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We're missing out on Swiss delights

By Ron Smith

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Travel writer Ron Smith lists his top 10 things to do and places to go in Central Switzerland. How many have you covered?...


LUZERN, in Central Switzerland, welcomes millions of visitors every year, with good reason. About half of the tourists are Swiss, who come for day trips, and then there are many bus parties touring and listing Luzern as a must, who stop for a day. Only 5% of the tourists come from the UK – we are missing out.

Luzern sits at the end of a large lake. It is where the outflow of the lake roars through the town constantly, and gives it such a fresh feel, with its promenades and character. There are the ancient wooden bridges (from around 1300) over the river, the remains of the city walls (from 1386), and so many old buildings to explore.

The old town has many interesting places, like the Lion Monument. Switzerland is a rich country, but has not always been so. For many years their main industry was supplying mercenary soldiers to fight other people's wars. Today there is a reminder of this in the highly colourful Swiss Guards, who still protect the Pope in Rome. The Lion Monument is very moving, carved directly into a rock face, commemorating the death of all the Swiss guards of the French King in 1792. Mark Twain called this "the saddest and most moving piece of rock in the world".


Nearby is the Glacier Garden with its fascinating examples of what was left behind when the glacier retreated from here. There are also many museums worth seeing, the Bourbaki Panorama, an amazing gigantic circular image of the French soldiers interned in Switzerland during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870/71, and the Rosengart art gallery, with its unique groups of Picasso and Paul Klee, and many other notable paintings.

But it is not all ancient history. The KKL, a striking modern block on the water side is the 1,840 seater concert hall which hosts many festivals and events throughout the year.

I have put Luzern at the top of my top ten travel tips, because it is also a splendid base to explore the other nine places around the area, all within easy reach using the superb integrated Swiss transport system (www.myswitzerland.com).

Luzern is the hub of the lake steamers (www.lakelucerne.ch). All year round these magnificent boats criss-cross the lake, and in the summer they bring out their fleet of five veteran steam paddle steamers. These wonderful boats (which can each carry over 1,000 passengers in style and luxury) also have fine dining on board. There are more modern boats, including a large catamaran, which gives a large flat area inside, across the twin hulls, and the most recent addition to the fleet, the "Saphir". This is like a luxury yacht, and features a sliding roof that retracts to let you sunbathe, or covers over if it should rain. It yacht offers one hour round trips from Luzern.


The boats cover all the lake, the longest trip is to Fluelen (3 hours) from where you could return by train (all connecting of course – this is Switzerland, and one ticket covers all) or return stopping off at Brunnen (also train connection, and in the summer Alphorn blowing lessons at 09.30 on Tuesdays if you would like to try, and Alphorn concerts every Wednesday evening) or Bergenstock where Europe's tallest free standing outside lift, the Hammetschwand Lift, whisks you up to the summit for outstanding views, or Rutli where you can visit the meadow where the representatives of three cantons around that end of the lake swore an oath and founded Switzerland on the 1st of August 1291 – 1st August is still Swiss National Day, when extensive celebrations take place.

The lake boats are justifiably popular, but they also perform vital public transport services to many small towns and villages around the lake, like Gersau which still remembers that it was an independent republic until Napoleon threatened. A trip on the boats is a great experience in any weather, and the perfect way to explore the many places around it.

One popular and unique excursion is to the Pilatus Mountain, which is 2132 metres above sea level. This is the mountain that towers over Luzern and features as the backdrop to many millions of photos of the wooden bridges. One of my favourite trips is to take the boat to Alpnachstad (or you can go by train) and walk across to the ornate station of the Pilatus Bahn, the steepest rack railway in the world, with gradients up to 48%. It opened in 1889, and uses the unique 'Locher' type of rack to keep the trains on the track.

The 4.6 km journey opens up inspiring views of the lake and the mountains. At the summit there is a restaurant and hotel, which must be one of the best places to spend a night or two – the views of the sunrise and sunset are breathtaking. Steinbok (Ibex) live up here and are always greatly photographed. The railway is open from May to October, but all the year round the gondola cable car takes you down half way, where you change to cable cars down to Kriens.

Here you catch a trolley bus (all connecting of course) back to Luzern. They say locally that the mountain received its name as Pontius Pilate came there; it is also the Dragon Mountain as a fire breathing dragon was seen there, and there is a dragon trail at the top (see www.pilatus.ch).

Another mountain trip, of a different nature, is to the Rigi, Queen of the Mountains. Always a favourite with UK tourists, even Queen Victoria came here, and our passion for the Alps prompted local men to build the first rack railway in Europe, and the second in the world, up to the summit, at 1797 metres above sea level. The Rigi has over 120km of pathways, and you can walk up it, over it, and along it – or use the rack railway from Vitznau, on the lake and served by the boats at least every hour, or the cable car from Weggis (also on the lake and served by the same boats) up to Kaltbad, roughly half way up.

The Rigi also has a summit hotel, and Victorians especially loved to be woken up by the Alphorn being blown along the corridors just before dawn so they could be up on a platform to watch the sun rise! As the Rigi stands alone, it is ideal for paragliders and other hardy souls who love to launch themselves off mountain tops, and the railway carries the gear up on flat wagons in front of the small train.

The Rigibahnen (www.rigi.ch) also run steam engines in the summer, a great experience to chug your way up and down the mountain. I have been to the Rigi many times over the past 25 years, in all seasons, and never get tired of it, the views are always stunning, the walks invigorating, and there is always a restaurant handy at any time of the year. A round trip is also possible.

The Vitznau to the summit trains are red, the blue trains run from the summit down the other side of the mountain to Arth Goldau, where they connect with SBB (national railway) trains to Luzern. The mountain is car free, so the railway is also a lifeline service. On early morning trains you will see children being uplifted from simple ramps beside the track to go down to school, milk churns loading to go down, mail and hotel supplies going up, and I even saw a bird in a cage being unloaded from the boat at Vitznau and handed to the railwayman who had it in his cab as we ascended, to hand it to the new owner at one of the wee stations on the way. This is an excursion not to be missed.


Continuing the mountain exploration, the boat will also take you to see the Stanserhorn (www.cabrio.ch). The boat will take you to Stansstadt from where it is a short walk to Stans and the ornate funicular station (well signposted, of course) or the train will take you directly to Stans. The funicular railway opened in 1893 and is a delight to travel on. The upper section closed some time ago, and was replaced with a cable car – this has also been replaced with the world's first "cabriolet" cable car, which started operation in 2012.

Every other cable car has the cabins hanging from a cable, this one has two cables, one on each side, leaving the roof clear, and so the double deck cabins have an open top roof section. You can glide up to the 1900 metre summit looking out across the splendid mountains and lake. There is even the "Rondorama" revolving restaurant at the top, to be able to eat and watch the changing panorama from your table.

Closer to Luzern is the Verkehrshaus (www.verkehrshaus.ch). This describes itself as the Swiss Museum of Transport – which it is, but it is also much more than that. Yes, it has a marvellous collection of railway engines, wagons and coaches, trams and even a working miniature steam railway to give children rides around the site. It also has aeroplanes, an actual historic lake steamer, the PTT (Post Office) museum, space travel, the country's biggest film theatre, the Hans Erni Museum, the Planetarium, and so much more.

It is always innovating, one time I was there you could "drive" a radio controlled boat on a small lake, another time a real locomotive from the Rhatische Bahn was on display, and there is a constant change of displays so that you could go many times and still discover new things. It has a cafeteria and an excellent restaurant too.

You can get there from Luzern main railway station by train (it has its own station!) bus, trolley bus or boat across the lake. True integrated transport. Be warned, especially with children, you will easily spend a day here without noticing!

You must, of course, encounter William Tell. Now he didn't actually exist, but it is hard to believe that. As you cruise along the lake on your stately steam paddle ship, you will go close to a lozenge shaped large rock standing clear of the shore, this is the Schiller Stone, and the public address system on the boat will tell you (in English) some of the history.

Schiller was the German author who wrote about William Tell, and the dramatic music they play is from the Opera – which reminds you of the "foehn" wind. This phenomenon is caused when warm wind suddenly rushes down from the mountains and makes the lake stormy. This is what occurred in the Sea of Galilee when the disciples were suddenly afraid – it happens here too. When William Tell was being taken captive by the evil Herr Gessler, the foehn wind sprung up, and they released Tell to help them with the boat, he managed to escape by jumping onto a flat outcrop of rock – today this is Tells Platte and a chapel is there and the boat stops there if you want to explore.

It is also worth going to Altdorf where there is a magnificent statue of William Tell with his crossbow on his shoulder, and his son, recalling how he shot an apple off his son's head.

For a British connection, take the train to Meiringen. The journey is great in itself, up and over the Brunig Pass, and descend on rack to the charming town. The town is at the end of a lake, with Interlaken at the other. It was here that Arthur Conan Doyle decided to place Sherlock Holmes and have him and Moriarty die by falling down the Reichenbach Falls. Since then, Meiringen has become an annual place of pilgrimage for Sherlock Holmes fans.

There is even a 'Baker Street' complete with imitation London road signs. Sherlock Holmes pub, hotel, shop, place and so on dominate. The Reichenbach falls are still there (though not so fierce these days since the water has been diverted through a hydro electric scheme) and there is a funicular to ride up to the top. The base station is very pretty, and has a monument beside it, placed there by the Norwegian Sherlock Holmes Society – truly international.

You can continue by foot to Rosenlaui, as Holmes and Watson had intended, or take one of the Post Buses over some spectacular passes (summer only). Meiringen itself is worth a visit, and is a peaceful place to eat, shop, and pass a pleasant afternoon.

Another excursion from Luzern is by train to Engleberg. Once again the journey itself is a pleasure as the smart metre gauge train rattles and rushes you along the lake and up the hill to Engleberg. From here the cable car takes you up to the Titlis mountain (www.titlis.ch) where there is snow all the year round, so take suitable clothing. First of all, the cable car takes you to Trubsee. Then a gondola takes you up to Stand. From here the remarkable "Rotair" cable car, with its rotating cabin, takes you up to the top of the Titlis at 3020 metres above sea level. There is a glacier up here that is accessible to you, with expeditions, a glacier fun park (!) and the "Ice Flyer". This is a chair lift that takes you to the Glacier Park, or just gives you a ride over the ten metre deep crevasse. There is a 150 metre long grotto inside the actual glacier, and for the brave, there is an incredible pedestrian foot bridge, Europe's highest suspension bridge, at 3041 metres high, 150 steps long, over a 500 metre drop. Of course, there are also restaurants and bars in the main building up here. Finally, to bring you gently down to earth, visit Melchsee Frutt (www.melchseefrutt.ch). To get here, take the train the short way to Sarnen (worth visiting itself, a lovely small historic town) and from the railway station take the connecting Post Bus to Stockalp. From here, a cable car takes you up to Melchsee Frutt. If you go by car, the road is open for traffic going up one hour, down the next hour, which gives you an idea of how narrow it is.

The area is car free, so you leave your car at the top of the road. The plateau is an idyllic alpine pasture land. It is rimmed by hills and mountains and has a well signposted and tarmac path network, going past three crystal clear small lakes. Of course, there are hotels and restaurants dotted around and even a road "train" of a tractor with a couple of coaches, for those who run out of puff, or are unable to walk so far. The flowers up here are amazing.

There are many other cable cars and things to do and see, or you can simply enjoy the peace and fresh air of the high Alps. The summer season only opens on the 14th of June.

So there it is – my top ten things to do and places to go in Central Switzerland. I feel guilty because I have missed out so many other places to visit in the area, all within easy reach of Luzern for a long day trip. There are hotels of all sizes and stars in Luzern, and one of the oldest is the Hotel Des Balances (www.balances.ch). This is in the middle of the old town, and the first hotel on this site was in 1200! Today this 4 star hotel has been extensively renovated and is top notch, without detracting from the historical features. It is about five minutes walk from the railway and boat and bus station, and is sited on the river Reuss itself. It couldn't be better placed for exploring the town or the area.

Getting to Luzern is easy. Fly to Zurich via Amsterdam, Paris, London, or make it easy and go with Lufthansa from Aberdeen via Frankfurt (see www.lufthansa.com). At the time of writing, they offer the best fares and best connection times.

From Zurich airport, the most efficient in Europe, trains run directly to Luzern in one hour (www.sbb.ch, their national railways) or go to www.myswitzerland.com who will also organise hotels and transfers. A good tip is to buy a pass. Switzerland is expensive for us – not their fault – their prices hardly ever go up. It is the pound that has sunk.

The Swiss are aware of this, and so offer such great things as the Tell Pass. This operates in the Luzern area (www.tell-pass.ch). This card gives you free use of all public transport, and many admissions and reductions. There is also the Swiss Pass if you want to travel beyond the range of the Tell Pass.

One thing for sure is that the Swiss have it all well organised and it all works. In this area of Switzerland German is the language (with their own strong dialect) but English is spoken everywhere, even in the highest mountains there are always toilets and a café or restaurant. It really is the ideal place to spend a holiday.

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