Lugano to Lucerne

On The Road Travel Essays

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Lugano to Lucerne

Bellinzona  An important mountain crossroads from the earliest times: for travelers going up the St. Gotthard Pass, the San Bernardino, or any of a dozen Alpine passages. It lies on the Italian side of the Alps, hence a major stronghold of Italian influence over the centuries (population: 14,000).

The major historical landmarks are the three medieval castles, built between the 13th and 15th centuries. At the time, this area was controlled by the German-speaking cantons to the north: Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwald. The three castles are named for these three cantons. Today the city is the capital of Ticino, the one Italian-speaking canton.

St. Gotthard Pass  The ascent is very slow, following the River Ticino, after which this canton was named. Look out for the hikers along the road: this spot is popular for them in the summer.

Airolo: Just after this town is the entrance to the St. Gotthard railroad tunnel. It's 9-1/2 miles long — one of Europe's longest. Finished in 1882, it's used today by heavy electric locomotives (240 tons or more). The trains need that power to pull their loads up the steep grades. In deep winter, when the road is closed in by snow, autos and trucks are loaded onto the train to get to the other side. We'll see the other end of the tunnel later, in the town of Goschenen.

Top of the pass: The elevation is well over a mile: 6,900 feet. The huge rockpile hovering over the top of the pass is Mt. Prosa. The St. Gotthard Pass is named for the old St. Gotthard Chapel, built in honor of a German bishop during the Middle Ages. As we descent the pass, look for squads of Swiss soldiers, out on maneuvers. Also look out for a yellow and black emblem painted on the side of the rock (to your left). It is the coat-of-arms of the Swiss canton of Uri, which we're entering. The insignia shows a black bull with a ring in its nose. From now on into Lucerne, we'll be in German-speaking Switzerland.

Gams River: A stream to our right, after which this sloping valley is named.

Andermatt: The "crossroads of the Alps," from which several valleys branch off in different directions. This is popular ski country in winter.

Goschenen: Look down to the railroad tracks, and follow them with the eye to the tunnel; we saw the other end of the tunnel before. We'll be following the Reuss River, which winds its way down to Lucerne, through which it flows.

Wassen: A resort area in both summer and winter; Swedish and Dutch student camps attract young people from these countries in the summer.

Pfaffensprung: A mile outside Wassen is a reservoir. At one end of this reservoir is a small waterfall known as the Pfaffensprung (Priest's Jump). An old local story tells of a priest whose indiscretion with a young thing caused a scandal, so that the priest had no choice but to pitch himself over the waterfall to his doom.

Altdorf  By now we're out of the mountains for awhile, so the succession of villages will be more frequent, and many of them are Switzerland's most historic. Altdorf is an example. It is the capital of the canton of Uri, through which we've been traveling. Altdorf goes back to the founding of the Swiss Confederation in the 13th century. Uri was one of the original three "forest cantons" (Waldstatten), the others being Schwyz and Unterwald. A pact was formed, uniting these Swiss cantons against the ruling Austrians, and signed on August 1, 1291 — the Swiss "Fourth of July." The episode of William Tell and the apple occurred on a field outside Altdorf, and a lifelike statue of Switzerland's national hero stands in Altdorf's main square.

(COURIER: The following notes apply only if you are taking the old scenic and historic route north of Lake Lucerne into Lucerne. If you are taking the new Autobahn south along the lake — assuming work has been completed on it — then there's not so much of history to tell, and you should use the time to finish your introduction to Switzerland and give your introduction to Lucerne.)

Lake Uri  This lake stands off to the left of the old road; it is simply a branch of the Lake of Lucerne, which we'll be following into Lucerne. We'll be going through six tunnels on the way to the town of Brunnen. After the fifth tunnel, a vista opens up (left). You'll see a grassy slope across the lake at this point; this is the historic Field of Rutli, where the original pact between the three Forest Cantons was concluded in 1291, giving birth to the Swiss Confederation. The field is now the national shrine.

Schwyz  This is the canton (and town) of Schwyz, from which the name "Switzerland" comes. The Swiss national flag derives from the coat-of-arms of the Schwyz canton: a red field with a white cross. (The canton flag puts the white cross in one corner; the Swiss national flag puts the white cross in the center.) During the Middle Ages, many European kings hired Swiss mercenaries to fight their wars, since they were reliable, good fighters, and could be counted on to finish the job. Most of these mercenaries came from Schwyz. After making a fortune in war, the mercenaries settled down in comfortable farmhouses in this area; some can be seen today.

On the road leading out of Schwyz is the Bundesbriefarchiv (Archives of the Federal Charters) — the "Smithsonian Institute" of Switzerland, where the founding documents are preserved.

After Schwyz, a small lake appears on the right: Lake Lauerzer. Later another one appears, also on the right: Lake Zug, after which the canton of Zug is named. (Zug is small — only 92 square miles — is German-speaking and Catholic.)

Kussnacht  This is the town where, on a lonely road one night, William Tell took his revenge on the wicked Gessler for forcing him to go through the apple ordeal.

Lake Lucerne  The lake appears on the left. As soon as it does, a little chapel becomes visible between the road and the lake. The chapel honors Queen Astrid of Belgium, who was driving along here in 1935 when her car plowed into a tree, killing her. A cross (to the right) points out the site of the accident.

The lake appears, disappears, then comes into view again. Ahead and to the left is the town of Lucerne.

(COURIER: Now start your introduction to Lucerne.)

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