In the heart of Switzerland, an hour’s pleasantly scenic train ride from Zurich, I’m in arguably the most photogenic city of possibly the world’s most beautiful country.
Lovely Lucerne hugs the western banks of Lake Lucerne, a sprawling bluey-green expanse of water that is fringed by verdant mountains and known in German as Vierwaldstättersee, literally “Lake of the four forested settlements”.
French-speaking Swiss refer to it as Le Lac des Quatre-Cantons (Lake of the Four Cantons). This is owing to the fact that it’s edged by Lucerne and three of the other original Swiss cantons, Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden.
I’m visiting in spring but as I walk by the lake I can see remnants of winter, with a healthy smattering of snow, glinting under the sun and still clinging to the alpine peaks in the distance. Tonnes of white powder have melted already, however, and the Reuss River, which flows through the lake and reemerges to cleave the city of Lucerne in half, hurries with impressive vigour.
Water seethes beneath our feet as we tread the boardwalks of the Kapellbrucke (Chapel Bridge), a landmark distinguished by its red-tiled roof and adjoining water tower (and one-time prison and torture chamber). It dates back to 1333, but has been reconstructed several times, most notably after a particularly ferocious fire in 1993 — one of many blazes to have torn through Lucerne.
The bridge is still noticeably charred in parts, especially by its pictorial panels, which hang under the eaves and illustrate Swiss and local history. This is one of half-a-dozen or so bridges that link the newer, but still fairly ancient part of Lucerne — which boasts the flashy lake-side Jean Nouvel-designed KKL Luzern (Culture and Convention Centre) — with the Altstadt (Old Town), a cluster of narrow, winding streets, calf-straining stairways and quaint squares lined with decorative architecture. Strolling around, we admire dozens of charming buildings from the late Middle Ages and Renaissance eras, when Lucerne flourished as a trading and transit post. Merchants would pitch up here after navigating Lake Lucerne with their goods loaded onto barges, some having crossed the St Gotthard Pass, a fear-inducing mountain pass that historically split southern and northern Europe.
While some Altstadt structures proved fire-resilient and still flaunt half-timbered features, most are made purely of stone and are adorned with colourful paint, frescoes and polychromatic tiled roofs. We stop at Weinmarkt, a square that has witnessed many a festival and is framed by pretty old guildhouses. A sculpture of a meat cleaver looms outside the former butchers’ guild, while on the old wine market building, there’s a mural of Jesus turning water into wine.
Back by the banks of the Reuss, we pass al fresco cafes and restaurants plus shaded spots where local workers and students are picnicking on baguettes, their bicycles parked beside them. Five minutes later, we’re clambering up to the Musegg wall, part of the 14th-century fortifications constructed to defend Lucerne. There’s a remarkably well-preserved stretch that is open to the public and punctuated with chunky watch-towers. From one, I glance down at playing fields and meadows and feel like I’m in the countryside. A heady scent of grass and manure assails my nostrils, birds are singing and cattle are munching and idling away. Turn the other way, though, and over the trees we see the built-up jumble of old Lucerne and the shimmering lake behind.
Leaving the Musegg wall, we trot back down into the Altstadt, passing souvenir shops and luxury boutiques (some bedecked with Chinese lettering thanks to the 21st century influx of tourists from the Far East).
By the lakeside, we board MS Saphir — a 210-capacity “Panorama-Yacht” that is a sleek modern contrast to the paddle-steamers that have traditionally serviced the lake. Seated on the canopied open-air deck as we cruise away from Lucerne, I listen in to the audio guide, which reveals eyebrow-raising local facts and folklore, interspersed with folk tunes and classical music. Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner were among the characters to be seduced by Lake Lucerne as it became a fashionable destination in the 19th century. Wagner lived by the lake with his mistress, and future second wife, Cosima, and composed one of his major works, Siegfried Idyll, here on his grand piano. Mark Twain, Thomas Mann and Leo Tolstoy were some of the writers to take inspiration from the lake, while Russian czars, the Shah of Persia and the King of Siam were among the royal visitors.
As well-heeled guests flocked to Lucerne, opulent Belle Epoque-era hotels and casinos sprang up, and some are still here, reflecting into the water. Also visible are contemporary hill-side apartments, rustic chalets and castle-like villas and mansions — some commissioned by wealthy industrialists and merchants, who made their fortunes transporting exotic wares, from as far afield as China and Brazil, across the lake.
Beneath one grand property, perched on a promontory, there’s a statue of Jesus with his arms spread out near a little chapel, which is said to be a popular wedding venue for Japanese. Though it’s lovely to appreciate the lake at this gentle pace, there’s a raft of ways to get active, too. We see people swimming off a lido beach, a couple canoeing, and match-stick figures hiking in the peaks and atop the sheer, luxuriant cliffs.
One of the towering, craggy mountains is the Pilatus Massif, which medieval storytellers claimed was home to dragons and the ghost of Pontius Pilate (some accounts reckoned he was buried up there). More likely is that the name derives from the Latin word “pileatus” , meaning cloud capped — just as Pilatus’ 2128m summit is, ever so slightly, today. Queen Victoria scaled the peak on horseback in 1868, but since 1889, travellers have been able to take the world’s steepest cogwheel railway, which chugs up at a maximum gradient of 48 per cent.
As we cruise back towards Lucerne, we briefly pause in the middle of a lake that has a rather unconventional shape, with its series of bends and four spindly arms. Taking in the 360-degree views, the jaw-dropping beauty and historical significance of my surroundings hits me once more. In AD1291, Switzerland’s first confederation was founded on Rutli, a meadow by this lake, with the three neighbouring cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden banding together. Four decades later, Lucerne joined the club — and it’s still its jewel in the crown.