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The Heart of Switzerland Think of Switzerland and what comes to mind? Mountains, lakes, skiing, cowbells, yodelers, Heidi, William Tell, watches, cheese, fondue, chocolate and Swiss army knives? Well, William Tell is long gone now (though his spirit is still here) and you may not find Heidi in or around the lovely town of Lucerne, but you'll find everything else. And more, besides.
Nestled amid the magnificent peaks of the Alps and bathed by the crystal-clear waters of the impossibly named and nearly unpronounceable Vierwaldstättersee (you can call it Lake Lucerne if you prefer), Lucerne is a story-book town where you can enjoy a serenity which is foreign to the hustle and bustle of Europe's capitals and commercial hubs. Its site is glorious. It is a historic town whose Altstadt is sheer delight, with its pedestrianized streets and squares, decorative wrought iron signs and prettily painted houses. It has museums and monuments a plenty, from the amazing Swiss Transport Museum to the gorgeous interior of the Jesuit Church, from the ancient Musegg fortifications to the moving Lion Monument and the medieval Chapel Bridge whose watchtower is said to be the most photographed building in the country. There's even a world-class Picasso collection here. It's a shopper's paradise, whether you're in the market for watches, music boxes, Swiss army knives or thousands of gallons of chocolate. It has its own private mountain, Mt. Pilatus. You can play on the lake, renting boats, taking trips on steamers, sunning yourself on the nearby beach, fishing or strolling the lakeside boulevards. There's fun to be had in the evenings as you immerse yourself in the bizarre world of Swiss folklore. The town is small, safe and friendly and, well, at least it's not quite as expensive as Zürich. Almost everybody speaks English, which is a blessing since the local Swiss-German dialect is an impenetrable mystery to the uninitiated.
In Lucerne there is nothing hurried or cluttered or obtrusive; here, the Swiss have dedicated their legendary meticulousness to creating a place where important things happen but which remains a delight to live in or visit and beautiful to look at. Medieval watch-towers live in peaceful co-existence with multi-national banks and businessmen stop to feed the swans by the banks of the River Reuss. When the weather is on your side, there is no lovelier place in Europe to spend a day. When the weather is being mischievious, don't worry. There's more than enough here to keep any visitor occupied and happy as a Swiss cow frolicking in the Alpine pastures midst edelweiss, daisies and snow.
Come rain or shine Weather is a mystery in central Switzerland. Here, by the lakeshore, you're probably not going to get the bitter winters of the mountains, nor will you find the blissful Mediterranean summers of the Italian-speaking cantons down south. What you'll get is the possibility of sunny skies with cloudy intervals and chances of rain or cloudy skies with sunny intervals and chances of rain. This at least may give you an idea:
March Temperature 36F to 50F
April Temperature 40F to 58F
May Temperature 49F to 65F
June Temperature 52F to 70F
July Temperature 58F to 76F
Synchronize your watches Switzerland is 6 hours ahead of EST. If it's 4:00pm in Lucerne, it's 10:00am in New York City. There is no time difference between Switzerland and any of its European neighbors, France, Italy, Germany or Austria.
Money, money, money Switzerland is a banking mecca with three of the world's ten largest banks located here, and even if your banking needs aren't sophisticated enough to involve confidential deposits and numbered accounts you will still find doing banking in Lucerne simple and efficient. Banks are open from 8:30am until 4:30pm, Monday through Friday (closing for an hour at noon) and they are mostly concentrated along the Pilatusstrasse. If you're close to the Jesuit Church or the Chapel Bridge, you might find the Schweizer Volksbank convenient. Across the river, in the Schwanenplatz, is the Swiss Credit Bank which has a sidewalk bureau de change (Wechsel). The American Express office, which is also open on Saturday, is located on the Schweizerhofquai a couple of minutes' walk from the Schwanenplatz. Otherwise there is a change bureau in the main train station which has extended hours. The rate barely fluctuates from one day to another or from one exchange facility to another, but if you change money at your hotel or at a shop you can expect to be charged a large commission. As always, have your passport with you when changing travelers' checks. Unlike in the rest of Europe, it's not so easy here to withdraw money using your ATM card, so changing cash or travelers' checks is still the way to go.
A little extra Nowadays tipping (10% to l5%) is automatically included in all hotel and restaurant bills in Switzerland, as well as most taxi fares. If you were particularly pleased with the service, you might add a little extra Trinkgeld for the waiter on top of that, maybe 1 or 2 Swiss francs.
These boots are made for walking Lucerne is a small town, blessed with a large pedestrian zone and sane, calm traffic in the areas where cars are permitted. In just a few hours you can get a feel for the town and its people in a way which would be impossible in London or Paris. What this means is that the best transportation is on foot. Not that Lucerne doesn't have a clean and efficient public transport system of buses—which it does—but there is virtually nothing within the whole town's boundaries that can't be reached on foot. (The only exception to this is the Swiss Transport Museum. The best way to get here is taking the #2 bus from outside the train station and getting off at Lidostrasse. You buy the bus tickets from the automats at the bus station.)
Hey Mr. Postman The French Swiss call their country la Suisse, the Germans die Schweiz, the Italians Svizzera. For that tiny minority of Romansch speakers in the Grisons it is Suiza and for us, it's Switzerland. That is quite a bit to put on a tiny postage stamp so the Swiss have compromised by choosing the old Roman name of Helvetia to identify their country on stamps and coins. Many of the stamps are so attractive you might just become an impromptu collector. To purchase them you can stop in at the main post office on the Bahnhofstrasse (near the Seebrücke) until 6:00pm then at the after-hours post-office in the train station until late evening. Post offices are generally open from 8:30am. As you enter the main hall of the station, it's on your left. Nearly all hotels will have stamps or a postage machine and will be up to date on current rates.
Hanging on the telephone As always, the golden rule is never call home from your hotel. It will cost you a fortune. Public phones all accept coins. If you don't have enough coins on you it's also possible to make international phone calls from the Post Office. The international code for the U.S. is 001 + area code + number.
The access code to put you through to an ATT operator from Switzerland is 0-800-890011. For MCI it is 0-800-890222.
Home, sweet home The U.S. Embassy is a couple of hours' drive away in the Swiss capital Bern
Tel. 357 7011
The nearest U.S. Consulate is in Zürich
Tel. 422 25 66
In general, shops in Switzerland are open from 9:00am to 6:30pm on weekdays and from 9:00am to 4:00pm on Saturdays. With a few exceptions, most shops are closed on Sundays. Many shops are also closed on Monday mornings. Shopping isn't cheap in Switzerland, but if you buy Swiss, you know you're getting quality craftsmanship at prices at least as good as you can find anywhere else. Clocks and watches, embroidered handkerchiefs, woodcarvings, Swiss army knives and music boxes: these are the classic gifts to bring a little bit of Switzerland home with you.
A timely question According to the Swiss Tourist Board, 90% of the visitors to Switzerland leave with some sort of timepiece in tow—and why not? The Swiss have been famous for making quality time instruments for four centuries. Do your share for the GNP, you will find something suitable to any budget and you won't even have to special-order your diamond-encrusted solid gold Rolex. You can pick up one of those or browse through a selection of literally thousands of watches and clocks in every price range at Bucherer, Switzerland's largest retailer, located in the Schwanenplatz. (On Thursday nights, this store is open until 9:00pm.). Be sure to visit the extensive souvenir departments upstairs as well - there you can find other Swiss specialty items like cuckoo clocks, embroidered handkerchiefs, music boxes and even cowbells. Everything you purchase carries a guarantee and can be serviced at Bucherer repair centers throughout the USA.
The entire area behind Bucherer between the river on your left and the medieval ramparts on your right is one enormous pedestrian shopping paradise. Here's the place to stock up on souvenirs like Alpine hats, whittled walking sticks and pretty wall hangings made of pressed wild flowers. You'll find an excellent selection of good value souvenirs of all sorts at Casagrande. In this area, it's more than just tourist stuff as well. There are clothing stores here, from folklore dress to high fashion, antique shops, art galleries, bookstores, music stores and the like. There's even food...
Shopaholic chocaholic Nestlé, Tobler, Milka, Suchard and Lindt—it's a pleasure to gain weight in the service of such celebrated names. Chocolate is so much in demand, it's not only sold in speciality shops but even also on newsstands. That's where you should buy it: you can be guaranteed it will be fairly-priced and fresh. Try a bar filled with marzipan, a thick almond paste which you can thank the Germans for inventing but the Swiss for putting to such optimum use.
Huntin', shootin' fishin', survivin' Once you've bought your Swiss army knife, you'll find it hard to understand how you ever managed without one. The super deluxe versions have everything, so if you want a pocket knife that also contains a fork, a spoon, a toothpick, a pair of scissors, two files, a saw, a pair of tweezers, a corkscrew, a bottle-opener, a can-opener, a needle, a magnifying glass, a compass, a flashlight, a ruler and various types of screwdrivers, then these are the things for you. The blades are all superb quality. Army knives and the like can be purchased at dozens of locations throughout the pedestrian zone, but if you are pressed for time, head for the Kapellgasse where there is the greatest concentration of souvenir-type shops. Alternatively, there is an excellent little Victorinox shop (these are the manufacturers) on the Zentralstrasse across from the railway station where for a small fee they will inscribe your name on the knife of your choice as long as you give them enough notice.
Lucerne is a place for relaxation and play. Shop a little; take a boat trip on the lake; marvel at the views from the summit of Mt. Pilatus; go for a stroll through the Altstadt (Old Town) with your courier; join in the fondue, folklore and fun at the Stadtkeller. There are sights to see as well: the Jesuit Church, the cathedral, the Lion Monument and Glacier Carden, the extraordinary Swiss Transport Museum and the Picasso collection at the Am Rhyn Haus. Lucerne has something for everyone. Enjoy yourself, whatever you do...
Sail every lake At least, sail the lake. From the little landing stage in front of the train station, steamers go out at regular intervals, daytime and evening, on sightseeing excursions—a full circuit of the lake takes about 6 hours—or on short hops to the little villages around Lucerne. The smart and charmingly picturesque resort of Weggis is probably the nicest of them. You can take boats to just about anywhere on the lake: to Tribschen where the composer Wagner lived in exile, to Alpnachstad where the cog-wheel railway goes up to Mt. Pilatus or to Rütli Meadow where Switzerland was born. Lake Lucerne has the world's largest fleet of old paddle-wheel steamers, but if you don't fancy a big boat, you can hire a pedalo from the Schweizerhofquai near the Schwanenplatz and drift off into the glistening waters at your leisure.
What's the name of that lake anyway? It's quite a handle, so often it's simply referred to as Lake Lucerne but the official name of this body of water is the Vierwaldstättersee which translates as the "lake of the four forest cantons." Cantons are the nearly autonomous political entities into which Switzerland is divided. At the moment there are twenty-six but it hasn't always been that way. The latest was added in l979 and in the beginning there were just three: Uri, Unterwalden and Schwyz. It's from this last one that the country derives its name. These original three joined together on l August l291 in what they called the Everlasting League with the hope that their combined force would allow them to throw off the tyranny of Austrian Hapsburg domination. The driving force behind the Everlasting League was that great Swiss hero William Tell. In 1332 they were joined by Luzern. All four neighboring cantons were characterized by enormous forests and between them they shared the area around the lake, hence the name. The lake has always played an important role in the livelihood of the town - first there was transportation and commerce then in the l9th century as the industrialized societies of Europe began to develop and the burgeoning bourgeoisie started to cultivate the newborn art of leisure, resorts began to spring up. For the first time people could enjoy travel for the sole purpose of pleasure. They needed to escape from the smokey grimness of their urban existences and what better place to do so than in the pristine surroundings of the Alps. Here they could breathe mountain air, take healthy walks and hob-nob with their colleagues from around Europe. Grand hotels like the Schweizerhof and the Palace began to sprout along the lakeside and a new promenade with shady avenues and graceful fountains was laid out in front of them. "Taking the cure" became the rage of that pleasure-driven period known as the Belle Epoque. The reminders in Lucerne are many: frock- coated croupiers still preside over the gambling tables at the Kursaal and gracious society makes a daily appearance in the lakeside cafes at sunset. Most of all the lake is still here, with all the pleasures it affords.
Climb every mountain Well not every mountain, but how about at least Pilatus—that legendary hunk of rock and ice whose craggy outline you can see looming on the horizon from just about anywhere in Lucerne? There's a story behind the mountain and how it got its name. According to the legends which even some modern-day Lucerners subscribe to, Pontius Pilate began to wander around Europe searching for some solace from the conscience which haunted him after having completed his evil task in Judea. When he found himself before this mountain, he thought that on reaching the summit he might escape from his guilt-ridden past. At the top, however, his relief was short-lived. Spread beneath him was the enormous glittering body of the Vierwaldstättersee. If you stretch your imagination far enough as you look down upon the lake you can see what Pilate saw to his horror—a body of water whose arms made the shape of a huge cross. The cruciform lake convinced him that his quest was futile and he plunged to his death. Through the 16th century, people believed that the spirit of Pilate haunted the peak and there were laws on the books against climbing to the summit, especially on Good Friday when the shade's fury caused the mountaintop to rumble. Who knows if Pilate still inhabits those snowy reaches? You just might find out on your visit...
You start at a little village called Kriens just outside Lucerne where you board four-man gondolas that will rise to a height of more than 5,000 feet. You are never more than fifty or sixty feet from the ground so you will not only have magnificent views of Lucerne disappearing behind you and Pilatus looming in front but a birds-eye view of the alpine flora and fauna below. First stop is Frakmuntegg where the clanging of cowbells and crisp mountain air bring visions of Heidi, her alm uncle and the pastoral Alpine paradise to mind. From here it's another five minute ride to the top—this time in an aerial cable car that will give you quite a stir as it approaches the granite face of the summit. Once on top, you can follow trails to the pinnacles and the crosses which surmount them as a reminder of the mountain's namesake. Before beginning the descent, stop by the cafeteria in the Pilatus-Kulm Hotel and have a hot chocolate in true Swiss style. Then it's down the other side— this time in the world's steepest cogwheel train. Like the ascent, this ride takes about forty minutes and you will alight at Alpnachstad several miles from Lucerne. The ride back affords magnificent panoramas of the lake.
When the weather's not on your side Lucerne is not just a fair weather resort. A couple of miles out from the town center is one of the most fascinating and worthwhile museums in Europe. In fact, 700,000 visitors a year make this museum the most popular in Switzerland. It's called the Verkehrshaus der Schweiz or Swiss Transport Museum. It's a vast and fantastic treasure-house tracing the historical and technical development of transportation and communication. Exhibits include vehicles like the l847 steamboat Rigi, classic cars of all generations, mountain cable cars from the very first to the ultra-modern, balloons and airships, a locomotive dating from l873 which was used to cross the St. Gotthard Pass, a Swissair prop jet, NASA spacesuits, even a piece of lunar rock in the museum's world-class Planetarium. It's a user-friendly place with participatory exhibits in which you can really get a feel for the action. Convinced you shouldn't miss it? Take bus #2 from outside the railway station and get off at the Lidostrasse. This is the number one attraction in the city and worth every penny of the rather expensive entrance charge. Museum hours are 9:00am to 6:00pm daily in summer and l0:00am to 4:00pm daily in winter.
Modern art in the mountains You might have expected to see Picasso in Madrid or Paris or even Amsterdam, but would you have imagined a first-rate collection of this great contemporary Spanish artist's work in Lucerne? There is one and you will find it at the Am Rhyn Haus just near the town hall. As well as works by the artist himself, mostly paintings and drawings from Picasso's later years, there is a fine collection of photographs of the man at work. From October to May the collection can be viewed Friday to Sunday, 11:00am to l2:00 noon and 3:00pm to 5:00pm. The rest of the year, the museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, l0:00am to 6:00pm.
"The most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world" This is what Mark Twain called Lucerne's Löwendenkmal or Lion Monument. While the rugged life of the mountains didn't offer bright prospects for young Swiss men of centuries past, it did make them into crack soldiers. Their prowess was recognized throughout Europe and they were engaged as mercenaries by popes and kings alike. In fact, on the fatal night of l0 August l792 when the Tuileries Palace was stormed by Paris revolutionaries, it was a battalion of soldiers from Lucerne which defended the royal personages. But when Louis XVI saw that the odds were unsurmountable, he gave the order for the soldiers to lay down their arms. They did so and were slaughtered by the mob. Centuries later, fellow citizens of Lucerne who hadn't forgotten the courage and bravery of those soldiers even in the face of defeat and death, erected a monument to their spirit. It's an enormous relief carved in living glacial rock which portrays a moribund lion, with a dagger in its back and tears falling from its eyes, who even in death displays quiet resolve. It is easily reached on foot; from the Schwanenplatz walk along the lake promenade toward the cathedral and make a right into Löwenstrasse - it will appear on your right. The monument is particularly moving when seen lit up at night. All around the lion are reminders of Lucerne's primordial past: you are in the glacier garden where enormous pock-marked rock formations remind you of those enormous slabs of ice which once leveled the face of Northern Europe and left the enormous piles of debris which are now the Alps. Have a little walk around and count the "potholes" which were still being formed up through the last century. There are thirty-two of them.
Even if it's not a Sunday There are a pair of churches in Lucerne which are definitely worth a visit. The first is the cathedral whose slender steeples rise above the lake at the town's eastern edge. In the tumultous decades of the Protestant Reformation and the Wars of Religion, Switzerland was torn by internecine struggle which finally came to an end only with the Treaty of Westphalia in l648. At that time, it was decided that the religion of the sovereign should be the religion of the state and in the case of Switzerland's confederation that meant each canton could make a choice independently of the others. About half of the country's population today is Protestant but Lucerne has always remained staunchly Catholic. It is the seat of a diocese founded in the 8th century by a bishop of the Roman church named Leodigarius sent to "romanize" those unruly Christian mountaineers. The cathedral is dedicated to him. The original church was replaced by a Gothic structure of which only the towers remain, for it was destroyed in the l7th century and rebuilt in the Baroque style in l633. All this makes for a curious but impressive mix and most interesting perhaps is the magnificent woodwork of the church's interior since it is representative of the truly home-grown art of whittling and carving. Have a look at the courtyards as well - here you will find mossy burial monuments of the town's leading families.
More beautiful still is the Jesuit Church on the riverbank facing the Old Town. In the stormy years of the late l6th century, while Swedish armies were ransacking German towns in the name of Protestantism, the Catholic Church was busy creating a new weapon—an army of priests who would defend the cause of Catholicism and reestablish allegiance to the Church of Rome where it had waned. These new soldiers were known as Jesuits and in l667 they arrived in Lucerne prepared to make their assault on whatever Protestantism might have taken root here. They began the building of their church in the same year and the product is an outstanding example of church architecture of the era —a statement of the power, majesty and grandeur of the Mother Church translated into stucco and stone. All around you is opulence. The facade of the Jesuit Church rises on the south bank of the Reuss and is punctuated with a pair of onion domes which might seem more suited to Moscow than Lucerne. Here is a reminder of the cultural interaction which the town enjoyed in past centuries thanks to its position on one of the most important trade routes in Europe. You can visit the church every day from early morning to sunset.
Going for a stroll On a cool Lucerne evening, when the shops are shut and you have an hour or so to kill before going out for dinner, a gentle walk through the Altstadt (Old Town) is a must. The obvious place to start is the...
Chapel Bridge (Kapellbrücke): This is the symbol of Lucerne, the oldest, the best, the most famous and the longest of the many covered wooden bridges in Switzerland. (You've got to have somewhere to shelter from the winter snows.) It was built in 1333, serving originally not only as a bridge over the River Reuss but as part of the fortifications continuing the city walls. In front of it ran a row of defensive wooden stakes. The octagonal tower with its tiled roof, the Wasserturm, began life as a guard tower, and has served in its time as a prison, a torture chamber, the treasury and the town archive. Under the roof beams are 112 paintings depicting the history of Lucerne, and the legends of St. Leger and St. Maurice, the patron saints of the city. Part of the bridge was destroyed in a devastating fire in August 1993 and has now been beautifully restored. You can easily tell which of the panels are new. Once across the bridge, you find yourself looking on to a little chapel called the...
Peterskirche: the oldest in the city. Go through to the square called Kapellplatz. This tiny square is the first of a string of market areas which defined the medieval prosperity of the town. Travelers and merchants from all over the Mediterranean world were funneled across the Alps on two or three principal routes. Lucerne had the good fortune to lie along one of these roads, the St. Gotthard, and consequently enjoyed a booming commercial life. Here, weary travelers would stop in the chapel to offer thanksgiving for their safe arrival and prayers for continued success. Notice St. Christopher, patron saint of travelers, frescoed on the exterior wall. The pretty fountain in the middle of the square is the Fritschibrunnen. Fritschi is a naughty but nice ghost who has been frightening little children in Lucerne since the 15th century. He was a monk who lies buried beneath your feet. The square where you are standing was once also the town cemetery. You can see Fritschi in action on the huge painted facade of the building in the square behind (where the Stadtkeller is). Now take the Kapellgasse to...
Kornmarkt: This was where merchants used to come to trade in corn and grain. The renaissance building with the tower is the Old Town Hall, c. 1600, now a historical museum. Its Germanic roof and Italianate walls make an eloquent testimony to Lucerne's identity as a crossroads city. The supremely decorative painted facade to the right on the Gasthaus zu Pfistern depicts an extended genealogical tree belonging to a local merchant family of evident aspiration and wealth. From here to the...
Weinmarkt: The old main square and the heart of the business district of Lucerne. This was where the men of Lucerne swore allegiance to the "Everlasting League" formed in the name of Swiss independence from the Austrian Empire in 1291. Many of the painted facades used to belong to trade organizations and guilds. The fountain is dedicated to St. Maurice, one of Lucerne's patron saints and the patron saint of soldiers. This square used to be the site of the local week-long passion play performed every 10 years, hence the large painting of the Last Supper on one of the houses. At the other end of the square, set back, is the Hotel des Balances, one of the best in Lucerne. Turn right out of this square and then left into...
Mühlenplatz: Yet another old market square. As you go though this square to the bridge take a look at the house at the end on the right with the golden spheres on its facade. This was the old mint, for in the 16th century Lucerne had the important privilege of minting its own coinage. You can clearly see the figure of Lucerna, the old Roman goddess of light. At the end of the square you can see in front of you the...
Spreuerbrücke: This is the second of Lucerne's superb covered wooden bridges. It was built in 1408. The roar comes from the rushing waters at the workings of the old mill. The panels commemorate an outbreak of the plague in the late 17th century. Appropriately they represent the "Totentanz" — the Dance of Death. The macabre idea is of Death as the great leveller, Death figured as a skeleton associating with all types of people — the poor and the rich, the young and the old, the good and the bad — in the common progress, or dance, to the grave. The walk across the bridge is really pretty frightening but very exciting as well, especially heightened by the roar of the water. From the bridge walk along the quays to the...
Jesuit Church (Jesuitenkirche): The first Jesuit church in Switzerland, dating to 1667-77. Have a look inside if it's open. It's Baroque at its best, sumptuous, gorgeous and truly moving. When you come out again, look around you at the townscape across the river and beyond the Chapel Bridge to the lake. You'll never forget Lucerne.
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