Lucerne

a lakeside town in Central Switzerland

There are many places to go for a short break out of season; we decided to try Lucerne, in Central Switzerland to see what it had to offer.
Lucerne is a popular tourist destination of the Swiss themselves. Situated towards the western end of Lake Lucerne (known locally as the Vier Waldstättersee) and surrounded by spectacular alpine views, Lucerne is dominated by water and mountains.  The city has an ancient history, with buildings constructed down through the centuries integrated well together. A good example of more modern architecture is the large concert hall on the edge of the lake where world famous orchestras perform regularly.

We travelled by car. Roads through France are good, but their benefit is to some extent offset by the distance from any of the channel ports - around 500 miles, depending upon the route chosen. Going by air is straightforward - a flight to Zurich followed by a picturesque train journey of around an hour on the very good Swiss rail network, with spectacular views both of lakes and mountains along the way.  As we drove into town in the early afternoon our first task was to find a hotel; we had made no reservation, but within an hour had found a comfortable room in a small hotel overlooking the end of the lake.

Lucerne and its surroundings lay claim to many “firsts” - including Mount Pilatus, with the world's steepest cogwheel railway, Mount Titlis (Europe's first revolving cable car) and Lucerne itself (world's largest fleet of paddle steamers on an inland lake).  Add to these a city with a wide selection of things to do, excellent local transport system, places to walk, and restaurants in which to sample the distinctive Swiss style of food, and Lucerne becomes an ideal place to spend a few days for a short or medium break.

The city lies on both sides of the Seebrücke and one of the areas of greatest interest to the visitor - the Altstadt, or Old Town - is immediately at the northern end of this bridge.  Here ancient squares are linked by small roadways or passageways, towers were originally part of the fortifications, and old buildings with decorated facades date back hundreds of years.
Close by is the Kapellbrücke (Chapel Bridge) - a covered wooden pedestrian bridge which is one of the most attractive sights of the town, especially during the summer months when it is bedecked with flowers. The original bridge (then one of three) was constructed as part of the town's fortifications in the 14th Century, but was severely damaged in 1993 by fire allegedly started from a nearby boat. Most of the structure was destroyed, but has been rebuilt in the original style to provide a near perfect copy.  Walking the length of the bridge is a must - dozens of painted panels (some salvaged from the fire, others photographic copies of the originals) decorate the interior of the bridge to show the ways in which the city was founded, and provide an illustration of life hundreds of years ago. Alongside the Kapellbrücke the octagonal Water Tower has been used over the centuries as a treasury, prison and torture chamber and is now said to be the most photographed building in Switzerland.

For our main excursion out of the city we chose a trip south to Mount Titlis, at more than 3000 metres the highest point in Central Switzerland. A one-hour train journey to Engelberg took us around the edge of the lake, then across open but hilly countryside with traditional Swiss mountain views of rolling green pastures studded with isolated houses and farms. Finally the train made a steep climb to the foot of a three-stage cable car ride - with the revolving car for the last leg.
The views from the top were magnificent, snow covered mountains in almost every direction glistening in the spring sunshine. We enjoyed a light lunch of German style sausage before crunching across the crisp snow around the cable car station and taking the spectacular journey back down the mountain.

The transport system in Switzerland is integrated to make travel as easy as possible: buses, trains and boats operate in conjunction with each other. Around the streets of Lucerne large numbers of bicycles compete with trams or trolley-style buses. The city quayside is the base for a small fleet of ships offering either a means of moving around the lake or a relaxing day on one of the cruises available. Paddle steamers work alongside more conventional boats, all enabling the visitor to break the trip at one of the many other, smaller towns along the lakeside. As with the trains the boats run rigidly to a timetable - arrive a minute late and your boat will have gone, without you!

A boat trip to another town on the lake is a good way to view the mountain scenery from the water, perhaps with a lunchtime stopover before the return journey. In our case we left the outward boat at Rütli - more of a wayside halt than a town, but close to the site of the foundation of the Swiss State in the 13th century. A gentle climb up a lakeside path for around ten minutes takes you to a field set against a backdrop of beautiful views of the lake and the surrounding mountains. Here a Swiss flag marks the spot where the original four cantons (counties) agreed to unite to form the beginnings of modern day Switzerland. During the summer months there is a small exhibition alongside the site, but unfortunately this was closed during our visit.
Throughout our brief stay we found no shortage of things to see and do. For a panoramic view of the city we climbed what seemed like endless stairs to the top of a tower used many hundreds of years ago for fire spotting over the then much smaller, but wooden, town. We enjoyed an excellent guided walking tour of the Altstadt, learning much about the history of buildings such as the beautiful Jesuit Church with its unusual white interior and stucco ornamentation; we strolled along the lakeshore, stopping to see the famous Lion Monument and tour the Glacier Garden. Shoppers are well catered for by a good selection of both modern and more traditional shops.

The hotel was good, with a view at night from our room across the lake and up into the mountains where twinkling lights marked out the villages. We had dinner at a different restaurant each evening, sampling traditional Swiss dishes. Our few days in Lucerne were over before they began - an ideal and enjoyable break.
The Kapellbrücke, with the octagonal Water Tower alongside
The revolving cable car to the top of Mount Titlis, and the view from the summit
The inside of the Kapellbrücke at night
Many of the buildings around the lake are floodlit at night