Lucerne to Innsbruck

On The Road Travel Essays

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Lucerne to Innsbruck

Zug: Canton and Town  This canton is Switzerland's smallest, and is centered around Lake Zug. The population is a mere 52,000. It is German-speaking and Catholic. There are many orchards and gardens along the lakeshore. The low-lying hills are the foothills of the Zugerberg (3,200 feet high), overlooking the town. The lake is 14 miles long; the shore is steep and mountainous in the south, and more gently slopping in the north. Thus, the lake marks the geographical transition from the Swiss mountains to the central plain around Zurich.

The town of Zug: It is one of Switzerland's oldest, passed back and forth among ruling families during the Middle Ages. At one time, it was under the Habsburgs. Zug joined the Swiss Confederation in 1352. In 1422, an heroic battle took place as the city tried to defend itself against the invading Milanese. Zug mounted 3,000 soldiers, but the Milanese had 24,000. The hero of this Battle of Arbedo was Wolfgang Kolin, who held the Swiss flag high until he was killed. This flag is displayed in a museum inside the Town Hall of Zug, and a fountain in the town (in the Kolinplatz) honors his memory.

Along Lake Zurich  For a while we travel in the Canton of Zurich, German-speaking and Protestant. The population is about a million. At the north end of the lake is the city of Zurich (population 450,000), the banking capital of Switzerland. Until 1848, Zurich was the capital of the Swiss Confederation, before it was moved to Berne. Zurich led the way in development of democratic institutions: its constitution of 1869 became the model for those of other cantons, and of the whole Confederation. The city is also a great educational center, especially in technical fields. Carl Jung, the psychologist, founded his institute here. Many famous writers have come here to study and work: Lenin spent most of his days here in the local library (see Solzhenitsyn's Lenin in Zurich: a fascinating psychological portrait), James Joyce wrote part of Ulysses here (is buried in the city), and Thorton Wilder wrote the popular play, Our Town, in Zurich.

Canton of Schwyz  We skirt the northern edge of this canton for most of our trip along Lake Zurich. Schwyz (pronounced "Shvuz") gives us the English name "Swiss." This canton, one of the original three in the Swiss Confederation, is the cradle of Swiss history. Its flag, a red field with a white cross, became the Swiss national flag. It is also a very wealthy canton: its young men hired out as mercenaries, and returned home with fortunes, building lavish homes in the town of Schwyz (to our south).

Nafels (or Neider-Urnen)  We pass this town, where the Swiss won an important victory over the Austrians (1388). Over the centuries, the young men of the town went off to foreign wars as mercenaries, returning with fortunes. Freuler Palace in Nafels is a sumptuous palace typical of those built.

Canton of Glarus  We're now in another canton, Glarus. It is German-Protestant and small (the population is 45,000). Glarus is Switzerland's only industrial mountain canton. Most industry is concentrated in the valley of the Linth River, which flows north to Lake Walenstadt (our next lake, going east). In the 18th century, a protestant pastor, Andreas Heideggar, introduced cotton spinning into Switzerland, and a great industry developed, especially in the 19th century. Printing on cloth, especially "Indian" designs, became very popular in the 1860's, and spread to other parts of Europe.

Tourism is very popular, and the mountain scenery is among the loveliest in Switzerland. In the town of Glarus, one of Switzerland's most famous "town meetings" (the Landesgemeinde), is held on the 1st Sunday in May. This is the canton's open-air parliament, once a common practice in Switzerland, now almost died out except for here in Glarus.

Lake Walenstadt (Walensee)  Another shoestring-shaped lake, this time dividing the canton of Glarus from the canton of St. Gallen. On the northern shore of the lake is a huge mountain mass, known as the Churfirsten. It was very difficult to put in a new road — a major engineering achievement: 6 tunnels, and 9 spots where the road had to be hacked out of living rock. You'd really appreciate this new road if you had to use the old one, which is very steep, and winds up among forests to the crest of the mountains on the southern shore of the lake.

Liechtenstein  There will hardly be any formalities as we cross the border into the tiny Principality of Liechtenstein. The Rhine River forms the western border.

The Principality of Liechtenstein  A relic of feudal Europe. Back in the Dark Ages, Europe was divided into a patchwork of small states, each one ruled like a single household. The duke lived in the castle, with peasants in the surrounding town. But the peasants sought refuge in the castle in times of war, sometimes taking their meals there regularly. These mini-states eventually consolidated into nation-states in the 16th-17th centuries, but a few were "left out." Liechtenstein was one of these. Its area is 60 square miles, with a population of 16,000. Low taxes make it an attractive place for tycoons to establish residence, but Liechtensteinian citizenship is difficult to get. The country was given to Prince Hans Adam of Liechtenstein in 1719 by the Holy Roman Emperor. Hans Adam's dynasty held on to it mainly because of the wise leadership of Prince John II, whose reign (1858-1929) is second only to Louis XIV's of France. Today's Prince of Liechtenstein is Franz-Joseph II (since 1938). Formerly, the country tended to ally with Austria; but more recently, it has moved closer to Switzerland, with which it has customs, postal, currency, and economic agreements. It is virtually a Swiss canton (no border formalities).

Vaduz  Population: a mere 3,000 — hardly the appearance of a "capital." The land is flat, and the river is nearby, but the elevation of the town is still a hefty 1,500 feet. The mountains are not far off — the foothills of the Arlberg Alps. The town is dominated by the hilltop castle (not open to visitors) — the official residence of the Prince of Liechtenstein. For the rest, there are few outstanding features of the town — save that it is typical of the mountain towns that grew up in this area during the Middle Ages. During free time (if any), the students might enjoy visiting the central post office, where they can get the famous colorful postage stamps of Liechtenstein, prized by philatelists.


The Vorarlberg Province  Half of our journey to Innsbruck will be through the smallest of Austria's federal states or provinces, Vorarlberg. (Vienna, which forms a state by itself and covers only 160 square miles, usually isn't counted.) Vorarlberg measures slightly over 1,000 square miles, about the same as Rhode Island. The name means "before the Arlberg (Alps)," although when traveling through the province, we'll feel in them, not "before" them.

The mountains swallow up any attempts made to domesticate them: the towns are few and far between. There's only one main road, and we're on it. It isn't the best land for farming, and many other resources are lacking. But it is rich in resources of another kind: a hardy and hard-working population, which has learned to adapt itself to the most rugged conditions.

Austria or Switzerland? The people of Vorarlberg and their neighbors in eastern Switzerland are descendants of a Germanic tribe which settled in the area in the waning days of the Roman Empire. Many of the virtues of courage and self-discipline that one associates with the Swiss can also be attributed to the people of Vorarlberg. It was this feeling of affinity with Switzerland which prompted the people of Vorarlberg, in 1919, to consider seceding from Austria in order to become a Swiss canton. But the province remained a part of Austria, and it has contributed more than its share to revitalizing Austria's postwar economic life. Cattle raising, chemical plants, and gigantic hydroelectric works add to Austria's prosperity, while the popularity of Vorarlberg's ski and scenic resorts is responsible for much tourist income.

Feldkirche  This is the traditional capital of the Vorarlberg province. But it hardly looks like a capital; it seems to resemble a mountain retreat. Its population of 17,000 is employed mainly in tourist and commercial activity, although modest industrial works are beginning to sprout up.

Schattenburg Castle: This stronghold was built by nobles who controlled these Alpine passes centuries ago. It's the major landmark of Feldkirche.

The older quarter of the town is centered around the Marktplatz, which is flanked by those wonderfully tall, arcaded houses which visitors always associate with Alpine towns. Some of the shops still hang out wrought-iron emblems bearing coats-of-arms from the Middle Ages.

Klostertall  The "Cloister Valley," which we enter at the town of Bludenz, is named for a cloister built by a medieval religious order. The cloister used to offer food and shelter to weary travelers. One of the towns through which we'll pass somewhat later, called Klosterle, is named for this cloister, which once stood there.

Langen  This is where the mammoth entrance to the Arlberg railroad tunnel stands. The tunnel was opened in 1884, and it extends for over six miles. The road we take, however, continues zigzagging up the mountainside, which becomes ever steeper. This is the part of the road most threatened by avalanches in the winter. Notice the protective walls and concrete blocks from time to time. One whole town — Stuben — lies huddled behind such anti-avalanche defenses. About this name Stuben: the word means "room" in German. It comes from a mountain inn where wayfarers once warmed their hands at the fire and swilled down a few tankards of ale before resuming their journey.

Arlberg Pass  About the word Arl; it's from the local dialect, meaning "pine," which is, after all, the predominating feature of the landscape.

As soon as we emerge from the short tunnel, at the very crest of the pass, we'll be at an elevation of 6,000 feet. Look due south (to the right), and you'll see the snow-capped peak of Patteriol, which reaches 10,000 feet and is one of the major mountains of the Arlberg range.

Ski Country  By now, we're out of Vorarlberg and into the western part of the Tyrol province. Its capital, Innsbruck, still lies some 50 miles ahead of us. As we descend, we'll be following the valley of the Stanzertal. The first town is St. Christoph, virtually a mecca for skiers in the wintertime. It was here, in these mountains, that skiing became an organized sport for the first time. The founding of the Arlberg Ski Club in 1901 marks the beginning of serious skiing. New and daring techniques have been tried out over the years, then taught at local ski schools. The techniques were designed to exploit the unique terrain of the Arlberg, which didn't lend itself to skiing traditions established elsewhere. The pioneers of this "Arlberg School" of skiing were the two sportsmen Hannes Schneider and the British skiing professional Sir Arnold Lunn. The town of St. Christoph itself is named for the saint who gave help and encouragement to travelers making their way over the pass.

St. Anton: Along with St. Christoph, this is the skiing center of the Arlberg mountains. It's a winter resort that attracts the wealth and royalty of Europe every season. The Dutch royal family in particular are devotees of St. Anton, not to mention the growing clientele of oil-rich sheiks and European film stars.

Landeck  By this time, the most rugged of the mountains are behind us. But notice the castles perched on peaks around the town. This shows the strategic importance the town once had as the gateway to the Arlberg Alps.

Inn River Valley  From Landeck to Innsbruck, we'll be following the road and lazy valley of the River Inn. As you can see, the Alpine activity doesn't cease altogether: it's simply at a greater distance.

To the right are the Otztal Alps, which extend to the south, then cross the border into Italy. To the left are the Northern Limestone Alps, crossing the border into Germany. Austria is quite narrow at this point: most of the people dwell in small towns along the river valley. Outside this valley, there's nothing but cliffs and precipices — a virtual no-man's land.

Beyond Silz, and visible up the mountain to the right, is the Abbey of Stams, dating from the year 1273. In the 17th century, the building was enlarged, and two immense towers were added to the abbey church. The style of that time was Baroque, and the Cistercian monks who occupied the abbey spared no effort to make their building the largest and most extravagant of the country abbeys in the Tyrol province.

Approaching Innsbruck  About two or three miles beyond Zirl, the road circles around a huge, protruding bulge in the mountainside to the left. This portion of the mountain is known as the Martinswand (St. Martin's Wall). According to legend, the popular Emperor Maximilian, who ruled Austria at about the time Columbus discovered America, had a mishap here which turned out well in the end. "Emperor Max," as he was affectionately called by his subjects, loved to hunt in this area, claiming that it was an important way of getting to know his humbler subjects out in the woods and country towns. One day, while he was hunting up on the Martinswand, his horse lost its step and hurled him to the ground. He began to roll down the mountainside, but as he approached the cliff, an angel appeared in the form of a peasant, and caught hold of him just before he disappeared over the edge of the precipice. The kindness he had shown his subjects hadn't been forgotten.

(COURIER: Now start your introduction to Innsbruck.)


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