacier Garden geological museum, with natural history displays and a bizarre basement hall of mirrors. It's open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays ($5 admission).
>> Bourbaki Panorama: Another attraction is a 360-degree wraparound mural put up in 1889, depicting the miseries of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Recently reopened after years of reconstruction that jacked up the building and added a modern shopping area, the 12,000-square-foot panorama is one of the few European survivors of this rudimentary pre-motion picture genre of entertainment.
>> The Old Swiss House: One of the best restaurants in Lucerne is located in front of the Panorama. This is a Lucerne landmark, serving Wiener schnitzel, sinfully sautéed with a stick of butter right at your table, or superb fresh fish from the lake.
>> The Hoffkirche, or Collegiate Church: Overlooking the lake, this Catholic church was built in Gothic and Renaissance styles during the 17th century and has a cloistered courtyard and rich interior, with carvings and wrought-iron works. Free classical-music concerts are performed on its huge organ at 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays from June 4 through Aug. 13.
>> Small lanes and plaza: Walk back to the town center along the main shopping street, Hertenstein-Strasse, and head for the Kornmarkt. The small square containing the Old Town Hall was built in 1602, featuring two distinctive styles: Italian in the lower section, echoing the Florentine Renaissance, with a Bern farmhouse wood-shingle pitched roof.
Pfisternn, an excellent restaurant known for Swiss sausage meals, is located here. The Picasso Museum is also on Kornmarkt, with a display of prints and eight paintings by the modern master, as well as 200 photographs of the artist taken by David Douglas Duncan.
There are many peaceful plazas in the middle of the Old Town, where cobblestone pedestrian lanes come together and form a charming open area, ringed by ancient buildings and sidewalk cafes, with a fountain in the middle. Small independent shops and a few department stores make this a prime retail area.
>> Across the River Reuss: There is a small section of the Old Town on the other side of the river, so walk across one of the pedestrian bridges to the Jesuit Church, built between 1666 and 1673. It was influenced by the Italians, and decorated in the baroque style by Toriano and Toricelli, two artists from southern Switzerland. Next door is the Ritter Palace, originally a Jesuit residence, but later converted into government offices.
A nice attraction here is Au Chocolat, on Pfister-Gasse Street. They fill the pralines by hand with sinfully rich creams. Lucerne's truffles rival those of Belgium and stay fresh for a few weeks, so they make excellent omiyage. The History Museum on the same street has a small display about the region.
You could take the funicular ride up to the Hotel Chateau Gutsch for a spectacular view of the town, followed by dinner at the hotel to the sounds of violin music. An evening option for gamblers is the casino along the lakefront.
Train to Mount Titlis; boat ride on the lake
Walk along the banks of Lake Lucerne, through manicured gardens, past picnickers, swans, fishermen, boats and tree-lined paths. This stroll is dramatic at sunrise, when the water turns to gold. On Tuesday and Saturday mornings, you will see the farmers' market, with cheeses, breads, fruits, produce and flower stalls.
>> Mount Titlis: The most exciting, convenient excursion two hours out of town is to Mount Titlis, where you can frolic in the snow. Because there is a glacier at the 10,000-foot summit, there is snow year-round. It's a thrill to go up in the summertime. To get there, take an hourlong train ride to Engelberg, enjoying beautiful views of the mountains, farms and villages along the way. At one point this becomes a rack railway, where the train gears engage a metal strip between the rails, pulling the train up the steep incline and giving you a chance to walk the aisle leaning at a 45-degree angle.
In Engelberg, walk a couple hundred yards to the cable-car lift that will take you on the 45-minute ride up the mountain. The combined rail and lift ticket costs about $50.
Mount Titlis provides a spectacular view into the heart of the Alps, with the lofty peaks of the Jungfrau, Munch and Eiger visible in the distant Bernese Oberland. The Titlis viewing platform has a restaurant, cafe and gift-shop complex, along with an ice tunnel into the glacier. You can walk onto the glacier to frolic in the snow. Some big inner tubes allow for downhill rides. On the trip down, get off the cable car at the next-to-last stop, and rent a scooter ($5) to coast the final mile.
>> Boat rides: Return to town by train. If you would like a two-hour boat ride, you can spend a pleasant afternoon on Lake Lucerne. Various pleasure boats operate on the lake, and you can ride them 45 minutes to the villages of Weggis and Vitznau.
>> Folklore show: Try the dinner show at the famous Stadtkeller in the heart of the Old Town, where you will be entertained by traditional Swiss music, with costumed performers yodeling their hearts out, playing spoons, bottles and brooms, and just putting on one heck of a show. The food is very good, with a choice of bratwurst, Wiener schnitzel, fondue, chicken or fish, accompanied by rosti potatoes. With dinner at 8 p.m. and the show at 8:30, you'll be done by 10 p.m., at a cost of about $40.
Boat ride, and more exploring in town. Or a major excursion.
>> Pilatus: A superb combination boat and funicular ride brings you to Mount Pilatus, the mountain that towers over Lucerne. Take the boat from the Lucerne train station to Alpnachstad, then ride up the world's steepest cog-wheel railway to the top of Pilatus for a sweeping view of the lake and Lucerne.
It is not as exciting as Titlis because there is no snow in the summer at the 7,000-foot viewing area, but there is a nice restaurant and a hotel at the top.
For an alternative, head to Mount Rigi, which offers panoramic views of the Bernese Oberland peaks. Take the 45-minute boat ride from Lucerne to Weggis or Vitznau, and ride the mountain railroad. There are hiking and recreation areas at the top.
Boat rides: You could take a three-hour boat ride to the end of the lake at Fluelen and a one-hour train ride back to Lucerne. There are several paddle wheelers that offer an elegance that hasn't changed in a hundred years. If you have a Eurail Pass, the boat rides are free. Otherwise, the price ranges from $15 to $100.
The Swiss name for Lake Lucerne is Vierwaldstattersee, which means "lake of the four forest cantons," referring to the four communities that joined at the start of the 14th century to create the beginnings of Switzerland. This takes us back to the time of William Tell, who defied the ruling Hapsburg authorities and was then forced to shoot an apple from his son's head, leading to a rebellion that resulted in Swiss independence. The nation reached its current size after the defeat of Napoleon at the start of the 19th century. A thousand years of changing alliances have resulted in the country we find today, neutral and secure.
>> Swiss Transportation Museum: You can go on a lake excursion and still have time in Lucerne for shopping or visiting a museum. The Swiss Transportation Museum is best for those who are interested in old trains, cars and planes. It is two miles outside the city.
>> Bicycling: If you enjoy pedaling, take a bike excursion along the northern shore of the lake. You'll pass through a couple of little villages and find a sandy beach at the end, though its chilly water is only for the brave. The 8-mile round trip takes two hours.
>> Major excursions: There are two all-day expeditions to consider on your third day.
For a long journey south, leave Lucerne on a three-hour excursion by paddle steamboat to the other end of the lake. During lunch on board, you travel past the historic regions of Rütli and the Tellsplatte. In Flüelen, board the famous Gotthard train line, which travels past cliffs, over bridges and through tunnels to arrive in scenic Lugano or Locarno. You are then on your own to explore the village, have dinner and take a late train back to Lucerne.
>> Jungfrau: The adventurous could make the journey by the highest railroad in Europe to the Jungfrau, where you can walk in the snow and enjoy a panoramic view of the longest glacier in the Alps, surrounded by a bowl of rocky peaks reaching 13,646 feet.
This is a demanding day that will keep you on the go for 14 hours, but the payoff is outstanding. Catch the first train to Interlaken, which offers a two-hour ride through mountains and along the shores of Lake Brienz.
You then change trains and continue into Lauterbrunnen Valley, where you again change trains. Sit on the right side for a breathtaking view of the valley as you climb the mountain. Change trains a third time at Kleine Scheidegg for the final ascent to the Jungfraujoch, Europe's highest rail station at 11,333 feet. Enjoy the view at the summit, have a meal or shop.
Your one-way travel time will be nearly five hours. You could stop off in Grindelwald on the way down to stroll around the ski town. A milder option is to spend the night in Interlaken, making this your next tour destination after Lucerne. There is so much to see here that it demands its own three-day itinerary in a future article.
Listed are hotels, restaurants and Web sites for Lucerne visitors. When calling from Hawaii, use the 011-41 prefix. Room rates given per night:
IF YOU GO
Hotels>> Hotel de Balances: Our favorite on the riverfront in the Old Town; $240. Call 41-41-82828, fax 41-41-82838.
>> Hotel Palace Luzern: At 10 Haldenstrasse; five-star, on the lakefront; about $400. Call 41-41-61616; fax 41-41-61000.
>> Grand Hotel National: At 4 Haldenstrasse; five-star, on the lakefront; about $400. Call 41-41-90909, fax 41-41-90910.
>> Hotel Astoria: At 29 Pilatusstrasse; four-star; about $210. Call 41-41-226-8888; fax 41-41-210-4262.
>> Hotel Chateau Gutsch: At 7 Kanonenstrasse; four-star; about $220. Call 41-41-249-4100, fax 41-41-249-4191.
>> Romantik Hotel Wilden Mann: At 30 Bahnhofstrasse; in Old Town; about $200. Call 41-41-210-1666, fax 41-41-210-1629.
Restaurants>> The Old Swiss House, 4 Lowenplatz, 41-410-6171. Menu covers the various regions of Switzerland, in a cozy setting.
>> Wilden Mann, 30 Bahnhofstrasse, phone 41-210-1666. Rustic, dating from 1517. Traditional Swiss cuisine, with wild game in the fall.
>> Rotes Gatter, in the Hotel des Balances, Weinmarkt, 41-410-3010 An exceptional restaurant, in a historic hotel. Refined nouvelle cuisine. Some seats available on the terrace.
>> Wirsthaus Galiker, 1 Schutzenstrasse, 41-241-1002 A rollicking good time is had by all in this old established tavern with classic Swiss food.
>> Chateau Gutsch, 7 Kanonenstrasse, 41-41-249-4191. Elegant dining with a view of town.
>> Pfistern Restaurant. 4 Kornmarkt, 41-41-513650 Unpretentious, with traditional cuisine. Outdoor seating on the river terrace, or indoors.
>> Stadtkeller, 3 Sternenplatz, 41-41-04733 Folk music, yodeling, Alpine horns and good Swiss food combine for great fun in Lucerne's best dinner show.
Web sites>> www.kulturluzern.ch
Museums>> Museum of History: At Pfistergasse 24; Open 10 a.m.-noon and 2-5 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays. Admission: 6 Swiss francs.
>> Picasso Museum: Next to City Hall. Open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. April to October and 11 a.m.-4 p.m. November to March. Admission: 6 SF.
>> Richard Wagner Museum: On the outskirts of town, along the lake. Open 10 a.m.-noon and 2-5 p.m.
MusicThe Lucerne International Music Festival is one of the most important concert series in Europe, held annually from Aug. 16 to Sept. 15, featuring several performances in a spectacular new music hall, with a capacity of nearly 2,000 people.
There is a major concert every night for the run of the festival, featuring such orchestras as the Chicago Symphony, Vienna Philharmonic, the Concertgebouw-Orchestra, Mariinsky Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic, BBC Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Budapest Festival Orchestra and Camerata Salzburg. Web site: www.lucernemusic.ch.
Running concurrently for a week as an alternative "fringe festival" is a series of gypsy music concerts, put on by more than 100 gypsy musicians from across the continent.
Dennis Callan is the president of the Hawaii Geographic Society and produces the "World Traveler" television series, shown at 7 p.m. Tuesdays, repeating 9 a.m. Wednesdays on 'Olelo, channel 52. He frequently leads tours through Europe, and writes "Three Days In ..." the first Sunday of each month explaining how to get the most out of three days in the world's great places. View the companion TV episode this week.